A Path Paid in Blood
“This isn’t going to work.”
Zorian stopped staring at the pile of blueprints and notebooks in front of him and looked at the speaker. It was Xvim. He and Alanic had snuck up to him while his attention was absorbed into his task and were currently staring at him expectantly.
Zorian tapped his pen on the table a couple of times before throwing it aside and leaning back in his chair. Perhaps it would be a good idea to take a break. His work had stalled for a while now.
“I’m not sure I understand,” he told his old mentor.
“We can’t keep going like this,” Xvim clarified. “This path we’re on… it’s not going to work. When we planned this out, we were counting on having Silverlake on our side. Now we don’t, and no amount of increased enthusiasm and minor adjustments is going to make up for it. I know you’re still under the impression of what Panaxeth told you, but something has to change. At this rate we’re simply blundering into an obvious failure.”
Zorian stared at Xvim for a second before glancing at Alanic. However, the scarred battle priest was silent, simply staring back at him without saying a word. Clearly he agreed with Xvim’s words, then. They had probably discussed things between each other before approaching him.
He looked around the room instead of immediately answering. It gave him a way to stall and gather his thoughts, but he was also curious about people’s reactions to the conversation. They were inside one of the Noveda estate’s rooms, and there were quite a few people gathered here. Most of them pretended to be absorbed into their own work, but Zorian could tell that all of them were paying close attention to what was happening.
Well, except for Zach. His fellow time traveler was sitting cross-legged on the floor with his eyes closed, trying to sense the divine energies of his divine blessing and Controller marker. Zorian was not sure why he was doing that, to be honest. Both he and Zach had already succeeded at perceiving these divine energies, and it was unlikely he would develop the skill much in what little time they had left before the end of the restart. On top of that, they had basically given up on trying to modify the temporary markers. There was little point to that now.
He took a deep breath but resisted the urge to sigh. They had informed the whole group about their second encounter with Panaxeth and what it meant for Zorian. Strangely, the group took another bout of bad news in stride. In fact, the knowledge that Zorian now shared fates with them seemed to significantly improve the mood of the group. He was one of them now, and the fact that he didn’t panic and break down after finding out this was his last chance to live seemed to inspire them somewhat and calm their fears. They worked harder, grumbled less, and were less dubious about his motives and logic.
For a while, he thought that would be enough… that with some renewed enthusiasm and some clever workaround they would be able to make up for Silverlake’s absence and proceed as planned. However, Xvim and Alanic were right. This wasn’t going to work.
They needed a new plan.
“What are you suggesting?” Zorian asked them.
“First of all, we should tell Krantin and his team that we’re time travelers,” Xvim said.
Zorian cocked his head to the side curiously. Not really what he was expecting to hear.
“Wouldn’t that be rather counterproductive?” Zorian asked. “Krantin and his team have been remarkably cooperative with us, all things considered. If they knew the truth, I imagine their enthusiasm for helping us could only plummet as a response.”
“I said we should tell them we’re time travelers, not the full and total truth,” Xvim said. “Truthfully, they already suspect this. The documents we are providing them with are too similar to their own existing work for that to escape their notice. They have been talking amongst themselves about our identity for a while now, and the most common theory is that we’re literally from the future. It isn’t that far from the truth, really.”
“They actually hit upon such a crazy theory as the most likely one?” Zorian asked, surprised.
“They’re working in a time magic research facility,” Xvim said. “Even though actual time travel is said to be impossible, the topic is likely to come up with some regularity among the staff. They are being paid to push the boundaries of time magic as much as they can, after all.”
Zorian stayed quiet for a few seconds, mulling things over. He supposed the idea was workable, all things considered, and it might eliminate some of the inefficiencies they’d encountered when working with Krantin and his team. However…
“Although this would be useful, I’m not really sure it would do that much,” Zorian said finally. “The facility staff is already working hard on the project of turning the imperial orb into a Black Room. Even with their limited information, they seem appreciative enough for the funding and opportunities we’ve given them. I doubt we could drive them to work harder with this.”
“No, probably not,” Xvim agreed, propping his elbows on the table and folding his fingers into a triangle shape in front of him. “This is merely an attempt to make them fine with the second step of the plan.”
“Which is?” Zorian prompted, feeling just a little bit apprehensive all of a sudden.
“Kidnapping everyone skilled and possibly useful and forcing them to work for us,” Xvim stated calmly, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
Must resist the urge to sigh. Must resist the urge to sigh. Must resist…
Zorian rubbed his chin in a frustrated manner before focusing back on the two people in front of him. Alanic was still not saying anything. They were both staring at him and waiting for a response.
“And just how–” Zorian began.
“Through any means necessary,” Xvim said, cutting him off. “Blackmail. Threats of death and bodily harm. Rampant use of mind magic.”
“My mind magic is not that capable,” Zorian said, frowning. “The kind of work we need from them has never been done before. They would need to work with us to invent entirely new spells and rituals.”
“I know,” Xvim said.
“I can’t force someone to perform creative work for me with mind magic,” Zorian pointed out. “I don’t think anyone can. At best we’d get a bunch of dazed zombies.”
“They don’t know that, though,” Xvim said. “Mind magic is terrifying, even for mages, and few people are experienced enough to guess your limits. Ignoring that, what you can do is already terrifying enough for most people. If you demonstrated your memory manipulation abilities, most people would be very intimidated. Even I’m afraid of you sometimes, and I’m both familiar with your limitations and relatively certain you will not target me with your abilities. Finally, even if someone is not intimidated by your ability, you can always use your memory modification abilities as a limited retry button for convincing people. You’ve used your powers in that manner before, I am told.”
“But only on enemies,” stressed Zorian.
“And I’m very grateful you retain that sense of morality and restraint in regards to your powers,” Xvim said patiently. “But we’re running out of time and desperate times call for desperate measures. Don’t think we’re just selfishly asking you to discard your ideals. This is a burden we’re all willing to take upon our shoulders.”
Zorian gave him a surprised look.
“Somebody will need to keep this mass of resentful, forcibly recruited mages in line and focused on their duties instead of plotting our downfall,” Xvim said. “That’s going to be our job. Your job is simply to gather the people we need and intimidate them into cooperating with us, however reluctantly.”
Zorian stared at the man for a while, considering what he had been told. Xvim was essentially saying that all or most of the other temporary loopers already agreed that this was an acceptable course of action. That they were just going to… kidnap random people and force them into working for them. And here Zorian was thinking he was being too carefree about reaching for the darker, unethical methods to tackle their problems.
“Well,” he said. “I see we’re turning into a proper villainous organization. All we need now is a mystical artifact that will allow us to remake the world in our image and we’re set to go.”
Xvim’s lips twitched slightly.
“If you really think about it,” he said, “a large group of people armed with knowledge of things to come and all the things we’ve gathered in the time loop would be more than enough to–”
“Please don’t,” Zorian implored him. “Just… tell me once again how this is supposed to work.”
“Alright,” Xvim said, reaching into his bag and handing him a map with a bunch of locations marked on it. Colorful paper notes densely filled with text were pinned next to each of the indicated locations.
“Our main problem right now is that we don’t have enough time,” Xvim continued after Zorian had a chance to glance at the map. “The only way we’re going to get that is by pushing our Black Room modification project to its utter limit. Therefore, we should drop virtually everything and focus on that. However, the biggest problem the project has is the lack of qualified mages to work on it. Most of us are not really qualified to help with it. However, this facility is not the only one of its kind. There are other facilities in other countries, and though they have not gotten as far as the one in Eldemar, their staff is no less qualified than Krantin and his researchers – they just suffer from a lack of funding and opportunities.”
The places on the map marked with blue upturned triangles were locations of all known Black Room projects in Altazia, Zorian realized. He knew about these, of course. They had been making use of their facilities for quite some time now. Not just in the sense that they were using them to extend their time in the restarts, either. They had long ago raided these places for any information about time magic, as well as handed them collected research notes from other facilities to see if they would come up with something novel when presented with such information. Although these initiatives were moderately successful, they had stopped yielding results by now, and so they no longer bothered with them. They simply made use of the facilities in each restart and then left them alone.
Although these places were much smaller than the time magic research facility beneath Cyoria, there was a fair number of them. If they forcibly took all their staff, that would be a lot of people. Plus, there might be some useful equipment there, now that he was thinking about it.
If they were raiding these places for people, they might as well take everything that wasn’t nailed down as well.
“So we just raid those places, taking everything and everyone in sight,” Zorian said, clacking his tongue. “What about those who just won’t cooperate, no matter what carrot and stick we use? Kill them?”
“Push them through a portal to Blantyrre and strand them in the jungle for a while,” Xvim said. “I think most will reconsider after a few days, but if not, they can just spend the rest of the month there.”
And probably get eaten by a flying snake or something, Zorian thought, though he did not say it out loud.
“In any case, with this sudden influx of new people and with Krantin’s hopeful acceptance of our time traveler story, we can then move on to the next step,” said Xvim, handing him another map.
This one was a very detailed map of the underworld beneath Cyoria, centered around the time magic research facility. However, the facility in the map Xvim gave him was larger than the one that currently existed beneath their feet. Much, much larger. It was a huge, sprawling complex that circled the Hole like a giant torus and then extended into the surrounding land through a spider web of rooms and corridors.
Zorian gave Xvim a dubious look.
“There is no way this kind of development can be hidden from the city,” Zorian said dubiously. “Never mind Krantin and his reaction, this would bring the Eldemar military on our heads. Do we really have enough influence to make the city authorities overlook this sort of thing?”
“Yes, that… that is certainly a problem,” Xvim tapped his fingers together and looked away uneasily for a second. “We think we have a solution for that, though.”
“I’m not going to like this, am I?” Zorian asked rhetorically. “Can it really be worse than the whole ‘mass kidnapping’ thing?”
“We should work with the Esoteric Order of the Celestial Dragon and its leaders,” Xvim told him.
Zorian scowled at the suggestion. He had nothing but disgust and contempt for the Cult of the Dragon Below. At least Ibasans had a relatively understandable goal of sabotaging their national enemies. The cultists were traitors and seemed to operate purely on a mixture of delusion and insatiable greed for power. Most of the lower-level members didn’t even know what exactly they were fighting for. Plus, he could never quite forget the sight of the shifter children they sacrificed in order to crack open Panaxeth’s prison.
He did not like the idea of cooperating with these people in the slightest.
“You can’t be serious,” Zorian told him, voice tinged with annoyance.
“I really am serious… and not just because they can help us make the city authorities look the other way while we rearrange the local underworld in our favor. With the loss of Silverlake, we have lost our expert on the primordials and their cages. Aside from Silverlake, the cult’s leaders are probably the people most qualified to help us understand Panaxeth’s prison… and how to exploit it to get out of the time loop,” Xvim explained.
“We already took everything they had,” Zorian pointed out.
In fact, they had been exceptionally thorough in raiding the cult for every secret they had. Zorian may have compunctions about delving into the minds of random people to steal their secrets, but he had no such compunctions about the cultists. He could not claim to have gotten every scrap of knowledge they had, since he could only look for things if he knew what to look for, but he was quite sure he got everything truly important out of them.
“What they already have, yes,” Xvim said. “But not what they could have, if we teach them all we know and give them a chance to look at the problem with increased skills and perspective.”
Zorian’s eyes widened in realization.
“You want to teach them!?” he asked, aghast at the idea.
“Everything, yes,” Xvim confirmed, nodding. “We would not inform them about the time loop, of course, but other than that? We will bring them into our improved Black Room and teach them everything we can about divination, about dimensionalism and about the structure of the primordial prison in the Hole. We will then let them analyze the structure and either ask them to answer our questions or you can just rip the answers straight out of their minds. It depends on how cooperative they are and what is more convenient.”
Zorian remained silent for a while. On one hand, he really didn’t like the idea of teaching these people anything, especially since that would involve them being close by for several months – plenty of time for things to go seriously wrong. On the other hand, he found the idea of the cultists unknowingly helping them get out of the time loop so they could sabotage their plans in the real world to be rather amusing. And Xvim was right that, other than Silverlake, these people were the ones most familiar with the primordial’s prison. They had been studying it for quite a while now in their attempt to open it, after all.
There was, of course, a small matter of why in the world would the cult leaders agree to work with them on this. However, they were already considering kidnapping people and using blackmail and intimidation to make them cooperate, so this was probably not as difficult of an issue as it appeared. They just had to point out that the invasion could not possibly succeed unless Zach and Zorian allowed it to happen, and then prove their words with a demonstration of their power.
He looked at Alanic, who had still not said anything up until now.
“I’m surprised you’re willing to entertain this idea,” Zorian told him.
“I was willing to work with Silverlake, wasn’t I?” Alanic said. “She may not have done anything particularly heinous in front of you, but I assure you she has done plenty of odious deeds in the past. I understand the necessity. It would be playing with fire, but it isn’t like this is the first time we’re doing that. Isn’t it?”
“Indeed,” Zorian said quietly. He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts.
Alanic never really talked about his past with Silverlake, or of his time before he became a priest. Zorian had long figured out by now that the scarred battle-priest had been a very different man back then, and did a lot of things he later regretted, so he refrained from pushing the man on the topic. Alanic had been incredibly helpful towards him throughout all these restarts, and Zorian felt it would be ungrateful of him to dredge up painful memories and old grudges unless he really had to.
If Alanic had some information about Silverlake that he felt was important, he would have told them about it by now.
After a while, Zorian picked up a pen and threw it at Zach’s head. Though he had his eyes firmly closed, Zach immediately raised his hand and caught the pen out of the air before opening his eyes.
“How much did you hear?” Zorian asked him.
“Most of it,” Zach admitted.
“And?” Zorian prompted. “What do you think?”
“I don’t have any better idea,” Zach said with a shrug.
Neither did Zorian, in all honesty.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true…
“Alright,” said Zorian, rising from his seat. “I guess we’re doing this, then. However, I think a slight modification is in order.”
“Slight, huh?” Zach said with a grin.
“If we’re going to get the maximum amount of time out of the modified Black Room, the extra manpower is not enough,” said Zorian. “We need a dimensionalism mage of the highest caliber if we’re going to get truly spectacular results.”
“So? Those don’t exactly grow on trees,” Zach pointed out, throwing the pen back at him. “Where are we going to find one of those?”
Zorian caught the pen flying at him with practiced ease.
“How attached are you to that crown we took from Quatach-Ichl?” Zorian asked Zach with a knowing smile.
Zach’s expression immediately fell.
“Oh, you can’t be serious…” Zach complained.
Oh, but he was. He really was.
“Come on,” Zorian told him, motioning him to get up from the floor. “Let’s go talk to our favorite lich.”
* * *
Somewhere in Eldemar, a field was burning.
Two masked teenagers were engaged in a vicious fight against an ancient Ibasan lich, and the landscape around them was devastated in their passing. Once this had been a wheat field in full bloom, but it was now just an ashen land covered in craters. Broken remains of undead servants and golems littered the ground, and strange rock formations rose out of the ground in places where the two sides tried to entomb each other in solid stone.
Somewhere out there, Zorian mused, a farmer was going to be very devastated when he saw what had happened to his harvest.
This was the third time he and Zach had clashed with the lich like this in the last few days. However, this was fine as far as Zorian was concerned. He considered this to be simply a part of their negotiation with Quatach-Ichl, rather than as a waste of time. They were proving to the lich that they were legitimate threats and that he should take them seriously. Earlier, when they had taken the crown from him in this restart, they had done it through an ambush and by employing something that could be dismissed as a mere trick. Through these fights, they were showing Quatach-Ichl there was more to them than that.
Quatach-Ichl had never stopped looking for them all this time, of course. He had no idea it was Zach and Zorian who had stolen his crown, since they had worn disguises when they had ambushed him and covered their tracks extremely well, but he had somehow managed to find out about the existence of their group in general. He seemed to have identified Xvim, Alanic, Ilsa and Kyron as the leaders of the group, possibly because they interacted with the authorities relatively often. He had tried to target them by ransacking their homes and such, but this hadn’t been very effective. All temporary loopers had vacated their usual homes by now, and were not that easy to catch. Plus, he couldn’t be too brazen about wrecking things or he would put his own invasion plans into danger.
This sort of situation must have been rather frustrating for the ancient lich, because he had attacked them immediately when they had shown up in front of him again. He hadn’t even given them a chance to speak! Rude.
A giant, scintillating ball of red light screamed through the air towards Zorian. He thrust his hand at it, causing a conical wave of barely visible rainbow light to wash over it. It unraveled instantly, revealing a dimmer, but much more dangerous arrow of green energies hurtling at his chest.
The simulacrum standing beside him immediately thrust his arm into the path of the arrow, sacrificing it to shield Zorian from the blow. The arm exploded at the mere touch of the magical projectile, negating the attack but showering Zorian with a rain of metal shrapnel. Zorian didn’t try to defend himself against the flying metal pieces, opting to keep casting his counterattack instead. The shrapnel was stopped by his shield, a faint honeycomb pattern momentarily becoming visible around him as it absorbed the attack, and then Zorian finished his spell.
Nothing visibly happened, but this was because his projectiles were utterly invisible – a pair of circular discs of severing force made their way towards the lich, who was currently busy dodging massive boulders and fireballs that Zach was sending his way.
Beside them, Princess released a loud roar into the air with six of her many heads, the last two being busy chewing through the throat of a giant eagle she managed to snatch straight out of the air. The great bird hung limply from her jaws, its riders nowhere to be seen. The fight had been going on for long enough that an Eldemarian response group had reached them and tried to involve themselves into the fight. Unfortunately for them, neither group had appreciated their interference. Their eagle riders had lost at least half of their numbers – one could see the charred husks of their eagles and mages mixed among the wreckage of the battlefield if one looked closely enough. The remaining eagles now circled uneasily in the sky above, keeping their distance and simply observing things.
Several sites in the distance were also smoking. These were the places where Eldemarian forces had tried to set up artillery positions to pick them off from a distance. Quatach-Ichl hadn’t liked that idea, though, and after he had finished wiping them all out, they did not bother trying a second attempt at it.
Zach shouted an order at Princess, and she roughly threw the dead eagle aside and disappeared. Well, teleported to be more exact. She reappeared instantly at Quatach-Ichl’s side, where she instantly tried biting and trampling him. Even the ancient lich had trouble putting down such a large, regenerating beast… especially when Zach and Zorian were there keeping him from being able to focus solely on dealing with her.
Distracted as he was by the hydra and Zach, Quatach-Ichl did not notice the severing discs until it was too late and ended up losing one of his arms. This, in turn, placed him on an even bigger disadvantage and forced him to burn through a lot of his mana reserves to fend them off and stabilize himself. Now that he had no imperial crown on him, his mana reserves were no longer quite as ridiculous as they once were. He could no longer just outlast them by default. Now Zach proudly wore the crown to battle, which meant it was Quatach-Ichl who had to worry about a war of attrition.
The battle continued on for another five minutes before eventually slowing down. Eventually, the two sides found themselves staring at each other over an expanse of barren land, waiting for the other to make a move. Zach and Zorian could press their advantage, of course, but that would only cause the lich to flee. There was no point to that, really.
The seconds slowly ticked by with nothing to show for it. The only sounds were occasional screeching of giant eagles circling overhead and Princess hissing at them and at Quatach-Ichl in response.
“Hey,” Zach finally said, his voice magically distorted and his face hidden behind a blank white mask. He pulled the imperial crown off his head and twirled it around his finger playfully. “Are you looking for this?”
Quatach-Ichl’s response was to fire one of his signature red disintegration beams at him. However, Zach did not move a finger to dodge or block it. The beam just curved unnaturally around him and missed.
“We might be willing to give it back,” Zorian pointed out, his voice also distorted.
Quatach-Ichl cocked his head to the side curiously, saying nothing.
“Or we can just continue this for another couple of days, I guess,” Zach added. “I don’t know about you, but I kind of enjoy these clashes between us. A bit of excitement to spice up the day, you know?”
“So. You want to talk, huh?” Quatach-Ichl observed. He looked up at the Eldemar eagle riders circling above. “This probably isn’t the best place to do it, though.”
“Pick a time and place, then,” Zach said. “Just don’t keep us waiting for too long. We’re on a bit of a time limit here. You drag your feet too much and we’ll just keep the crown and be done with it.”
Quatach-Ichl didn’t bother answering him. He simply picked up a rock from the ground and squeezed it in his skeletal hand. Bright orange lines burned themselves into the surface of the rock before fading away. The lich then threw the rock at their feet and then teleported away.
Zorian picked the rock up. It was still warm, and there was a time and address carved into it.
Plus a single sentence at the end.
‘Don’t be late.’
* * *
Zorian had no intention of telling Quatach-Ichl about the time loop or trying to talk him into helping them get out. That would obviously just blow up in their faces. The ancient lich had no motivation to sabotage the plans of his original self by helping them escape into the real world. The last time he’d realized he was just a copy in a duplicate world, he’d had no compunctions whatsoever about sacrificing himself to advance the cause of his original by crippling them. A person like that wouldn’t help them just to save his own hide, and they had nothing to really offer him.
But they did not have to tell him about the time loop. They did not have to ask him to help them to escape. What they needed at the moment was more time, and to get that they needed their Black Room project to succeed.
And with Quatach-Ichl’s help, it could very well succeed spectacularly.
At the moment, they were in a private room in one of Cyoria’s many restaurants, discussing this idea with the Ibasan leader. Quatach-Ichl was in his human disguise, and Zach and Zorian had agreed to come unmasked as a show of trust.
“So let me get this straight,” Quatach-Ichl said, playing around with his glass. “You want me to help you improve Eldemar’s time dilation room to a completely ridiculous rate of dilation–”
“Specifically, we need another five months,” Zach said, cutting into his speech.
“–and in exchange you are going to give me my own crown back?” finished Quatach-Ichl, pretending he didn’t hear him. “Doesn’t that strike you as incredibly brazen and a foolish thing to ask for? I mean, I will get that crown back. It’s just a matter of time.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” said Zach. “Zorian, do your thing.”
Zorian nodded and started casting the gate spell. Quatach-Ichl was instantly on guard, but he only tensed imperceptibly and did not attack them or voice any protest. He watched curiously as Zorian finished casting the spell and opened a miniature dimensional gate just above his palm.
If one looked closely, they could see a featureless patch of water by looking through the gate.
“Well… done?” Quatach-Ichl said dubiously. “You can cast the gate spell. Not something many people can brag about but–”
“Scan it,” Zach told him. “See where it leads.”
Frowning, Quatach-Ichl did just that, casting a bunch of divinations to determine the location of the other side of the portal. After a full two minutes of tinkering, he leaned back in his chair and gave Zach a strange look.
“It’s just a random patch of the ocean, as far as I can see. Very far away from any land,” he said.
“Precisely,” Zach said, grinning from ear to ear. “Now… what do you think would happen if we just chucked this crown through that portal and closed it?”
Quatach-Ichl’s eyes widened in shock and realization. The truth was that the deep sea was utterly unreachable from the perspective of humanity. Even the most powerful of mages would have no hopes of finding something that had been thrown away into the middle of the ocean. Even a lich like Quatach-Ichl, who had no need to breathe and potentially lived forever, would balk at the idea of searching through the ocean floor for a needle in a haystack.
If Zach and Zorian really did pick a random spot in the ocean, far away from any land, and threw the crown there… it would be scarcely different from destroying it utterly.
“You wouldn’t,” Quatach-Ichl said severely. “The value of that crown–”
“If we can’t get this Black Room to work, we’re dead,” Zach said, leaning forward towards the lich. “There, I said it. We’re desperate and our lives literally depend on this working. So if we fail, this crown is utterly useless to us. Why keep it around, then? Anyone we give it to would just become a target for you. Better to throw it into the sea so you can’t have it.”
“You…” said Quatach-Ichl, speechless for a moment. He shook his head. “I see. So I either get the crown back from you now or I lose it forever. Is that what you’re saying?”
“That is what we’re saying,” Zach said, leaning back into his chair with a bright smile.
“Besides, don’t pretend you aren’t interested in the Black Rooms and that helping us with this is just a chore for you,” Zorian pointed out. “We know for a fact that you have been interested in the time magic research facility beneath Cyoria for quite some time. Black Room projects require a great deal of funding and manpower to be developed, and Ulquaan Ibasa is probably not very abundant in either. This is a bit unfortunate since, as a place full of undead, you are the nation most able to exploit this sort of thing to its full potential. No need to worry about lifespan limits if you don’t age. And you definitely need every advantage you can get, if you are to really compete with Eldemar and other Altazian powers. Am I right?”
“Hm. Maybe,” said Quatach-Ichl after a short pause. “You’re saying I would get all the information regarding the Eldemarian Black Room project?”
“How else can we expect you to help us improve it?” Zorian asked. “However, you’re thinking too small. It’s not just the Eldemarian project that you would have access to. It’s also the Sulamnon project, and the Falkrinean projects, and everyone’s project. Every Black Room project on the continent.”
He took out a bright red folder out of his bag and handed it to Quatach-Ichl. It did not hold any comprehensive notes, of course, but it held enough to make it clear what kind of information Zach and Zorian had at their disposal.
Quatach-Ichl leafed through the folder, slowly at first but picking up as he saw more and more. His eyebrows also got higher and higher as he got closer to the end.
“This… how did you even get this?” he asked them. He sounded honestly impressed.
“We raided every Black Room facility on the continent and stole their notes and research data,” Zorian said.
“Hmm,” Quatach-Ichl hummed lightly. “I guess this really is very important to you…”
They spent the next fifteen minutes discussing the details of the proposed agreement. Though Quatach-Ichl never really agreed to anything and did his best to look uninterested, Zorian could tell they were gradually winning him over.
“So, there is one thing I’m really concerned about here,” the ancient lich finally said. “If I agree to this and help you as we agreed… what motive do you have to honor your part of the deal in the end? Yes, I will admit a certain amount of interest in the information you have about Black Rooms, but the crown you stole from me is the real issue. What guarantee do I have that you’ll actually hand it over to me at the end?”
“If you agree to help us, we will hand you the crown right now,” Zorian said.
Quatach-Ichl raised his eyebrow at them. He had been doing that a lot in this conversation.
“Yes, really,” Zorian confirmed.
Zach had already used the Key to unbar the gate. Now the only value of the imperial items was in their basic abilities, and while the crown was extremely useful… they needed Quatach-Ichl’s help far more at the moment.
They could always steal the crown the original was wearing when they got to the real world.
“What makes you think I won’t just take the crown and walk away laughing?” Quatach-Ichl asked curiously.
“You could do that, yes,” Zach said. “We don’t think you will, though. You are an honorable kind of undead.”
“Huh. I don’t know whether to feel pleased my reputation is so good or look down on you for being so foolish,” the lich said.
“Does that mean you agree to the deal?” Zach asked him.
“Let me ask you a question,” the Ibasan leader said. “What actually made you think you could work with me on this? I mean, yes, you clearly looked into me for quite some time before making your move. You even did that without me becoming aware that someone was plotting against me, and some part of me cannot help but be impressed by that. However, it still seems very strange you feel confident enough to propose this deal. Seems very risky.”
“We live a very risky life,” Zach said, grinning.
“Yet you’re still alive,” the lich noted with a more subdued smile of his own. “Clearly it is not just a matter of overconfidence, then.”
“If we answer this question for you, will you answer one of ours?” Zorian asked him.
“Sure,” Quatach-Ichl said, waving his hand in front of him carelessly. “Ask away.”
“Why are you working with the Cult of the Dragon Below to release the primordial trapped in Cyoria?” Zorian asked. “I refuse to believe someone like you would be ignorant of what exactly you are tangling with. This is not some fancy summon that will go away in a few hours, nor is it just a powerful monster. This is a creature that even the gods had trouble killing. Why would you set that thing loose on the world? I can see a regular rogue mage not caring about the consequences much, but surely you do. You have a homeland you care deeply for, and you probably intend to be alive for a very long time from now.”
“Forever,” Quatach-Ichl said. “I intend to live forever.”
“Then why?” Zorian asked. “Why release a godlike entity that could very well destroy everything in a few centuries?”
The lich looked at him for a few seconds, looking amused.
“Ha ha!” the lich laughed. “So. You do know about the whole invasion business I’m a part of.”
“Yes,” Zach confirmed. “We do.”
“As I expected,” Quatach-Ichl responded. “I guess that kind of answers my question, doesn’t it? If you know about the invasion plot, you already know I’m willing to enter into highly risky and insane deals if the benefits are big enough. But anyway, about your question… the thing is, I don’t think the primordial is going to be allowed to run free that long. Never mind centuries, I don’t think it is going to last two weeks!”
“Why?” Zach asked, frowning.
“Because I have faith in the angels,” the lich said.
“Sounds strange to have someone like me say that, doesn’t it?” Quatach-Ichl said, smiling knowingly. “It’s true, though. The gods may be gone, but the angels are still around and I have no doubt they would do everything in their power to either reseal or kill the primordial. Their restrictions limit their ability to meddle in the physical world, so it’s easy to underestimate them, but they have some truly awe-inspiring beings and weapons on their side. I should know; I saw them personally fighting a few times. One primordial should not be impossible for them to handle.”
“So you want to free the primordial, knowing the angels would take care of it long before it becomes your problem…” Zorian said.
“Yes,” the lich confirmed. “Frankly, my main worry is not that the angels will not be able to handle it… my main worry is that they will take care of it too quickly and that the damage from its release and subsequent rampage will be too limited in scope. I ordered all the temples razed to the ground at the very beginning of the invasion, but I fear it may not be enough. The angels can be surprisingly subtle and underhanded when they want to be. For all I know, they may be working against me even now.”
He had no idea.
“We are actually really fortunate,” Quatach-Ichl continued, sounding very smug. “It is likely that the ability of the angels to interfere with our plans is even more limited due to the recent… hmm, complications in the spiritual spheres.”
“You mean the fact all communications with the spiritual world have been severed lately?” Zorian asked.
“Hmm. Very well informed, indeed,” Quatach-Ichl mumbled quietly. “Yes, that. It’s rather unplanned, but not unwelcome. You could say the very heavens are helping me, ha ha!”
A small silence descended on the scene.
“So,” Zach said. “Do we have a deal or not?”
“I suppose we do,” the lich said. “I must be going senile in my old age, but I’ll give you a chance.”
“Oh yeah, one more thing,” Zorian said. “We kind of also approached the Esoteric Order of the Celestial Dragon about this and some other things. Unfortunately, they have been more unreasonable about this than you have so we have kind of ended up kidnapping them.”
He threw a small painting on the table. It was very realistic, depicting a group of bound and gagged men. There was no proof that the picture was real, of course, but Quatach-Ichl frowned when he saw it and stayed silent.
“Since we’re working together now, we were hoping you could help us convince them to cooperate,” Zorian said. “At the very least, we need their help to make this deal between us actually work. Otherwise, I fear we’ll be forced to subject them to our… intense cooperation techniques.”
“Hmph. Of course the incompetent idiots got captured,” Quatach-Ichl muttered.
He threw the picture onto the table before giving them a more cautious, speculative look. He then thrust his hand towards them, palm pointing upwards.
“The crown,” he demanded, shaking his hand.
With a sigh, Zach reached towards one of his pockets and pulled out the imperial crown. He gave it a look of sad longing before slowly and carefully placing it in Quatach-Ichl’s palm.
The lich immediately placed the crown on the top of his head, a web of geometric lines immediately lighting up all over his skin and flashing dangerously. For a moment his disguise dropped and his black skeletal form became plainly visible, but then he was back to ‘normal’ and his human guise was intact.
The crown was no longer visible, hidden under whatever magic Quatach-Ichl used to keep himself looking like a living being.
“Right,” he said. “Take me to those clowns and I’ll talk to them. They’ll cooperate.”
* * *
Things developed very quickly after that.
Zorian was honestly surprised how well things turned out. He was afraid the kidnapped mages would refuse to work or drag their feet whenever possible. He was afraid Quatach-Ichl would just take the crown and just leave them to their devices while laughing at their stupidity. He was afraid the cult leaders would sabotage everything out of spite, resentful that they had been basically arm-twisted into agreeing with their plans.
None of these things happened. The kidnapped researchers mostly chose to work with them instead of being defiant. A surprising number of them were even enthusiastic about the project, once they realized what they had been recruited to work on. It probably helped that Zach and Zorian promised them they could take all the documentation related to the project back home with them when they were finished. Though somewhat skeptical about that, the sheer scale of the project seemed to put people at ease. There was no way they would kill so many people just to shut everyone up, right?
Quatach-Ichl was a skeleton of his word. Just like he had never tried to cheat them after agreeing to teach them his magical skills, he did not attempt to get out of helping with the project once he committed to it. Which was great, because his help was insanely helpful and they would never have gotten as far as they did without him. He was more than just a replacement for Silverlake – he was vastly better than her and Zorian was honestly kind of sorry they couldn’t recruit him to work on the time loop exit project as well. With his help, their odds would have improved immensely.
Alas, the idea of informing him about the time loop was still as foolish as it always had been.
“Even if Red Robe had left the time loop thanks to a deal with Panaxeth, he still had to find a way to make his temporary marker last past the six month time limit,” Zorian told Zach when they were discussing the topic at one point.
“You think it wasn’t Panaxeth who helped him modify that?” Zach asked.
“Maybe it did, but I doubt the primordial actually did any modification itself. It may have given Red Robe clues and instructions, but he still needed to find someone to do that for him.”
“And you think that someone was Quatach-Ichl,” Zach guessed.
“Yes,” Zorian confirmed. “Yet, if Quatach-Ichl helped Red Robe acquire a permanent marker, why would he not acquire one himself?”
“Perhaps he couldn’t,” offer Zach. “I mean, the fact that temporary markers do not work on people for six restarts after the previous temporary marker runs out clearly indicates it’s not the marker that does the counting. It’s the Sovereign Gate and the Guardian of the Threshold.”
“So?” Zorian asked.
“So that means modifying a temporary marker has to be done before the Sovereign Gate processes it in some way. In all likelihood, that means any change to them must be made before the restart in which they gained the marker ends. We know from your example that the Guardian can only do certain things at the end of the restart, and this is probably one of them. This would also explain why we never managed to figure out a way to modify them that worked. The moment that first restart ended the chance was lost, and we never even realized it.”
“Ah,” Zorian said. That did make a lot of sense… “So you think Quatach-Ichl was already a temporary looper for a while before Red Robe entered?”
“I don’t know. I’m just throwing the idea out there, I guess,” Zach said with a shrug. “What do you think happened?”
“I think maybe Quatach-Ichl didn’t even want to leave the time loop, even if he found out about it,” Zorian said. “I mean, definitely not through a method Red Robe and Silverlake used. Entering into a death pact with a primordial? Not a chance. And physically leaving on your own is very hard. I don’t think even Quatach-Ichl could have pulled it off, considering the amount of effort we had to put into it. Perhaps he simply made a deal with Red Robe, similar to what I have with Xvim, Kael and the others. Once he gets out, he gives Quatach-Ichl a mountain of notes and other information, and in exchange he helps modify Red Robe’s marker.”
“He could have still demanded a temporary marker of his own and modified that,” Zach pointed out. “Just in case, you know.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Zorian said after a while. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s as you say, and he just couldn’t. I could see Panaxeth giving Red Robe a very specific solution tailored for him alone. It probably doesn’t want anyone getting out without making a deal with him.”
Their interaction with the Cult of the Dragon Below was very adversarial at first. For one thing, they had kidnapped them and blackmailed them into working with them, so it was inevitable they were not too enthusiastic about cooperating. It also didn’t help that Zorian evacuated all the shifters out of the city and informed the cult leadership that no child sacrifice would be allowed in their attempt to free Panaxeth from his prison. That led to a lot of shouting and even a brief exchange of combat spells.
However, the cult leaders would ultimately see the light when Zach and Zorian showed them the Sovereign Gate. They did not explain to the cultists what the object exactly did, but they did tell them it was a divine artifact that contained some of the essence of Panaxeth itself… and could thus be used as a key to open Panaxeth’s prison. A much better key than the shifter blood essence they originally planned to use for the purpose, too.
Though their description was deceptive, the basic facts were entirely true – within the reality of the time loop, the Sovereign Gate could very much be used as a key to open Panaxeth’s prison. In fact, using the Sovereign Gate was the key part of their plan to exit the time loop. This had been true while they had Silverlake’s cooperation and it was true now.
Zorian had been a little worried that the cultists would figure out too much if given access to the Sovereign Gate, but thankfully that never happened. They were overjoyed with it, but only because it was a better, fancier key to releasing Panaxeth out of its prison. They never realized what was truly going on inside of it.
Considering it was a divine artifact, and that those were notoriously hard to figure out, Zorian probably shouldn’t have been surprised at that.
In any case, their plans went off flawlessly. Better than they could have hoped, even. They had dug up a massive underground facility, reshaped the entire local geomantic web to fuel its creation, and then surrounded the imperial orb with layers upon layers of complicated wards and barriers made out of extremely expensive materials. The cost of the whole project was enough to bankrupt a small country and would give even a major nation like Eldemar and Falkrinea pause if they had to pay for it. By the end of it, even Quatach-Ichl seemed to be getting a little uneasy at the amount of resources and effort being put into this thing.
It didn’t matter though, because he stayed true to his word and the project was finished on time. Six days before the end of the restart, the improved Black Room was done. A large throng of people – time loopers, cult leaders and the more enthusiastic of the kidnapped researchers – piled on into the imperial orb and then the time dilation was activated.
They would spend the next five months inside the imperial orb. Outside, a single day would pass.
Quatach-Ichl did not join them in the orb, despite helping them make it. This was smart of him, because Zach and Zorian would have killed him the moment the orb was isolated from the outside world and stolen his crown again. Zorian wasn’t sure whether Quatach-Ichl could have escaped back to his phylactery if he was killed inside the palace orb, but even if he could they wouldn’t care. The important thing was that he could not escape when overpowered inside the orb, and that having him inside for the full five months was too much of a risk. The cult leaders were… manageable. Someone like Quatach-Ichl wasn’t.
In any case, the next five months would consist of improving everyone’s skills so they could help with the final exit plan, manufacturing the necessary ward stones and blueprints to prepare the terrain, and so on. It would be a bit of a challenge to hide the true meaning of all the preparations from the cult leaders and the like, but Zorian was not opposed to simply killing them if they ended up revealing too much to them, so whatever.
Zorian had another thing he wanted to do, though. Something he wanted to keep hidden from most people… including Zach.
Thus, he gathered most of the aranea loopers, plus Xvim and Daimen, and brought them to one of the isolated corners of the orb dimension for a talk.
“What a strange group you have gathered,” Xvim remarked. “It seems you are still not satisfied with your mind magic skills, if I am reading the situation correctly.”
“Seriously?” Daimen complained. “Aren’t you good enough at that, already?”
“You can never get good enough at mind magic,” one of the aranea responded.
“Indeed,” Zorian said. “It’s my best skill, and it’s good to keep working on those. However, I didn’t bring you here to work on my general mind magic skills. What I want… is to figure out a way to get past the Mind Blank spell and target a person with mind magic anyway.”
A look of realization entered everyone’s eyes. Even the aranea – their body language was a little hard to read but Zorian had gotten a feeling for it by now.
Then they all got to work.
* * *
The escape attempt had to happen at the end of the month, on the day of the Summer Festival. The reasoning for this was identical to the one the Ibasans and the cultists used to launch their invasion at that particular moment in time – this was the peak of the planetary alignment, when dimensionalism magic was at its strongest.
When the group left the imperial orb, only five days remained until the deadline. This was not much, but it was enough to make the necessary preparations. The time magic research facility was completely repurposed into a part of the exit ritual. Large sections of the Hole were covered in carved spell formula and embedded with strange metallic ward stones. The cultists they had spent five months training in dimensionalism and divinations had analyzed Panaxeth’s prison and shared their results with the group. They seemed honestly grateful to Zach and Zorian for the ‘help’ they had given them, which made Zorian feel just a little bit guilty about intending to utterly betray them in the end. Not enough for him to do anything differently, but still.
Sadly, the final plan they had agreed upon had some unfortunate details. The original plan was to use Panaxeth’s prison as a bridge, opening a dimensional gate that would connect a spot in the time loop with the same spot in the real world. That plan was now largely unworkable. Silverlake had been the only one who knew how to interact with the primordial’s prison with sufficient finesse to make that possible. Despite their best efforts in trying to develop that skill in some of their people, they had failed to duplicate her feats. It did not help that they obviously could not experiment on the primordial prison itself while inside the imperial orb – they could only work on their general dimensionalism skills and try to guess what was necessary to interact with it properly.
Still, while the original plan was no longer possible, they did have an alternative. It was just that this plan required them to crack open Panaxeth’s prison and then sacrifice the imperial orb to serve as a bridge they needed to connect the two realities.
There were two problems with this. The first was that it required them to destabilize the primordial’s prison and make a crack in it – something that usually triggered a premature end to the restart and would allow Panaxeth to extend its influence outside the prison while they attempted to form the bridge. This would be solved by enclosing the area with multiple layers of dimensional membranes, so that even after breaching its prison, Panaxeth would not be truly ‘free’. They weren’t totally sure it would work, but it was the best idea they had and the theory was sound. Even if it worked, though, it would only stop the restart from ending immediately – it would do nothing to stop Panaxeth from rampaging about.
The other was that using the imperial orb that way meant they couldn’t take it with them to the real world. It would have to stay behind to form a path for them, which would sharply limit the amount of things they could bring with them from the time loop as well as result in the total loss of all of the research notes and blueprints Zorian had stored in its memory bank.
That was… painful, to say the least. There was no other choice, however. The imperial orb was the only pocket dimension reinforced with divine power that they knew of. It was the only thing they knew of that could withstand the dimensional stresses involved in the procedure. Everything else would break in seconds.
Deciding what to bring with them and what to leave behind was stressful and led to a lot of arguments, but somehow they managed to cut their possessions down to a manageable level.
Days passed in a flash, until there was no more time. The Summer Festival was upon them, and the invasion was about to begin. Zach and Zorian had meant to kill all the cult leaders the day before, to make sure they wouldn’t interfere with their work, but their unlikely allies surprised them by graciously agreeing to step aside of their own free will. The official reason was that they had ‘figured out’ that their group planned to release the primordial too, and that thus there was no need for them to get involved. Zorian did not believe that for a second, of course. The leadership of the cult wanted to control the primordial, not just release it. Moreover, Quatach-Ichl was never very far from the cult leaders these days, making direct moves against them impossible.
Reluctantly, they decided to let the matter drop. Hopefully the lich and the cultists would be too busy fighting the city to try and sabotage their operation. They had done their best to covertly prepare the city and its defenders for the upcoming invasion so the attackers should have their hands full in that regard. They simply made the last round of preparations and then settled down to wait.
Everything was ready.
Zorian turned to Zach.
“If this fails, I’m dead,” he told him.
Zach shifted uncomfortably.
“The Guardian may have been lying for some reason,” he said. “Perhaps you will wake up at the start of the next restart and–”
“Maybe,” said Zorian, cutting him off. He really doubted it, though. “However, it’s best to plan for things not being so convenient. Anyway, if everything fails and we all die, it’s all up to you. You’re our last and only hope.”
“I… I guess,” Zach sighed, looking really pained at the idea of him getting out of this thing alone. “Look, I know this probably sounds hollow… but if anything happens to you, I promise I will take care of your original self, alright?”
“That actually does make me feel somewhat better,” Zorian said. “Come on. It’s starting.”
The ritual was taking place inside the Hole, on a floating platform. There was a raised dais in the center, on which the Sovereign Gate stood. It struck Zorian that this was a very similar setup to the one the cult had used for their ritual. They really had ended up supplanting their role in a way, hadn’t they?
Of course, the real setup their group was using was much more extensive than what the cultists had used in the past. Though the main ritual grounds consisted of this one floating platform, the supporting mechanisms actually extended throughout the entire local underworld. Additionally, the entire space around them was enclosed in several layers of dimensional membranes that isolated the place from the outside world as much as possible. There would be no plucky trio of mages simply flying up to them in a sphere of white force to disrupt the whole thing from within, like Zach and Zorian had done to the cultists in one of the previous restarts.
The entire group arranged itself into a series of three concentric circles. Zach, Zorian, Daimen and Xvim were at the very center, surrounding the Sovereign Gate. They were the people most skilled in dimensionalism, and thus the most crucial for the effort. Around them were dozens of people who had enough skills to contribute, but not enough to take on the heavy burden that the main four were responsible for. Finally, there was the rest of the group who couldn’t really help the procedure work, and could only stay back and pray for everyone’s success. They were here only because once the area had been enclosed in dimensional membranes, no one could get in without disrupting everything and causing the ritual to fail. Thus, if they wanted to get them outside, they had to be present inside while the ritual took place.
After some shouting and pushing, everyone was in their assigned position and (hopefully) knew what to do. They started casting.
For the first five minutes, nothing much happened. The air above the platform warped and twisted like hot summer air, but nothing more than that occurred. The group had to be exceptionally careful about their spell work and timing, and that meant work was bound to be slow. Still, everything was proceeding well so f–
The walls of the Hole shook, sending dust and pebbles everywhere and causing the inscribed spell formula in the walls to flare and flicker with an ominous blue light. A deep rumbling sound emanated from somewhere in the distance, like a growl of a titanic beast.
Crap. What the hell was going on outside? What were Quatach-Ichl and the cultists doing?
“Stay focused!” Xvim warned. “We are at a critical–”
Another tremor, this one even stronger, shook the entire place and everything suddenly went to hell. The shimmering, controlled breach they were working towards quickly spun out of control, and a pitch black, irregular crack suddenly manifested itself in the air around them.
“Shit!” Zach swore. “Suppress it! Suppress it!”
But it was too late. A swarm of dark brown tentacles, ropelike and covered in thorns, rushed out of the crack and sent everyone scattering out of their positions.
The crack widened, revealing a giant, three-lobed, inhuman eye lurking behind the dimensional barrier, and more tentacles rushed out to confront them. These were thicker, and had rather human-like hands attached at the end.
Though things had gone badly, all was not lost. They had made the ritual with certain tolerances, and this was still a manageable outcome. Quickly, many of the people standing around in the third circle of the ritual rushed forwards and started fighting the tentacles. People like Kyron and Taiven had no skills with which to help the ritual itself, but they had plenty of combat power and no other duties to distract them. They fearlessly charged into the invading primordial mass, recklessly burning through their mana to keep it away from the Zorian and the others.
As for Zach and Zorian, they were busy suppressing the breach and could offer very little help. Should their attention lapse for even a second, Panaxeth would overwhelm them before they could blink. They frantically dodged the flailing tentacles, shaping and stabilizing the breach into something manageable.
Dimly, Zorian was aware that one of the ‘hands’ that got severed in half by Taiven suddenly grew legs and claws and flung itself at her. Taiven ended up tackled at the ground, unable to cast much of anything. Kyron managed to blast the thing off of her, but she had to be dragged off to the side, effectively out of the fight.
She was also bleeding heavily, leaving a thick trail of blood as she was dragged to the edge of the platform. Zorian had no idea if she was going to live, and couldn’t really afford to check at the moment.
Not far from there, one of the aranea tried to block one of the thin, thorny tentacles with a force shield but found her defenses to be lacking. The tentacle punched through her shield and swiftly wrapped itself around her torso several times. That’s when they found out that the thorns weren’t just very sharp, but were also thin and bladed like a razor. The high-pitched scream of the aranea cut off quickly as the thorns effortlessly sliced through her exoskeleton and turned her into a mutilated corpse.
The tentacle then picked up the corpse and started waving it around like a bloody flail, sending blood and viscera everywhere. Some of the mages panicked or flinched when the aranean blood splattered all over them, even if no actual damage was done, and their efforts to keep the breach in check started to fail.
“Damn it,” swore Zorian, reaching into his jacket pocket and removing a handful of steel spheres densely covered in spell formula. He had been hoping to save these for later. He needed them later. But if he didn’t use this now, they were done for.
He flung the spheres at the rift above and they spontaneously aligned themselves around it in a quickly a rotating ring before starting to glow. The primordial’s tentacles reacted quickly, switching directions and trying to tear the sphere formation apart, but thankfully the rest of the group immediately realized they could not let that happen. A swarm of multi-colored rays, bullets, and more exotic projectiles intercepted the tentacles, halting their charge for a moment.
A moment was enough. The spheres erupted into blinding white light, blinding everyone for a moment, and then the rift abruptly shrunk. Some of the tentacles, cut off from the source of their mass by the shrinkage, fell from the sky, crashing onto the platform with a large thud.
Their relief was short-lived, however, since the tentacles soon started twitching and bubbling like boiling water, before starting to merge into an ovoid, chrysalis-like mass.
Alanic was the first to act, sending streams of white-hot flames at the forming cocoon, and then everyone joined in. However, the structure seemed to have developed some kind of resistance to the spells they had used on the tentacles thus far, because it was stubbornly resisting attempts to eradicate it.
Deep within it, some horrible shape rapidly began to form.
And the Sovereign Gate spontaneously started glowing white, a silhouette of the familiar form of the Guardian of the Threshold forming right above it.
“Shit…” Zorian couldn’t help but mumble.
“Use the orb,” Xvim said.
“But–” Daimen protested.
“We have no choice,” Xvim interrupted. “We have no time. It has to be now.”
After a moment of indecision, Daimen reached to his side and threw the imperial orb at the crack. Zach, Daimen, Zorian and Xvim quickly started casting layers upon layers of spells on it, trying to integrate it into Panaxeth’s prison like they had intended.
It wasn’t going well enough, so Zorian reached for more of the items he prepared for this – a collection of metal tablets, several staves made out of alchemically-treated wood, and a box of several hundred marbles, each of which contained a three-dimensional spell formula made out of metal wire. He sacrificed it all in succession and even burned some of his life force to make his spells hit harder. He was fairly sure he noticed Zach, Xvim and Daimen doing the same, burning their life to make sure the fusion worked.
They succeeded. The imperial orb pulsed three times with translucent waves of rainbow light before pulling the pitch black rift into itself. The crack in the sky disappeared, but the orb seemed to pull in the space around it still. The air warped and rippled, forming a pitch black sphere above the orb, its surface rippling like water. Around it, a smoky grey torus burst into existence, crackling with multicolored energies. Then another, and then another, until three grey tori revolved around the pitch black sphere that had suddenly grown perfectly still and featureless.
The exit. It was ready!
Unfortunately, that’s when the glowing form of the Guardian of the Threshold finished materializing. It did not speak a word, simply raising its hand at the group and releasing a thick, blinding beam of white energy at them.
The beam did not even cross half of the distance towards them before it suddenly split into more than a hundred thinner, but equally bright beams.
Zach and Zorian’s simulacrums, previously held in reserve, sprang into action. So did the combat golems Zorian made for the occasion. But the beams were fast and each one swerved and pivoted in the air like a living thing, tracking its chosen target. Hastily erected defenses did nothing to stop them, and Zorian was pained to see Ilsa, Nora, and two of the aranea killed on the spot when the beams hit them.
The exit was right there, open and ready, yet four people had died so close to their salvation.
Some people fired a counter-attack at the spectral form of the Guardian, but the entity did not attempt to dodge or shield itself from the attacks in any way. Every attack that reached it simply sank into its glowing form and disappeared. There was no indication that the Guardian had suffered any damage from the attacks, or even that it had noticed them.
Damn it, they needed to start the evacuation now! Zorian started directing his simulacrums to start the preparations, but that’s when the primordial chrysalis from before suddenly exploded, a large, vaguely humanoid beast bursting out of it. It had four arms. A three-eyed, skeletal head stood attached to its shoulders through a long, flexible neck. Its tail was extremely long and thin, and ended with a hand-like appendage. Glossy, chitinous carapace covered it, studded with thin, razor-like spikes.
It roared horribly, its sound incredibly loud and grating… and then it dropped on all six of its main limbs and charged straight at the center of the platform, where Zorian and the others were located. Anyone who tried to get in its way was flung aside like a rag doll and every spell that hit it was resisted with little to show for it.
The glowing form of the Guardian raised its hand again, another beam sparkling on its fingers.
And then, to add a final insult to it all, the entire area rocked and shook as a series of loud booms erupted from somewhere above.
Zorian’s heart sank. There was no mistaking it. Someone was attacking their ritual grounds from the outside.
Probably Quatach-Ichl and the cultists.
Damn it! How did they–
No. No, that was a silly thing to ask. He had to focus on the now. He had to–
The Guardian fired another white beam of death. It once again flowered into hundreds of smaller beams, and this time they were not capable of minimizing the effects. Zorian joined his simulacrums in blocking as many as he could, but it was not enough. He watched, horrified, as Kael tried to shield his little daughter from one of the beams with his body. The beam drilled straight through them, killing them both on the spot.
Kyron managed to block the beam, but that made him too distracted to deal with the primordial beast running up to him from behind. Its massive, clawed hand swiped across him, shattering through his hastily erected shield and cleaving him in half before continuing its relentless advance.
Another series of explosions sounded from just outside the ritual grounds and the spell formula that stabilized the exit to the time loop flickered dangerously.
A small, almost imperceptible crack appeared on the imperial orb floating just beneath the exit. It could no longer handle the strain of maintaining the bridge to the real world.
Somewhere on the edge of the platform, Zorian could feel Taiven’s soul suddenly wink out. She probably bled to death while everyone was too busy fighting for their life to tend to her wounds.
Suddenly, it dawned to Zorian that they were all going to die here. They were so close, they had practically won, and yet–
“Truthfully, I think I’d always known it would end this way,” Daimen suddenly said with a small sigh.
He took a knife out of his pocket and ruthlessly slashed at his wrists.
“Daimen! What are you doing!?” Zorian screeched at him.
“You have to live,” Daimen told him, his hands trembling as he went through a complicated series of gestures with them, his wrists heavily dripping blood. “It’s fine if I die, but you have to live. Don’t let it all be in vain. It can’t!”
Suddenly, he thrust his bloody hands towards the collapsing exit in the air, pouring every shred of his life force into the stabilization wards. The cracks on the imperial orb stopped spreading, the black surface of the exit calmed down into its smooth, peaceful state, and the spell formula lining the walls stopped fluctuating for the moment.
Xvim watched the scene for a moment before focusing on Zorian.
“Go,” he said. “Zach and I will keep the exit stable while you pass through.”
“Zach doesn’t need this, but you–” Zorian protested.
“Go!” Xvim shouted at him. “Zach cannot keep this stable by himself. Go now!”
He… could do that, yes. He could go through by himself, abandoning everyone to their fate. But that…
He glanced at the others, desperately fighting to keep the primordial beast away from them and keeping the Guardian of the Threshold busy with other targets. They knew the exit was there. They could have just dropped everything and made a mad dash at the exit in hopes that some of them would make it. Wouldn’t that be the smartest choice, individually?
Yet none of them had made that choice.
Steeling his heart, Zorian stopped focusing on the maintenance of the exit, handing over his part of the burden to Xvim and Zach, who visibly struggled under the increased strain. He then crouched and jumped, casting a quick flight spell and rushing straight at the exit.
The primordial beast screeched in anger, increasing its pace. The Guardian suddenly teleported in front of Zorian, blocking his path and forcing him to evade and block another series of white beams that chased after him, pivoting in the air and curving their trajectories to keep him in their sights. Some of the other loopers helped him out, ignoring their own safety to block some of the beams with their own spells. The ceiling shook again, this time more severely than before, but Daimen’s final sacrifice had allowed things to keep working for now.
He was only inches from the exit when the primordial beast suddenly opened its massive bestial mouth and fired some kind of serrated bony spike straight at his chest.
He was practically a spent force by this point, and could do nothing to stop the spike from slamming straight into his back and passing straight through his chest.
An explosion of blood and viscera erupted out of him, his whole chest a ruined mess. Perhaps it was just him losing all sensation as death took him, but it felt to him that everything suddenly went quiet for a moment as his flight spell failed and his body began to fall to the ground, trailing blood behind it.
His wound was too serious. He was dead for sure.
Closing his eyes, he initiated the final contingency, separating his soul from his body. A complicated soul spell he had always kept running in the background suddenly activated, allowing him to maintain consciousness in soul form. Without hesitation, he abandoned his dying form and rushed straight into the exit in front of him.
Before either the primordial beast or the Guardian of the Threshold could stop him, he was already through, following invisible paths that would lead him to the real world.
As a soul, his ability to perceive the real world was highly limited. He followed invisible lines of space and time, racing through a tunnel he could dimly perceive in front of him. Most of his ability to navigate in this place came from the fact he had absorbed the dimensional perception of the tunneler toad and gained a considerable amount of proficiency with it in the five months he had spent in the imperial orb.
Yet, that same ability was also threatening to undo everything he had accomplished. He had bound that ability to his mana reserves and his body, but his body was no more. One of the very pillars that were supposed to anchor the ability to him was gone, and his mana reserves shuddered and churned, threatening to destabilize. Should that happen, he would lose all ability to cast spells or even direct his mana. Everything would still fail in the end. He had to hold on for a little while longer. He focused tightly on keeping control over his mana reserves, even as he tried to navigate to the exit in the real world.
Dimly, he felt the tunnel start to collapse behind him. Apparently Xvim and Zach had finally lost their struggle to keep the passage open. Nobody except Zorian had gone through, as far as he could tell.
He drove himself to travel faster.
Finally he was out! He could feel the space open up around him, the tunnel ending. For a while he was disoriented, confused about what he had to do. His mind was fuzzy – he had never spent this much time in soul form, especially not with destabilizing mana reserves. However, he eventually remembered what he had to do. He had to track down his old body.
Fortunately, that was not so difficult. He had no idea where the exit had deposited him, exactly, but he and his original body shared a certain bond with each other.
It was hard to cast much as a pure soul, but Zorian could do enough to craft himself a set of ghostly hands. From that point, everything became easy. A couple of divinations to lock down on the location of his old self, a couple of quick teleports to enter his room and he was there.
His old self was sleeping, blissfully unaware of the invasion. Soul Zorian did not hesitate. His soul form plunged straight into his old self’s chest, causing the boy to gasp before all his body locked up as the two souls started to fight for the ownership of the body.
Maybe it was quick. Maybe it was slow. Zorian had never fought a soul battle or possessed someone’s body before. What he did know was that his old self never had a chance. From the moment he attacked, the ultimate outcome was never in question.
He opened his eyes and looked at the ceiling of his room.
His room. Yes. Definitely his room.
He rose into a sitting position and looked around. It was night. He thought he would maybe wake up when Kirielle came to jump on top of him, but then he remembered that the time loop technically began much earlier than that.
He placed his right palm in front of him. A ghostly orb of white light bobbed up and down just above it.
The soul of his old self.
He stared at it for a full five minutes, trying to decide what to do with it. He had considered the issue before, of course, but now that he was actually here…
After a while, he closed his palm around the soul, causing it to fade away and move on to the afterlife.
To do anything else, seemed… cruel.
Then he jumped out of bed, took a look around his dark, silent room and cracked his knuckles.
It was time to get to work.