Standing on the roof of one of the academy buildings, the two groups stared at one another without speaking. The situation had already been tense, and Jornak’s threats only made it more uneasy and unstable. Zorian suspected that if one of them made a single suspicious move, the other side would attack and the whole meeting would instantly degenerate into violence.
Probably the only reason that hadn’t happened thus far was that both sides realized they couldn’t meaningfully hurt the other. They had picked this place for a reason. It was too exposed, too close to powerful mages standing watch, and too heavily protected by a warding scheme that neither side was keyed in on. If a battle were to start, it would be hard to deal a finishing blow and decide anything. Even if one side gained the upper hand in the fighting, there was no way for them keep their opponents from simply running away. They would just be revealing their trump cards and making outside observers even more aware of the secret war being waged all around them.
Zorian watched the stone token in Jornak’s hand while considering his threats in his head.
The wraith bombs were kind of expected, though Zorian did not really think they would be using them outside of Cyoria. He thought they were intended to be used as support for the invasion itself, not as a way to blackmail them into a truce. As for the threat of an assassination campaign that could start another war… well, Zorian wasn’t sure he entirely believed that. How would Jornak actually test this? Zach never mentioned any sudden wars erupting in the time loop, and he surely would have if he witnessed any. In Zorian’s opinion, Jornak was just making an educated guess, based on the various information he gathered in the time loop, and it was an open question what would really happen if he were to kill a bunch of really important people in quick succession.
Then again, during that fateful incident where Quatach-Ichl tried to mutilate Zach’s soul and brought Zorian into the time loop, Zach ended up in a coma for quite a few restarts… and it was very likely that Zorian spend a number of restarts in a similar state as well. Perhaps it was during some of these ‘lost restarts’ that Jornak tested such large-scale schemes for viability…
And then there was Oganj – the infamous dragon mage that had killed an entire army and one of the Immortal Eleven sent to deal with him, the terrifying dragon that had menaced northern Altazia for centuries now. Zorian was a little mystified why Jornak was invoking his name so smugly. Sure, Oganj was an immensely powerful opponent, even by dragon standards… but hadn’t Zach already killed him once? He distinctly remembered Zach going through a great number of short restarts in order to–
He glanced at Zach again. His friend did not seem as calm about Oganj’s involvement as Zorian thought he would be.
[What am I missing here?] Zorian asked Zach, sending him a telepathic message. [Didn’t you already prove you can best Oganj?]
[I’m not even sure I could repeat that feat inside the time loop, let alone here in the outside world,] Zach immediately sent back.
[Are you saying you winning was a fluke?] Zorian asked, surprised.
[It wasn’t a fluke,] Zach responded, sounding faintly outraged in his thoughts. [I beat Oganj fair and square. However, I kind of brute forced things and took advantage of the fact I could learn from our fights and Oganj couldn’t. Unless I caught him off-guard, unless I timed things just right, unless I knew what spells he usually uses and counters my moves with… I’m not sure I could beat him in a straight fight.]
Huh… Zorian did not often hear this kind of admission from Zach. If there was anything that Zach was good at, it was a straight fight. Then again, his main advantage – his massive mana reserves – was not as big of a deal against a dragon as it was against human mages. All dragons had impossibly huge mana reserves by human standards.
[Is Oganj more powerful than Quatach-Ichl?] Zorian asked.
[Not even close,] Zach said immediately. [He doesn’t have the huge variety of spells that Quatach-Ichl does, his body is too large to teleport around easily, and if you kill his body, he will actually die. The old bag of bones is still the toughest opponent I ever faced. Still, Oganj is incredibly powerful. Even worse… he has students.]
[Students?] Zorian asked curiously. [As in, dragon ones?]
[What else?] Zach responded. [Even though dragons are usually solitary, dragon mages had to find a way to pass on their skills to a new generation. Otherwise, their traditions would never spread and would eventually die out. For that reason, all dragon mages occasionally take a young dragon as a student to pass on their teachings. Usually a dragon mage will only have one student at any particular time, but Oganj is more powerful and confident than most dragon mages. He currently has two students.]
[Tree dragon mages…] he lamented. [Even if the two students were mere beginners, this is still bad news.]
Three dragons working together was already a cause for panic for most people – having them all be dragon mages as well made a terrifying group that would give even Zach and Zorian pause.
“Are you done talking to each other?” Jornak suddenly asked. “Just so you know, when I say I can get Oganj and his group work with me, I don’t just mean his two students. You see, Oganj has been making connections with other dragon mages, and even regular dragons. You may not know this, but human-dragon relations have been steadily becoming worse lately, what with Eldemar and other northern countries constantly pushing deeper into the wilderness with their colonists. As solitary as they are, dragons are still intelligent beings and they can see where this is going. Some of them have been wondering if they should temporarily band together to halt or at least divert human advances, and Oganj is something of a logical figure to rally around in that case. If he moves against Eldemar, there could be as many as 20, or even 30 dragons following behind him.”
Zorian couldn’t help but twitch at the explanation. His first instinct was to dismiss Jornak’s claims are pure fiction, but… there were precedents for large-scale dragon attacks happening. Usually when humans attacked dragon nesting grounds or killed too many dragons in too short of a time, but still.
And 30 dragons? That would take an entire army to stop… except that an army was a lot less mobile than a group of 30 dragons, which meant Oganj’s group could advance practically unchallenged through Eldemar’s territory, laying waste to all they encountered and simply fleeing whenever they were confronted with a force big enough to deal real damage. It would take an entire group of ultra-powerful mages to counter such a flight of dragons, and assembling such a group would take months. If Eldemar was simultaneously suffering from assassinations of its prominent leaders and the entire continent was tethering on the brink of another war… it was questionable whether it would be assembled at all.
It was interesting, though. Some dragons had friendly relations with humans, but Oganj wasn’t one of them. Considering his antagonistic past with humanity, it couldn’t have been easy to convince him to work with Jornak. Still, Zach was adamant that the stone token in Jornak’s hands was Oganj’s calling card and was genuine. That meant he probably did reach some kind of agreement with the old dragon mage.
It was becoming apparent that, while Zach and Zorian had largely focused on accumulation of personal power and skills, Jornak had spent most of his time trying to investigate the various states and organizations in their surroundings in order to figure out how to manipulate them. Probably a smart decision, considering he wanted to enact some kind of grand change in the entire continent and possibly create his own version of Ikosian Empire with him on top. Personal power alone couldn’t do that.
Thinking on it some more, it was likely that Jornak’s focus on recruiting others to help him originated from pure necessity. If he had started off as a temporary looper, like Zorian suspected, it made sense that he was focused on trying to leverage people around him to accomplish his goals. He was not a master mage, and he’d had a limited amount of time to work with, his time had been sharply limited, so slowly training to become good enough to accomplish things himself had not been a possible option.
“You know, nothing you said really addresses my question from earlier,” Zorian pointed out to Jornak. “Delaying the conflict until the summer festival does not benefit us in any way. You and Silverlake will die if you can’t release the primordial before the deadline, and you can only make an attempt on the day of the summer festival. So it makes sense that you want to postpone the conflict until then. However, Zach and me have every reason to push things and try to resolve things sooner. Nothing you said changes that. In the end, all you did was name a bunch of threats and tried to blackmail us into agreeing to a terrible deal.”
“Yes, that’s entirely true,” Jornak said calmly, nodding slightly at him in agreement. “The truth is I don’t think I can keep the conflict manageable at the rate it is going. It’s only been a few days, but we’re already raising red flags everywhere. At this rate, we’re going to end up dragging the Eldemarian government into it whether we want to or not. Not even the local mage guild, subverted as it is, can fully suppress what is happening. And if that happens, then the release of the primordial becomes all but impossible to pull off.”
“You’re losing the fight and getting desperate,” Zach said.
“I wouldn’t phrase it that way,” Jornak said carefully. “But it is definitely true that I, and Silverlake here, are not in a good position. We made a deal with the primordial to release it or die, and we can’t weasel out of it. If we can’t release Panaxeth from his prison by the end of the month, everything else will become pointless. However, should everything really fall apart that severely, why wouldn’t I drag you all down along with me? If you drive me into a corner like that, I will obviously turn to destructive and extreme methods.”
“Zorian is right. This is just brazen blackmail,” Zach said flatly, frowning at the man in front of him.
“I’m just explaining my logic,” Jornak said. “I think it makes perfect sense for me to escalate things if we continue down this path. In the current situation, Eldemar can do as they wish and focus on sorting out the situation in Cyoria at their leisure. Meanwhile, if I kick off another Splinter War, release hundreds of wraiths in all major cities, and get a group of dragons to lay waste to entire northern Eldemar… well, it just might give them more pressing matters to worry about. And a narrow chance to live is better than having no chance at all. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Zach and Zorian said nothing to that.
“See, I think you’re reasonable people,” Jornak continued, undaunted by their silence and frosty glares. If anything, he grew more animated in his speech and mannerisms. “You didn’t immediate run off to inform the Crown about what is happening. You spared the life of Veyers, even though he was clearly connected to me in some way. You came to this meeting to see what I have to say. Therefore, I think you’re going to be reasonable about this. After all, even if you agree to this truce, you still have a high chance of stopping us in the end. Letting us delay the battle until the end of the month may be a little suboptimal for you, but it’s not a catastrophe. If you push me too far, we both lose.”
“If the sides were reversed, would you take your own deal?” Xvim suddenly asked, interrupting his explanation.
Jornak hesitated for a moment, mouth open, before his mouth snapped shut and he shook his head.
“Not a chance,” he admitted.
Silverlake laughed at the admission, a sharp cackling laughter that somehow looked more appropriate on her old withered form than on her current young one.
“Then how can you call it being reasonable?” Xvim probed further.
“Because you are not me,” Jornak said. “I wouldn’t accept it because I wouldn’t care about the death and destruction, so long as I win in the end. I accepted this as a price for what I want to do a long time ago. You four? I’m guessing you are far more reluctant to make that sacrifice.”
He was… probably right about that. If it were just Zorian and Xvim making decisions, maybe they would have decided to cold-heartedly ignore the threats and continue pressuring Jornak and his group. Maybe. However, there was no way either Alanic or Zach would be fine with that. Especially Alanic, since he clearly cared a lot about Eldemar – not just the people, but the country itself, as well.
For a while the scene was quiet, as Zorian and the rest of his group discussed the situation in front of them via telepathy. Jornak and his group were probably discussing something through magical means too, considering their body language and brief looks, though Zorian did not really know if they were using telepathy or something else.
Probably something else, as all three were under the mind blank spell.
It was a good thing they had decided not to bring Spear of Resolve with them, he mused. Her telepathic prowess would have been largely useless against the people in front of them and her skills at other forms of magic were relatively humble. She couldn’t teleport away, or even just fly off into the distance. If a fight were to break out, she would have been a rock around their neck – unable to contribute to the battle, incapable of quickly retreating, yet important enough that Jornak and Quatach-Ichl would definitely want to see her dead.
No, it was best she stayed safe in the depths of her web for now.
“If we agree to this, how can we be sure you won’t be here tomorrow to demand further concessions in exchange for not wrecking everything?” Zach finally asked.
“As we have already established, this truce is more in our favor than yours. Why would I risk things like that?” Jornak asked with a raised eyebrow. “In my opinion, I’m the one who should be worried. You have every incentive to agree to the truce and then dishonor it later. How can I be sure you won’t just take advantage of the truce of build up your forces and dishonor it a few days later? I can’t. All I can do is immediately make good of my threats in response.”
Zorian clacked his tongue at the explanation. So this truce was basically toothless and could fall apart at any moment if one side pushed more than the other can tolerate. And there would definitely be plenty of pushing and testing of waters, that much was clear – if any side saw a chance to gain an advantage by dishonoring the deal, they would do so in a heartbeat.
”Threat, threat, and more threats. Just so you know, if you come later to demand more from us, I will immediately attack you, consequences be damned,” Zach told him darkly.
“Does that mean we have an agreement?” Jornak said with a self-satisfied smirk.
“Ha ha! Of course they’re going to agree,” Silverlake suddenly piped in, jumping up from her conjured chair and stretching in an exaggerated manner. She ignored Jornak’s annoyed look and stepped forward with a grin. “They’re all too touchy-feely to risk such devastation just to stop us a little earlier… but more importantly, they recently found out that Zach will have issues surviving this month. It sure would be nice if they could take a step back from all the fighting in order to figure out what to do about that…”
The atmosphere immediately got even more tense and gloomy. Zorian had always known that Silverlake wouldn’t have informed him about Zach’s contract purely on a whim, and now it seemed like one of the big reasons for it was to put pressure on them to agree to this truce. It was as Silverlake said – they needed time and resources to figure out what could be done about this, and it would be hard to focus on this if they were constantly fighting their enemies during this time, spending their time, money, and mana on getting an upper hand.
“How did you even find out about that?” Zach asked with a frown, directing his question at Jornak instead of Silverlake. Clearly he felt the lawyer was the source of the information. “I mean, even I didn’t know I made a deal with the angels, so how…?”
“You did know,” Jornak said, shaking his head. “The angels didn’t tell you who they were, but you are not completely stupid.” Zach scowled at him but said nothing. “There are only so many powers capable of doing what they did. You eventually figured out who it could be and raided church archives to see if they had records of similar deals being made. They did. In fact, they had examples of past angelic contracts – many, many examples. Even if none of them were directly applicable to your situation, they still held a lot of clues for those who knew how to read them. You brought them to me, and we worked together to piece together the general nature of your contract. I don’t dare claim I understand it completely, since I’ve never seen the actual contract and you can’t directly talk about it, but I know enough.”
Zorian wasn’t surprised at this. Back when the angel they had summoned caused the contract to appear, he immediately noticed that the contract was written in very legal terms. More importantly, they were modern, familiar legal terms, the sort you would see in any sort of legal document in Eldemar. At first glance at least, the contract looked like something you might get if you visited a mundane lawyer in Cyoria and asked them to write up a contract for a business deal or something similar.
That meant the angels had lots of experience when it came to making these contracts. Zach shouldn’t be the only person working under this kind of contract. There should be others. Perhaps many others, and not all of them could have a contract backed by divine magic. No matter how secretive the angels were, examples of past contracts would exist somewhere out there.
And with examples of past contracts in hand, some creativity when answering questions, and an actual lawyer to consult with… it probably wasn’t impossible to figure out what is happening and how to covey it to others without tripping the angelic restrictions.
“You know,” Silverlake began, “Panaxeth’s escape does not necessarily have to be for real.”
Zorian gave her a strange look.
“The contract we’re under says we just have to let Panaxeth out of the seal and our job is done,” she continued. “If the primordial is resealed immediately afterwards, even if we are the ones who do it, the contract will not punish us.”
“That just shows how utterly confident Panaxeth is in being able to handle everything, including all of us combined, once it is out of the cage made by the gods,” Zorian told her. “Don’t tell me actually think you can seal it back in?”
“I’m not sure you know this, but the gods placed numerous contingencies on Panaxeth’s prison, and on the prisons of all trapped primordials for that matter,” Silverlake said. “The moment he gets out, Panaxeth will get seriously weakened. Even the primordial is not sure how badly the contingencies will hurt him. If Panaxeth was at the peak of his powers, I would obviously be a fool to try and fight him, but if he’s weakened badly enough it is entirely possible. Hell, those cultists trying to take control of Panaxeth? Maybe they’re not as dumb as we thought they are. They’ve overestimated their mind magic capabilities, yes, but if they had a master telepath and his hundreds of aranean friends–”
“No,” Zorian told her.
“It was just a thought,” Silverlake said easily, not arguing him over it. “An idle thought. I don’t really think us mere mortals could seriously control en entity on the level of Panaxeth, but perhaps we might be able to muddle his thoughts and hinder him long enough to push him back into the seal. Wouldn’t that be nice? Me and Red Robe… sorry, Jornak… I still can’t believe that little shit lied to me about something so petty… and that I fell for it…”
Zorian gave her an annoyed look as she started muttering to herself again and she cackled at him in response. Some habits were hard to break, it seemed, even if she had suddenly regained her youth.
“Anyway, if you agree to this, then this whole conflict could be avoided. We get to weasel out of our contract and the primordial would still be sealed at the end of the month, which means that part of the angelic contract will be fulfilled, at least. We no longer have any reason to fight you or support the invasion. Happy ending for everyone!”
“I know I’ve been quiet throughout this entire meeting, but surely you didn’t forget I’m standing right here, listening to you?” Quatach-Ichl asked her, raising his eyebrow at him. “This ending of yours certainly isn’t happy for me. And if I’m not happy, no one is going to be happy.”
Silverlake clacked her tongue before giving Jornak a look of distaste.
“I told you we shouldn’t have invited him along,” she told him loudly. “What good is he here, anyway?”
“Actually, that reminds me of something I’ve been wondering about for a while now,” Zorian spoke up, butting in on their argument. “Namely, why is Quatach-Ichl going along with this?”
The ancient lich gave him a curious look. “What do you mean?”
“Shouldn’t you want for Jornak to make good on his threats?” Zorian asked him. “Why are you here, helping him bring about this truce? Why not purposely sabotage the talks and let Jornak damage Eldemar as much as possible. That’s what you’re here for, no?”
“Ha,” Quatach-Ichl said. “No, not exactly. I’m trying to push the continent into something more favorable for Ulquaan Ibasa, not cause widespread chaos and uncertainty.”
“Oh, right. I remember now. You’re trying to install Falkrinea as the local hegemon,” Zorian said loudly, pretending he was just loudly thinking. He made a couple of ‘random’ gestures with his hands, which he hoped would look completely incomprehensible to everyone except Quatach-Ichl. It was something he learned while traveling through Xlotic with Zach and Neolu, and should be completely opaque to anyone who has never been there. “Still, weakening Eldemar and the surrounding countries can only help you in that regard.”
“You seem to know a fair deal about me,” Quatach-Ichl noted, giving him a searching look. “We must have interacted pretty heavily in the past. Interesting, considering we seem to essentially be natural enemies. Anyway, I don’t think I agree with you on this. Let’s just leave it at that. Besides, why are you trying to convince me that I should start another continental war right now? Shouldn’t that be against your goals?”
“I was just curious,” Zorian said, before falling silent.
Jornak and Silverlake gave them both suspicious looks, faintly aware that something more had been said between the lines of that conversation, before shrugging it off and continuing with the negotiation.
The meeting lasted for another hour, most of which was spent of making vague (and not-so-vague) threats towards one another, but eventually they reached an agreement of sorts.
There would be a truce. How long it would last, Zorian wasn’t sure. He would be first to admit that he intended to dishonor it the moment he saw a good chance to do so. He was sure Jornak and Silverlake felt the same way. For the moment, though, open conflict between the two groups was put on hold.
After everyone left, the roof of the academy building remained dark and silent for a while before two people teleported on top again.
One was Zorian.
And the other was Quatach-Ichl.
“So,” the ancient lich began. “What exactly did you invite me here for, Mister Kazinski?”
“I’m going to try and talk you into giving up on this invasion,” Zorian told him bluntly.
Quatach-Ichl raised his eyebrow at him. “Continue,” he told him calmly.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Zorian began, “but your current thoughts are that if the primordial is released and lays waste to out surroundings, the angels are eventually going to stop it before it can do too much damage. After all, you have seen the might of the angels personally, and you are certain they can do it. So unsealing Panaxeth would destroy Cyoria and deal a lot of damage to Eldemar, but it would have no real effect on Ulquaan Ibasa or even the Altazian continent as a whole…”
The ancient lich stared at him silently for a second.
“I’ll repeat what I said earlier… you seem to know a fair deal about me. Curious. Very curious. I wonder just how much help you got out of my… other self. But that’s a topic for later. Yes, that is pretty much how I see the situation. Am I wrong?”
“You are wrong, yes,” Zorian said. “I have summoned an angel and spoke with him. It. Whatever it was.”
He took out the cube out of his pocket and showed it to the lich. He hadn’t had a chance to study the cube yet and deciphered it uses, but he hoped that Quatach-Ichl, being experienced as he was, would be able to recognize it as an angelic artifact anyway.
Quatach-Ichl leaned forward, silently studying the cube in Zorian’s hands. He did not ask to hold it (not that Zorian would have given it to him), but eventually he leaned back and took a deep breath.
“It must have been a pretty high-ranking angel you spoke with,” Quatach-Ichl said, sounding honestly a little impressed. “Then again, considering what kind of situation you are involved in, I supposed it’s to be expected.”
“The angel told me about the contingencies that Silverlake had spoken about earlier. They aren’t just some simple local effect, like a divine warding field or a stored spell,” Zorian said, putting the cube back into his pocket. “They are security measures woven into the core of the world… and triggering them could have effects that would be global in scale. I’m not sure how far-reaching the effects would be, but there is absolutely no guarantee that Ulquaan Ibasa would not be affected.”
Quatach-Ichl frowned at him slightly, not saying anything.
“Just as importantly,” continued Zorian, “if the primordial is released into the world, the angels will be given free rein to descend into the material world and intervene directly to stop the primordial. At that point, they also intend to get rid of all the loose ends wandering around. Like a bunch of people that escape from the time loop into the real world or that one annoying lich that made the whole thing possible to begin with…”
“I see,” Quatach-Ichl said calmly. “You’re saying the angels will go after me if I help release the primordial.”
“Yes,” Zorian confirmed.
The lich stared at him intensely, as if trying to look into his soul to see if he was telling the truth. Zorian’s posture remained relaxed and his eyes stared right back at the undead mage in front of him. He was too old and experienced to be unnerved by something as simple as that.
“I think you’re exaggerating things,” Quatach-Ichl finally said, looking away from him for a moment and thoughtfully tapping his finger against his leg. “Yes, there is certainly a danger of that happening, but angels are laboring under many restrictions. In any case, if I were that skittish about taking chances, I would not be where I am right now. A big part of why being a lich is so great is that you can take crazy risks without dying for good.”
Zorian frowned. Truthfully, he did not really think he could convince Quatach-Ichl to just give up on the invasion and go home… but he didn’t expect the lich to dismiss the threat of angels so readily. Then again, he was right about liches like him being uniquely suited for taking risks. They had their own personal resurrection point. It was almost like being a time looper, in a way.
Oh well. It was worth a try.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Zorian said, shaking his head. He turned to leave.
“You intend to evacuate your loved ones to Koth, at the Taramatula Estate, right?” Quatach-Ichl suddenly asked him.
Zorian jolted into full alertness, spinning around to face the lich. He gave him a shocked, searching look.
“Don’t look at me like that. Silverlake knows about it, so obviously me and that Jornak fellow also know,” Quatach-Ichl told him bluntly. “Don’t do it. Jornak has somehow managed to reverse-engineer my permanent gates within the time loop, the thieving wretch. Even as we speak, he is sending a simulacrum to Koth to build a gate there. If you dump all your people in Koth, they will not be safe – you’ll just place them all in one spot so Jornak can conveniently capture them all in one fell swoop. Then he’ll have a whole bunch of hostages to threaten you with.”
“Why–” began Zorian.
“I don’t like him,” Quatach-Ichl said. “Besides, he’s trying to become the overlord of the entire continent. While I want to say he’s an arrogant idiot who bit off more than he can chew, the truth is that this time loop you all underwent is one hell of a boon. If he’s right about the first emperor of Ikosia using the same method for his ascent to power, then I cannot afford to dismiss his ambitions as a mere delusion. I’d prefer to have him dead by the end of all this, even if that means you emerge victorious as a consequence. At least you and Mister Noveda have no political ambitions.”
“And if that causes your own invasion to fail?” Zorian asked curiously.
“You agreed to this truce partially because you know you still have a good chance to win, even if you take a handicap like that,” the lich said. “I believe the same about my chances. We’ll see each other on the battlefield, Mister Kazinski.”
Before Zorian could say anything else, Quatach-Ichl was gone.
- break -
Not long after the end of the meeting, Zorian went to meet with Spear of Resolve. Part of that was to inform her of what had happened there – although it was decided she would not participate in the talks, she was still a crucial part of their forces and someone who knew about the time loop. Additionally, she and her aranea normally constantly pressured the invaders and their cranium rat allies, so it was important he told her about the truce as soon as possible.
However, if anyone from their group were to see them at the moment, they would be shocked at what they were seeing. Zorian and Spear of Resolve were not meeting each other in the dark tunnels beneath Cyoria – instead, they were walking through the Cyoria’s main square in plain view of everyone. Throngs of people of all ages wandered around the place, laughing and talking and arguing, but none of them paid much attention to a teenager and a huge jumping spider walking beside him. Some of them glanced curiously at Spear of Resolve – it was clear they could see her – but then they just continued on their merry way, completely unconcerned by the giant spider wandering around the town square.
Some children running past them accidentally dropped a ball near her and she deftly stopped it with her long, hairy leg – those spider limbs were more dexterous than Zorian gave them credit for – and lightly sent it back to them. They awkwardly thanked her for returning the ball to them and then ran off while loudly arguing about something completely unrelated.
“This is an interesting experience,” Spear of Resolve commented, watching them fade into the throng of people surrounding them. She was talking vocally this time, making use of a sound spell, rather than speaking to him telepathically. “Anyway, back to our current topic… no, I don’t think there was anything else you could have done. You could have just refused the truce, of course, but I have no doubt our enemy would have done as he promised. Personally, I am glad that crisis has been temporarily averted.”
“Why?” Zorian gave her a curious look. “None of the threats would really affect you and your web.”
“The wraith bombs terrify me,” Spear of Resolve confided. “I had the misfortune to meet one of those things once. They can pass through solid stone and they only have to brush against you to do serious damage. They aren’t immune to mind magic, thankfully, but they are highly resistant to it. Having hundreds, or even thousands of those things prowling around through Cyoria’s underworld would essentially guarantee our extinction.”
“Ah,” nodded Zorian. “Yes, that makes sense.”
“Still, while I’m glad we delayed a disaster, that’s all this is. A delay. Even if the truth holds, we still must figure out a way to counter his threats before the end of the month,” Spear of Resolve continued. “I’m sure you realized this, but this man is guaranteed to use these things in the end, no matter what deal was struck.”
A massive flock of pigeons suddenly flew overhead. Some of the birds flew low, speeding right past Zorian and other nearby people, narrowly swerving left and right to avoid hitting anything. People around them stopped and pointed, animatedly discussing the disruption, but Zorian and Spear of Resolve just kept walking.
Eventually, the two of them left the town square and walked into a nearby street. They entered into a nearby restaurant and decided to sit down for a while. Of course, the chairs were designed for humans and not very convenient for Spear of Resolve. Thus, they called the staff and got them to place a stack of wooden boards on top of the seat, so that the aranea could stand on them and still be high enough to interact with the table (and Zorian) properly.
“So,” Zorian then began. “How many aranea in your web know about the time loop, anyway?”
“Pretty much all of them,” Spear of Resolve said, curiously tinkering with the plate, metal utensils, and glass placed in front of her.
Zorian sighed heavily. “Of course.”
“Sorry,” she told him. She didn’t sound very sorry, in all honesty. “Word spreads around fast among us. Especially if it’s something so strange like time travel. It was inevitable that it would become known by everyone by now.”
“What if you asked them to subject themselves to memory modification?” Zorian asked.
Spear of Resolve was silent for a while.
“It would be… difficult,” she eventually said.
“But possible?” Zorian asked hopefully.
“Potentially possible,” she admitted reluctantly. “There have been events where the entire web agreed to have memories of a certain incident erased for this or that reason. It is always a controversial decision, however. I would have to burn through a lot of social capital to make it happen. And for what? As things currently stand, our sacrifice will not save your friend. What about that unkillable lich that you never really managed to kill? What about Xvim and Alanic? What about you? I don’t think it’s fair to ask this of us.”
“I’ve talked to Xvim and Alanic,” Zorian said. “They are… not entirely opposed to losing some of their memory in the end. I think they could be convinced to go along with it in the end.”
“That still leave the lich and you as the huge, looming issues,” the matriarch remarked.
“Yes, that’s true,” Zorian agreed. “Incidentally, what about me? Do you think–”
“No,” Spear of Resolve immediately said. “I’ve seen your thoughts. You are practically defined by this experience of being stuck in the time loop. You spent as much time inside as you did out of it. In my opinion, no one can erase your knowledge of the time loop without metaphorically taking a sledgehammer to your mind. I really wouldn’t recommend it.”
“I see,” Zorian said quietly. Part of him was relieved to hear that. He really didn’t like the idea of losing such a massive chunk of his memories for any reason.
But how can they save Zach, then? Was Panaxeth really right in saying that one of them would have to die?
He was far more selfish than Zach, he realized. Zach had already decided to die if it means he has to kill Zorian in order to live. If the situation was reversed, Zorian wasn’t sure he could accept his own approaching death so easily.
He was quiet for a few seconds, lost in thought, before shaking his head and focusing on Spear of Resolve again. She was quietly studying him with her large, pitch black eyes, still standing on the stack of wooden boards that the staff of the restaurant placed on her chair.
The nearby waitress asked her if she wanted something to drink, undaunted by the fact she was talking to a giant spider, but the matriarch politely refused her.
“Anyway,” Zorian suddenly said, sweeping his hand around them. “What do you think about all of this?”
“What, the city and the restaurant?” Spear of Resolve asked. Zorian nodded. “It’s nice. Novel.”
“Nothing jumps out of you?” he asked with interest.
“You mean, other than the fact people around us are ridiculously accepting of me?” the matriarch asked rhetorically. “Well, there are a few minor details here and there. The vibrations I’m sensing through my feet do not quite match up with what I’m used to, and it’s sometimes obvious that the conversations in the background are pure gibberish if you listen to them closely, but otherwise it all looks very convincing.”
“Recreating exotic senses like your tremor sense is a pain in the ass,” Zorian admitted. “I did my best, but I’m not surprised I didn’t quite succeed.”
“I’m honestly shocked that you managed to make all this so convincing to my aranean senses,” the matriarch said. “It’s not just a matter of mind magic skill – you must have a very firm grasp of our perspective of seeing the world to succeed at this. I’m guessing you read many, many aranean minds inside the time loop.”
“I actually shapeshifted into an aranea a bunch of times, just to really see what it was like,” Zorian said.
“Ah. Maybe I should try that and be a human for a day,” Spear of Resolve mused. “I’m betting it would be an unforgettable experience. Anyway, why don’t we stop here for today?”
“Fine,” Zorian agreed. “Truthfully, I’m starting to get a little mentally tired from maintaining this for so long.”
Without warning, the world around them blurred and melted, like it was falling apart at the seams. In only a few moments, the two of them found themselves sitting on the cold stony floor of a small cavern in Cyoria’s underground.
The city and the people in it were gone, like they never existed.
Indeed, that was what happened. Everything they saw had literally happened all in their heads. It was nothing but a mental illusion that Zorian had summoned around them.
“It’s still going to need some work if you really want to use it in the way you hope to,” Spear of Resolve remarked.
“I know,” Zorian agreed. “I’m going to need your help with this.”
“That won’t be a problem,” the matriarch said. “Maybe I’m not powerful enough to directly confront our enemies, but this is exactly my sort of problem. I assure you, I am very good at mind magic.”
They talked for a few more minutes before Zorian decided it was time to go home for the day. It had been a long day and he had to sleep on things before he could consider how to go forward.
“One moment, please,” the matriarch said before he could leave. “I understand the logic regarding my vulnerability to enemy action and I agree it is wisest for me to stay in the safety of our settlement for now… but I am a little unsatisfied with a current state of communication. No offense, but I’m not entirely comfortable being totally reliant on you for all contact between us.”
“So…?” Zorian asked curiously.
“So I decided to assign you a liaison,” she said.
“A liaison?” Zorian repeated. “I… guess that’s fine, yes.”
“Great. I’ll go call her right now. I’m sure you’ll get along perfectly,” Spear of Resolve said with a trace of humor in her voice.
Before he could say anything, a smallish aranea excitedly skittered into the room, jumped right next to him and then excitedly started circling around him, thoroughly checking him out.
[Hi, hi!] A cheerful, bubbly voice suddenly sounded in his mind. [I’m Enthusiastic Seeker of Novelty, but you can just call be Novelty! Do you want to be my friend?]