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Chapter 099
Powderkeg

Arranging a meeting with Daimen was easy this time. Not that it had ever been truly difficult to do that, but after learning the basics of the local language and customs over the restarts, the task had become totally trivial. He just had to approach the Taramatula in the right way, and they didn’t even bother trying to turn him away – they went to fetch Daimen after only a few minutes of convincing, leaving Zorian to wait at the entrance.

He was currently flipping through Daimen’s notebooks to pass the time, ignoring the strange looks given to him by the gate guards. The notebook was coded, but that couldn’t stop Zorian at all. With his mental enhancements active, he could decode the text in an instant, so long as he knew the key. Not that there was anything really interesting recorded in the notebooks. Daimen had written those in consultation with Zorian, so this was more about Zorian reminding himself what they put in there than discovering something new and exciting. He thought about trying to strike up the conversation with the guards currently observing him, but he knew from previous experience they weren’t the talkative sort. It didn’t help that his grasp of the local language was pretty shaky still.

After a while, Zorian flipped through the last of the notebooks he had brought along and closed it shut. He impatiently rocked back and forth in place, taking in the sights around him through his various senses. In his mind sense and soul sense, the bees coming and going from the Taramatula estate looked like streams of tiny glittering stars.

Pretty. He turned his back towards the gate and observed the wall of plant life surrounding the estate. He had been here many times in the past, but he had rarely paid much attention to the lands surrounding the place. Ignoring the guards and their alarmed inquiries about where he was going, he promptly wandered off into the wilds and started exploring.

The jungle surrounding the Taramatula estate was kind of beautiful, he realized. No doubt a large part of that was deliberate design by the Taramatula, but still. There were paths cut into the vegetation to make the area more accessible to humans, and flowers were everywhere. Zorian followed the paths with no particular purpose in mind, mentally repelling snakes and biting insects whenever they got too close to him. No large predatory animals bothered him. The Taramatula had probably cleared them all out from the vicinity of their home.

Eventually he stopped walking, staring at a particularly large white flower that had a great many bees swarming over it. A voice sounded from behind him not long afterwards.

“It really is you. Damn it, Zorian, couldn’t you have waited at the entrance just a little bit? If you wanted to look at bees, there are like a million of them inside the estate…”

It was Daimen, of course. Zorian slowly turned around, observing his eldest brother with a complex expression. Interacting with people he had gotten to know as temporary loopers before the end was always rather uncomfortable, and never was this as true as it was right now. The last time he saw Daimen, his brother had sacrificed himself to ensure Zorian could get out of the time loop alive.

Xvim had sacrificed himself too, of course. So had many other temporary loopers. However, Daimen’s choice to burn his whole life force to stabilize the passage into the real world had left a particularly deep impression on Zorian because… it was Daimen. He would have never expected his eldest brother to sacrifice himself for him.

He had never completely forgiven Daimen for what happened in his childhood, he realized. Interacting with his eldest brother in the time loop, he grudgingly came to accept he was being kind of petty and that he needed his brother’s help, but a part of him would always see Daimen as an enemy. Now that part of him was angry and upset, because he realized he owed a life debt to Daimen now. Even if the Daimen in front of him knew nothing of it, Zorian knew he could never pretend it wasn’t real.

“What?” Daimen demanded. He sounded pretty annoyed. “Why are you staring at me like that?”

“We haven’t seen each other in a while, but I feel like I saw you only days ago,” said Zorian after a second of pause.

“Ha! Yes, your big brother is just as handsome and dashing as always,” Daimen said, puffing his chest in an exaggerated manner. He then gave Zorian a scrutinizing look. “You’ve certainly changed, though.”

Like always, Daimen doubted his identity upon their first meeting. Quite sensible, considering the distances he would have to traverse just to end up here.

“Yeah, well, people change rapidly during their teenage years,” Zorian commented calmly.

“No, it’s more than that,” Daimen said, shaking his head. “Even your posture is different. You look calmer. More confident.”

“Confident?” Zorian asked incredulously. He felt anything but confident at the moment. He was under a tremendous amount of stress at the moment.

“Yeah,” Daimen said. “It seems the academy has been a good influence on you.”

He looked around until he spotted a nearby fallen tree and then casually waved his hand at it. A bust of wind immediately blew away all the dirt and leaves on top of it, after which Daimen plopped down on the tree with a heavy sigh. He then gave Zorian a piercing look.

“Why are you here, Zorian?” he asked. “Actually, scratch that. How are you here?”

“Teleportation,” Zorian said. In reality he had opened a dimensional gate straight to Koth, but it was best to keep that secret for now. “I got someone to transport me directly to you.”

“Transport you directly… Zorian, do you have any idea how dangerous that is!?” Daimen spluttered at him.

“Of course I do,” Zorian told him. “It’s just that I had no choice but to do this. I had to talk to you as soon as possible.”

Daimen stared at him for a few seconds, discreetly casting a few divination spells at Zorian and considering something. Zorian patiently waited for him to finish and pretended he didn’t notice the divination spells directed at him.

“You’re in trouble, aren’t you?” Daimen finally asked with a long-suffering a sigh.

“Yes,” Zorian admitted. “Big trouble.”

“I knew it,” Daimen said flatly. “Damn it, Zorian… this is the sort of thing I’d expect out of Fortov, not you. Alright, just… tell me what you have gotten yourself into and I’ll see how I can help you. But you owe me big time for this! How did you get enough money to pay for teleportation here, anyway? You didn’t steal from Mother and Father, did you?”

“No, I have plenty of money,” Zorian said, shaking his head.

Daimen swore under his breath. He seemed even more displeased with that idea than with Zorian stealing money from his family. I guess he assumed Zorian must have gotten the money illegally.

Which, now that he thought about it, was pretty much correct. He got most of his current funds by stealing it from the invaders, after all.

“Anyway, my issue is that invaders from Ulquaan Ibasa and the cultists of the Dragon Below are going to jointly invade Cyoria on the night of the summer festival in order to release the primordial trapped beneath the city and harvest the souls of everyone living in the city,” Zorian summarized.

Daimen gave him a strange look.

“What?” he asked with an incredulous laugh.

“Ulquaan Ibasa, the isle of the exiles, is invading Cyoria through a permanent dimensional portal hidden beneath the city,” Zorian said.

“A-ha,” Daimen said slowly.

“Much of the city’s leadership has been subverted by the Esoteric Order of the Celestial Dragon, better known as the Cult of the Dragon Below. They are working together with the Ibasans to keep the invasion preparation secret and will directly aid them when they actually invade the city,” Zorian continued.

“I see,” Daimen said, giving him a sour look. “You are definitely Zorian. Only he would come here with such a ridiculous story. A real imposter would surely cobble together a far more convincing scheme than this.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Zorian told him calmly. “Anyway, I don’t really expect you to do much about the invasion itself. That whole situation is kind of beyond you. Unfortunately, the invaders know I’m one of the chief people opposing them, so they’re going to go after you and the Taramatula to get leverage over me. That’s why I hurried over here like this. I had to warn you before it was too late.”

Daimen suddenly frowned, becoming a little more serious.

“Zorian, this isn’t funny,” Daimen protested severely.

“I know,” Zorian sighed. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for getting you into this mess. All I can do is offer you information, and maybe shelter, if you need one. Though convincing Taramatula to evacuate their ancestral estate and leave it at the mercy of the invaders is probably a tall order, so…”

“You know what? I don’t have time for your bullshit,” Daimen told him, anger and annoyance mixing in his voice and posture. He got up from his seat and dusted himself off. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be going back to my work. When you’re ready to have a serious talk, we can–”

Zorian took out the imperial orb out of his jacket pocket and held it in front of him, in plain view of Daimen.

Daimen froze at the sight, staring dumbfounded at the orb for several seconds.

“Is that…?” he began.

“It’s the imperial orb, yes,” Zorian nodded. “Sorry about that. I know you’ve been looking for it for a while now, but I have dire need of it.”

“What? Why…” Daimen said in an uncomprehending manner, unable to accept what he was seeing.

“Considering my earlier story, it should be self-explanatory why I need it,” Zorian noted.

“Not that! I mean… aargh!” Daimen groaned. “How did you get that!? Why do you have that? This doesn’t make any sense!”

“Here,” Zorian said, reaching into his jacket pocket again and handing Daimen the notebooks he had written for himself during the time loop. “Read this and things will hopefully make more sense.”

Daimen quickly snatched the notebooks out of Zorian’s hands before giving the imperial orb an intense look. He then snatched the imperial orb as well before retreating back to his log to study them both. Zorian let the orb go, unconcerned. Daimen was a great mage, but he was no Quatach-Ichl. If Zorian wanted to get the orb back, he could do so at any time, regardless of Daimen’s wishes.

Daimen flipped through the notebooks with one hand while fondling the imperial orb in the other, occasionally muttering to himself in a low voice.

“What? This can’t be right… oh, I remember this one. I was going to check this in the next few months… how does he even know this?” Daimen muttered. “Wait a minute…”

He suddenly shut up and started pacing like a caged tiger, reading a particular passage. He eventually spun in place and turned towards Zorian in an aggressive manner.

“What is this!?” he demanded. “Did… did I write this?”

“Yes,” Zorian confirmed.

“But… I don’t remember ever writing this,” Daimen frowned.

“Yes,” Zorian agreed.

“Don’t you ‘yes’ at me!” Daimen protested. “Give me an explanation!”

“I can’t,” Zorian said, shaking his head.

“Oh come on, do you seriously expect me to believe you have no idea how this came to be?” Daimen said, waving the notebook in front of Zorian’s face.

“I know how the notebooks came to be, of course,” Zorian said. “I even helped you write them. It’s just that I can’t give you an explanation.”

“You… helped me write these?” Daimen asked, looking at him strangely. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. “No, ignore that question. Why can’t you give me an explanation?”

“Because lives depend on it,” Zorian told him. “I know I’m asking a lot here, but please trust me on this. The consequences of me telling you these things would be truly dire. My friend could die. I could die. The whole city of Cyoria could die.”

“That thing again,” Daimen frowned at him. “This… invasion of yours.”

“In the end, everything comes back to that,” Zorian confirmed, nodding. “Oh, and give me back the imperial orb, please.”

He stretched out his hand towards Daimen, observing his reaction. Daimen glanced at the imperial orb in his hand, and then back at Zorian again, his expression deep in thought for a moment.

Then he thrust the orb back into Zorian’s outstretched hand and returned to his log, flipping through the notebooks again.

“I don’t want to believe this, but there is so much stuff here,” Daimen eventually said, his voice a little more subdued. “These notebooks… they represent years of work, and I remember nothing of it. Did I really lose years of my life somehow? It couldn’t be. I would have notice something like big, there is no way you can rip out such vast swathes of someone’s memory without completely messing them up!”

“As I said, I can’t talk about that,” Zorian told him.

“I can’t accept that,” Daimen said, not taking his eyes of the notebook he was reading.

Zorian ignored him.

“You’re in danger,” he told Daimen. “You and the Taramatula both. Originally I intended to evacuate my friends and Kirielle here to shelter them from the attack and unfortunately the enemy got their hands on that information. Now they intend to attack this place to get their hands on some hostages to pressure me with. You need to alert the Taramatula and prepare yourself for the incoming attack, okay?”

Truthfully, Zorian could simply destroy Red Robe’s simulacrum once it arrives to Koth, ending the possibility of the threat that way. However, he did not want to do that. As callous as it was, he felt that making Red Robe waste all his time and mana on this was preferable to him scrapping the plan entirely and trying to get him in some other fashion. A predictable threat was better than a completely unknown one.

“So this invasion of yours is so powerful their reach extends all the way to Koth as well?” Daimen asked him, looking at him like he’s an idiot.

“I already told you they have access to permanent gates, so why does this surprise you?” Zorian asked, giving him the same look back. “They only need one person to build a gate and they can shuffle their forces to and from any place on the globe.”

“And what do you mean you wanted to evacuate Kirielle here, isn’t she with Mother and Father?” Daimen continued, ignoring Zorian’s remark.

“No, she’s with me,” Zorian said.

Daimen made a show of looking around, even peering beneath the log he was sitting on. Zorian rolled his eyes at him.

“I left her in Cyoria, of course,” Zorian told him.

“You left her alone while you travel to Koth?” Daimen asked flatly, sounding very unamused.

“Calm down,” Zorian told him. “It’s only for a few hours.”

“What? What do you mean ‘for a few hours’?” Daimen protested. “Traveling to Koth takes days, even with teleportation!”

“We’ll discuss that later, okay?” Zorian tried.

“No, we can’t discuss that later! This whole thing is insane and quite frankly I’m starting to question if you’re even actually Zorian!” Daimen said, giving him a heated glare. “My brother is fifteen years old and there is no way he would involve himself with something like this. In fact, even if he wanted to get involved, he doesn’t have the skills to do so! Who are you really and what did you do to Zorian?”

Zorian was silent for a moment. It was a good question, really. In truth, the real Zorian had died at the start of the month. He had stolen his body and identity, letting his soul move on to the afterlife. Daimen wasn’t actually wrong to think of him as an imposter.

If the Daimen in front of him knew the truth, would he consider him his real brother or would he do his best to avenge the real Zorian? Temporary looper Daimen felt that sacrificing his life so that Zorian could replace the original was right and proper, but this Daimen might not agree.

It was amusing, Zorian thought to himself bitterly. Years ago, he wouldn’t have given a damn about what Daimen thought of him and his choices. Now he found himself dreading his judgment, should his eldest brother ever find out the truth.

“The notebook in your hand,” said Zorian, pointing his finger at the book Daimen was tightly clutching in his hands, “is proof that things have happened which you have no memory of. Therefore, should it really surprise you that I am also not how you remember me? I could show you some skills you taught me. Minor things, but things should be immediately obvious as your own magical insights. Would that convince you?”

“I need an explanation,” Daimen insisted, clutching the notebook in his hands so tightly his fingers turned white from blood loss.

“I’ll give you one at the end of the month,” said Zorian. “After the summer festival.”

It was amusing. Zorian had used this excuse so many times in the past, while he was still inside the time loop. The only difference was that, back then, this offer meant he didn’t really have to explain anything. The loop would restart before the deadline was reached.

“After this invasion of yours,” Daimen noted shrewdly.

“Yes. As I said, lives depend on it,” Zorian insisted.

“You expect me to help you out for a mere promise of an explanation after the deed is done?” Daimen asked him.

“No,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “All I want is for you to take my warning seriously and to make sure the Taramatula do the same. So long as you survive the month and protect your fiancée’s family from the invaders, I will consider this a success.”

Daimen stared at him angrily for a few seconds, before rising from his log again.

“Let’s go,” he told Zorian.

“Go where?” Zorian asked, taken aback at the statement.

“To Cyoria,” Daimen said matter-of-factly. “You’re going back there now, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” Zorian admitted. “So you want to go with me?”

“I need to confirm things personally,” Daimen said. “And check up on Kirielle, just in case. Let’s go.”

“Just like that?” Zorian asked for confirmation.

“Is there a problem?” Daimen asked, frowning at him.

“Well, aren’t your fiancée and her family going to freak out if you suddenly disappear for a few days?” Zorian told him, cocking his head sideways. “I mean, surely you want to explain things to them before we set off.”

Of course, Zorian could just get him back to Koth in a few hours, but Daimen didn’t really know he could open a Gate between continents at will…

Sure enough, Daimen’s eyes widened in sudden realization and he slapped himself in the forehead a few times.

“Focus, focus…” he mumbled to himself. “Alright, so we’re going to put the journey on hold for now. I… need to talk to a few people first.”

* * *

In the depths of the Ziggurat of the Sun taken over by the sulrothum, a strange meeting was taking place. Zach and Zorian stood before a huge stone dais that contained this tribe’s sacred fire. The high priest and his honor guard stood in front of the fire, looking down at the two arrivals. The massive bonfire writhed and crackled in a strange, somewhat ominous manner, casting light and shadows alike on the surrounding walls.

Both sides silently scrutinized each other for a full minute before the sulrothum high priest decided to break the ice.

“Welcome, guests,” the high priest said. “We have been expecting you.”

“You have?” Zorian asked curiously.

That was quite unusual, since their visit here was completely unannounced.

“The angels have informed us of your coming,” the high priest told them.

Of course. Zorian had kind of expected that, to be honest. Funnily enough, the angels were not nearly as willing to contact human organizations to help them out. For example, Zach and Zorian had been in secret talks with the Triumvirate Church representatives, and at no point did the angels contact the Church hierarchy to make the negotiations go more smoothly. But a random sulrothum tribe in the middle of the Xlotic desert merited them sending actual instruction? Just what made this tribe of devil wasps so special, anyway?

“Did they inform you why we were coming?” Zach asked them.

“You’re here to ask for help, of course,” the high priest said easily. “A great battle is about to take place, pitting the allies of heaven against an ancient evil.”

“Well… yeah, that’s what we’re here for,” Zach admitted after a second.

“We accept,” the high priest immediately said.

“Just like that?” Zach asked incredulously, arching his eyebrow.

“What more is there to say?” the high priest asked rhetorically. “Only cowards would shirk from this kind of battle. To fight and die in the name of heaven is glorious. Surely you understand this? I can sense the mark of the angels shining bright on you.”

“The mark of heaven…” Zach said sourly. “Yay. What an honor.”

The high priest’s multifaceted eyes stared at Zach for a second, antennae twitching, trying to interpret his statement.

“Children often do not understand the importance of what their parents try to teach them,” the high priest eventually remarked.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Zach asked, annoyed.

“Just a random remark,” the sulrothum high priest said, waving his hand in front of him dismissively. A very human gesture. Zorian wondered if sulrothum really did that, or if the high priest was familiar enough with human customs to mimic their habits. “I just realized you are quite young in human terms.”

“We thank you for your help from the bottom of our hearts,” Zorian quickly said, cutting Zach off from continuing the pointless argument. “If it’s all right with you, we’d like to discuss battle plans.”

“Let’s,” agreed the high priest.

* * *

In a small, out-of-the-way alley on the outskirts of Cyoria, simulacrum number two was painting a picture on a wall. It was a small, abstract picture the size of a human head, vaguely resembling an eyeball if one viewed it from the right angle.

To a casual observer, the painting would likely look like a random graffiti, the likes of which were quite common in Cyoria. The city was crawling with young beginner mages, after all, and they often used their newly gained magic skills to vandalize the walls of nearby buildings. Painting spells were beginner stuff, and nearly every mage was capable of using them.

But the painting was more than just idle amusement. So much more. After half an hour, the simulacrum carefully connected the last two lines of the drawing, causing a faint blue sigil to momentarily flash into existence within the painting, before quickly fading away from sight.

After observing his handiwork for a few more seconds, the simulacrum placed his hand on the painting, activated the spell formula hidden within it, and then dived into it with his mind.

Almost immediately, a sea of glowing suns popped into existence inside his mind, connected by a dense web of light. His mind raced from one sun to the next, his mind sense and telepathy manifesting itself throughout the whole network. There were sigils like this one scattered throughout most of the city by now, and through them, Zorian’s mind powers could envelop nearly all of Cyoria. Every building, every street was within his reach. He could see and invade anyone and anything, from the lowest pigeon to the most high-ranking mage…

He quickly retracted his mind from the sigil, afraid he would get noticed by someone. This had to stay absolute secret. No one, not even his closest allies, was allowed to know about the sigil network.

Taking one last look at the painting, simulacrum number two nodded to himself and wandered off to place more sigils elsewhere. Some of these paintings were bound to be found and erased by the city authorities and building owners, so it best if he had some spared scattered around.

“99 telepathy nodes on the wall, 99 telepathy nodes… take one down, wipe it away, 98 telepathy nodes on the wall…” the simulacrum hummed to himself.

He had lots of work to do today.

* * *

In of the empty academy classrooms, Zorian and Tinami sat facing each other, both silent.

Well, for a few moments, at least.

“Are you serious?” Tinami asked incredulously. “You can connect me with the legendary aranea?”

“I’m not sure I would call them ‘legendary’,” Zorian remarked. “They’re more common than you’d think, and a bit underwhelming once you get to know them. But yes, I can indeed do that.”

He had gotten to talk to Tinami the same way he did in the past – by answering her call to have someone help her practice her telepathy skills. Naturally, the moment she experienced his innate mental skills, she wanted to know how she got them, and that quickly led the conversation to the topic of aranea.

The point of all this, of course, was to get House Aope involved in preparations for the invasion. They had shown themselves to be quite resourceful and capable the one time he and Spear of Resolve had brought them into the whole invasion conspiracy. The awful, catastrophic outcome of that restart aside, the Aope had played their part perfectly.

Hopefully the rumors of House Aope being bad luck were just superstitious nonsense and history wouldn’t really repeat itself like that, right? After all, House Aope couldn’t have reached its current status if it was really cursed…

Paranoia aside, he was taking quite a risk by interacting with Tinami like this. Not because he thought House Aope would mess up their invasion preparations or anything like that, but because of the attention it would bring to him personally. Officially, Zorian was just connecting Tinami and House Aope with the aranea, and anything else they talked about had nothing to do with him. In practice, there was no way the leaders of House Aope would be naïve enough to swallow that story. This was equivalent to putting a giant beacon on top of his head, telling the Aope leadership that he was worth paying attention to. Not exactly conductive for his plans to lay low after this whole thing is resolved.

Still, there was no helping it. The situation was precarious enough that he needed their help if he could get it.

“You know, you’re more interesting than I thought you were,” Tinami remarked, giving him a shrewd look.

“Err, thanks,” Zorian said awkwardly.

“Not that way,” she hurriedly clarified. “What I meant was… you’re venturing into the tunnels beneath the city and taking lessons from giant sapient spiders living there. I never would have guessed you were that… driven.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Zorian said after a short pause.

“It is,” Tinami confirmed. “By the way, how come you’re missing so many classes? You know that looks pretty bad on your record, right? Even if you’re more capable than you look, you should still pay attention to your reputation.”

“Don’t lecture me. You sound like my mother,” Zorian told her. Tinami didn’t seem amused. “Anyway, I’m really busy with something right now and I can’t come to class. I already told my mentor about it and he said it was alright. I should be able to start attending classes again after the summer festival.”

Assuming he was still alive and the city remained standing, that is.

“It’s your life, I guess,” Tinami shrugged. “These meetings… we’ll continue with these, yes?”

“Sure,” Zorian said. “As long as you wish.”

“I get the feeling this is far more to my benefit than yours,” Tinami noted.

“Kind of,” Zorian agreed. “But I am learning thing here, so it’s okay. This isn’t a zero sum game.”

He wasn’t even lying. Attending these practice sessions with Tinami would hopefully clue him in on what kind of skill level was considered normal among human mind mages. He had a feeling that would be crucial information in the near future.

Tinami gave him a weird look when he said that, though.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said quickly. “Nothing at all.”

* * *

In the skies above Iasku Mansion, a lone iron beak was slowly circling the surrounding forest. The huge flock of iron beaks that guarded the place had long since noticed it, and were watching it carefully, but they did feel a certain level of kinship with a fellow iron beak, even if it was a foreign one, so they did not attack it.

The iron beak was actually Zorian, who had used a potion to shapeshift into the said bird. What he was doing was crazy, but if it could work…

He slowly approached the iron beak flock, probing it with his mind and soul, looking for flock leaders and weak links. Sudomir and the invaders had these iron beaks controlled through blackmail, having sized their nests and subverted their leadership, but the flock had never really submitted totally. It was intelligent enough to recognize blackmail and listen to simple orders, but also smart enough to hold a grudge and plot revenge.

For hours Zorian circled the flock, speaking to them mind-to-mind, subtly subverting the mind magic used by invaders to control iron beak leaders. If it were anyone else doing it, they would have likely made a mistake somewhere and alerted the monster handlers that something was happening and that the flock had gone out of control. But Zorian was good. Too good for the Ibasan monster controllers to detect anything.

As time went by, the iron beak flock paid more and more attention to the thoughts and images being fed into their heads. They were quiet and still, but their eyes shone with increasingly malicious glee.

Soon.

* * *

The day of the summer festival swiftly approached. Most of the preparations were complete, but there was always more that could be done and their actions got ever more frantic and desperate as the deadline approached. Perhaps it was just Zorian’s mind playing tricks on him, but it seemed to him that even uninvolved people, like Imaya and Kirielle, could sense the heavy atmosphere and became more serious as a result.

As the end approached, Zach and Zorian evacuated most of the people close to them out of the city. Having already seen how that sort of thing could go wrong with their original plan to get everyone to Koth, they did not group everyone together at the same place like they had before. Instead they picked five different sanctuaries and distributed people among them. In addition to Xvim, Daimen also got himself involved with the evacuation, drawing on his own connections and experience to make things go more smoothly.

His brother was still not happy with the amount of secrecy Zorian presented him with, but he seemed to realize the seriousness of the situation in the end, and agreed to cooperate with them until the situation was resolved.

After the summer festival was over, however, he was going to come to Zorian for that explanation he was promised. He was quite vocal about that.

Unfortunately, the evacuation wasn’t entirely successful. While most people agreed to go into hiding when told there would be fighting in the city during the summer festival, Taiven and Rea refused to go.

In Taiven’s case, the reason was exactly what Zorian had been afraid of – she thought of it more as an opportunity to prove herself than a dangerous situation to avoid. She was a fully-qualified battlemage, after all. All she needed now was some actual field experience. Zorian understood all that, but he also understood that she was a known friend of his to their enemies, which meant they would be directing far more forces at her than her skills and reputation warranted. Her combat skills, impressive as they were for her age, were not enough.

Was he selfish for not explaining that to her? Probably. If he told her the invaders would be gunning for her because of him, that would raise all sorts of questions about why that is so, and probably lead to her either finding out everything about him or feeling betrayed and hating him forever for it.

But maybe her hating him forever was worth it if it meant she would survive the month…

As for Rea, she was fine with having her daughter and husband out of danger, but she refused to go into hiding herself. Her explanation for this was that she was confident enough in her own combat skills and had to guard their house from looting. They were a very poor family, she said, and their move to Cyoria had exhausted all of their savings. If their house ended up looted or destroyed, they would be utterly ruined.

Zorian was wracking his head about how to talk her into abandoning the house – when Rea ended up inviting him to her house on her own initiative. Zorian was quite surprised at this, as this wasn’t something Rea typically did. Did she somehow catch wind of his own involvement in all this?

When he finally arrived at her place, however, he was greeted with another surprise: there were two more people already there.

One was Haslush, the detective that taught his divination and that he had already recruited into their anti-invasion efforts. He gave Zorian a curious look, but there was no trace of recognition in his eyes. He probably did not suspect Zorian.

The other was, shockingly, Raynie. His classmate was clutching a cup of hot, steaming tea that Rea brought her with pale fingers, a blank expression on her face. She looked terrible.

It took a while for her to wrench herself out of her thoughts and notice someone had arrived, but when she did she gave him a shocked look.

“Zorian? What are you doing here?” Raynie asked.

“I invited him here,” Rea said matter-of-factly.

“Him? He’s the guy you said could help me?” Raynie asked incredulously. “But he’s just a student! What could he possibly do?”

“I have a feeling mister Kazinski here is more than just a student,” said Rea, giving Zorian a knowing look. “In any case, why don’t you tell Zorian what happened so that he knows what he’s dealing with.”

Haslush observed the situation calmly, giving Zorian a thorough look but not saying anything. Zorian was really uncomfortable at the whole situation.

Raynie stared at him questioningly for a few seconds, before she once again lowered her head and stared at her tea cup in a defeated manner.

“My brother has been kidnapped,” she quietly said.

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