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Chapter 100
Sacrifice

Standing in Rea’s home, Zorian ignored the curious gazes leveled at him from Rea and Haslush and kept silent, calmly considering things. A million questions swam through his head. Why were these three gathered in Rea’s house, despite the fact they shouldn’t even know about each other? Why did Rea think he could help in this situation and what were their enemies even thinking when they orchestrated this kidnaping? Was this some kind of strike against him and Zach? Why not go after all of his classmates, then?

Raynie did not give him a lot of time to ponder those questions, though, and took his silence as a sign she should keep going.

“My family doesn’t live in Cyoria, so I didn’t even know it happened at first. It wasn’t until my family discovered some signs the kidnappers might have originated from Cyoria that they contacted me, several days later, and asked me for help,” Raynie explained quietly. “I was shocked. Shocked that it happened, and… umm…”

She fumbled with her words for a few seconds before falling into an awkward silence and lowering her head even further. She looked quite pitiable at the moment.

“That they asked for your help with this?” Zorian tried.

She flinched slightly and gave him a shocked look for a second. Guilt, sadness, and confusion emanated from her in an equal mix. However, she quickly schooled her expression and cleared her throat with a trace of panic.

“Y-Yes, exactly! I’m just an academy student, what can I even do?” She said hurriedly. “I want to help my little brother, of course, but this is way above me! So I… contacted the police about it… and they eventually pointed me at detective Ikzeteri here, who agreed to help. And… here we are, I guess.” She took a deep breath after finishing her explanation and gave Zorian a disbelieving, but slightly hopeful look. “No offense, Zorian, but I’m still not sure how you can help me with this.”

“Neither am I,” Zorian told her honestly.

He could help, of course. How he should go about doing that, however, was something he couldn’t decide on at the moment.

Raynie’s expression immediately dimmed after his admission, but he didn’t let that bother him. He couldn’t ruin all their plans just to assure her everything would be alright.

He glanced at Rea and she glanced back at him, completely unconcerned with whether or not she had judged him wrong. What exactly gave her the confidence that he was someone who could make a difference here? No matter how he wracked his head, he couldn’t figure it out.

“You’re pretty calm about this,” Haslush commented from the side, giving him a shrewd look.

“Panicking wouldn’t help anyone,” Zorian commented, unconcerned with the veiled accusation. That wasn’t enough to prove anything.

“That’s not how people work, but alright,” Haslush said with a light shrug. “I guess you’re just an exceptionally calm person.”

This probably wasn’t a deliberate attack on him and Zach, Zorian decided. While Raynie was one of their classmates, neither of them were very close to her in the time loop. Zorian did feel a certain kinship towards her, due to her messed up family situation, but Silverlake shouldn’t know that. Therefore, Jornak and the rest shouldn’t either.

The fact their enemies kidnapped Raynie’s brother was probably just an accident. Since Zorian sabotaged their efforts to kidnap shifter children in the city of Cyoria and its surroundings, they looked further away for suitable targets. They needed those sacrifices, after all. Without the primordial essence contained in the blood of shifter children, the primordial’s prison couldn’t be cracked opened. In the time loop, the Sovereign Gate could serve as a substitute key, but out here in the real world that wasn’t possible.

As it turned out, Raynie’s brother was one of the children the invaders ended up targeting in their expanded search. Did they even know they were targeting the family of someone who went to class with Zach and Zorian? Then again, even if they did, they may have thought it wouldn’t matter. Raynie’s relationship with her family was not exactly the best. It wouldn’t be out of line to assume she would be glad to have her brother out of the picture.

“I have to say, though, I’m surprised to see you here,” Zorian told Raynie. “I didn’t know you and Rea knew each other.”

In fact, considering her disdain towards cat shifters, he would expect Raynie to purposely stay away from Rea.

“Err, we don’t,” Raynie said, giving Rea an unsure look. “Detective Ikzeteri is the one who brought me here. He thought she might be able to help.”

“We have received reports of a group targeting shifter children some time ago, so we have been in contact with city shifters about the issue,” Haslush clarified, idly studying some kind of metal disc in his hands, flipping it over from time to time. Zorian recognized it as one of the communication devices the cultists and Ibasans sometimes used to coordinate their actions. Apparently the detective hadn’t been sitting idly all this time. “Ms. Sashal was one of the… less adversarial contacts we established during that time. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to bring your classmate here to see if she had some insight into the situation.”

“I’m just a humble housewife, so how could I offer insight into a situation like that?” Rea said with a slight smile, shaking her head lightly. “Still, the mother in me can’t help but empathize with the pain of having your little brother stolen away by some heartless fiends. In another life, that could have been my little Nochka in his place, no?”

She gave Zorian a piercing look, but he just raised his eyebrow at her in response.

“What are you implying?” he bluntly asked after a few seconds.

“I know you are connected to the evacuation effort that has been going on recently, and that it’s not a minor connection either,” Rea told him with an exaggerated sigh. “Your scent is present on almost everyone that has come to talk to me about getting Nochka and the rest of us out of the city. You have several adult friends who all treat you with respect, and even a little deference, more like you’re their leader than a precocious teenager. You are known as a diligent and hard-working student, but you’ve been skipping all your classes for weeks now, doing gods know what.”

‘Stupid cat shifters and their superhuman sense of smell…’ Zorian grumbled internally. He was pretty sure she wouldn’t have gotten suspicious and started connecting things if there were no scent clues to attract her attention.

“Plus, when Ms. Sashal mentioned you, I couldn’t help but notice that your older brother Daimen, who is said to be in Koth, has been very active in the city lately,” Haslush added from the side. He placed the communication disc he was fiddling with in his pocket and focused his full attention on Zorian. “Almost like some kind of emergency has popped up, forcing him to drop whatever he had been doing to rush back to Eldemar, no?”

“Oh come on. Me and my brother almost never interact with one another,” Zorian told him. “You seem to have investigated me, surely you know that much? How would I know anything about what he has been doing?”

“But you do know he’s here in Cyoria right now?” Haslush pressed.

“Of course. He dropped by to let me know he’s in the city. It’s just common courtesy. We are family, after all,” Zorian said with a shrug. He saw no point in telling an obvious lie and pretending he never saw Daimen recently.

“Do you two seriously believe Zorian is some kind of secret agent?” Raynie asked incredulously from the side, her eyes shifting between three of them in rapid succession.

“He definitely knows more than he lets on,” Rea shrugged. “Considering the situation, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try to wring some information out of him. It’s your brother’s life on the line here.”

“It, it doesn’t have to be,” Raynie tried anxiously. “Maybe it’s just a ransom thing and they just haven’t gotten to state their demands. It’s–”

“You’re lying to yourself and you know it,” Rea said, giving her a knowing look. “When a shifter child gets kidnapped, nine times out of ten it’s became the kidnappers want their blood essence. With so much time having passed, it’s a question whether your brother is still alive at this point.”

Raynie paled at the reminder.

“Let’s not be all doom and gloom here. I’m sure her brother is still very much alive,” Haslush hurriedly assured Raynie. “The ritual they are kidnapping all these children for is only due to happen on the night of the summer festival. They need to keep her brother alive for a while yet.”

“Hm. If you say so,” Rea said. “Still, that date is just around the corner. If that’s our deadline, we don’t really have much to work with.”

“Look, what do you even expect of me?” Zorian asked Rea, frowning at her slightly. “I don’t know where any kidnapped children are being kept. Do you think I would just sit on that information if I knew?”

It wasn’t like Zach and Zorian didn’t try to sabotage the primordial release ritual by denying the invaders the needed sacrifices. The problem was that they couldn’t possibly round up every shifter child on the continent and hide them away – no matter how thorough they were, their enemies could always throw a wider net and go after some shifter community that Zach and Zorian didn’t even know about. Jornak had spent decades preparing for this. Zorian suspected the power-mad lawyer would have found the needed sacrifices no matter what they did.

Of course, if Zach and Zorian could locate the place where the shifter children were being kept, he was all for launching a rescue operation. Without the needed sacrifices, Panaxeth couldn’t get free, which would be an automatic win in a sense. It would be worth it to trigger the final battle before the summer festival if they could inflict such a critical blow on their opposition. The problem was that Zorian genuinely had no idea where Raynie’s brother could be helped. It could very well be that those children were being kept on Ulquaan Ibasa, Koth or some other distant place.

They could be anywhere on the planet, so finding them was like searching for a needle in a haystack.

“I don’t know,” Rea admitted. “I know you’re involved with this somehow, but I don’t know in what way. Maybe you really can’t do anything for poor Raynie here, but I’m hoping you can. I know she thinks I’m just a scheming, skulking cat, but I really do want to help her.”

“What!?” Raynie protested. “I don’t–”

“It’s fine,” Rea said with a chuckle, gesturing with her hand towards Raynie to quiet her down. “I get it. There’s too much bad blood between our peoples to let go on a whim. And I get why Zorian here is feeling defensive and denying everything. I suppose it must feel like I led him here into some sort of ambush.”

“Didn’t you?” Zorian asked, raising his eyebrow at her.

“No… well, yes, I guess I kind of did,” Rea admitted. “But considering you’ve been less than honest with me these past few weeks, I think you should be able to stomach a little underhandedness.”

Zorian opened his mouth to defend himself but she raised her palm to stop him.

“I understand,” Rea said. “I’m not angry with you. You wanted to get your sister’s friend and her family out of danger, but you didn’t want to reveal your secrets. I would have probably made the same choice in your place. I’m just curious… was our first meeting really an accident?”

“Yes,” Zorian said easily. From a certain perspective it was true. “I’m not terribly social. If my little sister wasn’t such a giant busybody and insisted I accompany Nochka to her home, the idea would have never occurred to me. Getting Nochka’s bike out of the river so she could stop crying would be enough for me.”

“Oh, is that what really happened?” Rea laughed. “You know, Nochka later told me a bunch of mean boys were trying to take her bike away from her and you chased them off and then escorted her home in case they came back.”

Oops. He should have synchronized stories with Nochka, apparently. He didn’t think it was a big secret!

“Err, of course Nochka’s version is the correct one,” Zorian assured her. “Don’t mind my earlier ramblings, I just got confused for a moment.”

“Sure, sure,” Rea said indulgently. “It was very heroic of you to defend my precious daughter from random ruffians like that…”

For a while, Haslush and Raynie watched them curiously as they talked, not interrupting their interaction. However, while Haslush was a grown man and an experienced detective, Raynie was just a teenager and under a lot of stress at the moment. As such, she soon became impatient.

“You… Zorian can you help me with this or not?” she loudly asked, impatience and frustration in her voice.

Zorian stared at her for a second before opening his mouth to apologize and tell her he was just an academy student and that there was nothing he could do to help her brother…

…but then he shut his mouth and started thinking about something.

It suddenly dawned on him that their enemies may have made a huge mistake when they kidnapped Raynie’s brother.

After a few seconds, he focused back on the redheaded girl staring at him expectantly and stared back straight into her eyes.

“You know what?” he told her. “I actually think there is something I can do. But I’m going to need your help.”

Haslush silently leaned forward, his lazy-looking posture shifting into one of alertness.

“Me?” she asked, taken aback. She shifted in her seat uncomfortably. “But I’m just an academy student.”

“So am I,” Zorian told her. “Here’s what we need to do…”

* * *

In the port city of Luja, there was a small abandoned warehouse. It was a dark, uninviting place – the walls were moldy and crumbling, the floors were full of rat droppings and glass shards from broken bottles, and the windows and doors were crudely barricaded with wooden boards. There were a number of such places in Luja, as it was a large port town where trading companies were starting up and going bankrupt on a regular basis. Most abandoned warehouses would eventually find a new buyer and be fixed up into useable condition, but it wasn’t unusual for places like this to stay unoccupied for months or even years as old owners tried to hold on to it in hopes of getting a better price later.

As it happened though, this particular place held a dark secret. In the back of the warehouse, shielded from view by a mountain of rotting crates and boards, there was a black egg-like object attached to the floor with a mass of root-like tendrils. Spiral lines were etched into the black oval, beginning at the bottom and reaching all the way to the tip. Perceptive individuals would note that the oval almost looked like a giant black flower bulb on the verge of unfolding into a proper flower.

Or maybe a container, patiently waiting for the day it could unleash its contents upon its oblivious surroundings.

Zach, Zorian and Alanic stood some distance away from the black oval, staring at it grimly. They dared not approach, lest they activate the hidden wards and traps strategically placed around it.

“This is the fourth one we found,” Alanic commented. “One in Cyoria, two in Korsa, and now one in Luja. Just how many wraith bombs did these people make?”

“There has to be more than one of these things in Cyoria,” Zorian commented. “There is no way they would place two in Korsa and then leave only one for Cyoria. Korsa is important, but Cyoria is a far more critical location. We just haven’t found the others.”

“There is probably a few in the capital city as well,” Zach said. “Jornak seems to have a downright personal grudge with our country’s leadership. No way would he miss the chance to strike at them at the heart of their power. Plus, considering what he said about Sulamnon and Falkrinea, there’s bound to be a few of these bombs reserved for them as well…”

“We’ll never be able to find more than a fraction of them,” Alanic commented grimly. “This is going to be a disaster. Entire city districts could end up being devoured by wraiths. The cleanup will take years.”

He glanced at Zach and Zorian unhappily, but neither of them said anything. There was nothing to say, really. They knew this as well.

“You still don’t know how to neutralize these things without triggering them?” Alanic asked with a trace of resignation in his voice. He already suspected the answer he was going to get.

Sure enough, Zach and Zorian shook their heads in denial.

“They’re superbly well made,” Zorian told him. “Jornak must have spent ages refining the design in the time loop. Any tampering I can think of will set one off, as well as alert our enemies to our actions. The only way we can deal with these is by employing the same tactics we used on the previous wraith bombs – set up a specialized ward field just outside the bomb’s defensive field and try to contain the wraiths once they’re released. It should be effective, but I obviously haven’t tested it, so…”

“I see,” Alanic said. He turned around towards the wraith bomb again, staring at it as if it that was going to suddenly provide him with some new insights. “You don’t have to waste time on that. I’ll contact the church higher ups and tend them to perform another containment job here. I still say we should trigger these things the moment we find them and deal with the consequences.”

“And I still say we shouldn’t,” Zorian argued back. “These wraith bombs can be harmlessly disarmed. Jornak has a method to do so, I’m sure. I just need to rip it out of his head.”

“You really think you can do that?” Zach asked doubtfully. “We’d have to capture Jornak alive for that to happen. That seems… difficult.”

“These wraith bombs are set to collectively go off the instant Jornak dies, so we want to avoid killing him if at all possible, anyway,” Zorian pointed out. “Not to mention the other surprises he may have left for us in the case of his death. For all his megalomania, he clearly realized there’s a real chance he’s going to lose this conflict and made contingencies to account for it.”

Zach snorted derisively.

“Too many contingencies, if you ask me,” Zach said. “He put so much time into making sure everyone suffers if he loses… what does he even gain out of that? It’s just petty. Sore loser.”

“Well, we were just discussing how we should try to capture him instead of killing him outright,” Alanic noted. “So it’s not just pettiness. But yes, I get the feeling this is more than just about power for Jornak. He wants revenge.”

“Revenge?” Zach asked, surprised. “On who?”

“Everyone,” Alanic said, still staring the black oval in front of them.

The smooth, glossy surface of the object squirmed and shuddered, as if hundreds of worms were moving just beneath the surface, before once again becoming still and quiet. Neither of the three was disturbed at the sight. Wraith bombs did that sometimes. On occasion, one could even see a faint outline of hands and faces on the surface of the oval – leering, maddened, crying, screaming, begging – as if a person was desperately trying to break out from the inside before being forcibly wrenched back into the depths of the device.

“Speaking from personal experience here, maybe?” Zach tried, giving Alanic a curious look.

Alanic didn’t say anything for a second.

“I was a very angry person when I was young,” he eventually said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

All three stayed silent for a few seconds, and Zorian quietly considered the battle-priest’s words. Alanic had never told them about his past, and Zorian had always respected that. Truthfully, he sometimes wondered why the man was so helpful to them in the first place. Did he see then as young troublemakers that needed steered from a dark path, just like someone had once steered him away from one? Or was he simply so discerning that he could accurately judge them with even the slightest exposure? Whatever the answer, Zorian was grateful for the priest’s help and had no desire to open old wounds if he didn’t have to.

As for the priest’s speculation of Jornak’s motivation… well, it could be true. Jornak – the old Jornak, the one that Zorian had talked to in the time loop – was definitely bitter and resentful about having his rightful inheritance stolen away from him. He could see how that could grow and fester once he became a temporary looper and looked into the abyss of corruption and power plays that was Altazian politics.

In the end, it didn’t even matter. No matter what reasons he had, Zorian would still have to defeat him in the end.

“In somewhat unrelated news, Silverlake is gone,” Zorian suddenly spoke up, breaking the silence. “The old Silverlake, that is. She just packed up everything portable out of her hideout and disappeared one day. I don’t have the faintest idea where she left.”

“Do you think she’ll join the battle on our enemy’s side?” Zach asked, frowning.

“No, I doubt it,” Zorian said. “I think she just realized she was being heavily scrutinized by some very powerful forces and got spooked. She’s a coward. No way she would dive into this conflict unless someone arm-twisted her into it, and new Silverlake seemed like she wouldn’t support that.”

“If she’s really going to stay out of this, I’m fine with her going away,” Zach shrugged. “One less thing to worry about.”

“I’ve heard reports that several mercenary companies from the neighboring countries have taken on secretive, well-paid contracts,” Alanic said. “I’m not completely sure but I strongly suspect our enemies have bought themselves some more soldiers from the final battle.”

Zach scowled at the news, uttering a nasty curse. Zorian’s reaction was more restrained, but his face still darkened in response.

“The invaders have in general been getting restless and increasingly reckless as of late. Their preparations might be nearing their end,” Alanic continued, becoming more animated. “What are we waiting for? We should attack now and seize the initiative.”

“Well… the idea was always to be proactive and launch at attack before the day of the summer festival,” Zach said, giving Zorian a questioning look. “However, Zorian keeps stalling, saying he needs more time. So the timing depends on him, really.”

Alanic’s eyes softened a bit at the statement, his posture deflating.

“Ah, the situation with Zach, right?” he asked softly. “Did you find…?”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t find a solution no matter where I looked,” Zorian said with a wooden voice, not a trace of emotion on his face.

“It’s fine,” Zach sighed. “I’ve already come to term with things. I’ve already written my final will and everything.”

“Right. In any case, you’re right. There is no point in waiting anymore. We’re just giving our enemies more time. We’ll attack two days from now, the day before the summer festival. I still have one final idea I want to try,” Zorian said.

“The shifter thing?” Zach asked curiously. “You really think that will work?”

“If it does, it will be a huge success,” Zorian pointed out.

“True,” Zach agreed. “It’s worth a try.”

* * *

Just outside of Cyoria, there was a spherical ritual room made by Zorian and his simulacrums. Everything here was carefully crafted for only one purpose: to power up and enhance one particular divination spell. All of the walls were densely packed with complicated series of lines and endless rows of cryptic sigils, all made from precious metals and rare alchemical materials. The ground was etched with no less than six blood red magical circles, and in the center stood a small golden cube with a seemingly mundane pottery bowl. Hundreds of tiny white stars hung in the air, illuminating the space. These were actually tiny dimensional gates that connected the room to various places in the country and beyond.

Every place that was likely to house the kidnapped shifter children, in Zorian’s opinion.

Currently the ritual room contained Raynie, Haslush, Rea, and three of Zorian’s simulacrums. Two simulacrums were disguised as adult mages, grim and silent, and were here for the sake of pretending this was a secret government operation, rather than something Zorian set up himself. Only one of them would be necessary for the ritual itself, but having two wouldn’t hurt and it would be more realistic for something of this scale to require multiple people to execute.

The last simulacrum looked just like Zorian and pretended to be the original – his job was mostly to stay next to Haslush and Rea and pretend to be normal. Though considering the looks on their faces as they studied the ritual grounds, he felt he mostly failed at that already.

“My, mister Kazinski… I knew you couldn’t be normal, but I have to say I didn’t expect you’re connected to people like this…” Rea said quietly. For the first time since he met her, she didn’t sound confident and in control, and he instead sensed a trace of fear in her voice.

“You have no idea,” Haslush said, his voice quivering. His reaction was even more extreme than Rea’s; he seemed downright horrified by what he was seeing. “More money went into this room than my entire police department gets in a year. And it’s all meant to empower one specific spell that is only useful for this one thing! The whole thing will be useless after today! The extravagance is mind-boggling.”

Simulacrum number one shifted in place, a little uncomfortable. Zorian’s perspective on money was a little skewed, yeah. This could be a real problem in the future, but at the moment he really didn’t care. He’d pay twice this much if he thought it would help.

“You don’t even understand what this room means, do you?” Haslush asked Zorian, giving him a strange look.

“No?” the simulacrum told him uncertainly.

And he really couldn’t. Sure, the room was the best thing he could make on a short notice, which probably made it amazing by regular mage’s standards, but he was sure a country as big and influential as Eldemar could pull this off.

It was kind of funny, really… the original went through so much trouble to make his abilities seem more humble than they were and to attribute his achievements to some nebulous government organization. He’d even succeeded. But in the end, the mere fact he was associated with people like that was enough to alarm and awe Haslush and Rea.

He’d normally get a headache out of this, but he was just a simulacrum and wouldn’t even exist in a couple of house, so imagining Zorian having to deal with this in the future just made him laugh.

“Ah, forget it,” Haslush sighed. “You’re still too young and inexperienced. You’re tangling with some really dangerous stuff, is all I’m going to say.”

“Don’t I know it,” the simulacrum mumbled.

Raynie, on the other hand, was currently sitting in the middle of the ritual room, next to the golden cube and the bowl, taking deep breaths to calm herself. She was chanting some sort of song to herself in a language Zorian’s simulacrum couldn’t recognize. It was probably the language of her tribe. The two disguised simulacrums were also sitting around the cube, forming a triangular formation around it together with Raynie. They were naturally far more calm and collected, and patiently waited for Raynie to psych herself for the upcoming ritual.

The pressure on her was enormous. This ritual would succeed or fail purely based on how she performed. Simulacrum number one was certain his fellow simulacrums would perform their part of the ritual flawlessly, but the core part of the divination ritual was something only Raynie could do… because it was her brother they were trying to track down with the spell.

Divination spells were more effective the more they had to work with. In case of tracking spells, the caster needed something connected to the target. A personal item, a drop of blood, things like that. They were even more effective if the caster was personally connected to the target in some way: if they had personally spoken to the target at some point, if they were friends with them, or if they were married to one another.

As far as connections go, though, there were few things more potent than being literal family: parent and child, brother and sister.

And more potent still was to use literal blood magic to form a resonance between their common bloodline.

Finally, there was the primordial essence that existed in the blood of every shifter. Raynie was already a teenager, so most of that primordial essence was gone, integrated into her body and soul. However, traces of it should remain still. Zorian had spent quite some time with the leaders of the Cult of the Dragon Below, studying their method of releasing Panaxeth, and he knew how they used primordial essence to resonate with the one in the prison and act as a key. The same method could be used to fool any mortal defensive ward or anti-divination method.

Raynie and her brother were siblings. Even if they had never interacted much, the link between them was strong. Blood magic could make it even stronger. They also both had primordial essence in their blood, and that could be used to bypass any form of divination defense the invaders put up around her brother and the rest of the sacrifices.

If the ritual they were about to undertake successfully located Raynie’s brother, Zach and Zorian could liberate all the shifter children the invaders gathered during the past few weeks. Not only did that mean doing a good deed and saving a bunch of children from a gruesome death, it would also irreparably sabotage the Panaxeth release ritual. There was only one day before the summer festival. There was no way that the invaders could gather another batch of sacrifices in that short of a time.

There were a lot of ways the ritual could fail, even if they executed it flawlessly. For one thing, Zorian couldn’t blanket the entire planet with dimensional gates, no matter how small they were. Not even close. It was possible he had failed to pick the right place to search at, in which case all of this was for naught. It was also possible that the invaders were keeping all the kidnapped children separated until the final moment, in which case they will just end up saving Raynie’s brother and no one else. Their enemies also may have gathered enough spare children to form a second group, in which case they could still try to release Panaxeth as normal.

Zorian had a good feeling about this, though. This could work, he was sure of it. The only question now was whether Raynie was capable of doing her part.

The necessary blood magic itself wasn’t that difficult. Blood magic was famously easy to perform. Too easy, according to some. Additionally, blood magic tracking spells were a very common use of blood magic and there was no need for Zorian to reinvent the wheel to make one. There were plenty of tried and true methods that Raynie could use for her attempt.

It was still blood magic, however. Raynie would have to ritually cut herself during the casting, and remain clearheaded despite the resulting pain. The mana shaping requirements for successful casting were low, but Raynie was a total beginner when it came to magic, so even that may be too much for her. Finally, whether she succeeded or failed, she would be severely weakened for at least a week after the attempt, and the traces of primordial essence in her blood would be spent.

She had one try. Not one more. If she made even a single mistake, the whole ritual would be ruined, and that would be it.

So Zorian’s simulacrums patiently waited, not trying to hurry her up in any way.

Likewise, on the edge of the ritual room, Rea, Haslush and the simulacrum that actually looked like Zorian patiently waited as well.

Well, simulacrum number one patiently waited. Haslush and Rea were clearly anxious as hell about the eventual result of the ritual.

“The center of the ritual circle is protected from sounds, right?” Haslush softly asked simulacrum number one. “They can’t hear us if we talk?”

“Yes,” the simulacrum calmly said. “It’s also protected against outside mana intrusion and the like. Unless you really go out of the way to make yourself known, you shouldn’t be able to disturb them.”

Of course, simulacrum number one was always mentally connected with his fellow simulacrums and the original, but the two simulacrums participating in the ritual were too experienced and skilled to be distracted by something like that.

“What’s up with you, kid?” Haslush complained, glaring at him slightly. “Are you made of ice or something?”

“I’m just naturally stoic,” the simulacrum bragged, puffing his chest up proudly. “It’s okay, old man, you’ll learn how to be as cool as me one of these days.”

Haslush clacked his tongue at the response and no longer bothered to talk to him.

“I’ve looked into your classmate’s family situation,” Rea commented idly.

“Oh?” the simulacrum said, raised an eyebrow at him.

“It seems Raynie’s relationship with her family is… less than harmonious,” Rea said, cocking her head to the side and closing her eyes as if listening to something. “Her brother essentially replaced her as the clan heir when he was born. There are rumors that she was extremely resentful about it.”

Simulacrum number one said nothing.

“You knew,” Rea said after a while.

“Yeah,” the simulacrum admitted. “Yeah, I did.”

“You think she’s going to purposely botch the spell?” Haslush asked, frowning.

“Quite the contrary,” Rea said calmly, shaking her head. “I think she’s desperate for it to succeed. She probably wished ill on her brother a lot, and now that it finally happened she feels guilty and responsible for it. Shifter tribes have a somewhat superstitious view of curses and wishing misfortune to someone in your head is not just harmless catharsis to a lot of them.”

“That’s true for a lot of regular people, too,” Haslush shrugged. “It’s just mages that really disdain that kind of thinking.”

Rea hummed thoughtfully, but did not respond. The whole group suddenly became silent as it became obvious that Raynie was finally ready to begin with the ritual.

The red-headed wolf shifter started chanting, softly at first but getting more confident as time went one. Her hand trembled as she raised a dagger above her palm and slashed into it once, twice, trice… the motions were crude and she cut a little too deeply than was really necessary, but simulacrum number one supposed that was better than being too timid.

She held her bloodied hand above the simple-looking pottery bowl and dropped blood into it. The bowl promptly lit up with glowing blood red lines and diagrams, and a barely perceptible magical pulse spread out from the golden cube upon which the bowl sat. The white stars above them dimmed and brightened like a hundred tiny hearts.

Thin, hair-like streams of blood, barely visible from where simulacrum number one was standing, rose from the bowl and reached for the tiny dimensional gates above it. Raynie loudly gasped and swayed unsteadily as some of her life force left her, some of the threads reaching for the wounds on her hand like dozens of hungry leeches. Overwhelmed by the pain and vertigo, she dropped her dagger and almost collapsed face-first into the bowl in front of her, but with the support of two disguised simulacrums and her own willpower she managed to retain consciousness. Gritting her teeth, she started slowly making gestures with her healthy hand.

Finally the last gesture of the spell was made and everything snapped into place. The dimensional gates floating above them shone with blinding light, forcing Haslush and Rea to shield their eyes, and a flood of information entered the minds of the three simulacrums present.

So much information. Hundreds of places, most of them completely disconnected from each other, all of them mixing together into a giant incomprehensible mess. The spell, too vast in scope, struggled to narrow down the search on its own. It passed the task to the caster of the spell. If Raynie was doing this alone, she would have outright failed here… a beginner mage simply wasn’t capable of controlling a spell of this sophistication and magnitude. But she wasn’t doing this alone. Zorian’s simulacrums were present, and they were capable. In fact, a single one of them would have sufficed. Having three of them do this together was just overkill.

After a few seconds, simulacrum number one smiled. Almost immediately afterwards, a quick message was sent to the original by all three simulacrums. It only consisted of a single word.

“Success,” simulacrum number one mumbled.

* * *

Sitting next to a table full of battle maps, surrounded by Zach, Xvim, Alanic and the rest of the members of their little conspiracy, Zorian suddenly became alert and cleared his throat to get the attention of other people in the room. They immediately stopped whatever argument they were having and turned to him.

“We found them,” Zorian said. “Start the attack.”

* * *

On a peaceful and sunny day, just one day before the summer festival, the city of Cyoria suddenly went to hell. It was around noon when, without warning, dozens of places in the city suddenly launched volleys of magical artillery projectiles to some unseen targets just outside the city. These targets, almost as if they had been expecting something like this might happen, almost immediately responded with a magical artillery barrage of their own. In a matter of minutes, the city was burning. Numerous buildings had been partially or completely destroyed, and rogue fire elementals started wandering the city, setting everything they encountered ablaze. Neither of the two sides were done yet, though, and the exchange of magical artillery continued on for quite some time.

Then the monsters came. Skeletons, war trolls, giant lizards, massive flocks of iron beaks… all of these came pouring out of the local underworld, spreading chaos as they went. A lot of these invading monsters met a grisly end, triggering hidden traps when they tried to move through upper levels of Cyoria’s underworld, almost as if someone had foreseen their invasion routes. A lot more were held back in the depths of the earth, fighting some unseen enemy beneath the city. But even the fraction of the forces that reached the surface was nothing to scoff at.

The final battle had begun. Soon, the leaders of the two opposing forces would clash as well.

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