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Chapter 101
The Switch

Cyoria was burning. A number of important buildings had been leveled to the ground by the initial artillery exchange, and several sections of the city were ablaze with sapient fire that deliberately sought to burn as much of the city as possible. The invading soldiers did not help matters, as they had a tendency to set buildings ablaze unless there were defending forces to stop them from running amok.

Despite this, Zorian felt the situation was actually pretty good. Based on the previous invasions he had witnessed in the time loop, he had expected the city to suffer far more than it had so far. The city leadership was extremely quick to react and organize itself, despite the fact that the city hall and main barracks got totally destroyed early on, and the defending forces were far better equipped than he remembered. This was only partially the result of Zach and Zorian's machinations – it seemed that despite the two sides’ agreement to keep things relatively secret and low-key, some awareness of what was happening still ended up trickling down to the Cyoria's authorities.

That was good. Zach and Zorian had more important battles to fight, and couldn't afford to come to the aid of the city at this time. It was up to the city itself to douse the fires before they went out of control and repulse the invaders pouring out of tunnels beneath the city.

Was it cold-hearted of them to leave Cyoria entirely to its own devices in a time like this? A little. However, Zorian firmly believed that what they were doing was the best way to minimize the number of casualties. Getting involved in the city fighting would no doubt cause Quatach-Ichl and other invasion leaders to make their own appearance there as well. It was not in the interest of Cyoria and its inhabitants to have a bunch of ultra-powerful mages duking it out in the city streets.

No, it was far better to go on the offense against the invaders and force the high-level mage fights to happen elsewhere. Somewhere where the invaders would have to worry about collateral damage.

This was why one of Zorian's simulacrums was leading a force composed out of golems, Alanic's recruits, and mind-controlled monsters straight towards the Ibasan underground base. The base held the dimensional gate through which the Ibasan forces intended to retreat once their goals had been achieved, which meant it had to be held at all costs.

Thus, the moment the invaders realized there was a powerful army heading towards their retreat point, they had no choice but to redirect most of their forces to try and stop them. The defenders on the surface probably didn't realize this, but they were fighting a mere fraction of the invading enemies, because most of them were currently busy fighting Zorian's army in the tunnels below.

Well, the original Zorian was busy with other matter entirely, so it was more accurate to say they were fighting an army led by his simulacrum... but on this particular day, it hardly mattered. Zorian and his simulacrums were truly one, their minds fused together to an unprecedented degree. He felt less like a man with a couple of copies running around, and more like a single mind controlling multiple bodies. It was the culmination of all his research into the way Princess and the cranium rat swarms functioned, and he previously did not dare use it outside of a testing chamber. He was afraid of such magic warping his personality and sense of self, especially if used on a regular basis, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

It should be safe to use it just this once.

Hopefully.

Currently, Zorian’s simulacrum body advanced confidently towards the mass of enemies blocking the nearby tunnel entrance, unintimidated by their attempt at setting up blockade. His army, composed out of several hundred golems of various sizes, almost a hundred mages that Alanic recruited for their cause, and several hundred hook goblins and other Dungeon denizens, swarmed behind him, waiting for orders.

A pair of shining projectiles, one red, one blue, came flying at him from the enemy barricade ahead. They shone so bright they were painful to look at, at their flight created a startlingly loud screaming sound as they homed in on Zorian. He did not even bother to defend himself; it would be a waste of his limited mana. The huge bodyguard golem that never left his side raised his massive hands in front of Zorian and slapped down the incoming spells like a pair of annoying flies.

They exploded into a pair of blinding explosions that somehow strengthened and reinforced each other, becoming stronger than the sum of its parts, but it simply wasn’t enough. The defensive wards of the massive bodyguard golem harmlessly neutralized the blast, leaving Zorian completely untouched.

The golem was left without so much as a scratch, too.

Without saying anything, and before the explosion was even fully over, Zorian pointed the huge magical rifle in his hands at one of the mages that launched the attack and fired. The bullet reached the target at supersonic speeds, effortlessly punching through the defensive wards Ibasans put on their little barricade, hitting the enemy mage in the chest before he could put up any sort of defense. It wasn’t a killing blow, but the mage was out of the fight for the foreseeable future, so it might as well have been. Zorian coldly turned his rifle towards the other mage responsible for the attack, ignoring the barrage of spells coming his way or the target’s frantic attempts to coat himself in as many shielding spells as humanely possible.

More than a dozen nearby golems suddenly turned towards Zorian’s target, pointing their own heavy rifles at him in a single, synchronized motion.

The mage’s shields blocked the first five bullets. Then the other ten or so tore into him and killed him on the spot.

As for the barrage of weak spells that was meant to distract him, it was unceremoniously blocked by a bunch of heavily-build golems that stepped up in front of him to soak them up with their tough bodies and well-made defensive wards.

Zorian gave them a thought, and a screeching swarm of hook goblins, giant centipedes, and cave lizards surged forward and charged the enemy position. The enemy responded by sending hordes of skeletons and zombies forward, and the two groups of expendable meat shields crashed against each other in the middle of the battlefield, attempting to overpower the other.

However, it quickly became obvious that the undead were losing. They may have been fearless, but they ultimately just a mindless mob. Zorian’s monster swarm, on the other hand, was more advanced than it appeared. This wasn’t the first time Zorian used mind-controlled monsters as meat shields and shock troopers like this, and his methods had evolved greatly over time. His monsters no longer mindlessly charged forward, getting into each other’s way and spreading their attacks thin over the entire battlefield, like they did in the past. Instead, they worked together like a cranium rat swarm, sharing senses, focusing attacks on perceived weak points, ganging up on tough opponents, and sacrificing themselves for the good of the whole if necessary.

Suddenly, Zorian sensed ten mental and soul signatures rapidly moving towards them from all sides, invisibly tunneling towards the back of his army through solid stone.

Rock worms. Zorian scoffed inwardly and telepathically ordered the rest of the army to advance forward. The golems mindlessly obeyed, of course, but some of the Alanic’s human volunteers visibly flinched at the mental command, still unused to this form of communication and a little fearful of him. They did obey in the end, though, and this was all that mattered in the end. He had avoided using them so far, both because he was trying to preserve their strength for a battle that really mattered and because he was still very uncomfortable with ordering people into battles where some of them were guaranteed to die. Unlike the mindless golems and the animal-level monsters that made up the rest of his army, the human mages and soldiers were not expendable.

The Ibasans in front of them sent out war trolls to charge out and meet them, probably hoping to capitalize on the moment of shock when the rock worms suddenly burst out of the ground and attack them. That wouldn’t be happening, of course. Silverlake must have informed Jornak about Zorian’s potent mind magic capabilities, but either the information never trickled down to the people commanding the troops or they dismissed them as ridiculous, or else they would never dare use a ploy like this against him.

It happened in an instant. The charging line of war trolls was only moments away from crashing into the line of battle golems in front of them, perfectly synchronized with the tunneling rock worms that were just about to emerge in the middle of Zorian’s army. Whoever was commanding the situation really knew how to arrange things to deal a maximum amount of damage and confusion in an enemy, and Zorian could literally sense the glee and anticipation in the minds of Ibasan mages as they waited with baited breaths for the inevitable catastrophe to befall the enemy…

…and then Zorian suddenly reached out to the ten approaching rock worms with his mind, tearing through the Ibasan mind-control schemes like they were made of cobwebs, and commanded them to switch targets.

And so they did. Just before the golems and war trolls were about to clash, eight of the rack worms burst out of the floor and ceiling, tackling the biggest, meanest-looking trolls to the ground and breaking their momentum. When the two groups finally met, the war troll regiment immediately crumbled before the pitiless advance of metal puppets. Tougher than steel and armed with scorching hot blades specifically designed to neutralize the trolls’ natural regeneration, the golems wouldn’t have had an issue even without the rock worms’ help. With them distracting the leaders of the war trolls regiment, the war trolls had no chance.

Zorian kept advancing forward. In fact, he had never stopped doing so. As he got closer to the battle between the golems and war trolls, one of the war trolls leaders stumbled in close to him, a rock worm stubbornly wrapped around him like a giant snake. The rock worm kept snapping its massive jaws at the war trolls face, while the war troll used both hands to desperately keep it at bay. Zorian gave a command to his huge bodyguard golem, and the metal puppet reached down with one of its massive hands, grabbed the war trolls by its left leg and picked it up in the air.

The rock worm immediately let go of the troll and found another target to menace, as the massive golem started to spin the war troll above its head a few times and then hurled it straight at the barricade that the Ibasans had set up in Zorian’s path.

It wouldn’t have been a very effective attack normally, but the Ibasans were a bit busy at the moment. The last two rock worms that Zorian didn’t send after the war trolls were instead pointed at the mages normally responsible for commanding them. Additionally, Zorian’s monster horde had mostly dismembered the undead chaff sent to stop them and were currently attacking every available weak point of the barricade in the attempt to break through. As such, they could do nothing but watch as their own war trolls, large even by troll standards and clad in heavy steel armor, spun through the air and physically slammed into the boxy stone cube that served as the core of barricade’s defensive wards.

The cube shattered into hundreds of pieces, and the wards covering the fortification immediately went down with it. Without breaking his stride, Zorian retrieved the bulky grenade launcher gun from his back and fired three frost grenades straight into the biggest clumps of Ibasan mages he could see. Barely a moment afterwards, his human underlings joined him in the attack, unwilling to let such an obvious opportunity go to waste, and a wave of energy spells, bullets, and grenades came raining down on the Ibasans.

Demoralized by their repeated failures, the Ibasan forces abandoned their blockade and ran. Zorian was about to command his forces to give chase and thin down their forces when a familiar figure materialized in the air in front of him.

It was a floating humanoid wearing a scarlet red robe, his face hidden beneath a hood that masked his features under a veil of darkness.

Even after unmasking himself to them, Jornak still used his Red Robe outfit to face.

“You have been hiding your abilities when we fought earlier,” said Jornak, idly blocking a handful of bullets Zorian’s soldiers had fired at him while simultaneously firing a streak of lightning back at them.

The lightning line hit the first target in an instant, killing him on the spot, before arcing from target to target five more times, claiming three more lives and disabling two more. Zorian immediately ordered them all to withdraw. They might have held some usefulness as a distraction, but they would have to die in droves to achieve that, and he didn’t want that on his soul.

The Jornak in front of him was just a simulacrum anyway, so it wasn’t like they would accomplish much by putting him down.

“We both hid about true abilities,” Zorian told him, firing a few rounds from his rifle at the floating figure without missing a beat. Jornak blocked them just as easily as he did the bullets from before, looking completely unconcerned. Some kind of shield specialized in defending against physical attacks like bullets? “There is nothing strange or unexpected about that.”

“I really hate those things,” Jornak commented. Zorian was pretty sure he was talking about the rifle in his hands. “They caused so much grief and suffering. I wish they were never invented. I’d certainly never use one of those unless I had no choice. I believe Zach feels the same. That’s why it surprised me so much when you used one against me the first time we fought. In a way, you’re even more honorless than I am.”

Zorian did not feel like being lectured to by someone like Jornak, so he simply ordered his golems to attack and prepared to cast a spell. He didn’t think the man was really here for a philosophical discussion anyway – he probably just wanted to stall Zorian with pointless talk while the enemy forces converged together and regroup.

Almost simultaneously, both of them hasted themselves in an attempt to catch each other off-guard and let loose three spells each. The walls of the tunnels around them instantly melted, warped, and shattered. They were both unharmed for it. A faint shockwave of the clash propagated itself to the spot where Zorian’s human army had retreated, prompting them to fearfully retreat even further.

Zorian frowned, looking at the red robed figure in front of him. Truthfully, he had known something like this would happen when he started this attack. He would have been seriously worried if someone hadn’t shown up to stop him, since he would soon be approaching the Ibasan base. Their enemies had to stop him before he could shut down the dimensional portal they used to shuffle their forces from place to place. Without it, the invasion was finished before it even began.

The trouble was, the original was already fighting elsewhere, and that fight was way more important than this one. This was also the reason why the only serious opposition their enemies had sent to stop him was one of Jornak’s simulacrums – they were already pressed elsewhere and couldn’t spare anyone else.

Truthfully, this whole operation was a bit of a deliberate distraction. He had never really expected to take the Ibasan base, because most of their forces were busy elsewhere. His main purpose was to lessen the pressure on the city and to threaten the Ibasan retreat point to the point where they would be forced to send someone important to defend it. Both of the goals had been pretty much achieved. The very fact Jornak had been forced to send one of his simulacrums and waste his mana on this was a success. At this point, it would serve his purposes just fine to simply drag this fight out as much as possible, wasting Jornak’s mana and preventing him from fully committing elsewhere.

Or he could take a risk and try to eliminate the simulacrum for real – something that would force the enemy to shift even more resources on this conflict, but had a high chance of blowing up in his face if his simulacrum ended up being destroyed in the clash. All of the human recruits that followed him to this place would die soon afterwards, and the Ibasans would once again be free to focus their effort on the city above.

The indecision only lasted for a moment. He swiftly ordered his golem army into motion and then created a swarm of tiny projectiles around him. Each one was smaller than his thumb and glowed with bright orange light, circling around him like a river of stars. Though seemingly weak, each of the little orange stars contained a force of a fully-powered fireball. They were fast, maneuverable, and Zorian could hold them in reserve until he needed them. He immediately sent three of them at Jornak on curved, complicated trajectories and then followed it up with a lance of force aimed straight at his head.

Jornak’s reaction to the small army of golems trying to tackle him surprised Zorian, however. Rather than use magic to evade them or wasting huge amount of mana to batter their spell-resistant bodies, he simply… punched them away. The simulacrum Jornak send here was clearly special in some way that Zorian did not understand, because he possessed downright incomprehensible physical strength. His mere punches send man-sized golems flying away like discarded dolls, and a well-placed kick could easily snap a knee joint and render the golem useless. Worse, Jornak’s simulacrum seemed able to regenerate its ectoplasmic body with minimal effort on his part. Twice Zorian managed to severely damage him, blowing off his arm once and piercing a big hole with a force land in his torso the other time, and in both cases the damage went away in mere seconds.

Zorian ordered his bodyguard golem to join the fray, hoping to use its size and powerful wards to simply overpower Jornak with raw strength, but this quickly backfired. Jornak took out three grenades out of his pocket and three them above his head before teleporting out of the huge golem’s reach. Before Zorian could order him to withdraw, the grenades detonated without the slightest sound. A web of hair-thin dimensional fractures flashed faintly in the air, space itself shattering before the magical grenade blast, and enveloped the golem.

As potent as the great golem’s defenses were, very few things could stand up to the cutting power of dimensional fractures. The thin black lines went through the golem’s bulk with hardly any resistance, snuffing out its animation core and cutting up its bulk into hundreds of tiny pieces.

Zorian could only helplessly watch as his creation, one which had been crucial in his coming this far so easily, fell apart in front of his eyes.

Okay, now he was kind of angry.

He launched all of the fire stars he had circling him straight at Jornak’s simulacrum, forcing him on the defensive, and then physically charged straight at him. The enemy simulacrum hesitated for a second, no doubt wondering what had possessed Zorian to do something that stupid, before deciding this was too good of a chance to pass up. He charged as well, rushing to meet Zorian head on. Jornak’s simulacrum was clearly far more powerful up close than Zorian’s.

Just before they slammed into each other, Jornak’s whole body became shrouded in arcing red electricity that reminded Zorian of Quatach-Ichl’s favorite spell. In a blindly fast movement, Jornak’s hand flashed forward and punched straight through the chest of Zorian’s simulacrum. Despite being made out of metal and alchemically treated materials, his body provided very little resistance before the ectoplasmic hand, which passed through him like a very sharp blade. Damaging red lightning immediately began spreading itself through the chest cavity of the simulacrum, irreparably damaging sensitive components.

Zorian ignored the damage. Instead, he reached out with both hands and firmly gripped the hand sticking out of his chest. Realizing that something was wrong, Jornak’s simulacrum tried to wrench its hand free of the grasp, but he wasn’t fast enough. Hundreds of mana threads erupted out of Zorian’s palms, burrowing themselves into Jornak’s ectoplasmic flesh.

Jornak’s simulacrum shuddered and twitched as it tried to move, but failed to wrench itself out of Zorian’s grasp. Even as Zorian’s chest started to flake off around the hand stuck in it, internal components seeping out as fine black sand, Jornak’s own form was getting blurrier and more indistinct. Moreover, the degradation of Jornak’s simulacrum was clearly progressing faster than that of Zorian’s own puppet body, more and more mana threads spreading throughout its ectoplasmic form and disrupting it on a fundamental level.

“You…” Jornak croaked incredulously, before his entire body, red cloak and all, warped and flickered like a badly-made illusion and collapsed into smoke.

Zorian’s own simulacrum body then promptly collapsed on the floor, now that Jornak’s hand was no longer keeping his body standing. His internals were far to ruined for him to move his limbs anymore, and just about the only thing he could still move was his head.

Eventually, the human soldiers under his command decided to check things out and cautiously approached the place of the battle.

“Hey,” Zorian suddenly called out from the ground, where his crumpled simulacrum body lay motionless. A bunch of people looked at themselves before the closest soldier pointed to himself curiously. “Yeah, you with the beard. Cut off my head.”

“I beg your pardon?” The man asked, shocked.

“I can’t move my body so it’s mostly just useless weight at this point. Sadly, none of my golems are too good at fine manual dexterity, so it’s up to you to cut off my head and carry it with you. You’ll be my official head carrier from now on.”

The man gave the body on the floor a strange look before sighing.

“This is not what I signed up for,” he mumbled under his breath.

* * *

At the same time, one Zorian was fighting in the tunnels beneath Cyoria, but he was also in Koth, preparing to participate in the assault on the Ibasan base there. Jornak had made a portal link to Koth earlier in the month, in order to eventually take Zorian’s friends and family hostage, and now there was a small Ibasan base hidden out there in the jungle, relatively close to the Taramatula estate.

Zorian couldn’t tell if Jornak still placed any hopes on this plan. On one hand, the base was still there and the portal connection was not shut down – surely their enemies would not have done this if they knew that Zorian had opted out of using the Taramatula estate as his sanctuary? On the other hand, the base looked pretty small and understaffed to Zorian’s eyes. Just a single regiment of war trolls and a small horde of undead, led by a handful of human mages? This was a pretty half-hearted operation.

Or that’s what he thought, anyway. Orissa and the other Taramatula around him apparently did not share his sentiments.

“What a nasty surprise these people had planned for us. This would have been a disaster if the attackers had caught us off guard,” Orissa commented.

“I’ve seen you fight,” Zorian said, frowning. “A House with several dozen mages like you should have no problems repulsing a force like this, even if the war trolls and undead are more resistant to bee attacks than most targets.”

Since most of their attention was placed elsewhere, Zorian was here only as a simulacrum. Moreover, he did not have any army of golems with him like the simulacrum beneath Cyoria did. He was here mostly as an advisor than anything – the Taramatula would be the one who did all the fighting.

“You did?” Orissa asked curiously. “How strange. I don’t remember fighting anyone while you were around. Still, while I thank you for the compliments, the simple counterpoint to your claim is that our House doesn’t have several dozen mages like me. I am very much exceptional, both in talent and the amount of resources that have been spent on me. Most of the members of our House aren’t particularly good at fighting to begin with. Most of them are primarily trackers and surveyors, using their bees purely to find things and fighting only as a last resort.”

“Ah,” said Zorian, wincing a little internally. Yes, he probably shouldn’t take someone like Orissa to be the benchmark for your average member of the House. “So why did you insist on making this attack, then? Why not just defend your estate like I advised you to?”

“There is too much risk involved in that,” Orissa said. “If our main hives are damaged in the fighting, it would be a huge blow to our operations. But more importantly… the elders want that portal.”

Zorian raised his eyebrow at her. The portal… of course. The base Jornak made for this operation connected Koth directly to Altazia, bridging the vast distances between two continents with a permanent dimensional connection. The value of this was incalculable.

“And… you think you can take out this force, which you aren’t sure you could defend against effectively, in such a way that you can seize the portal intact?” Zorian asked her curiously.

“There is a chance, yes,” Orissa told him with a mysterious smile. “In a direct fight, I wouldn’t be too confident of my chances, but thanks to your information we have a chance to take them off guard. If we can sneak in enough bees into their base without them noticing, then their first indication of an impending attack will consist of getting swarmed by hundreds of magical bees each.”

“You’d have to make sure to get them all or the whole thing will fail,” Zorian pointed out. “If even one survives the initial attack, he will close the portal.”

“Of course,” Orissa. “That’s why it’s important to be patient and do this slowly. You said there was no rush, yes?”

“None,” Zorian admitted. This fight was relatively irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. If the Taramatula could really seize the portal, Zorian supposed they could send in some of their forces to the other side to assist them, but that was unlikely to be decisive in any way. “In fact, I wholly support your decision to be careful.”

“Less chance of your needing to pull us out of the fire if we flounder?” Orissa asked knowingly.

“I’m just a moderately talented teenager,” Zorian said. “I could hardly turn the tide of battle all on my own.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Orissa said. “How many living people did you say were in the base?”

“Twenty eight,” Zorian said with barely a thought. He then quickly pointed out to her where exactly everyone currently was so her forces wouldn’t waste time scouting the base for no reason.

“You know exactly where everyone in that base is, even from this distance,” Orissa said lightly. “But you’re just a moderately talented teenager? Your brother should have taught you how to lie better.”

“It’s just a standard mind sense that all psychic people have,” Zorian protested. “Just an innate ability, nothing more.”

“I’m quite sure that Daimen couldn’t replicate what you just did, despite being way older than you,” Orissa said.

Ugh. Why was he so bad at this ‘look relatively normal’ thing? This was going to be a real problem in the future, he could already tell…

“You know what? I’m shutting up now,” Zorian sighed. “You have a surprise attack to plan, so you should get on that, and I’ll… just stand on the sidelines and let the adults handle everything from now on. Please protect me, Daimen’s fiancée. My brother will never forgive you if you get his beloved little brother killed.”

She set loose some of her bees on him for that.

* * *

Zorian was in the tunnels beneath Cyoria, he was in Koth, and he was even in the academy in Cyoria, setting things up in case things failed to develop as they hoped.

But mostly he was at Iasku’s Mansion.

In fact, Zach, Xvim, Alanic, Daimen, and most of their forces were also at Iasku’s Mansion… because that’s where the Ibasans held their kidnapped shifter children.

It was a bit of an obvious choice, in retrospect. It was heavily defended, it was really far from any other civilization, and it had a gate connection to the Ibasan base beneath Cyoria.

However, there had been lots of ‘obvious choices’ when it came to the place where the Ibasans held the shifter children, and the cost of attack Iasku Mansion was huge. It wasn’t something they would be willing to commit to unless they knew there was something of critical importance there.

Well, now they knew, and the mansion and its surroundings had become the site of a bitter battle. Zorian’s real body was here, standing on the back of Princess as the forest burned and shuddered around them. Thousands upon thousands of undead were charging at them, ranging from simple undead boars to towering mountains of stitched up flesh that could rival even the biggest of Zorian’s golems in size. Zorian’s golems took care of most of them, tearing into them with grenade throwers and dismembering them with giant blades, but there was just too many of them…

Fortunately, Princess was unafraid of the horde of the walking dead, and her eight heads were ever-vigilant. Any undead that dared approach her was immediately dealt with, with Zorian not having to do anything.

Immediately behind the undead horde was a rapidly approaching mass of monsters – mostly war trolls and winter wolves, with a huge swarm of iron beaks hovering above them, cawing ominously. Some rock worms were moving invisibly beneath the surface of the earth, but their controllers were wiser than the ones beneath Cyoria and made sure the worms avoided Zorian like a plague and stayed as far away from him as possible.

And in the distance, perched on the roof of the mansion, were three dragons staring intently at them.

Three live, perfectly healthy dragons, completely unrelated to the skeletal monstrosity hidden in the depths of Iasku Mansion.

Oganj and his two students, Zorian was sure. They weren’t doing anything for now, but Zorian knew this wouldn’t last as they got closer to the mansion itself.

The attack was meant to be a surprise, but their enemies had clearly been ready for them anyway.

Well. It would have been nice to catch their enemies completely off-guard, but he had never really thought this would be an easy battle, anyway.

After some back and forth with Zach, Zorian gave a silent signal to the menacing mass of iron beaks in the sky and suddenly the whole flock swerved to the side as one, before letting lose a massive volley of knife-like feathers at the seemingly empty patch of land.

Distant screams filled the air as the mages who were moving there under the cover of invisibility suddenly came under attack by the forces they believed were on their side.

Before the enemy mages could regroup, Zorian ordered Princess to charge forward towards the mansion. She did so with relish, but not before letting lose a challenging roar from all eight of her heads at the trio of dragons in the distance. Clearly riled up by the provocation, one of the dragons shook and almost flew up in the air to intercept her, but the biggest of the dragons casually slapped him down with his tail and gave him a silent glare. Visibly chastised, the smaller dragon immediately backed down.

Zorian was impressed. Although Oganj was clearly the biggest and meanest of the trio, the other two were still adult dragons. They were not known for accepting such clearly subordinate positions lightly. Oganj must be more than just a good mage if he could convince a pair of adult dragons to follow his orders like that.

In any case, Princess was like an eight-headed train that didn’t need train tracks to get around. Her great speed and bulk meant that she could simply barrel through the undead horde with minimal resistance, trampling smaller corpses without slowing down and knocking the bigger stuff aside to continue forward.

Then Alanic and his fellow mages finished their spell and summoned a fiery twister inside the heart of the undead horde, where it began to suck in the undead towards the center and got increasingly bigger and stronger the more undead it consumed.

Zorian had seen that spell before, and now he even knew what the secret behind it was. The fire twister was actually trapping the souls of the undead it consumed and used them to power itself, which was why it seemingly never ran out of mana and only got stronger as it killed more and more undead. It was a rather dark piece of magic by church standards, almost necromantic in the way it functioned, but fighting fire with fire and all that. The fire twister would release the souls it had gathered when the spell eventually ended, letting them move on to the afterlife.

Before Zorian could celebrate too much, hundreds of red figures poured out of the mansion, flying into the sky. Zorian squinted at the sight, finding the enemies in front of his unfamiliar. They looked almost like bats, but with disturbingly humanoid bodies and faces, and a snake-like tail trailing behind them. The tail had a toothy mouth at the end, Zorian eventually realized, and the tails moved around like they had a mind of their own.

[Demons,] Alanic sent to him through their telepathic link.

[Minor or major?] Zorian asked.

[There is no such thing as a minor demon,] Alanic answered him. [But I suppose these would count as ‘minor’.]

Zorian clacked his tongue. Sadly, due to the way the time loop functioned, he had no experience at all in how to fight something like this. All he knew was that demons were an incredibly diverse bunch, with many strange powers that sometimes varied from individual to individual, never mind different species. Fighting them was almost as bad as fighting a human mage. You never really knew what to expect.

[Let us handle them,] another voice demanded over the telepathic link.

Zorian didn’t argue, he gave his permission and a swarm of sulrothum suddenly rose into the sky with a terrible buzzing sound and flew off to intercept the demon bets.

For a while, Zorian busied himself with guiding several severing discs and decapitating war trolls and winter wolves while Princess trampled everything in her path, but gradually things began to bother him. Things were going pretty good, but he couldn’t help but feel that this was because the mansion defenders weren’t really giving it their all to stop them. They were just sending disposable troops to buy themselves more time for… something.

The fact Oganj and his two students were just sitting there on the mansion roof and watching the battle with seemingly no intention to get involved was especially bothering him. Why were the freaking dragons not attacking!?

Hell, they hadn’t even sent the skeletal dragon into the fray!

He nervously fingered the cube given to him by the angel he summoned, wondering if he should–

No. No, this wasn’t the right time. Using it now would be a mistake. Something in the back of his mind insisted that this was true.

He put the cube back into his jacket pocket and made a quick conversation with Zach, Alanic, and everyone else.

Soon, an absolutely massive creature rose into the air in the distance before rapidly approaching. It was the Sulrothum holy beast, the massive sandworm that had given them so much trouble when they had tried to fight it. Now it was on their side. Flying on hundreds of translucent butterfly-like wings, the worm made a beeline for the three dragons.

At the same time, the others also made their own moves. Zorian projected a blast of repelling force in front of Princess, knocking aside some troublesome opponents that had halted her advance and ordered her to head straight for the mansion and its guardian dragons, damn everything else. Meanwhile, a milky white orb suddenly rose in the air, carrying Zach, Xvim, Alanic, and Daimen towards the dragons with incredible speed and agility.

The dragons immediately realized they were being targeted, and rose into the air as one. Oganj bellowed out something to his two students and they each picked their own opponent – the left one went to intercept Zorian and Princess, the right one flew off to engage the massive sandworm in the sky above the mansion. As for Oganj, he seemed to have identified Zach’s group as the biggest danger out of them all, and thus something he should deal with personally.

Zorian was modest enough to admit the dragon mage was probably right.

In any case, once Oganj decided it was time to fight, he did not hold back in the slightest. Zach’s sphere was too fast and maneuverable for the great dragon to dodge it or breathe fire on it, so he instead reached for his magic. Waving his hands in a surprisingly human-like gesture, Oganj created an incandescent white sphere in his hand a thrust it in the sphere’s general direction.

Even though the attack wasn’t aimed at him, and he was quite a distance away, Zorian could still feel his neck hairs raise at the amount of mana Oganj poured into the spell. Dragon magic was bullshit.

Thankfully, all of them were quite unusual in their own way, and Zach had three other people supporting him. Before the destructive sphere could actually get close to Zach’s sphere and detonate, space started to bend around it, like something invisible was being wrapped around it, and then the sphere seemingly winked out of existence.

Moment later, a terrifying detonation sounded in the distance. Xvim had teleported Oganj’s projectile away into a nearby region, but its detonation still sent vibrations to Zorian’s chest and lit up the sky like a second sun.

Gods… no wonder Zach had died to Oganj so many times. How were they even supposed to fight someone like this!?

“Watch out, you stupid savage!” Sudomir’s voice suddenly echoed all around the mansion, magically amplified and projected so that it could be heard clearly in the whole region. “You’re lucky they got rid of that projectile or you’d have leveled the whole mansion! Since when is this kind of magic acceptable when you’re defending a place!?”

“Shut up!” Oganj yelled back in clear human tongue, his voice just as loud as Sudomir’s, despite using no magic to amplify it. “I know what I’m doing! Go whine to your dead wife instead of bothering me when I’m fighting!”

Zorian ignored the bickering between Sudomir and Oganj, because he had more immediate issues to worry about. Oganj’s student was probably not as powerful as his master, but he was still a dragon mage and he was coming for him.

Zorian fired a force lance at the incoming dragon’s wing, hoping to ground it. Dragon flight was magical, but they still needed their wings intact if they wanted to use it, so wing membranes were a big, well-known weakness.

Too well-known, apparently. The dragon tried to swerve out of the way of the force lance, but when Zorian reveled he could make the lance pivot in the middle of flight and change directions on a whim, he found out that the dragon also erected a shield around himself just in case. The force lance hit the shield and shattered harmlessly upon it.

Visibly narrowing eyes at Zorian and Princess, the dragon took a deep breath and fires a stream of fire at them. Apparently this dragon practiced magic that allowed him to shape his breath into various projectiles like exploding fireballs and fast-moving beams of flame.

He still couldn’t hit Princess. With her eight heads and her strangely-shaped body, she kind of looked like she should be clumsy and slow… but she was a divinely-enhanced beast and this impression was totally wrong. Princess was both fast and maneuverable, and not only did she skillfully dodge every projectile the young dragon mage directed at her, she even found the time to pick up various loose stones and small winter wolves that hadn’t moved away fast enough and hurl them straight at the dragon in the air. She was a pretty good shot, too.

Plus, of course, she had Zorian riding on her back. Whenever she couldn’t dodge something, he would just deflect it away while periodically annoying the dragon with simple force projectiles. He was pretty sure that this was the dragon that had wanted to fight Princess when she had bellowed out a challenge at the start of the battle, so he should be a fairly irritable sort.

Annoyingly, the dragon had placed mental shields on itself before the battle had even begun. They weren’t much, but dragons were already a pain to affect with his powers, even without dedicated mental defenses, due to their magic resistance. The mental shield, crude as it was, simply made the idea of targeting it with mind magic a complete non-starter.

Thankfully, Zorian’s hopes about the dragon’s irritability proved to be correct. After repeatedly dodging his projectiles and harassing him with force spells, the dragon had apparently had enough. He could have continued flying high, outside of Zorian’s and Princess’s effective reach, but instead he decided to descend closer to the ground so he could catch them with a more powerful attack.

It was a good attack, Zorian had to admit. The dragon created a translucent blue ball in front of him and launched them at the pair. As it got closer, it suddenly extended into a large gelatinous dome and trapped them inside it. Princess tried to bit through it, but the gelatinous barrier resisted her effort and even glued one of her jaws shut, forcing Zorian to cut her free. Meanwhile, the dragon clearly took time powering up some kind of massive fire spell that would incinerate them both to ashes, now that they were both trapped in a small area with no way to dodge.

Unfortunately for him, Princess could teleport.

Just before the dragon could release his spell, Princess quickly curled up into a ball and disappeared from her gelatinous prison, taking Zorian with her.

Before the dragon could realize what happened, he had already launched the fire attack at the empty dome, wasting his spell and hitting nothing. Then Princess popped into practically next to him and Zorian quickly fired a whole bundle of severing whips at the dragon’s torso.

Being considerably tougher than a human, the dragon mage was not cut into tiny chunks by the severing whips, but they did cut into his flesh, drawing blood and wrapping too tightly around him to be easily dislodged. Especially since any struggle would just worsen his wounds. Zorian anchored the severing whips to Princess’s back and ordered her to pull.

She did. The dragon let loose an almost girlish scream and he plummeted to the ground, severing whips digging ever more deeper into his flesh. Before he could gather his bearings Princess was already upon him, heads biting and snarling, and they both went down in a tangle of limbs and necks. The fight quickly degenerated into a weird but vicious wrestling match, the dragon and divine hydra rolling around the ground, knocking down small trees and smashing boulders into powder.

As for Zorian, he had thankfully already jumped off Princess’s back when she went after the downed dragon, and was currently flying towards the other two dragon fights in a similar milky white sphere than Zach used to confront Oganj. He felt a little bad leaving Princess to fight the dragon on her own, but he had faith she wasn’t going to get herself killed in his absence. She was a pretty tough girl.

The other two fights, he soon realized, were still ongoing. In fact, they had merged into some kind of confused combined battle, thanks to two facts. One, Oganj’s student couldn’t really stop the flying sand worm – he could keep it busy, but the sand worm was too big and massive for the relatively tiny dragon to stop it from going wherever it wished. Secondly, the iron beaks decided, on their own initiative, to pick a fight with the two dragons. Zorian had no idea how that had happened, since picking up a reason from the minds of iron beaks itself proved unhelpful – they just very, very angry and apparently hated the three dragons from the very moment they had shown up and ‘arrogantly’ claimed the mansion’s roof like they owned the whole place.

Compared to dragons, the iron beaks were nothing. However, there was a lot of them, and they knew when to attack and when to retreat. Morever, Zach and the others were protecting them, since they found the vicious corvids useful as a distraction.

Also, apparently Sudomir really didn’t like the fact his mansion, which contained his beloved wife’s spirit, was being in danger by all this fighting around it. As such, his voice constantly sounded from the mansion, shouting instructions at the two dragons and insults at Zach and the others. He was starting to sound increasingly incoherent as time went by, and by the time Zorian got close to the battlefield, the man had apparently had enough.

The roof of the mansion crumbled and the skeletal dragon hidden inside the top half of it started to pick itself up from the rubble.

Oganj gave the skeletal dragon an angry, and the mansion itself, a contemptuous snort before focusing back on his current fight.

Of course, the other combatants wouldn’t allow another powerful creature to join the fight like that, so before the skeletal dragon could launch itself into the air Daimen suddenly materialized a giant ectoplasmic body around himself and tackled it off the roof and into the ground below. Daimen had once used this spell to tangle with Princess, back before they had realized how to take control of her, and now it was being used to restrain Sudomir’s skeletal dragon.

Sadly, Sudomir was no amateur when it came to building his artificial horrors, and the skeletal dragon wouldn’t be so easily restrained. Daimen gave it his best, but it was clear that he was losing… and none of the others could afford to turn their back on the other two dragons to give him a hand.

But Zorian, who had just arrived on the scene, could.

Before the two dragons could react, Zorian reached into the imperial orb that he carried with him and an absolutely massive golem popped into existence. It was six meters tall and fully made from gleaming, nigh-indestructible metal. The ground sank under its weight as it barreled towards the skeletal dragon being desperately pinned to the ground by Daimen’s conjured giant. Perhaps it was just Zorian’s imagination, but he could almost see an expression of pure panic in the dragon’s empty eye sockets just before the metal colossus jumped on top of him and brought down its heavy spiked fists right on top of its skull.

Sadly, the moment was slightly ruined by the fact said heavy metal fists didn’t shatter the skeletal dragon’s skull into tiny fragments with a single blow. Instead, the golem ‘just’ chipped the skull and ended any hope it had of getting into the air, where its maneuverability would make a huge threat to everyone on the enemy side.

Before Zorian could celebrate and focus on grinding the stupid bone dragon to dust, though, a strange ripple emanated from the mansion, causing both him and everyone else to halt in his tracks.

“I really hoped this wouldn’t be necessary…” Sudomir’s voice sounded again, this time sounding calmer and more subdued.

[Shit!] Zach suddenly swore over their telepathic connection, and then Zorian’s entire perception lurched and twisted. His vision warped, his knees buckled and bile rose to his throat, threatening to make him puke.

He immediately recognized the symptoms. It reminded him of a botched teleportation spell, except…

He quickly looked around. He was still next to Iasku Mansion, the colossus golem was still holding the skeletal dragon pinned to the ground not far from him, and the iron beaks cawed frantically in the sky above, their synchronized murder-flock wobbling chaotically in a disorganized fashion. He was impressed they hadn’t dropped from the sky when the dizziness hit them.

Beyond the Iasku Mansion, though, Zorian could see a building. A familiar building. And in the distance, he could see burning fires and hear the sound of city defenders facing off against marauding war trolls and hordes of undead.

It took him only a moment to realize what had transpired. During the last planar alignment, a group of mages managed to perform an incredible feat of transplanting their city from one continent to another. Compared to that, what Jornak and his allies did was relatively tame in comparison.

They had simply switched Iasku Mansion and its surroundings space with a piece of Cyoria.

Zorian sighed. He gave a mental order to the colossus golem and he brought down his fist once again on the skeletal dragon’s skull, this time shattering it to pieces, causing the rest of its bony body to fall limp and lifeless.

Despite all their attempts, it would all end here in the end.

In the sky above, Oganj gave a bellowing roar as the battle began anew.

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