As the weeks went by, Zorian became increasingly bored with Mind Like Fire's lessons. While they continued to pay results in terms of his increasing mental combat proficiency, they were also very repetitive and had increasingly marginal results. It didn't help that his mental defenses were by now too good to be casually collapsed by his teacher, which meant that he no longer ended the lessons with a raging headache and an urge to lay down for a few hours. The lessons mostly just taxed his patience now, leaving him a bit tired and frustrated but otherwise ready to do something else.
He decided to do just that. He had never really finished sounding out the rest of the aranea, wanting to get some basics of mental combat from the River Navigators first, but he was becoming increasingly certain that Mind Like Fire was stalling him with her demands at mastery in order to avoid teaching him anything more advanced. His mental defenses were already good enough, in his opinion, so there was no harm in giving the other webs a visit to see what their offer was.
The Luminous Advocates were his first destination. They were, after all, supposed to be very interested in teaching someone like him, as well as hungry for resources he could provide. Unfortunately, that didn't quite work out. Their initial offer was utterly ridiculous, calling for Zorian to pay a simply staggering amount of money and magical artifacts. He didn't agree to that, of course – couldn't, actually, even if he wanted to, since the whole thing would cost twice as much as he had on his person. Even if he gathered all of his savings and sold every single mana crystal he'd found under Knyazov Dveri, it still wouldn't be enough. It took more than 3 weeks to talk them into a more reasonable price, since they seemed to finally realize he was in a hurry. By that time, the restart was already near its end. Undeterred, he tried to approach them again over the next four restarts, varying his approach, but in the end only managed to reduce the negotiation period by a couple of days.
Admittedly, the few lessons he actually managed to finagle out of them really were top-notch. Not only did they give him some crucial advice in regards to strengthening his mental shell that really sped up his progress in Mind Like Fire's lessons, they also helped him hone other aspects of his psychic abilities. For instance, he was now capable of forming two-way telepathic links that allowed non-psychics to talk back to him mentally, as well as form links with multiple people at once. They even taught him how to better handle the information from divination spells which dumped their results directly into the mind of the caster. Some useful information, that. Nonetheless, Zorian decided to give up on seeking their help after the fourth restart. While their help was useful, the sheer amount of time and nerves he lost arranging for said help to actually materialize made the whole thing a poor deal in his mind. It didn't help that they categorically refused to teach him memory manipulation unless he subjected himself to a total memory probe, courtesy of their elders, which made their web a bit of a dead end as far as he was concerned. Because that was basically never going to happen.
Since negotiation with the Luminous Advocates involved a whole lot of waiting for the web to respond to his offers, Zorian had time to approach the Filigree Sages at the same time. They too took a lot of time to convince, although in their case it was because they were a suspicious bunch and also more than a little bit unhappy about him selling telepathic relays to the River Navigators. Thankfully, the first time he managed to convince them to teach him, he immediately found a shortcut that allowed him to drastically cut down on the negotiation time necessary to convince them. All he had to do was demonstrate his proficiency with spell formulas and promise to help them adapt human techniques to their own 'webcraft'. They cared about that a lot more than about any material trade goods, and so long as he did so it only took a week of negotiation before they agreed to teach him.
Zorian was more than a little shocked when he was first shown an example of the Filigree Sage's webcraft. He had expected something relatively simple and crude, like a piece of spider silk cloth with familiar Ikosian symbology embedded into it, or perhaps even individual threads woven into the glyphs. Instead, the Filigree Sage crafter he was to work with led him to a rectangular formation of stone pillars, in the middle of which was suspended a complex, multi-layered sphere made out of spider silk. The sphere glowed with pale white light in the darkness of the room, points of brighter lights constantly racing along this or that thread in a complicated dance that Zorian couldn't decipher. Every inch of its surface (as well as every inch of the inner layers too, he would later find out) was covered in glyphs. Unfamiliar, non-Ikosian glyphs. And his guide claimed this was just one of the lesser practice spheres, since they weren't going to bring a potentially-untrustworthy outsider anywhere near the real thing.
He had realized at that point that he had bitten off far more than he could chew. Helping the Filigree Sages refine their webcraft basically required becoming adept in a whole different tradition of making spell formulas. A tradition that descended from the Ikosian one, thus making the job much easier, but still. This was a task that could take years. Not something that you could do on the side while focusing on something else.
He still gave it an honest try (mostly by completely giving up on rest and free time for several restarts) and the Filigree Sages seemed pleased by his work, but in the end he decided that he simply couldn't justify the spent effort to himself. While the topic itself was extremely interesting – indeed, many researchers would have quite literally killed to be in his place, studying an otherwise unknown magical tradition – it was ultimately a distraction he, at the moment, didn't need. And really, the actual mind magic instruction he was getting in exchange for his work was little different from what the River Navigators were offering. He did admittedly get to experience a slightly different style of mental combat from the one practiced by River Navigators and most other aranean webs, since the Filigree Sages used methods that revolved around group combat. Not very useful to him, since he didn't have a fellow telepath to use it with, but he did learn some tricks to deal with multiple attackers.
Originally, the Filigree Sages were completely unwilling to teach Zorian any form of memory manipulation. However, after two restarts of studying their webcraft, it became impossible to pretend he was starting from scratch. The next time around, he used an excuse that he'd learned the bare basics from the Cyorian web. He was promptly taken to their matriarch (who had mostly ignored him up until then, preferring to have her underlings interact with him), who seemed very keen on sending an expedition to Cyoria with Zorian's help in order to establish some kind of contact with the Cyorian web. Not even finding out they had all been killed dampened her enthusiasm for the idea of an expedition to Cyoria – it just meant the focus of the expedition shifted from establishing contact to looting the place down to bedrock. Lovely. Regardless, in exchange for transporting the expedition to Cyoria, protecting them from any threats and transporting them back, Zorian was promised… just about anything, really. Even memory manipulation was on the table.
Aside from the fact that agreeing to such a thing would require Zorian to go back to Cyoria, and the fact that he would be helping a group of aranea loot the remains of his friends, there was the little matter of him not being actually sure that the Cyorian web actually used any webcraft. He suspected they did, and many of the things the matriarch had mentioned in her stories and off-hand comments seemed to indicate so in retrospect, but he wasn't actually certain. It was just an excuse he made up to explain his otherwise inexplicable knowledge.
He should definitely go down into the ruins of Cyoria's web and check to see what's in there before agreeing to any such expeditions.
With the Luminous Advocates and the Filigree Sages essentially eliminated from the list of options, at least for the time being, Zorian was left with only three options to serve as an alternative to the River Navigators. The three 'shady' webs that the Illustrious Gem Collectors had warned him about. Zorian was about to start approaching them when Mind Like Fire finally decided to move on from basic telepathic combat drills.
- break -
When Mind Like Fire declared that Zorian's mental defenses were 'passable' and that they would be switching over to honing his offensive arsenal, he was cautiously optimistic but didn't expect much. Practice would probably become less painful, since Mind Like Fire would be on the receiving end of attacks this time, but he didn't really think his attacks would be very effective. Her mental defenses were bound to be excellent.
But then Mind Like Fire told him to hit her with his best shot and simply stood there, content to passively weather the attack and Zorian decided to oblige her. He dumped a positively huge amount of mana into his next attack, the most he could manage without the entire thing losing cohesion, and slammed it straight into her mental shell.
The results were beyond all of his expectations. Rather than simply bouncing off her mental shell like he had expected, the attack effortlessly blew her defenses away and slammed into her unprotected mind like a battering ram. She screeched in pain, spasming and flailing with her whole body, and, for a brief while, there was pandemonium as other nearby aranea burst into the room to see what the fuss was about. Zorian tried to explain what had happened without the whole thing devolving into a fight. For a moment he was sure he would have to flee and was already clutching the recall rod in his hand to teleport away, but Mind Like Fire recovered in time to defuse the situation.
She also insisted on continuing the lessons as if nothing notable had happened, and proceeded to shoo away all the other aranea that had come to her defense.
[Damnation,] Mind Like Fire grumbled once they were alone again. [Not only did I get taken down by a human rookie, but everyone saw it too. I won't live this one down for a long while.]
[Uh, sorry?] tried Zorian. He wasn't sure what to even tell her, in all honesty.
[Don't be,] she said. [It's my fault, really – your inexperience has automatically put me in the mind of one of our young and I foolishly assumed your attack would be like one of theirs. But while your skills at mental combat leave much to be desired, you are still a qualified mage with plenty of mana to burn and considerable experience in managing it. I should have let you face my best defenses and then lowered the strength afterwards. I should have waited to see what your strongest attack was like instead of making assumptions about how strong my shield needed to be. Let that be a lesson to you as well, should you ever teach someone – it is always unwise to be arrogant and carelessly presumptuous, lest you get taken down by some precocious hatchling.]
He was not a freaking hatchling! He was only a year away from being legally recognized as an adult, and was already one if the time spent in the time loop was factored in!
[I didn't do anything permanent, did I?] Zorian asked instead.
[No, of course not. Why do you think- Ah. I see that in my haste to bring your practical skills to a workable level, I have neglected some crucial bits of theory. Like what happens when an attacker manages to break through the defender's defenses.]
[Bad things?] tried Zorian.
[Yes, but perhaps not quite as bad as you'd think,] she countered. [To grossly simplify things, there are four main things one can do to an unshielded target. The first is to simply assault their mind telepathically, seeking to damage it. This is, in almost every case, simply a way to incapacitate the target for a while. It is very difficult to actually kill people through purely mental attacks – usually such attacks simply cause a lot of pain and make the target lose consciousness for a while. Maybe quite a while, and they may suffer from headaches, confusion and amnesia for a time, but even then they are almost guaranteed to eventually recover.]
[Oh. I didn't know that,] Zorian admitted. He honestly thought that getting hit by a sufficiently powerful telepathic barrage could cripple you permanently. Then again, 'for a while' could perhaps mean months or years, so still not something to take lightly. And he was pretty sure a pain-inducing attack could be easily adapted to an instrument of torture. [So you were never in any permanent danger, then, but you'll probably be hurting for a while.]
[Yes, that is the short of it.]
[And the other three things the attacker could do to the target?] Zorian asked.
[Well, the second possibility is that the attacker extracts information out of the target, either by reading their thoughts or probing their memories. Reading thoughts is the easiest option, of course, but often ineffective. Aranea, mages, and quite a few human civilians as well, have learned to maintain certain discipline over their surface thoughts, making it hard to pluck information out of their minds that way. That leaves deep memory reading, and this is not nearly as easy as it sounds, as most people have quite a lot of memories to sift through and can sense when someone is rooting through their heads and resist. Even non-psychics can resist deep memory scans, if they're strong-willed and the psychic isn't very practiced in the skill…]
Zorian remained silent. He had raised the possibility of being taught memory manipulation plenty of times in the past, and she had always told him he wasn't ready yet. He couldn't imagine her answer would be any different now. At least it wasn't a flat out no, he supposed.
[The third and fourth options are what we aranea call deep and surface manipulations. Surface manipulations consist of temporary manipulations, such as fooling the senses or amplifying a particular emotion in the victim to produce a desired reaction. Deep manipulations, on the other hand, are more… permanent. They consist of things such as modifying someone's memories, blanking out entire sections of their life, instilling lasting compulsions or turning them into unaware sleeper agents. Deep techniques are what a lot of humans associate mind magic with, but they are actually rarely used. Such lasting mental alterations require the attacker to dive deep into the victim's mind and spend a lot of time tweaking things, making them hard and time-consuming to use. This is not something you use in a fight – this is something you do to a foe that has been decisively defeated and cannot strike back at you at all. Even among us aranea it is considered something of a dark art. Few of us are proficient in its use.]
Zorian sighed. "This is all leading up to an explanation about why you don't want to teach me any memory manipulation, isn't it?" he said out loud.
[Yes and no,] Mind Like Fire said carefully.
"So a no couched in flowery language," said Zorian derisively. "Man, that's the third refusal in a row. I'm going to have to find more webs to investigate…"
[Oh, have you gone to other webs with this?] she asked, not in the least bothered by his little outburst. [Sounds like quite a story, you'll have to tell me about it later. But don't write us off yet. While it's true that we are not ready to let you root through our minds, even as practice, that doesn't mean we can't help prepare you for when you do eventually find an aranea brave enough to let you read her memories.]
"And you're going to do that by…?"
[The main problem you are facing when trying to read aranean minds is that our ways of perceiving the world are very different from yours. Our many eyes allow us to see the world in three different ways, only one of which – the one provided by our pair of big, forward-facing eyes – is in any way analogous to human vision. We can also sense vibrations through our legs, and our sense of touch is much more sophisticated than yours. It's how we can navigate through the tunnels so easily with no light to see by.]
"You can't see in the dark?" asked Zorian. Most Dungeon-dwellers could.
[No, we need at least a little light to see,] she said. [We do have excellent low-light vision though. But we're getting off track. What I'm trying to say is that even if you received access to an aranean memory, you probably would not be able to parse it. If you want to be able to read aranean memories, you first need to learn how to process the way we perceive the world. And that is where I can help you. I can let you tap into my senses and let you adjust to them. I can even package some of my more inconsequential memories into little packets and send them to you over the telepathic link to help you understand how to deal with memory packages.]
"Oh," Zorian said lamely. Yeah, that did sound useful. Somewhat mollified by her response, he switched back to telepathic communication. [So can we perhaps switch to that right now? I must admit I am getting thoroughly sick of combat drills. I know it's important to practice my mental shields, believe me, but I'm going to go crazy if this continues for much longer.]
[As a matter of fact, yes. I had wanted to wait with such instruction until you could actually break through my mental shields before starting you on that path, but you did succeed with that. Not in a way I had expected or planned for, but fair is fair. We shall start with surface manipulations, since you will need some proficiency with them before you can tap into someone's senses. How much did your other aranean teachers tell you about them?]
[Very little, other than the fact that they exist,] Zorian said. [But surface manipulations are basically mind control, yes? We covered those back in my mage academy. Only theoretically, with an emphasis on identifying the type of mind control and how to fight it, but still.]
[Summarize those lessons for me, please,] Mind Like Fire ordered. [I'd like to see what I'm working with.]
With a wave of his hands, Zorian created a glowing geometric diagram that was informally known as the 'mind control rectangle' among the students and whose official name escaped Zorian at the moment. It was something far too loquacious and complicated for what were basically four words arranged into a simple two-by-two grid – a rectangle divided into four smaller ones, each of the four major methods of manipulating people through mind magic assigned its own corner.
[Pretty,] Mind Like Fire deadpanned. [But I must confess I have never learned how to read human script, so you'll have to explain to me what that means.]
Ah. Right. He sometimes forgot that for all that aranea interacted with humans, they were still alien beings with a completely different culture. Ikosians had possessed an almost religious reverence for the written word, and had spread literacy to every place that had fallen under their domination, so literacy was near universal in places they'd once ruled over. Universal literacy most likely made it much easier to train as many people as possible into mages as well, thus providing tangible benefits for the policy. The aranea, on the other hand, had no such tradition, and probably couldn't use human-style writing effectively anyway. He knew that the Cyorian web had a number of aranea that could read and write, but most aranea probably had no need to master such skills.
[Domination and suggestion represent spells that enforce the caster's will upon the target,] said Zorian, pointing at the upper row of the rectangle. [Domination spells involve the caster outright ordering the target to do something and compelling them to do so against their will. Suggestion attempts to present the order as something the target wants on their own. They are will and situation based; depending on the sort of person you cast such spells at and the circumstances they are in, it might be completely impossible to affect them with this sort of mind magic. Most people will resist orders to kill themselves or their loved ones, for instance, and it is next to impossible to convince a patrolling soldier that you are not the person they are looking for if they had been given your picture or someone singled you out to them.] He pointed at the lower row of the rectangle. [Puppeteering and illusions, on the other hand, are not directly affected by the target's personality and circumstances. Puppeteering flat out usurps the target's control over their body and pilots it like a… well, puppet. Illusions manipulate the target's senses in some fashion. Neither can be resisted as such, although puppeteering has to overcome the target's magic resistance first and illusions can be detected and dispelled.]
Zorian waved his hands again and the illusion split in half, separating the rectangle into left and right halves – domination and puppeteering on the left side, suggestion and illusion on the right side.
[Domination and puppeteering are forceful methods,] he said. [The target knows they are being targeted by a spell, and will usually be furious at the caster when it ends. As such, they are usually used in combat situations, against people who are clear enemies to you. Suggestion and illusion are subtle methods. The target doesn't automatically become aware they have been affected, and in fact the goal is for them to remain unaware as long as possible. They are generally used for criminal and espionage purposes.]
Compulsion spells on the top, hijacking spells on the bottom, forceful spells on the left and subtle spells on the right. Yup, he'd covered everything. He let the illusion evaporate into smoke and settled down to wait for Mind Like Fire's response.
[An interesting breakdown,] she said. [It has a sort of simplistic beauty to it. I'll have to remember that one. The reality is far more complex and less sharply defined… but we'll get to that later, when it's actually relevant. I was never very big on spending time on theory, truth be told. We've wasted enough time on it today and I'd like to get started on something productive.]
The resulting lesson was exceptionally painful, reminding Zorian of his initial lessons with her, several restarts in the past ago… and despite her insistence she was being no harder on him than she was on any of her other students, Zorian knew the sudden ferocity of her lessons was her revenge for catching her off guard.
On the bright side, she calmed down after a week of that. On the less bright side, he would have to piss her off like that on every subsequent restart as well, so he was looking at a week of painful headaches at the start of every restart.
Sometimes you just couldn't win.
- break -
As it turned out, Mind Like Fire's statement about him being unable to understand aranean senses turned out to be not just correct, but a vast understatement. Even after a full month of practice, he couldn't make heads or tails of aranean senses. Even trying to limit his sensory tap into their vision alone left him dizzy and confused, and the less said of their sense of touch, the better. They had a rudimentary sense of taste on their leg hairs! They tasted the ground they walked on! Why for the love of all that was holy would a species need to have an ability like that!?
It also put Novelty's habit of touching everything, him included, in an entirely new and unsettling light…
Not that he'd learned nothing during the entire month. Mind Like Fire did manage to teach him how to affect the minds of others in minor ways. Some of these, like the ability to induce spasms and limb failure, he already knew how to produce - but not very consistently before he'd been lectured on the proper way of hijacking other people's nervous systems. Others, like inducing full body paralysis, lightly dampening or amplifying their emotions, subtly redirecting their attention away from things or inducing failure of one or more of their senses were wholly new to him. But while these things were all unquestionably useful, the total lack of progress on the one thing that he really had to master hit him hard.
In the end, he reluctantly decided to consult the Luminous Advocates for help. As much as they annoyed him, they probably had an answer to his problem. He managed to short-circuit the negotiations with them only two weeks into the restart by simply paying their ridiculous price. It required spending day after day on exploration of the lower levels of Knyazov Dveri's dungeon and selling everything of worth he had found there, but he did manage to talk them down to something halfway reasonable and then just pay them off.
According to the Luminous Advocates, his main problem was that he was basically trying to take on too big of a challenge at once. For one thing, he was trying to tap into the senses of another while still retaining his own, forcing his mind to process different perspectives at once. And no, sitting still with his eyes closed was not nearly enough to get around that. In order to deal with that issue, the Luminous Advocates taught him how to turn his mental abilities inwards and shut off one or more of his senses, leaving only the foreign sensory stream for his mind to process.
Their second suggestion was that he had to practice sensory tap on something easier first. Preferably his fellow humans, as their senses were closest to his own, but some of the more similar animals might also suffice. Only once he'd mastered the art of tapping into the senses of his fellow humans should he bother trying to tap into something as alien as an aranea.
When Zorian tried to do just that by tapping into the senses of a random passerby in a nearby town, he realized they were completely correct. He nearly collapsed from disorientation, even though he was only tapping into familiar human senses this time. It would be a long time before he could move on to something more exotic than a human, it seemed.
Which presented him with something of a problem. While Zorian's mental abilities were currently good enough that he didn't fear discovery every time he used them on some random civilian, he could hardly guarantee that he would never mess up and reveal to his target that he was messing with their heads. And frankly, you could never really be sure that your target really was 'a random civilian' – it was all too possible to step into the mind of some high-ranking mage good at blending in with the crowd, or to encounter a civilian trained to detect such intrusions. And the response of the mage guild to rogue mind mages was harsh. He didn't want a guild hunter team after him, even if the time loop would probably shield him from the worst of the consequences.
And that was without even considering the moral dimension of the whole thing. Picking on innocent people for the sake of personal training was not the road he wanted to go on, and dismissing their plight as irrelevant due to the time loop struck him as an unhealthy attitude to have. He might have justified the whole thing to himself if it was just a matter of tapping into their senses, since that was mostly harmless, but the Luminous Advocates made it clear this wasn't the only skill he would have to practice on his fellow humans to get right. He would encounter the exact same issues when he tried to master memory manipulation – even after accounting for their different senses, aranean minds were sufficiently different that he would need to practice on something more similar to himself before he tried to interpret their memories. And practicing memory probes was neither safe, harmless nor inconspicuous.
He needed an acceptable target.
- break -
Zorian walked carefully through the streets of Cyoria, scanning the crowds for any signs of hostility with every sense he had available. He had a feeling his tension and nervousness was very obvious to people around him, but then again he was hardly the only person who was nervous. The random monsters welling up from the dungeon had spooked many a native, and there was a sense of tension in the city that hadn't been there the last time he'd been in the city.
This was his second recent visit to Cyoria, and it was just as uneventful as his first. He had even deliberately walked into some back alleys and more isolated parts of the city to see if Red Robe or one of his agents would confront him once he was out of the public eye, but no such things happened. He wasn't even confronted by a band of rough-looking men trying to steal his belongings, like it usually happened in the trashy adventure novels he read from time to time. Sighing, he twisted the top of the recall rod hanging off his belt and was promptly teleported to the outskirts of the city. The location was totally unremarkable – it wasn't lived in, and had been trapped to hell and back over the course of several weeks – Zorian could come and go as he pleased, but if the ward surrounding the area detected anyone other than him appearing inside, it would unleash a plethora of traps on the interloper – the nastiest and most lethal of traps that he had the capacity to make and install.
He repeated the action three times in quick succession, recalling himself to three additional, similar spots, walked off in a random direction for an hour or so and then finally teleported himself to his real destination.
Two days later, when no one tried to track him down to a small, remote village he'd chosen for his current base (mostly because it was in the middle of nowhere with nothing but fields of wheat for miles in any direction), he finally breathed a sigh of relief… and promptly started planning his next foray into the city. Next time he was checking out the aranea ruins to see if Red Robe had put any tripwires there to alert him of intruders coming there.
When Zorian first got the idea of going back to Cyoria, he had immediately dismissed it as madness. He wasn't ready, and acting prematurely could potentially ruin everything. However, the more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. Red Robe clearly wasn't trying to locate him anymore – if he had been doing so, Zorian wouldn't have lasted nearly as long as he had, he was quite sure of that. Why Red Robe felt no need to locate him, when he clearly wanted to get rid of any rival time travelers, Zorian did not know. He'd feared that the other time traveler had maybe placed tripwires in Cyoria to alert him when he came back, but even that seemed increasingly unlikely at this point – Zorian had been all over Cyoria during his two brief forays into the city, even in parts of the Academy, and nothing of note happened.
That was important, partly because Zorian felt like he was going a little crazy and desperately wanted to see some familiar faces, at least for a short while, but also because Cyoria held some perfect targets for him to practice his growing mind magic skills on. The matriarch solved at least a part of the time loop's mystery by ferreting out information out of the heads of Ibasan invaders and their supporters. Why couldn't Zorian do the same? He would not only be advancing his abilities in preparations of opening the matriarch's memory package, he would also be tackling the mystery of the time loop from another direction. Two birds with one stone.
He wasn't going to move back into the city yet. He would continue testing the place for a while still. Try to spend a whole week in there, show up for a class or two. But if Red Robe's response turned out to be as non-existent as this?
His long exile from the city was about to end.
- break -
Zorian spent the next three restarts alternating between Mind Like Fire's lessons and making forays into Cyoria. He was never attacked while in Cyoria, not even when he combed through the aranean corpse-filled settlement in one of the restarts. A part of him felt that was highly suspicious, but ultimately it didn't keep him away from the place.
Especially since he was starting to reach the limits of what Mind Like Fire was willing to teach him. His mental defenses were top-notch, and his ability to strike back at hostile minds was nothing to scoff at either – even Mind Like Fire admitted she actually had to take him seriously these days. She had taught him all of the simple tricks and basic techniques she dared give him access to, and he was even getting the hang of tapping into aranean senses – the Luminous Advocates were right, it went a whole lot easier after he had mastered the art of tapping into purely human senses first. If he wanted to get any benefit from her teachings, he would have to spend a few restarts practicing deep memory scans on humans first.
Of course, that would require finding an aranea that was willing to teach him even the basics of such memory scans. Mind Like Fire's reaction to that was a firm refusal, since that would involve lowering all of her defenses and letting Zorian dive deep into her private memories. Even among themselves, the aranea considered such an act to be one of great trust and significance. It didn't help that when Mind Like Fire challenged Zorian to provide similar access to his own memories to her, he had little choice but to say no.
He did know that the Filigree Sages were willing to play along if he let them loot the Cyoria settlement, but Zorian had been unable to find much in the way of webcraft when he searched the settlement in one of his brief forays, so he wasn't sure whether that would actually work out at all.
Then, near the end of the last restart, something interesting happened. Zorian had gotten permission from Bridge of Moonlight to stay in the River Navigators' main settlement for a while after he helped them dig up a brand new cavern with alteration spells, and was present in the matriarch's chamber when a messenger from the Yellow Cavern Guardians arrived to plead with the River Navigators' matriarch for help.
The Yellow Cavern Guardians, he had found, were on the verge of extinction. A few days before the start of the time loop, the caverns from which they got their name – and which their survival and prosperity depended on – had been taken over by some huge monster from the deeper levels of the dungeon. The creature was too magic-resistant to be affected with mind magic, extremely tough, and also regenerated. Roughly a week and a half into the restart, the Yellow Cavern Guardians were starting to get desperate. In an attempt to retake their cavern, they had decided to launch an all-out attack, seeking to drive the monster off. It was an utter disaster, and the Yellow Cavern Guardians lost both their matriarch and her two successors/assistants/somethings. Now leaderless as well as desperate, the Yellow Cavern Guardians went into a panic (well, they claimed they 'deliberated things', but Zorian knew how to read between the lines) before begging for help from anyone they thought would listen.
Sadly for them, the River Navigators had no intention of messing around with a creature capable of taking on an entire aranean web and winning. Fortunately for them, Zorian was not nearly so intimidated.
The last time he'd offered aid, he'd been rudely refused. But last time, he'd asked at the start of the restart, when their leadership had still been alive and believed they could handle things. They had probably been more worried about him taking advantage of their momentary weakness and had not felt they needed all the help they could get. Now that their leadership was dead, however, they were not in a position to be nearly as picky.
He didn't even have to ask – the messenger approached him with a plea for help on her own, after Bridge of Moonlight blew the messenger off and she'd realized that Zorian was there.
After hammering out some basic agreement (which could be summarized as 'we'll agree to anything, just give us back our cavern!') Zorian recalled himself and the messenger to the recall stone he had left on the surface and then immediately teleported them to where he knew the Yellow Cavern Guardians were. The messenger seemed shocked he knew where to find them without her guidance, and a bit disoriented from the rapid succession of teleporting, but she recovered quickly and led him to what passed as leadership of their web for the moment.
Several hours later, he found himself at the entrance to a vast cave overgrown with a fungal forest, a pair of Yellow Cavern Guardians 'guards' watching him from deeper into the access tunnel. Supposedly they were ready to intervene if he ran into trouble at any point, but he was pretty sure they were just going to stay on their asses if he got attacked and then, if he lost, mournfully report he had tragically ended up as monster chow before they could do anything. They seemed terrified even to be there.
Zorian created a floating eye out of ectoplasm and sent it deeper into the cave to get some basic sense of its contents and layout. His recent practice with tapping into other people's senses made processing what the eye was sending him child's play, and he no longer had to close his eyes to use it.
He had to admit one thing - the cavern was simply breathtaking. It was huge, and almost entirely covered with a dizzying variety of giant mushrooms. The more familiar umbrella-mushrooms existed between ones that resembled leafless trees and long, fleshy spikes and berries. Looking over them, Zorian even spotted several that appeared to be whitish plants rather than mushrooms, complete with small flowers and atrophied leaves. The largest of them glowed with a faint blue light that suffused the entire cavern with weak, shadowy light.
Underground forests like this one were treasure troves of information and interesting alchemical ingredients, and were highly sought after by both humans and dungeon denizens. And this one was both huge and largely unspoiled. No wonder the Yellow Cavern Guardians were so protective of it.
His appreciation of the view was quickly interrupted, however – the monster wasn't hard to find.
It was right in the center of the cave, sitting like a king in a small, shallow lake situated there. Well, shallow in a relative sense. Zorian could have submerged himself easily in its center, but it was barely a puddle for the monster who towered over the waters. It looked like a giant frog, albeit one whose mother had mated with a troll and which was then raised solely on muscle-growth potions from the day it was born. Knobby, dark green skin covered a creature that was at least five meters tall, even while crouching, and its limbs were thick and practically bursting at the seams from the sheer muscles it was sporting. Oh, and they ended in huge, sharp claws rather than suction cups.
One of the frog-thing's eyes swiveled in its socket to focus on Zorian's ectoplasmic eye, noticing the intruder, but the creature remained motionless and eventually returned to its silent vigil, ignoring the sensor. The monster had knocked down all the fungus surrounding the lake, probably to give itself a better view of its new domain, and was now just standing in the lake in the center, periodically shifting in place so it could stare at the different parts of the cavern.
Zorian dismissed the sensor and turned to the two guards behind him.
"I'm going to need a few days to prepare," he said.
- break -
Three days before the end of the restart, Zorian was ready to try and kill the giant frog monster that had driven the Yellow Cavern Guardians out of their home. His plan was simple: fire.
Lots and lots of fire.
When he finally arrived at the cavern entrance, he first made sure the frog-thing was still where he had last left it (it was) and then carefully lowered an ignition stone into the crate full of highly flammable alchemical bricks he had been levitating behind him. Once that was done, he created an illusion around the crate to make it look like an aranea and sent it floating along the ground towards the monster. He trailed after the crate under the guise of invisibility, a huge, solid steel golem trailing beside him. The golem was fully visible, and mostly served as a big, visible target for the creature's ire if this whole thing went south.
Zorian had considered a number of methods to trick the monster into eating the decoy, but none of them turned out to be necessary. It seemed that the claims of the Yellow Cavern Guardians about how the creature loved eating aranea were spot on, because the creature barely even looked at the disguised crate before attacking. A long, ropy, blood red tongue lashed out at the crate with dizzying speed, reeling it into its wide open maw in the blink of an eye.
The moment the frog thing's mouth snapped shut, Zorian sent a mana burst at the ignition stone in the crate, causing the whole thing to blow up in its mouth.
The resulting scream was quite possibly the most disturbing sound he'd ever heard in his entire life. It wasn't a croak or anything even remotely froglike. It sounded like a whole herd of pigs being slaughtered messily, over and over and over again. The frog thing vomited a stream of fire, blood and bile, trying to expel the offending substance to no avail – Zorian had specifically chosen an alchemical product whose fire clung to the surface like glue, and no matter how hard it tried, it could not remove the burning gunk that covered its insides. Truthfully, its attempt to vomit out the compound was only making things worse. It would have had more luck by keeping its mouth shut and trying to starve the fire of oxygen.
Sadly, after a few more futile attempts, the monster suddenly stopped struggling, noticed Zorian and his golem, and immediately charged towards them.
Zorian silently motioned for his golem to meet the creature's charge with one of its own, not even questioning how the creature knew he was there. Dungeon denizens had all kinds of ridiculous abilities and senses, especially powerful ones like these. He sent a wave of force at the creature's feet, managing to trip it up a bit and allowing his golem to slam its metal fist straight into its face. Though much bigger than his creation, the creature seemed momentarily stunned at the hit and didn't have enough time to dodge when Zorian hit it with a massive fireball.
Annoyingly, it still wasn't dead. It screamed again, scorched from both inside and outside, its eyes reduced to ruined husks by the fireball. But it still found enough strength to tear apart his golem (which he had spent ages crafting and reinforcing) in a flurry of violence. It ripped both of its arms out of their sockets, snapped the main body in half, and flung the pieces into the distance. The armless remains of the upper torso impacted the ground not far from Zorian, but he remained silent and still, hoping to avoid notice.
It would have been nice to say that what followed next was some epic battle where he bravely strode forth to finish the monster once and for all, but in truth, he simply evaded the creature's notice and waited as it rampaged throughout the forest for a while, looking for more targets. The loss of its vision seemed to really hurt it, and it never even came close to detecting his location. At some point it simply stopped and keeled over, finally dead after having succumbed to its many wounds.
Still - a victory was a victory, wasn't it?
His "guards" had fled from their posts at some point in the battle, so Zorian slowly made his way towards the Yellow Cavern Guardians' temporary camp to give them the good news.
- break -
The two Yellow Cavern Guardians that came to check up if he was telling the truth stared silently at the charred corpse of the frog-thing that had nearly ruined them. Zorian tried to be respectful and wait for them come to terms with the fact that he had actually succeeded in killing it, but after five minutes he was really starting to get impatient. And annoyed – it wasn't that unbelievable that he'd succeeded at this, surely?
He cleared his throat, finally getting their attention.
"About my payment…" he began.
- break -
Zorian's eyes abruptly shot open as a sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.
"Good morning, brother!" an annoyingly cheerful voice sounded right on top of him. "Morning, morning, MORNING!"
Zorian sighed. He really wished that not all of his restarts began this way.
"Good morning to you too, Kiri," he said politely. "Mind getting off me?"
"Hmm…" she pretended to think about it. "Nope! I think I'll stay like this for a while."
"That's unfortunate," he said blandly.
"You know you're going back to academy today, right?" she asked him.
"How could I forget?" he responded. "The real question is, do you want to come with me?"
Kirielle's eyes expanded comically, like those of a particularly startled cat. "Really!?"
"I wouldn't have asked if I wasn't certain," Zorian said.
Five minutes later, Zorian managed to distract an ecstatic Kirielle with an illusionary bird and get her to stop babbling and start packing her luggage.
He, on the other hand, was ready. He had learned the basics of deep mental scanning from the Yellow Cavern Guardians last restart, he was certain that simply being in Cyoria wasn't dangerous in itself, and he had a rough plan of where to go from now on.
It was time to visit his old Academy again.