Chapter 060

Into the Abyss

Zorian didn't have time to ponder Quatach-Ichl and his crown for long. Right after his brief conversation with Zach, a trio of artillery spells impacted the enemy lines in front of them, kicking up plumes of dust into the air and throwing the battlefield into chaos. Evidently that was meant to provide a smokescreen for their group, because Alanic announced they would begin their advance towards the Hole immediately after.

The entire battlegroup surged forward like a coiled spring, eager to take advantage of the distraction. Zorian found himself struggling to keep up – most of the mages in the battlegroup were physically fit adults, and Zorian was physically unimpressive even by the standard of his own peers. It took everything out of him to match their speed and not fall behind. Even then, he would have never lasted more than a handful of seconds if he hadn't drunk a stamina potion before the battle.

Zorian had always known that being physically fit was an important requirement for a battlemage, if only because that's what the academy named as the reason behind forcing first-year and second-year students to take physical education classes. Before the time loop, however, he had never really understood why it was important. It wasn't about the ability to take hits or having backup when someone managed to force you into close-quarter combat, though these concerns weren't wholly irrelevant either – it was about mobility. A physically fit person could move faster around the battlefield while carrying more and tiring less.

It was only in moments such as these that Zorian realized how important that was and how much his weak, scrawny body limited him. He really had to figure out some kind of workaround for that, but a simple stamina potion would do for now. At least he wasn't the only one who had neglected his body – Xvim also had to take the aforementioned potion to keep up with the group, which made Zorian feel a little better about himself.

As they ran, Zorian noticed that Quatach-Ichl was gone from his spot. A quick consultation with his marker determined that the ancient lich had teleported himself a fair distance from the battle site, roughly in the direction from which the artillery spells came.

Well. That was… really unfortunate for those artillery mages. Looks like they would get no more support from them. However, since every second of Quatach-Ichl's absence was good for Zorian and his group, it was probably better this way. Was he callous for thinking that way? Probably. However, maybe it was because the end of the restart was so close or because it was hard to feel sorry for people he never met, but he couldn't help but take a strictly pragmatic stance about this. He directed a silent thanks to the mages for their sacrifice and then put them out of his mind.

Their approach was noticed very quickly, despite the distraction, and a portion of the enemy force broke off to confront them. The enemy organization was still in disarray from the artillery magic attack, so the response force was less numerous than it could have been. Even so, they were pitted against about one hundred or so mages, twenty war trolls, a regiment of skeleton soldiers and a small iron beak flock.

Easily manageable, in Zorian's estimation. Though Alanic's entire battlegroup had a little less than one hundred people, they were better equipped and probably more skilled than the average invader mage. Plus, they had Zach and Zorian on their side. The question was less whether or not they could sweep the enemy forces aside, but whether they could do so before Quatach-Ichl came back.

Soon, spells started flying on both sides. The enemy mages struck first, hurling wave after wave of magical projectiles at the approaching battlegroup. Fire bolts, beams of electricity and javelins of force were concentrated upon specific parts of the battlegroup and timed together so they would arrive at their targets simultaneously in an attempt to overwhelm individual defenses with impossible force. In response, the battlegroup stopped advancing at maximum speed and shifted into a staggered advance, the front half of the group halting in place to better shield the whole and counterattack while the back half surged forward. Once the back half of the group overtook the defending half, they switched roles, the previously defending half suddenly advancing towards the enemy while the other half covered them and responded to attacks.

Though such tactics greatly slowed down their advance, they were very effective. Despite repeated attacks, the battlegroup didn't lose a single person as it edged closer and closer to the assembled enemy forces. The incoming projectiles were dispelled, shielded against and intercepted by floating chunks of stone ripped from surrounding roadway. All the while, the battlegroup kept sending out their own waves of attack spells at the invaders, scattering the attacks across the entire enemy group at first and then focusing the majority of their efforts on the weak links among the enemy mages that they identified with this probing barrage. With every exchange, several invaders ended up dead or dying with very little to show for it.

At this point, the enemy mages panicked. They ordered their war trolls, iron beaks and skeleton warriors to charge the battlegroup and stopped pacing themselves, burning through their mana reserves like crazy to throw out as much firepower as they could in the shortest possible time. Caught off-guard by the desperate gambit, three of the mages that made up the battlegroup ended up dead in the initial rush. Afterwards, however, the battlegroup quickly reorganized itself to counter the attack, stopping their advance in favor of a purely defensive posture.

Alanic, Xvim and Zach became more active at this point. Alanic took a few seconds to conjure a huge, animated bird made out of brilliant orange flame and sent the resulting firebird at the approaching flock of iron beaks. It proceeded to easily annihilate the flock, simply by flying through them, and then swooped down towards a cluster of enemy mages to continue its rampage. One of the mages managed to hit it with a dispelling wave before it could connect with the group, but rather than collapse upon itself like most magical constructs did when dispelled, the firebird detonated into a massive firestorm that swallowed both the group targeted by the firebird and the groups adjacent to it.

At that point, however, Alanic was no longer paying attention to the firebird. The moment he had finished casting it and sent it on its way, he had shifted his attention to the charging war trolls and skeleton warriors. He pointed his staff at the war trolls and fired five tiny orange bullets at them in quick succession. The small orange bullets shone very brightly, like miniature stars, and were incredibly fast. In the blink of an eye, they reached the war trolls and detonated into massive conflagrations, far bigger and hotter than any mundane fireball could manage.

Most of the war trolls were incinerated on the spot, but five of them were that strange sort of hyper-resilient trolls that Zorian sometimes encountered among invading forces – the sort that were extremely well warded against fire and other forms of damage. These war trolls survived Alanic's spell bombardment, but were still singed and dazed by it, so Alanic shifted his attention to the rapidly approaching horde of skeleton warriors instead.

The undead horde had been thinned somewhat by a continuous barrage of attacks coming from the rest of the battlegroup, but there were several hundred skeleton warriors and these ones proved to be resilient against most forms of magic. Powerful wards seemed to have been etched into their bones, protecting them against common attack spells. It seemed inevitable that at least a quarter of the skeleton warriors would survive to close into melee with the battlegroup, which would be disastrous. The moment the horde got close, however, Alanic made a sharp, grasping motion towards it with his free hand.

There was no visible spell emanating from Alanic, but the pinpricks of sinister light burning inside the empty eye sockets of every skeleton warrior were instantly snuffed out. The entire horde of skeletons silently collapsed to the ground, like puppets with their strings cut.

Meanwhile, Xvim mostly concentrated his energies on countering the enemy mages. Whenever the invaders attempted to concentrate their fire somewhere, he conjured translucent purple clouds in front of the area, and at least half of the spells that had entered the cloud would end up being dispelled by the time they passed through it. Sometimes, when the enemy mages tried to employ some especially powerful spell, he would fire fast moving, milky white globes of ectoplasm that unerringly homed in and collided with the enemy projectiles, activating them prematurely. Very rarely, when there was nothing major to be countered, Xvim fired bright blue bullets at enemy shields – whenever one of those bullets connected with a barrier, it instantly collapsed and went away, regardless of how strong it seemed.

Strangely enough, Zach didn't join in the rest of the battlegroup in peppering the enemy with spells. Instead, he spent most of his time ripping large chunks of the pavement out of the ground and hurling them at the enemy like a living catapult. It was crude, but surprisingly effective – stone and gravel could not be dispelled, and stopping all that mass was anything but easy. For the most part, the only defense against Zach's catapult impersonation was to move out of the way – which was not always an option, and, more often than not, exposed the target to equally lethal threats. The five war trolls that survived Alanic's fire stars, for instance, were too dazed to move out of the way in time, and were promptly crushed to death by several tons of falling rocks.

For a moment Zorian wondered why more people don't try and do what Zach was doing, but then realized that most people weren't nearly accurate enough to pull that off. Unlike normal offensive spells, Zach's rocks did not home in on the target. It probably took literal decades of practice for Zach to be so unerringly accurate with his improvised projectiles.

As for Zorian himself, he didn't bother joining in on the spell exchange. He knew that spending his limited mana reserves on these spell exchanges wasn't the wisest course of action for him. Instead, he roamed through the enemy ranks with his telepathy, hunting for easy targets. Many of the enemy mages had at least some form of mental defense, but the quality varied greatly. Some of them were only weakly defended, and quite a few had no mental defenses at all. Zorian viciously punished such carelessness whenever he found it, driving telepathic knives into their thoughts and puppeteering their bodies into attacking their comrades. He was fairly sure he was doing way more damage by doing that than he ever could by casting mundane combat spells.

He also used his mind sense and his marker to keep an eye for ambushes and Quatach-Ichl's return. Because of that, he managed to catch a trio of enemy mages trying to circle the battlegroup and attack them from behind. Although their invisibility spell was good, they were slow to react when Zorian suddenly attacked them with a severing beam, and all three ended up being cut in half by it.

Suddenly, Zorian's mind sense detected a mind below their feet, rapidly ascending to the surface. It wasn't the first time he experienced something like this, so he knew what he was dealing with.

"Rock worm!" he shouted, shining a harmless beam of light at the spot the creature was about to emerge from.

Without a word, the mages scattered from the emergence point and set up a kill zone around it. The rock worm attempted to compensate, somehow detecting the shifting positions of its targets through the ground, but Zorian immediately adjusted the beam of light to warn others of its movements. Too stubborn to break off the attack, the rock worm emerged to the surface anyway, erupting out of the ground in a spray of gravel. It lasted less than five seconds before it was sliced apart into several pieces by surrounding mages that were waiting for it.

And then it happened. The moment Zorian had been dreading and was diligently on the lookout for – Quatach-Ichl was back. His return came in the form of teleporting right behind the battlegroup, and then trying to catch them off-guard with a surprise attack from behind. It would have worked like a charm, too, except that Zorian by now somewhat understood how the ancient lich thought and had deliberately chosen to linger in the back of the battlegroup in anticipation of this.

With blinding speed, the ancient lich pointed its bony finger at the thickest concentration of mages in his sight. Zorian didn't bother shouting a warning – it would never reach Quatach-Ichl's targets in time – he just reached into his pocket and flung a pitch black metal cube at the lich.

A jagged red beam of disintegration magic erupted from the lich's finger, seeking to slice apart its unfortunate victims. The cube Zorian threw at the lich was much slower, and would never reach the lich before the disintegration beam did its grisly work. However, it did not need to – instead of traveling in the direction the lich was pointing, the red beam curved through the air towards the black cube, hitting it instead. The cube seemed to drink in the light, absorbing it utterly instead of disintegrating. It then continued forward unimpeded, but it never actually reached the ancient lich – a quick gesture from Quatach-Ichl send it careening to the side, where is impacted uselessly against the pavement.

While this was happening, Zorian raised his hand into the air and created a loud boom to draw people's attention to what was happening in the back of the battlegroup.

"The lich is here!" he shouted.

However, rather than continue attacking the back lines, Quatach-Ichl teleported again. The distance was very short, however, simply getting him to the right of the battlegroup. There he fired the disintegration beam again, and this time Zorian was in no position to counter him with another cube. Zach was there, but he was caught off guard and all he could do was raise a quick shield in front of himself. Other people managed to shield themselves too, but not everyone reacted in time. The jagged red beam cut a swath of destruction straight into the heart of the battlegroup, killing and wounding at least 15 mages.

Rather than wait for a response, Quatach-Ichl teleported again, this time to the left of the battlegroup. However, this was where Xvim was stationed and he was quicker to react than Zach. Another jagged red beam shot out of Quatach-Ichl's hand, impacting the dark green shield Xvim erected between himself and the ancient lich. Quatach-Ichl swept his hand sideways, trying to repeat his recent move and simply maneuver the beam through the whole group until he encountered a weak link or two, but found that the beam refused to obey his commands. It remained stubbornly 'stuck' to Xvim's shield, twisting and warping in order to stay connected to it.

Quatach-Ichl dropped the disintegration beam then, but before he could do anything else, Xvim thrusted his hand forward and the dark green shield surged forward like a battering ram, crashing into the ancient lich. Quatach-Ichl was forced to take a step back, but was otherwise unharmed. On the other hand, this momentary distraction allowed an entire barrage of offensive spells from the rest of the battlegroup to reach him.

Quatach-Ichl suddenly sped up, his movement becoming a blur, and cast shield after shield. Every spell was blocked, sidestepped or even reflected back to the caster. He then stomped his foot against the ground, causing a massive sheet of rock and gravel to rise from the pavement and fly towards the battlegroup. A combined wave of force from numerous mages managed to blow most of the sheet away before it could flatten everybody, but by then Quatach-Ichl had teleported away again.

At least four people ended up dead in the exchange, partially as a result of reflected spells and partially because one large chunk of gravel managed to get through the force wave.

As if completing the circuit, Quatach-Ichl teleported next to the front of the battlegroup. Not only was this where Alanic had been waiting for him, however – this time both Xvim and Zach had followed him by teleporting to the front as well. Zorian remained at the back of the group, knowing he was too weak in direct combat to do more than get in the way against Quatach-Ichl. That didn't mean he couldn't help in his own way, though…

Alanic fired some kind of golden orb at Quatach-Ichl the moment he had appeared, which produced an almost panicked reaction from the ancient lich. He immediately erected a fancy-looking triple-layered shield in front of himself, which was probably a good idea since the golden orb passed through the first two layers as if they weren't there and was only stopped by the third one. Quatach-Ichl was then immediately attacked by Zach and Xvim, who struck against him simultaneously from opposite sides. Zach launched six black, flying blades at the lich while Xvim fired some kind of layered white orb at him.

The lich suddenly sped up again. Zorian was entirely sure at this point that these bursts of speed represented the lich hasting itself with some pretty powerful temporal acceleration. Regardless of the truth of the matter, the extra speed allowed the lich to dodge the black blades and dispel the layered orb.

Well, try to dispel the layered orb. When the dispelling wave hit it, it only shaved off the surface layer of the orb, but most of the projectile continued on unimpeded.

At this point, the lich tried to teleport again. However, it was too late. Zorian had finished hastily carving the spell formula into the ground beneath him and proceeded to pour most of his mana reserves into the ward he was casting, anchoring it to the spell formula beneath his feet. A powerful anti-teleportation field immediately snapped into place around the entire area and the lich's teleportation spell fizzled out.

The layered orb impacted straight into Quatach-Ichl's chest. With a high-pitched grinding sound, it drilled straight through the lich's armor and detonated inside his rib cage. The ancient lich's entire skeleton was suddenly illuminated in arcing white light that seemed to lock down Quatach-Ichl's movements. At the same time, Zach's flying blades that Quatach-Ichl had previously managed to dodge suddenly reversed direction and slashed at the lich again. Their pitch black surface sank deep into the ancient lich's bones, effortlessly slicing through the nigh-indestructible material. In less than a second, both of the lich's arms were severed at the shoulder and the blades pressed on. Alanic started to make his move again…

Suddenly, a massive wave of dark red force erupted from Quatach-Ichl's form in all directions, flinging Zach, Alanic and Xvim away from the ancient lich. The wave then continued on, slamming into the rest of the battlegroup and flinging them about. The physical part of the wave had been blocked before it reached Zorian, but there seemed to be a soul magic aspect to the wave that went through normal magical barriers as if they weren't there. Zorian's soul, strongly shielded as it was by now, weathered the assault without issue, but many of the mages around him staggered or even fainted under the spiritual pressure of the wave crashing into them.

Less than a second after the wave passed, Alanic was back on his feet again, having apparently weathered the sudden attack with little consequences. Xvim and Zach, however, were a lot less fortunate. They remained on the ground, still alive and moving but in no position to counter Quatach-Ichl at the moment. Zach looked particularly affected, rolling around on the ground as if in great pain.

"Crap," Zorian hissed. He poked the mage near him that seemed least affected by the wave and pointed to the spell formula at his feet. "Guard this so the lich can't teleport away, okay?"

He didn't wait for the man's answer. He simply sped off towards Zach, hoping he was not too late. If Quatach-Ichl hit Zach with some heavy soul magic while he was incapacitated, it would be a total disaster. Damn it, he shouldn't have agreed to this…

Thankfully, the lich didn't prioritize finishing off the two downed opponents, partially because it was too busy re-attaching its arms (apparently it just needed to levitate them back to his shoulders and they fused back on their own; such bullshit) and partially because Alanic had launched a savage attack on it almost immediately. The warrior priest launched golden orb after golden orb at the lich, forcing it to frantically shield and dodge, but it was obvious he couldn't keep it up and was only succeeding in keeping the lich busy.

Zorian finally succeeded in reaching Zach and started dragging him away from the battle. Thankfully, despite taking a soul attack at pretty much point blank, he seemed to be largely unharmed.

"Fuck, that hurt," Zach complained. "I hate soul magic."

He had the presence of mind to whine about things. That was a good sign. He couldn't have been hurt that badly, then.

At this point Xvim also started to stagger back to his feet, apparently quicker to recover than Zach. Unfortunately, Alanic's attack also started flagging a bit by then, and Quatach-Ichl decided that there was time to put down his two mostly-disabled opponents for good before they could recover. Like the previous two times, he suddenly sped up and launched two dark red orbs – one towards Zach and one towards Xvim.

Zorian immediately threw another absorption cube at the path of the orb, knowing it was probably a waste of time to try and shield against it. The orb was thankfully drawn into the cube and sucked into it, just like the disintegration beam earlier, so that was one crisis averted. However, he was in no position to save Xvim. Poor Xvim, there was no way he could-

Almost contemptuously, Xvim backhanded the incoming dark red orb with his left hand, as if striking an errant child's ball instead of a magical construct. Against all common logic, the spell didn't detonate against his hand like a proper magical projectile, and was instead deflected to the side. It impacted the ground to the left of Xvim, blowing up a chunk of the road but doing little else of note.


Perhaps it was Zorian's imagination, but even Quatach-Ichl seemed a little shocked at the sight.

Then the moment passed and the battles began again. Alanic and Xvim began exchanging spell fire with Quatach-Ichl in earnest again, and Zorian took advantage of that to drag Zach away into the relative safety of the battlegroup. By now, the battlegroup itself was starting to recover from Quatach-Ichl's weird soul wave attack and joined in on the battle with Quatach-Ichl, taking off some of the pressure from Xvim and Alanic. Unfortunately, most of them couldn't deal with the lich's counterattacks nearly as well as Xvim and Alanic could, so they tended to die a lot. In less than a minute, more than 20 of them ended up dead, though this didn't dissuade the rest of the battlegroup from trying to help.

At this point, Quatach-Ichl seemed to have decided he had bitten off more than he could chew and tried to unravel the anti-teleportation ward Zorian erected. A powerful dispelling wave swept through the area, seeking to undo Zorian's work… and failed. If Zorian had simply covered the area with a free-floating ward, Quatach-Ichl's ploy would have probably succeeded. However, Zorian had taken the time and effort to anchor the ward to a spell formula, making it far too stable to be destroyed on a whim.

Unfortunately for Zorian, Quatach-Ichl seemed to realize this as well… and the spell seemed to have provided him with some kind of feedback information about the ward, because he immediately went after the ward anchor. In a brief pause between the attacks, he suddenly crouched and jumped, soaring through the air as if gravity held no power over him. He flew over most of the battlegroup and landed squarely next to the ward anchor. The mage Zorian had tasked with the anchor's defense stood his ground against the lich, along with a dozen others, but they were all swept aside with a casual wave of Quatach-Ichl's hand.

The moment the defending mages were sent flying, Quatach-Ichl sped up again and surged forward, slamming his hand into the center of the crudely-etched spell formula. The surrounding ground immediately shattered, destroying the anchor, and before Zorian could so much as blink, the lich was gone. Teleported away.

A quick consultation of his marker told him that this time, the lich was nowhere near.

The battlegroup took several minutes to recover, regroup and count their dead, and then continued onward towards the Hole. Out of almost a hundred of them at the start of the battle, only 42 survived until the end, and 5 of those were too wounded to continue on with them.

Zorian felt they had been pretty lucky, all things considered.

- break -

The closer they got to the Hole, the fiercer, more numerous and more capable their enemies became. Despite this, they only lost a handful of their remaining mages in these conflicts – as intense as these battles were, they were something the battlemages knew how to deal with. Additionally, they were just one group of Cyorian soldiers pushing towards the Hole – there were other, bigger groups that were assaulting the place from different directions. The invaders couldn't spare to send too much of their forces against a relatively minor incursion like theirs.

Quatach-Ichl left them alone for quite a while after his departure. As far as Zorian could puzzle out from the lich's movements and random thoughts he had lifted from the minds of enemy mages, this was because their clash with the ancient lich kept him away from other, more critical battlefields, which led to a partial collapse of invader defenses around the Hole. Thus, he was too busy propping his forces back up and putting out fires to properly deal with them.

He did not entirely leave them alone, however. He occasionally teleported near them and attempted to catch them off guard in various ways. One such attempt consisted of the lich teleporting high into the air above them and trying to bombard them while flying. Another involved him teleporting a pair of thunder lizards right next to the group. A third one involved Quatach-Ichl teleporting a fair distance from the group and then conjuring a miniature horde of animated creatures to attack them. These attacks never really accomplished much, in large part because Zorian could track him through his crown and thus always knew when he was coming. In any case, Quatach-Ichl never lingered long, teleporting away the moment his latest scheme failed.

Zorian was especially fond of the two thunder lizards the lich brought him – since Quatach-Ichl had taken them away from their controllers, there was no one to contest Zorian's control once he tried to subvert their minds. Instead of the thunder lizards rampaging through the battlegroup, Zorian ended up taking control of them and gleefully used them against every subsequent enemy group they encountered. They were so effective in Zorian's hands that Quatach-Ichl eventually showed up just to get rid of them again.

Too bad the ancient lich didn't linger long enough for Zorian to thank him for his gift.

Unfortunately, there were limits to everything. Once they started getting dangerously close to their destination, Quatach-Ichl decided that enough was enough. He teleported into the area around the battlegroup once again, and this time he brought 15 more mages with him. It was obvious this wasn't going to be just another probing strike this time – the ancient lich was ready for round two.

And his very first move upon teleporting in was to thrust his skeletal hand straight at Zorian, launching a shining green javelin directly towards his chest.

Why? Hell if Zorian knew. Maybe he noticed that Zorian had some way of tracking his movements and detecting his presence. Maybe the way he had trapped the lich in an anti-teleportation ward and subverted his thunder lizards had left a particularly big impression on him. Ultimately, the only thing that matter was that Quatach-Ichl evidently wanted to see Zorian dead as soon as possible.

Zorian didn't try to use one of his absorption cubes this time – by now, Quatach-Ichl knew damn well that Zorian had those, so he wouldn't have bothered targeting him if he thought they could stop the spell. The way the green javelin effortlessly punched through the multi-layered shields the rest of the battlegroup erected in front of Zorian also led credence to this assumption. Instead, Zorian simply reached into his marker and prepared to end the restart – he had no idea if the green javelin had some kind of soul aspect to it, but better safe than sorry.

Before Zorian could end the restart, however, Xvim made his move. He thrust one hand towards the area in the path of the javelin and the other towards Quatach-Ichl and his group, causing two small spatial distortions to pop into existence. The green javelin had shattered all barriers in its way with effortless ease without visibly weakening in the slightest, but when it encountered the spatial distortion in its way, it simply disappeared…

…only to reappear in front of Xvim, shooting out of the second spatial distortion and hitting one of the mages next to Quatach-Ichl, whose hastily erected shield failed to stop it.

It was a miniature gate, Zorian realized, not a pair of spatial distortions. By placing one end of the gate in front of the green javelin's flight path and the other in front of the enemy mage, Xvim had redirected Quatach-Ichl's own attack against the enemy. For a moment Zorian wondered why Xvim didn't redirect it back at the lich instead, but then realized this was a far more useful outcome. Targeting Quatach-Ichl with his own spell would have been satisfying, but it was unlikely that the ancient lich would have been felled by the javelin, whereas this way they had one less mage they had to fight.

Then the battle began in earnest. The mages Quatach-Ichl had brought with him must have been some sort of elite, because they were far more capable and powerful than the typical invader. Thankfully, despite the losses they had suffered along the way, the battlegroup still had more than twice the number of men that Quatach-Ichl's group had – and the mages that comprised it weren't much weaker than those Quatach-Ichl had brought along with him.

However, it became obvious very quickly that Quatach-Ichl really wanted Zorian dead for some reason. While he didn't drop everything to concentrate on killing him, he and his subordinates targeted Zorian whenever they had the chance to do so. It got so bad after a while that Xvim had to drop everything else and dedicate all of his time to keeping him alive.

It was chaos. Swarms of burning stars flew through the air, colliding with defensive barriers and each other. A massive black beam that seemed to drink in the light around it scythed through the battlegroup, forcing Zorian to take a page out of Quatach-Ichl's book and teleport away to evade it. A trio of bright red beams zig-zagged through the defensive ranks, closely hugging the ground in an attempt to get past the shields. A massive animated tiger made of blue flame savaged a pair of mages before pouncing towards Xvim and Zorian, only to hit the thin, barely visible defensive screen Xvim erected around them. The tiger of blue flame passed through the screen without resistance, but something crucial seemed to have been disrupted inside the construct by the passage, because it unraveled a split second afterwards. One of the enemy mages smashed a clay pot on the ground in front of him, and a dozen or so incorporeal wraiths flew out of the shattered remains, only to get quickly destroyed by Alanic. A dozen or so disgusting, mutated, giant rats tried to ambush the battlegroup under the cover of some very potent invisibility, only to be massacred by Zorian whose mind sense saw through the illusion with trivial ease. Another group of mages tried to reinforce Quatach-Ichl's group, only to die instantly upon arrival as Zach turned the ground beneath their feet into a set of giant jaws that crushed them to death.

"This isn't working," Zach complained to Xvim and Zorian, having retreated to their position. "It's too slow. We'll be here forever at this rate."

"Yes, I'm pretty sure that's what the invaders are aiming for," Zorian said. "They just have to keep us busy until the ritual is finished, not kill us all."

"You know, you and Xvim are pretty much no use in this fight, except as damage magnets," Zach said. A pink, flower-shaped projectile streaked across the sky in a parabolic arc, heading straight towards Zorian, but Zach ripped a chunk of stone from the roadway beneath them and hurled it into the air to intercept it. The improvised projectile not only dispersed the funny-shaped (but probably not-so-funny in effect) projectile, but continued onward towards Quatach-Ichl's forces, forcing them to defend against it. "And I reckon Alanic and his men could hold their ground without me."

"What are you saying?" Zorian said, scanning the battlefield for threats with senses both mundane and supernatural.

"It's only us who really have to reach the ritual site. So let's leave Alanic with the task of keeping Quatach-Ichl busy and continue on without him," said Zach.

Yeah, that sounded pretty logical. Zorian doubted Alanic would have anything against the idea.

"Okay, but how do we do that?" Zorian asked.

"Leave it to me," Zach said, cracking his knuckles. "Xvim, come closer so I can minimize the affected area. The spell is stronger that way."

"What do you intend to do?" Xvim asked curiously.

But Zach didn't reply. The moment Xvim got closer he executed a long and complicated chant and a white, translucent sphere flickered into existence around all three of them. A moment later, it shot into the air like a cannon ball, taking them with it.

After they had reached an impressive altitude, bringing them beyond the range of most spells, the sphere instantly changed directions and flew off towards the hole at incredible speeds. Quatach-Ichl and his army attempted to shoot them down, but the sphere weaved through the attacks like a hummingbird on a sugar high, swerving, altering speed and reversing direction with unbelievable rapidity. What few spells managed to hit the sphere only managed to induce weak ripples on its surface, like pebbles thrown in a still pond.

Despite its great speed of movement and the rapid direction shifts it was executing, Zach, Zorian and Xvim remained safely suspended inside the sphere's center, unaffected by the maneuvering. Zorian was pretty sure the effect of inertia alone should have killed them by now, but they remained perfectly alive and healthy. Well, the sight of some of the dodging maneuvers Zach was executing was making him feel slightly sick, but that was not the fault of the spell itself.

Very quickly, they reached the Hole and unceremoniously plunged into its depths.

Now all they had to do was find where the ritual was taking place.

- break -

The Hole was a big place. Zorian knew the ritual had to be done somewhere around it, and Alanic seemed certain that it had to happen below ground too. However, that still left lots of places to look for. Zorian had expected they would have to spend a fair amount of time divining its exact location and otherwise tracking it down.

In reality, the ritual location was absurdly easy to spot. The moment their flying sphere descended a little deeper into the Hole, they encountered a huge stone platform floating in the middle of the empty space.

"I have a feeling this is it," Xvim said unnecessarily.

Almost as soon as they spotted the platform, the people stationed on it spotted them too. Once again, the sphere was forced to dodge and weave between attacks, but it continued its rapid descend towards their target. Zorian mentally prepared himself for touchdown, but it seemed Zach had a better idea than simply depositing them in the middle of a hostile throng of mages. The sphere was just about to collide with the surface of the platform when it rapidly changed directions and slammed into the gathered defenders, trying to fling them off the edge of the platform.

Loud, panicked screaming erupted from their targets, many of which were too slow to realize what was happening and found themselves stepping into thin air and plunging into abyssal darkness of the Hole.

The sphere quickly circled the entire platform, flinging more people into the dark abyss surrounding the platform. Even more were simply knocked down by the movements of the sphere or dazed and wounded when it impacted them at high speeds. Finally, the sphere ground to a halt and flickered away, depositing Zach, Xvim and Zorian near the center of the platform.

"That spell really takes a lot from me," Zach said, stumbling slightly. "Take care of me while I recover a bit, okay?"

There was no time to answer – though caught off guard by their sudden arrival and the unconventional attack of the sphere, the defenders quickly started throwing themselves against Xvim and Zorian.

Zorian surveyed the situation as they fought. At the very center of the platform was a large stone cube covered in dense, complicated spell formulas. A larger, circular spell formula covered the ground around the cube, centered around it. Above the cube, a large red sphere floated in the air, occasionally rippling and warping under the magical forces it was subjected to. After a few seconds, Zorian realized it was blood. Standing next to the cube was one of the mages, presumably the leader of the ritual. Another six mages stood on the edge of the spell formula circle. All seven were chanting and gesturing wildly, completely ignoring the commotion currently happening on the platform.

Though Zorian would have liked to interrupt the ritual by attacking these seven, he couldn't. Though it was not readily apparent, the center of the platform was protected by a powerful hemispherical shield – he knew because Zach had tried to bowl through their little gathering by ramming his sphere through the platform's center, but ended up bouncing off the invisible barrier defending them. Zorian tried to walk through it, just in case it only blocked magic and not people, but found the barrier as solid as stone.

Zorian also couldn't help but take note of the clothes the seven mages in the center were wearing. They were wearing scarlet red robes that hid their faces behind a veil of supernatural darkness. How very familiar. This was exactly the same type of robe that Red Robe had been wearing. Well, the leader of the ritual standing in the center also had a stylized golden dragon embroidered on his robe, so he was a little different, but the other six wore pretty much identical stuff as Red Robe.

Aside from the core of the ritual taking place at the center, there were only two other interesting features at the platform.

One was a rectangular stone slab reminiscent of an altar. Several grooves had been cut into the otherwise featureless rectangle, draining into several stone bowls attached to its sides. The rectangle was completely spotless for the most part, but numerous red splotches could be seen on the floor around it.

Right next to the rectangle was a haphazard pile of dead children. There were four of them in total, and they were completely naked, their skin pale and bloodless and their chests brutally sliced open.

The second place was a collection of seven cages, four of them empty and open, and another three occupied by three more living children. They had already been stripped naked by the cultists, wearing nothing except thick brown collars around their necks. The skin surrounding the collars was red and raw, and in one case outright bloody, suggesting that the children had been desperately trying to take them off at some point. Zorian assumed the collars were what was stopping them from transforming.

The three children consisted of two boys and a girl. The two boys were total strangers to him, but he soon realized that he knew the girl. It was Nochka, the little cat shifter his little sister was friends with in some restarts. The three of them looked subdued and traumatized when Zach, Zorian and Xvim arrived on the platform, but once they realized what was happening and that there was a chance they could be saved, they started screaming for help and shaking their cages without stopping.

Though Zorian felt terrible for it, he ignored them. They were in no immediate danger, as every invader on the platform was either too busy with the main ritual or trying to kill the new arrivals. He simply dived into the heads of two unknown boys and memorized their names, homes and general identity, as well as when and how they were kidnapped by the invaders.

Gradually, the number of enemy mages on the platform fell lower and lower. The pace with which their enemies were dying especially increased once Zach had a chance to recover a bit and join them in wiping them out. Even so, they had been fighting for quite a while at this point, and exhaustion was starting to set in. Additionally, the enemy clearly saw the situation was becoming hopeless and was starting to become desperate.

Without warning, one of the mages pointed both of his hands at Zorian, launching a huge bolt of shining force at him. Zorian shielded, but some part of the spell's effect managed to bypass through the shield and slammed into him, sending him tumbling backwards. He almost fell over the edge of the platform, but managed to glue his hands to the stone floor with unstructured magic in the last moment, leaving him dangling over the dark abyss.

He heaved himself back to the platform, only to find a sickly yellow beam heading straight for him before he could shield himself and dodge.

Just before the beam would hit him, Xvim stepped into its path. His mentor had probably run out of mana by this point, because rather than shield against the spell or reflect it, he simply shielded Zorian with his body.

The yellow ray hit Xvim straight into the chest, dealing no visible damage. Despite this, his mentor immediately slumped to the floor in a boneless manner and did not move again.

With a harsh movement, Zorian blew the attacker's skull with a concentrated beam of force and then quickly moved to check up on Xvim. Sadly, it was as he feared – despite receiving no obvious damage from the spell, Xvim was already dead.

Zorian didn't linger. Nothing good would come from mourning his mentor's death, and the man would be fine in the next restart. The best way Zorian could honor Xvim's sacrifice now was to make sure this entire risky trip had not been in vain.

By this point, most of the enemy mages at the platform had been dealt with, and the ones that were still alive were being steadily picked off by Zach. After a moment's thought, Zorian decided that Zach didn't need his help so he instead approached the center of the platform again.

The seven mages in red robes were still diligently chanting and gesturing, as if nothing outside their little bubble was of concern to them. Zorian did not know if this was because they had so much confidence in the barrier sealing them off from the outside world or if they literally couldn't stop their motions without something going terribly wrong, and he didn't really care. Since he had no way to break through the invisible defensive bubble, he reached out to the seven mages with his mind.

The barrier, strong as it may be, did nothing to halt Zorian's psychic abilities. That was the good news. The bad news was that all seven of them had shielded their mind incredibly well. Zorian had never seen mental defenses that strong and sophisticated in a non-psychic individual. They had wrapped their minds in layers upon layers of different barriers, conjured decoy minds to mislead any attackers and even placed some reactive defenses that automatically counterattacked against any mental incursions.

And that was for the six 'outer' mages. The ritual leader had flat out placed his mind under the effect of mind blank, and Zorian couldn't tamper with him at all.

Undeterred, Zorian picked one of the six outer mages at random and began his telepathic offensive.

The mage in question flinched when Zorian started his attack, but said nothing and continued his chanting and waving. Probably couldn't afford to stop then. Zorian completely ignored the decoy mind the mage had set up and set about systematically dismantling his mental defenses.

As seconds passed and Zorian started peeling back layer upon layer of man's mental defenses, the mage in question started to become increasingly frantic. He tried to dedicate some of his attention to fighting off Zorian, but he wasn't psychic and there was only so much he could do to support his mental defenses without resorting to structured magic. Finally, the mage could not stand it anymore and abandoned the ritual in favor of repeatedly recasting his mental defense spells.

Sadly for him, he was far too late for this to work. Perhaps if he had dropped the ritual immediately he could have successfully stalled Zorian's assault, but at this point Zorian had too much momentum and was too familiar with the flaws and peculiarities of his defenses. Barrier after barrier continued to fall.

Meanwhile, the rest of the red robed mages had been growing frantic as well. It seemed that they really needed all six outer mages to maintain control of the ritual they were performing, and the sudden absence of one of them had thrown everything into disarray. The sphere of blood floating above the central cube writhed and wobbled dangerously, and the leading mage kept chanting louder and louder in an attempt to maintain control over it.

Zorian ignored their plight, focusing on the mage he was targeting. At last, the final barrier fell and he dived straight into the man's mind.

"Damnit, get out of my head!" the mage screamed, clutching his head in pain.

Zorian didn't listen to him, of course. He plunged roughly into the man's thoughts and memories, sweeping aside all resistance and seeking out names, goals, passwords, meeting places, addresses…

"No!" the lead ritual mage suddenly shouted. "No, no, NO! We were so close! This can't be happening!"

The orb of blood seethed and boiled, strange shapes akin to mouths and eyes occasionally dancing on its surface, before it suddenly stilled.

For one single second, the sphere of blood hung motionless in the air, perfectly calm and spherical.

Then everything was illuminated in bright red light and darkness consumed Zorian's world.