Chapter 063

The March of Days

To the north of Knyazov Dveri, deep inside the northern wilderness, there was a small, inconspicuous gully with an equally unremarkable cave carved into one of its walls. It was unlikely that anyone who stumbled upon the area would think much of it, though if they were very perceptive or experienced in the ways of the forest, they might have noted that the place felt surprisingly… peaceful.

Yet, it was anything but. The inhabitant of the cave was vicious and powerful, and many creatures had paid with their lives for trespassing into its area. The 'peaceful atmosphere' was simply the result of the beast killing anything edible or threatening in its immediate domain, which caused the larger and more intelligent creatures to avoid the area.

Despite knowing all of this, someone was about to barge into the place and provoke the grey hunter mother lurking inside the cave. Floating high in the air above the area was a wooden platform densely covered in crystalline glyphs, and standing upon it was a teenager that looked like Zorian but arguably wasn't.

He was Zorian's simulacrum, and he had been sent here to die.

From his safe location high in the sky, the simulacrum stared at the pitch black entrance to the grey hunter's lair, nervously fiddling with the watch-like device in his pocket that controlled the platform he was standing on. It would be lying to say he wasn't apprehensive about what he was expected to do. True, this had been his own idea, back when he and the original were still one and the same, but… well, it was one thing to decide to create a copy of yourself to serve as bait for a giant man-eating spider and quite another to come into existence and realize you are to be that bait.

He was made in his creator's image… and Zorian? He had a very strong survival instinct. He couldn't remember ever being suicidal, and even after being trapped inside a time loop he shied away from risking his life without a good reason.

He was scared. There, he said it. He was not just apprehensive, he was flat-out scared! How could he not be? He was going to be torn apart by a giant spider and he was supposed to just stand there and let it happen. It was…

He shook his head, doing his best to calm his thoughts. He chose this. He remembered making this plan, remembered all the arguments for why it had to be this way, and it was all just as valid now as it was then. It was only his own cowardice that was making him hesitate now. And while Zorian had never been, nor was likely to ever be some kind of paragon of bravery… he was better than this.

Still. Less than an hour ago, he had been willing to sacrifice his copy for this. He distinctly remembered this. It felt like his own decision, even though he technically didn't even exist back then. What did it say about him that he had been so cavalier about the decision back then, but now that he was to be said sacrifice, he found himself having doubts?

One of the rings hanging around his neck suddenly vibrated for a moment. The original was trying to contact him. He sent a telepathic probe into the ring in question, which was actually a miniature telepathic relay, and formed a connection with the mind of true Zorian. He briefly wondered if it was possible to use their soul as a telepathic conduit in lieu of their artificial relays, since they shared one and all. However, he knew too little about soul magic to judge how difficult such an idea would be, so he put the thought aside.

[Ready?] the original Zorian asked.

The simulacrum hesitated, just for a moment. The original seemed… confident. The fear and anxiety that plagued the simulacrum were entirely absent from his progenitor's thoughts. Instead, the original seemed expectant, even excited. What vast differences in thinking, and they had diverged so recently from one another…

Well, no matter. Strangely enough, he didn't blame the original for his attitude. What sense would that make? In the past several restarts since Zorian had acquired the simulacrum spell, he had relentlessly practiced it. By now, any copy he produced was a pretty good rendition of the original. The simulacrum was confident that he was cut from the same cloth as the original Zorian, so chances are that he would have behaved the same if their positions were reversed somehow.

If he cursed Zorian, he cursed himself.

[I'm ready,] the simulacrum sent back.

After a moment's hesitation, he also enclosed his thoughts on using their soul as a telepathic conduit inside a memory packet and sent them over the link to the original. Just in case the original Zorian didn't have the same idea for some reason.

There was a short pause as the original seemed to consider things. When he finally responded a few seconds later, it was with but a single word.


The simulacrum didn't argue or stall for time – he immediately pressed a button on the watch-like device in his pocket, causing the wooden platform to plunge downward with dizzying speed. Somehow, now that the moment of truth had finally come, he was able to discard all his worry and hesitation and act decisively. He was still scared, but there was also determination there… or maybe it was just resignation? Either way, as he watched the ground rapidly get closer and closer, he knew that he could do it. He could play the role he was meant to play.

Though he was currently standing on a piece of wood hurtling towards the cold, unforgiving ground, the simulacrum wasn't worried about crashing into the ground and dying. The platform wasn't actually falling in the classical sense, as evidenced by the fact it stayed aligned horizontally with the ground instead of flipping around randomly through the air. It was a magical travel device executing a controlled descent, and the simulacrum had full faith in its construction. He remembered making it, after all.

No, all of his worry and attention was being directed at the unassuming cave entrance in the gully. He had come to terms with being torn apart by a giant murder-spider in the near future (well, mostly), but whether or not his death would achieve anything was still an open question. The plan wasn't complicated – he just had to lure the grey hunter mother into stepping onto the very wooden platform beneath his feet, which would cause the multitude of traps and restrictive wards anchored to it to activate, sealing the spider's fate. The problem was that the grey hunter was quite canny about recognizing traps. Thus his current method of entry. In theory, suddenly dropping out of the sky right into the middle of the grey hunter's territory should catch the spider off-guard and enrage it enough for it to rush out and attack him without making sure it wasn't blundering into a trap.

In theory. In practice, the grey hunter was annoyingly unpredictable. This wasn't the first time Zach and Zorian were fighting the thing, and their previous clashes with it were… well, they managed to eke out a win in the end. For a certain definition of 'win'. The grey hunter was dead in the end, yes, but in one restart Zach ended up being bitten and couldn't cast anything for the rest of the restart, and in the other Zorian had both of his legs shattered so thoroughly it took him an entire week to heal, even with the best medical care money can buy. Gods that was painful. Thankfully, he was just a copy mind inhabiting an ectoplasmic shell, so he wouldn't be suffering through a repeat of that experience – he had no bones to break, after all.

Hopefully the trap would work. It would be nice to get the spider's egg sack intact (something they hadn't managed to accomplish up until now), if only so he could rub the achievement into Silverlake's face. But barring that, Zorian would settle for a proper victory instead of a pyrrhic win that left them in recovery for the rest of the restart.

The simulacrum frowned. You know what? He wasn't taking chances with this. If he had to die, he at least wanted his death to be meaningful and achieve something. Thus, just before he hit the ground, he dipped into the mana reserves he shared with the original and cast a hasting spell on himself. He immediately felt the world slow down around him, the spell accelerating his personal time flow by about two and a half times. This was not part of the plan – in fact, the original was probably cursing him right now to hell and back for wasting a good chunk of his precious mana reserves – but the haste effect might let him react fast enough to the grey hunter's moves to actually achieve his mission, so the original would just have to deal with it.

The platform hit the ground with surprising gentleness, the powerful wards emanating from it blunting the force of the impact until it could barely be felt. But the simulacrum still felt it and stumbled in place for a second. He recovered almost immediately, but by then the grey hunter was already making its move.

What a fast response. It would seem they had underestimated the murder-spider once again, because less than a second since the platform touched the ground, the grey hunter was already jumping out of the cave entrance. It must have detected the intrusion while the simulacrum was still in the air and was already on the move by the time the wooden platform hit the ground.

With his accelerated perceptions, the simulacrum could see the furry, many-legged body of the grey hunter sailing through the air in all of its terrible detail. The huge glossy fangs, the soulless black eyes, the quill-like fur covering its entire body…

The simulacrum was not ashamed to admit he froze in place for a moment. He regained his wits quickly though, just in time to see the grey hunter slam into the ground next to the gully, kicking up dust and gravel as it immediately launched itself back into the air again. He watched the beast intently, trying to think of the best way to keep it contained on the platform long enough for the traps to fully activate. But something was wrong – the grey hunter was going too high and too fast. At that speed and at that angle of ascent, the spider was…

Damn it, it was going to overshoot his location entirely! It wasn't taking the bait. Maybe it could understand that the platform was a trap, or maybe it knew that the simulacrum was just an ectoplasmic construct and thus didn't find him threatening enough – whatever it was, the grey hunter decided to completely ignore Zorian's simulacrum and the platform he was standing on.

At that moment, the simulacrum was torn between feeling amused and being annoyed. On one hand, having the murder-spider ignore him entirely after all that inner turmoil he went through was kind of funny… but the fact that the spider was clearly going after the original instead was bad and objectively the worst way this mission could have ended. A simulacrum like him was a lot more expendable than the original was.

He thought about trying to telekinetically snare the grey hunter and draw it into the trap, or get its attention by using mind magic… but his memories told him that could never work. The grey hunter had insanely high magic resistance, and trying to affect it with magic directly was like trying to hold a live eel… an exercise in frustration. Instead, he tried something else. As the grey hunter was passing overhead, the simulacrum created a thick rope of magical force and tried to use it to entangle the grey hunter and reel it in onto the platform. Unfortunately, the spider twisted its body in mid-air, avoiding the rope by a centimeter or so. It then managed to right itself fast enough to land solidly on its feet, landing a good distance behind the platform.

Frustrated at the way he was failing his mission, the simulacrum tried to get the grey hunter's attention by firing a ball of entangling ectoplasmic threads at its back. He knew from experience that the grey hunter was strong enough to break through the spell, but, humiliatingly enough, the spell didn't even hit it properly. The spider reacted instantly, rolling to the side to avoid the bulk of the spell. A few threads did manage to snag it, wrapping themselves tightly around its legs, but the grey hunter just accelerated forward, gouging out clumps of grass from the forest floor as its legs sought greater traction, and the threads that tried to restrain it snapped like they were made of straw. It then sped off into the distance, zigzagging a few times to avoid the handful of overpowered magic missiles the simulacrum had sent after it as a parting gift. Despite being overpowered and cast in haste, the missiles were only faintly visible, existing only as a slight discoloration in the air – a testament to Zorian's mastery of the spell. Despite this, not only could the grey hunter evidently perceive them without even turning around, it moved with sufficient speed and agility to defeat their homing function and dodge them anyway. That shouldn't even be possible, damn it!

The simulacrum stared at the dust trail left behind by the grey hunter, taking a deep breath to calm himself (even though he was just an ectoplasmic construct and didn't really need to breathe). The damn spider didn't even have the decency to turn around and pay attention to him upon being attacked, never mind being tempted to step on the platform. It treated the simulacrum like it was just a particularly aggressive rock or something, instead of an actual threat!

Well. His mission was certainly a failure, but maybe he could help the original in some other way. He started running after the monster and sent a message to the original through the relay hanging around his neck, asking for directions. The original had been observing the event through his senses, so he didn't have to explain much. He was immediately told to 'observe only and stop wasting mana for now'. Wow, what a jerk. He supposed he had been a little wasteful with their shared mana reserves, but come on! He was just trying to salvage the situation somehow.

When he finally caught up to the grey hunter, he came upon the sight of a battlefield. Zach and Zorian were both engaging the grey hunter, along with a group of golems (two big and slow ones for defense and ten smaller and faster ones to act as distractions). The grey hunter hurled itself at Zorian – the original one – only to crash into a thick multicolored plate of force and bounce off. Zach tried to take advantage of this and impale it, sending a trio of black javelins at it, but the spider reoriented itself in an instant, dancing around the projectiles like a leaf in the wind and hurled itself back towards Zorian again the moment its legs touched the ground. It zigzagged across the ground, kicking up dust and gravel and unerringly dodging every trap that had been hidden in the area beforehand, including some purely non-magical ones like hidden pits and iron bear traps. Zach did his best to hit it with a multitude of projectile spells, and Zorian directed his golems to block it and try to push it into one of said projectiles or the traps it was avoiding. It was all for naught. The grey hunter's agility and speed was unreal, and the few times it ended up boxed in by the attacks and the traps, it unfailingly identified which attack it could tank without getting hurt.

Zach launched a dense sphere of rock at the back of the boxed-in spider, only for it to kick back with its rear legs like a horse and shatter the sphere of magically hardened rock like it was just loosely packed earth. Zorian managed to hit it with a powerful incinerating ray, but all that did was burn off some of the dense 'fur' covering its body and didn't seem to do any lasting damage. Zach trapped it in a cage of dense, layered force, but the grey hunter mother shattered each one like it was made of paper and burst free before Zach and Zorian could strengthen the prison enough to hold her. One of the smaller golems managed to latch onto the grey hunter's back; without hesitation, the spider rammed itself backwards into a tree, causing the golem to let go.

The simulacrum watched all this, observing the battle and waiting for the right moment to act. He knew that, despite Zach and Zorian's apparent lack of success at damaging the grey hunter, the situation was under control at the moment. The two of them had fought the beast twice already, and though they suffered a heavy price each time, they also learned how to keep it at bay and put pressure at it. The only reason why the grey hunter hadn't fallen yet was that neither Zach nor Zorian were trying their hardest to kill it yet. They were still hoping to get its eggs relatively intact, so they couldn't use area of effect spells as indiscriminately as they should against an opponent like this.

Sure enough, while the battle failed to kill the grey hunter, it was steadily getting pushed back towards the wooden platform as the minutes ticked by. The spider seemed to realize it was getting herded into a trap, however, and stubbornly refused to get pushed onto it.

Finally, after both Zach and Zorian were starting to run out of mana and get physically exhausted, and all but two of the smaller golems had been reduced to scrap, the two finally managed to trick the grey hunter into a trap. Zorian deliberately left himself somewhat open, casting his defensive plane of force relatively high, and the grey hunter took the bait and tried to slide under it to get to Zorian. Perhaps it was getting tired itself and decided to take the chance? Regardless, Zorian had been ready for it and promptly materialized a dimensional gate in front of himself… a gate whose exit point led straight onto the wooden platform. The spider tried to twist itself in mid-air to dodge it, but Zach used a powerful gust of wind to push it in anyway.

And then, just as it was going to slam into the wooden platform and get snared, the grey hunter revealed its final trump card – it shot a strand of silk out of its back end and used it as a lifeline to reel itself to the side of the platform, avoiding it entirely.

"Okay, that does it," Zach growled. "We're taking it down, damn the eggs."

"Fine," Zorian agreed unhappily.

The simulacrum could understand the original's frustration. They were so close to total victory…

One of the remaining golems tried to push the grey hunter onto the platform again, only for the spider to do a backflip – there is no other way to describe it – and land right on top of the golem. It then pushed itself off, using the golem's head as leverage to propel itself away from the risk zone, and shoved the golem straight into the platform in the process.

…and yet so far away.

A giant firestorm suddenly consumed the entire area, courtesy of Zach, and for the first time in the battle, the grey hunter screamed. It was fast and tough, but it couldn't dodge a spell that affected such a wide area and a fire so intense was beyond it to fully shrug off. It was not dead, but large patches of its fur were gone and two of its eyes had burst from the heat.

Its egg sack was reduced to ash in its entirety.

The grey hunter mother let loose an ear-splitting screech of rage for her destroyed eggs and went completely berserk. No longer caring to avoid damage, the spider rushed at Zach, who it correctly identified as the source of the firestorm, at even greater speeds than before. It charged straight through the hail of projectiles launched at it by both Zach and Zorian, losing a leg and another eye in the process, and kept going. It almost succeeded at sinking its fangs into Zach's chest but Zorian managed to recall the boy away before the strike could connect.

A berserk grey hunter was dangerous. They became less cautious and more willing to tank damage in order to inflict some of their own in turn. In their previous clashes with the grey hunter mother, they had been caught off-guard by the change in tactics, which was how Zorian had gotten both of his legs broken. This time, though, they were ready for it… and for someone who knew what was coming, a berserk grey hunter was actually easier to fight than a calm one.

An area-wide freezing spell from Zach, a ball of shredding force from Zorian, and a collective sacrifice from the remaining golems dog-piling it and self-destructing themselves, and the grey hunter was finally dead. Its mangled corpse looked like a living warzone, but as far as the simulacrum was concerned, the fact it still remained in one piece after everything it went through is already amazing.

"It's a shame," the original said, approaching the corpse to inspect it. "I really thought we had a chance of getting its eggs this time."

"I'm just glad I didn't get bitten again," Zach said, rubbing his chest as if trying to ward off phantom pain. "Thanks for the save back there. Anyway, you shouldn't be too greedy. This thing is a pain to fight, even when we're going all-out, never mind trying to capture it. We still have its corpse in reasonably good condition, which means we can make those awesome magic perception potions again. That's reward enough if you ask me."

The simulacrum smiled, remembering how shocked Lukav had been when they had brought a Grey Hunter corpse to him in one of the restarts and asked him to turn it into an enhancement potion. Unfortunately, grey hunters were so rare and dangerous to hunt that there was no publicly available potion recipes involving them, nevermind a specific one that granted the imbiber its senses. Lukav couldn't do it. It was beyond his pay-grade, he said. All he could do was give them a list of better alchemists that could be able to help them, though he warned them that even they would probably have to invent a new potion from scratch in order to fulfill their request. Zach and Zorian had to spend two weeks visiting various potion makers recommended by Lukav till they found one that was capable of working with the corpse in their hands, and even then it took the woman more than a single restart to create the potion. They had to give her the research notes she had made herself in the previous restart and make something up to explain how they had them.

In the end they did get a recipe of turning dead grey hunters into powerful potions of mana perception, but the issues involved had finally convinced Zorian to start learning how to make transformation potions himself. He was still a rank beginner in the field, but even the little he knew was useful. Eagle-eye potions were surprisingly easy to make, and the visual acuity they gave was amazing.

"Yes, exactly," the simulacrum said, approaching the group and startling Zach.

"You're still here?" Zach asked. "Oh, right, Zorian did say the spider ignored you entirely."

"Yeah, the grey hunter had absolutely no interest in me whatsoever. I guess it could tell I'm a simulacrum. Its senses are really something."

"It's something alright," Zach said. "Zorian, are you sure that thing isn't intelligent?"

"Yes," Zorian said. "I can't affect its mind, but my mind sense works on it just fine and I can judge its sapience. It's dumber than a troll."

"But it's still about as smart as a crow or a boar," the simulacrum protested against his creator. "It's got animal cunning. Do you remember how Zach dragged us into that bar in Knyazov Dveri and then started a drunken conversation with that group of hunters?"

"Ugh, how could I forget?" Zorian said.

"You know, Zorian, watching you talk to yourself like that is pretty damn surreal," Zach pointed out.

Neither the simulacrum nor the original acknowledged him in any way.

"Anyway," continued the simulacrum. "At one point the hunters spoke about being hired to stop wild boars from destroying the crops around the city and complained about how quickly the wild boars learned to recognize and avoid traps. They said the boars even learned how to spot magical setups, despite not having any magic perception as far as anyone knew."

"Yes, but those are learned skills," Zorian said, frowning. "The boars have to be constantly exposed to traps to learn how to deal with them. The grey hunter didn't have any chance to learn like that."

"How do you know that?" the simulacrum countered. "It's Silverlake who sent us to this place, remember? Logically, this means she tried to retrieve the eggs herself and failed. I rather doubt she tried to fight the grey hunter head on, so…"

"She used traps," Zorian said, finally reaching the same conclusion the simulacrum had. "She used all sorts of traps, and all she did was teach it how to recognize and avoid them."

Zorian looked absolutely outraged at the fact Silverlake had basically trained the grey hunter on how to respond to human attackers and never even bothered to tell them about it, but Zach just laughed lightly.

"Deceptive mission givers, how nostalgic," he said. "I remember the first time I got screwed over by one, I was even more incensed than Zorian here. That aside, Zorian, I'm amused that your simulacrum figured it out before you yourself did. How does that work?"

"Differing perspectives," the simulacrum said with a light shrug.

"We diverged a few measly hours ago," Zorian said dismissively. "Just how different could our perspectives be?"

The simulacrum frowned, a little annoyed at the response. He didn't answer with words. Instead he forced a connection to Zorian's mind and blasted him with a few choice memories. The nerve-wracking wait before the platform's descent. The terrifying sight of the grey hunter jumping out of the cave and seemingly towards him. The feeling of frustration and powerlessness as he watched the battle without being able to meaningfully contribute anything. Zorian gasped and took a step back, caught off-guard by this sudden pseudo-attack, and gave him a shocked look.

"Very different," the simulacrum said, and then deliberately collapsed his own ectoplasmic body and dissolved into smoke.

His job was done, anyway.

- break -

It was a beautiful sunny day, and Zorian was standing on an abandoned field, far from anything dangerous or important. He wasn't alone. Standing around him was a group of familiar people: Zach, Taiven, Imaya, Kirielle, Kana and Kael. They were all gathered around a stone table that Zorian had created out of the nearby ground, watching the potion bottles lined up in the center of it. Each had a slightly different reaction.

Zach looked mildly interested but otherwise calm and collected. Taiven had a distant, thoughtful expression, seemingly consumed in her own thoughts and barely even conscious of her surroundings. Imaya seemed torn between quiet excitement and apprehension, occasionally glancing at Kirielle and Kana with a small frown. She probably thought they were too young to be here. Considering the unhappy, sour look that Kael was giving Zorian, he probably agreed with that conclusion. Zorian was unrepentant, though – if Kael didn't want Kana here, he could have just refused to bring her along. It wasn't Zorian's fault that Kael was too weak-willed to resist his daughter's whining and relented to her requests in the end.

As for Kirielle, well… she was practically vibrating on her feet from excitement, staring at the potion bottle like she wanted to swallow it with her eyes. A bit comical, but Zorian could understand.

It wasn't every day that you got a chance to turn into a bird and fly.

"Alright," Zorian finally said. "I'm giving you all one last chance to back out."

Besides Kirielle's loud 'no', he received no response. He assumed that meant none of them were stepping out at the last moment, but just to be sure he gave Kael a curious look, since he seemed to be the one most against this.

Kana, whom Kael was currently holding in one hand, noticed the look and gave her father a quiet whine, as if warning him to not even think about sending her away. Kael responded with an amused snort and a casual tap against her forehead.

"I'm going to go through with it, against my better judgement," Kael said, looking Zorian straight in the eye. "I guess I should congratulate you – it's been a while since Kana so obviously wanted something. Now hurry up and explain things before I change my mind."

"Fine," Zorian shrugged. "I'll keep it brief. There are six transformation potions here, all identical. Drink it and you will be transformed into a peregrine falcon."

"And then we can fly?" Kirielle asked excitedly.

"Of course," Zorian said. "What would be the point of transforming into a bird if you can't fly? Though it might take a while before you can control your new body correctly, so don't be surprised if your initial attempts turn poorly."

"What if someone falls from the sky for some reason?" Imaya asked. "Or if something tries to eat us?"

"That's why there are six potions instead of seven," Zach noted. "I'll remain untransformed and step in if someone messes up. As for something trying to eat you… well, it shouldn't happen. But if it does, Zorian will be flying beside you and give them hell. There is nothing in the area that can survive against him."

Mostly because of his psychic powers. For normal mages, transforming into a non-humanoid form was quite risky, as they would lose access to all structured spells. Zorian's mental powers were just as usable as a falcon as they were when he was human, so he was not nearly as defenseless.

"Okay. It's comforting to know you've put some thought into this and that it isn't something you're doing on a whim," Imaya said. "But isn't this horribly expensive? Don't get me wrong, I'd like to try being a falcon as much as the others, but… it just seems so wasteful to spend all these potions for what is essentially playing around."

Ah, yes – Imaya was the only adult here that hadn't been informed about the time loop. One of these days he was going to tell her the truth just to see how she reacted.

He spent a few seconds trying to put together a convincing response in his head, but before he could vocalize it Taiven already butted in to explain instead.

"Don't worry about that," Taiven sighed. "It's secret so I can't tell you the details, but the cost of these potions is so small for these two as to be functionally irrelevant."

A few more clarifications later and the potions were distributed to everyone present except Zach. Originally Zorian intended to drink his potion first to reassure the others that it worked correctly, but apparently Kirielle didn't need convincing and immediately drank hers when Zorian handed a bottle to her. She transformed without any issues and the rest of them were treated to a sight of a brand new female falcon flailing around on the grass for a good minute or so. She had attempted to take flight immediately and found that it was not nearly as easy as one might think.

After that the rest of them drank the potion and transformed as well.

The next several hours were kind of a mixed bag. On one hand, nobody ended up getting hurt. On the other hand, it turned out that Zorian had vastly underestimated how difficult it was to control a completely alien body for most people. He had thought that his initial attempts at being a bird were bad, but he was like a born genius compared to what his current pupils displayed. After some thoughts, he came to the conclusion that this was probably another thing that benefited from him being 'Open', as aranea would call it. The entire point of his psychic ability was that it gave him greater awareness of his own mind and allowed him to process mental information from completely foreign sources – that was why he was able to contact and read other people's minds so easily, why divinations that dumped information straight into the mind of the caster worked better for him, and probably why he could handle being transformed into a completely foreign body far better than, say, Imaya or Kael.

He suddenly understood a lot better why transformation magic was so relatively niche, and why shifters were still envied by those who wished to take on the forms of other creatures. Learning how to control a different body than the one you are used to was hard for Zorian, and it was apparently even harder for other people. Anyone who wanted to benefit from transformation magic couldn't do it on a whim – they had to practice with their new form a lot before they could use it in any serious manner.

Still, by the time the potion wore off, everyone had managed to take flight at least once. This was mostly because Zorian was present, though – he used his telepathy to directly show people how a falcon is supposed to move, sometimes even puppeteering their movements for a few seconds to demonstrate what they were doing wrong. If they had been trying this alone, chances are they would have required at least three or four sessions to get it right. And it was entirely possible they would have ended up hurting themselves in the process.

The common consensus at the end was that being a falcon and flying through the air under their own power was amazing and that maybe they should do it again some time. Kirielle also excitedly floated the idea of turning into a dragon next time.

He probably spooked Imaya and Kael something fierce when he didn't immediately veto the idea.

- break -

"What are you doing?"

Zorian stopped drawing the bowl of fruit in front of him to give Kirielle a strange look.

"Isn't it obvious?" Zorian asked. "I'm drawing things."

Zorian didn't really know why he was doing it, to be honest. He didn't think himself an artist, but he felt like trying a new hobby since his old one of reading fiction was starting to get a little stale. There were only so many good stories out there and he had read just about everything that interested him at least twice by now.

He would probably get bored of drawing eventually, but he had only been doing this for the past three restarts and for now he found it kind of relaxing.

"Since when do you draw?" she asked, nosily sticking her head over him to study his work. "Is this related to that mysterious artist of yours?"

For a moment, he was confused what she was talking about before he remembered that was how he had explained those old drawings of hers he had given her at the beginning of the restart. He had been steadily compiling her work over the past several restarts, giving her the updated collection in every restart. Since she disliked drawing things that already existed among the drawings given to her by Zorian, this forced her to continually pick new things to draw every time.

Much like his decision to start drawing, this effort was motivated purely on the ground that he found the result kind of amusing.

It was a bit wasteful in terms of mental space, but that was no longer the issue it once was. Ever since he opened the Matriarch's memory packet, he had plenty of space for things like this. In addition, he had recently developed a better, more efficient method of storing notebooks than his original improvised setup. He no longer recorded the entire structure of a notebook, opting to just memorize the text and the diagrams inscribed within. A seemingly simple idea, but one that had taken him months of tinkering to get right.

"Yeah, I guess it is," said Zorian. After all, it was unlikely it would occur to him to start drawing if it were not for Kirielle.

"Is she a girl?" Kirielle asked conspiratorially.

Zorian's mouth twitched in amusement.

"Yes," he said with a bashful cough. "As a matter of fact, she is."

Kirielle grinned impishly, looking very pleased with herself for figuring it out.

"I knew it!" she crowed. "What's her name? Do I know her? When can I meet her? Oh and what about…"

It took Zorian at least a half an hour to get her to leave him alone, and somehow he had managed not to laugh at her face throughout the whole thing. Sometimes he really surprised himself.

- break -

Zorian turned the solid iron sphere in his hands, staring at it thoughtfully. He would undoubtedly look weird and maybe kind of crazy to any passerby that might be looking at him, since the sphere was totally invisible to the naked eye. Fortunately for him, the only other person inside the room was the very person who had given him that sphere so he could focus on the object of his study without being distracted by the mutterings of random strangers.

The sphere in his hands was a complex, multi-layered thing surrounded by a dense cloud of different wards stacked upon each other. The jigsaw-like arrangement of metal plates that made up its physical structure was liberally peppered with both mechanical triggers and glyph clusters that would destroy the fragile core buried in the heart of the sphere if he tried to open it incorrectly. He was supposed to retrieve said core whole and intact, so that was obviously an unacceptable outcome. He had to navigate the virtual maze of stacked wards and then carefully dismantle the sphere to retrieve the core hidden within… and he had to do it without being able to see what he was working with, since the invisibility field was tied to the very core he was supposed to retrieve and couldn't be deactivated until he got access to it.

Oh well, time to get to work.

The sphere's invisibility was a pain, but it didn't leave Zorian stumped. His magic perception had been steadily advancing ever since Xvim had introduced him to the skill, and recently he had undergone several giant leaps forwards in that regard. Partially this was due to the augmentation potions made from the grey hunter's corpse, and partially it was because he and Zach had been throwing obscene amounts of money at various experts so they would teach them their skills.

He focused his senses on the sphere, trying to make sense of it. After about ten minutes of passive observation he was confident enough to move on to more active methods. He carefully analyzed the contraption with a multitude of divinations, some general and some incredibly focused and specific. Slowly he bypassed or neutralized the outer wards so he could start dismantling the physical structure of the sphere…

It took him more than two hours of challenging work, but he was successful in the end. He held a bright red crystal in his hand and handed it to the middle-aged bearded man that had been watching him as he worked.

"Excellent! Excellent!" the man said happily. "That was truly impressive. You're even better than your brother was at your age."

Zorian smiled at the compliment, not saying anything. His outrage at being constantly compared to Daimen had cooled down considerably over the years, but he didn't trust himself not to sound bitter if he tried to respond with words. He would just nod and quietly take advantage of the fact that this man had taught his brother and looked at him favorably because of it.

"I couldn't help but notice that you didn't use a divination compass while you worked," the man said, leaning back in his chair. "Do you not need it?"

"No," Zorian said honestly. "I just dump all the information the spells give me directly into my head. I'm innately talented at interpreting that, so there is no need to bother with a divination compass. Besides, I find that most physical tools discard a lot of important information given by the divination, simply because they have no way of displaying it."

"Ha! Of course they do, that's why ward breakers like us pay huge sums for ever more sophisticated divination compasses. In my estimation, you are already at the level where generic, store-bought crap can't satisfy your needs. You'd have to contact a mana forge and buy a custom built one. Of course, if you're really capable of comprehending the spells in your mind, maybe that's just pointless cost for you, I don't know."

Zorian hummed thoughtfully. He was honest about not needing a divination compass, but he supposed it wouldn't hurt to check out the fancier, custom-built ones. Who knows, maybe there was something he was missing with his current methods. It cost him nothing to buy a box of them and then dismantle them to see how they worked.

A few hours later he left, carrying a list of divination compass makers and a letter of recommendation without which those high-level experts wouldn't even deign to speak with him. He soon arrived at the local park where Zach was already waiting for him, sitting on the bench and feeding the pigeons with bread like some old pensioner.

"Already done?" Zorian asked, mildly surprised. Zach was supposed to check out the combat magic instructors in the city, which should have taken him a lot longer than this.

"None of them are worth our time," Zach said, shaking his head and throwing another chunk of bread at the small throng of pigeons in front of him. "Larsa is Falkrinea's biggest and most important city. You'd think they'd have a respectable selection of combat instructors but they're nothing special. I guess it's true what they say about Falkrinea being the weakest of the Big Three in terms of military might."

Zorian nodded, accepting his judgement. Zach had spent decades in the time loop pursuing combat magic excellence, so he knew what he was talking about. Even though Zorian required a completely different selection of spells to be an effective combat mage than Zach did, he had faith that Zach was keeping that fact in mind when checking these people out.

He plopped down on the bench next to Zach, marveling at the way the pigeons failed to react to his sudden movement. If these pigeons ever landed in Cirin, they would be all caught before nightfall and barbecued. Say what you want about Falkrinea's lack of military might, they really were a prosperous nation.

"What do you think about your newest instructor?" Zach asked. "Is he any good?"

"He's good," Zorian nodded slowly.

"But?" Zach asked, sensing there was more to it.

"He's not teaching me everything he's got," Zorian sighed. "And I don't think there is a way to convince him to do so. He's very impressed with me, but…"

"But he'll only teach his best secrets to a formal apprentice, and even then you'd have to stay with him for a year or more before he would consider it," guessed Zach.

"Something like that," Zorian nodded.

"That's pretty much what Xvim said would happen," Zach noted. "You never did go around mind probing people on that list, did you?"

"No, I had been contacting them and trying to get them to teach me their skills 'the proper way'. I had been hoping it won't be necessary," Zorian said, frowning. "And in a way it really hadn't been, if only because up until now I had plenty of worthwhile things to learn even without resorting to that. But now… I don't know. If we want to get at the dagger in the royal treasury, we're going to need to become a lot better at ward breaking and the like. And these are not skills that people are willing to trust a stranger with, especially not one they've met less than a month ago. These are highly restricted, sometimes outright illegal skills. Most of the experts I've been talking to won't even admit they have them, much less agree to teach them to us."

He hadn't been met with total failure. Two of the experts on Xvim's list actually proved willing to teach him to the best of their ability – one because he happened to be in debt and was desperate for large sums of money, and one because he was a mind mage who found Zorian's innate mental abilities endlessly fascinating. It was kind of interesting to compare structured mind magic to his own abilities and see how they fare against each other, and though he was unlikely to ever use structured mind magic himself, it did inspire him to take his mental abilities in new directions. However, just two experts out of the large list Xvim had given him was…

Well, frustrating. Especially since it wasn't just a moral issue – it was so much more useful to learn from people when they were honestly trying to teach you something. Because of the need to know which are the right questions to ask and a lack of back and forth between the teacher and the student, mind magic interrogations were far inferior to having a willing teacher. If Zorian had to memory probe Xvim every time he wanted something from him, for instance, the benefits would be but a fraction of what he got out of the man through his current methods. Well, unless Xvim was secretly hiding something of crucial importance from him, but Zorian kind of doubted that.

"What about targeting criminals?" Zach asked. "You've established links with Cyoria's criminal underground through the contact lists the aranea left behind, haven't you?"

Yes, he certainly had. Interestingly, most of these were not 'cloaked, shady men in dark alleys' but rather otherwise respected merchants and (somewhat less respected) mercenaries. He had used his mind magic on these people a lot more freely than he had when interacting with legitimate experts and instructors, but truthfully? There was a reason why most of these people used their abilities for crime instead of opening a legitimate business. They just weren't good enough. Most of them had a neat trick or two, and Zorian copied those from them when he could, but in general they had nothing that couldn't be acquired easier elsewhere. Probably the most useful thing he obtained from these people was a channel for acquiring illegal materials and the knowledge of how to hire unscrupulous mercenaries without getting ripped off or ending up in jail. Useful things to be sure, but that wasn't what Zach was asking about.

"It wouldn't work," Zorian said simply, shaking his head. "They don't have what we need."

"Alright," Zach said, not pressing the issue. "To be perfectly honest, I think we're doing just fine as it is. You shouldn't feel pressured to do this if you don't want to. We'll manage somehow."

Zorian said nothing to that, not really sure himself what the correct answer was. There was a part of him that said he was being stupid by refusing to employ his mental abilities to their maximum extent, but he suspected that once he started to casually assault people for no reason other than them having things he wanted, it would be hard to take a step back. You are what you do. If he started going down that path, it would change him, and not for the better. Sure, having those skills would greatly increase the chances of him successfully escaping the time loop, but was there any point to that if what came out at the end was a monster?

Zorian rose from his spot and walked away. Zach followed him, throwing the entire remains of his bread to the pigeon throng as he left the bench. They left the park and its dangerously fearless pigeons and continued their conversation on foot.

"Underwhelming results aside, this is a nice city," Zach said. "Was there anything else you wanted to do here?"

"Yes, actually," Zorian said. "There is a famous golem maker here and a couple of spell formula crafters for hire."

"You really are determined to spend all of our money, aren't you?" Zach asked rhetorically.

"Of course. It's completely useless to leave it sitting there without use. It's not like we can transfer it between restarts," Zorian said.

He actually wasn't going to seek instructions from these people – he was going to hire them to do work for him. He had been doing that for several restarts now, paying various spell formula experts to design or improve blueprints for him. Then he took the finished designs and gave them to the same people in the next restart in order to further refine them. Sometimes he also gave them to different people, just to see what different takes they have on the problem.

He did the same with warding experts, golem makers and alchemists. All of those fields took a lot of thinking and testing, but the finished designs were fairly compact and could be used by anyone, making them really convenient to advance in this fashion. At some point he was probably going to hit a point of diminishing returns with this, but that point was a long way off at the moment. Besides, when that happened, he might be able to take the collected knowledge he gained this way and trade it to people for their professional secrets. Magical knowledge and techniques could tempt some people in a way that money never could.

The snide part of Zorian informed him that he was robbing these people just as surely as a memory probe would have, only using more roundabout methods. Zorian told it to shut up and that it just wasn't the same.

- break -

Simulacrum number two was bored and the cause was easy to understand – he was attending academy classes like a normal student. Zorian hadn't been regularly attending classes for quite a while now, even when trying to stay on the teachers' good side, since doing that was a huge time sink and provided him with no benefits at this point. Unfortunately, he didn't have a choice in the matter. The original had gotten it into his head that he should check how obvious a simulacrum's disguise was by having them interact with a bunch of people on a regular basis… which somehow meant being sent back to school.

Okay, okay, so he actually knew what the logic behind that was. He had all of the original's memories, after all. The idea was that the academy was full of mages of all sorts, and his classmates were at least passingly familiar with him, so if anyone could notice there was something wrong with him, it would be them.

They didn't notice anything wrong, of course. The simulacrum actually broke off from the script entirely – he was supposed to stay inconspicuous but he decided to show off his future knowledge as much as possible instead – and nobody raised a fuss. Unlike Zach, he was known to be a good, diligent student. They probably thought he had studied ahead or something.

In any case, the mission was less one of nerve-wracking infiltration and more of an exercise in resisting soul-crushing boredom. The only good thing about the situation was that he would only have to tolerate this for one day – the original had been very zealous about dismissing his simulacrums at the end of each day, so he wouldn't have to be here tomorrow too.

Why couldn't he have been like the simulacrum number one, who was mapping the local underworld, or simulacrum number three, who was arranging a trade deal with one of the aranean webs near Knyazov Dveri?

Well, the current class had finally ended during his internal whining, so he could-

"Wow, Zorian, you got every question on that unannounced test correctly! How did you do that? I checked and some of those questions aren't even in our textbook."

Zorian turned around in his seat, looking at the girl speaking with him. It was Neolu. When he had arrived to the academy, he had quickly realized that she considered him to be something of a friend, even though he had no memory of ever really interacting with her before the time loop. How was that possible? Well… he wasn't the first simulacrum that was sent on this mission. And apparently one of the previous simulacrums was similarly bored out of his skull here and decided to go off the script and befriend her. And then never bothered to inform the original about it.

Simulacrum number two didn't intend to inform the original either. The whole thing was harmless and imagining the original's reaction when he finally found out was kind of amusing.

He leaned forward a little in a conspiratorial manner and motioned for Neolu to come closer. She did, and from the corner of his eyes he also saw Akoja leaned in a little so she could eavesdrop on them better.

"I have a time machine," he whispered to her solemnly. "And I'm using it to cheat at school."

He heard Akoja snort softly in the background. Neolu, though, gave him a weird, considering look.

"Really?" she asked suspiciously, like he had just told her something unlikely but still entirely possible.

That… was not the response the simulacrum had expected. He stared at her face for a second, at a loss about how to answer that. Hmm… now that he thought about it, Neolu was a bit cute. She had a pretty face and her naiveté could be kind of endearing, in small doses. He had looked down on her in the past, thinking she was kind of dim and flighty, so he had never really thought about it much. But seeing how he was going to live less than a day now, he found himself a lot more forgiving than he would usually be.

"No, I was just joking with you. I don't really have a time machine," Zorian explained patiently.

"Pity. Having a time machine would be grand," Neolu said, smiling. "Sometimes I really wish I could go back in time and fix things before I mess up."

"Don't we all," Zorian shrugged. Too bad the time loop didn't work like that. After a bit of thought he tore off a sheet of paper from his notebook and wrote down the questions for tomorrow's spell formula test and handed it to Neolu.

The moment she realized what she was looking at, her eyes widened comically.

"Is this–" she began, only for Zorian to cut her off.

"Hush. I never handed you anything, okay? See you tomorrow, I guess."

Akoja gave him a very disapproving look afterwards. Apparently she figured out the general nature of what he did from the clues in front of her and she didn't like it. Her disapproval died down considerably when he handed her a copy of the questions as well, though she did mumble something about cheating being wrong.

The simulacrum rolled his eyes at the statement and went back to Imaya's place to report to the original.

Somehow, he didn't think that would actually stop her from making use of the information tomorrow.

- break -

Eight restarts had passed since the time Zach and Zorian had first tried to break into Eldemar's royal treasury. Their priorities during this time consisted of investigating the invasion forces, looking for possible signs of Red Robe, trying to track down the rest of the missing Key pieces and figuring out some way to leave the time loop. Of course, since actually retrieving even the known pieces of the Key was impossible with their current skills, and they had no idea what kind of abilities they would need to retrieve the rest, a large portion of their efforts was dedicated to elevating their magical expertise in various ways.

Zach did his best to focus on strengthening his personal soul awareness and mental defenses, but both of those skills were very tedious to improve and Zach was pretty impatient by nature. He often spent a lot of time trying to figure out some way to improve his combat magic, even though he was already very good at that and any improvements tended to be very marginal.

As for Zorian, he did a little bit of everything, from pursuing more mind magic lessons from the aranea (though he had picked all low-hanging fruit in that regard and was starting to hit the point of diminishing returns) to working on his golems and magic skill. However, the bulk of his effort centered around mastering dimensionalism and time magic as much as possible, in the hopes that doing so would give him some clue as to how they could escape the time loop. Thus far, he didn't have any solid leads in regards to such an escape route, but he did learn how to open dimensional gates and haste himself, so at least he accomplished something.

Currently, Zach and Zorian were inside a Black Room – but not the same Black Room as the one in Cyoria. This was the result of a considerable effort to find other Black Rooms across Altazia, since making use of the one in Cyoria twice remained as impractical as ever. So far they had managed to find two more – one in Sulamnon and the other in Cwenjar, a small Splinter State on the border of Eldemar. Unfortunately, these were a lot less impressive than the one Eldemar had built. The Sulamnese one could only be activated for twelve days, while the Cwenjari one could only last for five. But still, 17 days was 17 days, and Zach and Zorian had been dutifully making use of them anyway.

It might actually be a good thing that these Black Rooms were less effective than the Cyorian one, since suffering through three months of isolation in every restart would probably be really unhealthy for their psyche.

Especially considering Zach was already going crazy, even though they were currently in the Cwenjari Black Room and there was only one day left before they could leave.

"Damn it!" Zach swore, the complicated geometric shape above his hand winking out as he lost control of it. Lately he had been trying out some very exotic shaping exercises in another bid for improving his combat magic, but evidently it wasn't going as well as he hoped. "Okay, I've had enough of this! Done! I'm done!"

He shouted this overdramatically to the sky (well, to the ceiling, since they were in-doors) while keeping his hands raised in the air. Somehow, Zorian was getting the idea that there was more to this than his momentary failure to figure out a random shaping exercise.

"You're still angry about what happened with Alanic and his soul awareness training, aren't you?" he surmised.

Zach responded by swearing up a storm, which Zorian took as confirmation that he was correct.

It happened in the previous restart. Alanic had finally judged Zach to have reached a point in his soul awareness where he could move on to the more dangerous version of soul training that Zorian had undergone. Zach was very excited and confident, but the moment Alanic touched Zach and tried to separate his soul from his body, Zorian's marker activated and the restart immediately ended.

The marker woven through their souls was a curious thing. It was hard to figure out for the same reason that memory probes were hard – you had to pretty much already know what you were looking for before you could find it. You couldn't just browse through it for interesting information like you would a book and the like. You had to know which was the right question to ask.

Now armed with the knowledge of what was possible, courtesy of what he had seen his own marker do in that terminated restart, Zorian had no problems leveraging his hard-won soul awareness into figuring out what happened.

The marker, as it turned out, had a contingency that terminated the current restart if 'significant tampering' of the controller's mind or soul is detected. It was unclear what exactly would qualify as 'significant tampering', but apparently even wrenching a soul out of the Controller's body was enough to trigger it.

In Zorian's marker, this function was non-functional, which was why he could go through Alanic's soul training without any issues. Zach's marker, however, was not defective in this manner. It detected Alanic's training as an attack upon the Controller and reacted accordingly.

This information helped answer a few questions that Zorian had been wondering about for quite some time. Such as why Red Robe had done such relatively minor damage to Zach's memories – he probably couldn't have done more than he did. In fact, the real surprise was that he had managed to do as much as he had without triggering the restart. If Zorian was reading his own defective marker correctly, the contingency in question was quite trigger happy – whoever made it was a big believer in the 'better safe than sorry' school of philosophy when it came to the safety of the Controller. Red Robe must have spent multiple restarts figuring out a way to get past it to the extent that he did.

This would also explain why Zach had been so relatively unconcerned in the past about having his soul or mind targeted. He had probably been hit by spells like that plenty of times, but that just ended his current restart prematurely. With that in mind, his attitude might not have been as foolish as Zorian had thought it was.

Of course, no defense was unbeatable in the end. Liches, for instance, commonly possessed a very similar contingency that wrenched their soul back to their phylactery when exposed to things like hostile soul magic. Which was how Quatach-Ichl, as someone who had probably fought quite a few rival liches, instantly knew how to bypass it when Zach foolishly told him he would survive bodily destruction. As for how Red Robe bypassed its protection to mess with Zach's mind, Zorian wasn't quite sure…

…but he had a suspicion it was related to Red Robe's use of non-structured mind magic. He distinctly remembered that Red Robe had been using non-structured mind magic on both him and Zach, despite being fairly bad at it. Which was kind of foolish of him at the face of it, since structured mind magic would have probably served a non-psychic like him a lot better in most regards. However, if the marker's contingency was aimed primarily at countering structured magic, and non-structured magic bypassed it to some extent, his choice of attack mode made perfect sense.

At first, the idea that the marker's maker didn't take non-structured magic fully into account when designing the contingencies sounded like an unbelievable oversight to Zorian. However, the more he thought about it, the more sense it made. Non-structured magic was a lot rarer in the past, both due to the more primitive shaping instruction at that time and because magical bloodlines used to be smaller and less sophisticated. The marker, and even the time loop itself, may have been built with a set of assumptions that were simply not valid today as they once had been. And whoever had activated the Sovereign Gate either couldn't or wouldn't update it to take modern circumstances into account.

"…all that time I wasted on those exercises!" Zach shouted, his rant finally dying down as his anger ran out of steam.

"It's not that bad," Zorian assured him. "Yes, you lost out a fair bit by not being able to go through the same training I did, but you still managed to achieve some elementary soul awareness, and that's not nothing. It will allow you to cast defensive spells on your soul, at the very least. Which is a must if we ever want to fight Quatach-Ichl and take his crown. So you didn't waste anything. The only real loss is that we lost an entire restart to that."

Zach winced. "Yeah, in retrospect, we really shouldn't have tried that at the very beginning of the restart."

"Hindsight is always perfect," Zorian shrugged. "It's just one restart and we learned very valuable information from it. We'll manage."

Zach sighed and plopped down on the floor again with a heavy grunt. He was quiet for a moment.

"It just seems like we haven't accomplished all that much in these past seven months or so, you know?" he finally said. "I mean, we investigated all the high ranking members of the cult and none of them are obviously Red Robe. We also can't locate Veyers at all – it's like he just vanished into thin air. We have yet to successfully extract the damn dagger from the royal treasury and we can't even find the rest of the Key pieces …"

"Okay, that last one isn't really true," Zorian said, interrupting him. "We may not know their exact location, but we do know where to look for them."

Their search for the missing pieces of the key had been long and expensive. Such a project would have been impossible to finish in any reasonable amount of time by just two of them working alone. So they didn't even try. They outsourced their work to numerous information brokers, both legal and criminal, paying huge sums to have them and their agents check up on rumors and stories of Ikosian inheritance floating around. They hired museums and historians to comb through historical records in search of any scrap of information related to the objects. As for themselves, they made themselves useful by breaking into government records of Eldemar, Sulamnon, Falkrinea and other Splinter States. The buildings that held those records were not nearly as well defended as the royal treasury, and the Splinter States had made their own attempts to locate these important historical objects.

Thankfully, those efforts were not without results.

"Knowing that one of the pieces is in the deepest part of the Xlotic desert, that another had been lost gods know where in the jungles of Koth and that the last one was stolen by some asshole who took it with him to Blantyrre is not very helpful," Zach grouched. "All it tells us is that searching for the rest of the Key on Altazia is probably pointless. And how are we supposed to get to these places to search for the missing pieces, anyway? Just getting to Koth would take us almost an entire restart, nevermind actually searching for it. If that information is true, we're kind of screwed, Zorian."

"Maybe," Zorian agreed. "But you see, I have a plan…"