Chapter 085

Critical Mass

Zorian would be lying if he said that interacting with Quatach-Ichl again didn't fill him with dread. Aside from the fact that the ancient lich had reached an unfathomable level of expertise in soul magic and could possibly detect residual damage on their souls, their current trade offer was fundamentally different from what they did during their last interaction with him. Before, it was Quatach-Ichl who approached them. Last time, he had blindsided them with his sudden visit. He had the initiative right from the start, which doubtlessly helped lessen the level of threat he felt from them. This time, it would be them who were going to blindside him… and Zorian was not at all sure the ancient lich could take that gracefully.

Yet, Zorian knew he had to risk it. The fact was, their current initiatives were insufficient. Even if they managed to gather all the keys together in one restart before the time ran out, that wouldn't be enough. Not for Zorian, anyway. The problem of how he was supposed to exit the time loop still remained. His original self was still out there in the real world, so he couldn't just order the Guardian of the Threshold to shove his soul into his real body and be done with it. The Guardian of the Threshold may be confused about his controller status, but it would surely notice there was already a soul in Zorian's original body upon trying that. And even if that could be sidestepped somehow, there was still the matter of how to seize control of the body from his original self.

Zorian had a couple of ideas on how he could leave the time loop despite this issue, but all of them required incredibly advanced knowledge of dimensionalism and soul magic to accomplish. Quatach-Ichl had both, and it was likely that the insights he had into those two fields were impossible to find elsewhere. Zorian couldn't afford to ignore this priceless source of information, no matter how dangerous it was.

Arranging a meeting with the ancient lich proved to be rather simple, at least. All they had to do was go to the same corner store that Quatach-Ichl had sent them to the last time they had interacted with him and ask about him. The man behind the counter acted as if they were crazy, but not long after they left, the cranium rats suddenly became a lot more interested in them and started following them around. Zorian simply kept stealing away the individual rats from the collective for a few days before Quatach-Ichl decided to contact them personally and arranged for a meeting.

At the moment, Zach, Zorian and Quatach-Ichl were sitting in a private booth of a relatively 'high class' restaurant near the city center. Not exactly the type of institution Zorian liked to frequent, in part because just getting a seat in one of those was pretty hard for an unknown teenager like him, but Quatach-Ichl had been the one to pick the location and he was evidently in the mood to show off his wealth and influence. He was using the same face and flesh-and-blood look he did the last time they met in a public location – either this appearance was his usual persona for dealing with people or this was how he once looked before discarding his flesh for an undead existence.

"What an interesting offer," Quatach-Ichl said, playing around with his fork thoughtfully, occasionally tapping it against his glass. He had ordered an expensive meal and wine for the occasion, but did not touch any of it throughout the entire meeting. "I'm no stranger to people seeking me out for my wealth of magical secrets, but usually their offers are… hesitant. They're leery of angering a powerful lich, they aren't sure if I am really as good as they heard and they're trying to pay as little as possible to get what they want. They start small, asking for relatively minor things in order to puzzle out how I think and what it would take to get what they really want…"

The ancient lich then made a dramatic pause, pointing at the small pile of divine artifacts and rare materials that Zach and Zorian brought to him as payment for his 'wealth of magical secrets', as he put it.

"You though?" Quatach-Ichl continued. "You're immediately going for the kill. You want nothing less than my complete pocket dimension creation expertise – an extremely rare, almost priceless set of secrets – and you're willing to offer no less than five divine artifacts and a plethora of extremely rare materials in return. I'm impressed by your boldness, but I can't help but wonder… are you not worried I will cheat you or that this will end up a disappointing trade in the end? You are, after all, trading physical goods for information of uncertain value. I could easily just ignore you after pocketing the goods or play dumb and give you mere shadow of what you asked for."

Zorian mentally agreed with this, but wasn't really worried. Although many things about the ancient lich were enigmatic, he was pretty sure he had a good read on his sense of honor. Quatach-Ichl prided himself on his sense of fairness. He would not cheat them unless he thought they were trying to cheat him first. The real challenge was to make him agree to the deal in the first place.

"Although I don't dare claim I know you, you are as famed for your honorable behavior as you are for your great magical skill and brutality in warfare," Zorian said. Quatach-Ichl smiled idly, clearly viewing all three traits as a compliment. "We feel that if we can reach an agreement with you, you will do your best to honor it."

"Perhaps my knowledge of pocket dimensions isn't as extensive as you think it is, though," Quatach-Ichl pointed out. "I am indeed a man of many talents, but that is quite a rare and exotic field of study. You may end up disappointed by the results of the trade."

"If so, we will accept it quietly and in good grace," Zorian shrugged. "We're willing to take a gamble."

"Hm. Although it is not a smart thing to admit such a thing in these kinds of negotiations, I feel you are being a little too reckless here," Quatach-Ichl noted thoughtfully, giving them both a piercing look, as if trying to see through their souls. "It would have been smarter to try and do a smaller trade at first just to see if my pocket dimension skills are worth the more substantial investment."

"Well…" said Zach with a cheeky smile. "Although this is generally not a smart thing to admit in these kinds of negotiations, the fact is we're in a bit of a hurry. Slowly feeling you out and haggling over the details would take too long. That's why the terms we offered you were so generous, see?"

"Generous? Debatable," Quatach-Ichl scoffed. "I was merely questioning your logic just now. I said nothing about how good the deal appears to me. What you are seeking is pretty damn valuable."

"Yes, but so is our payment," Zach immediately shot back. "We realize that reaching out to you so suddenly and asking for such a heavy favor is a bit unreasonable. We also realize that, being in a bit of a hurry, we are innately in a disadvantaged position compared to you. We're on a time limit, you aren't. That's why we're willing to offer as much as we did, though – in normal circumstances, we would never consider this a reasonable trade."

Quatach-Ichl stared at them for a few seconds. Perhaps he was trying to put pressure on them through silence to see how they would react?

"You're pretty interesting people," Quatach-Ichl said. "I think that's why I haven't simply told you to screw off by now. That's what I'd normally tell people if they tried to give me this kind of deal. Are you really teenagers? You are way too calm for people that are supposed to be, what, 15 years old?"

"Why bother even asking?" Zach challenged. "We already know you've tried to spy on us before inviting us here, so you probably know enough about us to answer this yourself."

"I do know some basic facts about you two," Quatach-Ichl admitted. "It's just that they don't make much sense. How the hell did two academy students gather all this and find out how to contact me? Who are you really?"

"It's a secret," Zorian said blandly. There was no point in trying to explain. "But since we're asking private questions about one another, let me ask you a question of my own. How exactly did you talk no less than four cranium rat swarms into working under you? What the hell did you offer them to make them open to cooperation? I can't even get them to talk to me, much less work for me."

"Heh. Are we including that information as part of our deal?" Quatach-Ichl asked with a grin.

"No," Zorian snorted derisively. "I was just curious."

"And also changing the subject," Quatach-Ichl noted. "But fine, I get it. If you want to keep your true identity secret, I won't pry. But you know, if you really are as young as you appear, then we have another problem on our hands. Namely, I'm not sure if you're even capable of learning how to perform dimensional magic on the level you are asking about. What makes you think you are qualified to learn from me?"

"That is not an issue," Zorian insisted. "We know we can perform this level of magic because we are already capable of creating pocket dimensions."

"Oh?" Quatach-Ichl said, a little incredulously.

"Yes," Zorian confirmed. They would have to be careful not to make themselves look too amazing, or else Quatach-Ichl might notice something was wrong and attack them again. But this particular bit of information was impossible to hide, considering what they were asking of him. "We are asking you for advanced guidance, not asking you to teach us the basics of the field."

Zorian then removed a bracelet from his wrist and handed it to the ancient lich, who gracelessly snatched it out of his outstretched hand and began to scrutinize it.

The bracelet was something Zorian had personally created before coming here. It served as an anchor for a miniature pocket dimension. The internal space was tiny, barely enough to store a book or two, but that wasn't important. The important thing was that it proved that not only were they capable of creating pocket dimensions, they could create advanced ones.

Most products of pocket dimension magic came in the form of boxes, chests and other rigid containers that had their internal volume expanded beyond what their outside form would suggest. These kinds of objects were relatively easy to make, as anchoring a pocket dimension to an internal space of a hollow, inflexible object was a relatively simple task. Well, as much as any pocket dimension creation could ever be easy, anyway.

A more advanced procedure was to use dimensional magic to expand the interior of more flexible containers like bags, backpacks and pockets. Although this sounded rather convenient, fabric was relatively fragile and hard to imbue with spell formula. After a few years of use at most, such objects inevitably fell apart, sometimes causing catastrophic failures when least expected.

Finally, there were objects like the palace orb and the bracelet that Quatach-Ichl was currently holding. These objects were not containers with expanded interior at all. They were self-contained pocket worlds anchored to an object. Accessing the contents of such a self-contained space was tricky without dimensional magic, which drastically reduced the amount of people that could use them, but they were incredibly stable. They could be inflated to downright ridiculous sizes, if one had a sufficiently stable anchor object… as the palace orb amply proved. The bracelet Zorian cobbled up in the last few days was pretty underwhelming in that regard, but he was sure that Quatach-Ichl would recognize what it signified nevertheless.

After a minute or so of silent study, Quatach-Ichl handed the bracelet back to Zorian and then unceremoniously drew all the divine artifacts and exotic materials towards him with a sweep of his hand. After a few quick movements, they all disappeared into his pockets.

Neither Zach nor Zorian moved to stop him.

"Alright," Quatach-Ichl said with a small nod. "You win. I accept the deal. Since you have said you were in a hurry and I'm going to be busy with something soon, we can start tomorrow."

Busy with something… what a funny way to hide the fact he was planning an invasion of the city and the release of the primordial trapped in the Hole. Still, Zach and Zorian were pretending not to know about that in this restart, so they said nothing about that. After arranging for their next meeting place and hammering out some minor details, they turned to leave only for the lich to stop them.

"One more thing," Quatach-Ichl said. "Who messed up your souls so badly?"

Zorian couldn't help but jolt a little at the question.

"W-What?" he asked.

"Your souls are scarred," Quatach-Ichl said matter-of-factly. "The damage is faint now, and will probably go away completely in a few years, but less than a year ago you must have been in an absolutely miserable condition. A normal person would take years recovering from something like that. Much of it would be spent comatose, too. I guess I should add soul magic to the list of things you are inexplicably proficient in?"

Damn it. So he could detect it… though it didn't look like he recognized it as something inflicted by him in particular.

"Does it matter?" Zach challenged.

"No, I guess not," Quatach-Ichl said, frowning. "But it makes me even more certain you are not really who you present yourself as. You are fortunate I have something else occupying my attention at the moment, or else I would not be as willing to let this go so easily. Make no mistake, though – once I've cleared up my schedule a little, I'll come back to visit you so we can clear some things up…"

Zorian did not outwardly react to this proclamation, but inwardly he was breathing a sigh of relief. No doubt Quatach-Ichl meant this as a veiled threat, but so long as nothing happened within the bounds of the time loop, Zorian didn't really care about that. Provided they didn't mess up in some other way as the restart developed, they should be fine.

Hopefully Silverlake would take his warnings not to investigate into Quatach-Ichl more seriously this time around.

- break -

Whether because Quatach-Ichl didn't know that they were aware of the invasion this time around, or because he never discovered just how expansive their activities around the region really were, the lich didn't seem to view them as very threatening this time around. They were kind of baffling, yes, but he had an invasion to organize and he had no idea he had a time limit when it came to figuring them out.

In regards to his obligations, he fulfilled them to the letter. The agreement called for him to provide them with instructions for two hours every day, and he was never late for the arranged time, nor did he stay so much as one minute longer than they agreed. If he withheld some of his expertise, it was in a way that neither Zach nor Zorian could tell the difference – the amount of information he had for them was enough to keep them busy for quite a while. He spoke clearly and understandably. He readily clarified his statements if he saw they did not understand him. He pointed out any obvious mistakes they did under his supervision and explained the logic behind his instructions rather than let them 'figure things out for themselves'. He never lost patience with them or insulted them. He was, strangely enough, probably the best teacher Zorian had ever encountered.

Realizing that a soul-defiling, warmongering, thousand-year-old lich was his ideal academic instructor was a somewhat unnerving realization for Zorian.

That aside, having Quatach-Ichl's dedicated help in understanding pocket dimension magic made Zorian suddenly aware that it wasn't just the lack of qualified teachers and instruction manuals that was holding him and Zach back from advancing quickly in the field. Embarrassingly enough, it often happened that Quatach-Ichl was pushing ahead in his lessons and the two of them struggled to follow along. To put it bluntly, the real bottleneck to making the most out of those lessons was their own lack of talent and comprehension, not Quatach-Ichl's unwillingness to instruct them to the best of his ability. Zorian had a feeling the ancient lich was laughing at them on the inside about that.

Zorian knew this kind of result was to be expected.

It wasn't that Zach and Zorian were stupid, or that their work ethic was lacking… it was just that they lacked any special advantage when it came to learning something like pocket dimension magic. They had no special talent or bloodline related to the field and neither of them was the kind of genius that could easily grasp the complexities of this relatively mind-bending, unintuitive field of study. There was little that could be done to speed their learning process up, at least through traditional methods of advancement.

So Zorian turned to non-traditional methods instead. For a while now he had been hesitating about delving deeper into the field of mental enhancements he had been messing with, afraid that he would permanently mess up his own mind in the process. Now he decided to risk it and ordered his simulacrums to kick things up a few levels. Aware that time was steadily running out, they did not complain much and simply jumped at the task with enthusiasm that honestly surprised him. He supposed that since he himself had set aside his fears and resolved to tackle the issue, they inherited his determination as well… unlike in the past, where he himself had viewed the endeavor with apprehension, and thus his simulacrums had been similarly unenthused about risking themselves.

For the moment, his idea was to try and create a sort of mental calculator and internal clock, since a lot of the problems with pocket dimensions came from the inhuman timing and precision required to pull off certain stages successfully. Normally this was achieved via a complex system of divination magic, which added an extra layer of complexity to an already tricky task. If he could strip away the divination scaffolding and just do all the number-crunching, measurements and timing decisions purely in his head, the magic would get significantly easier.

Of course, it turned out to be not that easy. While Zorian knew that creating a mental calculator was very much possible, since it was one of the more common modifications aranea tinkered with, it was a tricky thing to pull off in practice. Several of his simulacrum had to be forcibly broken out of their experiments after they fell into strange mental states, endlessly counting the number of pebbles around them and such. Thankfully, none of them were so far gone that they had to be destroyed and recreated, so they were able to learn from their mistakes instead of starting from scratch and trying to guess where their predecessors made a mistake.

Additionally, he was also experimenting with hyper-focused mental states and with trying to replicate the hydra's unity of self with his simulacrums. He had a feeling that if he could synchronize himself with a handful of his own simulacrums the way a hydra could synchronize its multiple minds into one self, many complex pieces of magic would become relatively trivial to perform.

Of course, these kind of mental enhancement were only of possible benefit to Zorian, and did not help Zach in any way. For this reason, and also because he wanted to hedge his bets, Zorian also started to look more closely into blood magic and enhancement rituals. After all, some creatures were innately good at dimensionalism in various forms. Phase spiders, for instance, were capable of instinctively creating small pocket dimensions to hide themselves in. Blink toads could teleport short distances, voidsoul deer could bend space around them to make spells and projectiles launched at them miss and the silverstripe mole was rumored to be able to perceive dimensional cracks and boundaries in some strange fashion. It might be worthwhile to try and steal those kinds of abilities for a while, just to see if they could offer them with some kind of important insight or capability.

Of course, Zorian was currently not very well versed in either blood magic or regular enhancement rituals, so he would first have to practice with something relatively simple and then slowly work his way up to what he wanted…

Alternatively, he could just hire an alchemist to make him an enhancement potion with desired ability, but such enhancement potions did not confer the sort of instinctive competence with the gained ability that a properly executed enhancement ritual did.

In any case, both the mental enhancement route and the blood magic route were long-projects. It would be at least a couple of restarts before he could make an effective use of them, maybe more. Thus, Zorian ended up turning to something more immediate to get the most out of Quatach-Ichl's teachings – his spell formula expertise.

Zorian knew for a while now that most old, experienced diviners had specialized divination compasses they used to perform their work. Zorian himself rarely bothered with them, preferring to simply dump information straight into his mind and sort it out mentally, but he had tinkered with such devices often enough in the past. Kirma's divination flower thingy and the spell formula crafters she referred him to were especially useful in this regard. Now he embarked on a project to create such a divination compass, one specialized in figuring out divination related to dimensionalism and pocket dimension creation.

In this, at least, he had plenty of success. Spell formula were one of the things he had focused on pretty heavily throughout his entire time in the time loop, and he had reached an extremely high level of skill when it came to them. Producing a working version of such a dimensionalism-specific divination compass took only two days, after which he rapidly improved the design, producing newer and more potent versions every couple of days. By the time the end of the restart was approaching, these divination compasses had become so good that Quatach-Ichl took notice of it and commissioned a couple of them for his own use. In exchange, he provided them with the names and locations of two secretive mages that also knew a thing or two about pocket dimension magic – information that was almost as priceless as Quatach-Ichl's own lessons, as far as Zach and Zorian were concerned.

Gradually, the end of the restart started to approach…

- break -

While trying to deepen their understanding of pocket dimension magic consumed most of their energies in this particular restart, it was far from being the only thing they worked on. An equally critical, though far more boring task was to make sure the Pearl of Aranhal reached Blantyrre safe and intact. A mission that was thankfully far easier than they had ever hoped it would be. No sea monsters bothered them, and while no less than three dragons spotted them as they flew near the Dragon Island, they were surprisingly easy to keep at bay with flashy combat spells and a single experimental, magic-enhanced cannon that Zorian had installed on the ship. Neither the spells nor the cannon actually did any damage to the dragons in question, but they kept the beasts from simply rushing at them and rippling the hull into shreds. Perhaps because they had never seen an airship like theirs and did not know what combat abilities to expect from it, all three of the dragons limited themselves to probing attacks and flying in circles around them for a few hours to see if their response times and attentiveness would ever slip up.

It helped that each of the dragons attacked alone. Only after one of the dragons had given up on bothering them would the next one try his luck. If all three of them had united against them, Pearl of Aranhal would have been doomed without question. Thankfully for them, dragons were notoriously solitary creatures that viewed their own kind largely as competition rather than kin. They lived and hunted alone, only forming societies if pressured to do so by outside aggression. Zorian had heard there had been a few ill-considered campaigns in the past that sought to systematically wipe out dragons in a particular area, only for the dragons in question to temporarily amass themselves into massive flocks that devastated everything around them for a while before eventually breaking up again when they were certain the danger was gone. Aside from that, dragons were largely an individual threat, and dragons of Dragon Island were no exception.

Unfortunately, while their journey had not been delayed by dragons and sea monsters, their own lack of navigational skill had lengthened the journey somewhat. Additionally, while the people who made Pearl of Aranhal were world-class experts, it was still a prototype that had never really been tested or truly finished before being sent on such an ambitious journey… meaning that it had almost broken down several times along the way, almost crashing them into the sea at one point and forcing them to drastically slow down at several points along their chosen route.

But in the end they made it. Five days before the restart was about to end, the Pearl of Aranhal finally spotted the shores of Blantyrre.

Five days was not enough to really do anything, though. If they had to go through this kind of lengthy, annoying journey in every single restart, only to be left with measly five days per restart to locate the imperial staff, they were guaranteed to fail. Thus, their first and very urgent priority was to locate a Bakora Gate somewhere on the continent. Any Bakora Gate, really. That way they could reach the continent in only a handful of days with the help of Silent Doorway Adepts in subsequent restarts.

Sadly, this was not an easy task. Bakora Gates were scattered all over Blantyrre, but the continent was vast and the Gates were small. Searching for them blindly would take forever, which meant they had no choice but to seek the natives for help in finding them.

The trouble was, Blantyrre was not inhabited by humans. The steaming equatorial jungle that covered Blantyrre was home to a multitude of sapient species, but the most advanced and powerful force were the lizardmen. They lived in great stone cities along the coast and the rivers, and although they were very awfully primitive by human standards, they were more or less the only ones qualified to help Zach and Zorian locate a Bakora Gate somewhere around here. Not only were they the only species on Blantyrre that kept any sort of written records, they also regularly traded with humans from Xlotic and Altazia, which meant that some of them actually spoke a language that Zach and Zorian could understand.

Unfortunately, while the lizardmen did occasionally trade with humans, getting the location of a nearby Bakora Gate out of them was still a huge chore. For one thing, they existed as a collection of small kingdoms and quarrelling city-states that rarely shared information with one another, so unless a Bakora Gate was literally in their territory there was no chance they would know about such a strange but ultimately useless artifact. For another, only the priesthood was literate and knowledgeable of obscure places and artifacts like these, and they were not terribly fond of outsiders. Finally, while the lizardmen did occasionally trade with humans, they did so with great caution and only in a strictly regulated manner. If they wanted information, they couldn't just walk into a lizardman city and start asking questions – they had to go through official channels and make a formal request.

Pressed for time as they were, Zach and Zorian resorted to shock and awe to get what they want. Rather than carefully approaching the local rulers and making respectful diplomatic requests for information about Bakora Gates, they brazenly flew Pearl of Aranhal straight above the nearest lizardman city, teleported themselves into the city center and then started throwing around gold, gems and some spices that they heard lizardmen liked at everyone in the vicinity until someone came to talk to them, at which point they promised great rewards for any information about the Bakora Gates. Then they moved on and repeated this process in every larger city they encountered as they flew around the coast.

The reaction was everything they hoped it would be. The lizardmen may be primitive, but they had their ways, and news of their airship and what they were seeking quickly spread to every lizardman power in the vicinity. Soon, everyone knew that two immensely powerful human mages were flying around in their fancy airship and promising fantastic rewards to anyone who could lead them to a Bakora Gate. Admittedly, this did cause a lot of the lizardmen to come forward with fabricated tales of nearby Bakora Gates, but those were easily seen through by Zorian. Lizardmen emotions were not alien enough to give Zorian's empathy too much trouble.

Eventually, three days later, they were summoned by one of the local kings from a river city-state deeper in the continent's interior. The emissary brought with him a very lifelike drawing of a Bakora Gate as proof that they were telling the truth, which was good enough for Zach and Zorian to immediately set out towards the place.

This was why, at the moment, the two of them were standing in a luxurious stone throne room of a lizardman king, curiously observing their surroundings while they waited for the king to actually arrive and talk to them. Lizardmen rulers seemed to be fond of mosaics made out of gems and colored stones, and this one was not an exception – the walls were dominated by some kind of epic battle scene between two lizardmen forces. One of the two sides, which Zorian presumed to represent the forces of the city they were currently in, was clearly dominating their opponents, boldly advancing forward, while the other was in the process of being pierced by spears, clubbed over the head by heavy clubs or down on their knees and begging for mercy. An absolutely giant lizardman floated in the sky above the scene, curiously observing the battle. Probably a representation of one of the lizardman gods…

Zorian's idle musings were interrupted by the loud entrance of the lizardman king. A procession of musicians playing some kind of annoying flute-like instruments came first, playing ear-splitting whistles while a bunch of lizardmen children ran around and threw petals on the ground in front of the approaching king. The lizardman throne guards, which had been leaning on their spears and chatting amongst themselves in their incomprehensible lizardman tongue, quickly assumed a proper posture and pretended they had been alert and battle ready all this time. They also banged their spears against the floor a few times and let loose a keening wail that was probably some kind of salute.

As for Zach and Zorian, they just stared at the spectacle, not sure how to react. Perhaps because they had arrived so unexpectedly or because those rulers had not been so wealthy and powerful as this one, but this was not the way the other lizardmen kings had behaved in front of them.

"Uh, what's the proper procedure for greeting a lizardman ruler again? Are we supposed to bow or shake hands or something?" Zach whispered to him uncertainly.

"Why are you asking me?" Zorian protested. "You're nobility, not me. You should be the one who knows things like this."

"Please," Zach scoffed. "You're the one who is constantly interacting with various talking monsters. This is totally your area of expertise!"

Zorian turned his attention to the approaching king. He was surprisingly short compared to the warriors scattered around his palace, though the massive gem-encrusted headdress and glittering golden jewelry hanging off of him immediately marked him as the ruler regardless. In one of his hands he carried a black staff with a large, glowing, amber stone affixed on top. Four particularly massive lizardman warriors flanked him on both sides, which made for a somewhat amusing contrast between them and their king. What was not so amusing was the look in their eyes and the emotions they were radiating. Unlike the normal palace guards, these four took their jobs very seriously and their yellow, slitted eyes followed them with a threatening intensity – if they made so much as a threatening movement, they were ready to shove a spear through their throat without warning.

Also accompanying the king was another lizardman with lots of jewelry and an elaborate headdress, although one less impressive and of slightly different type and color scheme. Zorian suspected that she (he was pretty sure it was a female lizardman) was the high priest of the city.

And though she wasn't as overtly hostile as the king's honor guard, she clearly did not like them. At all.

Zorian inwardly sighed. Of course nothing could ever be easy…

- break -

Zach and Zorian had already managed to claim the imperial ring from the Ziggurat of the Sun in the past. Since they now knew that it was held by the sulrothum high priest, getting it was slightly easier than it had previously been, when they had yet to even locate where it was. However, easier didn't mean easy. The sulrothum high priest resided in the innermost, most heavily defended portion of the ziggurat. Getting to him still required a large-scale assault on the sulrothum settlement, which was… non-ideal.

Rather than organize another assault on the Ziggurat of the Sun in this restart, Zorian agreed to try something different this time around. After establishing a base near the ziggurat using Bakora Gates, they brought over a dozen or so aranean mercenaries and instructed them to spy on sulrothum guards and patrols. Although sulrothum minds were as alien to the aranea as they were to Zorian, the aranea were far more experienced with making sense of alien minds than he was. They did it all their lives, after all.

At the same time they began ambushing and killing sulrothum hunting parties and patrol groups leaving the ziggurat, in the hopes that doing this continually would eventually force the high priest to confront them directly or at least motivate to sulrothum to try and negotiate with them. After all, the colony would surely starve if they couldn't send anyone outside without them disappearing, right?

Unfortunately, the sulrothum didn't behave like they hoped they would. Rather than investigate the problem, they simply barricaded themselves inside and no longer tried to leave the ziggurat. It was baffling. Either the colony had sizeable stockpiles of preserved food and felt certain they could last for a while under siege or there was a Dungeon entrance somewhere below the ziggurat and they decided to brave the tunnels to feed themselves instead.

Either way, it was annoying. Thankfully, the aranea were somewhat successful in their information gathering.

"So," Zorian asked the aranea in front of him. "I don't think the damn wasps are going to poke their heads out of their turtle shells any time soon. Do you have something useful to report?"

"I think so, yeah," Storm Dream, the aranea in question, answering him through a voice spell so Zach could hear her too. "First of all, the ring you're after? It's not an accident that the high priest has it on him. He knows what it does and is actively using it."

Oh.

"Now that I think about it, that does make sense," Zorian mused. "I could tell the last time we met that he's a soul mage. That was a bit unusual, since sulrothum aren't exactly known for their magic abilities, but I thought nothing of it at the time. Since he's wearing a ring that grants soul sight, though, I guess it's to be expected he became interested in that type of magic. We're fortunate he didn't populate the ziggurat with undead guards or something."

"Probably wouldn't happen, even if he knew how to do that," Storm Dream said. "They're very religious and they seem to attach great importance to being cremated upon death. Some nonsense about returning to the 'sun mother' and whatnot."

"Well, they should be happy about all those patrols we fireballed to death recently, then," Zach said cheekily. "They got a proper burial as they died."

"Yes. Well," Storm Dream said after a second of awkward silence. "If you want to lure the high priest out of the ziggurat, I have only two ideas. One is to wait for him to come outside on his own to perform one of his periodic 'land blessings' and 'reading of the signs'. The next such occasion should be about two months from now and–"

"Too long," Zach immediately said, shaking his head.

"I don't understand why you're in such a hurry about this… the ring has been in the high priest's hands for years now. It's not going anywhere," Storm Dream said, with no small amount of exasperation. "But fine. The other option is to try and ally yourself with the nearby sulrothum tribe that this particular bunch has a rivalry with. I'm not entirely sure, but I think he would come out of the ziggurat and support his warriors if he thought it was a rival tribe attacking them instead of scary human mages with their unfair, mysterious magic and thunder sticks."

"Ah," nodded Zorian. The thought of seeing if the tribe had any local enemies and allying with them had honestly didn't even occur to him. A silly mistake, in retrospect.

Zach and Zorian discussed the merits of the idea for a while, before Zorian noticed that Storm Dream was shifting in place uncomfortably and looked like she wanted to say something more.

"What?" he asked her.

"It's… probably just a stupid coincidence, but the sulrothum high priest has the same kind of knife you do," she said.

"My knife?" Zorian asked incredulously. Since when did he even carry a kni– "Oh! Oh. You mean this?"

He tapped the knife hanging from his backpack. It was the divine artifact they had recovered from the palace orb – the one they had no idea what it did. Zorian sometimes liked to inspect it, staring at it while futilely hoping he would finally succeed in unlocking its mysteries.

"Yes, like that one," Storm Dream said. "I know you humans churn out thousands of identical objects as a matter of course, but I thought it was strange that a sulrothum high priest on another continent carries the same kind of knife like you do. Especially since their one is of immense religious importance to them and has an impressive magical ability."

"Oh? Do tell," Zach prompted. "What magical ability?"

"The high priest can use it to command a sand worm of immense size hidden beneath the sands of this place," Storm Dream said. "It could be just more superstitious nonsense, I guess, but I don't think so. Maybe the sulrothum are overstating the worm's real size, but they seem pretty certain of its ability to repel all intruders, so it should be pretty impressive. If your knife is the same, then… maybe you can control it too?"

Zach and Zorian were silent for a moment.

"I knew it was stupid," Storm Dream said. "Just… forget I said anything."

Zorian thought about the gigantic flying sand worm they had faced in their last assault on this place. The creature was an immense threat, only kept manageable by Zach's incredible combat prowess and their extensive preparations before the battle. And the way its mind had completely stopped Zorian's mental abilities like a brick wall, unlike any other mental defense he had ever seen…

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Zach asked him quietly.

"I doubt our dagger can really control the sulrothum sand worm," Zorian said. "But it's too bad that we already killed the giant hydra guarding the palace orb, I'll say that much."

It was just a suspicion, but Zorian felt it was likely that each knife was keyed in to a different creature. Assuming that the strange flying sand worm was the divinely-enhanced guardian of the imperial ring, it made sense that a knife that the sulrothum probably found near the ring was keyed to it. By the same logic, the knife Zorian currently held in his hand was probably meant to control the hydra instead, since it normally seemed live in and guard the orb.

"Next time, then," said Zach dreamily. "I like the idea of having my own pet hydra, you know? We could pit it against the stupid sand worm while we tackle the sulrothum ourselves. Or we could throw him at Quatach-Ichl, just to see the look on that stupid bag of bones when a massive hydra starts screaming and charging at him… or just take it on a walk through Cyoria like some kind of oversized dog and just soak in the people's reactions… lots of potential there…"

Zorian looked at the dagger in his hand and then grasped it tightly.

Next time, indeed…

- break -

As the end of the restart began to approach, Zach and Zorian turned their attention to something they had been gradually building up to throughout the entire restart – raiding the royal vaults for the dagger again. They sought out Quatach-Ichl for help again, too – partially because they still hadn't grasped the details on the inner wards, so his help in getting inside was still critical, and partially because they still had designs on his crown.

Zorian had to admit he was more morally conflicted about betraying Quatach-Ichl this time around. After all, the ancient lich had been nothing but helpful throughout the entire restart. It felt wrong, dishonorable, to just stab him in the back like this in the end…

Then again, didn't Quatach-Ichl indicate during that initial negotiation they had with him that he would return to interrogate them after his little invasion business was over? Perhaps he was just looking for excuses to make himself better, but seen in that light this attack could easily be viewed as pre-emptive defense on their part. Plus, the lich clearly intended to invade Cyoria as normal – a fact he sometimes cryptically alluded to during his lessons, but one which he never actually made clear to them. In a very real way, that was betrayal as well.

He supposed in the end it didn't matter. Quatach-Ichl once again agreed to help them steal the dagger from the Eldemar's royal vaults. They once again achieved their goal, successfully fought their way out of the capital city and then kept running from the Eldemar military until Quatach-Ichl figured out the nature of the tracking device that was used to track them. They again opened a dimensional gate to Xlotic and stepped through it…

The moment Quatach-Ichl followed after then they shut off the gate and attacked him with no warning.

There was no talking. They attacked silently and without hesitation, and Quatach-Ichl took their ambush entirely in stride. As an endless barrage of incinerating rays, impossibly sharp dimensional blades and disintegration blasts suddenly rained down on him, he quietly blocked, dodged, teleported and retaliated in return. He did not rage at their betrayal or try to talk to them to find out their reasons. Perhaps he had been expecting it. Maybe he was just that used to sudden ambushes. Whatever the case, he silently accepted their challenge and met their attack head on.

The desert quaked. Sand was melted and turned to glass over and over. Several hidden wards and traps that Zach and Zorian prepared in the area in advance activated, only to be shattered and neutralized by Quatach-Ichl. The ancient lich summoned a bunch of skeletal undead giants from some internal storage space on his person and Zorian responded by throwing his combat golems at them to keep them busy. Zach managed to shear off Quatach-Ichl's leg with one of his attacks, but the lich simply reattached it in the next moment. Three of Zorian's simulacrums sacrificed themselves to keep him alive when facing Quatach-Ichl's counterattacks, their inhumanly tough metallic bodies unable to withstand the ancient lich's attacks.

It was then, right in the middle of the heated battle, that several hidden devices revealed themselves in the distance, blanketing the whole area with small, fast-moving silver discs.

Most of the silver discs were completely mundane, meant purely to mask the real threats. Some of them were infused with specialized magic meant to stress and overload typical force shields that protected mages against physical projectiles.

And finally, a small number were special. They were infused with the same sort of soul severing magic that was once used by Kael to make the coin that ended up banishing Quatach-Ichl back to his phylactery.

In order to make sure Quatach-Ichl couldn't simply push away all the discs with a simple wave of his hand, Zach and Zorian immediately intensified their attacks. Despite that, Quatach-Ichl took the little silver projectiles as a deadly threat, never letting a single one touch him, raising the ground as walls and pillars to keep them at bay when the shield disruptors started to eat away at his magical shields.

But the silver discs did their job of occupying his attention anyway. So busy was he with avoiding them, dealing with Zach and Zorian's normal attacks and trying to counterattacks that he overlooked a far larger silver disc hidden in the sands nearby. This disc was also imbued with soul severing magic, and with a much more potent form of it, too.

Upon dodging one of their attacks, Quatach-Ichl ended up stepping on it and it visibly discharged a wave of white light straight into him.

For a moment, the whole battlefield stilled. Quatach-Ichl was momentarily frozen in place, a look of surprise on his face. Zach and Zorian waiting with bated breaths to see if the lich would collapse into a lifeless pile of bones in the aftermath.

And then the lich moved.

"Heh," Quatach said, speaking up for the first time since the battle had started. "You got me. But do you really think a stupid trick like that can beat me?"

Well no. He did not think that. But as a distraction, it worked better than Zorian had ever hoped it would.

The moment Quatach-Ichl had finished talking, a massive wave of dispelling energy erupted out of Zach, powered by most of Zach's remaining mana. It washed away everything in the vicinity, completely catching Quatach-Ichl off guard. For just a moment, all of his defenses went down.

Including his mind blank.

Zorian immediately reached out with his mind and began his attack.

Quatach-Ichl's mental defenses were impeccably made. They were thick and without any obvious flaws, and he could rebuild them in an instant, just like Xvim. Considering his endless reserves of mana, this meant that even Zorian would fail to break through them if he tried to gradually wear them down. He could never hope to win a battle of attrition against the ancient lich, not to mention that every second he failed to break through was a second that Quatach-Ichl could use to murder his fleshy body to remove the mental threat he posed. Thus, Zorian held nothing back when attacking the lich. He poured all of his mana into a quick succession of telepathic attacks.

After three such attacks, he was delighted to see some actual exploitable flaws starting to appear. Quatach-Ichl was proficient enough in fixing the aftermath of a single mental attack, but multiple ones in succession strained his defenses. As powerful as he was, the ancient lich had probably not encountered a mind mage that could meaningfully threaten him for a very, very long time. His defenses had probably once been truly flawless, but since he had not had to use them in ages, he had gotten a bit rusty.

Too rusty to stop Zorian, in any case.

With one final push, Quatach-Ichl's mental barrier shattered into countless pieces, leaving his mind defenseless before Zorian's telepathic might. Letting lose an ear-splitting scream of incoherent rage, Quatach-Ichl swung his skeletal hand towards Zorian, firing a jagged red ray in his general direction.

Zorian did not stop. Even when the ray hit him, severing his left arm just below the shoulder and sending waves of incredible pain throughout his whole body, he did not stop. He sank deeper and deeper into Quatach-Ichl's mind, paralyzing his skeletal body and starting to root through his long-term memories…

Without warning, the mind Zorian was invading suddenly disappeared. The bones Quatach-Ichl had been animating fell to the ground, lifeless.

The lich had admitted defeat and fled.

"Ha! We… we did it!" yelled Zach breathlessly. "Oh man, I can't believe we actually succeeded in beating the stupid bag of bones. We– Oh shit. Zorian, your arm!"

"Y-Yeah, I know," Zorian said, looking at the mangled stump connected to his left shoulder. "I'm… not feeling too well. I think I'm going to lie down a little."

Zach was saying something, but Zorian could no longer hear him. Everything was kind of fuzzy and eventually he just closed his eyes and let himself fall to the ground.

- break -

Two hours later, Zorian had woken up from unconsciousness only to find Zach beside him and his wound professionally bandaged. It was just something he had learned while learning medical magic, Zach explained. Apparently his teachers had insisted he learn some good old-fashioned mundane care for the injuries, and lost limbs were included in these lessons.

So now Zorian would get to experience what it was like to live with a missing arm for a few days. Lovely. The time loop was a gift that just kept on giving. In any case, they had to move fast. Quatach-Ichl was bound to be utterly furious with them, and they weren't really sure how long it would take him to possess another body and come after them. They had learned that this time varied a lot from lich to lich while researching the topic, ranging from a few hours to several days. Considering how good Quatach-Ichl was, they should probably assume it was the shorter option.

After hurriedly breaking into the time magic research facility beneath Cyoria, they asked Guardian of the Threshold about the crown and dagger they had newly acquired. They quickly found out that they had guessed correctly – the crown gave the Controller the ability to place temporary markers on people, bringing them into the time loop for a limited time, while the dagger gave the Controller an ability to place a special kind of marker on a soul of the target, letting the time loop know it should not recreate their soul in future restarts. Soulkill, as Red Robe called it.

Just like the orb and the ring, both items also had a mundane function that even normal people could use. The crown acted as a personal mana storage, which they already knew thanks to Quatach-Ichl, but it was nice to have confirmation anyway. In particular, Quatach-Ichl's story had not made it clear whether the amount of personal mana stored in the crown was proportional to the one using it or fixed. Now they knew it was fixed in size. For Quatach-Ichl this gave him ten times more mana reserves than he usually had, but for Zorian it would be far more since his reserves were relatively tiny in comparison. Though it would also take him forever to fully fill up the crown, as well.

As for the dagger, it had the ability to 'cut that which cannot be cut'… or to put it more plainly, it could hurt immaterial spirits. An ability that was probably far more impressive in the distant past, when spirits were around every corner and a pissed-off god could send their servants to mess you up at any time. These days, its base ability was of dubious usefulness.

Upon leaving the time magic research facility, they temporarily set the dagger aside and started feverishly tinkering with the crown, trying to figure how to activate its ability to place temporary markers while sending urgent messages to every member of their little conspiracy. Thankfully, by now they had a fair bit of experience in making imperial artifacts work, so after a few hours they succeeded in figuring out how the crown worked.

And then they got to work. By now, a whole throng of people had gathered around them. It was not just people like Alanic, Xvim, Silverlake and Daimen that were there. There were also various teachers from the academy, some of whom Zorian was familiar with (Ilsa, Nora and Kyron) and some of whom he wasn't, but which Xvim assured him were dependable and could be counted on. Kirma, Torun and several other select members of Daimen's team were also there, as was his fiancée Orissa and some of the members of her House. Many, many aranea were also scattered about, hailing from the Silent Doorway Adepts, Luminous Advocates, Filigree Sages and others that Zorian felt could be helpful and wouldn't freak out. Lukav was also here, as were some other people that Alanic had vouched for.

While Zach and Zorian had been running around Blantyrre, planning how to beat Quatach-Ichl and scouting out the sulrothum in the ziggurat of the sun, their fellow conspirators had been tasked with gathering all these people and informing them about the time loop. Thus, everyone here knew what they were dealing with. They did not necessarily believe in this crazy story, but that didn't really matter because seeing was believing.

The restart was soon going to end, and then they would experience the truth first-hand.

Zorian steeled himself a little and went out to face the crowd around them.

"Zorian… what the hell happened to your arm!?" Taiven asked him with a horrified expression.

"It doesn't matter," he said, waving her off with his one remaining hand. "I'll get it back soon, as good as new."

"So!" said Zach happily. "Who wants to be first?"