A Battle of Minds


Eventually, the month-long recuperation period came to an end. Zorian spent the last few hours of that restart with Kirielle, attending Cirin’s own celebration of the summer festival. Kirielle was very happy with him, because apparently she was never allowed to wander around or stay up so late during the previous festivals. He didn’t really reciprocate her excitement, to he honest – Cirin’s summer festival was the same as it was every year: incredibly dull. He found himself almost wishing for Ibasan invaders to make an appearance, just to liven the place up a bit.

Okay, no. No, he didn’t. The whole thing was still very boring - that’s what he meant.

Regardless, with the beginning of the new restart (initiated by the familiar feeling of Kirielle jumping on top of him to wake him up), he was ready to once again tackle the problem of contacting the aranea and getting them to teach him mind magic. It didn’t work all too well last time, but he had a whole month to consider what had went wrong and how to fix it and he was willing to give it another go. Though not immediately, of course – teleporting to the nearest aranean web right from the start would be stupid. He had no intention of getting anywhere near one until he had already tested some tactics and equipped himself accordingly. Consequently, he started the restart in the same way he had started most of the previous ones: by going to Knyazov Dveri.

He did two things before anything else after entering the town. First, he descended into the local dungeon to pick up all the mana crystals he knew the location of… though he didn’t sell a single one in the Delver Village, or even the town above, so hopefully there would be no uproar and spying attempts on him this time around. Secondly, he saved both Alanic and Lukav from the assassins - even though he had no intention of pursuing lessons from Alanic in this restart. One of his reasons was purely emotional – both men had helped him a lot, and it felt wrong to let them die when he was already there, capable of preventing their deaths, even if it was meaningless in the long term – but the other reason was that saving them gave him some relatively non- threatening combat practice. He knew he could defeat the undead boars trying to ambush Lukav and the attack party assaulting Alanic’s temple without dying, but they were still life-and-death battles that he had to take seriously.

One of these days, when he finally got some mind magic expertise from the aranea, he was going to capture the two mages involved in the assault on Alanic’s temple and trawl through their memories to see if they knew anything important. Maybe some of the gunmen too…

But he was getting ahead of himself. No counting his chickens before they hatch – better worry about actually learning said mind magic before thinking about what he would do once he had it.

The first and most obvious problem he had to tackle was what to do if things went wrong again. No matter what precautions he decided to take, there was always a possibility he would bite off more than he could chew or end up caught off-guard. Technically, he had his suicide rings for that, but there was one thing that struck him about his altercation with the Sword Divers -how slow he had been about activating them. He should have blown himself up the moment it became obvious that the situation had become hopeless, instead of waiting for the last possible moment like he had. He could think up a lot of excuses for himself, but at the end it all came down to one simple fact: he didn’t want to die. He had a powerful survival instinct, and it was not easy for him to consciously kill himself… even if he knew, on an intellectual level, that it wouldn’t be permanent. Thus, he had waited until he was absolutely sure he wasn’t getting out of that situation alive and intact, and it had almost cost him everything.

All things considered, Zorian didn’t want to become jaded, accustomed to dying and suicide – that seemed a bad attitude to have, especially once he left the time loop. That left two main ways he could see to deal with the problem. One was to set up a bunch of contingencies into his suicide rings, allowing them to activate automatically in certain cases. Another was to have more options to choose from when faced with disaster – something other than ‘fight to the death or kill yourself’. A retreat option.

Contingencies sounded like a good idea, and Zorian even had some experience making them thanks to his studying of warding – a discipline that made heavy use of contingencies to determine when it should activate particular defenses. Unfortunately, most warding schemes used relatively easy-to-define triggers such as ‘a human touches the object’ or ‘a living being not keyed into the wards enters the area’… defining a trigger for a contingency that would kill him should his mind be tampered with but wouldn’t activate the moment he engaged in telepathic communication of any sort or hit his head or became dizzy or a million other things which were beyond him at the moment. Even if he could make such a thing, he would still have to exhaustively test it to make sure it was reliable… by working with a friendly aranea. Which, uh, kind of made it useless for his current needs.

So he cheated. Instead of creating a nuanced, sophisticated contingency, he made the metaphorical equivalent of a sledgehammer. Specifically, he made a contingency that would kill him the moment he lost consciousness or suffered a sufficiently strong headache… but only if he turned it on. It would normally stay dormant, to cut down on unwanted activations, but he could activate it on a moment’s notice if he found himself in a dangerous situation. He wasn’t terribly happy with that solution, but it would do for now. He just had to remember to turn it off once the danger has passed, lest he explode the next time he went to sleep. That would be so very embarrassing…

That being done, he turned his attention to the retreat option. He had considered everything from talking to Lukav about transforming into a rock worm or some other tunneling creature, alteration spells that would allow him to create his own paths and sanctuaries underground, phasing magic, haste spells, and more. But ultimately, his mind kept going back to teleportation. It was the ultimate form of mobility magic, and everything else was just a poor substitute. If he could somehow bypass Dungeon interference to teleport away, he could simply avoid ambushes like the ones the Sword Divers had used against him instead of resorting to suicide in order to evade capture.

Fortunately, during the month-long recuperation, Zorian had come up with an idea of how he could side-step his current limitation as far as teleportation was concerned. Which was why, before descending into the dungeon, he turned one of the large stones he found on the outskirts of Knyazov Dveri into a recall anchor.

The recall spell was outright made specifically for quick retreats, and the link forged between the caster and the anchor ensured they could teleport out even from areas warded against teleportation. Well, so long as the wards were basic ones, since those protections simply disrupted the targeting part of the teleport rather than inhibiting dimensional warping as such. Consequently, Zorian had a feeling the spell would work to yank him back to the anchor, even though the Dungeon interference.

He was right… sort of. He had found that past a certain depth, the strain on the link became too much and it snapped. Before that happened, however, the spell worked flawlessly, allowing Zorian to quickly teleport away to the surface. The depth past which it ceased to work was too shallow for his liking, but he was confident he could strengthen the link. Over the next couple of days, he worked to combine several marking spells and his knowledge of spell formula in order to create a stronger anchor for the recall spell – one that would allow it to power through any amount of rock and Dungeon interference. He was largely successful in this, though the anchor object had to be pretty large to contain the final spell formula he designed. No matter, there was no need to make the anchor particularly portable for what he had in mind.

Satisfied that both of his projects bore fruit, Zorian spent the rest of the week creating various portable traps and magic items… including a more combat- worthy version of his wooden golem. Golems, having no minds, were almost entirely immune to aranean mind magic, and Zorian intended to bring one with him under the explanation that it was his helper and luggage carrier. Partially true, since the golem he’d made wasn’t exactly the mobile wardstone and murder statue that professional war golems were… but in the end it was still a painfully obvious bodyguard construct and Zorian fully expected the aranea to recognize it as such. Having such a guardian trailing behind him was bound to make even the most opportunistic aranea think twice about going after him.

Or at least he hoped so. He also hoped they wouldn’t feel too threatened by the construct, since they might simply refuse to talk to him at all if it made them too nervous around him…

Well, no matter. He would risk it. Gathering all of his equipment he teleported himself and his golem to the one aranean colony that had been friendly to him the last time around. It was time to pay the Illustrious Gem Collectors a visit.

- break -

The last time Zorian had visited the aranean web that called itself Illustrious Gem Collectors, he found a colony that specialized in harvesting various precious stones that were abundant in their local underworld and traded them to the nearby human village in exchange for various human-produced goods. They were miners, essentially. They informed him straight away that they had agreed not to trade with any humans except the ones at the village, but gave him the locations of five other webs that might be more willing to help him. Since his main goal had been to locate as many aranean webs as possible and sound them out, Zorian had accepted this explanation at face value and moved on. However, after thinking about it for a while, he realized he had been kind of stupid. Just because they couldn’t trade with him didn’t mean they couldn’t receive gifts. He should have given them one – aside from the fact they may have been even more helpful if he had done so, there was also a chance they immediately alerted the webs they sent him to about his coming. In which case he definitely wanted them to put in a good word for him, which would be far more likely if he were handing out gifts to every group he visited.

Hell, he even had a perfect gift for them. Although he cashed in on a lot of the crystallized mana he found in Knyazov Dveri’s local underworld, he left a fair amount for his own tinkering and for situations like this. He was pretty sure the Illustrious Gem Collectors would have no problems accepting a gift of crystallized mana, since they traded similar items to the village all the time and it would not be in the least bit suspicious of them to have a couple of mana crystals in their possession.

Zorian entered the tunnels that held the Gem Collectors’ colony and contacted the nearest sentry in the manner shown to him by the web’s matriarch during his last visit. If the web found it in any way unusual that a human knew how to properly greet them and ask for audience, they never mentioned it. Instead he was soon presented with the web’s matriarch, She Who Eats Fire and Sees Gold, and her escort of 10 other aranea. Huh, two more guards than the last time… apparently having his golem trail after him did have an effect. Still, while the matriarch was noticeably more nervous around him this time, she did not act outraged at his addition and she gave him essentially the same speech she had the last time around. They were honored by the visit, but they had prior commitments and agreements and couldn’t deal with him so here’s a bunch of other webs he could pester for help instead. Only this time they gave him eight names instead of five. Aside from the Rose Labyrinth Dwellers, Yellow Cavern Guardians, Filigree Sages, River Navigators and Luminous Advocates that he’d already known about, she also gave him the location of the Talisman Bearers, Ghost Serpent Acolytes and Silent Doorway Adepts. Strange. Why the extra information this time around?

[Is there something special about those last three webs?] he asked.

[Ah, so you have heard of them then?] the matriarch said, making her own conclusions about his question. [Yes, they are a bit… _shady _in their dealings with others, human and aranea alike. I wouldn’t normally send a young mage like you to webs like theirs, but you seem like someone who can take care of himself.]

She gave his golem a significant look.

[He’s just my luggage carrier,] Zorian said.

[Of course he is,] the matriarch said, a touch of amusement embedded in her telepathic message. [I’m sure those glyphs on its surface are purely aesthetic too. Leaving that aside, is there anything else we could do for you?]

[You have done more than I could have possibly hoped for, honored matriarch,] Zorian answered honestly.

He beckoned the golem to come closer and pulled out a box from the backpack it was carrying, pointedly ignoring the wave of tension that rippled throughout the assembled aranea at the action. He then opened the box, revealing several pieces of crystalized mana and placed it in front of the matriarch.

[Please,] he said. [Take this as a small token of my appreciation for your help.]

The matriarch stared at the box without a word for several seconds before becoming agitated. No, wait, she was just trying to mimic shaking her head with her entire body.

[I cannot accept this,] she protested.

Zorian frowned. [Surely the village leadership isn’t so insistent about your trade agreement so as to keep you from accepting gifts?]

[It is not that! Your gift – it is simply too generous,] the matriarch said. [It’s too much.]

[I respectfully disagree,] said Zorian firmly. [You were amicable and honest with me, and you told me where to go even if you could not help me yourself. You’ve most likely saved me months of searching by telling me where I can find more webs. I feel this is the least I can do for wasting your time with this meeting.]

The matriarch remained silent after that. After a while, Zorian figured she was not going to say anything and that this was effectively the end of their meeting.

[In any case, I suppose it’s time for me to leave,] Zorian said. [Until we meet a-]

[Wait,] the matriarch said, interrupting his farewell. [One of the webs I told you about. The Luminous Advocates.]

[Yes?] asked Zorian curiously.

[They are a web dedicated to honing our psychic abilities as much as possible, even by aranean standards. Among other things, that means they are intensely interested in studying rare cases, such as aranea with unique talents… or human psychics. They will want to work with you every bit as much as you want to work with them. Always keep that in mind, because they’re liable to pretend otherwise when you deal with them.]

[I… see,] Zorian responded. [That is a very useful thing to know about. I thank you for your advice, wise matriarch.]

[Oh, there is no need to flatter me,] She said. [I’m just helping a good, generous soul get forward in life. Besides, the Luminous Advocates are snotty and arrogant, always looking down on us as ‘mere miners’ and thinking their mastery of the mind arts makes them so much better than everyone else… in my opinion, they deserve to be taken down a bit. But never mind that, I’ve just realized I’ve been a terrible host. If you would be willing to follow me deeper into the tunnels, I would love to give you a brief tour of our humble home. We can talk some more while we walk.]

Zorian agreed, but quietly turned on the suicide contingencies before following after her.

Just in case.

- break -

Despite Zorian’s concerns, the brief tour of the place offered by the matriarch turned out to be just that. There was no sudden ambush or sinister reveals, just a stroll through the tunnels with some running commentary. Zorian could tell he was only being shown the less interesting, outer parts of the settlement… but the tour was really more of an excuse to have a conversation and exchange some information, so he didn’t mention it.

The matriarch gave him a little more information about the other webs. The Rose Labyrinth Dwellers were somewhat unique in the sense that they never visited the surface. Most aranea webs lived underground but were heavily dependent on the surface for their survival. Not so for the Rose Labyrinth Dwellers – they were only active underground, and were rather mysterious even to other aranea. The matriarch didn’t know how they would feel about teaching him, but she seemed sure they wouldn’t attack. The Yellow Cavern Guardians had apparently found one of the rare underground fungal forests and made it their home – they were fiercely protective of their home, knowing just how tempting of a target it was for just about anyone, but the matriarch felt he they were worth the visit. The Filigree Sages specialized in ‘webcraft’, which was basically the aranea equivalent of spell formulas – instead of carving glyphs onto items, they anchored their spells into web constructs for some reason. Zorian didn’t understand why they would do that, since web constructs were bound to be far more fragile than glyphs carved into stone and metals, but it seemed to be a thing among the aranea. It was probably a convenience thing – aranean limbs weren’t exactly made for carving and chiseling things, so they probably had to use alteration magic any time they wanted to do such things. Easier to just spin some webs. The River Navigators made their homes on the banks of an underground river, and had mastered the skill of making boats and using them to travel down its length and back. This allowed them to range a lot further than most aranea could manage, and thus gather more resources. They were very active in trading with humans, but mostly for material possessions rather than psychic instruction. Finally, there were the Luminous Advocates. Their territory had little in the way of natural resources, so they mostly traded their mind magic expertise to other aranean webs instead of dealing with humans much, but that was due to lack of means rather than wants. The matriarch insisted that the Luminous Advocates were clearly jealous of the Illustrious Gem Collectors’ wealth, and otherwise made some snide comments about their character and even sexual potency. She did admit, albeit grudgingly, that they were his best bet if approached correctly.

Zorian was somewhat surprised how relatively advanced the aranea in the local region were with regards to their crafting abilities. The Cyorian web mostly traded with the surface for all their crafting needs and didn’t produce anything except silk and processed monster parts. It reminded him of Novelty and her desire to learn ‘human construction magic’… and thinking of Novelty promptly made him feel guilty and angry, so he dropped that trail of thought soon enough.

Of the last three webs, the matriarch knew little beyond generalities. The Talisman Bearers were apparently heavily magic-focused, most of them carrying large metal discs full of spell formulas strapped to their bodies. The Ghost Serpent Acolytes had abandoned the aranean Great Web belief in order to worship some kind of native spirit they found. The Silent Doorway Adepts had either some kind of stealth magic or great teleportation skills, or maybe both, because they had a reputation for getting into inaccessible places and disappearing from them just as easily. All three had a bit of a shady reputation. The Talisman Bearers were known to be very greedy for magic they could use, especially magic items, which could be either very good or very bad for Zorian. The Ghost Serpent Acolytes slavishly followed the guidance of their guardian spirit, and the Ghost Serpent was known to be a little… erratic at times. The Silent Doorway Adepts were thieves, or at least had a reputation for such.

Zorian decided to put all three of them firmly at the bottom of his list of aranean webs to visit.

For his part, Zorian told a little bit about himself to the matriarch - how he was studying magic in Cyoria, and how he had met the aranea there. How they had helped him make sense of his abilities and learn how to control them. How they are all dead now, wiped out in totality.

[So Cyoria changes hands once again, does it?] the matriarch asked rhetorically. [I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Do you happen to know which web took over?]

[None at the moment,] Zorian said. [It wasn’t a rival web that destroyed them. It was… something else. Most likely some monster rising from the deeper section of the dungeon. Cyoria has had a bit of a problem with that recently.]

[I have heard something about that from the night runners,] the matriarch said. [But I didn’t know it was that bad. Still, expect a new web to move in soon enough. Cyoria is a tempting prize. Not for us, mind you, the Illustrious Gem Collectors are happy enough with their lot, but plenty of ambitious webs would jump at the chance to claim the place for themselves.]

[Night runners?] asked Zorian.

[A name for aranea that go between different webs to bring news and conduct trade. Don’t go looking for them. Night runners generally don’t like humans. Their whole existence revolves around crossing over vast stretches of human- controlled land. Many die to mages and guns in the process. They wouldn’t appreciate some random human tracking them down, regardless of the reason. The whole point of being a night runner is evading humans, after all, and especially mages.]

[Got it. Don’t bother the night runners unless I want a fight,] said Zorian.

[Have you ever gotten in an actual fight with an aranea?] the matriarch asked curiously.

[Um. Sort of,] said Zorian. [It didn’t end all that well for me. While we are on that topic, have you ever heard of the Sword Divers web?]

[Can’t say that I have. Where are they from?]

[They live under Korsa,] Zorian answered.

[Oh, no wonder, then! Korsa is really far from us. I’m afraid that aranean webs have very little contact with webs outside of our immediate vicinity. Other than the news we get from the night runners and the occasional aranean explorer, we know little of what happens in distant webs. It may be strange to hear this, but we actually have a better picture of what humans are doing at any given point than our own kind. What did you want to know about the Sword Divers anyway?]

[They arranged for a meeting with me and then tried to ambush me when I got there,] Zorian said.

[Ah,] the matriarch said quietly. [I am sorry to hear that. Treacherous webs like that bring a bad name to our kind.]

[So you can’t tell me why they did that?] Zorian asked.

[It could be any number of things,] the matriarch said, adding a mental equivalent of a shrug. [Aranea are not nearly as homogenous as humans in term of culture-] Zorian silently boggled at the notion of humans being culturally homogenous. [-since the relative isolation of each web quickly causes webs to develop their own… peculiarities. Perhaps you insulted them somehow. Perhaps it was how they test anyone wanting to meet with their leaders. Perhaps they were simply greedy and decided you would be an easy target. I’d personally assume the latter, but who could possibly tell?]

Soon after that, the conversation died down and he parted ways with the Illustrious Gem Collectors. The matriarch told him to drop by for another chat when he was done scouting out the other webs to tell her how it went, which Zorian interpreted as ‘come back again soon with some more expensive gifts’, but agreed to anyway. He meant it too – this visit had turned out to be far more productive than he had been hoping, and who knew what else he might learn from the matriarch if he could get her talking again. Stopping by before the restart ended shouldn’t be too much of a hassle.

The next day he set off towards the Rose Labyrinth Dwellers to begin his task in earnest.

- break -

Despite having detailed instructions about where they live, it took Zorian an entire day of searching before he encountered any of their sentries. And an entire day of wandering the lightless tunnels, constantly doubling back after taking wrong turns and fighting the denizens of the Dungeon. That black, fire- breathing beetle whose carapace shrugged off both kinetic force and fire really gave him a scare, but thankfully it was rather slow and freezing it solid finally allowed him to kill it.

The Rose Labyrinth Dwellers really lived up to the ‘Labyrinth’ part of their name.

[Zorian Kazinski of Cyoria,] the aranean spokesperson began. The local matriarch declined going out to meet him, sending a small greeting party of four aranea instead. They had taken their sweet time considering his offer, silently communicating between themselves for nearly two hours, but it seems they have finally reached their decision. [We have discussed your request and reached a decision. We agree to teach you in the ways of our Gift, but only if you accept our terms.]

[Those being?] asked Zorian.

[You will live with us for the duration of your lessons. You will eat and sleep in our settlement, hunt with our hunters, patrol our territory with our scouts and otherwise act as a member of our web.]

Zorian balked at the terms. How the hell did they expect him to agree to that!? He knew for a fact that the aranean idea of food was vastly different from human one, for one thing. But frankly, even ignoring the sheer logistical problems of that idea, it required him to trust them far more than he did. He’d be at their complete mercy all day, every day…

…which, now that he thought about it, was probably what they were going for. That, or they were trying to get rid of him via unreasonable terms.

[There is no negotiating these terms?] asked Zorian.

[No,] the spokesperson responded. [If you are not willing to commit yourself, how can you expect the same of us?]

[…I will have to think about it,] Zorian said. It was a dirty lie, of course, since he had already thought about it and rejected the idea with extreme prejudice. But there was no sense in being impolite. For all he knew, they thought they were being extremely reasonable.

[Take your time,] the spokesperson said. [It is not something to decide on quickly. You know where to find us if you’re interested.]

- break -

[I am sorry, but we are going to have to refuse your request,] the aranea said. [Perhaps if you are still interested in a couple of months from now we might be able to help you, but we are currently busy with… the renovation of our settlement and cannot help you. I hope you understand.]

Zorian stared the two aranea in front of him. That the matriarch of the Yellow Cavern Guardians came to greet him with only one guard was already pretty strange, but her nervous, twitchy behaviors did nothing to still his paranoia. Thankfully, it didn’t seem she was planning on doing anything to him, she just seemed generally stressed and frightened. In fact, her guard was just as nervous, and so was the sentry he initially contacted. The entire web seemed to be on edge for some reason.

The matriarch returned his stare with one of her own, her body shifting from time to time to switch focus between him and his golem, trying to divine something about them through intense scrutiny.

[I am sorry if I am making you nervous,] Zorian said. [I assure you that the golem is-]

[We are not threatened by your stupid toy!] She snapped. [We have far more pressing-]

She suddenly cut herself off and remained silent for a second before reestablishing telepathic communication.

[I am sorry. I let my temper get the better of me. Please, just leave. It is dangerous for you to remain here.]

[You are being threatened by someone,] Zorian guessed. A spike of emotion and images came from the link, hard to interpret but not totally incomprehensible. [Correction, some_thing_. A monster. A thing from the depths?]

[This talk is over,] the matriarch said icily. [If you don’t go away, I will attack you.]

[Perhaps I could help?] Zorian tried.

[No, you cannot,] she said. [You are unwanted here. Leave. Now.]

What else could he do? He left.

- break -

[Yes.]

[Yes?] Zorian repeated in surprise. [Just like that?]

Bridge of Moonlight Connecting Ten Thousand Shores, the matriarch of the River Navigators, gave him a searching look. [Was I not supposed to agree? You gave a convincing offer. I could really use those telepathic relays to connect all our outposts together. I’ve been trying to buy some of those from the Filigree Sages for ages now, but the greedy bastards keep increasing the price.]

Honestly, considering how his previous visits had gone, he’d half-expected the River Navigators consult the river currents about whether or not they should teach him and then inform him that the river said no. That was just about how his luck worked, apparently. But no, they just patiently listened to his offer and promptly agreed. It was almost anticlimactic, but Zorian wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

[The Filigree Sages have telepathic relays? And here I thought I was being original when I made them…] he complained. Though it kind of did make sense that some of the aranea would try to make something like that. It was probably more unusual that no one else had them…

[If it makes you feel any better, they are the only web I know off that have them, and they refuse to share them with the rest of us,] Bridge of Moonlight said. [They won’t even sell the finished product to us, lest we figure out how to make them from live examples.]

Ah, of course - the tendency of spellcasters everywhere to jealously hoard their knowledge and share bare scraps with others. A major part of why Ikosian magical tradition was so successful was that it had mechanisms for overcoming that – widely-accessible schools to teach everyone proper basics, state- sponsored libraries to preserve spellbooks and make them available to aspiring mages, legal frameworks for apprenticeships and magical monopolies, and so on. Even with that, there were a lot of cases of mages taking priceless magical knowledge with them to their graves because they had never entrusted anyone with their secrets.

Zorian decided that if he ever managed to escape from the time loop alive, he was going to write a book about psychic powers to make sure people like him don’t have to jump through the same hoops he had to in order to master their abilities. He wasn’t sure how much of his knowledge would be transmissible through a simple written medium, but he would try.

Three days later, when Zorian provided the first shipment of telepathic relays and proved they worked as advertised (plus warded one of their storage caves against various vermin), they introduced him to Mind Like Fire, his new mind magic teacher.

[Your name is surprisingly short by aranean standards,] he told her.

[The names you hear are simply approximations of their original meaning in aranean mind-speak,] she said. [Our names are all of similar length, but since our languages are so different, it is often hard to translate certain concepts without ending up rather verbose. Though in my opinion, many aranea also enjoy making the translation as grandiose-sounding as possible. Are you ready for your lesson?]

[Yes.]

[Excellent. First, let me tell you what I mean to teach you. Feel free to stop me if you already know something I included in my lesson plan or have any objections.]

Zorian nodded, settling down on the small chair provided for him and glancing at his surroundings. The room they were in was pretty well done for something built and furnished deep in the dungeon by a bunch of giant telepathic spiders – it had a proper table and some chairs, a pair of decorative cabinets (they were completely empty; Zorian got curious and checked when he was left alone at one point), and even a couple of landscape paintings hanging of the walls. Only the lack of any windows and an expensive, clearly magical lamp perched on the table indicated that he was not in some medium-grade hotel on the surface.

He found it interesting that the River Navigators had a room in their settlements that was clearly intended for humans – it meant they received human visitors often enough they felt the need to make a guest room for them. He should probably ask them about that later.

[The first thing I intend to teach you is how to encase your mind in a defensive mental shell. It is one of the simplest and most expensive means of mental defense, but also one of the most effective ones. The name is indicative; much like your exoskeleton protects your soft, squishy insides-] Lady, I don’t think you understand how human anatomy works… [-so too does this technique create a form of mental exoskeleton to protect your vulnerable thoughts.]

[So, basically, it is the psychic equivalent of a ‘mind shield’ spell?] asked Zorian.

[Show me,] she demanded.

Zorian complied. He channeled mana through the amulet hanging around his neck and his mind was instantly encased in a protective magical shell that repelled all mental intrusion.

For a full minute, his teacher remained silent and still, unable to establish telepathic communication with him but also not giving any indication that he should drop the spell. He decided to keep it up until she signaled him somehow, but that moment never arrived. Instead, after about two minutes of nothing happening, her telepathic voice rang in his head again.

Despite the fact the mind shield was still on.

[As I thought,] she said smugly. [The spell is neat in its simplicity, but it ultimately suffers from the same drawbacks common to nearly all human mind magic. Namely, it gives you no feedback whatsoever when attacks start interacting with your defenses. You didn’t even feel it when I slipped past it, did you?]

[I do feel it when sufficiently powerful attacks interact with it,] Zorian protested.

[That’s not feedback, that’s damage leaking through without totally collapsing the whole thing,] she scoffed. [No, while this thing may have served you in the past, it is thoroughly inadequate for my purposes. A real mind shell, the sort I will teach you to produce, will be far better than this. It will be many times stronger than what your spell can manage, and infinitely more adaptive and responsive. You will be able to sense probing attacks, too subtle to actually damage your defenses but indicative of what your opponent is planning. You will be able to repair and reinforce your defenses without tearing the whole thing down and starting from scratch. You will be able to strike back without dropping your whole mental shield to do so…]

[Sounds wonderful,] Zorian said. He collapsed the spell, since it clearly wasn’t doing anything at the moment. [Though if I may be so rude, I do think there is one thing where human magics generally beat your psychic powers.]

[Oh?]

[They generally require no attention from the caster to keep affecting the target, and they expose the caster to far less risk of mental retaliation by their victims. From what I can tell, that is not true for psychic powers.]

[True,] she acknowledged. [But I think the inflexible nature of those spells is too much of a weakness to make up for those advantages. But we’ve digressed enough – after you learn how to defend your mind a bit we will move onto attack and retaliation…]

It did not take long for Zorian to realized that Mind Like Fire was very serious about her job. Far from teaching him only the bare minimum and meeting him once a week or so like he had assumed she would, she scheduled lessons with him every single day and demanded every shred of effort and patience he could spare. The lessons basically consisted of him lovingly constructing a mental shell around his mind before Mind Like Fire mercilessly took it apart, only backing off when his defenses collapsed from the strain. It was a good thing he had decided not to turn on his suicide contingencies before going into her lessons, because they would have gone off at the end of the very first day due to all the headaches he had suffered in the process.

Still, Zorian couldn’t complain. This was basically what he was searching for all this time, wasn’t it? True it was a lot more painful than he had imagined, leaving him bedridden for hours after the lessons ended, but it was also a lot more effective than he had thought it would be. His ability to shield his mind was improving fast, and after the first week Mind Like Fire started bringing ‘guest teachers’ to give him experience with attackers different from her own.

Not that everything was perfect. For one thing, Mind Like Fire had a Xvim-like obsession with getting the basics right and refused to teach him anything else until he mastered the ‘mind shell’ technique to her liking, and she had some pretty high standards. For another, the River Navigators spontaneously raised the price of their cooperation twice, first demanding of him another ten relays if he wanted to continue the lessons, and then urging him to help them kill some kind of giant mole monster that was threatening one of their outposts. The mole-thing didn’t look particularly dangerous to Zorian, but apparently it was resistant to mind magic and too tough to bring down with their meager magical skills. Though annoyed at the sudden and completely unwarranted demands, Zorian decided to play things their way, easily producing another ten relays and luring the giant mole into a minefield he had set up for it. As tempted as he was to break the whole arrangement on principle, the fact was that Mind Like Fire was simply too good of a teacher to lose.

Before the restart ended, Zorian had once again visited the Illustrious Gem Collectors, gifted them some more crystalized mana (to the matriarch’s continued protests that he was being too generous) and told them a little about his experiences. They had nothing new to tell him, however, so his visit was largely pointless in the end.

Upon the start of the next restart he once again teleported to Knyazov Dveri to perform his preparations and then promptly contacted the River Navigators with the offer, deciding not to contact the Illustrious Gem Collectors this time. The River Navigators were just as quick to accept his offer as they had been in the previous restart, and they once again assigned Mind Like Fire as his teacher.

Not particularly surprising, as he soon found out. Now that he showed some pre-existing skill, she actually allowed him to have some breaks during the lessons where she would tell him a little about herself and her web. She was literally their mind magic teacher, and was thus the most logical person for the job. Although she usually taught aranean children, rather than adults…

Maybe Zorian was a little too prideful, but the fact that they had sent their elementary school teacher to conduct his lessons kind of burned.

[Prepare yourself,] Mind Like Fire suddenly stated, and Zorian knew the break was over.

He quickly erected the shell around his mind, a simple blast of telepathic noise washing over it harmlessly. Mind blasts like that one were the simplest form of telepathic attack, one that even Zorian could produce, and they had no chance in hell of punching through a solid defense like he was currently sporting. It was the fastest attack most telepaths could manage, though, and Mind Like Fire always started a battle with one of those to see if she could catch him unprepared with it. That used to actually happen, back when he was still starting and was struggling to call up the mental shell on a moment’s notice, but even after it stopped working on him she persisted doing that at the start of every battle.

Immediately after the blast subsided, he felt pinpricks skittering across his shell, looking for flaws and weaknesses. He had tried to be clever in the past by deliberately creating weak spots and then quickly shoring them up when she committed to an attack, but he quickly learned that was a risky tactic to employ at his level of skill so these days he was more passive and reactive.

Soon enough, once she was convinced there were no obvious flaws in his defense, she tried to create some. Sudden, concentrated mental bursts slammed into his mental shell, seeking to crack it by concentrating all their energy against a specific portion of the shell. He recognized that attack as the one that the Sword Divers had used to smash his ‘mind shell’ spell and ravage his mind. Not surprising they had used that, he was informed, since that type of attack was specifically designed to punch through mental barriers. ‘Mind spike’, the aranea called it. Unlike the last time he was faced with this attack mode, however, he had a shiny new mental defense and was facing only one attacker. He felt the spikes hit his shield but it held, and he quickly repaired all the damage and reinforced that part of the shell to withstand future attacks.

Mind Like Fire promptly switched targets, bombarding another, different portion of his mental shell. And when that didn’t work, she moved on the next, and the next, steadily speeding up her attacks until Zorian was straining to hold his mental shell intact. She began mixing in low-powered probing attacks in between mind spikes, masking the tiny pinpricks among the sheer intensity of her barrage and looking for any cracks created by her assault. Zorian frantically worked to patch up damage and reinforce the shell in places where he detected her probes, and somehow held on until her attack attenuated.

Success. His shell usually cracked during that last phase. Maybe now she would-

A massive vise of telepathic pressure closed around his mind from all sides, crushing and grinding without mercy or end. The attack, the unimaginatively but appropriately named ‘mind crush’, closed around his mental shell like an armored fist around a soap bubble. And, weakened as it was from the previous barrage, the shell promptly broke like one too. Zorian experienced a brief flash of blinding pain in his head before Mind Like Fire realized she’d won and let the attack dissipate.

“Motherfucker,” Zorian swore loudly, massaging his temples and not even bothering with telepathy to express his displeasure. “Did you really have to finish things off with that attack?”

[Yes,] Mind Like Fire said simply.

“Ugh,” Zorian groaned.

[I’ll give you five minutes before we go for round two,] she said.

“I take back everything nice I’ve ever thought about you,” Zorian told her. “You’re pure evil.”

[My other students agree with you. There is a reason why I was named Mind Like Fire, you see,] she said. [Four more minutes left.]

Damn it.

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