Gateways


Standing still in the empty living room inside Vazen’s house, Zorian stared unhappily at the splatter of green gunk in front of him that was currently eating through the floor with an audible sizzle. One could hardly tell that, not too long ago, the acid slime in front of him used to be a stack of important documents stored in Vazen’s safe. The merchant really didn’t want anyone to take a look at these, it seems.

The operation started well. Everything started well. Not seeing the point of reinventing the wheel, Zorian used his past method of entering Vazen’s home, then began dismantling the protections on the safe. Aside from the already familiar explosion trap, he also found a sleep trap which aimed to knock any prospective thieves unconscious the moment they touched the safe. He disabled both traps and, having found no further spellwork protecting the safe, immediately tried to remove the documents.

He promptly triggered a mechanical mechanism that dumped some kind of powerful acidic mixture on top of the safe’s contents. The good news was that he managed to avoid getting any of the gunk on his hands – considering what the stuff was doing to the floor at the moment, it would have probably eaten right through his bones before he managed to get it off of him. The bad news was that he failed to salvage any of the safe’s contents before the gunk ruined it. He managed to levitate the contents out of the safe, yes, but the gunk was almost like glue in the way it clung to the papers. He was unable to separate it from the surviving documents before it ate through them all and then happily continued to dissolve the floor beneath them.

He shuddered. He was really, really glad he managed to yank his hands in time to avoid getting any of that stuff on them.

Once again, Zorian was forced to leave Vazen’s place empty-handed. He was sorely tempted to rig the entire place to explode in Vazen’s face the moment he came back home as revenge, but that would be petty and stupid. A murder of such an influential man would attract a lot of attention, plus Alanic was probably paying very close attention to the man. And he had tried to rob the man after all, so he had no right to be particularly outraged anyway.

Still… Zorian was now absolutely certain that Vazen was involved in some very shady things, and he wasn’t talking about tax fraud or industrial espionage. There was no way that Vazen would rig his safe to destroy things like business contracts and production blueprints in the event of discovery – the sheer amount of money he’d lost doing that must have been exorbitant. There had to be something more in there among those papers. Something incredibly illegal and incriminating, to the point where Vazen would rather lose everything than be discovered possessing it.

He was definitely coming back in the next restart. Maybe the man’s misdeeds were unconnected to the Ibasan invaders gunning after Cyoria or the group targeting soul mages around Knyazov Dveri, but somehow Zorian doubted it. It cost him nothing to check, in any case.

Well, unless Vazen had even more horrifying surprises waiting for him should he overcome the second layer of his defenses. Next time he was bringing a 10-foot pole with him, because there was no way he was putting his hands into that safe anymore.

- break -

The day after he had survived the failed ambush just outside Alanic’s temple, Zorian arrived at his next meditation session feeling more than a little bit apprehensive. And not just about the possibility of another ambush – he did not like the looks Alanic had been giving him when he was giving his statement and Zorian was worried about what that meant for him. However, the lesson that day had been wholly unremarkable – there had been no second ambush, and Alanic gave no indication he was upset or suspicious of him. Thus, he put it out of his mind and decided to follow Alanic’s example by carrying on as if nothing happened.

Now, three days later, Zorian could safely say that had been a mistake. Being dragged into the temple courtyard for a ‘test of his combat skills’ sounded suspiciously like punishment to his ears.

As an aside, why did a temple have a battle arena in its courtyard instead of a nice, peaceful garden or something? Between that and the dungeons in the basement he was starting to get really dubious about this building’s spiritual credentials.

“Err, not that I don’t appreciate your help in shoring up my modest combat capabilities, but we really should be focusing on getting my inner soul sight functioning,” said Zorian, shuffling uncomfortably in place. “You told me yourself that this skill requires total focus from me to master correctly.”

Alanic simply continued staring at him, silent and impassive, from his corner of the arena.

And then he gestured with his staff at Zorian and threw a fireball at him.

Zorian was not surprised at the attack. He had been expecting something like that, to be honest. What did throw him for a loop was that he chose that particular spell to open combat with. Fireball wasn’t something you threw at a junior mage to test them – it was far too lethal for that! Even a stunted one was capable of killing a human on a direct hit, and a regular shield spell could not protect against it. No matter how powerful, it was still just a disc of force in front of the caster – the expanding sphere of fiery energy would just flow around it and envelop the caster behind it.

The shock lasted for but a moment, however, and then he immediately erected a dome of force around himself – not just a shield, but a full-blow aegis that protected him from all sides at once. The fireball hit the dome not long after, and Zorian’s view was momentarily blanked out by a blanket of fire.

When the fire cleared, he found himself standing in front of Alanic again, the priest as silent and unmoving as he had ever been. His apprehension at the situation dropped slightly. The fireball had been a very weak one. He knew because one of the retired mages he’d helped in his aimless wanderings prior to his arrival in Knyazov Dveri had taught him how to get feedback from his defensive spells, and his aegis had held strong against a spell that should have taxed it to its limit. Zorian was sure the man in front of him could have done much better than that if he had wanted to. The fact he hadn’t immediately followed up on his fireball with something to finish him off enforced the idea that this really was some kind of test.

A very messed up, dangerous test, but he was kind of used to such things at this point.

He sent a single magic missile towards Alanic. He could see the man scoff as he lazily raised his arm to block the puny attack, and suppressed a smile. Though it looked like a magic missile spell, the projectile was anything but – it didn’t so much smash into things as erupt into a spherical wave of force, much like fireball that used force instead of fire. A forceball, if you will. Alanic will almost certainly use a regular shield instead of a full aegis against a puny magic missile, and then the forceball will-

The space in front of Alanic suddenly warped and shimmered, and Zorian’s forceball promptly winked out of existence. A dispelling wave of some sort, if he guessed correctly. Dammit. Then Alanic decided it was his turn again, and Zorian was too busy dodging bolts of fire and incineration rays to focus on internal cursing.

Zorian quickly learned that Alanic loved fire spells. Even after Zorian switched from all-purpose shields to variants specifically designed to tank fire magic at the expense of performance against other damage types, he persisted in using them. After his initial barrage of weak, fast-casting, numerous fire projectiles failed to overwhelm Zorian, he switched to trying to steamroll him with gigantic, slow-moving spheres of fire that didn’t explode and instead simply tried to envelop him in their flames. After Zorian managed to dispel them, he responded with more fireballs – and this time he wasn’t holding back.

Zorian tried to counter-attack whenever he spotted an opening, but all of his attacks were neutralized with contemptuous ease. Trying to kick up dust and other visibility obstacles failed because Alanic could somehow cause a gust of wind to disperse such attacks away from him without making a single gesture or visibly exerting himself. Items were useless because he could telekinetically hurl all projectiles away from him with a simple sweeping gesture, and any magical projectiles were blocked, intercepted or dispelled. Even after Zorian started launching projectiles in complicated parabolic, zigzagging or spiral trajectories, the priest seemed to have no problems tracking them and responding.

Finally, Zorian was nearly out of mana and decided to go out with a bang. He put most of his remaining mana into a ray of force that he promptly fired at Alanic’s face. The attack would have killed the priest had it really connected, though Zorian knew it would never connect. Sure enough, the man simply side stepped it and Zorian collapsed on the ground in exhaustion, his arms raised in surrender.

“I give up,” he panted. “Whatever point you wanted to make to me, you’ve done it. Though if this was all for the sake of showing me I’m not the biggest fish in the pond, you needn’t have bothered – I’m well aware how screwed I’d be in a face-off against a veteran battle mage.”

“The point was seeing how long it would take before you started resorting to lethal moves,” Alanic said, walking up to him and offering him a hand. Zorian internally debated the merits of casting the ‘shocking grasp’ spell and electrocuting the jerk, but in the end decided to be a bigger man and simply accepted his help in getting up. It probably wouldn’t have worked, anyway. “I’m rather disappointed it took until you were on your last legs to go for the killing blow.”

“Oh screw you, Alanic!” snapped Zorian. “What kind of nutjob tries to kill their opponent in a freaking spar!?”

“You?” Alanic tried, a smirk dancing on his lips. “You did try to kill me at the end, didn’t you?”

“That’s… I knew it had no chance of actually succeeding.”

“Yes, and I’m certain you realized that a minute or two into the test. You should have stopped holding back at that point, or at least followed my lead in what is an acceptable level of force.”

“Actually, let’s refocus on that issue instead,” Zorian said. “What if you had ended up killing me? Some of those spells you tried to hit me with would have put me into a hospital for months if I hadn’t tanked them. Possibly kill me outright! The skills I used to survive your ‘test’ aren’t something you had any right to expect of me!”

“I can control what my fires burn,” Alanic said matter-of-factly. Zorian was honestly stumped at that. That kind of thing was possible? “I also have a divine artifact that can heal any burns so long as the victim is still alive. Regardless of how things looked to you, you were in very little danger. Still, you clearly thought I was being excessively aggressive and you still held back against me. That kind of hesitation will get you killed some day. As it almost did a few days ago.”

“I knew this was about those riflemen I disabled,” Zorian mumbled.

“Yes. Disabled. They tried to kill you, with an ambush no less, and you went out of the way to simply knock them out. There is being merciful and there is being stupid.”

“Are you sure you’re a priest?” grumbled Zorian.

“A warrior-priest,” Alanic clarified. “Not every religious order is about peace and forgiveness. And even those that are usually make exceptions for self-defense, in practice if not in theory.”

“Fine, fair enough,” Zorian conceded. “But why do you care? Why is this so upsetting to you?”

“That’s a stupid question. I don’t want you to die, that’s why.”

“Um,” Zorian paused, momentarily stumped for a response. What the hell was that supposed to mean? He really wished Alanic wasn’t so utterly unreadable to his empathy. “Look, I’ll be honest with you – I wasn’t really being merciful. You’re misreading the whole thing. I simply attacked them in the best manner I had available.”

“Please,” Alanic scoffed. “I know very well how difficult it would be to take down a group that large non-lethally. Do you really expect me to believe that was the method of attack least dangerous for yourself that you had available?”

“Well, yes,” Zorian said. “I guess it would help to know that I’m a natural mind mage. I sense all minds around me, regardless of physical obstacles or line of sight, and I can launch a crude mental assault on them if I so wish. Using that, I could knock them out outside of their shooting range, before they could pin-point my position. Actually killing them would have entailed entering their attack range so I could cast something more deadly at them. Which I felt was rather suicidal at the time.”

Alanic gave him a curious look. “An interesting ability. I note that not all of the attackers had been disabled by the time the Guild taskforce had arrived. Did you simply not have time to go through them all or…?”

“It’s a weak attack,” said Zorian. “It’s not hard to resist.”

Alanic nodded. Zorian hoped the priest would not question him on the exact mechanics of his ability, as he was not sure he could deceive the man convincingly. Thankfully, it did not seem he would push the issue at the moment.

“What would you have done if no reinforcements had arrived?” Alanic asked.

“Tried to lure them into a mine field,” Zorian shrugged. “So yeah. I was fully prepared to blow them up into tiny pieces if they continued to go after me. There’s a lot you can accuse me of, but being suicidally merciful isn’t one of them. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Alanic grouched. “But it does seem I have misjudged you somewhat. Walk with me.”

Alanic walked back into the temple proper and Zorian followed him. He soon found himself sitting in a small kitchen that he had never seen before, though that wasn’t saying much. He had never really explored the site, fearful of drawing Alanic’s ire if he stepped foot in some private sanctum that non- clergy were supposed to never witness. Most temples had at least a couple of those as far as Zorian knew.

“Misunderstandings aside, the test was quite real,” said Alanic once they were seated. “I really did want to see what you were capable combat-wise.”

“And?” asked Zorian curiously.

“You are better than I thought you’d be,” said Alanic. Zorian preened at the praise. Alanic didn’t seem like the sort of hand it out lightly. “But it’s clear to me you’re no legend in the making. I estimate that your natural mana reserves are average at best, perhaps even below-average, and your spells have the feel of a mage who has practiced a lot rather than those of a talented beginner.”

Zorian scowled, his earlier pride forgotten.

“A mage as young as you should not have experience in fighting that extensive,” continued Alanic. Uh oh. “I had suspected it for a while now and now I am certain – you are not some recent graduate going for a round of wandering before settling down. Or a traveling mage who stumbled onto something way over his head. You are someone who actively looks for trouble. Had been looking for trouble for a while now…”

Zorian said nothing. He was about to claim that it was trouble that looked for him, not the other way around… but when he really thought about it, that wasn’t really true at the moment. He really was looking for trouble right now. It was one of his core goals in Knyazov Dveri. He had a good reason for it, but still.

“I’m not going to ask you to tell me who you are. People who start fighting as young as you must have started to get as good as you are aren’t usually the trusting sort. You’d never tell me, and truthfully I have no reason to push you in that regard. No, what I want to know is what your immediate goal is here. I don’t believe that you really stumbled upon Lukav’s encounter with the boars accidentally, or that the soul marker stamped on your soul is really unconnected to the enemies after our heads. Considering how helpful both me and Lukav have been to you in this past several weeks, I believe we both deserve a little more honesty from you. What is really going on here, Zorian?”

“Regardless of what you may think, my reasons for coming here were exactly as I told them to you,” Zorian said. “I really did get caught in the aftermath of a soul magic spell. I really did come to Lukav, and by extension you, because I wanted to understand what had happened to me. None of those were fabrications. But…”

“Yes?” Alanic prompted.

“I had done some research on the people behind my attack – the original attack that resulted in the marker on my soul, I mean – and uncovered some pretty heavy stuff. They are connected to Cyoria’s leadership somehow, and have links to the local branch of the Cult of Dragon. As far as I can see, they are Ibasan in origin. One of the reasons I had for coming here, aside from seeking out your help, was that I wanted to get out of their territory.”

“And you think our attackers belong to that group?” surmised Alanic.

“Considering how large and organized the Ibasan group was, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some kind of organization branch here. And the fact both groups make use of undead and soul magic is kind of indicative to my eyes. But I don’t actually have any proof, and I’m far from certain.”

Zorian wasn’t comfortable about sharing everything with Alanic. For instance, telling him about the invasion or the primordial ‘summoning’ plot was out of the question, as Alanic would no doubt insist on notifying the Cyoria authorities about those and that could alert Red Robe about Zorian’s whereabouts. He did, however, tell him about a lot of other things… like the other disappearances in the area. His own investigation into them had pretty much stalled for the moment, so he had little to lose by telling him about them at this point.

After several exhausting hours of back and forth, Alanic all but threw him out of the temple, claiming he had to think about things. Zorian was glad for that, as he was thoroughly sick of the entire conversation by that point… even if there was a good chance Alanic would want to have nothing to do with him by tomorrow.

Oh well, even if the man refused to see him after this, there was always the next restart. There wasn’t that much time left in this restart anyway.

- break -

Zorian was in the process of affixing a left arm to the wooden golem he was building when a human mind suddenly appeared in his room. He would like to say that he reacted immediately and decisively, but the truth was that he was momentarily paralyzed by surprise and fear, spent several moments fumbling for a response, and then realized that his mysterious ‘attacker’ was actually Alanic.

He glared at the priest that had just teleported into his room without warning, trying to set him on fire with his eyes. Sadly, that ability wasn’t one of the things in his repertoire, and Alanic was completely unfazed at his glare.

Note to self: find a spell that lets you set whatever you’re looking at on fire.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Alanic,” Zorian snapped. “I could have shot you if I hadn’t realized who you were in time.”

Alanic glanced at the half-disassembled rifle on Zorian’s bed and raised an eyebrow at him.

“Well not with that, obviously,” Zorian groused.

“You didn’t turn up for your evening lesson,” Alanic said with disapproval. “I felt it prudent to check up on you.”

“I kind of thought I should give you some time,” Zorian said defensively. “You seemed pretty annoyed yesterday.”

“I was disturbed, not angry,” Alanic said. “I needed some time to think. If I wanted you to skip on your lesson I would have said so.” He looked at the half-finished golem and raised his eyebrow at Zorian. “A curious choice of materials for a golem.”

“It’s a prototype,” Zorian said. “I don’t expect much from my first golem, so I wanted to make it out of something cheap and easy to work with.”

Alanic shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, really. I suppose I can give you a day off from lessons for one day. Tell me, though – is there anything else you forgot to mention to me yesterday?”

“Not really, no,” said Zorian. Nothing except things he had purposely kept to himself, anyway. “Although I’d like to ask you a question, if I may. As a soul magic expert, do you think it’s possible to kill a soul?”

“No,” Alanic said immediately. “What kind of question is that? Do I need to read you passages from the Book of Zikiel again?”

“No!” Zorian protested. “No, that will not be necessary. Yes, I know that’s what the books say, but… the necromancer I told you about, the one who killed my informants?”

Alanic nodded, indicating he knew what Zorian was talking about. In truth he didn’t know the half of it. For one thing, Zorian had never explained to the priest that those informants had been giant talking spiders. Still, Zorian had told enough of the story for Alanic to follow along.

“He claimed to have done more than just kill them. He said he killed their very souls to ensure they were never coming back.”

“An empty boast. He was just trying to demoralize you,” Alanic scoffed. “Souls are unkillable. Corruptible certainly, but you can’t destroy them.”

“Even if he had effectively unlimited time to figure something out?” Zorian pressed. “He did mention he spent decades within a time dilation field while he was ranting at me.”

“Necromancers have been trying to destroy a soul for a millennium without much luck,” Alanic said. “Finding a way to crack open the indestructible core of the soul to see what makes them tick and if it can be manipulated and duplicated has been the goal of many a necromancer over the ages. And many of those necromancers spent centuries pursuing their grisly work with little regards to morality or pity for the people they experimented upon. I sincerely doubt this one mage can do what a thousand years of necromantic tradition has failed at just because spent a couple of months in time dilation chamber. Provided he made use of such facilities at all, that is. Personally, I find it much more likely he’s making things up.”

“What if it’s more than just months, though?” Zorian pressed. “Years, even decades?”

“You mean like that old drivel about Black Rooms that various organizations supposedly have?” asked Alanic. “Those rumors are almost certainly false. They are not impossible in theory, but much harder than they sound in practice. The logistics of time dilation chambers is very complex and require more than just capability to speed up the passage of time in an area. And that’s especially true for things like necromantic experiments, which require a constant stream of victims to serve as experiment subjects. Unless your boasting necromancer has an access to something like the Sovereign Gate, his claims are laughable.”

“Sovereign Gate?” asked Zorian.

“Never heard of that story?” Alanic asked. Zorian shook his head in negative. “Well, do you at least know who Shutur-Tarana Ihilkush was?”

“How could I not?” Zorian scowled. “My history teacher made us all memorize the first three chapters of ‘The 13 Cities of Salaw’ by heart. That would be the last king of Ikos, yes? The man who conquered all of the city states around the Umani-Re river and created the Ikosian Empire. What does he have to do with anything?”

“The Sovereign Gate is an artifact supposedly dating back from his time,” Alanic said. “Like many great rulers, Shutur-Tarana has a great many fanciful stories and grandiose claims associated with him, and this particular one claims he either made or found a doorway into another world. Having found he did not age at all while on the other side, he spent ‘11 lifetimes’ there, learning their secrets and honing his skills. Eventually, he grew homesick and decided to go back home. Once he was back in his own world, however, he found the doors forever barred to him. He stored the Sovereign Gate in his royal vault, there to wait for a worthy successor who would repeat his feat and usher the empire in a new age with the wisdom gained from the other side. Or, well, resurrect it… since it is thoroughly dead at this point.”

“An interesting story,” Zorian said.

“But probably just that – a story,” said Alanic. “It would have probably remained half-forgotten in some decaying tome as one of the many obscure tales surrounding the first emperor, but Eldemar’s royal family is very fond of it, since they claim to have the Sovereign Gate in their possession.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, though in all honesty I’m not the best person to ask about that topic. Personally, I think the whole thing is fabricated drivel which Eldemar royals thought up to give themselves some additional legitimacy. They never mentioned the Gate or any of the other Ikosian artifacts they apparently had until they had their ambitions and reputation dashed in the Splinter Wars. They probably just swiped one of the Bakora gates from somewhere and are trying to pass it off as a genuine Ikosian artifact with fanciful stories. You should probably find an actual historian for a proper discussion on the subject.”

“Fair enough,” said Zorian. “I was just curious. What are Bakora gates, though?”

“Also something you should ask a historian about,” said Alanic. “To put simply, they are some kind of ancient teleportation network that predates Ikosian civilization by a fair margin. No one knows much about the Bakora, since they only left their gate network and a handful of other artifacts behind, but their reach was vast – the gates can be found all over Miasina, Altazia and even Blantyrre. Sadly, the art of actually activating the gates has been lost to the sands of time… or maybe their magics simply broke down a long time ago and they no longer work. Regardless of the truth, they are mostly just historical curiosities now – modern mages have their own teleportation network up and functioning, so most of the interest in the Bakora gates has dried up, at least on the mage side.”

After reminding Zorian not to skip the lesson tomorrow as well, Alanic decided to leave in the same manner he arrived in – by teleporting out. Zorian shook his head to clear it of fanciful tales of ancient artifacts and continued working on his golem prototype. He would go ask Vani about the Sovereign Gate and the Bakora gate network tomorrow, though he didn’t expect that to go anywhere. While the story about the first emperor of Ikosia could be sort of interpreted as an account of the time loop, it made no sense that an artifact that was supposedly stored in the capital would cause an effect centered around Zach and Cyoria. Oh well, it hurt him nothing to ask.

It was only half an hour later that Zorian realized that Alanic had teleported inside his room despite the fact he had warded it against teleportation.

Frowning, Zorian wrote down a reminder for himself to tear down his current ward scheme in the coming days and put up something stronger. And a second reminder to ask Alanic how the hell he had done that.

- break -

Zorian had been worried that Vani might not welcome him into his home the way he had the last time they’d spoken in the previous restart. After all, he hadn’t spent the month visibly culling the winter wolf population like he had last time, and that seemed to have had great influence on him.

As it turned out, he need not have worried. The man was as friendly and helpful as ever, though also just as talkative and prone to digressions.

“Ah, Ulquaan Ibasa, the isle of the exiles,” said Vani. “A fascinating place and a fascinating topic. I wrote a book on the Necromancer’s War, you know? Not an easy topic to write about in an objective manner, since so many are ready to dismiss them as monsters and criminals out of hand…”

Zorian made a sound that could be possibly interpreted as agreement, though really, his opinion of Ibasans couldn’t possibly be lower. Perhaps if he hadn’t repeatedly witnessed all the killings and destruction in Cyoria he might have felt some pity for them, but as it was? They really were dangerous scum in his eyes.

Unaware of Zorian’s inner musings, Vani launched into a protracted explanation of the causes behind the Necromancer’s War. He spoke of succession disputes in several prominent Houses and royal families that developed when their leaders turned themselves into liches and vampires and their heirs realized they would never inherit their birthright because their parents would never die of age alone. He spoke of the common people, who hated necromancers with a passion, and resented being ruled by the undead. And finally, he spoke of Eldemar’s desire for supremacy, and how they were all too happy to prove their authority over all of Altazia by getting involved into every dispute they could find in order to place people more sympathetic to them in leadership positions.

Finally, it all came to a head when the kingdom of Sulamnon, back then in a personal union with Eldemar, rose in rebellion against their king, supported by Reya and Namassar. When they lost said rebellion, they were forced to issue a blanket ban on necromancy by the king of Eldemar, or else forfeit their lands to the crown. The ban, if enacted, would gut the entire military of Sulamnon, which made great use of undead in their army at the time, as well as force a number of prominent aristocrats to hand over their titles to their children and go into exile.

The necromancers in Sulamnon refused to accept the treaty and raised an army of their own, bolstered by the part of Sulamnonian military that still felt they had a chance to win if they continued fighting. Soon, they were joined by other forces that resented Eldemar’s growing power – the remaining Khusky tribes that still retained some military might, the remains of witch covens, the undead aristocracy of other countries that saw the way wind was blowing and wanted to overrule the precedent that would see them similarly disposed of, as well as a number of opportunistic actors that felt they had more to gain by siding with the necromancers than with the king of Eldemar. The Necromancer’s War had begun.

The necromancers soon showed themselves to be cruel and merciless opponents, and the atrocities they committed against captured villages and defeated soldiers shocked the continent. Any sympathies or support they had from neutral parties that wanted to see Eldemar humbled quickly evaporated. Instead of serving as a rallying force against Eldemar domination, they handed the growing kingdom exactly the sort of war they needed to cement their authority and legitimacy. When Eldemar’s general Fert Oroklo defeated the necromancer’s army led by Quatach-Ichl, thereby destroying them as a coherent force, the continent sighed in relief. The kingdom of Eldemar rewrote the map in their favor, and were seen as heroes for it instead of tyrannical aggressors, and the surviving parts of the necromancer’s army fled to the frozen island in the north that would be henceforth known as the isle of the exiles - Ulquaan Ibasa.

The king of Eldemar graciously agreed not to pursue them to their new home. No doubt that was because of his great mercy, rather than unwillingness to send soldiers to some worthless ice-swept land in order to pursue a broken enemy.

Then again, considering it took more than a hundred years before the exiles started making trouble again, Zorian supposed he couldn’t blame him for his reasoning. Hell, he still wasn’t certain what the Ibasans hoped to gain with their destruction of Cyoria. He supposed if their leadership was composed out of immortal undead they might have personally participated in the Necromancer’s War and were still bitter about it.

“Well, I hate to interrupt such a fascinating story, but I was really hoping to ask you about some historical artifacts,” Zorian said when he finally spotted a lull in Vani’s ‘discussion’.

“Oh?” Vani said, perking up.

“Yes, I’d like to know if you have some sources about the Bakora gates and the Sovereign Gate.”

“The Sovereign Gate is nothing,” Vani said dismissively. “The royals won’t even let anyone see it, much less examine it. I have doubts whether it exists at all. The Bakora gates, though…”

Vani promptly started digging through his stacks of books, and continued to do so for another fifteen minutes or so. Finally, he found what he was looking for in some forgotten corner. He leafed through the book until he found the correct page and then shoved it into Zorian’s hands while pointing at the illustration stamped on it.

The Bakora gates did not look anything like Zorian had imagined. When Alanic had described them to Zorian, he figured they were something like stone arches or rings or something like that. Instead, they looked like hollow icosahedrons assembled out of some kind of black bars. Not very gate-like in Zorian’s opinion.

“It’s hard to study the gates, since no one has witnessed one in actual operation for quite some time, but from the writings found inscribed into their pedestals and preserved written records, we know they function similarly to a teleport platform,” Vani said, waving his finger over the illustration for… some reason. “Only they open a dimensional hole that connects one gate to another instead of teleporting people standing inside. It is probably not a good idea to stand inside the gate while it activates.”

Zorian gave the man an incredulous look.

“Well, I mean, it could have some kind of safety feature to abort the activation procedure if someone is standing inside,” Vani defended himself. “Anyway, the bars are likely stabilizers, making sure the rift stays open long enough for people to step through.”

“Hmm. They sound really powerful and exotic. I’m surprised there’s so little interest in them,” said Zorian.

“Most people think they were not nearly as efficient as modern teleport platforms are, and they are bound to be exorbitantly expensive and difficult to make. The gate spell is almost certainly reverse-engineered from Bakora gates, back when people still knew how to activate them, and it is pretty much the pinnacle of dimensional magic that very few mages can cast safely. Teleportation magic, on the other hand, is relatively accessible and cheap. In the end, it all comes down to the fact they are currently inert and nobody how to use them. If, indeed, they can be used at all in modern times. They are the oldest magical artifacts that we are aware of – it is possible they broke down a long time ago.”

“How many of them are there?” Zorian asked.

“Hundreds are known,” Vani said. “Only gods know how many more remain undiscovered in some distant jungle or mountain peak. The Bakora really loved placing those gates all over the place, it seems. Hmm… I actually think I have a map of all the recorded gates in Altazia.”

It took more than half an hour for Vani to find the map in the mess that was his house, but he did produce it in the end. Zorian studied it curiously, immediately noting one particular location.

“Cyoria has a Bacora gate?” he asked incredulously. “How? Where? I’ve never heard anything about that.”

“Oh, that.” Vani snorted. “I almost forgot about that. That gate is deep within the lower levels of the Dungeon beneath Cyoria, very far into the dangerous levels. It would be suicide to go there for most mages, so nobody studies that one to my knowledge. Researchers interested in the gates have safer locations to set up camp at.”

After studying the map for a while and failing to find anything really notable, Zorian thanked Vani for his time and left. The Bakora gates were kind interesting, but he didn’t see how they could be connected with the time loop.

Another dead end as far as he was concerned, but at least he didn’t waste too much time on this one.

- break -

Zorian’s eyes abruptly shot open as a sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.

“Good morning, brother!” an annoyingly cheerful voice sounded right on top of him. “Morning, morning, MORNING!”

Zorian gave Kirielle an incredulous look. What? Why was he here? The summer festival was still days away, and the last thing he remembered was peacefully falling to sleep. Did Zach die again prematurely again or was he killed in his sleep without even realizing it?

He was broken out of his thoughts when Kirielle kicked him, apparently unhappy that he was ignoring her. He expertly stabbed his finger into her flank, causing her to lose her grip on him with a squeal of indignation, and then took advantage of her moment of weakness to throw her off and rise to his feet.

“I need to cast a spell,” he said, looking at her. “Please give me some time alone.”

“Can I watch?” she asked.

Zorian raised his eyebrow at her. “Do you think you can keep quiet for ten minutes?”

She placed her palm over her mouth, mimicking the sign of silence.

“Right. Go lock the door then so mother won’t be disturbing us,” he ordered. “I need utmost concentration for this.”

Also, mother would go berserk if she found him pouring salt and quartz dust on the floor, so it was best if she were kept out until he was done. Thankfully, he had both materials available in sufficient quantities, so he would be able to perform the marker tracking spell without delay.

Ten minutes later, Zorian was once again given a sense of where all the marked individuals were in relation to himself. Two of them again – one representing him, and the other one in the direction of Cyoria. Less than a minute later, the other marker abruptly shifted positions to the southeast of where it had originally been, and then shifted south again not long afterwards. Teleportation. The owner of the marker seemed to be in quite a hurry to get away from Cyoria.

There was no third marker.

The other marker was almost certainly Zach, Zorian felt – his classmate definitely began restarts in Cyoria, and it made sense for him to have the marker since Zorian had to have got it from somewhere. That left Red Robe, then – either he did not start the time loop in the vicinity of Cirin, managed to teleport outside Zorian’s detection radius in the 15 minutes or so it took him to set up the tracking ritual… or he flat out didn’t have a marker.

He would repeat the detection ritual every couple of days and see if the third marker ever popped up.

“That spell is lame,” Kirielle complained, poking him in the flank and disrupting his concentration. Apparently this was as far as her patience went. “There is nothing to see at all!”

“Here, have a swarm of butterflies,” sighed Zorian, conjuring a tiny swarm of glittery, colorful butterflies. It was actually a pretty hard spell to pull off, despite the totally useless effect – it took a lot of skill and practice to make that many animated, solid illusions and make them half-way convincing. Still, the spell’s ability to distract and fascinate Kirielle was every bit as great as he had hoped it would be – it took her a full minute to realize he had slipped out of the room.

Worth every minute he had spent on learning it.

- break -

“All right,” mumbled Zorian to himself, taking a deep breath to steady himself. “I have temporarily shut down the house’s warding scheme, neutralized both the explosion trap and the sleep one, blocked the acid mechanism and destroyed the alarm beacon disguised as the document seal. This is it. Third time’s the charm.”

And with that, Zorian commanded the small wooden golem in front of him to go fetch the papers for him. No way was he going near that safe personally.

The wood golem, version two, slowly stepped forward. Its movements were awkward and jerky, but it did not stumble or sway drunkenly, which was a vast improvement over the wood golem version one. It would be useless in battle, but this task was something he felt his creation might actually pull off. If not, he had a collapsible 10-foot pole in reserve.

Amazingly, the whole thing went off without a hitch – the golem reached into the safe and pulled out a stack of documents without some horrid trap mangling it in the process and then walked up to him and presented him with his prize.

It was only when he tried to take the documents from the golem’s hands that disaster struck – he foolishly assumed that the golem would automatically let go of the paper stack when Zorian tried to yank them out of his hands, but of course the wooden doll had no such instincts. It was too slow to release its grip, and ended unbalanced when Zorian unwittingly yanked it forward. Before Zorian knew it, the entire stack of papers was sent tumbling through the air and ended up strewn all across the floor of Vazen’s living room.

Zorian half-expected the papers to suddenly burst into flames out of sheer spite, but they thankfully remained intact. Just… completely scrambled out of order, probably requiring him to spend hours sorting them out.

“Ah, screw it.” Zorian said, quickly scooping up papers into an unruly pile and stuffing it into his bag. “I’ll just take the whole thing with me and sort it later.”

His picked up his klutz of a golem and teleported out of the house. Minor annoyances aside, the mission was a success and he could finally find out what was so important about these documents.

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