Marked


Zorian stared at the grinning face of his opponent, his own face a blank, expressionless mask. This was it. This last round would decide who the victor was, no question about it. His opponent thought he had Zorian backed into a corner, but Zorian had a secret weapon – he had already peered into the man’s thoughts and knew that he had already won.

The rules of the card game were pretty clear, after all.

“Twelve of pumpkins,” Zorian said, placing his last card on the table. The man’s face instantly lost its grin. Zorian tried to keep a cool façade, but he probably smiled at least a little.

“Motherf- How are you this lucky!?” the man cursed, slapping down his own card on top of the stack – a measly seven of oaks, not nearly enough to win – and taking a swing from the glass of hard liquor next to him. He drank way too much in Zorian’s opinion, his thoughts steadily growing more and more muddied to Zorian’s mental probes as time went by… and while that did make him harder to read via psychic powers, it also made him progressively worse at playing the game. He probably didn’t even need to cheat to win the last two games, but cheating was kind of the whole point – he joined the card game to practice his mind reading skills in a real environment, not to win money off hapless victims.

“Well, this is it for me,” Zorian said, standing up. “It was fun and all, but I really have to get going now.”

“Hey, you can’t just leave now,” the man protested, frowning at him. “That’s not how it’s done! You have to give me a chance to win my money back!”

“Orinus, you’re drunk,” one of the other men at the table said. The two of them dropped out three games ago, but they still stuck around to talk, drink, and act as judges and money holders. “You didn’t lose anything. It’s the kid who just got back the money he lost to you in the previous game. Nobody has to pay anyone anything.”

“Yeah, the last five games have basically been for nothing,” the other man piped in.

Zorian nodded. Even with mind reading on his side, some hands were just unwinnable. Besides, he purposely threw a couple of games so as to not arouse suspicions of cheating in his partners. “We’re both even at this point, and I really have to get going, so it’s a perfect place to stop,” he said. “Still, if you’re that desperate for a rematch, I can always relieve you of your money some other day. I’ll be staying in the town for a whole month anyway.”

“You relieve me of my money, ha! The only reason you haven’t ended up in your underwear is that you’re immune to my secret technique!” Orinus half- shouted.

The other man snorted in amusement. “Getting the newbie drunk is a secret technique, now?”

“Hey man, don’t reveal all my tricks to outsiders… what kind of friend are you?” Orinus protested.

After a few more minutes of bickering and refused offers of alcoholic beverages, Zorian finally managed to excuse himself. Ignoring Orinus’s muttered questioning of Zorian’s masculinity due to his refusal to drink anything remotely alcoholic, he left the inn and started searching the streets of Knyazov Dveri for an out of the way corner he could teleport from without being seen. The game had been both unexpectantly fun and useful for his mind magic training, but he hadn’t been lying when he had said he had to get going. Timing was crucial for what he intended to do.

In the previous restart he learned that most of the soul mages on Kael’s list had disappeared or died recently. That was, of course, highly suspicious – there was a good chance the whole thing was somehow connected to the time loop, which meant he had to know more about it. Sadly, during the last restart he had made the mistake of telling Vani about the disappearances, and he had raised enough of an alarm to have the police crawling everywhere around potential clue-sites. Consequently, Zorian had been forced to set the issue aside and wait for the next restart to conduct his own investigation.

Which is exactly what he did, the moment he woke up in Cirin and could leave without making Mother and Kirielle throw a fit. As he suspected, virtually all of the soul mages had been already gone, even on that very first day. Whatever had happened to them had been going on for far longer than the time loop existed, it seemed. There were only two exceptions: the two mages that were confirmed dead in the previous restart were alive and well at the start of the new one. The first one, a priest named Alanic Zosk specializing in fighting undead, had simply been found dead with no obvious cause a few days into the restart. The second one was Lukav Teklo, an alchemist specializing in transformation magic. He had been killed by boars not far from his home, on the evening of the second day of the restart.

Naturally, Zorian intended to talk with both of them, which necessitated saving their lives. The alchemist was a priority, as he died sooner and the cause of death was known and easily preventable. Thus his hurry to leave the game – if he timed things correctly, he would arrive at the man’s home an hour or two before his fateful stroll outside the village. If he mistimed things or his actions somehow caused the alchemist to accelerate his schedule… well, there were always future restarts. It’s not like the man would die for good.

He could have contacted the man sooner to warn him, he supposed, but how would he explain his knowledge of the attack? He’d just make himself look suspicious. And besides, he actually wanted the attack to happen. He doubted those were regular boars that attacked him, so he wanted to examine them up close… and also, the man was bound to be a lot more helpful if he met Zorian as a savior who protected him from a vicious pack of boars than if he just showed up on the man’s door with no warning.

After teleporting just outside the man’s house and making sure the alchemist was still in his house, Zorian settled in for a wait, making sure to keep out of sight of any windows. If there was anything that tiny villages like this one never had a shortage of, it was nosy old people who had nothing better to do except watch the streets for anything out of the ordinary. Honestly, some of the old women back in Cirin spent practically every waking moment glued to their window sills, making note of everyone that passed through their domain… he lost count of the number of times they got him into trouble with his parents when he had foolishly forgotten to account for their presence.

He didn’t have to wait long. Barely half an hour after he had settled in to wait, the alchemist left his house. It was a good thing he had come early, then. Zorian promptly cast an invisibility spell on himself and then started following after the man some distance away. Hopefully he remained far enough that the man would not find it suspicious when Zorian burst into the scene at the first sign of trouble, but that couldn’t be helped. He didn’t feel comfortable putting even more distance between the two of them, lest the man be killed before he could come to his aid. Depending on how oblivious and combat capable the man was, he could get overwhelmed in seconds.

And the attack itself was bound to happen any moment now. The report he saw in the last restart said the man was killed just outside the village, and Lukav had immediately made a beeline towards the main road leading to the next settlement. Cautiously, Zorian drew his spell rod and strained his mind sense to the limit in order to find the attackers before they could strike.

He found nothing out of the ordinary, and was thus just as shocked as the alchemist when a bunch of boars burst out of the tree line and charged the man. They both froze for a second, and before either could react the boars had already closed half of the distance to the alchemist.

Embarrassingly enough, the alchemist reacted first. With a practiced movement, he threw a bottle of some sort into the path of the approaching horde and immediately dropped on the ground. Lacking the alchemist’s reflexes and thinking himself too far to be affected by the bomb, Zorian opted to simply drop invisibility and erect a shield in front of him as a precaution. That turned out to be a mistake, as the deafening explosion of light and sound left him dazed and blinking spots out of his vision for the next few seconds.

When he did recover, he saw that the bomb’s effect on the boars themselves had been underwhelming – they had been thrown about by the blast (as had the alchemist himself, having misjudged the distance somewhat in his panic), and the leading boar that had been caught in the center of the blast had been blown to bits, but the others were already up on their feet and converging on their target. Even the one with a broken leg was stubbornly stumbling towards the dazed, bleeding alchemist, undeterred by what should have been excruciating pain.

They made no sounds, they were unafraid of loud sounds and bright light, and completely ignored severe injuries like they were nothing. So much for the idea that they were ordinary animals. Oh well, he kind of suspected it was something like this. Acting quickly to stop them from killing the other man, he cast a swarm of 5 magic missiles at the boars closest to the downed alchemist. Smashers instead of piercers; if he was right about what these things really were, holes in their bodies wouldn’t even slow them down. The missiles were there just to knock them away from their target and give Zorian time to cast another, more unorthodox spell that he didn’t put in his spell rod. Oh, and possibly shift their attention towards him instead, though he didn’t think anything could make them switch targets. They were clearly sent to kill a specific man.

The smashers hit the boars in their flanks, sending them tumbling. As he suspected, they immediately scrambled to get up as if nothing happened, and the other four kept running towards the alchemist. He had finished his spell before they could reach him, however, causing a large shining disc of force to materialize between his hands.

The severing disc was a powerful cutting spell that was surprisingly mana efficient and allowed the caster to ‘pilot’ the disc, changing its flight path at will. Taiven had not thought much of it, as it was not a fire-and-forget sort of combat spell, requiring constant concentration from the mage to keep existing. And it moved pretty slowly for a magical projectile, too. According to Taiven, competent mages would dispel the disc before it could reach them or otherwise evade it, and the caster is something of a sitting duck while directing the disc.

But the boars couldn’t dispel it, and had no ranged attacks to take advantage of his lack of shields. At Zorian’s direction, the disc shot forward, flying close to the ground – at the height that Zorian judged to be around knee- height for the boars.

Zorian’s fears that he had overestimated the power of the disc and that it would not be able to cut through the bones of tough animals like the boars proved completely unfounded – the disc encountered the legs of the first boar and simply passed through with no visible resistance. In its wake, the boar fell apart, its legs separated from its torso. Directed by Zorian the disc continued towards the rest of them.

In the end, it was a close thing. On one hand, the boars didn’t even try to dodge, charging in straight lines that made them easy to intercept with the disc. On the other hand, Zorian had not practiced the spell in question particularly heavily, so he missed two boars on his first pass. Thankfully, the alchemist had recovered by this point and helpfully dealt with the two stragglers by causing an arc of spear-like spikes to erupt from the ground in front of him with some kind of alteration spell. The boars were so insistent on getting to him as fast as possible that they impaled themselves on the makeshift rampart and got stuck.

Zorian let the disc dissipate with a sigh. That was a win, yes, but he wasn’t satisfied with his performance. He’d frozen at the start, and his mastery of the severing disc spell left much to be desired. But what was done was done, and at least he achieved what he came here to do. Time to face the music. He set off towards the alchemist, who was kneeling on the ground and alternating between staring at approaching Zorian and at the still twitching, legless boars not far from him.

He frowned at them as he approached. They had no minds, he realized. That was why he didn’t detect them until they attacked – as far as his mind sense was concerned, they didn’t exist. Coupled with the fact they were still alive with their limbs cut off and that their wounds didn’t bleed at all, and the conclusion was obvious.

His hunch had been right: they were definitely undead. As far as he knew, the only beings that counted as ‘mindless’ for the purposes of mind magic were oozes, golems, creatures under the Mind Blank spell, and the so-called ‘mindless undead’. The boars were clearly neither golems or oozes, and he doubted Mind Blank was involved. It would also explain why they seemed to have no blood and felt no pain or hesitation.

“Are you alright there? You kind of took the worst of that blast,” said Zorian, shifting his attention towards the man he came here to save. Now that he was close to the man, he could see that Lukav Teklo was a fairly handsome middle-aged man, sporting long black hair, a carefully sculpted beard and rather muscular physique. Zorian was a little surprised by this, as he had expected someone… wilder. After all, his fellow villagers had told him that the man disdained human contact and preferred to spend his time in the wilderness.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m alright,” the man said, rising to his feet before swaying dangerously. Zorian quickly caught him and helped him regain his balance. “Dammit. Hoisted on my own petard, literally. Didn’t even accomplish anything with it. Totally ignored my patented animal repellent. That’s some compulsion they were under…”

“I’m pretty sure they’re undead,” Zorian said.

“What, really?” Lukav said, squinting at the closest boar. “My vision is a little blurry right now. Is it… is it really trying to wriggle towards me still?”

“I think so, yeah,” Zorian confirmed.

Lukav barked out a stream of words in some Khusky language that Zorian didn’t recognize. He was pretty sure they were swear words, though, so maybe it was better that way.

“I’m sorry,” the man said after a few calming breaths. “I don’t mean to be rude. I want to thank you, young man. I was lucky you happened upon me when you did. I surely would have died otherwise.”

“Well, it wasn’t entirely luck,” Zorian said, causing the man to give him a hard look. “You are Lukav Teklo, yes?” The man nodded. “I have been looking for you based on the recommendation you received from one of my friends, one Kael Tverinov.”

“Ah, Kael!” Lukav immediately brightened. “Great kid, shame he stopped coming when he got engaged to that witch girl. I was hoping to recruit him as an apprentice, but I’m afraid Fria got to him first and unlike her, I didn’t have a cute daughter of my own to tempt him away with. Talented alchemist, that boy. I’d ask you how he’s doing, but we can do that in my house, when I calm down a little.”

“That would be fine,” Zorian said. “Though I want to take a look at these undead boars that attacked you, first. I’m pretty sure someone just tried to murder you. I don’t think undead boars arise on their own.”

“Oh no, definitely not,” Lukav agreed. “Minor undead like that are basically flesh golems, only with an enslaved soul or spirit placed inside instead of an automation core. The only ‘naturally’ arising undead are ghosts and other soul entities. Alanic was always very clear on that. Not sure who would try to kill me of all people, but apparently I pissed off a necromancer somewhere. Just my luck. I’ll report this to the guild and have them deal with this, but feel free to examine these things as much as you want in the meantime. I’m kind of curious myself, but divinations were never my thing so…”

Zorian nodded and got to work, using an alteration spell to bind the legless torso of the nearest boar so it wouldn’t trash and move around before moving to analyze it.

As he feared, he didn’t find out anything particularly useful and was forced to leave the scene to the guild investigators. At Lukav’s advice he re- summoned the severing disk and chopped all of the downed boars except one into smaller pieces that no longer moved. Lukav claimed that one undead boar was enough for the guild investigators and he didn’t want to risk the attacker picking them up, sewing the legs back on and sending them after him again.

The last intact boar was buried deep into the soil via another alteration spell from Lukav, there to wait for guild investigators to arrive.

“Zombies, skeletons and other undead are not nearly as easy to make as stories make them out to be,” Lukav explained as they made way towards his house. “Easier and cheaper to make than golems, sure, but still a significant expenditure of alchemical ingredients and time. Losing a dozen zombies like that has got to be a major loss for whomsoever is targeting me. No sense in letting them recuperate loses by leaving the zombie boars in fixable condition. Alanic told me to always destroy any disabled undead after the battle, just in case their maker is around to fix them back up. I didn’t think I’d ever be in a position where that advice would be useful but there you go.”

“Forgive me, but is the Alanic you’re talking about Alanic Zosk?” Zorian asked.

“Why yes,” Lukav confirmed. “I suppose Kael recommended him too?”

“Yes. He actually gave me a pretty long list of soul mages – you were just the first name on the list.” He wasn’t really, but it hardly mattered. The man motioned him to continue. “I need your help with a piece of soul magic I got hit with. I don’t feel comfortable talking about it here in the open. I hope you’ll hear me out when we get to your home.”

“Fair enough. But unless you got hit by a transformation curse, I don’t think there is much I can do for you. Alanic is actually a better bet – he’s no curse-breaking specialist, but he knows the basics of the field at least. Of course, it would have been even better to seek the help of the guild, but I’m guessing you have a good reason for not wanting to get them involved.”

“I do,” confirmed Zorian. “And while I realize that the chance of you being able to help me is slim-”

“Hey now, those are fighting words,” Lukav warned.

“-I still hope you will hear me out and try to help me. It’s entirely possible that you hold a crucial key to solving my problem, even if you are unable to give me a total solution. My problem is not a curse, exactly. It is exotic enough that Kael recommended Silverlake as a possible solution if all else fails.”

“Say what?” Lukav asked incredulously. “He recommended that crazy old witch as a solution for something?”

“I know,” Zorian sighed. “I heard from a reputable source that she asked for a grey hunter egg sack from the last guy who asked her for help.”

“Now that’s just ridiculous,” Lukav snorted derisively. “Someone is pulling your leg. Not even Silverlake would do that. Anyway, I’ll see what I can do. It’s the least I can do for someone who saved my life.”

- break -

After they had reached Lukav’s house, the man penned a quick report to the nearest Mage Guild representative and paid one of the village boys to deliver it to Knyazov Dveri while they talked. Apparently the kid was a very good runner and had done such things for Lukav in the past. Regardless, it took a full hour for Lukav to tackle Zorian’s problem, during which Zorian explained Kael’s rather tragic situation to the man and Lukav gradually calmed down and waited for the potion he ingested to take care of his concussion.

“Horrible. I thought that hearing about Kael would cheer me up after this whole ordeal, but it only makes me feel even more depressed,” Lukav said. Zorian stayed silent, content to wait for Lukav to continue. After a few seconds of being lost in his thoughts, the man shook his head with a sigh. “Well, I think the potion did its work by now, since staring into the lamp no longer hurts my eyes and my head no longer feels like it’s been stuffed with wool. Do you think you could tell me more about your problem now? The house has some basic wards to shut down scrying but it’s not professional work, just something I had a friend make for me. The village doesn’t have enough ambient mana to support anything substantial in terms of permanent wards, anyway. I guess we could go to Knyazov Dveri and hire a private room in one of the more expensive inns, but that would cost a pretty penny and I’m kind of averse to spending money like that.”

“It’s fine,” said Zorian. He had already analyzed the man’s warding scheme as practice and found it adequate. Slightly worse than Zorian could manage with a full day’s work or so, but far better than a hastily erected privacy scheme that had been his original plan.

After a few seconds to collect his thoughts, he began to talk. Telling the man about the time loop was absolutely out of the question, of course, but that didn’t mean he had to be totally vague about his situation. He told him how he stumbled upon a fight between a lich an unknown mage, and was caught in the crossfire, getting hit by an unknown soul magic spell in the process. The other mage dispelled it, but the damage had already been done. After spending several weeks sick, he seemingly recovered, only to find out later that the spell had left its mark on him after all. Here Zorian went a little vague, refusing to state what the consequences he noticed were, simply insisting that the issue was private.

“Difficult,” Lukav said unhappily when Zorian was finished. “Knowing what the consequences were is a pretty crucial clue as to what the spell actually was, you know? You are sure it has nothing to do with transformation?”

“Absolutely,” Zorian confirmed.

“Not even partial transformations?” The man asked. “Remember, not all transformations are total or involve obvious physical changes. The vast majority of magical enhancements are actually transformation, even if they only do things like increase your strength and agility – they all call upon attributes of some other creature to do their thing, transforming the user in some non-obvious way.”

“I didn’t know that,” Zorian admitted. “But no, it’s still not a transformation effect. It’s actually more of an out-of-body experience, with my soul periodically leaving the body and then snapping back to it. So magical augmentations are generally transformation magic? Is that why they always seem to ask for animal parts and the like?”

“Astral projection?” Lukav asked. “Hmm, makes sense. Some soul magic spells definitely weaken the links between the soul and the body if used incorrectly, and you said the spell the lich cast on you had been botched. Not that letting the spell run its course had been a good idea, mind you, but some of the necromantic arts are just as dangerous if dismissed incorrectly as they are in their raw form. You’re definitely right to seek help over this. And yes, the parts of animals and magical creatures are there provide an example of what you want to the transformation spell. ‘Eagle Eye’ spell literally gives you eyes on an eagle, for instance. Transformation magic is very useful for such augmentation because it is very easy to reverse.”

“It is? I thought transformation was dangerous,” said Zorian. That’s was what they were taught in the academy.

“Well… maybe a little,” the man admitted. “But compared to the alternatives, it is incredibly safe. You see, when you cast a regular transformation spell on yourself you are essentially putting clothes on your soul. Don’t look at me like that, it’s what it is. Yes, the official term is ‘transformation shell’, but they’re basically like soul clothes. You can put them on, see, and you can take them off. Even if you mess up the spell and can’t turn back or you get locked into an alternate form by a malicious opponent, you are still just a dispel or a curse-breaking session away from returning to normal. Your soul is still intact and unchanged beneath the transformation shell, and once the spell is gone you revert to your base form. The problem is that sometimes people overreach and end up transforming too far, so you end up with a mage, say, transforming into a troll in both mind and body and killing his entire family before the spell runs out of mana and he reverts back to normal. Or they attach the transformation shell too firmly to their soul and can’t change back, and are then stuck in the form of a sparrow or something and can’t talk to people or meaningfully interact with their environment. That’s why a lot of people don’t do transformation via invocations and rituals any more, and just buy transformation potions from people like me who know what they’re doing – no chance of messing up, just drink a potion made by an expert and you’re golden.”

“Ah.”

“On the other hand, when you’re literally messing with your body chemistry and using alteration on your flesh, you’re usually doing something totally irreversible,” Lukav continued. “Human body is a complex thing, and I don’t think anyone really understands enough about it to meaningfully improve it. Most potions that aim to enhance the real body with some exotic concoction are basically stimulant drugs with addictive properties or cause hard-to-cure damage if used often. And alteration spells that aim to alter the flesh directly have heavy drawbacks that make them hardly worth the effort and are often a total bitch to undo. I should know, I got called in often to help out with the fallout created by such magic. But we’re getting off track. Come with me and I’ll see if I can do something about your problem.”

Lukav led him into his basement, past several locked doors, until they reached a spacious underground chamber. The huge spell formula on the floor in the form of two circles, one large one and one small one, each of which was ringed by lots and lots of magical glyphs, was a dead giveaway that this was some kind of ritual room. The fact that the room was perfectly cubical, with identical dimensions in all direction, was a further confirmation – flawless geometric shapes were always better for holding magic than anything remotely irregular, which was why Ikosian artifice featured a lot of circles, triangles, cubes, pyramids, cylinders, domes and so on.

Other than the ritual circle on the floor, the room was empty and featureless – likely to minimize magical interference from anything else. Zorian hoped he would not have to get naked for this – he had heard some of the more delicate magical scans were actually bothered by clothes and the like, and wasn’t at all enthusiastic about that possibility.

Thankfully, Lukav’s instructions didn’t turn out to be that bad.

“Alright, leave any magical items on your person outside the room and then step into the center of the big circle, right into that big empty space,” he told Zorian.

Zorian was more than a little apprehensive about leaving his magic items behind, since that would leave him totally defenseless. Especially the three innocuous-looking steel rings he had hanging on a necklace tucked into his shirt. Those rings were the latest iteration of his explosive suicide device that he had been steadily refining throughout the restarts. Anyone could make an explosive device with a bit of spell formula knowledge, of course, but making them stable enough not to go off by themselves yet capable of going off on a moment’s notice whenever he gives a signal? Shrouding the explosive mana core with enough divination blockers to make the bombs invisible to wards designed to detect those very kind of devices, thus allowing him to take those things literally everywhere he went, including the tightly warded academy facilities? Making them small and convenient enough that they weren’t a chore to carry around? Not everyone could do that, he was sure.

In the end he decided to remove everything except the necklace. Getting killed by betrayal would suck but ultimately just be an annoyance, whereas getting stuck in some kind of soul mutilation ritual without means of suicide would be irreparably catastrophic. He just didn’t trust Lukav that much, even if his empathy was telling him the man was honest enough and harbored no hostile feelings towards him.

He quickly put his spell rod, shielding bracelet, bag of small explosive cubes (kept for offensive purposes) and the experimental automation core he had been fiddling with in his spare time into a small pile next to the door and walked inside. Lukav was already sitting inside the smaller circle, which also had an empty space in the center of it that could accommodate him easily. Zorian copied the man and promptly sat down on the stone floor inside the larger circle. He had a feeling this could take a while.

Apparently Lukav’s magic couldn’t detect the necklace, because he said nothing about it.

“You don’t have any kind of soul shell on top of your soul,” Lukav decreed after 15 minutes of examination. “I kind of expected that. The sickness you said followed the spell that hit you strongly hints that part of your actual soul was affected. Let’s see if I can detect any foreign bits in your soul then…”

Now this was the part that Zorian definitely cared about. He had been wondering for quite some time how big of a chunk of Zach’s soul did he end up with and whether it was having some kind of effect on him that he was unaware of. Hopefully Lukav would be able to shed some light on that issue.

After more than half an hour of spellcasting and lots of frowning, Lukav was finally ready to give his report.

“Weird. You definitely have something woven into your soul, but it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. Actually, you have two somethings. One is some kind of complicated bit of spellwork woven incredibly tightly into your soul, definitely not soul-stuff but not something I recognize either. Very weird that something so complex could result from a botched spell. Not calling you a liar but it doesn’t make sense to me. The other something… well, it’s definitely a piece of foreign soul stuff fused into your own soul, but I don’t think you have much to worry about that. It’s not a spirit or some soul parasite, and it seems to have all but dissolved into your own soul. In a year or two it will be gone entirely, completely assimilated.”

“What kind of consequences will that have?” Zorian asked worriedly.

“None, I think. Your soul appears to be converting it into just another piece of itself rather than trying to keep it distinct. So there shouldn’t be any major personality shifts and you probably won’t get any nifty abilities from whomever or whatever it was that donated a part of their soul to you. Though, I guess it is possible that the fragment had affected your personality to an extent when you first got it, before your soul had the chance to assimilate it sufficiently, and such influences may linger still. Do you think and act radically different ever since the incident?”

Zorian frowned. “To be perfectly honest, yes, I am quite different from how I used to be. But I’m not sure how much significance to attach to that. The incident was very traumatic, and so much has happened ever since then…”

“I understand,” Lukav nodded sympathetically. “Your life has taken a completely different course after your fateful encounter with the darker side of magic. You would have changed anyway, and any changes caused by the soul fragment would have been lost in the noise. If you want my advice, you should not worry about it. You are who you are right now, and the fragment is all but gone. If shifters can claim to be the same person after stapling an animal soul to their own, then I’m not sure why a little nudge from a soul fragment should worry you.”

“It’s in my nature to worry,” Zorian said. “Though admittedly the fact the fragment will be gone soon does make me feel better.”

“Well,” said Lukav, rising to his feet with an audible pop of his joints. “I’m glad to have allayed at least some of your fears, but this is as much as I can personally help you, I’m afraid. For the strange spellwork in your soul, you will have to talk to Alanic. He tends to be very suspicious of strangers and unannounced visitors, but I’ll accompany you to smooth things over since you did save my life and all. Is there anything else you wanted my help with?”

“Well, not really,” said Zorian. “But if I can trouble you some more, what can you tell me about shifters? You mentioned them several times while we talked today. Are you in contact with the local wolf shifter tribe by any chance?”

“No, not really,” said Lukav, shaking his head. “I mean, I could locate them if I had a week or so, but I’d really rather not. Talking to them is annoying, and they don’t like me very much ever since I tried to buy the shifter ritual off of them that one time.”

“Ah,” said Zorian with some disappointment. “It’s just that I also talked to Vani, the local scholar in Knyazov Dveri, and he recommended I try to contact the local wolf shifters for help. Do you think the idea has any merit?”

“In terms of whether their soul magic expertise could have helped you? Maybe, though I wouldn’t bet on it,” said Lukav. “But I really, really doubt they would agree to help you. The shifter tribe he speaks of, the Red Fang tribe, is fiercely protective of their special magic and suspicious of anyone who takes an interest in it. Hell, they don’t even talk to other shifter tribes about it! Having nigh-exclusive access to shifter magic is very prestigious for them, and they don’t want to share it with anyone.”

“Then why did you offer to buy it off of them?” asked Zorian curiously.

“Well I didn’t know that then, did I? How the hell was I supposed to know these things when they barely talk to anyone in the mage community?” groused Lukav. “Okay, yeah, I may have been a little too insistent, but they could have explained things to me politely instead of making such a big deal out of it.”

“I see,” said Zorian carefully. Lukav probably wasn’t the best person to help him contact the shifters, it seemed. Just as well, since he had a much likelier lead right now in the form of Alanic.

He agreed he would drop by tomorrow in the evening to pick up Lukav, and that they would then go meet Alanic together. The two men were old friends according to Lukav, and Alanic would be easier to deal with if he was there to vouch for Zorian’s character and honesty.

Zorian hoped that the priest would be as useful as Lukav claimed he would be.

- break -

The next day Zorian spent an entire day morning practicing the severing disc to make sure he could actually control it properly the next time he used it, switching to various levitation exercises when he got bored or ran low on mana. As evening approached, Zorian teleported to Lukav’s village and spent an hour or so in idle chitchat with the man. Zorian wasn’t sure, but it seemed to him that the man had hinted on the possibility of teaching Zorian some of his secrets. Of course, there would probably be an apprenticeship contract involved if he wanted to take Lukav upon that offer, but with the time loop in place, such entanglements wouldn’t be permanent in nature. Perhaps he should set aside a future restart or two to see what the man has to offer, but transformation magic simply wasn’t a priority right now. He needed information and defenses against soul magic before anything else.

Eventually, they both got on their way. Lukav had wanted to walk to Alanic’s residence, but Zorian had vetoed the idea arguing that would be a waste of time when he could just teleport them next to the man’s house instead. Admittedly he had never tried to carry another person with him as he teleported, but he was confident he could do it and he turned out to be right.

“I’m surprised someone as young as you can teleport,” Lukav said conversationally, looking at their new surroundings to determine where exactly they ended up at. They were not far from the temple that Alanic worked at and which also served as his home, but Zorian opted not to teleport too close, as Lukav indicated that the man could be somewhat trigger happy about such things. “You’re, what, 16? I guess I finally met one of those kid geniuses people talk about. You’re not that Kazinski, are you?”

“No, I just happen to have the same last name as Daimen,” Zorian lied.

“Figures,” the man said. “You must get that question a lot.”

“You have no idea,” Zorian sighed. Thankfully, Kazinski wasn’t that rare of a last name and no one had accused him of lying when he denied any connections.

Whatever Lukav had been trying to say next was promptly drowned out by the unmistakable sounds of explosions coming from the house in front of them, immediately followed by angry shouting in an unknown language and sounds of gunshots.

Zorian quickly drew his spell rod and scowled. He had been afraid of this. Whoever was behind the disappearance of the soul mages had noticed their assassination of Lukav had failed and decided to throw subtlety out of the window and move fast to eliminate their remaining target. They no doubt knew that Lukav and Alanic were friends and that Alanic would soon know all about the assassination attempt.

He cautiously advanced forward, Lukav trailing after him.

There were no undead this time, probably because the target was a well-known undead-hunter and was thus bound to be good against them. Instead, the attackers consisted of 15 men armed with rifles – probably non-magical mercenaries – and 2 mages acting like spell support. They were hesitant to simply storm Alanic’s hose for some reason, and instead waited outside for something to happen. Unwilling to charge into a group of riflemen like idiots, both Zorian and Lukav settled in behind some trees to observe the group.

“They’re trying to bring down the wards before they move in,” Zorian realized after a few seconds. “The mage on the right is trying to collapse the entire warding scheme, the one on the left is protecting him from all reprisals while he’s busy and the riflemen are periodically shooting at the windows to keep Alanic from raining down offensive spells on them at will.”

A ray of fire punctuated his whispered statement by erupting from one of the second story windows, aiming for the mage who was dismantling the wards. The other mage immediately shielded his companion from the attack, and the riflemen responded with a withering barrage of bullets at the offending opening.

“We have to help him,” Lukav said firmly.

“The only option I see is waiting for a good opening,” Zorian said. “I don’t see a way to get involved right now that wouldn’t immediately get us both killed.”

“Can you deal with the two mages if I take care of the gun-toting idiots?” Lukav asked.

Zorian gave him a curious look. How did he intend to do that? Was he one of those idiots that still underestimated the effectiveness of guns even after the huge death toll they racked up against combat mages in the Splinter Wars?

“Well?” Lukav asked, a little more harshly.

Deciding to take some risk, Zorian skimmed the man’s surface thoughts for a moment. He promptly realized that the man beside him cared deeply about Alanic and couldn’t bear to see him killed if he could do something, anything about it. He was ready to move in with or without Zorian, but he honestly thought he could prevail against the riflemen. He was far less sure whether he could survive against them if he had to deal with the mage support as well, though.

“I can deal with them, yeah,” said Zorian. “Wait for two minutes before you charge in.”

He then promptly cast invisibility on himself and walked off in the direction of the two mages.

He wasn’t walking for the sake of being dramatic – the invisibility spell he was using was a very delicate optical illusion that required his conscious attention to maintain. Any sort of distracting activity, such as fighting or casting spells, immediately unraveled it. He couldn’t even run without turning into a shimmering humanoid outline that was far more attention grabbing than simply walking up to the mages with no cloaking attempts.

But a fast walk turned out to be sufficient. He was practically on top of the two mages when Lukav finally grew sick of waiting and charged into the fray with a battle cry.

At least he thought the creature that came charging in was Lukav. The huge bull covered in dark green, fishlike scales, its eyes glowing with malevolent red light, seemed like something a transformation expert would use and it sure as hell wasn’t aligned with the attackers. The beast let loose a loud bellow that was laced with some kind of magical fear effect. Zorian ignored the mental attack easily enough, but three of the riflemen weren’t as fearless and immediately fled screaming. The rest were shaken enough by the fear effect that they gave the bull a few crucial moments to close in before they started firing.

As Zorian expected, those scales weren’t just for show, and the bullets didn’t do much. The two hostile mages beside him seemed to realize their forces weren’t going to fare well against this new threat because the defender suddenly started to cast a spell and the ward breaker sped up his work. Deciding that the defender was the bigger threat, Zorian decided to forgo any fancy spellwork and simply pulled out a knife from his belt and rammed it harshly into the man’s neck, dropping his own invisibility in the process.

The other mage didn’t react fast enough, too shocked at Zorian’s sudden appearance, and received a swift kick in the groin a moment later. He immediately collapsed on the ground with a keening wail. After checking to see if any of the riflemen were gunning for him (they weren’t, as they were too busy being trampled by the bull beast that Lukav had transformed into) Zorian reached into the mage’s mind and blasted it with a crude telepathic assault. The man went unconscious like Zorian had been hoping he would, out of the fight.

Before Zorian could decide whether he should get involved into the fight against the riflemen (it seemed unnecessary, and he wasn’t largely immune to gunfire like Lukav was), a trio of flaming projectiles rained down from the second floor and incinerated three of the riflemen that had been trying to rally the others. The bull-beast let loose another fear-laced bellow at this, and the survivors promptly fled.

Zorian watched them go, ready to erect a shield around himself if one of them decided to let loose a few parting shots. None of them did.

The bull beast let out a derisive snort and kicked the ground a few times before suddenly… folding upon itself, for the lack of a better word, and becoming a man. Specifically, Lukav.

Man, transformation was more useful that he had figured it was. He understood why Lukav had been reluctant to engage the attackers without someone to take out the mages though – without hands, the alchemist could not cast any defensive spells himself, and was very vulnerable to hostile magic.

Any conversation was postponed when a short, bald, muscular man literally dropped out of the sky in front of them. It took Zorian almost a second to realize that this was probably Alanic Zosk and that he had jumped down from the freaking two story window!

He looked unaffected by the fall, but still!

“Al, you idiot, I told you not to do that shit!” Lukav yelled. “I almost firebombed you before I realized it was you!”

“You boy,” Alanic said to Zorian, completely ignoring Lukav’s anger. “Why did you let those men go? You could have picked them off as they fled.”

“I… didn’t think it was okay to kill fleeing opponents?” Zorian said, surprised at being put on the spot like that. “I don’t know, it just seemed too bloodthirsty to just shoot them in the back while they ran.”

A short silence ensued as Alanic gave him a blank look. His mind, though unshielded, was incredibly disciplined and gave Zorian no insight to the man’s personality and mood. He idly noted that one of the man’s eyes was blue, while the other one was brown. There was a horrid vertical scar over his blue eye, which really looked like it should have destroyed it as well when it was made.

“I see,” he said finally. “You’re young.”

“What has that got to do with anything?” Zorian protested, annoyed at the man’s attitude. They just save the man’s life, for god’s sake!

“You haven’t been fighting for long,” he simply said. “You’re inexperienced.”

‘Yeah, well, you’re an asshole,’ thought Zorian. But outwardly he just frowned instead.

Yeah, Zorian could already see Alanic would be one of those people. He really had the damnedest luck.

- break -

Alanic Zosk turned out to be pretty calm about the full blown assault on his temple by two dozen gun-wielding mercenaries, refusing Lukav’s demand that they go and report the thing to the nearest Guild station right away with a dismissive statement that it was ‘too soon to involve them’. He even had the unconscious mage that Zorian had disabled transferred to the dungeon in the temple’s basement (why exactly did a temple have a dungeon, Zorian wondered but was afraid to ask), openly admitting he intended to have the man interrogated later.

In the meantime, he wanted to know what Zorian and Lukav came to him for. No, he didn’t need time to calm down, why do you ask?

Zorian had to admit he admired the man’s composure, even if he was a rude ass.

“Interesting,” Alanic said after Zorian repeated the story he told Lukav. “Very well, I will see what has been done to you. Lukav, please leave the room while I examine mister Kazinski here.”

Just like that? Apparently yes. Unlike Lukav, Alanic didn’t use any fancy ritual rooms, and the examination took all of five minutes before the man had pronounced his verdict.

“You have a marker stamped into your soul,” Alanic told him bluntly.

“A what?” Zorian asked.

“A marker is a combination of a beacon and an identification tag. It allows certain spells to find the marker very easily across great distances and unambiguously identifies whatever is tagged by the marker. They are often used by shopkeepers in fancier shops to track stolen wares, by high-security prisons and spies to track movements of marked individuals and in construction of certain wards that allow people to be ‘keyed in’ and therefore free of some or all of the restrictions that all other visitors labor under. Among other things. They are usually placed on items, as placing permanent markers on people is iffy and requires tattoos and such. Yours though, is stamped directly into your soul.”

Zorian remained quiet, his thoughts churning. A marker. That was why he ended up caught in the time loop along with Zach, wasn’t it? The spell wasn’t keyed in to the originator’s soul or some such, since those things were ambiguous and could fail – the original looper could end up with his soul damaged or slightly altered, much like what happened to him and Zach in the end, and then the spell could glitch and fail to loop them back like it’s supposed to. No, the makers of the loop instead stamped Zach’s soul with something unchangeable and unmistakable.

And then Red Robe and Zorian inherited it, because the makers of the loop were a little too smart for their own good…

“Removing the marker-” Alanic began, oblivious or uncaring about Zorian’s obvious state of deep thought.

“I don’t want it removed!” Zorian immediately protested, broken out of his thoughts.

Alanic gave him a considering look.

“I suppose you are fortunate then, because I do not think I could remove it even if I wanted to,” Alanic said. “It is unlike anything I have ever seen. The marker is woven incredibly tightly into your soul, suffusing every corner of it. It is as if it a chunk of your soul was replaced with it and it then grew to fill every nook and cranny it could find to root itself in as firmly as possible.”

Oh hell…

He rose from his seal in agitation, pacing around the room. Alanic watched him impassively, silent and expressionless, until Zorian calmed down a little and sat back down.

“I need more information,” he said. “And I need a way to protect myself from things like this in the future. Can you help me?”

Alanic nodded.

“But tomorrow,” he added. “For now I have a prisoner to interrogate.”

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