Smoke and Mirrors


Zorian would be the first to admit he wasn’t the easiest person to get along with. He was unsociable, irritable, and tended to assume the worst of people. He had always known that, even before he had died and gotten stuck in a mysterious time loop, but he had also always felt he was justified in his behavior. Indeed, if anyone had been foolish enough to criticize him about it before the time loop, he would have reacted with all the subtlety and grace of a disturbed rattlesnake.

Now… well, he still felt he had good reasons to behave the way he did, and he wasn’t going to win any friendliness contests any time soon, but the time loop had changed him. Made him calmer, and perhaps a tad bit more considerate to people around him. He hadn’t had an argument with his family in years, his financial independence was all but ensured once the time loop was over, his growing magical prowess had done wonders for his confidence, and the sheer scale of his current problem made all his previous frustrations seem rather petty in comparison.

Thus, when Kirielle kicked him in the knee for the third time in as many minutes, he pointedly didn’t snap at her. He didn’t even sigh in exasperation. He just continued staring out of the window, watching the fields fly by as the train sped ever closer towards Korsa.

“I’m bored,” Kirielle complained.

Zorian gave her a curious look. While the wards protecting the train disrupted mana shaping, they had only a rudimentary effect on his empathy, and what he was detecting from Kirielle wasn’t boredom – it was a mix of excitement, anticipation and apprehension. As far as Zorian could tell, such complex mixtures of emotions appeared to be the most common ‘emotion’ that people experienced, and they were almost entirely indecipherable at Zorian’s current level of skill.

“What’s really bothering you?” he tried. Her mind immediately burst in a flurry of activity, and she opened her mouth to say something before losing her courage and lamely disguising her attempt to speak as a particularly deep breath. Huh, so she wasn’t just being restless…

“Nothin’,” she muttered, averting her gaze and despondently picking at the hem of her blouse.

Zorian rolled his eyes and kicked her lightly in the knee. Despite doing the exact same thing to him only few moments ago, she proceeded to send him a nasty glare. Unsurprisingly, her attempt at intimidation failed utterly – she was about as frightening as an angry kitten.

“Tell me,” he insisted.

She gave him a long, suspicious look before relenting.

“Will you teach me some magic when we get to Cyoria?” she asked hopefully.

How troublesome. The smart, reasonable response would be ‘no’ – there was no way she would get anywhere in a mere month, this particular restart was going to be extremely busy as it was, and she was going to forget everything she learned at the end of the month anyway.

“…I’ll see what I can do,” Zorian said after a few seconds of tense silence. Well, tense for Kirielle – he was pretty sure she literally stopped breathing while she was waiting for an answer.

“Yessss!” she crowed, pumping her fists in the air in triumph.

“But in exchange, I’ll want your help with something,” he added.

“Fine,” she immediately agreed, not even asking what exactly he had in mind. “Hey, can you-”

“No,” Zorian immediately said. “The train is warded to disrupt mana shaping. No one can cast spells in here.”

“Oh,” Kirielle deflated.

Truthfully, Zorian was bending the truth a little. The ward on the train that disrupted mana shaping was very weak and rudimentary, meant to deter overeager students and casual vandalism, and was little more than an annoyance to a proper mage like Zorian was. He could overpower the ward with ease, but he had analyzed it in detail during the previous restart and knew it reported any significant spellcasting to some remote location. He’d rather not get chucked out of the train before reaching Cyoria just because Kirielle wanted a free show.

Kirielle opened her mouth to say something else but was promptly interrupted by a sharp crackling sound that heralded the voice of the station announcer.

“Now stopping in Korsa,” a disembodied voice echoed. “I repeat, now stopping in Korsa. Thank you.”

Well, at least Kirielle would soon get someone else to bother in their compartment.

“So many people,” Kiri remarked, watching the throng at the train station through the window. “I didn’t know there were so many people going to that school of yours.”

Zorian, who was amusing himself by trying to count the number of people on the train station using his mind sense, made an absent-minded sound of agreement. While he was no longer totally oblivious to the world while using his mind sense, it still took most of his attention to get anything useful out of it. After half a minute of trying to separate the tightly-packed mass of people into discrete individuals that could be counted, however, he decided the task was beyond him at his current level of skill and refocused back of Kirielle.

“Why are mages so rare if there are so many people studying to become one?” she asked.

“They aren’t terribly rare,” Zorian said. “It’s just that most mages coming from rural areas don’t stay there once they finish their studies. I totally understand them too – I know_ I_ have no intention of coming back to Cirin when I graduate.”

“What!? Why!?” Kirielle protested.

Zorian raised his eyebrow at her. “Do I really have to answer that question?”

Kirielle huffed and crossed her arms over her chest in obvious annoyance. “I guess not. But that means I’ll be all alone with mother and father then. That sucks.”

“Just pester mother to let you visit me often,” Zorian shrugged. “She’ll cave in eventually, especially since you’ll be the only means through which they can maintain contact with me. Father doesn’t care about either of us, so he’ll follow mother’s lead on this.”

Kirielle gave him a weird look. “I can come and visit you?”

“Any time you want,” Zorian confirmed.

“You don’t think I’m annoying?” she asked.

“Oh no, you’re definitely annoying,” Zorian said, smiling at her mutinous expression. “But you’re still the only part of our family I actually like. And I bet you find me annoying too.”

“Damn right,” Kirielle huffed, kicking him in the knee again for good measure.

They watched in silence as people boarded the train and sought out empty compartments for themselves and their groups. But soon enough such empty compartments dwindled in number and their compartment soon got additional passengers: Ibery, Byrn, and two other girls he never met up until this restart. That was a bit unexpected – he really only expected Ibery to be there. But no matter, maybe it was better this way. The more audience he had for this, the better. Now all he needed was an opening.

He didn’t have to wait long.

“Well, your brother is far better than mine,” one of the new girls said to Kirielle after his sister was done explaining who she was and why she was going to Cyoria. “I’m pretty sure mine would have done just about anything in order to avoid taking his little sister along with him.”

“I almost decided not to bring her, what with the whole Cult of the Dragon Below incident,” Zorian interjected. “But then I figured they’re probably just a bunch of crazy idiots anyway. I mean, if it was so easy to summon an army of demons, all of Altazia would have been a burning wreck by now, wouldn’t it?”

All conversation stopped as everyone turns to star at him like he had grown another head. Zorian feigned confusion and gave them all a blank look.

“What?” he asked finally.

“What… exactly are you talking about?” Byrn asked carefully.

“You didn’t hear?” Zorian frowned, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “The Cult of the Dragon Below issued a threat… well, technically a proclamation of intent but whatever… that they intend to summon an army of demons on the day of the summer festival. The planar convergence scheduled to occur on that day will be the most powerful one in centuries, so this is apparently a once in a lifetime opportunity for them.”

“You’re serious,” Ibery half asked, half stated.

“It’s what they said,” Zorian shrugged. “And Cyoria has a lot of those crazies running around, so I think I’m justified in being a little concerned.”

“Cyoria has a lot of Dragon Cultists?” Byrn asked incredulously.

“It’s the Hole,” Ibery said with a sigh. “It’s something of a holy location for them, being a huge gaping hole in the ground of uncertain depth that continually spews mana into the air. They think it’s a direct conduit to the Heart of the World.”

Wow, good thing Ibery was here – Zorian didn’t know that and would have had to make something up. He should probably read up on the Cult’s actual beliefs one of these days instead of simply thinking of them as a bunch of crazies. Know your enemy and all that.

The conversation didn’t linger on the cultists and their goals for long, and soon shifted to other topics. Zorian allowed it, not interested in pushing the issue. He had no idea if this exchange was going to have any sort of meaningful effect on the restart, but it cost him nothing to try and start the rumor mill a little early.

The first domino was set.

- break -

Much like the last time Zorian had taken Kirielle to Cyoria, Byrn and Kirielle decided to tour the train station for a while before they moved on to the city proper. By that time, of course, it was heavily raining. Unlike last time, Zorian was now in possession of a warding necklace that he had made while waiting for the departure time in Cirin, so keeping the rain barrier up around the group didn’t strain his mana reserves in the slightest. Consequently, he decided to be nice and didn’t argue at all when Kirielle insisted they accompany Byrn to the academy.

That’s probably why Byrn asked about keeping in touch when they reached his destination and were about to separate. Zorian gave him directions to Imaya’s place and told him to drop by when he had the time. He was pretty sure Imaya wouldn’t mind in the slightest and, while Zorian himself didn’t care much for the boy, he could see that Kirielle got along pretty well with the first year.

And speaking of Imaya, their initial meeting went a lot better than it did last time. The fact they hadn’t introduced themselves by frantically banging on the door and dragging water into the house probably helped with first impressions. Hell, she didn’t even protest much when Zorian insisted he had something important to take care of and went out into the rain again.

The important thing he had to do was speaking to the aranea to give them back their memories, but this time he bore additional gifts – five stone discs that acted as telepathic relays, drastically improving the ability of aranea to coordinate their actions across large distances. Naturally, the 6th disc remained in Zorian’s possession, so he didn’t have to descend into the sewers every time he wanted to speak with the matriarch.

[You know, when I told you to contact me as soon as possible, I didn’t really mean you should call me in the middle of the freaking night,] Zorian sent to the matriarch, putting as much of his annoyance and crankiness as he could manage into the message. He still wasn’t very good at attaching emotions and images to his communication, but he was confident she would get the general picture of what he was trying to convey. [I’m not sure about aranea, but we humans actually have to sleep during the night to function properly.]

[My apologies,] the matriarch sent back. She didn’t sound sorry at all. [It’s a fascinating device you’ve gifted me with. Most impressive.]

[Not really. It’s pretty shoddy as far as magic items go. I took a lot of shortcuts in order to make so many and it shows. It’s a fairly large, heavy disc made out of solid stone, so not very inconspicuous or portable, and it has a lifespan of only 2 and a half months.]

[That’s still a month and a half longer than needed,] the matriarch remarked.

[True,] Zorian agreed.

[I assume you can make long-lasting versions?]

[Yes, of course,] Zorian said.

[Could other artificers duplicate your work?] she asked. [Or is this something you came up with yourself?]

Zorian frowned. Why would she need other artificers when she had him? Did she plan to ditch him after they left the time loop or something?

[It’s something I came up with,] Zorian said. [Other artificers would have to design a blueprint first. That could take a while.]

True, but misleading. He did design the relays on his own, basically from scratch, but it honestly hadn’t been that difficult. He suspected any good magic item maker could design one within a month or two… provided they were either psychic themselves or had a psychic on hand for testing purposes. She could figure out that little detail on her own as far as he was concerned.

[I see,] she said. [Well, I guess I shouldn’t keep you awake any longer. I just wanted to tell you I’ve reviewed the memory packet and am convinced it is genuine.]

Zorian rolled his eyes. As if there was any doubt. Apparently having gotten what she contacted him for, the matriarch cut the connection and left him alone in his bed again. Well, alone in his head at least – Kirielle was very much in the room with him, a fact she immediately reminded him of by taking advantage of his momentary distraction to appropriate the last bit of bed covering he had managed to keep away from her thus far. He gave her a nasty look for that, but she just snuggled deeper into her cocoon of stolen blankets, blissfully unaware of his ire in her realm of dreams.

He sighed. There was no way he was going to be able to go back to sleep now. He quickly cast a silencing ward on the room and then slowly extricated himself from the bed, taking care not to wake up Kirielle. She was annoying, yes, but it wasn’t her fault his sleep was ruined.

‘Note to self: the next generation relay needs an off button.’

- break -

After surprising Imaya by already being awake when she woke up, Zorian went out into the city to hit the stores. The plan he and the matriarch hashed out last restart involved creation of a lot of magic items on his part, and that meant buying material components and specialist tools. Not to mention that there were a few things he had to buy if he wanted to seriously start teaching Kirielle how to be a mage.

He really hoped Kirielle charmed Kana in this restart like she had the last time around – while Zorian himself was decently skilled in alchemy and could manage on his own if he had to, Kael’s help would be invaluable in some of the projects he had planned for this restart…

“Zorian! Over here!”

Zorian snapped out of his thoughts and quickly made way towards the person calling him. Benisek was exactly the person he was looking for. He quickly sat down next to the chubby boy and exchanged a bunch of pleasantries before getting to the reason he had tracked the boy down today.

“Ben, my friend, you won’t believe what I found out during our school break,” Zorian said. “I still don’t understand what they were thinking when they came up with that stuff. It’s like something out of a bad adventure novel.”

“Do tell,” Benisek leaned forward.

“Well…” Zorian began, suddenly feigning reluctance. “It’s kind of confidential, you know. I’m telling you this in strict confidence because we’re friends, so don’t go spreading this around, okay?”

Noting that he was about to tell him something confidential and warning him to keep it to himself was crucial – it meant Benisek was going to spread the story around twice as fast as he normally would.

“Of course,” Benisek said pleasantly. “You know me, Zorian. I would never betray your trust like that.”

Zorian couldn’t help but smile. “Thanks, Ben. I know I could count on you.”

- break -

Having told Benisek all about the nasty terrorist plot to bomb Cyoria during the summer festival, Zorian went back to Imaya’s place to wait for Taiven and her offer of joining the sewer run. He amused himself by creating one of those practice cards that Xvim had him hone his shaping skills on. He had planned to simply buy a stack of them from one of the stores he visited this morning, but they were a lot more expensive than he had figured they would be – his respect for Xvim rose slightly when he realized how much money Xvim effectively spent on his training during that restart. Zorian’s list of complaints about the man was several pages long, but it seemed that being cheap wasn’t among them.

He was still impressing Ilsa into taking him on as her apprentice, of course. Cheap or not cheap, the man was incredibly frustrating and only tolerable in small doses.

He finished painting the glyphs on the corners of the card he was making and started binding the necessary spell combination. Kirielle, who was in the process of drawing a nearby vase of flowers, briefly looked up from her sheet of paper when she noticed him casting spells, but quickly went back to her work when she saw the lack of lightshows or other impressive visual effects.

He hoped that Benisek would keep silent about the source of the ‘rumor’ Zorian had told him. He probably would – Ben never revealed his sources if he could help it, since he liked to pretend he had some super-secret sources to draw information from rather than just spreading rumors from his fellow students – but Zorian had a contingency plan to follow even if someone with official authority came to confront him about the story. The fact that the aranea were currently spreading the same story in several different places should also help mask where exactly the whole thing had originated in the first place.

He was just putting the finishing touches on the card when Taiven burst into the kitchen and locked onto his position.

“Hey Roach, nice place you got here,” she said, plopping down to a seat next to him and peering closer to look at his work. “Ooh, I know what that is. I’ve been meaning to get some one of these days, but I always end up spending my money elsewhere. How many did you buy?”

“None,” Zorian said. “They were too expensive for my taste so I decided to make my own. This is the only one I made so far.”

Taiven raised her eyebrow at him, looking amused at his claim. Zorian frowned, not liking the expression – she didn’t believe he could make a card like this? This was nothing! He thrust the finished card into her face with a scowl.

“Try it out,” he told her.

Sighing dramatically, Taiven took a deep breath and… frowned. Zorian felt a mixture or surprise and frustration burst from her and realized she had tried to burn the circle he drew onto the card and failed.

“You couldn’t do it, could you?” Zorian grinned.

“You made it wrong!” she huffed.

“Did not!” Zorian protested. “You just suck!”

“Do not!” she shot back. “Why don’t you do it if you’re so special, huh?”

“Hmph,” Zorian scoffed, snatching the card back. He positioned the card so that she could see the results of what he was about to do (and in the back of his mind he noted that Kirielle had decided to see what the fuss was all about and was studying the card as well) and then flashed his mana into the card in a practiced manner.

The circle – and only the circle – momentarily shone red from the heat before collapsing into ash. Zorian blew a gust of air into the hold to scatter the remains across the table and then smugly handed the spent card to Taiven. He crossed his arms and waited her reply.

“Ahem,” a mature female voice interrupted the scene from behind him. “You will, of course, clean up this mess you’ve made on my table, won’t you mister Kazinski? Oh, and I would like to warn you that I will bill you for any property damage you inflict on my material possessions with your… experiments.”

Zorian turned and gave Imaya a big, friendly smile. She rolled her eyes at him and gestured towards the ashes on the table. Hanging his head in defeat, Zorian went to get a rag from the bathroom, ignoring Taiven’s soft laughter behind him. Just for that he was tempted to blow her off when she asked him to accompany her to the sewers.

Briefly. The fact was, he definitely needed to go with her this time.

“So what was it that you needed from me anyway?” Zorian asked, sitting down next to Taiven again.

“Ah, well, I was wondering if you’d join me on a little expedition…”

Zorian patiently listened to her explanation before revealing he had contacts with the aranea and requesting that they tried talking to them first before barging in, spells blazing. Much like in previous restarts where he had brought the issue up, Taiven accepted him hanging out with giant sewer- dwelling spiders easily enough, but this time she also had an additional request.

“Since you apparently think you’re good enough to walk around the Dungeon all by your lonesome, meeting sentient monsters and gods know what else, I would like to test your skills a little,” Taiven told him. “Plus, it doesn’t hurt to know what your actual combat skills are if you’re going to accompany me and my team into a potentially dangerous situation. You do know some combat skills, don’t you?”

“Plenty,” Zorian assured her.

“Good, so come to my place tomorrow at noon so I can test you,” Taiven said. “You’re sure they’re going to hand us the clock if we ask nicely?”

“If they have it,” said Zorian. “That guy who gave you the job doesn’t sound all that reliable to me. I don’t believe for a second that he didn’t know what the aranea are, yet he still sent you go get a pocket watch from them. Either he’s trying to get you all killed or… hell, I don’t know what his game is there.”

“If the watch is something very valuable or very illegal he might not want to send someone who could recognize what they are holding,” Taiven frowned. “Just how dangerous are these spiders of yours? I mean, even if sentient, they’re still bound to be vulnerable to burning and such. Maybe he thought we would just bulldoze through them without talking?”

“Aranea are all mages,” Zorian said. It wasn’t strictly true, as only a small minority of aranea was armed with a true spellcasting system, but psychic powers were versatile enough to count as a sort of specialized spellcasting system. “They are especially fond of mind magic, illusions and stealth. And they have a telepathic link to one another so they will know and remember you if you massacre some of their outposts. And then you’d have a bunch of magical spiders with a grudge looking to ambush you or lure you into a trap the next time you descend into the dungeon.”

“Shit,” Taiven said. He felt a spike of anger from her before she reined it in and forced herself to calm down. “That asshole better have been ignorant of the danger or I’m reporting him to the nearest police station I find. That’s practically a murder attempt!”

“Let’s talk to the aranea first and see what they have to say,” Zorian quickly said. He didn’t want Taiven to confront the man and then cancel the whole thing. “I guarantee they won’t attack you so long as you have me with you.”

Taiven gave him a long, unreadable look.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Taiven said. “it’s just that… I thought I knew you, but now it turns out you have this whole secret life I’ve never known about until now. It’s a bit unreal.”

“Yeah!” Kirielle suddenly piped in. She had been silent throughout their discussion, but apparently she had been listening to everything with rapt attention. “How come you never told your own sister any of this!?”

“Oh that one is easy,” Zorian replied smoothly. “I didn’t want mother and father to find out, so telling you would have been foolish. Do you have any idea how many times you’ve gotten me in trouble by spilling my secrets in front of our parents?”

“Oh come on!” Kirielle whined. “I was a little baby! I didn’t know anything! You can’t possibly still be angry about that?”

“No, of course not,” Zorian mumbled uncomfortably. “I did just tell Taiven about the aranea right in front of you, haven’t I?”

Taiven shook her head sadly, rising from her seat. “You keep too many secrets, Roach. I feel a little hurt that you felt you couldn’t confide in me but I was never one to hold a grudge so I’ll let it go. Just don’t expect this to be the end of it – I’m going to pester you endlessly until I get the whole story. See you tomorrow.”

“Wait,” Zorian said. “Actually… yeah, there is something I need to tell you. All of you. Miss Kuroshka, I know you’ve been eavesdropping on us for a while now so you might as well sit down for this.”

Imaya whirled around from where she was fiddling with the cutlery and placed her hands on her hips, giving him an angry look.

“I was not doing any such thing,” she told him, “I was simply minding my own business, and in my own kitchen no less. If you didn’t want me overhearing your conversation you should have taken it elsewhere.”

“My mistake,” Zorian agreed easily. He was pretty sure she had finished whatever she had come into the kitchen to do for a while now and was simply hanging around to hear them talk, but whatever. “Kiri, do you remember how I promised to teach you spellcasting in exchange for a favor back in the train?”

“Yeah?” Kirielle confirmed hesitantly.

“Right, a little background first. I am what is commonly known as an empath – a person who can sense other people’s emotions. Unfortunately, up until recently, my powers have been kind of running amok. There was nobody I could turn to for help… at least not on the human side of things.”

“The spiders,” Imaya surmised.

“Yes,” Zorian agreed. “Aranea are all empathic as part of their innate nature. Thanks to them, I now have more or less gained control over my empathic abilities, though it will take years of practice to truly refine them into something reliable. Follow me so far?”

“What am I feeling right now?” Kirielle asked.

“I actually don’t know,” Zorian admitted. “People’s feelings are rarely very simple, and unless they are feeling one emotion very strongly I’m reduced to educated guesses based on my previous interactions with the person. The more time I spend around someone the easier I can read them.”

“But isn’t she your sister?” Imaya asked. “You’d think that if anyone was familiar enough for your ability to work it would be family.”

“Our family is…” Zorian hesitated, searching for a proper word. “Slightly dysfunctional, I guess. I try to stay away from them most of the time, so I haven’t interacted with Kirielle all that often. And I’m not the only one keeping secrets around here – Kirielle is also keeping a lot of things close to her chest. I guess we don’t really know each other all that well, sibling bonds notwithstanding.”

There was a brief silence as everyone involved digested that admission, but the awkward atmosphere was quickly broken by Imaya clearing her throat.

“Well,” she said. “I guess it’s a good thing you’re both here now to reconnect.”

“Yeah!” Kirielle immediately agreed. “Hey, do you think I could be an empath too?”

“Sorry Kiri, but I’m pretty sure you aren’t,” Zorian said. “I’d would have been able to sense it if you were.”

“You can sense other empaths?” Taiven asked.

“I can sense all minds around me, empath or otherwise,” Zorian said. “I also get some basic information about each mind – how complex their thoughts are, their species, their gender, stuff like that. Empaths light up like little suns on my mind sense, so… sorry Kiri.”

“It’s fine,” she said dejectedly.

“You can sense people all around you, regardless of obstacles?” Taiven asked. Zorian nodded. “And the range on that ability is…?”

“If I’m busy with something else and just running my mind sense in the background? About ten meters,” said Zorian. “If I’m specifically concentrating on scanning the environment? Easily ten times that. However, if there are a lot of minds around me I have trouble processing the information and they all sort of start to blend together in a confusing, headache-inducing mass. I mostly just shut my empathy off when I’m around big crowds.”

“Roach, I am so recruiting you for my team,” Taiven said. “I’ve been trying to find a tracker for my team for a while now! Now all we need is teach you some divination spells and-”

“Already done, thank you,” Zorian said. “I am quite proficient in divination.”

“Even better!” Taiven said. “You’re hired.”

“We’ll see,” Zorian sighed.

“Fascinating,” Imaya said. “I’ve never heard of that aspect of empathy, though I guess it makes sense that someone who can sense emotions can locate other people through it. But that’s not what you wanted to talk about, is it?”

“No it’s not,” Zorian nodded. “It’s not common knowledge, but empathy is just an initial expression of a much more… dangerous ability. A sufficiently skilled empath can bridge the gap between minds and connect with any person in range in order to talk to them telepathically, read their thoughts, fool their senses or mess with their memories. And aranea have been teaching me how to do that.”

He paused to gauge their reactions. Well, none of them were quietly panicking or burning with outrage, so that was encouraging.

“I have no intention of doing that to any of you without permission,” Zorian said. “But at the same time I need someone to practice on. The aranea aren’t very suitable for this – their minds are too alien for a beginner like me to understand. I need a human volunteer, and I’m hoping for you to help me out, oh sister of mine.”

“You want to read my mind?” Kirielle asked.

“To put it bluntly, yes,” Zorian said.

“And if I say no, will you still teach me magic?”

“Absolutely,” Zorian said. “It’s a request, not blackmail. I’ll just have to find someone else to help me if you refuse.”

“Well, okay,” she said. “I guess I’ll help you. But you can’t talk to anyone… about the stuff in my head. And you have to tell me all about your secrets in exchange!”

“Sure,” Zorian smiled. “Sounds like a fair deal to me.”

- break -

The whole confrontation went off surprisingly well, Zorian reflected. Sure, Imaya had been avoiding him ever since and Kirielle was giving him these weird looks, but none of them were terrified on him or anything – just mildly uncomfortable. They were taking the revelation much better than he had predicted they would.

And then, of course, was Taiven, who was apparently not bothered at all by his admission that he was learning how to read people’s thoughts.

“You ready, Roach?” she asked, twirling her combat staff in her hand.

“I’m ready, yeah,” Zorian said, gripping his spell rod tighter.

If he knew anything about how Taiven thought – and he did – she would immediately go on the offensive. Her battle philosophy basically boiled down to ‘attack hard and you won’t have to defend to begin with’… though she could defend too, if pressed. He had no way to win a protracted fight with her, even if he was technically a better mage than she was, so he would have to resort to trickery if he wanted to prevail here.

It would be nice if he could eke out a win against her – her face when she lost against little old ‘Roach’ was bound to be absolutely glorious to behold.

A blink and suddenly there were 5 magic missiles homing in on him. He let them crash uselessly against his shield and responded with a somewhat exotic electrical spell. A beam of electricity shot towards Taiven, who erected a basic shield of her own to tank it.

Half-way towards its target, the beam split into three smaller beams – one pivoted to the left of Taiven, the other to the right, and the third one straight above it. And then they all changed their paths again and crashed against her from three different directions, completely bypassing the shield in front of her.

It wasn’t enough. Somehow, Taiven managed to smoothly transition from a single-direction shield to a full aegis before the beams managed to reach her. Zorian threw a couple of smoke bombs around the training hall to blind her, relying on his mind sense to tell him where she was, and started casting a complicated spell that wasn’t etched into his spell rod the moment his location got obscured by the smoke.

Taiven responded by casting several gusts of wind to disperse the smoke and hopefully catch him in the area of effect as well. She had just about stripped him of his smokescreen when he finished the spell and felt his mana reserves drain almost completely dry.

‘If this doesn’t work, then that’s it for this fight,’ he thought.

A bright beam of concentrated force shot out from his hand and slammed into Taiven’s shield. The shield flared at the point of impact, shattering almost instantly, and Taiven was lifted off her feet by the impact and thrown violently against the floor. She didn’t get up, rendered unconscious by the impact.

“Oops,” Zorian said quietly. “I think I overdid it just a little – that could have easily killed her if the wards hadn’t worked properly.”

After casting a few divinations to make sure she was mostly okay and not bleeding internally or something like that, Zorian allowed himself to smile. He would have to work on his restraint, but it was a victory. And she hadn’t been any gentler towards him in their previous fights, so she hardly had any right to complain about excessive force. He couldn’t wait to see Taiven’s face when she woke up.

- break -

“Come on, Roach,” Taiven growled. “Find those spiders of yours so we can be done with this mission. I’m getting sick of this place already.”

Zorian sighed and refocused on scanning his surroundings. This would be going faster if Taiven stopped snapping at him every so often – talk about being a sore loser.

“Hey,” a male voice whispered into Zorian’s ear, breaking him out of thoughts. “What happened between you and Taiven to get her so bothered, anyway?”

Zorian glanced at Grunt and considered how to answer for a second. He decided to be blunt and truthful.

“I beat her in a spar,” he said. “She thinks I cheated.”

Grunt gave him a considering look. “You beat Taiven in a spar? Aren’t you a third year?”

“Sure am,” Zorian agreed, before he noticed a familiar presence on his mental map. “Oh hey, there they are.”

After the initial introductions were done, Taiven immediately moved onto the reason they were down in the tunnels in the first place, only to get disappointed.

“So you don’t have the watch?” Taiven asked.

“Alas, I’m afraid the next group of attackers managed to break into our treasury and escaped with a great many of our artifacts… the watch we claimed from the thief being among them,” the matriarch said regretfully. “I do know where their base is, however.”

This was all a bunch of bullshit, Zorian knew. The watch was indeed somewhere else – specifically in one of the forward outposts that the invaders used to launch attacks on the aranea – but it was there because the aranea had put it there. The idea was for Taiven and her group to stumble onto the outpost, realize they’re stumbled onto something big – bigger than they could handle – and then report it to the authorities.

It was Zorian’s job to make sure Taiven and her group survived the encounter with the invaders.

“How convenient,” Zorian scoffed, “that getting the watch involves taking out one of your enemies in the process.”

“A happy coincidence,” the matriarch said easily. “We both get something out of it, after all – you get the location of the watch for free, and I get to deal with one of my problems without risking my Web. Now… do you want the location of the base or not?”

“Just who are these enemies of yours, anyway?” Taiven asked.

“I don’t know exactly,” the matriarch said. “The attackers consisted of a mage controlling two war trolls, but the base is guaranteed to have more forces than that.”

“War trolls!?” Taiven blanched. “Hell, that is way more than we signed up for!”

“The guy is definitely not paying us enough to confront a couple of war trolls with mage support,” Mumble said quietly.

“Maybe check it out anyway?” Zorian tried. “Like, from distance? I may be able to tell how many forces there are in the place.”

“Yeah,” Taiven said after considering things for a few moments. “Yeah, we should check it out at least. No offense to the matriarch here, but a bunch of guys running around the sewers with tamed war trolls sounds a bit… implausible. Maybe she saw something else.”

“I suppose it’s possible,” the matriarch allowed. “I haven’t actually seen trolls before, and haven’t been personally present when the incident occurred, but they sounded very much like the trolls humans speak of.”

“Right,” Taiven nodded. “Where did you say this base was again?”

- break -

The base wasn’t actually in the city sewers – that part of the Dungeon was actually somewhat patrolled and monitored, and it would have been impossible to hide a large mass of soldiers there for an appreciable length of time. For that matter, the aranea didn’t actually live in the sewers either, although they considered them part of their territory. Instead, both the aranean home base and the various invader outposts were situated in what was known to Cyoria authorities as the ‘intermediary layer’.

It was not particularly rare for mages to descend into the intermediary layer, but it was not a common occurrence either. The intermediary layer was too dangerous for a casual stroll by an unarmed civilian, but mostly devoid of anything valuable that would attract dungeon delvers and other adventurers. The city hired mercenaries to sweep through the place every few years and get rid of any obvious threats that have set up residence, and they usually also picked the place clean of anything valuable, leaving a great expanse of little value. For those who wanted to challenge themselves against the denizens of the Underworld and search the place for riches, there was the Hole and its direct access to deeper levels that hadn’t been picked clean over the decades. Most of the visitors from the city consisted of an occasional thrill-seeking student and an occasional patrol to keep an eye on things.

The invaders chose the timing of their invasion well. The city was so focused on the summer festival and its associated problems that it didn’t pay attention to what was happening in the dungeon at all. This would normally not be such a problem, as very few problems could spring out of nothing in a couple of measly months – especially with little to no indication that something big was happening – but now…

“Holy shit,” Taiven whispered, peering from behind their cover to look at the camp again. “They’ve got a freaking army there!”

“Get down you idiot,” Grunt growled at her, pulling her down behind the rock they were using as cover. “Do you want them to see you? If they notice us, we’re dead. There must be at least a 100 trolls down there and at least 20 handlers.”

“Sorry,” Taiven said. “It’s just… so unreal.”

Zorian had to agree. He was expecting it, and he was still surprised at the scale of what they were seeing. Then again, this was why the matriarch had chosen this particular base out of the 12 or so she knew of. The others were smaller and much better hidden, but this particular base was situated in a large open cavern and had enough artificial illumination that a human observer could see the whole camp easily from a sufficiently high vantage… like the one they were using, for example. In fact, the vantage point they were using was pretty much perfect for observing the camp.

‘Hmm, I wonder…’

He silently ran his fingers against the walls of the tunnel that brought them here. It was bumpy but smooth. Far too smooth to be natural. The rock they were hiding behind was the same.

‘Apparently this was an even more of a set up than I thought it was,’ Zorian thought. ‘I bet one of the aranean mages made this tunnel specifically so we could find it. It would explain why no one seemed to be paying any attention to this particular entrance, even though the other two are both guarded – they don’t even know it exists. ’

Well, whatever – time to do his part in this charade. He pulled out a mirror from his backpack and silently cast a scrying spell on it. The base had a divination ward, of course, but it was based on the idea of stopping people from realizing that the base was there to begin with. Since Zorian knew that the camp existed and where it was, and was in fact right next to it, the entire ward was pretty much useless against him.

After 5 minutes of watching the camp through the mirror, Taiven decided she had seen enough and motioned him to cancel the spell.

“Let’s go,” she said. “I want to get out of here before our luck runs out.”

They almost made it out without complications. Almost.

As the four of them approached one of the seals between the sewers and the deeper layers of the dungeon, they suddenly came face to face with a duo of hooded mages flanked by 4 trolls. For a moment, both groups halted and tried to make sense of what they were seeing, neither group really expecting to stumble upon each other. Zorian noted with annoyance that their mental presence was somehow muted – no doubt a countermeasure against the aranea – and cursed himself for thinking that his opponents wouldn’t have some way of dealing with mind sense.

The impasse was broken when one of the mages ordered the trolls to charge.

Neither Taiven nor her two teammates hesitated when faced with four war trolls charging at them, raising their staff to blast the attackers before they could overrun them. Zorian decided to keep the mages busy instead and fired a small missile swarm and four piercers, two for each mage.

Several things happened simultaneously. One of the mages dropped whatever spell he was casting and raised a shield to successfully tank the missiles coming towards him. The other was less skilled and fumbled his shield – both piercers hit him straight in the chest and he went down in a shower of blood. Grunt and Mumble used quick flamethrowers to halt the charge of the trolls, but while three of the trolls did flinch away from the flames, the largest, best-armored troll lurched forward, a little dazed but unharmed.

Taiven hit them all with a battering ram of force, intending to knock the whole group down and give them some space, and for the most part succeeded – the three recovering trolls and the surviving mage were hurled deeper into the tunnel and away from them, but that one troll at the front kept its ground.

It raised its huge iron mace for an overhead strike and screamed out a challenge, its shout staggering them like a physical blow, acting almost like a lesser version of the battering ram that Taiven just cast. Strange, Zorian had always thought trolls had no magic other than their absurd regenerative capabilities.

He had no time to consider this, however, as the troll immediately capitalized on the distraction it caused and surged forward.

Frantically, Zorian erected a large shield in front of the group, trying to buy time. Sadly, unlike the other trolls Zorian had battled in the previous restarts, this one was too smart to just crash into the shield. It smashed it’s mace into the shield with great force – once, twice, three times. The shield broke and the troll kicked him in the chest, catapulting him backwards where he collided with Grunt and Mumble and interrupted whatever they were about to cast.

Taiven, on the other hand, managed to finish hers. A vortex of fire surged forward, finishing off the surviving mage and the three other trolls that were moving the aid their comrade but leaving the lead troll merely singed.

And very, very angry.

“Shit,” Taiven said quietly, as the troll raised its mace for a killing strike.

Even though he knew her death wouldn’t be permanent, even though he had known there was a chance for this to happen when he had agreed to participate in this plan, Zorian found himself completely horrified at the idea of watching Taiven get crushed to death. Killed because of him and his plots and schemes…

He reached out to the troll’s mind and noticed it was no longer being muted – while Taiven’s spell failed to incinerate the troll, it seemed to have burned out whatever protected it from mind magic. Rather than try any sort of sophisticated attack, he simply flooded it with meaningless drivel, blasting its mind with random telepathy.

The troll flinched in shock and spasmed, halting its attack and dropping the mace it was holding. Zorian immediately threw two explosive cubes at its feet.

“Taiven, get back!”

She didn’t have to be told twice, immediately snapping out of her daze and scrambling backwards out of the troll’s reach. Zorian activated the bombs as soon as he judged her out of reach and the troll was enveloped in a deafening explosion.

Somehow, it still survived. It was kneeling and clutching its leg in pain, and bleeding all over, but Zorian could already see its flesh knitting together.

Damn it, what was it with this one troll!? Was it a super-troll or something?

And then two ice blue beams impacted directly into the troll’s chest, courtesy of Grunt and Mumble, and the creature immediately froze over and went still.

“Is it finally dead?” he asked.

“I don’t know and don’t care,” Taiven said. “Let’s get lost before we meet another one.”

Zorian took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded in assent. Then he tried to take a step and winced at the pain in his leg. He could walk, but he just knew he was going to be hurting for the rest of the week.

‘This better be worth it, you damn manipulative spider,’ he inwardly thought.

- break -

[So it’s all done?] the matriarch asked.

Zorian gripped the stone disk in his hand tighter. [Yes. I just said so, didn’t I? Thankfully, there were no actual casualties, though it was close. In many ways our close brush with death works in favor of your plan, since Taiven is really pissed about these people now and determined to bring them to justice. She is going to report the whole thing tomorrow to the city authorities. I sincerely hope it wasn’t you who arranged for us to stumble onto that group, miss Spear of Resolve, or I’ll be very angry at you.]

[Don’t worry, I had nothing to do with it,] the matriarch assured him.

[Right,] Zorian sighed. Maybe he was being paranoid, but the matriarch’s behavior had grown ever more secretive over the past few restarts and he wouldn’t put it past her to pull something like that. [How about you? Is your task done?]

[Yes,] the matriarch confirmed. [I have contacted Zach and told him that the aranea are aware of the time loop.]

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