The Hunter and the Hunted


Considering the reputation the Great Northern Forest had among people living in more southern, civilized territories, one would expect the place to be a giant death trap, with every animal and a good portion of the plants trying to kill you at every turn. The truth, Zorian had found, was a little more complex. While yes, the forest was full of dangerous creatures – even the deer were kind of aggressive and had tried to gore him a couple of times instead of fleeing from his approach – it was entirely possible to spend an entire day without endangering your life if you knew what you were doing. Granted, Zorian had a somewhat unfair advantage in the form of his mind sense, which let him sense a lot of the dangers before they had the chance to detect him in turn. Furthermore, the region he was frequenting was a border area – thus a little friendlier to humans than the deep, untouched wilderness in the far north. Still, he was confident that even a skilled civilian could move through the forest unmolested, much less a mage. Hell, he was doing just fine at the moment, despite having less than a month of experience.

Usually, Zorian wouldn’t have wanted to move through the forest undetected. The whole point of going here was to get combat experience, so avoiding danger was kind of missing the point. This time, however, sneaking around was more or less mandatory. He really didn’t want to get distracted around a threat on the level of a grey hunter, and he definitely didn’t want to alert the monster that he was coming by engaging in a loud, flashy fight right next to its lair. He slowly circled the area around the grey hunter’s lair, checking it for threats and hostile terrain that might inhibit him should he choose to retreat in any particular direction. In several places he carved clusters of explosive glyphs into the trees and exposed rocks – he doubted they were powerful enough to seriously hurt a grey hunter, but they might buy him a few seconds he needed to teleport away to safety.

He almost succeeded in reaching the lair without a fight. Thankfully the trio of fly-mosquito-whatever things that tried to ambush him were very easy to dispatch (they burned beautifully) and the fight didn’t raise enough ruckus to attract the monstrous spider’s attention. Zorian picked out a rather tall tree close (but not too close) to the grey hunter’s lair and levitated himself to the upper branches, where he promptly took out the binoculars he enchanted earlier for the purpose and started studying his target.

The location was actually kind of picturesque – a small rocky gully surrounded by forest, with some pretty sediment lines crisscrossing the stone and a few strategically placed clumps of grass growing between the cracks. On one of the walls stood a perfectly circular hole that served as the entrance to the cave. It was pitch black and surprisingly unremarkable and unthreatening – if Silverlake hadn’t told him it was there, it was entirely possible that Zorian would have missed it entirely if he had ever stumbled into the place in one of the restarts.

It would have been the last mistake he ever made, at least in that hypothetical restart – grey hunters were crazy good jumpers and possessed downright surreal speed. Zorian would bet anything that the one inside that cave could jump straight from the cave entrance to the other side of the gully in a single leap and close in before Zorian could so much as realize what was happening.

The grey hunter was fundamentally a very simple monster. It was a grey, furry spider the size of an adult man… and it also happened to be incredibly fast, strong, durable and spell resistant. It could run faster than a hasted mage, jump incredible distances, shrug off regular firearms and lower-level attack spells like a duck shrugging off water, outright ignore most direct-effect spells and bite through steel. Oh, and it had a very nasty poison that, instead of destroying tissue or wrecking the nervous system like most poisons, utterly disrupted a mage’s ability to shape and control their mana instead. Once bitten, you wouldn’t be casting anything for a while, and it would take weeks for the poison to fully flush out of your system. Apparently it was a type of poison adapted specifically to bring down magical beings that were the grey hunter’s typical prey, but it was just as effective against human mages. Basically, if you were fighting against a grey hunter alone and got bitten, you were done for.

These things were known for chewing through entire groups of battlemages sent specifically to get rid of them. Quite a feat for what is ostensibly an animal-level creature – most non-sapient monsters, no matter how impressive, were too easy to lure into traps to pose such a huge danger to a prepared hunting group. Naturally, Silverlake wanted him to tangle with said mage- killing super-spider as her price for her help. The good news was that she hadn’t asked him to kill the thing, something that Zorian suspected might be beyond him at the moment. The bad news was that her request was only a smidgen easier than that. She wanted him to confront the female grey hunter who laired in the cave he was currently observing and steal some of her eggs.

The lifecycle of grey hunters was a total mystery, as they were considered too dangerous to study through anything other than post-battle reports and vivisection, but Zorian was willing to bet that grey hunters mothers were fiercely protective of their spawn. Getting even a single egg was likely to be quite a challenge. In all likelihood, the mother would be reluctant to go far from her egg sack for any reason, so waiting for the chance to simply swipe some may be impractical, or even futile. For all he knew the female sat on her egg sack all day long and lived off her fat reserves until the young hatched.

Zorian placed the binoculars back into his bag and started jotting down notes in one of the notebooks he brought with him. The question of how to acquire the eggs without getting horribly murdered in the process was ultimately a question for another time – he was currently here just to scout out the situation and see if the task was even possible. As much as he wanted to prove the shriveled old witch wrong by completing her impossible quest, dying here would be incredibly stupid. He was on a time limit. A long time limit, but repeatedly dying because he decided to take on opponents way over his level would be an unforgivable waste. Every restart cut short was a restart he wasn’t using to its full potential. If he couldn’t think of a way to get the eggs that he was absolutely sure would work, he wouldn’t do it. And even if he could think of a way, he would only try it out near the end of the restart, when the most he would lose was a couple of days.

“Alright,” he mumbled, snapping the notebook shut. “Let’s see what I’m dealing with.”

The first thing he did was try to locate the grey hunter female to make sure she wasn’t outside her lair at the moment. He had no way of tracking down grey hunters specifically through divination, as he had never seen one before and lacked any grey hunter body parts, but a simple locator spell searching for a ‘giant spider’ pointed him straight at the cave. Since the other two giant spider varieties that lived in the region – giant tree spider and giant trapdoor spider respectively – didn’t live in caves, the conclusion was obvious. He then tried to scry the spider, which immediately failed. Well, the spell technically worked… but the cave was totally dark. There were no glowing crystals or ember moss that occasionally lit natural caverns – just an ordinary cave full of impenetrable darkness that hid everything.

Damn, he hadn’t thought of that. Wracking his brains for a spell combination that would allow him to scout out the lair without having to go back into the city and hit the books, he decided to combine two different spells. First he cast the ‘arcane eye’ spell, creating a floating ectoplasmic eyeball through which he could see remotely. He then created a floating ball of light, functionally identical to the simple ‘floating lantern’ spell, except he altered the spell parameters so it would follow the marble around instead of himself. He then sent the eye into the cave, closing his real eyes and connecting his sight to his remote sensor. There was a chance that the light would aggravate the grey hunter mother, but he doubted she would run out to confront him just for that, or that she could track him down on his tree for that matter.

As it happened, the grey hunter was either very, very bothered by his floating lantern or perhaps saw it as prey, because the eye had barely advanced into the cave, floating lantern in tow, when a grey blur slammed into it and Zorian’s awareness was violently wrenched back into his body. Blinking in surprise at his sudden perspective shift, Zorian was then treated to the sight of the grey hunter leaping out of the cave and skittering around the area in search of something.

After 10 seconds or so of looking at the spider, Zorian noticed two things. First, the grey hunter female didn’t have to sit on her egg sack all day long, because she was freaking carrying it on the underside of her abdomen! That was so freaking unfair. He withdrew everything he said about Silverlake’s task being easier than killing the thing – this was actually way harder, since he was only getting the eggs by taking them from the grey hunter’s cooling corpse but had to be careful when killing her not to damage the (likely much frailer) egg sack.

The second thing he noticed was that the spider was steadily getting closer to his location.

It wasn’t immediately noticeable. Rather than immediately making a beeline to his location, the spider shot off in a random direction for a second; stopped for a moment, as if reorienting herself; and then shot off in a seemingly random direction again. It repeated the same stop-and-skitter routine second after second, and though the movements seemed random at first, Zorian noted with dread that it was steadily getting closer to his tree as time passed.

So the murder-spider also had hypersensitive senses, now? This was such bullshit. How the hell had it noticed him anyway? He’d even taken the time to set up some camouflage spells and silencing wards around himself just to prevent stuff like this from happening. True, they were fairly weak, in order to conserve mana, but that shouldn’t have-

He frowned. That was it, wasn’t it? The grey hunter was tracking him through the wards. Its natural prey was said to be other magical creatures. It had a poison specifically designed to counter magic. It probably had some kind of innate magic sense that let him sense its prey over great distances. Rather than shielding him from the grey hunter, the wards he set up were revealing his location to it. The fact they were so weak was probably the only reason it hadn’t divined his location instantly and was instead reduced to stumbling all over the place in an attempt to locate him.

If so, he was in trouble. He couldn’t do nothing, as the monster would eventually sniff him out. On the other hand, the moment he tried to teleport away, his location would almost certainly be completely blown.

10 seconds later, with the spider getting ever closer and no solution in sight, Zorian decided he would just have to work fast and pray for the best. Taking a deep breath to calm himself down, he started casting the teleport spell as fast as he could.

As he feared, the grey hunter reacted instantly. The moment the first word of the chant left his mouth, the spider surged towards him, abandoning its previous jerky, uncertain advance. As it sprinted towards him, it angled away from the explosive glyph cluster Zorian placed on one of the rocks in its path, somehow aware of its existence and function, and launched herself sideways into the air. It landed vertically on the trunk of a nearby tree and immediately launched herself sideways again, bouncing from tree to tree and gaining altitude with each jump, until at last she was both close and high enough to reach Zorian’s location.

Zorian finished the teleport spell and was whisked away in the nick of time. The terrifying vision of a giant spider sailing through the air towards him, front legs extended and huge black fangs poised for a strike, would haunt his nightmares for days to come.

- break -

Following his almost-lethal encounter with the grey hunter, Zorian decided to put Silverlake’s quest on indefinite hold. There were plenty of other people that Kael listed as possible help, after all, and maybe if he talked to her in some other restart and tried again she’d send him on a less suicidal quest.

It was very frustrating, though. The thought of how thoroughly he had been outclassed by what was fundamentally a dumb beast brought to mind the memory of that final restart in Cyoria when he clashed with Red Robe in the ruins of the aranean settlement. The fact that the grey hunter was a giant spider, just like the aranea, further brought to mind uncomfortable parallels. Despite the fact that he knew intellectually that there was no shame in losing to a creature that even famous mages would balk at facing, and that he should in fact be happy to be even alive, he found himself very bothered at his ineffectiveness.

He spent the next day by tracking down giant trapdoor spiders, which were of similar size to great hunters but brown-colored and a hell of a lot less dangerous, before smoking them out of their holes and then killing them in a variety of painful fashions. Their eyes and venom glands sold a lot better than winter wolf pelts, too. He should do that more often.

Still somewhat in a foul mood, he set out to see if any of Kael’s other contacts were able and willing to help him. When he arrived in the village where his first candidate lived and was informed by the locals that the man hadn’t been seen in the past two months, he was unconcerned. The man was a retired mage fascinated with familiars – he had six of them as well as a great number of more mundane pets, and was always looking to add another exotic creature to his menagerie. An absence of two months was a bit unusual, but not something to immediately raise an alarm about.

But then other disappearances started piling up. The old herbalist lady that also sometimes removed curses was simply gone, and her neighbors had no idea where she went. The two brothers that lived in a tower they built away from civilization and secretly studied soul magic were not present at their home, the gate to their tower broken and the insides stripped bare of anything worthwhile. The priest in the nearby town dedicated to studying the undead and ways to fight them had been found dead in his home 4 days ago, cause of death unknown. He was young and had no known medical problems or addictions, so foul play was suspected. An alchemist specializing in transformation magic was torn apart outside his village by a pack of unusually aggressive boars. And so on. Only the priest and the alchemist were actually confirmed dead, the others having gone on sudden business trips or just plain went missing one day, and the disappearances were on a sufficiently large area that no one seemed to have connected them in a single pattern, but Zorian knew this was not accidental.

Someone was deliberately targeting anyone who had some sort of knowledge on soul magic. The only question was whether the missing people were dead or just kidnapped for some purpose.

Thankfully, he finally managed to locate one of the people Kael mentioned to him. Unfortunately, the man in question didn’t actually know any soul magic. Vani was a ‘just’ a scholar, and according to Kael could probably point him towards someone who does. Probably. The only trick was that Vani liked to talk, meandering from topic to topic as he pleased, and he would refuse to help anyone who was in any way impolite with him. Thus, anyone seeking him out for advice had to be very patient and ready for frequent digressions.

Zorian could do patient. He knocked on the door to the man’s home and was promptly ushered inside by Vani, a cheerful older man with a receding hairline who was not at all surprised that someone sought him out for advice.

The inside was… packed. That was the only word that fit, really. Almost every inch of the house was filled with boxes, shelves and pedestals that held books, statues big and small, plants and animals preserved in bottles, glass cases that held tiny models or buildings and other such things. Where the walls were visible, they were usually filled with paintings and drawings. As Vani led them both into his study, Zorian’s view fell on a particularly large and lifelike statue of a naked woman with some rather… bountiful… assets and he quirked an amused eyebrow at the man.

“It’s a, err, goddess of fertility sort of thing,” the man hastened to explain. “Just a temporary thing, a friend of mine sent it to me for safekeeping and you know how it goes. Fascinating stuff. Anyway! Don’t think I don’t know who you are, young man – you’re the one who has been killing all the winter wolves in the region lately!”

“Err, is that a problem?” Zorian asked.

“Problem?” the man laughed. “Just the opposite! Finally someone did something to cull those awful beasts a little. They’re not too bad right now, but come winter they get aggressive and start assaulting travelers and outlying communities. There’s been a number of child disappearances the last few winters, and everyone knows it’s probably the winter wolves at fault. Damn things get bolder with every passing year…”

“How come nobody organized a hunting party yet, then?” asked Zorian. The mage guild was pretty much founded to respond to situations like this, after all.

“It snows pretty heavily here in winter, and whole towns can sometimes get cut off from the rest of the world for days, so it’s hard to marshal a response in time. Most of the time no one even finds out there was a crisis until days afterwards, when nothing can be done,” Vani tapped the table with his fingers contemplatively, as if considering something. “Or at least, that’s what the hunters and the authorities like to say. Personally, I just think they’re afraid of the Silver One.”

“Silver One?” asked Zorian curiously.

“It’s a rumor. A few years back, when the winter wolves first started acting up, there was an attempt to organize a wide scale cull and a large hunting party was organized. It ended… poorly. According to stories, several winter wolf packs worked together to lure the hunters into traps, separating them into smaller groups that were then defeated in detail. They acted more like an army than a group of wild animals, and survivors claimed they were led by a huge winter wolf with a shiny silver pelt. The Silver One – an alpha of alphas, as smart as any man and with the power to direct his lesser brothers against humans. There was an official attempt by the Eldemar’s mage guild to locate and eliminate this winter wolf, but they found nothing – neither the silver wolf nor any evidence of multiple packs working together. A lot of the locals are still convinced he exists, though – they say that anyone who goes after the wolves ends up getting confronted by it sooner or later.”

“I see,” frowned Zorian. “And what do you think?”

“It’s possible, I suppose,” admitted Vani. “We live in a crazy world, and you can never really say that something is impossible. It could be a runaway experiment made by some crazy mage in the forest. It could be a new species originating from the Heart of Winter. It could even by a polymorphed mage on some deranged crusade to protect the bloodthirsty monsters from those terrible humans. All I know is that I’m glad someone is not getting intimidated by all the scaremongering floating around…”

It took another 15 minutes till Vani decided to even ask what Zorian came to him for.

“Kael sent me,” Zorian said. “Or rather, he listed you name as a possible source of advice.”

“Kael!” Vani said happily. “Oh, I remember him… shame about what happened to his wife and mother-in-law. The Weeping took so many great people from us. He still has his daughter, though, doesn’t he?” Zorian nodded. “Good. Children are the greatest treasure. Tell him I said that. He helped me write a book, you know? Did he tell you that?”

“He did,” Zorian confirmed. Kale had warned him that Vani was a little vain and loved discussing his books, and that it might be a good idea to read one or two. Zorian took this advice and read two of them. The first one, the one that Kael had helped the man write by gathering the accounts of various people in the region, was about the recent history of the region and was mostly a collection of anecdotes, some interesting and amusing and some of them mind- numbingly boring. If it weren’t for Kael’s advice, he never would have gone past the first chapter. “I even read it, as well as one other book.”

“Oh?”

“It was titled ‘History of Pre-Ikosian Altazia’,” Zorian said, considering whether to tell the man the truth or to simply flatter him. He decided to go with the truth for now. “I… it was kind of interesting, but I don’t really agree with the lot of it. My principle complaint is that you keep talking about pre-Ikosian tribes living on Altazia as if they had lived in total vacuum, when the reality was that the entire southern coast of Altazia was dotted with Ikosian colonies and forts stretching back for at least a thousand years. Ikosians were hardly total aliens to Altazia that you portray them as in your work.”

“Ah, but the historical evidence clearly show that the cultural influence of those coastal states didn’t extend very far inland,” pointed out Vani triumphantly.

“That may be strictly true, but Ikosians were vastly more technologically advanced than Altazian tribes in most areas, and I think you’re greatly underestimating the effect of simple technological diffusion of people’s culture…”

Yeah. This was probably going to take a while.

- break -

“Ah, thank you for that,” Vani said. They had been talking for several hours at that point, and Vani seemed surprisingly pleased to have met someone who disagreed with his conclusions and was willing to talk about it. Zorian also found out that the man was incredibly well read and seemed to have memorized half a dozen encyclopedias, because he was a literal font of various trivia. Whatever he thought about the man’s conclusions, he clearly hadn’t arrived on them on a whim. “It’s been a while since I had this kind of discussion with someone. Usually the kind of people willing to talk to me don’t know enough to challenge me, and the ones that do know enough aren’t interesting in talking.”

“You flatter me. I don’t really think my opinions have the same weight as yours. I certainly haven’t done even a hundredth of the research you did,” Zorian said. Never hurt to butter people up a little. “But I really shouldn’t waste your time for much longer. I came to you because I wanted your advice on how to find an expert in soul magic.”

“Soul magic?” the man asked with a frown.

“It’s a personal issue that I’d rather not talk about,” Zorian said. “Suffice to say I have been hit by a soul magic spell of unknown effects and want to talk to someone about finding out what exactly has been done to me and how to protect myself against any further such events.”

“Hmm,” Vani hummed. “And Kael sent you to me?”

“You were on the list of people he said could help me. However, you were the only one I could actually locate. The others were… well, it’s very disturbing. Let me tell you about my last couple of days…”

Vani listened to Zorian’s description of disappearances with growing unease, writing down the names and facts that Zorian uncovered on a piece of paper.

“That is indeed very disturbing,” Vani agreed when Zorian was finished. “To think that such a thing could happen without everyone realizing it for so long… I will bring this matter to the attention of proper authorities, have no worry about that. It does make me wonder who I can recommend to you when so many of the obvious choices have become, err, unavailable. Let me think about this a little.”

Five minutes later, Vani managed to think up a solution.

“Tell me,” he asked. “What do you know about shifters?”

“That they’re people who have the ability to turn into animals?” Zorian tried.

“Shifters are people with two souls,” Vani said. “Long in the past, the ancestors of the shifters enacted rituals that fused their souls with the souls of their chosen animals, allowing them to take the forms of the animal in question and even access some of the abilities of said animals in their human form. It is a very old form of magic that predates the Ikosian invasion of Altazia, and I’m sad to say that most shifter tribes have lost the knowledge of the original rituals they used to create their kind. These days, they grow in numbers purely through mundane reproduction, with children of shifters inheriting their parent’s dual soul. There exist, however, tribes that retain the knowledge of ritual magic and soul mechanics necessary to perform the ritual in the modern age. While the purpose of such expertise is to turn regular humans into new members of the tribe, it may very well be general enough to help you with you issue.”

“I see. And where can I find these shifters?” Zorian asked.

“That,” Vani said, spreading his arms in a helpless gesture, “I do not know. Shifter tribes have a checkered history with the, shall we say, civilized communities. They rarely want to be found. But! I do know that there is a fairly powerful wolf shifter tribe living in this region – a tribe that definitely has the expertise you seek. I do not know who you need to talk in order to meet with their leadership, but I do know that the leader of the tribe sent his daughter to Cyoria to get an education in more modern forms of magic. Raynie is her name, I think. A redhead. Quite the looker, I’m told. Perhaps you can start there?”

Zorian blinked. Raynie is a wolf shifter? That… wow. Yeah, now that he thought about it, there were some things that could point that way.

“Well,” said Zorian rising from his seat. “You gave me a lot to think about. Thank you for your time.”

“Think nothing of it,” Vani smiled. “Go kill a few more winter wolves for me, is all I ask for.”

“Wouldn’t a tribe of wolf shifters kind of dislike me for killing so many wolves?” Zorian asked.

“They’re wolf shifters, not winter wolf shifters,” Vani said. “I’m pretty sure they don’t like each other much. Winter wolves have a habit of killing their more mundane relatives and invading their territory.”

Zorian left after that, unsure how to proceed further in the restart.

- break -

“Back already?” Silverlake asked him, not bothering to look up from her bundle of herbs while addressing him. “I’m not seeing any egg sack on you, though.”

“That’s because spider-mommy is carrying her eggs on her underbelly,” he said. “The task is impossible. Why would you even send me on such a fool’s errand? Kael said you were eccentric, but ultimately harmless. This isn’t harmless. I almost died.”

“If I thought you were the sort to rush in half-cocked and get your fool ass killed by something like that, I never would have sent you on that errand,” Silverlake scoffed. “And anyway, isn’t it a bit premature to declare failure after less than a week? I’m patient. I waited for years, I sure as hell can wait for a few months more till you think of something. You’re a smart boy, I’m sure you’ll figure out a way.”

Zorian opened his mouth and then closed it. Suddenly, her logic sounded a lot more reasonable to him. She didn’t know he was on a month-long time limit, after all. As far as she was concerned, giving him a task that would take several months to complete was perfectly logical. Where was the hurry? As for the suicidal nature of the task she gave him… apparently she had more faith in his skills than he himself did. Did he really give up too soon?

“A few months is too late,” he said. “Anything that happens after the summer festival might as well not exist for me.”

Silverlake finally stopped fiddling with the herb pile and gave him a hard look, her eyes glowing brightly for a moment.

“You’re not dying,” she stated. “Not out of sickness, anyway? Someone hunting for you?”

Zorian hesitated, the image of Red Robe dancing before his eyes and opened his mouth to say ‘yes’. Silverlake cut him off, though.

“No, not really,” she stated, going back to her herbs. “You have an enemy, but then again who doesn’t?”

Zorian exhaled in irritation and rose up, deciding to leave before he lost his cool and attacked her. He’d probably get stomped into the ground, anyway. Just before he teleported away, though, a thought struck him.

‘To hell with it,’ he thought. ‘Why not?’

“Hypothetically speaking,” he said. “If you were visited by a time traveler who claimed to know your future self, what would you ask of him as proof?”

Hypothetically speaking,” she said, her mouth stretching into a cruel grin, “I would have asked him to retrieve a grey hunter egg sack for me.”

Throwing his hands in the air in defeat, Zorian teleported back to his inn in Knyazov Dveri, the cackling of a sadistic old woman echoing behind him.

- break -

In the safety of the room he rented at the inn, Zorian was sitting on the bed, dismantling a rifle he had bought earlier. It was kind of amusing how easy it was to procure a firearm compared to high-level combat magic aids, despite them being just as lethal, but there you had it. They were especially easy to procure here in Knyazov Dveri, which was so close to the wilderness and its dangers. In any case, he was trying to see how the things worked and, more importantly, how they could be enchanted.

Firearms were notoriously tricky to enhance with magic. Like all ranged weapons, they had the problem that you could only enchant the device to be more accurate and durable, and if you wanted the projectile to have any sort of magical effect upon striking the target you had to enchant the projectile itself. Bullets were unfortunately very hard to enchant, being much smaller than arrows and crossbow bolts and usually made from some very magically unsuitable materials. You also couldn’t touch the bullet to channel mana into it once it was already in the gun… though maybe if he installed some crystal mana channels into the gun via alteration…

While he studied the device in front of him, Zorian idly considered ways to off the grey hunter from earlier. He had no intention of actually trying any of them, as they were each more implausible than the last, but there was no harm in coming up with scenarios.

Grey hunters had known weaknesses. First of all, they were purely melee opponents – if you could keep them at distance, there was nothing they could do to you. The trouble was that they were really, really good at closing in on their target. Secondly, they were ultimately just magical animals so they could be lured into prepared traps and kill zones fairly easily. The problem here was that they were fast and tough enough to probably survive such a blunder. The magic sense the grey hunter demonstrated in Zorian’s first encounter with it probably also helped it avoid the most blatant of such traps.

He could think of a several ways to trap it, but most of them required knowledge of spells that he didn’t have. If he knew how to make a simulacrum and open portals, he could simply send in his simulacrum as bait and then open a portal leading to wherever he set the trap up. Hell, simply knowing how to make a simulacrum would make things a million times easier since he could make test his ideas without endangering himself. If he knew large terrain alteration spells he could simply seal it off in its lair and wait for it to suffocate. If he knew the spells to manipulate large amounts of water he might be able to drown it. And so on, and so on…

He also considered poisoning the thing or putting it to sleep or otherwise using some kind of alchemical concoction that would cripple or kill it… but anything potent enough to kill such a beast was heavily restricted, made out of super-rare ingredients and expensive as all hell. He didn’t know how to make anything like that, and couldn’t get his hands on something that valuable and forbidden through trade.

He could try for brute force and build a golem to take the spider down. Since they were machines animated by magic, they were immune to poison and could be extremely strong – strong enough to crush the stupid spider in a head-to-head fight. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to build a golem. Any golem at all, let alone one good enough to go toe-to-toe with a grey hunter. The art of golem making was complicated enough that several Houses were dedicated to mastering it, and not something to dabble in for a week or two. Or even months or two.

Furthermore, even if he knew how to build it, the process of building would take at least a week and probably more, require a specialized workshop and consume a lot of expensive materials. He would likely bankrupt himself before he was even halfway finished.

Which brought him to firearms. The revolver worked well enough against Red Robe when his spells had failed him, after all. No regular firearm would do against the grey hunter, though – he needed something stronger than that. Unfortunately, higher calibers were usually reserved for the military and he would need to raid a military base and steal one if he wanted to go down that route. That could end very badly – who knew what kind of defenses a military base had, and being captured and interrogated by military investigators while drugged out of his mind on various truth serums was almost as bad as being discovered by a hostile mind mage or a necromancer. Plus, he was pretty sure they had a couple of mind mages and necromancers on the payroll anyway.

Oh, and even if he did find something suitable under a lax enough security, there was a matter that it would almost certainly still have to be enchanted and he couldn’t even figure out how to effectively enchant a simple rifle at the moment. Probably wouldn’t by the end of the restart, either.

A knock on his door woke him up from his musings and he quickly put the rifle into its box and hid it under the bed. Him owning the rifle wasn’t illegal, but he’d still rather not let whomever was looking for him see him tinkering with it. He made sure his shielding bracelet was on, just in case, and then opened the door.

It was Gurey, which did not surprise Zorian all that much. The man had been dutifully buying off any of the various alchemical ingredients and assorted body parts Zorian had gathered in the forest and allowed Zorian to use his workshop when he needed to make some of the trickier potions and magic items. The man had already commissioned a couple of magic items from Zorian, so he expected Gurey’s arrival to be about another commission.

As it turns out, Gurey had another kind of deal in mind. Once the pleasantries were exchanged, he skipped straight to the point.

“I want you to help me rob my rival.”

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