Mother of Learning - Chapter 103

Published at 31st of October 2021 09:19:15 AM

Chapter 103: Chapter 103 Window of Opportunity

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As Zorian watched the massive angel tree and demonic Cyclops torso barrel through the air towards one another, his thoughts inevitably took a depressing and fatalistic turn. He wasn’t deluded enough to think they could solve this crisis without the city taking massive casualties, but as he watched the impending clash of titans in front of him, he couldn’t help but conclude that Jornak was right.

The city was going to get leveled to the ground, one way or the other.

Thus far, the collateral damage from their battle had been fairly modest. They were fighting around Iasku Mansion, and a sizeable portion of the city around it had gotten replaced with a patch of forest. The trees had taken the brunt of the fighting. There was no way this would remain true for long, and it left Zorian feeling powerless and frustrated. His primary goal was admittedly rather straightforward and selfish – he wanted to ensure he and everyone he cared about survived this evening – but he had lived in this city for a literal decade, and had sunk countless hours and resources into making sure it survived this evening. He did not want to see it destroyed like this. What was their angel ally thinking? It seemed to Zorian that the angel had predicted many of the things that occurred, so why…

Almost as if they could hear his silent laments, the remaining angels sprang into action. The four lion-serpent things that were flanking the burning tree didn’t try to join the battle. Instead, they swiftly flew away from the angel tree they had been circling, as if they intended to flee, scattering in all directions. No one was fooled by their maneuver, however, and they soon slowed down and positioned themselves on the edges of the forested area, equidistant from one another. A faint yellow force field immediately enclosed the area in a cubical prison.

Though it looked extremely pale and weak, Zorian didn’t believe for a moment that it would be easily pierced.

Moments later, a barrage of spells from Jornak’s side hit the walls of the cube, confirming his suspicions. The barrier was extraordinarily tough. Not even Oganj’s spell made it weaken, and the dragon mage could basically fling artillery spells on demand.

Zorian relaxed a little, recovering his reserves more as he observed the situation and looked for an opening. Zach and the rest of the people on his side did the same, clustering close to him to take advantage of his powerful defenses. Jornak and Quatach-Ichl launched a few random spells to try to put pressure on them, but those were effortlessly stopped by his defense cube.

His precious creation was burning through its stored mana at a terrifying rate to maintain this level of power, but it was also stocked with a terrifying amount of crystalized mana so it would last for at least another four hours.

Long enough, in other words. They would either win or lose by then.

In any case, neither Jornak nor anyone else on the enemy side could devote much time to figuring out a way to get through their defenses. The angel tree and the cyclopean demon collided with terrifying force. A flood of orange flame and lightning-like bursts of purple energy erupted around them, intermingling with one another and sweeping across the entire battlefield, before being stopped by the cubical barrier.

For a while, everything was chaos. Those unfortunate enough to be close to the initial clash were either vaporized by the energies, or thrown away much like dandelion fluff picked up by the wind. Everyone else was frantically doing their best to vacate their area – a task made more complicated by the fact the two titans did not stay static, and instead moved around as they fought.

All of this was good news for Zorian and his allies, of course – there were only a handful of them, but they were all very powerful, and they had a very good defense that none of them had to spend mana to maintain. Unfortunately, the same thing was largely true for Jornak and his allies, too. They had Iasku Mansion, which had its own wards they could hide behind. Sudomir’s work was less advanced than Zorian’s, but he had an entire building to work with and literal years to slowly assemble his ward scheme. It would take more than this to break down the mansion’s defenses.

To Zorian’s joy, the stalemate between the two titans didn’t last long at all. Although the demon torso never visibly lost its composure and kept fighting fiercely, it soon became obvious it was weaker than the angel tree. It could hold its own against the angel, but it was constantly on the defensive, constantly pushed back and retreating, and utterly unable to stop the angel tree from engaging additional opponents around them.

And the angel tree ruthlessly took advantage of it.

The angel tree’s might was awe inspiring. Its branches were seemingly numberless and impossibly flexible, stretching to great distances at will and bending like rubber while losing none of their power and destructiveness. Its many eyes allowed it to take in everything around it, and it had incredible multitasking abilities. It was constantly engaging multiple targets simultaneously, slashing undead apart with casual swings of its branches, burning the war trolls to ashes with its eerie orange flames, and snatching the more resilient demons and drawing them deeper into its tangle of limbs where their ectoplasmic bodies would be ripped to pieces by attacks from all directions until they disappeared into puffs of smoke. The twenty angel wing balls that followed the angel tree helped with this task, herding enemies towards the celestial titan with powerful gusts of wind.

Even better, every once in a while the angel tree would maneuver the fight to get close to Iasku Mansion and then ruthlessly start pounding on the defensive wards of the building, causing them to visibly strain. The wing balls that followed it contributed to this in their own way, firing intensely bright, lightning-like blasts of energy at the ward scheme. Although the demon torso did everything it could to repulse them from the area, it wasn’t doing a good enough job, and eventually Quatach-Ichl and Oganj had to abandon the protection of the mansion in order to help the demon torso suppress the rampaging angels.

This was too good of an opportunity to pass up for Zorian and the others, and they decided to join the fray and help the angel tree prevail. After all, they didn’t even have to overpower their enemies – if they could simply push Oganj or Quatach-Ichl into the angel’s waiting embrace, its lethal branches would take care of the rest for them and they would have one less heavy-hitter on the enemy side to worry about.

Zorian mentally ordered the defensive barrier of his defense cube to become flatter and more tangible at the bottom, and to spread itself out over a larger area, and the cube automatically rearranged itself according to his wishes. Sigils inscribed on its surface glowed, mechanical pieces whirled and moved into alternative positions, and soon enough Zorian was standing on a large, heavily shielded, flying platform. He signaled to the others to jump on the platform, and when they did, the platform shot towards the scene of the battle with great speed.

Sadly, Mrva couldn’t fit on the platform, so Zorian could only order his beloved creation to follow after them on foot. Not that it mattered much – Mrva was all but unstoppable. He had so much weight and speed that just about anything that tried to stop him was simply shoved aside without impeding him much. A regiment of black-armored demons made the most credible attempt, using their great numbers and military-like discipline to slow him down for a time, but even they were ultimately thwarted when Mrva jumped into the air to bypass most of them.

As they approached, they had a great view of the titanic battle in front of them. With the support of Oganj and Quatach-Ichl, the demon torso had been given a chance at a comeback. It was pouring a stream of dark purple lightning at the angel tree, forcing the celestial being on the defense for the first time in the fight. Jagged rays of red light rampaged through the angel’s branches, temporarily unopposed, actually severing some of them and leaving deep gouges on its trunks. As for Oganj, he appeared to be busy fighting off the wing balls that accompanied the angel tree, which were frantically firing their blue lightning blasts at the dragon mage in an attempt to keep at least one opponent away from their leader.

Zorian would have ordered the platform to go faster if it wasn’t already flying as fast as it possibly could.

Then, disaster struck. Some of the lesser demons noticed their advance and decided to stop them. Zorian didn’t take them seriously at first, as it was just that flock of disgusting, grub-like creatures that he had noticed floating around the edges of the demon horde when it had first been summoned. He had taken them to be just one more group of minor demons brought in to fill out the numbers, but now that they were attacking him, it quickly became obvious they were one of the more dangerous demon varieties for him personally.

That stupid glowing saliva they were drooling all over the place was actually insanely damaging to force shields! The little wretches were capable of spitting globs of it over surprisingly great distances, and they were really quite fast and agile when they tried. And there were a lot of them.

As much as he didn’t want to, Zorian had to slow down his advance in order to deal with these little pests…

Mrva was still continuing forward, of course, but the demon horde had a solution for him as well, it seemed. The ground in front of the charging Mrva suddenly erupted, and a multitude of thorny, ropy tentacles shot forwards and wrapped themselves around the golem’s limbs and torso. Zorian ordered Mrva to simply charge through and use his great weight and momentum to break free, but to his surprise, this didn’t work. The thorny tentacles refused to break or lose their grip on the golem, and managed to stop its charge.

Like an ominous figure, a large rose-shaped demon rose out of the earth, tall enough to tower even over Mrva. Zorian remembered seeing it near the epicenter of that initial clash between the angel tree and the demon torso, after which it disappeared. He had thought it died back then, but apparently it simply took shelter under the ground and waited for a convenient moment to reveal itself.

Considering it could stop a charging Mrva in his tracks, the demon rose was likely quite powerful.

They had only spent a few moments engaging the grub swarm and the demon rose when Zorian received a telepathic message from a familiar voice.

[What are you doing?] the angel tree thundered in his mind. The voice was calm and collected, but the mental volume of the communication was painfully high and the tone was accusatory. [Stop wasting your time here and get out of this place. You need to stop Panaxeth from breaking free of his prison, or else all this will be irrelevant.]

[What?] Zorian protested, feeling rather wronged at the implication he was willingly wasting time. He glanced at the yellow barrier boxing them in and, sure enough, it was still very much intact. [But the barrier-]

[It’s for our enemies only,] the angel tree said. [It will not stop you.]

Ugh, and the damn tree only felt like mentioning this now? Why not at the very start of this thing, when it was first erected? This had to be deliberate. The angel had some kind of private plan that involved them staying inside this box for a while, the manipulative bastard.

[Fine,] Zorian told the angel. [I just need to get myself and my golem out of this situation and then I’ll-]

He hadn’t even finished the sentence when the air in front of the platform warped strangely, scaring everyone currently standing on it, and a massive black branch wreathed in orange flames suddenly appeared in front of them, striking down. The grubs harassing them were caught completely off guard by the sudden attack and promptly got speared, bisected, and burned. It was a total wipeout, with the handful of surviving grubs fleeing the scene immediately.

The branch continued downward without pause, aiming at the demon rose tangling with Mrva. The demon shook and swayed, impossibly agile and flexible, and managed to avoid being speared or cut by the twigs and sub-branches even once… but it could not avoid the flames. The strange orange flames separated themselves from the branch at the last moment, forming into ghostly images of snakes, claws, and jaws, and engulfed the hapless demon rose. It let out an unearthly screech, writhing in pain as it caught on fire, and then retreated underground so fast Zorian thought for a moment it simply disappeared.

Apparently the angel tree could casually warp space to strike at opponents way outside its usual range. Just how powerful was this thing?

[Go,] the angel tree urged him, and then immediately severed its contact.

There was a roar of triumph, and then the dragon mage was holding a rather thick black branch in one of his claws, its fires sputtering and fading. The angel had paid a high price for this timely assistance, it seemed.

Zorian immediately ordered the flying platform they were standing on to change directions and proceed towards the nearest barrier wall at maximum speed.

“Wait, what are you doing?” Zach asked, alarmed. “Have you gone crazy!? You’re going to ram us straight into the barrier wall!”

“It’s not going to bar our way,” Zorian hurriedly explained. “The angel just told me.”

“The angel just told you? Why didn’t it tell me? I’m the one they made a contract with, you’d think I would be their contact,” Zach grumbled.

“You’re under mind blank,” Zorian reminded him. “And besides, I’m the one controlling the platform we’re flying on. Contacting me is only common sense.”

The others silently observed their whispered bickering, but said nothing, opting to instead stare at the luminous wall of light they were rapidly hurtling towards. Though Zorian noticed that Xvim was watching it with an expression more evocative of awe and appreciation than trepidation.

“It can even selectively let things through? What a miracle of spellcasting,” Xvim said in a low voice.

Zorian sniffed disdainfully. What was so amazing about that? His defense cube did the exact same thing!

But no, he wasn’t going to be petty and defensive about this. Not right now, anyway…

In any case, there was no time for further conversation, because mere moments later, they collided with the barrier wall. The light parted before them like an airy curtain, caressing their face and skin as it moved out of the way, and then they were out of the box. Everyone except Alanic flinched at the point of impact, unconsciously expecting to get splattered against the magical barrier that had weathered so many titanic impacts from the battle inside. The scarred battle-priest’s faith and composure was apparently sufficiently strong that he could weather the impact without so much as a twitch.

Zorian glanced behind him, only to see no trace of opening where they exited the barrier. The wall of light parted before them in an instant and then closed together just as quickly.

It was also not nearly as transparent from the outside as it was from the inside. It was instead completely opaque, effectively shrouding the shielded area from curious outsiders trying to peer in.

Zorian was ecstatic, but also a little worried. With them outside of the angel barrier and their enemies trapped inside, Zach and Zorian could crush the cultists trying to conduct the Panaxeth releasing ritual inside the Hole and essentially win by default. On the other hand, Zorian’s secret plan hinged on him hitting everyone all at once with his spell, something that was impossible while Jornak and the others were holed up in Iasku Mansion, and protected by the angel barrier. He would have to get them out of there eventually before he could initiate the plan, and that worried him a little.

Of course, he voiced none of these thoughts. He silently directed their flying platform towards the Hole and prepared himself for another fight. The others didn’t need any explanation to understand what he was planning – stopping the cultists was the obvious goal.

There was, however, another problem approaching. While they had been distracted by fighting inside the angel barrier, Eldemar’s giant eagles had been approaching the city as fast as they could. Now, they were just about to arrive… and Zorian could see they were aiming straight at Zorian and his flying platform. He supposed that the glowing cubical barrier the angels erected was very eye-catching, and the fact they had just flown out of it made them obvious targets.

Zorian had no idea what the eagle mages would do. He had assumed they would recognize the angels, but the angels were busy inside the barrier and couldn’t vouch for them. Which meant they would probably do whatever came naturally to them in a situation like this. That… was not encouraging. From the perspective of Eldemar’s authorities, it all probably looked like a bunch of rogue mages fighting in the city and wrecking stuff in the process. They may very well decide to just bring the hammer down on everyone and sort things out later. Zorian had heard that was a common reaction to whenever mage disputes escalate into open battles inside a populated settlement – one side may have been entirely in the right, but Eldemar’s forces only see two troublemakers endangering innocent civilians and treat everyone as an enemy.

Zorian could only hope that the sheer scope of the fighting would give the eagle riders pause and make them a little more cautious and discerning. The sheer amount of firepower both sides used against each other should hopefully convince the royal forces they need to take a side instead of behaving like the biggest bully.

Unfortunately, Zorian’s hopes were in vain. With incredible speed, the eagle riders caught up to them and swooped in front of them, the giant eagles releasing ear-piercing screeches. It was a clear warning that they would attack if the platform did not stop.

“Halt, in the name of the Kingdom of Eldemar!” the lead mage said in a voice amplified and distorted by magic. “Power down your flying platform and land on the ground, now! This is your only warning!”

Zorian clacked his tongue in annoyance. He stopped the platform, but did not move to land. This was such an annoying issue. Although Zorian was sure all of them put together were more than enough to take out the eagle riders, it would take an unacceptable amount of time and mana. More importantly, Zorian wasn’t sure his allies would even agree to attack Eldemar’s forces who technically did nothing wrong. Zach doubtlessly would, but Zorian was all but certain that Alanic would refuse to help them, and he wasn’t confident about Xvim and Daimen either.

If only the makeshift flying platform was faster than the eagles… but his defense cube was ultimately designed for defense and not flight speed, and giant eagles were famously fast flyers.

Thankfully, the eagle riders did not associate Mrva with them, or didn’t think they could stop a heavily-warded giant golem, so Zorian simply ordered the massive golem to continue on towards the Hole and they let him go unimpeded. It was going be difficult to control it effectively under these circumstances, but it was better than nothing.

“Captain,” Zorian said, his voice similarly amplified and distorted, “look around the city. It’s under attack and we’re helping. We’ll gladly explain things later, but–”

“It wasn’t a request!” the man interrupted him impatiently. “I order you to land and explain yourselves or we will attack you immediately!”

The eagle riders circled around them threateningly, giving the appearance of a pack of wolves just waiting for a sign to attack.

Two things happened simultaneously, then. First, there was a commotion back at the angel barrier. Glancing in its direction, Zorian could see Oganj repeatedly impacting the barrier of light, front claws glowing with red light. Each time he slashed at the barrier he created large gashes in the wall that healed almost instantly.

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Secondly, Zorian realized the eagle riders didn’t have any serious mental defenses on them. They only had a basic mental shield that couldn’t even provide a speed bump against his psychic powers. As for the eagles, they were even worse. Completely defenseless.

“This is your last–” started the eagle mage commander, but was interrupted by a draconic roar. Oganj had finally managed to tear a hole in the barrier large enough to squeeze himself through and immediately tore himself out of the containment barrier the angels erected around Iasku Mansion. The barrier quickly mended itself, but it was too late – the dragon mage was out of the box.

And riding on his back were Quatach-Ichl, Silverlake, and Jornak.

Well. So much for his worries about having to eventually lure their enemies out of the barrier.

In any case, the eagle riders were clearly surprised at the appearance of an adult dragon so close to them, and unsure what to do for a moment. In that moment, Zorian struck. He reached out into the minds of the giant eagles, every single one of them, and ordered them to attack Oganj while amplifying their anger until they were completely berserk. They let out frenzied screeches and made a beeline for the approaching dragon mage, ignoring their riders' panicked attempts to regain control.

He then reached towards the mind of the eagle rider commander, and forced him to make a loud proclamation in that amplified voice of his. The man had no choice but to obey.

“Oganj! It’s the dragon mage!” the man shouted against his will. “Forget those small fries, we need to take him down!”

“Kill the dragon!” another eagle rider agreed, also forced to do so by Zorian.

Oganj reacted exactly as Zorian hoped he would. The dragon mage was proud and aggressive, and had clashed against Eldemar’s forces numerous times in the past. He saw nothing suspicious about a bunch of Eldemar mages making him their priority target, and he had every intention of teaching them a lesson. He gave a roar of challenge and shifted his focus to killing the eagle riders, ignoring Jornak’s loud complaints that he shouldn’t get distracted.

Zorian quietly withdrew his telepathic influence from the minds of the eagle riders and ordered his platform to continue flying towards the Hole at maximum speed. Even if they wanted to continue bothering him, they had a more pressing problem on their hands now.

After a few seconds, he noticed that everyone except Zach was staring at him strangely.

“What?” he asked, frowning.

“You did that, didn’t you?” Alanic asked.

“Hmm? Oh yeah, definitely,” Zorian said, only understanding after a few seconds why they reacted that way to his casual display of mind control. Sometimes he forgot that these weren’t the same people he had worked with for over a year to figure out how to leave the time loop. Those people had died forever, even their souls erased and denied afterlife.

“Are they going to be alright?” Alanic asked, frowning. He clearly didn’t like the idea that Zorian might have sent the eagle riders to fight and die against their enemies with no support.

Funnily enough, it didn’t even occur to Zorian to care for their wellbeing. He thought of them as an annoyance, and saw his actions as a form of poetic justice for impeding their mission and trying to push them around. They came looking for trouble, and they found it.

His original self, whom Zorian killed in order to be able to stand here today, would definitely be horrified at what he had become.

“They won’t all die,” Zorian eventually answered. “I fought with them a few times over the various iterations of this month. They eventually retreat if the enemy inflicts enough losses on them.”

“They came here to fight for Eldemar,” Zach helpfully added. “They’re doing exactly that right now. If they knew what we know, they would have chosen to engage Oganj anyway, even if most of them died doing that.”

“Explaining my involvement in this is going to be hell, I can already see,” Alanic lamented.

“We did take basic precautions,” Zach said. “We’re all wearing disguises, and the battle will destroy most of the clues and prevent normal divinations from working. Plus, we have a master mind mage that can delete memories of people who get too close to the truth.”

“It doesn’t matter in my case,” Alanic said. “Do you know how hard it was to mobilize all these people I recruited to fight on our side? I had to use my name and connections to make all this happen. There is no hiding this, even if you start mind-wiping people.”

Well, if Zach was going to survive this evening, Zorian was definitely going to have to start mind-wiping people, and sooner than anyone in this group suspected. Thankfully, nobody was in the mood to continue this topic, both because they were now very close to the Hole, and because they were facing yet another threat.

Jornak, Silverlake, and Quatach-Ichl were rapidly approaching, using some kind of high-speed flight spell in an effort to catch up to them. They knew that everything was over if Zorian and the rest of the group could face-off against the cultists alone, and they weren’t going to let it happen.

Before Zorian and the others could really start disrupting the ritual, the battle against Jornak, Silverlake, and Quatach-Ichl began anew.

- break -

While his original body had been busy dealing with angels, demons, and eagle riders, his simulacrum bodies had not been idle. They roamed the city and processed information that Zorian constantly received from the multitude of remote sensors and recruited subordinates working with the group to repel the invasion. The primary (albeit secret) task they had was to make sure the network of glyphs he had scattered all across Cyoria remained reasonably intact. The unplanned substitution of an entire city section with Iasku Mansion and the surrounding forest had already blown a sizeable hole in his network, so he had to be extra vigilant, or parts of his remaining network would become disconnected from the network as a whole, making his entire plan useless.

While doing that, however, his simulacrums also involved themselves in the fighting here and there. These interventions were by necessity minor, since he couldn’t afford to waste too much of his mana in peripheral areas of the city. The original body had a much more critical role to play, so the majority of their mana reserves were reserved for his use. Fortunately, he had a perfect tool for the situation. His mind magic, if used thoughtfully and strategically, was perfect for making large impacts in return for minimal mana expenditures.

All around the city, strange incidents began to occur. Many of them were so subtle they could be chalked up as coincidences. A panicked group of scattered defenders suddenly surged with newfound confidence and ‘remembered’ where they were all supposed to converge and regroup in event of emergency. A fleeing family received a strong hunch that the route they wanted to traverse wasn’t safe and that they should pick another way. A large, muscular man wielding an antique sword, clearly just a normal city worker without a hint of magic or military training, fended off an entire pack of winter wolves all on his lonesome, allowing a nearby military group to save both him and the people he was protecting; for some reason the winter wolves kept missing him, as if they couldn’t see him correctly. A local dog suddenly went berserk and began barking and biting at thin air, alerting a nearby mage to the presence of an invisible Ibasan battle group waiting in ambush.

Others were less mundane. All around the city, some people received sudden, supernatural visions that gave them critical information about the enemy. Enemies sometimes went crazy and started attacking their own allies for no reason, sowing chaos and discord in enemy ranks. Small animals like bats and bugs were inordinately fond of ramming themselves straight into enemy casters' faces when they were in the middle of sensitive spellcasting. A young soldier suddenly fell into an obvious trance and started describing the enemy distribution of forces to his commander, hopefully allowing much better coordination of defending efforts in that city sector.

Meanwhile, up in the sky, iron beaks ceaselessly patrolled the city in both large and small groups. They were Zorian’s roving eyes and blades, the small groups checking out disturbances to see if anything interesting was happening, and the big ones converging on critical areas to give aerial support to whatever defenders were located in the area. Each flock carried one or more telepathic relays, allowing Zorian to both easily access their senses and occasionally take control of them to direct them to specific spots. They were smart birds, with already existing group discipline, so he only had to take control over the leaders in order to control the whole group… which was good, because there was no way he would have been able to control the iron beaks otherwise.

Convenient. No wonder Sudomir had decided to use these particular birds for the invasion.

The iron beaks were bloodthirsty and their feather volleys were extremely deadly. They were fast and agile flyers too, which allowed the flocks to simply swoop in and let loose a feather volley at the surprised enemies, before simply flying away to engage someone else. With Zorian managing their attacks, their strikes were far more strategic and selective than the iron beaks themselves would have ever done on their own – they now almost exclusively targeted mages, instead of wasting their feathers on tough targets like war trolls and other dominated monsters, usually striking when the target was exhausted or busy dealing with something else.

Despite all of this, the scale of the invasion was vast, and Jornak had brought a large number of fresh troops into the city when he had brought Iasku Mansion into the city. Zorian’s actions were just a drop in the bucket, and it was hard to judge how much difference his actions made in the grand scheme of things.

A lot of times he could do nothing but watch as the invaders killed and torched their way through the city. He could do a lot with relatively little when he spotted an opening, but not every situation had one. Or at least, not one that he could spot. Maybe someone smarter than him could have seen some obvious solution that he had missed, but he was still only human, and a lot of the time he saw no way to help without burning through his mana at an unacceptable rate.

So instead, he did nothing. He watched people fight and die over and over, across the entire city, withholding his help because it would cost too much.

He wanted to say the experience made him sick… but the truth was that he was already somewhat numb to it. He had seen things like this happen many times over the restarts, and had even experienced some of these things from the invaders' perspective due to his memory reading. Maybe later, when the situation was over and he had time to internalize that all of this was final and irreversible and not at all like the time loop, he would be horrified by the things he had seen and his own lack of reaction to it, but now wasn’t the time for it.

It just wasn’t the time.

He eventually turned his attention to the Hole, where a fierce fight was happening. While Zorian and Jornak’s groups were trapped underneath the angel barrier, the cultists had been free to proceed towards the Hole… for a time.

There was an element that neither Zorian nor Jornak had expected. Before the cultists could even begin setting up the ritual and start sacrificing the children, they were ambushed by a large number of… small animals. Pigeons and cats, to be more precise. Instead of simply clawing or pecking at the cultists, however, these cats and pigeons employed magic spells and weapons.

As the cultists were escorting their wagon of sacrificial children near one of the bigger buildings, a handful of cats simply dropped from the roof and onto their heads. Their claws glowing white from the effects of some unknown spell, they swung towards their targets' necks and faces, slicing open arteries and permanently blinding others. One of the cultists noticed the incoming attack, but he made the mistake of meeting the eyes of a cat sitting on a nearby windowsill and was suddenly hit by a powerful bout of vertigo that sent him reeling. He never had a chance to recover, as another cat ripped his throat out a mere moment later.

Before the cultists could respond to this attack, a flock of pigeons swooped in, carrying a multitude of alchemical grenades in their claws, and all hell broke loose.

Shifters, Zorian quickly realized. Cat and pigeon shifters – the two varieties that were probably most proficient in classical spellcasting in addition to their natural shifting capabilities. And… yes, there was the police force joining the attack now.

Hmm. Apparently Raynie and Haslush had done more in this past month than Zorian thought they would. A surprise, but a welcome one.

Of course, while the cultists often seemed like the weakest part of the invasion from Zorian’s perspective, they were really not so easy to dismiss for regular people. After the initial shock, the cultists began to fight back, and they did so extremely well. After all, the leaders of the Cult of the Dragon Below were actually very powerful and capable mages. Usually they were too busy enacting Panaxeth’s ritual to help their underlings, but at the moment this wasn’t the case, so they quickly made their presence known. After some initial successes, the combined shifter-police forces began to die in droves and lose their courage.

There was no way Zorian could allow this, though, so he instructed his iron beaks to help out and started subtly and not-so-subtly directing city defenders to rush over towards the Hole and join the battle.

Interestingly, the pigeon shifters adapted really well to the iron beaks’ assistance. Many of them appeared to be capable of casting certain spells purely reflexively, which meant that any of the seemingly innocuous pigeons could drop a fireball on an enemy group or summon a force barrier to defend both themselves and the iron beaks from enemy spells. Even though Zorian didn’t attempt to communicate with any of them, the pigeon shifters soon naturally fell into the role of support, following iron beak flocks and shielding them against enemy fire so they could operate relatively unmolested in the sky.

As for the cat shifters, their animal forms were mostly useful for surprise purposes and not terribly impressive for these kind of battles, so Zorian feared they would be useless after that initial ambush… but he was wrong. The cat shifters simply switched back into their human forms and started contributing by casting spells normally. Amusingly, they were kind of similar to Zorian, in that their biggest talent seemed to lay in mind magic. Zorian supposed that, since so many of them already operated on the criminal side of things, they were less hesitant to practice mind magic than a regular mage.

Then Mrva barged into the scene, tanking enemy spell fire like it was inconsequential and crashing into the cultist ranks like a cannonball. The original may have been too busy elsewhere and couldn’t come, but there was no stopping Mrva. His presence slowly but surely started to turn the tide in the favor of Cyorian forces. The leaders of the cult were powerful, but so was Mrva.

Idly, Zorian wondered if it wouldn’t have been better for the original and his allies to simply teleport to the Hole the moment they escaped the angel barrier, and then kill the cultists as quickly as possible… but considering that the cultists still hadn’t even begun the ritual as of yet, maybe it was for the best that they hadn’t done that. Who knows how Jornak would have reacted if he knew for certain that releasing Panaxeth was impossible and that he was going to die soon. Although it may have seemed like Zorian had neatly eliminated the threat of wraith bombs with his counter-traps, the truth was he only had enough time and funds to make those for Cyoria. There were wraith bombs scattered all over Eldemar and possibly beyond, and Zorian could only thank the gods that Jornak didn’t see fit to activate them as well out of sheer spite.

And that was just the wraith bombs. Although Zorian was sure that some of Jornak’s threats were pure bluffs, he had no doubt that the man had plenty of contingencies that would make them all suffer if he lost. Even Zach and Zorian had made a few contingencies that would go off if they didn’t survive this battle, so there was no way Jornak hadn’t done the same.

It still wasn’t the right time. All Zorian could do was wait and look for an opening.

- break -

Zorian stared at the three creatures in front of him. One was some kind of tiger-sized reptilian creature that Zorian did not recognize, another was a floating orb surrounded by long whip-like tentacles, and the third one was a gigantic green ooze the size of a small building. His defense cube spun around him, sigils on it brightening and fading like the beat of his own heart and mechanical parts softly shifting into various combinations. For a second, everything was still, before both sprang into motion and the battle began anew.

The tentacle orb was the first, being the fastest. It hurled itself at Zorian with incredible speed, its milky white body crackling with powerful electrical magic. Zorian didn’t panic, simply jumping to the side while telekinetically enhancing his jump a little. He easily dodged out of the way of the living cannonball, and another sidestep dodged the electrified whip the creature tried to hit him with next.

The other two creatures weren’t that far behind, though. The blue tiger-lizard thing used the distraction created by the whip-orb to charge at him, preparing for a jump. Zorian flicked a spell marble at the thing, creating a large detonation right in its face and blowing it back with ease. The creature slammed into the already damaged road and promptly burst into liquid.

A mere moment later, the blue puddle of slime started to come together again, and a few seconds later the tiger-lizard thing was intact and once again gunning for him.

As for Zorian himself, he was too busy trying to avoid being engulfed by the house-sized blob of acid to worry about finishing the tiger-lizard thing off for good. The giant ooze was completely unlike most oozes, and moved with speed and dexterity that no natural ooze should possess, let alone one that size. It constantly sprouted pseudopods that lashed out at Zorian, leaving corroded cobblestones whenever it hit, and its great weight and power allowed it to simply smash apart buildings if they were in its way or it thought the rubble might inconvenience Zorian.

All three were working seamlessly together with one another, and showed both signs of human-level intelligence and detailed knowledge of human spellcasting. Though one might mistake them for some kind of exotic magical creature at first, Zorian knew he wasn’t looking at a natural creation. If Zorian had to guess, he would say these beings were something akin to living potions – an alchemical liquid animated by either captured souls or elemental spirits. Possibly both – a multitude of captured souls for providing abundant mana, and water elementals for actually controlling the liquid.

A grating, cackling laugh rose into the air behind the giant ooze. Silverlake seemed to be mighty pleased at how her minions were faring against Zorian.

“You shouldn’t have sent your metal toy away,” she crowed. “Maybe you’d actually have a chance against me and my lovelies if you had this ‘Mrva’ at your side.”

Zorian said nothing, simply scanning his surroundings for a way he could bypass the potion elementals and strike at Silverlake. It didn’t look like he did, but that was because he was primarily looking through the eyes of a small flock of iron beaks circling the skies above the battlefield rather than trying to use divinations in the middle of a battle.

The whip-orb tried to rush at him again, but Zorian fired a thin line of force at it that speared it right through. It immediately burst into a cloud of electrified potion droplets, causing Zorian to wince. This wasn’t a good way to hold the orb at bay, it seemed.

‘This is so frustrating,’ Zorian lamented in his head. ‘I spent a decade inside a time loop. You’d think I would have encountered every type of enemy there is!’

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“I hope you realize we found out where you stashed your little sister and her cat shifter friend to keep them safe. Our forces are attacking them even as we speak,” Silverlake said, punctuating her threat with her usual annoying cackle.

Zorian narrowed his eyes at her, but did not let her distract him. This was a blatant attempt to demoralize him, and he wouldn’t fall for it.

Not that he thought she was lying. He had known for a while now that Kirielle and Nochka were being besieged in their hideouts, but there was little he could do. He could only hope that the Taramatula guards and mercenaries Daimen hired would be able to protect them, or that the miniature bodyguard golems he made for them would step up if they couldn’t.

“I hope you realize the Cult of the Dragon Below hasn’t even begun their ritual,” Zorian fired back. He knew he shouldn’t talk in the middle of the battle, but her mentioning the attack on Kirielle and how he was essentially forced to ignore it struck a nerve and he couldn’t help it. “Look around us. You clearly can’t deal with me and neither can your allies deal with my allies. You won’t win anything by keeping us busy.”

As if by some cosmic joke, his statement was punctuated by a loud detonation as an ominous purple sun exploded in the sky nearby, casting the entire city in a deep purple glow for a moment. An aftershock of Quatach-Ichl’s battle against Daimen, Xvim, and Alanic.

Jornak and Zach were also having their own fight nearby, though Zorian could not see it. Jornak had used some kind of strange ability granted to him by Panaxeth to shroud an entire section of the city in thick white mist that no spell could penetrate into. Offensive spells simply sank into the mist and disappeared without a trace, and divination spells went awry when directed at the area.

Zorian wasn’t terribly worried about Zach, though. Zach had shown himself to be noticeably stronger than Jornak in their past clashes, so he doubted this move was enough to tip the scales. More likely than not, this was just Jornak stalling until Quatach-Ichl and Oganj could finish off their opponents so they can gang up on them three-on-one.

“You are such a fool, Zorian,” Silverlake said. A bunch of fire spells on parabolic trajectories came flying over the giant ooze and straight at Zorian, but he dispelled them with ease. “We could have both profited off this if you had agreed to work with me. We could have opened a small crack in Panaxeth’s prison and then immediately mended it. My oath to the primordial would have been technically fulfilled, and the city would be left standing. Hell, we could have sabotaged the whole invasion from within. Imagine how many lives that would save. Instead you insist on staying with a dead man compromised beyond all belief. Are you gay? Is this what’s going on?”

“There is no way to fix Panaxeth’s prison once it cracks,” Zorian told her, not rising to her bait. He telekinetically seized a large piece of a nearby ruined wall and hurled it at the giant ooze. It failed to punch through and instead got stuck inside the green slime that made up its body. “You’re just comforting yourself with nonsense. You took Panaxeth’s offer because you thought it was a sure thing, as opposed to our own escape plan, which would have required you to trust another human being for once in your life. Now that this ‘sure thing’ is screwing you over, you’re grasping at straws.”

“It’s still a sure thing! You think we need those shifter children for the ritual?” Silverlake cackled. “Have you forgotten these bodies me and Red Robe have are made by Panaxeth? Both of us contain enough of Panaxeth’s essence to form a link to him and crack this prison open. We kept the child sacrifice just to distract you.”

Zorian scowled. That… made a disturbing amount of sense. The shifter children collectively had only a tiny amount of primordial essence in them, so a mass sacrifice was needed to get enough material to form a key, but Jornak and Silverlake were specifically incarnated into the real world by Panaxeth to help his release. He probably had no shortage of his own essence and it was of no use to him in his prison.

Any response he might have given was postponed as a veritable rain of alchemical bombs rained down from the sky around him, forcing him to dodge and shield himself from their effects. Worse, some of the alchemical mixtures reformed themselves into tiny liquid animals soon after detonation and started attacking him. Smaller versions of the three creatures he was already dealing with, obviously. So annoying.

“You’re the one controlling the birds above us, right?” Silverlake continued. “You can see through their eyes, so I’m sure you can tell how Oganj’s battle is progressing.”

Zorian ‘glanced’ at the battle in question and sighed internally. The performance of Eldemar’s eagle mages was praiseworthy. Any compulsion Zorian might have placed on them had long since worn off, but they kept fighting Oganj regardless and they held their own admirably.

But Oganj was still a dragon mage, and one famous even among his own kind. Even as Zorian watched, Oganj pointed his claw at one of the eagle riders and an expanding ball of razor-sharp threads exploded around him. If this was the start of the battle, the eagle rider in question would have evaded or shielded himself against the attack, but by now he was too exhausted and wounded to resist effectively. The tangled mass of severing threads instantly turned both him and his giant eagle into a bloody mess. Blood and chunks of flesh began to slowly fall to the ground.

The eagle riders weren’t going to last much longer, and when they decided to cut their losses and flee, Oganj was going to come here to turn the tides of battle.

He glanced further into the distance, where the angel cube was located, but the cube was opaque from the outside and he couldn’t see anything. He had no idea what was happening inside.

“What’s your point?” Zorian asked, a spark of light entering his eyes as he finally spotted an opportunity. “You aren’t still trying to turn me to your side, are you?”

“Heavens, no,” Silverlake said. “Tell you what, though… if you give me the imperial orb, I’ll let you flee the city and pretend I couldn’t stop you.”

The old witch really had a talent for getting under people’s skin, Zorian had to give her that.

He made his move. The whip-orb and the tiger-lizard had just tried to attack him together and landed very close to each other. He exploited this ruthlessly by casting a rather obscure spell on the section of the road they were standing on, ripping it straight out of the ground and catapulting it straight into the sky and away from his current position.

Before Silverlake could react to this, he mentally activated the explosives he snuck into the chunk of the ruined wall he had flung at the giant ooze. The wall section, still floating inside the ooze, blew up in a spectacular explosion that burst the gigantic potion elemental like an overripe melon.

It didn’t actually kill it, but it didn’t have to. It was temporarily incapacitated until it could reform, and that was all that mattered.

The path was open.

He teleported in front of the surprised Silverlake. She had hurriedly shielded herself to protect herself from the chunks of her own potion elemental flying everywhere, and was currently ill suited to protect herself.

The moment Zorian blinked into existence in front of her she sneered at him with an expression of smug triumph and he detected the trap ward she placed on the area activating. She knew he was coming.

Zorian’s mind went into overdrive. Time seemed to slow down. Elsewhere, his simulacrums stopped what they were doing as the information about the ward was dissected and analyzed by multiple minds bouncing ideas and theories between each other. Before the ward had time to fully activate, Zorian had figured out what it did and where its flaws were.

Wordlessly, he stomped his foot and sent streams of non-structured magic all around him, poking and disrupting the rapidly-forming structure of the ward. Simultaneously, he fired off a simple magic missile spell at a seemingly innocuous glyph faintly carved into the nearby cobblestones, destroying it utterly.

The entire ward suddenly imploded upon itself, carved sigils burning out in a flash of blue light. Silverlake stumbled back, her mind hit by the backlash of the ward control function suddenly sending a bunch of gibberish at her. Before she could recover, Zorian was already casting spell after spell at her. Force projectiles powerful enough to turn stone to powder, fire spells hot enough to melt steel, potent disintegration beams… the attack kept coming and coming, giving Silverlake no chance to take a breath and center herself. She tried to activate some kind of recall object to teleport away but Zorian blocked it from working. Finally, her inexperience with these kind of battles began to show, and her shields broke.

A force projectile hit her straight in the head, and half of her face instantly became a blood mist. Instead of stopping, Zorian blew up the rest of her head as well, and blew a bunch of holes in her torso for good measure as well.

For a second, the scene was quiet.

But something was wrong. Her headless, mutilated body staggered back but didn’t fall. Instead, flesh grew out of her wounds at a terrifying rate, quickly reforming her head and healing the rest of her wounds.

Zorian couldn’t help but be disturbed. Even if she had drunk a portion of troll regeneration or something, a destroyed head was still a killing strike. He tried to incinerate her just in case, engulfing her rapidly regenerating form in an intense cone of flame. Unfortunately, by now the giant ooze had managed to reform itself and launched another attack at Zorian, forcing him to break off the attack before he could fully reduce her to ash.

The moment he stopped, the charred, skeletal corpse of Silverlake again started to regenerate at a terrifying rate, regrowing muscles and skin at a speed that even trolls and hydras would find amazing. Especially considering the damage was inflicted by fire.

The half-healed body of Silverlake started to shake and gurgle, before breaking into painful coughing and spewing out blood everywhere. After a few seconds, Zorian realized this was Silverlake trying to cackle.

“See? You can’t kill me,” Silverlake said, almost completely recovered now. “It was a sure thing, and you are the fool here. This was so very worth it.”

“No one is unkillable,” Zorian said, launching a few more attack spells at her. She started defending herself again, though, so none of them actually landed on her this time. Hmm. She wouldn’t be defending herself if being hurt was inconsequential. She had a limit, somewhere. “I bet if I keep hurting you, you will eventually die for good.”

“Eventually,” she agreed, firing some spells back at him half-heartedly. The giant ooze tried to interpose itself between him and Silverlake again, but Zorian refused to let her out of his line of fire again. “But I bet it will take longer to exhaust my regeneration than it will to exhaust your mana reserves. Even with that cube acting as free defense, you still have to burn through your reserves to hurt me. And besides, Oganj will soon-”

A sound reminiscent of a ceramic plate breaking into pieces resonated somewhere in the distance. The angel cube, long silent, shattered and faded away, revealing the result of the angel-demon battle.

The angel tree was triumphant. Neither the massive demon torso nor its accompanying demon horde could be seen anywhere.

The angel had paid a heavy price for its victory. One of its main trunks was merely a stump now, and two of the others had the majority of its branches ripped and slicked off. Many of its eyes were missing, and the strange orange fires were no longer covering the whole tree, but were instead thin and faded. All but three of its accompanying wing balls were gone, and one of the surviving wing balls was clearly missing a lot of its wings and zigzagging across the sky as if drunk. Of the sinuous lion-serpent things that created the barrier, there was no trace. Maybe they used up all of their power to maintain that thing?

Regardless, the angel tree did not rest or waste time. It shook itself slightly, flexing its branches like a fighter warming himself up before the fight, and then immediately accelerated like a cannonball toward Oganj.

The dragon mage let loose a roar of frustration at all these distractions, but made no attempt to flee. He clearly had every intention of fighting the wounded angel.

Although she did not have flocks of iron beaks acting as her eyes all over the city, Silverlake must have seen the event in some way, because she immediately scowled in response.

“Don’t think you-” she began.

But Zorian wasn’t listening. Now that he knew Oganj was taken care of, there was no reason to keep this in reserve anymore. He reached into his pocket and threw a palm-sized metal ball on the ground in front of himself and Silverlake.

He then immediately withdrew to a safe distance. The contents of the pocket dimension prison inside that ball were less a controlled weapon, and more a bloodthirsty maniac you pointed at the enemy and hoped for the best.

Silverlake’s eyes widened in fear and shock when the grey hunter materialized in front of her, and all confidence seemed to drain out of her posture. She started screaming a long string of curses as she desperately fought to keep the killer spider away from her.

Zorian kept himself well back from the two combatants, somewhat unsure if he wanted to involve himself. Although he had managed to capture the grey hunter and stuff it into a pocket dimension, he did not actually control it by any measure. It was a feral magical beast released off its chain, and if he wasn’t careful, it could easily shift its attention to him instead. Thus, he mostly stayed on the sidelines and watched the battle.

Eventually, though, Silverlake started to use the giant ooze she had at her disposal to take control of the grey hunter’s movements and Zorian decided he had to intervene. As amazing as the grey spider was, the giant ooze was huge and could keep the spider away from Silverlake through sheer mass alone.

He never got the chance to involve himself, though. Before he made his move, the giant ooze suddenly froze, shuddered slightly, and then collapsed into an inert puddle of acidic slime. Well, more like a small lake, but still. It was dead.

“What!? Who are you? How do you know how to do this?” Silverlake said, looking left and right for the perpetrator while running from the grey hunter, who now had an open path towards and wasted no time in going after her again.

The other person did not answer at first. Instead, a crude but effective warding circle suddenly sprang up around the area where Silverlake and the grey hunter were fighting, trapping her with the murder-spider.

Zorian suddenly realized what was happening. He could recognize this ward easily enough, and there was only one person he ever saw using it. He had to say, he didn’t expect this…

Soon, Zorian’s unlikely ally stepped out from the shadow of a nearby building, dropping her stealth spell in the process.

It was Silverlake. Old Silverlake. The same annoying witch that Zorian remembered from the time loop, her body slightly hunched and ravaged by old age and her face was covered in wrinkles.

“You!? What the hell do you think you’re doing!?” Young Silverlake yelled, outraged.

The old Silverlake did not answer her. She slowly began to walk around the warding circle in which she trapped her copy, tapping the borders with her staff and methodically reinforcing the ward so it was harder to break. Her expression was grave and serious. There was no cackling this time, no stupid jokes or attempt to throw her opponent out of balance with words. It was actually kind of eerie to see Silverlake behaving like this.

“Don’t you know who I am?” Young Silverlake protested. “I’m you! I’m you from the future! I know that brat over there already told you this, so why-”

“If you’re really my copy, then you know what happened the last time we made a copy of ourselves, and let it do as it pleased,” old Silverlake said calmly, not stopping her work or even glancing at her younger self.

The young Silverlake seemed to be momentarily at a loss for words and remained silent.

“Exactly,” old Silverlake concluded. “It’s only a matter of time before you come for me. My home, my connections, my life… you want it all, and you clearly outstrip me in power. This is my best opportunity to remove you as a threat. I must take it.”

“You ungrateful withered bitch!” young Silverlake screamed angrily. The grey hunter took advantage of her emotional instability and managed to sink its fangs into her forearm, pumping it full of shaping-disrupting poison… unfortunately, Silverlake reacted quickly and immediately slicked her own arm off at the shoulder with a severing spell. Her regeneration immediately started growing it back. “I should have killed you immediately after coming here!”

“Probably,” old Silverlake said, shrugging her shoulders.

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Zorian took one more look at the situation, thought about it for a moment, and then decided to let the two Silverlakes deal with each other and move on to other targets. He could see that Jornak’s mist was starting to thin out and evaporate, which probably meant his battle with Zach was close to ending.

It was time.

He jumped into the air, his defense cube dutifully following after him, and used a fast flying spell to quickly reach the Hole. The cultists were still holding their own against the combined forces assaulting them, but they were exhausted and unprepared for Zorian’s arrival. He immediately started scything them down, butchering the whole group of them with a severing whip while trusting his cube to protect him from retaliation.

Simultaneously, he took closer control over Mrva again, and the golem’s attacks suddenly became a lot more accurate and strategic.

After only a handful of seconds, most of the cultists realized they stood absolutely no chance against Zorian and his golem, and their discipline fell apart. They started to panic and run, ignoring the threats their leaders spouted at them.

As Zorian suspected, his actions provoked an immediate reaction. In the distance, Oganj shouted a bunch of expletives and then separated himself from the angel he was fighting in order to rush towards the Hole. He received a deep gash in his flank for turning his back to his opponent like that, but he bore it with barely a grimace. Then, not far from where Zorian was cutting down the hapless cultists, a huge blast of magical force leveled an entire section of the city and a pitch-black skeleton suddenly flew out of it, flying at Zorian at maximum speed. Zorian quickly scanned the area Quatach-Ichl left and breathed a sigh of relief. Xvim, Alanic, and Daimen were in extremely poor shape, but they were still alive. Xvim was unconscious and Daimen was severely wounded and bleeding, but Alanic was quick to administer aid so they should both survive.

They should…

But no, he couldn’t get distracted. Oganj and Quatach-Ichl were both coming here, but the lich was closer and would be here sooner.

Although he was just a mindless golem, he couldn’t help but glance at Mrva looming above him a little sadly.

‘It was nice knowing you, Mrva…’

Being a mindless construct, Mrva did not answer him. He simply turned towards the rapidly approaching Quatach-Ichl and spread his giant arms as if offering the incoming lich a hug.

To his credit, Quatach-Ichl immediately understood that something was wrong and tried to swerve out of the way. It didn’t help him. There was no dodging this. Mrva’s chest opened up like a metal flower, exposing a complicated magical device with a glass tank acting as a centerpiece. Trapped within the glass tank was a large soulseizer chrysanthemum, which immediately woke up from its stupor and focused on the only target his current prison allowed him to perceive – Quatach-Ichl.

Normally, the flower wouldn’t have been powerful enough to threaten the ancient lich, especially from this distance, but its current housing wasn’t just a prison. It was an amplifier and a focus device, vastly increasing the flower’s range and power.

Without reservations, Mrva immediately started burning through his entire internal supplies of mana, amplifying the flower’s attack more and more. It still wasn’t enough to actually seize Quatach-Ichl’s soul and draw it into the flower, but that was okay – Zorian did not actually expect it to be able to do that. All he needed it to do was incapacitate Quatach-Ichl for a little while, just like the chrysanthemum had done to Zach and Zorian the first time they had encountered it.

The amplified soulseizer chrysanthemum did just that. Hit by the flower’s attack, Quatach-Ichl lost control over his flight spell and plowed straight into the building in front of him before unceremoniously dropping to the ground. Being an undying lich made out of magically-reinforced bones, this high-speed impact and subsequent fall did not really hurt him much. But it did make him stationary.

The defense cube behind Zorian suddenly restructured itself into a ring-shaped construct. The time-frozen spell Zorian had previously captured from Oganj was suddenly released and immediately continued its attack, this time targeting Quatach-Ichl.

The lich shakily picked himself up from the ground, fighting off the still ongoing effects of the soulseizer chrysanthemum through sheer willpower, and lifted his head just in time to see the giant incandescent projectile, equivalent in power to an artillery magic spell, hurling towards him. If he’d had only a few more seconds, he would have shrugged off the attack and dodged, shielded, or teleported away… but he didn’t have a few more seconds.

Before the projectile even reached him, the light suddenly died in his dead eye sockets and his bones started to fall back to the ground. He chose to retreat back to his phylactery on his own rather than be beaten.

Moments later, the dragon magic spell hit his remains dead-center, and the entire area was consumed by a blinding fireball that vaporized everything around it.

As for Mrva, his role in this was finished. His chest folded up again to prevent the chrysanthemum from targeting anyone else, and then he simply went limp. His internal mana reserves were gone and he could no longer move or fight.

“Contemptible thief!” Oganj shouted in outrage, getting increasingly close. The angel tree was hot on his tail. “Is your kind capable of doing anything on your own!?”

What was he talking about? Dragons were infamous for bullying everything and everyone around them for things they wanted. Besides, you would never see a dragon build a gun or a train, so there were at least a couple of things humans invented on their own.

He didn’t bother saying any of this, though. He simply teleported close to the blasted site and fired a gust of wind at it, getting rid of the smoke and dust. He was met with the sight of molten ground, still visibly burning hot, with a small crater in the middle. Only one thing survived the magical conflagration – the imperial crown that once stood on Quatach-Ichl’s head, still completely untouched.

Divine artifacts were not easy to destroy, especially ones of this caliber.

Zorian quickly produced a force whip and used it to yank the crown towards him. He was careful not to touch it at first, but it turned out to be completely cool to the touch.

He glanced to the side, where Zach and Jornak were facing off against each other. He got a little distracted while fighting Quatach-Ichl, but at some point the mist Jornak had created completely disappeared, and the two combatants reappeared. Thankfully, Zach managed to keep Jornak from interfering, so their fellow time traveler was unable to save the lich.

They both looked pretty terrible. Zach was bleeding from his forehead and limping. Whatever Jornak had done with that mist apparently did much to even the odds between them, since Zorian did not think Jornak could hurt Zach that much in a fair fight. As for Jornak, his fancy red robe was almost entirely shredded and he was gasping for breath as if he had been running for hours, but his skin was suspiciously free of any scrapes and bruises. Zorian suspected he was similar to Silverlake, and that any wound inflicted on him would heal quickly. Maybe not on the level of Silverlake, since her powers seemed to focus entirely on indestructibility, while Jornak had this weird mist thing in his arsenal, but still.

Zorian twirled Quatach-Ichl’s crown with his finger, giving Jornak a cheeky smile.

“Like that means anything,” Jornak spat angrily. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Zach for even a moment, but he had clearly seen Zorian’s gesture. Despite what he said, the emotion in his voice told Zorian that he was very much bothered by the way things were going. “This isn’t over! The crown is useless to you in the short term, anyway!”

Before Zorian could answer, he was forced to dodge a spell from Oganj, who had finally arrived to the scene. Thankfully, the shifters and police forces had already rescued the shifter children by this point, and hurriedly left the area, so he didn’t have to worry about them becoming collateral damage.

“Out of everyone here, I like you the least!” Oganj said, slicing a nearby building in half with a blue beam of force and nearly taking Zorian’s head off. “You’re a sleazy weakling who fights with tricks and schemes!”

“You’re allied with Silverlake,” Zorian countered. “You have no room to talk!”

Oganj's response was a palm thrust that flattened the entire area he was standing on. Thankfully, by that point he had already teleported away to a nearby rooftop.

He clacked his tongue. Though he could keep the dragon mage at bay for a while, he had to say this wasn’t a good position to be in. He wasn’t a heavy hitter. He couldn’t tangle with Oganj for long.

He mentally calculated things in his head. Should he do it now? Having Oganj around was very suboptimal, but if he had to do it now… he might be able to pull it off. The dragon was busy fighting off the angel tree at the same time as fighting Zorian, so maybe…

[Angel,] Zorian told the celestial telepathically, [what are the chances of you winning against the dragon and driving him off?]

[On my own?] the angel guessed, correctly. [A coin toss.]

[How about keeping him completely busy for an hour?] Zorian tried.

[A coin toss,] the angel replied.

“Okay,” Zorian mumbled quietly.

He didn’t like those odds. He glanced at the imperial crown in his hand and suddenly remembered his conversation with Silverlake.

Why was Oganj fighting them, anyway? The Kingdom of Eldemar was his sworn enemy, yes, and he would no doubt love to see Cyoria burned to the ground, but there was no way he just teamed up with Jornak just to see the city burn. He was promised something, and it had to be big in order to move a dragon mage of his caliber to do this.

Was it bigger than a divine artifact?

Let’s find out.

[Angel, catch,] Zorian sent the celestial telepathically, before throwing the crown in the sky towards the angel and accelerating it telekinetically so it could reach the celestial high in the sky.

[This is useless to me,] the angel pointed out disapprovingly, but it humored him anyway, and quickly snatched the crown with one of its branches.

[I have an idea. Please play along,] Zorian told it, before turning towards the dragon mage that was currently busy defending himself against the angel tree.

“Dragon!” he shouted, “I have given the angel the imperial crown!”

“Why the hell would I care?” Oganj shouted back. “It can’t use it!”

“But you can!” Zorian shouted back. “If you agree to stop fighting us and leave the city, the angel will promise to give you the imperial crown at the end of the day! A genuine divine artifact that can increase your mana reserves! There is no other like this anywhere in the world!”

Oganj suddenly stopped and put some distance between himself and the angel, eyeing it speculatively. The angel hovered in place, not pursuing hostilities for the moment.

“Oganj, don’t you dare!” Jornak shouted angrily. There was a trace of panic in his voice. “You know what’s going to happen if you do this! Quatach-Ichl is going to come after you! I will come after you! And you will not receive a single god damned thing I promised you!”

But Oganj wasn’t listening. There was a shine of greed in his eyes now, and he studied Zorian with increased focus now.

“You are the one who has the imperial orb, right? The one with the portable palace inside?” Oganj suddenly asked. He didn’t wait for Zorian’s answer. “Throw that in as well and I’ll leave the city and trouble you no more.”

“Oganj, you son of a bitch!” Jornak raged.

“Done,” Zorian said. He didn’t even think twice about giving up the imperial orb. Losing it was painful, but his need of making the dragon mage go away was greater.

He could always try to recover it later.

He withdrew the imperial orb out of his pocket and threw it at the angel, accelerating it telekinetically like he did the crown. The angel caught it easily, sequestering it safely with its branches.

“I hereby make a promise, backed by the high heavens, that if you leave the city now and stay away from it for 24 hours, I will give you these two artifacts that have been entrusted to me just now,” the angel told the dragon mage. “May the high heavens strip me of my rank and strike me down should I break it.”

“Hmm,” Oganj hummed appreciatively. “I wouldn’t trust most creatures, but an angel wouldn’t lie. I accept.”

And then Oganj turned towards the northern forest in the distance and simply flew away from the city. The angel seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if it wanted to tell Zorian something, before it simply followed after the dragon mage.

Jornak was clearly fuming with anger right now, but he still wasn’t willing to quit. If anything, his attacks on Zach started getting more frenzied and reckless, his breathing harder and harder.

Zorian took a deep breath. It was time. There would never be any better time than this.

His mind blended with that of his simulacrums. The network of sigils he had scattered across the city sprang into life, giving him reach across the entire city. The multitude of aranea he had brought into the city, mostly quiet until now, established contact with his mind.

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He used a short-range teleportation spell to transport himself as close as possible to the two fighters.

And then he lunged at both of them.

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