Mother of Learning - Chapter 102

Published at 31st of October 2021 09:19:16 AM

Chapter 102: Chapter 102 Giants

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In the middle of Cyoria, relatively close to the massive bottomless hole around which the city was built, there was an anomaly. A large mansion sat there like a lonely sentinel, surrounded by trees. No road led to it, and the surrounding forest was far too thick and wild for a city park. The area was perfectly circular, even cutting several buildings in half at the edges, as if someone had switched a portion of the northern forest with a random city district with zero care as to how it would naturally fit inside.

Which is exactly what had happened, of course. While Zorian and the others had been fighting the dragons and trying to break into Iasku Mansion, their enemies had been performing a powerful teleportation ritual to send said mansion straight into the heart of Cyoria, right next to the place where the primordial release ritual was to take place.

Zorian took a few moments to replenish his mana reserves a little and marveled at the sheer audacity of the feat. He had been curious for a while now why Quatach-Ichl, Silverlake, and Jornak weren’t helping their dragon allies defend the mansion. Now he knew. This kind of ritual spell wasn’t something that could be done on a whim, or stopped in the middle without consequences. Quatach-Ichl, Jornak, and Silverlake were probably all required to pull this off, and they absolutely couldn’t afford to get distracted for even a moment. That’s why they got the three dragon mages to guard them at this critical time. That’s why they were so defensive in general.

They should have pushed them harder, Zorian thought to himself regretfully. If they had held nothing back right from the start and tried to break into the mansion with absolutely everything at their disposal, then maybe…

He shook his head, putting such thoughts to the side. This was no time for regrets and hypotheticals. Besides, in a way, luck had been on their side. Zorian had not invested too much time studying these kinds of ritual spells, but everything he knew about them told him they had to have started the ritual a long time ago. Long before Zorian had given everyone a signal to start the attack, Jornak and his allies had started casting their spell. If they had moved any slower, it was possible the fight would have started with the mansion’s sudden teleportation in the middle of Cyoria. Now that would have been a disaster!

He observed the battleground around him, trying to figure out his next course of action.

Princess had been too far to get caught in the teleportation effect, which meant she was effectively out of the fight. It would take too much time and mana to get her to Cyoria, assuming she could even finish her fight with her draconic opponent in a timely manner. The sulrothum’s flying sandworm had also been left behind, being far, far too big for the teleportation spell.

On the bright side, both of the divine beasts had tied up one of the dragon mages through their efforts. The one Princess had been fighting was obviously too far to get teleported, and the second one had been hit by the sandworm and flung into the distance at the time the teleportation effect hit, causing it to be left behind as well. The only dragon mage left now was Oganj, who was currently fighting Zorian’s allies in the sky above the mansion.

Unfortunately, Oganj was by far the most powerful dragon mage out of the three. And they were now fighting above a highly populated city, where collateral damage was very much an issue.

On the bright side, Zach and his entire group had followed Oganj to Cyoria, and they were joined by most of the iron beaks and the sulrothum. Zach and the other human mages were currently busy keeping Oganj from leveling the city, but the other two were basically unopposed. Under the leadership of their high priest, the devil wasps had thoroughly beaten the demon bats, and were currently just mopping them up. As for the iron beaks, they were quickly recovering from their sudden change in scenery and their fighting spirit didn’t seem lessened by the experience. Both groups would soon be free to join the other battlefields.

Which was good, because a flood of war trolls, various monsters, undead, and enemy mages suddenly started pouring out of Iasku Mansion.

Zorian was not surprised by this. Why else would their enemies bother transporting the entire Iasku Mansion to Cyoria unless it was filled to the brim with troops? Still, he was kind of surprised that they managed to keep so many of their forces in reserve like this. The amount of soldiers and monsters they had placed beneath Cyoria to fake the main attack wasn’t small, and they had also lost a great many of their minions trying to delay them from reaching Iasku Mansion. Jornak and Quatach-Ichl must have been far more active with recruiting than they thought. It wasn’t just the Altazian mercenary groups, either – looking at the enemy forces spreading out into the city, Zorian could see that many of them were of clear Ulquaan Ibasa origin. Quatach-Ichl must have paid a heavy price to reinforce his existing soldiers with these new ones.

This was a risky move by the ancient lich, Zorian felt. There were too many Ibasans here for them to retreat from the city in a timely manner, even with the help of a permanent dimensional gate. The plan was probably for the Ibasan forces to retreat the same way they had come in: by retreating to Iasku Mansion and then have it teleported again, this time out of the city. However, this was something that was much easier to disrupt than his original plan, which meant Quatach-Ichl risked losing a lot of forces today.

Idly, Zorian wondered how a huge loss in lives and tamed monsters here would reflect on Quatach-Ichl’s reputation back on Ulquaan Ibasa, before deciding this wasn’t the time for such thoughts. He directed the iron beaks at these new forces threatening the city, and sent a message to the Sulrothum asking them to support them. He received no response from the sulrothum high priest, but the devil wasps did start to fly towards the forces exiting Iasku Mansion, so they had clearly gotten the message.

He also sent a signal to the academy. Up until this moment, the academy staff had taken a purely defensive stance and had not gotten involved in the city fighting much, but an improvised combat force had long been gathered and organized. Now that a mass of enemies had materialized practically on their doorstep – the academy was also close to the Hole, after all – they also began pouring out and started to actively confront them.

As for Zorian, he did nothing to help their allies against the enemy forces running amok in the city. He’d done all he could for them. They would lose or triumph based on their own merits. Instead, he kept replenishing his mana and waited for-

Ah. They were finally here.

Quatach-Ichl, Silverlake, and Jornak. The three of them marched out of Iasku Mansion once the flow of troops leaving their base had slowed down to a trickle, their bearings proud and their steps never faltering. All three of them were as Zorian had come to know them. The ancient lich was in his skeletal battle form, black bones encased in gold-decorated armor and the imperial crown placed securely on top of his bony head. Sickly green light emanated from him, something that he now knew was a visible trace of a powerful ward anchored to the fancy armor he was wearing. His appearance wasn’t just for the sake of appearances and intimidation. Jornak was still dressed in that distinctive red robe he loved to wear, his face hidden in darkness. Truthfully, Zorian still often thought of him as ‘Red Robe’ in his head, even though he was completely sure of his identity by this point. Finally, Silverlake was looking the most relaxed out of the three, dressed in an expensive red dress, hands clasped behind her back as she was looking around at everything around her. Zorian couldn’t really hear her due to the distance between him and their group of three, but she seemed to be quietly humming some kind of tune as she walked. It was hard to connect the beautiful, black-haired woman in front of him with the withered old witch he had come to know in the time loop, but they were clearly one and the same.

All three were under the effect of mind blank. Of course.

Two more new arrivals also caught his attention. At the same time their three main enemies marched out of the mansion, a large procession of people in robes also left the mansion through another entrance. The lead people were dressed in the same kind of red robe that Jornak was wearing, and guarded tightly in the center of the procession was a large armored carriage that seemed to be shaking from time to time, as if someone was pounding on it from the inside. The group immediately set off in the direction of the Hole, barely glancing at the fights occurring around the mansion.

The second thing that caught his attention was… another Quatach-Ichl. This one was identical to the ancient lich that had just marched out of the mansion, except this one was holding a glowing red gem the size of a human fist, and was standing directly on top of the ruined roof of Iasku Mansion.

Quatach-Ichl was using a simulacrum? How interesting. As far as Zorian could tell, Quatach-Ichl was like Zach, in that he didn’t like using those unless he had to. He didn’t have the convenient telepathic link to his copies like Zorian did, and he probably worried about what one of his copies would do without his supervision. It was hard enough for Zorian to keep his copies in line, he couldn’t imagine how many headaches other people experienced with them.

So that probably means…

The second Quatach-Ichl raised his black, skeletal hand in the air, his palm pointed at the sky, holding the glowing red gem exposed for all to see. A complicated magic circle made out of blood red light suddenly sprang up around his position. Red streams of light emanated from the gem like many whip-like tentacles, and the air above the mansion started to twist and distort like hot summer air.

Yeah. It was time.

He reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved the angel cube. Then, he deployed the imperial orb and retrieved from it a much bigger, metal cube of his own design.

Glancing to the side, he could see Daimen approaching him. His older brother had chosen to stay still for a while after the teleportation event, rather than immediately rejoining Zach and the others in fighting Oganj. He had spent a lot of mana fighting Sudomir’s skeletal dragon until Zorian had come, so he probably felt it prudent to take a breather and recover some strength while he could.

“That thing on the roof is going to summon something,” Daimen told him, concern creeping into his voice. “Something big.”

“Demons,” Zorian said. “I know. But look at those three marching towards us. Do you think we can push through them to stop the summoning?”

Daimen looked at the ancient lich, the humming witch, and the man in the red robe. He didn’t know them like Zorian did, but he was a powerful and experienced mage, and could make a decent judgment. He then looked at the battle in the sky, where Zach, Alanic, and Xvim were fighting Oganj, and scowled. Their companions were too busy to come to their aid.

“Can you help me hold them off while I do some summoning of my own?” Zorian asked, giving Daimen a brief side-glance while focusing on the angel cube in his hands. He had never actually done a summoning like this before. He really hoped he didn’t mess things up. That would be really anti-climactic.

He swept his hands around him and invisible forces cut deep grooves in the ground around them, forming a complicated magic circle of his own. The lines and glyphs began to glow blue.

“You won’t seriously ask me to fight three master mages alone?” Daimen asked incredulously. “I think you have a very inflated view of my capabilities here, brother.”

“It’s fine,” Zorian insisted. “You just have to hold them off for a little while. Plus, you will have Mrva here as support.”

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Zorian pointed at the giant hulking golem standing behind them. Daimen muttered something about Zorian having a stupid naming sense, but the reminder that he had a metal colossus on his side had obviously helped breathe additional confidence into him.

“Plus…” Zorian added, placing his hand on the other, much bigger cube. “I won’t be completely helpless.”

Keeping his hand on said cube, Zorian copied Quatach-Ichl’s gesture and raised his hand up into the air, palm facing upwards. The small angel cube greedily accepted his mana, interfacing itself with Zorian’s improvised magic circle. Hundreds of tiny golden glyphs lit up on the surface of the cube, though from a distance Zorian imagined it just looked like he was holding up a miniature sun in the palm of his hand.

A vortex of multicolored light and soft wind suddenly formed around him as the angel cube suddenly started to madly draw in ambient mana in the area. A massive, mind-boggling torrent of mana was sucked into the cube, more than Zorian could have ever provided out of his own personal mana reserves, even if he sat there and powered it for several months at the time.

This wasn’t how summoning rituals usually worked. If Zorian had tried to use ambient mana to help pay for the summoning like this in normal circumstances, he wouldn’t just suffer mana poisoning – he would explode into ash and dust before he channeled even a quarter of the mana he was handling now. However, this time he didn’t have to channel the ambient mana through himself, as with most spellcasting. The cube was somehow doing that on its own, and Zorian simply had to make sure to guide the mana across proper channels and shape the summoning spell. His mana reserves were still dropping dangerously fast, but the ritual was more taxing on his shaping skills than anything else.

Did the angel make the cube specifically to take advantage of Zorian’s high shaping skills? Because this was hard. Insanely hard! Other than maybe Xvim, Zorian didn’t think there was any person other than him that could stop all this mana from running out of control and ruining the titanic summoning ritual the cube wanted to execute.

Zorian wasn’t entirely sure he could do this himself, actually. The difficulty was still increasing. His hand shook and beads of sweat formed on his forehead as the cube in his palm shone brighter and brighter.

‘An angel’s trust is a heavy thing to bear,’ Zorian lamented in his head.

Focused as he was at his task, he was only partially aware of things happening around him, and even that was purely because his mind was fused with so many of his simulacrums. One of the simulacrums took over his body and senses while he focused on shaping the summoning spell, and in his current fused mental state, this allowed him to observe his surroundings in a way he would normally be unable to achieve without being distracted.

Almost immediately after he started his own summoning, Jornak, Quatach-Ichl, and Silverlake stopped their dramatic march and just plain rushed at him, hoping to stop the spell. If he hadn’t been distracted by the strain of the summoning, Zorian would have found the scene funny. As it was, he just watched as the enemy trio started hurling spells at him, only for them to be stopped cold by Daimen and Mrva. Quatach-Ichl did his best to hit him with a multitude of his signature red disintegration beams, Jornak was showering the entire area with blindingly bright arcs of lightning that dodged through any static shield and obstacle in the way, and Silverlake was trying to copy Zorian by launching various potion bottles at him with the aid of telekinetic spells.

Nothing worked. Daimen recklessly burned through his mana reserves to erect massive golden shields in front of them, tanking most of the damage, and occasionally dispelled incoming projectiles by hitting them with pale blue beams and invisible waves of disrupting force. Anything that got through him was stopped by Mrva, who was tough and warded enough to simply intercept incoming projectiles with his body.

Mrva also frequently went on the offensive, picking up any rocks and boulders from the craters exposed in the fighting and throwing them with surprisingly good accuracy. He also sometimes suddenly charged at them and tried to stomp them flat – a crude but effective tactic that frequently interrupted their spellcasting and forced them to dodge.

In general, the metal colossus was far faster and more agile than its looks would suggest. It was no slow, lumbering giant. It was a golem equivalent of a dragon, and Zorian was very pleased it was performing as well as he had hoped. It was just a shame he couldn’t figure out how to make Mrva fly as well.

Something to tackle when he started building version two of the colossus.

At some point, Jornak seemed to have gotten enough of the massive golem, and tried to get rid of Mrva the same way his simulacrum had gotten rid of Zorian’s bodyguard golem back in the tunnels underneath Cyoria. Jornak threw a bunch of bombs at the charging golem and they erupted into a web of hair-thin spatial cracks that enveloped the area. Mrva was completely submerged in the spatial cracks… but he emerged completely unscathed.

The metal colossus was a lot bigger than his bodyguard golems, and had a lot more time and money invested into him. Zorian had equipped Mrva with the finest wards he could set up, and it would take more than that to take it apart.

Surprised at the fact the golem was still whole and rushing at him, Jornak panicked for a moment and tried to cast a short-range teleport to evade the threat. That was a mistake. One of the wards Zorian placed on Mrva was a teleportation ward that could be amplified to extend a fair distance from his body. The ward was a really malicious sort, too – one that didn’t just disrupt the teleportation but also tried to do it in a way that made the spell go haywire and try to kill the caster.

Jornak’s body shuddered and lurched as his teleportation spell was violently disrupted. He was good enough to stabilize the failing spell, enough that he didn’t get himself torn to pieces by the dimensional stresses, but he wasn’t good enough to escape all consequences. Dazed and unable to react in time, he was almost stomped by Mrva’s foot before Quatach-Ichl gestured with his hand and pulled him out of the way of the charging golem.

Pity. But no matter. Quatach-Ichl and Silverlake were perfectly lined up at the moment, so Mrva thrust both of his hands towards them, causing a huge wave of wind and kinetic force to barrel towards them.

Self-casting items were largely disappointing. They could only really produce crude blasts of force, fire and the like. For some uses, however, that was enough… especially if the blast was big enough.

Quatach-Ichl was too experienced to fall for this, and the blast only caused him to be momentarily distracted as he focused on counteracting it. Silverlake, however, wasn’t that much of a fighter. The blast caught her entirely by surprise and she reacted too slowly, causing her to get knocked back into the distance.

She would be back soon, but it didn’t matter. In this kind of battle, every second counted. Silverlake was the weakest among the three enemies facing them, but still very dangerous. Having her gone for a while was great.

Sadly, Mrva and Daimen had been unable to take advantage of this opportunity because two giant spheres of black bones suddenly burst out of Iasku Mansion and came barreling down at Mrva. As they got closer, they unrolled into familiar skeletal crocodilians. Zorian had seen one of them in action when he and Zach had gone to rob Eldemar’s royal treasury with Quatach-Ichl, and knew exactly how powerful and resilient they were.

Back then, Quatach-Ichl said the crocodilian skeleton beast was his ‘pet’. Of course he actually had more than one…

The two skeleton beasts quickly pounced upon Mrva, tying him down.

“What great allies I have,” the ancient lich said, bending his skeletal neck sideways as if he was cracking his neck. His voice was amplified, allowing everyone in the vicinity to hear him. It was probably intended primarily for Jornak and Silverlake, though. “Better than nothing, I guess, but only just. You’d think literal time travelers would be better than this.”

“What?” Daimen asked, confused. He had been preparing to keep the ancient lich tied down, but Quatach-Ichl’s statement made him hesitate.

“Oh, he didn’t tell you?” Quatach-Ichl said, sounding surprised. “Aren’t you his big brother or something? Looks like family doesn’t mean what it used to these days.”

Before Daimen could say anything, two more simulacrums of Quatach-Ichl suddenly appeared right next to the original. Or at least Zorian guessed the lich they had been fighting thus far was the original. All three Quatach-Ichls immediately hasted themselves and turned into a blur. A split second later, each of them cast three spells each.

Nine red stars, each smaller than the tip of Zorian’s finger but shining bright, immediately shot towards Zorian with blinding speed.

Daimen scrambled to block them, but it was too little, too late. The first five slammed into Daimen’s golden, multi-layered barrier, blocked by it but ripping it to shreds in the process. The sixth one was stopped by Daimen himself, who retrieved a small mirror from his pocket and physically intercepted the projectile with it. His brother’s prized divine artifact lived up to its divine nature and stopped the projectile cold. Unlike the time it stopped Princess’s attack beam, it didn’t break in the process. There was a flash of light and the red star was just gone, Daimen standing unharmed behind it.

The other three stars rushed towards Zorian completely unopposed.

Up in the sky, his three allies realized he was in danger and tried to help him, but Oganj realized what was happening too and suddenly launched an entire swarm of blindingly bright white beams to intercept them and make them unable to render aid.

Although aware of the incoming attack due to his simulacrums, Zorian did nothing to evade it. He kept stabilizing the summoning spell with all his might.

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However, the large metal cube he was resting his hand on wasn’t as passive. With a whirring sound of shifting metal plates and internal mechanisms coming to life, it flew in front of him, placing itself in the path of the incoming red stars.

Two of the stars swerved to the side, making sure the cube could only physically intercept one of the stars, but it didn’t help. The cube seemingly fell apart at the seams, suddenly separating itself into eight smaller cubes. They positioned themselves into a rough sphere around Zorian, and a faint blue sphere of magical force, almost invisible, encased the entire area around him. The smaller cubes didn’t even try to intercept the red stars after that, and the three projectiles slammed into the barrier completely unopposed.

The borderline invisible barrier barely even reacted. Anyone standing close to Zorian would see a handful of gentle ripples emanating from the points of impact for a fraction of a second, but these quickly subsided and left no trace of damage on the shield.

To his credit, the ancient lich wasn’t shocked by the sight. He simply launched into one spell barrage after another, burning through gods know how much mana to launch a multitude of spells at Zorian. Zorian was kind of worried for Daimen at this point, since this kind of onslaught could probably kill his older brother very easily if the lich decided it would be good idea to kill the distraction first. Thankfully, Daimen quickly realized the safest place to be right now was next to Zorian, being protected by his shield, and promptly retreated behind him so that Zorian’s cube could protect him as well.

And protect them both the cube did. The cube was not a simple spell aid or ward stone like most such tools. It was closer in nature to a golem, and was just as expensive and complicated to build as Mrva had been. Although no magic item could truly cast a spell, only maintain one indefinitely, Zorian’s cube did a pretty good job of mimicking spellcasting. A dizzying amount of protective spells were constantly maintained by the cube. By amplifying some of them and suppressing others, the cube could adjust its protections from moment to moment, creating custom shields to counter specific type of spells. It did that mostly autonomously, because Zorian had animated it in the same manner in which one would a golem. None of its operation required any mana, or even much of attention from Zorian. Thus, none of Quatach-Ichl’s attacks were effective.

Projectiles slammed into the impenetrable, ever-shifting barrier created by the eight small cubes orbiting Zorian, producing no effect. Larger, slower attacks were dealt with more actively, by one of the little cubes firing marbles at them. The marbles were all charged with various spell bombs, and each cube had a pocket dimension absolutely packed with them, making it unlikely they would run out of marbles any time soon. Once the marble detonated next to an attack, it would be either dispersed or weakened enough for the barrier to negate it with ease. Attempts to send ectoplasmic constructs or animated earth at them were dealt with by Daimen, who picked them apart from the safety of the cube’s defense. The shield was sufficiently sophisticated that it would let Daimen’s attacks pass through without obstruction, even though that was not normally possible when attacking behind another mage’s shield.

Silverlake and Jornak had recovered by this point and did their best to help Quatach-Ichl, but while Mrva was being distracted by the crocodilian skeletons, he wasn’t fully tied down. As such, the two had to keep the colossal golem at bay without Quatach-Ichl’s help while trying to help him. It wasn’t very effective.

Eventually Quatach-Ichl realized this wasn’t working and that attempting to overpower Zorian in this manner was just him burning through mana for nothing. Zorian wasn’t even spending any mana on defending himself, so the lich’s attacks weren’t even wearing him out.

“Oganj!” Quatach-Ichl suddenly shouted. “Help me crack this turtle’s shell!”

“Get these idiots off me, then!” Oganj responded, trying to swat away the milky sphere flying around him out of the sky.

The ancient lich crouched and jumped, and immediately shot up into the sky like a bullet.

Daimen looked torn between pursuing the lich, even though he knew this would take him out of the safety of Zorian’s shield, and trying to put more pressure on Jornak and Silverlake. He eventually decided to try and kill Jornak.

It was probably a smart decision and Zorian fully supported it. While countering whatever Quatach-Ichl was doing would probably be more useful, it would probably result in his death. Zorian would rather face more danger than see Daimen die here. Visions of pale and bleeding Daimen, near-death after he had sacrificed his life force to allow Zorian to save himself, momentarily flooded his mind, his control over the summoning spell slipping…

No! No, focus… focus… He pushed these thoughts to the side, just like he had pushed them aside this whole month, and focused on the matter at hand. The angel summoning. It had to work, or else the enemy was going to have a whole bunch of demons on their side, and they would have nothing to counter them with.

The battle in the air intensified. Somehow Zach and Alanic found a moment to do some spell interruption of their own and directed a barrage of projectiles at Quatach-Ichl’s simulacrum standing on the roof of Iasku Mansion, trying to interrupt his demon summoning. They failed, both because the flying Quatach-Ichl interfered on behalf of his copy and because Iasku Mansion still had reasonably intact defensive wards, despite all the fighting occurring around it.

But then, a disaster struck. Quatach-Ichl managed to distract Zach enough to let Oganj face just Alanic and Xvim for a moment. Rather than try to kill one of them – an action that could work, but would probably fail – the dragon mage decided to instead try to kill Zorian.

Zorian could see the logic of it. Dragon battle magic basically specialized in huge, mana-hungry spells that rivaled human artillery magic in power, but with none of the drawbacks that branch of magic usually had. Quatach-Ichl couldn’t overpower Zorian’s defenses by sheer number of spells, but a powerful piece of dragon magic could surely crack any kind of shield outside of dedicated building wards like the ones centered around Iasku Mansion.

Time seemed to slow down to Zorian as he watched Oganj finish his spell. The dragon’s yellow, slitted eyes seemed to radiate pride and contempt as he thrust his scaly, clawed hand towards him, and a huge ball of incandescent flame came screaming down at Zorian.

Literally screaming. Zorian didn’t know if the old dragon mage added that effect purely for the sake of surprise and intimidation, but the massive fireball created a sharp screaming sound as it flew through the air.

Zorian still didn’t move to dodge. The eight little cubes stopped orbiting around him, causing the shield around him to collapse, and flew towards the incoming fireball with great speed, quickly arranging themselves into a ring-shaped formation. Jornak and Silverlake tried to take advantage of Zorian’s momentary defenseless position to kill him before the fireball hit, but Daimen and Mrva stopped that from working. As for the fireball, it flew undaunted towards the ring of cubes flying towards it, even though Zorian was sure Oganj could control its flight and try to get it to dodge. He supposed that the dragon mage was confident his spell would overpower whatever defensive effect the cube possessed.

He was bound to be disappointed. As the fireball got close to the ring of cubes, it seemed to enter a zone of literal slowed time. A temporal dilation bubble that made time pass slower on the inside than on the outside. Oganj’s eyes widened as he tried to pull his spell out of the temporal mire, but the cubes would never allow that. The ring of cubes passed around the burning projectile and it simply… disappeared.

Then they immediately turned around and re-established the defensive field around Zorian.

It was as if the cubes pulled an invisible bag over the fireball and carried it off. Which… wasn’t that far from the truth, really. Oganj’s massive fireball was currently safely stored in the cube’s special, time dilated pocket dimension. It wasn’t quite frozen in time, but it was close. Very close.

Oganj gave him an angry, hateful look, but was in no position to do anything to him anymore. The moment Quatach-Ichl had given him had passed, and Zach was back in the fight and angrier than ever.

Besides… Zorian was almost done with his summoning. Even though he had started his spell later than Quatach-Ichl’s simulacrum, he seemed to be working faster.

Quatach-Ichl realized it too.

“You are to manage this alone for a while. I need to speed things up,” Quatach-Ichl yelled, and then flew off in the direction of his simulacrum. He soon took a place beside him, causing the demon summoning to speed up immensely.

Gritting his teeth, Zorian sent even more mana into the angel cube in his palm, causing it to suck in even more ambient mana from the environment and increasing the strain on his concentration and shaping skills to the edge of the breaking point. Even with the help of his simulacrums, his awareness constantly shrank, until the golden cube above his head became his entire world.

Suddenly, the pressure completely disappeared. The air above him warped and twisted, and there was suddenly a huge shadow looming over him.

It was the same angel he and Zach had spoken to earlier in the month. Or at least it looked the same to Zorian. A mass of black branches with orange eyes instead of leaves, wreathed in fire and light. However, this incarnation of the angel was bigger.

Much, much bigger. The angel in front of him dwarfed virtually everything around it. Even Oganj and Mrva looked like children before it. Other than the sulrothum’s flying sandworm, this was the largest creature Zorian had laid his eyes on in his life.

The angel wasn’t alone. Flying around him were what Zorian could only describe as animated balls of white wings. There were at least 20 of them, and if there was a body hidden somewhere beneath all the feathers, Zorian couldn’t see it. They looked tiny next to the titanic burning tree of eyes, but Zorian estimated they were twice as big as he was.

Another four angels, these ones twice as large as the wing things, silently floated next to the main angel. They looked bestial, reminiscent of lions with a very long, flexible body. They flew through the air without wings, their bodies undulating in a serpentine manner, and they had no head. Instead of a head, they had a ring of white masks, each with a different expression, circling above their neck.

The sudden appearance of the huge angel and its group put an immediate end to all the aerial fighting. Oganj immediately vacated the area, retreating towards Iasku Mansion and its defensive wards, while Zach, Alanic, and Xvim landed next to Zorian, grateful for a chance to take a breather and replenish their mana reserves.

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When Zorian looked towards Iasku Mansion, however, he realized the angels weren’t the only new arrivals. Quatach-Ichl had apparently finished his summoning at the same time he did, because there was an army of demons arrayed in front of them.

The demons were… a diverse bunch. They were hundreds of them huddling around Iasku Mansion, divided among 30 or so different ‘species’. One group looked like man-sized black cats with blood red eyes and shark-like grins. Another consisted of large, hunched, pale-skinned humanoids with four arms, no eyes, a long tail, and quills on their back. Yet another looked like brown eggs scuttling around on long, thin, spider-like legs. A multitude of human faces danced on the surface of the ‘eggs’, most of them looking as if in pain. Isolated and given a wide berth even by the other demons, a large dark red rose towered over most of its demon brethren, supported by a multitude of thorny tentacles that probed all around it as if looking for targets. A regimen of humanoid demons stood at attention in one corner, carrying spears and covered from head to toe in black armor with way too many spikes and blade-like protrusions on it, mimicking some ancient human legion. A flock of disgusting, grub-like creatures floated from place to place, dripping saliva everywhere.

However, this multitude of demons didn’t look too impressive in Zorian’s eyes. There were a lot of them, but they were pretty small, at least compared to the angels. Zorian was leery about drawing too many conclusions from size difference alone, but the way the demon horde subty cowered every time they looked at the massive burning tree in the sky told Zorian it was not something to completely discount.

No, what really worried Zorian was the giant humanoid torso floating above the demon horde. This demon was big. Not as big as the burning tree above Zorian, but big enough to rival Oganj and Mrva. The torso was headless and armless, but there was a gigantic eye embedded into its torso, purple and glowing. An armor seemingly made out of various bones – some of them human, some from animals, and some from strange entities that Zorian couldn’t recognize – covered the torso like armor, leaving little except the eye visible to the world.

The lesser demons beneath it cowered before the group of angels, but the eye in the torso looked completely unafraid, studying the scene before it with detached curiosity.

For a moment it glanced at Zorian, and Zorian made the mistake of meeting its gaze. He immediately felt his soul shake and his vision began to blur.

A massive black branch extended from the tree above, stabbing into the earth in front of Zorian and breaking the eye contact between him and the purple eye on the horizon.

Zorian’s mind immediately cleared and he quickly reinforced his soul defenses, directing a silent thanks towards the angel above. He didn’t think that would have killed him, but he really didn’t want to engage a powerful demon in a soul magic fight, no matter how minor it was.

For several seconds, the battlefield was silent, neither side wanting to make the first move.

Eventually, Jornak amplified his voice and spoke out to Zorian and the others.

“If we fight here, the city will get leveled,” he said.

“If we don’t fight here, you’ll release Panaxeth and the city will still get leveled,” Zach responded, his voice still amplified. “What’s your point?”

“I’m just foolishly hoping you will see reason,” Jornak said. “No matter what you do, the city is doomed. You are doomed. You were doomed the moment you accepted that poisonous contract with the angels. We both know they probably hoped something like this would happen and that you would end up dying at the end of the month, even if you achieve your goal. The primordial is stopped and the hero conveniently disappears at the end of the story, unable to use his godlike abilities to upset the status quo or enact any real change. You were never supposed to survive this.”

Several seconds ticked by in silence. Zorian glanced at the looming angel above him, trying to see if it would speak up to contradict him. It did not.

He had no idea what that meant. Maybe Jornak was right. Maybe the angel thought his words were not even worth responding to.

“But I… I have a chance to live through this. To change things… to change everything for the better,” Jornak continued. “Is the sacrifice of one city, a city that spit on your family’s sacrifice and robbed you of your birthright, such a heavy sacrifice?”

“You’re wasting your time,” Zach told him. He turned his head skyward, towards the angel above them. “What are you waiting for? Every moment they stall for time, the cultists and their sacrifices get closer to the Hole. Let’s finish this.”

“Not yet,” the angel said simply. Its voice rumbled all around them, deep and resonant.

“Fine,” Jornak said, sounding a bit angry. Zorian didn’t understand why… did he honestly think Zach would suddenly roll over and die if he asked nicely? They’d even summoned a huge angel and everything! “Since you’re being like this, let’s raise the stakes a little.”

He snapped his fingers, the sound amplified along with his voice, and three different detonations occurred at different spots of the city. Instead of dust and gravel, however, what erupted out of these detonations was a geyser of smoky black shapes. They were difficult to make out from this distance, but Zorian could easily puzzle out what they were.

Wraiths. Lots and lots of wraiths.

Suddenly, Zorian imitated Jornak’s actions and snapped his fingers as well. There was no explosion, but the swarms of wraiths released by the bombs suddenly all converged on several different locations of the city and disappeared. As if a hidden predator had drawn them in and swallowed them without a trace.

Jornak seemed confused at the sudden event.

“Surprised?” Zorian said out loud, amplifying his voice. “Well, you did give us plenty of forewarning about the wraith bombs. It’s only natural that we prepared countermeasures.”

“How…?” Jornak began, before suddenly stopping when he realized he was asking Zorian to explain how he countered his move. Of course he wasn’t going to tell him something like that.

In truth, it was something that Zorian had Sudomir to thank for most of all. After all, the man had already figured out how to attract and trap bodiless souls over a wide area inside his mansion. Zorian couldn’t really duplicate his grand feat, but he could make smaller versions of the soul well, adapted to trapping wraiths, and scatter them across the city.

Even then, trapping free-willed wraiths was significantly different from drawing in ordinary souls of the dead. Zorian had to draw upon his knowledge of the soulseizer chrysanthemum and its ability to suck in souls of living beings to make the device work well enough.

Fortunately, Zorian had gotten lots and lots of insight into the inner workings of the soulseizer chrysanthemum during the last six months of the time loop…

Before anyone could say something, everyone noticed a swarm of distant dots approaching the city in the distance.

Eagles. Giant eagles ridden by battlemages.

Apparently Eldemar’s military had managed to organize a response and was about to get involved. Zorian couldn’t help but feel a jolt of fear at the thought. This was entirely unplanned, and he had no idea how the soldiers riding on those eagles would react to their presence.

The burning tree floating above them, however, didn’t seem surprised.

“Now, we fight,” the angel rumbled, before surging towards the demon horde.

The demon horde roared out a challenge and rushed forth to meet them.

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