Deep in the palace of Ilion, within his private chambers, Anastasios sat, staring at the painted idols on the altar before him. Such had been his wont for more than a century now, as time deepened his aches and took his friends.

The Ilian pantheon was vast, with a deity for just about every concept in their world. But on Anastasios’ altar, there were only seven.

In the center stood the stalwart King of their pantheon, Diwo, stoic and stern, keeping the order in their universe. It was to him that Anastasios had first thought to pledge himself when he was young and captivated by the tales of the great holy warriors of the Order of Diwo that fought against the Sky Devils for the safety of all, but Diwo, it seemed, had other plans for him. Anastasios had never been one to covet power, but when his cousin, the Emperor before him, died childless and the people looked to him to be their Emperor, he did his duty and assumed the throne. It hadn’t been an easy decision, but his mentor, role model, and commander of the Order of Diwo, Demosthenes, had helped him to see that the throne was not an honor for him, but a duty to his people, and that he’d serve Diwo better as an Emperor than as a warrior-priest.

Standing to Diwo’s right was Atana, his most favored daughter and goddess of knowledge and wisdom, and patron of Anastasios’ family. It was to her that his elder sister, Sofia, had pledged herself, becoming a scholar of great renown within the Empire. He’d always looked up to his sister, following her around like a stray puppy she’d fed once. She was brilliant, wise, and beautiful, and when he’d assumed the mantle of Emperor, she had been his closest confidant.

To Diwo’s left stood Perio, his most favored son and god of music. Anastasios’ best friend in his youth had been a man named Cimon, a musician unmatched in his field. He was witty, supremely gifted in his craft, and had never failed to bring a smile to Anastasios’ face whenever they got together.

All of them were dead, now.

The Order of Diwo was disbanded, having suffered catastrophic casualties that it couldn’t recover from in the previous war with the Sky Devils. Demosthenes had led the Order in a counter charge, almost single-handedly buying the Imperial forces the time they needed to escape the Sky Devil’s Hell after their ill-fated expedition, but at the cost of the lives of nearly every warrior-priest of the Order. Demosthenes had been almost a thousand years old at the time, and had died a ninth-tier mage.

Sofia’s death had come much earlier; having dedicated herself to the scholarly arts rather than the magical arts, she’d not only disqualified herself from ever serving as an Empress—for no Empire would ever survive a weak monarch—but had died at the age of two hundred and thirty-seven, as a sixth-tier mage. Anastasios had fallen apart in grief without her, and had needed years to grieve her loss. He’d told his friends that without his sister, he felt like he was now trying to make his way through the world blind and dumb, and even to this day, he still felt that way.

Cimon had managed to reach the eighth-tier, thanks to Anastasios’ constant prodding and refusal to let him rest on his laurels, but had died before he reached the ninth. He was seven hundred and eighty-three years old. Anastasios had known him since they were children, both having been born in the same decade and attended the same academy. The world without his best friend in it had seemed colorless, joyless, and silent. Cimon’s music lived on, but it had never sounded the same to Anastasios’ ears when played with any hand but his.

Anastasios was now more than a thousand years old. He’d seen many generations come and go, had outlived more than a dozen wives, and had even suffered the loss of his son, who took his own life. The world was dark and depressing without his old friends, family, and heroes. Everyone he’d known when he was a young man was gone, never to be seen again. Everywhere he looked, he saw new faces doing the same things his old friends had used to. The palace of Ilion remained almost unchanged, but as far as he was concerned, it might as well have been a completely different place. All the faces were different, the walls had been repainted many times, the old cracks in the masonry filled in and new cracks forming.

Anastasios, as he’d done so many times in the past few centuries, stared at the idols of his gods and wondered just how much longer it would be before his time would come. One figure notably absent from the lineup was the Goddess of Death. She had no temples, no idols, no icons, for to create such a thing of her, or even to speak her name, was to invite her attention, and few would dare such a thing.

But Anastasios found himself contemplating her more and more as grew older. He wondered why she had chosen to take all of his friends and family from him, leaving him old and alone. He wondered if everyone he knew were resting comfortably, if they were dancing in the great halls of Lysia, the land of eternal joy that all of great virtue were taken to after death.

Most of all, Anastasios wondered if she even existed. He had his doubts, but he supposed that even with his meager knowledge of what lay beyond the tenth-tier, he supposed that nothing said that there weren’t realms of power beyond even that, beyond even the greatest and mightiest human powers of this universe.

He hoped that it was all true, and that he’d see all of his loved ones again when he finally passed, whenever the Mistress Without Name decided to take him. But if the gods didn’t exist, then he supposed an eternal sleep wouldn’t be all that terrible. At the very least, the deep, ever-present melancholy that had suffused his being ever since his last childhood friend had passed would finally end.

As he sat there, staring at the gods, a soft, almost hesitant knock came at his door. Anastasios let out a deep sigh, composed himself, wiping the grief from his face and ensuring that his eyes were dry, then stood up and went to the door. Waiting just outside was one of his assistants, a young man of about eighty years. Anastasios had taken him in more than half a century ago, the boy having been orphaned following a werewolf attack on his home on the Empire’s western frontier. Anastasios was as proud of him as he’d been of his own son, and of his grandson, and he smiled as he opened the door.

The assistant bowed deeply, his demeanor unshakably formal despite Anastasios’ frequent insistence to be less so.

“Lord Protector,” he whispered respectfully. “Leon Raime has left Occulara earlier than we expected.”

Anastasios’ pink, nebulous eyes flashed with interest. He knew that over the past couple of months, a rift had been steadily growing between Leon and the Director, and he’d been just waiting for an opportunity to pounce. Bringing Leon to his Empire would be the greatest boon possible.

Anastasios immediately left his private shrine and strode down the halls of his private wing of the palace. He was certain that Leon wasn’t coming here, so he’d have to make some travel plans…

As his assistant fell in beside him, he had only one question: “Where is Leon going?”


Leon stared in wonder at the city sprawling out in front of him. It had been in range of his magic senses for hours, and he’d been standing on the prow of his yacht, just staring for all of that time. They’d passed several other cities on the Neilos River after leaving the Central Sea, and while they were certainly beautiful and shared an architectural aesthetic that he found incredibly pleasing, Evergold, the capital city of the Sacred Golden Empire, was on another level entirely. In his mind, the Forest of Black and White that existed in his head—the forest that had been his reality during his childhood, and which was now lost forever with his father gone—was the very picture of paradise on Aeterna, but Evergold, at least in terms of aesthetics, came in a close second.

Everywhere he looked, he saw trees. Most were fairly small, about what he would expect, but quite a few were utterly, spectacularly, magnificently tall. These he knew from seeing the Sacred Golden Empire’s delegation at the Scorched Fields, were their palace-trees, and they were everywhere. Hundreds of them lined the banks of the Neilos River and further out, while everywhere else he looked he just saw a sea of color. Plant life in every shade grew here in abundance, growing fruit and other organic materials, or simply providing some kind of decoration. Notably, he saw that the rainbow-colored trees that lit the Ilian Empire at night were here, too, and in much greater numbers.

The cumulative effect had the effect of making Evergold look like a massive, inhabited forest, not simply a city. Most of the buildings weren’t palace-trees, of course, but even those that were made of only enchanted wood had been built with flowing, organic designs that ensured that they blended in perfectly with the natural feel of the city.

After spending ten years in the heavily urban Ilian Empire, with its massive towers of golden metal and sprawling farms, Leon felt like he’d been living with a rope tightly tied around his chest but could now breathe freely. It was incredible, and he couldn’t help but stare in awe.

There were, of course, many farms within the Sacred Golden Empire, so he knew that the entire Empire wasn’t just one huge forest, but Evergold had an aesthetic that greatly appealed to him, and he had to fight the temptation to immediately find Elise, Maia, and Valeria and convince them to move here.

‘On the bright side, if the Director does wind up siding against me, then this might be a good place to move,’ Leon thought to himself, almost wishing the Director would side with the vampires just so that he could get this excuse.

Unfortunately for him, he didn’t think that Elise would go for it, but he dreamt anyway.

As his yacht pushed up the Neilos River, he did his best to temper his expectations, but it was difficult when he found himself in a forest again for the first time in a long time. It felt like the wilds were here in the city, just begging for him to explore, to wrap himself up in the wood, the leaves, and the flowers like an old childhood blanket. But he could remember feeling similar feelings of awe upon arriving in the Ilian Empire, and all of those feelings were completely and irrevocably dashed upon learning just how widespread the anti-Thunderbird Clan sentiment was within the Empire. Given their similar heritage, he couldn’t imagine that the Sacred Golden Empire was much different, but it was hard not to feel excited.

Something that made his blood sing even louder were the storm clouds rolling in just behind his yacht, coming in from off the Central Sea. Thunder rumbled in the distance and echoed in his chest. Lightning lit up the afternoon city as it slowly darkened with the approaching storm clouds.

The rain hadn’t yet arrived, but Leon could smell it on the breeze, and with every breath of air he took in, he could feel himself growing slightly stronger, absorbing the power that the storm infused into the air. That power entered his blood through his lungs, raced through his circulatory system, and entered his heart, where it was then channeled into his soul realm, helping it to grow. It would take quite a lot of power for him to rise to the ninth-tier, but he took comfort in the fact that his soul realm had healed sufficiently that growth was at least possible, now. And with every breath he took, the space he had to cross between eighth and ninth-tier grew smaller.

There on the prow Leon stood, reveling in everything he could see, hear, smell, and otherwise feel. Hours passed, and while he noted several times some of his retainers and even Elise coming by to check on him, he didn’t leave his position until his yacht pulled into a harbor off a canal dug for the private use of Heaven’s Eye.

The Neilos River was wide and deep—no doubt partially that way thanks to some of the magic Leon could sense worked into the surroundings—and could afford many such canals dug all throughout the city. However, unlike the ordered, curving canals of the Samarid capital, these canals were constructed to look natural, flowing between the palace-trees and other structures like rivers, not only largely replacing roads as the primary method of travel, but also greatly contributing to the city’s naturalistic atmosphere.

When the yacht docked, Leon finally stepped away from the prow and gave Talal the go-ahead to get to work on the usual paperwork that had to be taken care of upon their arrival. Fortunately, Talal was quite skilled in this sort of thing and much of the paperwork had been completed when they first entered the Sacred Golden Empire, so before the storm even hit Evergold, Leon’s yacht had been properly moored and the local Heaven’s Eye branch had set aside its most luxurious guest house for the personal use of the visiting Hand of the Director.

Leon’s family and retinue then got settled in, for while the yacht picked out by Anshu and Talal was quite fast, it had started to feel just a little cramped with twelve passengers, a griffin, and Anna’s Attican Snapper, which she had refused to leave behind this time. While it had only taken about a month to reach Evergold from Occulara, everyone was quite sick of being around each other and eager for a little time spent in privacy.

However, Leon forbade them from heading out into town without having at least two others with them and not to go off the beaten track. He wasn’t going to take the chance that they were followed by vampires, so he wanted his people traveling in groups and staying in public.

Leon himself didn’t want to head out at all, not when such a beautiful storm was about to hit, and once the rain started falling, he went out into the guest house’s main courtyard and didn’t come back inside until the storm passed several hours later.

Only then did he seek some rest. He was surprised at just how comfortable he felt here, but it hit him hard as he curled up in bed with Elise and Maia: they were in the Sacred Golden Empire, and hopefully, they’d be at the Thunderbird Clan research facility in only a matter of weeks.

Leon woke early in the morning, despite how late he’d gone to bed—his lack of need to sleep rearing its head. He spent the morning quietly chatting with his family, then did some work with Valeria on the new Lightning Lance design. After several hours of that, he made good on his promise to Sid to practice his earth magic, as he’d done almost every day since leaving Occulara—there hadn’t been much to do on the yacht, so he’d had little reason not to.

However, as his retinue was assembling for their own daily training, Talal came hurrying in, almost late.

“Barely made it, Tal!” Alix called out with a teasing grin.

“There’s a first for everything,” Gaius added with a pointed look at the courtyard’s clock, “but it seems your first time late won’t be this day…”

Talal ignored them, though, and approached Leon. Once he reached Leon, he leaned in to whisper into his ear.

“Boss, someone’s here to see you…”

“Who?” Leon asked, also whispering.

“A representative from the Imperial Palace.”

Leon blinked in shock, then sighed in resignation. Given how expected his arrival in Ilion had been, he wasn’t surprised that the Evergolden bureaucracy already knew of his arrival. However, a small part of him had been hopeful that his welcome into the Ilian Empire had been partially influenced by the fact that Emilie and Damien Makedon had been in his party, and that this time would be different. He didn’t want to rub shoulders with the local druids, though as his mind flashed back to vibrant purple hair and glittering ruby eyes, he had to admit that there was one person he wouldn’t mind seeing again.

Still, it was with a tired tone that he asked Talal, “What do they want?”

“She says that she’s carrying a message for you and you alone,” Talal responded. After a moment’s pause, he added, “She’s also strong enough that I can’t tell what tier she is.”

Leon scowled and nodded. Talal was a fifth-tier mage, so that meant the messenger was at least sixth-tier. Even in the Empires, such strong mages were rarely only used as messengers.

Leon straightened up, gave Valeria a pointed look, and said, “All right, I’ll go meet with her.”

Valeria nodded and took over the retinue’s training as he walked with Talal back into the main wing of the guest house. As they walked, Leon projected his magic senses to take stock of the messenger and was almost floored when he found that she was an eighth-tier mage; he even halted in the hallway, his eyes staring at the wall in the messenger’s direction.

Other than that, he had to admit that she was quite attractive and dressed in the usual style of those from the Sacred Golden Empire, with a dress that exposed her arms, which were covered in golden jewelry that signified her high station.

Leon walked into the sitting room where she’d been waiting. She looked up at him, her eyes narrowing in mild suspicion, but there was no surprise in her expression. Leon supposed that she must’ve already noticed him coming since the guest house’s anti-magic sense wards were only designed to keep people from outside the guest house from seeing within; since she was already inside, her magic senses weren’t blocked, so she’d almost certainly already taken his measure.

“Leon Raime?” she asked.

Leon took a moment to call upon his magic power as subtly as he could, readying himself to summon his sword and armor just in case, and answered, “Yes, that’s me.”

The woman just smiled, then extended a hand and, in a flash of light, summoned a sealed envelope from her soul realm. Without waiting for Leon to ask what it was, she explained, “On behalf of the Grand Druid; Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Joanna; and Her Highness, Princess Cassandra, you are invited to the Golden Grove for a feast tomorrow night.”


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