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The Prota Forest. Leon could see it from the Neilos River with his magic senses. Even from a distance of less than two hundred miles, he could see it was deep, dark, and wild. He couldn’t see any goat men or plant giants, but what he could see spoke of little human habitation.

He couldn’t wait to get there. The Scorched Fields were a good distraction, but with the wyverns demanding his attention, he hadn’t been able to savor being out in the wilds. Now, however, he was just a day or two away from entering a primeval forest the likes of which he hadn’t seen since moving through the jungles of the Serpentine Isles.

The banks of the Neilos River were quite built up even this far north, but the thickness of the Sacred Golden Empire’s forest city was much less than it was further south. This far north, there weren’t even that many farms outside of the city’s western limits, either—the cultivated fields only extended about five or six miles past the suburbs. Beyond those fields lay the Prota Forest.

It had been about a week since they left Evergold. A fairly leisurely pace for moving along the river, but riverine traffic had been fairly bad, even with extensive, and extremely advanced, Evergolden canals built up just about all along the river’s length. Getting the yacht this deep into the Empire hadn’t been easy, and for that, Leon greatly commended Anshu’s navigational skills.

But they’d gone as far as they could on the yacht, now they had to disembark and proceed under their own power. Fortunately, they all had flight gear, so Leon estimated that they’d reach the Prota Forest less than an hour after taking off.

The only problem there was Cassandra and the rest of the Imperial escort. Leon knew that his group wasn’t going to be left alone, and they couldn’t very well just abandon their escorts without causing serious diplomatic trouble. As a result, after docking the yacht in a private Heaven’s Eye dock, Leon and his group were forced to stop for a couple more days while Cassandra arranged transport for the rest of the escort, which currently numbered more than two hundred—though those that actually accompanied his retinue into the forest were not likely to number more than two or three dozen, the Princess had assured him.

The need to stop had annoyed Leon at the time, but after a while, he grew to appreciate the moment to rest. It gave him a few extra days to finish his designs on something new that he was dying to try out, and to use the smithing equipment he’d brought with them from Occulara to forge it. All of that equipment took up quite a bit of space in his soul realm and storing and retrieving all of it there was fairly uncomfortable given the size of the tools. It wasn’t lost on Leon at all that he wouldn’t even need such tools if his skill in earth magic was greater, and during his training sessions, he focused as much as he could on increasing his skill with the element. He didn’t notice any improvements, but it hadn’t been that long since he’d left Occulara, so he wasn’t that discouraged in his lack of progress.

Instead, he was much more interested in his magical progress outside of earth magic. For one, he’d managed to purposely conjure black fire again, though it hadn’t lasted any longer than it had previously. He was a little disappointed in the result, but he took much comfort in the simple fact that having reproduced the feat meant that he’d be able to reproduce it again.

More importantly than that, though, was the fact that his soul realm was back to growing. Under the tutelage of the Thunderbird, he’d already added a mile onto the radius of his soul realm.

Most importantly of all, however, was the artifact that he’d finished forging while waiting for Cassandra’s escort to work out their logistics. It was a fairly ugly thing, lacking any adornments, but Leon wasn’t one to make his prototypes look good. It looked like little more than a ring of black iron, but it had been inscribed with hundreds of runes giving it a kind of stark beauty despite its lack of embellishment or aesthetic shape. That ring had a relatively small slot built into it from which the runes spiraled, though that slot was currently empty.

The ring was quite large, being too large to even fit tightly over a bodybuilder’s arm, but it wasn’t meant for a human arm. It was designed for something else entirely…

---

Leon stood in the courtyard of the small Heaven’s Eye guest house. The city they were in was fairly small by Imperial standards, so while Heaven’s Eye had a huge local branch, their guest house was a little smaller than many of the others that Leon had stayed in. Still, it gave him the privacy he needed, with the guest house’s powerful security wards extended even over the courtyard, ensuring that no one outside of the guest house could see what he was doing or hear what anyone in the courtyard might be saying.

However, that didn’t mean that everyone was comfortable with what he was about to do.

“Are you sure about this?” Elise hesitantly asked, looking to Valeria and Maia for a little support. Aside from them, Leon and Anzu were the only other ones present, and even then, Anzu was only casually watching as he laid in the courtyard’s grass, bathing in the sun.

“It’s fine,” Leon assured his wife. “At this point, what do we have to lose? It’s not like seeing me transform would be that great of a shock for people who already know my ancestry.”

[It’s still better not to let those who are not with us know,] Maia whispered as she pointedly looked at Leon.

“You’re preaching to the converted,” Leon replied. “Why do you think I’m doing this here and not out in a public square?”

“Because you don’t want people to see you swinging in the wind?” Valeria suggested.

Leon nodded, replying, “That’s certainly part of it, but there’s more to this than just that. There’s a difference between not caring who sees and not wanting to advertise my abilities.”

“This is still risky,” Elise protested. “I’d prefer if you waited to test that thing until we were more certain of our privacy. Even if Princess Cassandra knows about you, we don’t know about everyone else in the city, and who knows how they might react to seeing a gigantic eighth-tier bird flying around their city?”

“Have some faith in my work, please,” Leon pleaded, and he walked over and took his wife in his arms. He gave her a quick kiss, and her worried demeanor thawed slightly. “Besides, it’s not like I want to go flying around the city, I just want to test this thing, and I don’t need to leave the courtyard to do that.”

With that, Leon pulled his clothes back into his soul realm and activated his transformation enchantment, moving before any more worries could be voiced. In a matter of seconds, he was standing before his family in his avian form, towering over them, the gold of his beak and flecked within his feathers glittering in the afternoon light.

Then he summoned the iron ring around one of his legs. It was a little loose, but it fit around his leg securely enough, so even if he were to ball up his talons, the ring wouldn’t slip off. For a prototype, that was really all he needed.

Into the ring’s slot he summoned his enchanted black opal. It fit perfectly into the ring’s slot, and Leon let a trickle of magic power enter the ring. The runes along the iron band flashed with light for a moment, and he could feel the enchantment in the ring turning his element-less magic power into darkness magic which began to spread around him. It wasn’t enough magic power to do anything, but it was enough for him to know that the ring was functioning as well as he could expect for such a small amount of power.

He slowly built up the charge, feeding the enchantment more and more power, and soon enough, he found his avian body fading from sight as darkness obscured it.

‘Good, good,’ he thought to himself. ‘Now for the moment of truth…’

Given his size in avian form, he either needed to exert great physical power in order to fly, or use wind magic. He hoped that using such magic wouldn’t overly disturb the invisibility, and he wasn’t going to leave that to chance. So, he summoned his wind magic and beat his wings a few times—just enough to lift off the ground and fly a few dozen feet through the courtyard.

Immediately, he felt the enchantment wavering, but it still held, if only just. He couldn’t physically do so since he now had a beak, but inside, Leon frowned. He gave it a few more tests to ensure that what he was sensing wasn’t a fluke, and came to the same relatively disappointing conclusion every time.

Soon enough, Leon dropped the invisibility, changed back into his human form, and clothed himself.

“So, how was it?” Elise asked as she and the others surrounded Leon and pelted him with inquiring looks.

Leon scowled and said, “Good enough, I suppose. Not as good as I’d hoped. Better than I feared, at least.”

Valeria, a thoughtful look crossing her face, guessed, “You could fly?”

The way she asked made Leon think she’d already landed on the reason for his subdued reaction. Answering her, he said, “I could fly well enough with the enchantment functioning. The problem is with the power requirements and the rather shaky shroud. If I had to make an estimate, I’d say that the invisibility shroud will hold for about fifteen minutes before cracks start to appear. At that point, there would be limited point in continuing since it would take only one wave of magic senses to see through those cracks.”

[Our enemies will almost all have magic senses...] Maia whispered.

Leon gravely nodded. “That’s not all, though. Given what I could sense, the shroud was shaky enough that just flying around was enough to slightly disturb it. Not enough to make it fall, but enough for me to know that attacking anyone without a better shroud will make it dissipate.”

“So no flying around invisibly attacking our enemies?” Valeria cheekily asked.

“No,” Leon confirmed. Finally, he said, “It also suffers from the same problem as the rest of our invisibility gear: if it comes into contact with foreign magic in high enough quantities, it’ll be dispersed.”

“How high is ‘high enough’?” Elise asked.

“Any enchanted item that I wasn’t wearing or touching at the time the shroud was put into place,” Leon explained. “Any magical attack. Basically anything that has greater magical power than the magic all around us.”

“You can make improvements, though,” Elise said, though the way she looked at him made him think it was a question despite her definitive tone.

“I think so…” Leon murmured as he mulled the problem over. “This is only a prototype, but…”

As he trailed off, Valeria picked up on his meaning. “Your invisibility enchantment is designed for someone of your size, and simply making it bigger doesn’t mean it’ll work the same way.”

“Exactly. I need to redesign it to work with my Thunderbird body, and that’ll take time. Time we don’t have right now…”

As he spoke, he cast his gaze toward the front of the guest house, where he’d noticed an Imperial convoy had just arrived. A moment later, Cassandra hopped out of the fanciest of the horseless carriages and, flanked by about two dozen guards, marched toward the guest house’s front door where the Heaven’s Eye staff were already scrambling to prepare themselves as much as they could.

“Looks like our escorts have finished getting their shit together,” he said.

---

An hour after testing his invisibility enchantment for his avian form, Leon’s entire retinue was gathered in his courtyard. Despite everyone having suited up in their shiny new armor, Anzu and Anna’s Attican Snapper made them look like quite the eclectic bunch, especially compared to the much more disciplined and orderly guards that Cassandra had brought with her.

“So, are we ready to go?” Cassandra asked them, shooting Leon a challenging grin. He even noticed her eyes flit in Valeria’s direction for a moment.

“We were ready days ago,” Leon replied.

His implication that it was Cassandra that they were waiting on didn’t seem to sit well with the Princess, whose eyes narrowed slightly in anger.

If she were truly upset, though, Leon was always ready to spar with her again. He’d quite enjoyed testing himself against her during the course of their northward journey, even if their bouts had been frustratingly indecisive. He almost thought she was going to challenge him to a fight right then and there given how dark her expression turned, but then she smiled, looking for all the world like the model prim and proper Princess. A heavily armored prim and proper Princess, at that, as she was wearing the golden armor that she’d primarily donned during the wyvern hunt, though draped around her shoulders was the golden cloak she’d taken from the black wyvern’s hoard.

Moving on, Cassandra informed them, “I’ve secured special dispensation for all of you to fly to the edge of the Prota Forest. I and my guards will be escorting you there. You’re only allowed to fly to your destination, so stay with the group. Half of us will fly in front, and the other half will fly in the back. Breaking out of that formation will not be taken lightly, leading to fines and possible imprisonment.”

Leon smiled and nodded in acknowledgment. “We’ll behave,” he said.

“You’d better,” Cassandra responded, looking like she wanted nothing more than to explain in graphic detail exactly what would happen if they didn’t, and how much she wanted them to test her.

Without another word, Cassandra began to lift into the air, her eighth-tier magic allowing her to fly without the aid of any flight gear. The rest of her group, two dozen armed and armored women between the fifth and seventh-tier, however, began to rise into the air under the power of Leon’s latest flight belts, which had him staring in shock.

“I didn’t think those were being widely sold, yet,” Elise whispered to him.

Cassandra heard her, and before Leon could respond, explained, “We bought these as soon as they were put on the market. They’re not being sold at scale yet, though, so my Empire was only able to get our hands on about a hundred so far.”

“Impressive,” Leon replied. She’d had to commandeer almost a quarter of the entire Empire’s flight belts for this journey. He knew that they had many hundreds of other flight suits he’d developed during the past ten years, though, but it still spoke volumes about the importance that the Empire was placing on this journey to commit such resources to it.

“I’d offer you some of these belts, but it seems you don’t need them,” Cassandra said almost dismissively.

Leon smiled as the rest of his retinue rose into the air. He’d built flight enchantments into their armor, so they didn’t even need the belts. Getting the Attican Snapper to fly had been a little trickier, but the flight belt it was wearing combined with the perfect mental dominance that Anna had over it thanks to the onyx bracelet meant that it could fly well enough to keep up. Anzu, however, was circling their group, his blood-red eyes fixed on the snapper as if he were expecting it to lash out.

Leon then followed the rest of his retinue and rose into the air, his magic seizing control of the air around him and lifting him up almost effortlessly. He had to resist the urge to tell Cassandra that he’d created the flight belts—they were in front of her guards, and as much as he might want to throw her words back in her face, he didn’t want to humiliate her in front of her entourage. That wouldn’t end well for anyone.

“Lead on, Your Highness,” Leon said, and with a haughty smile, Cassandra rose into the air, followed closely by a dozen of her guards. The remainder of the guards waited for the rest of Leon’s retinue to follow before taking up the rear.

They didn’t rise too high off the ground—only about eight or nine stories. The massive palatial trees around the Neilos River meant that the city practically had a ceiling made of leaves and branches, so they couldn’t just fly into the sky without breaking through the canopy. Instead, they had to fly out of the forest-city before they could gain greater air.

And that’s exactly what they did. Cassandra set a hard pace, flying fast and without any pretention, leading them out of the city on what Leon could see was practically a straight course for a small village at the rough edge of the Prota Forest. Leon and his retinue followed as best as they could, but the pace eventually had to slow to allow for the difficulties that Anna had with her snapper, despite Leon’s tailored flight gear and her onyx bracelet. The beast was simply large and cumbersome, and Leon was thankful that they were traveling less than two hundred miles. At that distance, they didn’t even have to stop to rest, and closed in on the village before evening.

They didn’t land in the village, however. Instead, Cassandra took them a little further into the thin woods that separated the primeval forests further out and the cultivated lands of the Sacred Golden Empire. Within those woods was a particularly large tree on a hill surrounded only by new growth of flora. Leon guessed that it was an older campsite used by Evergold as a staging point for any operations they carried out in the Prota Forest, though it seemed like it hadn’t been used in a good long while.

His guess was proven correct when several of Cassandra’s guards landed in front of the large tree and its trunk lit up with thousands of glowing light, earth, and water runes.

Leon, however, was far more captivated by the Prota Forest. Now that they were closer, he could see a lot further into the primeval forest, and the sights and smells relaxed him greatly. He almost felt like he was coming home. He couldn’t see any of the more exotic things he’d heard lived in these parts, but he was able to see several wolf packs, wandering bears, large birds of prey, and all sorts of other fauna that screamed ‘the wild’ to him.

He decided immediately that even if they were unable to find the Thunderbird Clan research facility, this was still going to be a worthwhile trip.

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warden1207

Bio: An aspiring writer, currently writing 'The Storm King' on RR and my own personal website, wardenreading.com

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