Leon sat on the roof of his portable villa, his magic senses projected as he scanned the Prota Forest in as fine of detail as he could. He was initially on the lookout for anything that might’ve spoke of the presence of his Clan’s research facility, but he couldn’t see so much as a single broken brick let alone anything that resembled a large, highly advanced Thunderbird Clan installation.

He eventually widened his search to look for any of the strange and exotic creatures that he’d heard about before, but as he’d done on the flight in, he saw nothing. Not a single bramble from the floral giants, neither hide nor horn of goat men, and no signs that he could see of any manticores.

As far as he could tell, the Prota Forest was just a deep, dark, dense primeval forest, a place that looked like it hadn’t felt the touch of mankind for thousands of years.

[Nestor,] Leon whispered into his soul realm once he lost all patience, [what did this research facility look like? It wasn’t a small, easily missed place, was it?]

[By our Ancestors, no!] the dead man vehemently replied. [This research facility was operated by our Clan, not any of our vassals, and certainly not any of the worthless men and women who lived on this plane prior to our arrival. And our Clan doesn’t think small when we build, no matter what we build. It all reflects back upon us, and so it must reflect our grandeur.]

[Have you ever been to this facility?] Leon asked, largely ignoring Nestor’s pomposity.

[No,] Nestor replied.

[Even though it was under your purview?]

[I had other concerns.]

[Such as that moon fragment?]

[such as that moon fragment.]

[Sounds like you’d have been better served keeping a better eye and a firmer hand on your other research stations. Maybe then you wouldn’t have been poisoned, eh?]

[I would argue against that. My poisoning, while greatly painful and annoying, saved me from having to face the local planar lord. The Grave Warden killed the rest of my family, and I would’ve joined them in death if I hadn’t already been dying.]

[You say that like it’s a bad thing,] Leon observed, noting the incredulity in Nestor’s tone at the mere thought of having to join his father and siblings in battle. [One would think that not joining your family would’ve been a great source of guilt.]

[Don’t look too far into this, boy. For all that we’ve spoken over the past decade, you still don’t know me. Don’t pretend that you do.]

[Sure, sure. Anyway, this place. What else can you tell me of its location? I can’t see it at all.]

[It’s been eighty-thousand years!]

[It has?! I had no idea, why did no one tell me?!]

[Sarcasm is unbecoming.]

[I’d disagree, but let’s not get into it. The research facility? Is it buried?]

[That would be my guess. No land is static and unchanging, and even just with the trees and other flora growing, living, and dying around it, our research facility would’ve been buried a long time ago. And that’s assuming it wasn’t destroyed before our vassals fled this plane.]

Leon frowned, recognizing the distinct possibility.

[Still,] he said both to point out the possibility and to reassure himself that there was still a chance of finding this place, [something’s been making this forest so dangerous that even the Sacred Golden Empire can’t tame it.]

[That’s hardly surprising. Even on a plane like this, there’re going to be threats and monsters that the powerless provincials can’t deal with. And we didn’t choose the location of this research facility for nothing; this forest was already known to harbor a large number of organisms that interested my subordinates who cared about such things. This forest has never been inhabited and has always been incredibly dangerous to these bumpkins. To be close to these organisms to study them is why the facility was built here.]

[So, what should I be looking for? A huge metal structure? Bricks poking up through the ground? Grand towers and halls, or something more boring?]

[First of all, because we’re not stupid enough to try and build a secure facility entirely above ground, a significant portion of the research facility was built underground even back then. Helps to keep the more dangerous samples under lock and key, you see. So there wasn’t much above ground to begin with. What as below ground would look quite similar to what you saw on the top floor of my lab.]

Leon nodded, remembering the underground lair that Nestor had constructed for himself. Perhaps it was their Thunderbird blood crying out in protest, but his Clan had always seemed to enchant their structures to appear to be outside, using light projections and even wind enchantments to simulate the outdoors. Building underground was undeniably safer for secure facilities, but Leon could easily understand the need to pretend they were outside—he wasn’t that fond of boxing himself in, either.

So, his expectation of finding another facility with the shiny grey metal and trapezoidal hallways solidified.

Nestor continued, [The above ground of our research facility, however, would’ve been built out of more local materials, so as not to overly disturb the local flora and fauna. There would’ve been no roads leading to the research facility, with the only access open to it being the air.]

Ignoring the latter statement for the moment, Leon asked, [Am I looking for wood or stone, then?]

[A mix of both,] Nestor answered. [Both would’ve been used depending on the section of the facility that was being built.]

Leon frowned and asked, [Would anything wooden have even survived so long? It has been, as you so helpfully reminded me, eighty-thousand years…]

[Unlikely there would be much to find,] Nestor answered. [Everything would’ve been enchanted, so there’s still a chance, but you should be on the lookout for stone. Get a look at the local stone and that’s about to expect.]

Leon glanced at a few hills and rivers cutting through the forest, noticing that there were a few stones exposed to the air here and there, though he had to look pretty hard given just how thick the flora was. Just about everything he saw was either plant or dirt, and even the few stones that he could see were nearly entirely covered in thick green moss. It was hot and humid in this part of the plane, though as an eighth-tier mage, Leon was hardly bothered by either of those factors.

[I’m not seeing much here that would warrant building a research facility, though,] Leon observed. [Has the forest changed that much in these millennia?]

[Powerful things don’t always advertise their power,] Nestor replied didactically. [Oftentimes, especially in the wild, many things of interest will hide themselves for protection.]

Leon nodded, not needing Nestor to explain that much to him. It had just been a passing thought, but as he turned it over in his head, the more sense it made. Back in the Forest of Black and White, he rarely saw powerful alchemical plants, and even rarer still were powerful beings. For the most part, such creatures and materials would either be discovered and eaten by something, or they’d find some way to hide.

He thought specifically of the Gorgon and the ice wraiths. He didn’t think that he’d be able to find many ice wraiths even as he was now if the sun were in the sky, they didn’t come out during the day. Likewise, the Gorgon was usually minding her own business, ruling her river nymphs while one with water—at least, as far as he knew. He had no idea what she might be doing now that she’d found the cure to gorgonism, but at least knew that she was probably out of sight.

It was an understandable defense mechanism. Advertising power was a good way to attract rival power, and out in the wilds, without the benefits of magical healing, every fight could be a creature’s last, or at least leave it so injured that its future survival chances were diminished.

On the other hand, advertising power could be a way to keep oneself safe, as for the same reasons, something might be reluctant to eat or hunt something else that looks dangerous. Yet, as far as Leon could see, the entire forest was quite mundane. A few strong creatures running around, relatively speaking, but nothing that he could see stronger than the fifth-tier, and certainly no shiny alchemical thing that he thought might get Helen’s blood pumping with excitement.

The Prota Forest just seemed like a mundane, if quite ancient, forest.

[So, you didn’t pay much attention to what as being studied here,] Leon repeated to Nestor.

[Correct,] Nestor shamelessly replied.

[Do you have even the slightest clue what was being researched? Even if you weren’t paying attention to progress reports?]

[Nothing specific,] Nestor said. [Local flora. A few specimens of the local fauna. Honestly, organic materials aren’t my thing. Enchantments are where my interests lay. Magical engineering is my forte, not biological studies.]

Leon sighed again, silently lamenting Nestor’s negligence. As the air passed his lips, he felt the disturbance in the air and ambient magic as someone alighted on the roof of his portable villa behind him, making no noise otherwise. He didn’t even need to turn around to recognize Princess Cassandra.

He thought for a moment that she might be trying to sneak up on him, if the wide, mischievous grin on her face was any indication. The grin shrank a little bit when he pulsed his magic senses at her, indicating that he was aware she’d arrived without him having to turn around, though didn’t go away.

“It’s rude not to greet a Princess, you know,” she said as she joined him at the edge of the roof.

“It’s also rude to interrupt someone when they’re thinking,” Leon easily replied.

“You weren’t lost in thought, though,” Cassandra pointed out. “You were inspecting my forest, and quite intensely at that. Looking for whatever it is you came here for?”

“A fun challenge?” Leon replied with only a hint of sarcasm. “Yes, I’m looking for that. I’m not seeing much, though. Care to share any tips for finding things to do out there?”

Cassandra gave him a frustratingly smug look, telling him, at least as far as he could tell, that she could see through him. She still humored him, though.

“This question has been raised many times in the past,” she explained. “Many attempts to bring this forest under control have been made, and none have been successful. Even slowly cutting in from the edges don’t work that well, with entire villages and work crews disappearing after a time and the forest reclaiming the territory it lost soon enough. And yet, as you can see for yourself, this forest hardly seems like it should be capable of such a thing, right?”

Leon nodded, listening along.

“Well, for one thing, the floral giants and goat men are stories, we’ve never been able to verify them, so don’t hold out hopes to see them.”

“Really?” Leon responded, putting on a mockingly childish tone as he expressed his disappointment. “Ah, man, those giants are something I’ve been looking forward to seeing!” He didn’t quite believe Cassandra, but he said the words anyway.

“No need to get so sassy,” Cassandra shot back, though the amused grin on her face betrayed her true feelings. “Just, you know, temper your expectations. On the other hand, finding whatever’s been making my people vanish for so long is something that I’m interested in, so keep your eyes open for anything suspicious.”

“I’ll try,” Leon replied. He was about to add some other sarcastic comment, but then a proper question arose in his mind that had him pause and look searchingly at Cassandra for a long moment.

“What is it?” the Princess asked with some mild concern.

Leon debated telling her what had occurred to him, but instead, he just smiled at her and turned back to stare out at the forest. “Never mind,” he said. “It was nothing. Just a stupid thought that gets stupider the more I think about it.”

“Well now I have to hear it!” Cassandra glared at him, but without a shred of genuine malice in her eyes.

“No, no,” Leon replied. “I’d rather not embarrass myself with an asinine idea, that’s all. Anyway, I’d better head inside.”

“Leon!” Cassandra shouted back, but Leon just jumped down from the roof and made for the front door. He expected to hear Cassandra doing likewise, but he could see with his magic senses that she was staying on his roof, just watching him leave, her ruby eyes narrowed in consternation.

He took glee in the look, but then turned his mind toward his idea. As soon as he walked into his portable villa, he sat down in the nearest chair, made sure the anti-magic senses wards were in place, and then conjured some paper to sketch on.

[Nestor,] Leon whispered as he hurriedly began to sketch some runes, though not having much more than the barest hint of an idea quite yet.

[Leon,] the dead man responded, sounding slightly aggrieved at having been ignored for the past couple of minutes after Cassandra’s interruption.

[I had a wonder,] Leon responded.

[That wasn’t just an excuse to get away from that spoiled brat?]

[No, actually. Well, not entirely. I had an actual idea.]

[This’ll be good. All right, Leon, let’s hear it, what are you thinking?]

[Is there some way to scan for large concentrations of metal or stone? Back in the Bull Kingdom, there were rituals multiple mages could do—with enchantment and spell support, of course—that could project their magic senses a great distance to scan around for demonic magics. They were running a purge of vampires and that’s how they tracked their quarry.]

[That sounds incredibly inefficient,] Nestor replied. [So many ways it could be subverted…]

[Well, yeah, but just because it isn’t likely to work for vampires who could be hiding where magic senses might not reach doesn’t necessarily mean that a similar thing couldn’t work for finding something inanimate, does it?]

Leon heard Nestor give one of the longest, tiredest sighs he’d ever heard. [No,] Nestor conceded, though it sounded like he struggled mightily to do so. [No, it doesn’t mean what you’re asking is entirely impossible, if you’re asking what I think you’re asking.]

[I want to see if I can use an enchantment to refine my magic senses to target only what I want them to target, so that I’m not stuck scanning through the forest on my own.]

[Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of. Well, it’s not impossible, but it is incredibly difficult.]

[How so?]

[First of all, you know that magic senses don’t penetrate solid objects that well, don’t you?]

[I do,] Leon replied. He was more than aware of that fact, and that was why he’d devised—with much help from Nestor and cross-references with other Heaven’s Eye defensive measures—robust wards for his home in Occulara to detect any attempts to tunnel beneath his villa. His magic senses could be projected more than two hundred miles through the air, but it could barely make it through several inches of solid stone, let alone something with a greater amount of magic flowing through it.

[Well, that doesn’t easily change even with enchantments.]

[‘Not easily’ doesn’t mean ‘can’t’.]

[Thank you for the lesson, I was aware of that already.]

[Look at us, teaching each other what we already know. At least we’re learning much about each other.]

Nestor ignored Leon’s sarcasm, though it still grated on him if his voice, sounding like it was barely escaping through clenched teeth, was any indication. [It requires a great deal of power to penetrate solid matter, especially for something as hard as rock. That kind of power is usually not something that any average mage can generate on their own for any useful length of time.]

[What about an exceptional mage?]

[They might be able to power an enchantment like that for longer, but not by much. Probably not enough to be of use, though this depends entirely on what you’re looking for and where it is. Anyway, with enough magic power, you can brute force your way through solid matter and scan for something specific.]

[So, and I’m just spit balling here, but since what we’re trying to find is a large concentration of stone, in a place where stone doesn’t seem all that common, then we don’t have to penetrate something quite that difficult, do we? Just dirt and other organic material.]

[That doesn’t necessarily make it easier, Leon. Dirt would, admittedly, be easier, but living things that absorb the magic around them can interfere with such scanning.]

Leon scowled, but he pressed on, anyway. [Would something like this be helped if we had a sample of local stone? You said that the stone used in construction would’ve been local…]

[Yes…] Nestor confirmed quite unenthusiastically. [Even with powerful earth mages, local stone is always better…]

[Then we get our hands on a local rock sample, whip up an enchantment to scan for other large sources of that kind of stone, and see what we can find? Maybe tune it so that it only scans the surface for any ruins that might be poking up out of the dirt, and only if that fails do we start trying to look underground?]

Nestor was silent for a long moment, but Leon’s excitement at having an idea to latch onto didn’t dissipate.

[This… might work,] Nestor conceded again, though it was like pulling teeth. [This isn’t going to be something ‘just whipped up’, though. Send the Librarian over to me and be prepared to follow my instructions. This will take us until the morning, at the very least.]

Leon smiled, and got to work. The Prota Forest may have seemed empty, but it felt good to have at least some way to narrow that down at least a little.

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