Leon, needing a moment to calm himself down, landed in the center of the blackened crater he’d, in his rage, made. The rest of his retinue descended from the sky and landed around him, and Leon, ignoring Cassandra’s questioning, went straight to Elise.
The sight of a wind blade making it past her armor to cut her face had enraged him, triggering the outburst. It had been a blur at the time, but as Leon turned it over in his head, more came back to him. However, right now, none of that mattered. He went to his wife, and she, with an embarrassed smile, lifted her helmet again to show him that she was fine.
Leon forced himself to relax. Even his retinue’s insistence that they were fine only a moment ago had done little to assuage his boiling wrath. But this, at least, turned it back down to a simmer.
“Leon!” Cassandra shouted as she landed beside his group. “What was that?! Answer me!”
In his anger, when Leon turned, he didn’t see the attractive blond, red-eyed woman that he’d allowed to creep into his thoughts here and there. Instead, he saw the spoiled rich girl that she was, a Princess demanding an explanation from someone she considered beneath her.
And it almost set his simmering wrath to boiling again.
In a flash, Leon appeared before her, his killing intent towering, his anger great. Cassandra was stunned for a moment, and with the rest of the escort still in the air, she was effectively alone before an eighth-tier lightning mage.
Leon wasn’t going to actually attack her, but for just a moment, he let it seem like he might. Cassandra’s ruby eyes widened in fear and she took a step back.
“You knew about the threats in this forest,” Leon growled.
“I…” Cassandra sputtered as her aura flared to life, fighting off Leon’s own intense killing intent, and she began to straighten up, her fear turning to righteous indignation. “I told you about this!”
Leon wanted to respond. There were, in fact, few things that he wanted to do more than waste even more time arguing with the Princess. But his wrath, after this momentary spike, was now cooling again, and when Elise’s hand snaked into his, it vanished almost entirely.
“I’m fine,” his fire-haired wife whispered.
Leon sighed, and with his exhalation, the last of his anger left him.
The same, however, couldn’t be said for Cassandra, who glared at Leon as the rest of the Evergolden contingent landed around them and surrounded Leon’s retinue.
“Back away from the Princess!” the lead Evergolden warrior shouted, a gargantuan halberd brandished in her hand, her armor gleaming in the sun and practically glowing with magic power.
Leon spared the seventh-tier mage a dismissive look, then calmly walked back to his retinue, Elise at his side. He gave Cassandra and the Evergolden escort only enough attention to know that they weren’t going to attack, with Cassandra even waving them off as several more of the escorts rushed forward to stand at her side.
Leon’s retinue, standing in the blackened clearing that Leon had just carved into the Prota Forest with his black fire, looked more than a little relieved as tensions abated.
“Hey there, boss,” Alix whispered as Leon rejoined them. “You’re not… going to get us into a fight with these people, are you?”
Leon bitterly smiled and replied, “Not today, I think.”
Alix chuckled awkwardly, and Helen said, “Not ever, I hope.”
Leon took a deep breath and responded, “That’s for the future to decide. Not today is all I can promise.”
“You inspire such confidence,” Helen quipped, and crouched down next to a small pile of eagle corpses she and Anna had collected in the previous couple of minutes. They’d all been charred black, but if those two thought there was use in studying them, Leon wasn’t going to argue.
Instead, he glanced back at the Evergolden escort, closed his eyes, and took a few slow, deep breaths.
Then he opened his eyes and walked back.
“I apologize for my shortness,” Leon said to the Princess, who had been distracted from glaring at him by speaking with two of her seventh-tier followers.
Cassandra gave him a long, hard look, then waved her hand and said, “It’s fine. Being ambushed doesn’t put people in the best of moods, does it?”
“It doesn’t,” Leon replied with a bitter smile.
“You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”
“Sounds like there’re some stories you could tell me. However, the only story I want to hear about right now is what happened to you. You looked like you went insane.”
Leon took another deep breath and glanced back at his retainers. They’d mostly closed ranks despite the Evergolden escort backing off and regrouping, while Anna poked and prodded at the charred eagle corpses with some big tweezers and a knife as Helen held it still. Still, he could tell they were paying attention, as were most of those at Cassandra’s back.
To answer the Princess, Leon just said, “I saw my wife superficially wounded and kind of lost it, I guess.”
Cassandra grinned as she crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s quite the understatement, Leon Raime. How about you tell me about that black fire? I saw it during our fight with that black wyvern, but honestly, I thought I was seeing things. But this was unmistakable, you used black fire! I’ve never seen such a thing, and I’ve seen ninth-tier mages creating all kinds of fire! I’ve even seen some fire mages with special bloodlines, and they’ve never had black fire!”
With a shrug, Leon replied, “A man needs his secrets, doesn’t he?”
“Given the threats we face, I think being honest about our capabilities is in everyone’s interest, isn’t it?”
“Is that necessary, though? This wasn’t that damaging of an ambush.”
“That doesn’t mean that other ambushes won’t be more damaging…”
“Other ambushes won’t be more damaging if you’re more upfront about the threats we face.”
“I was upfront about these birds!”
Leon scowled slightly. “You did, though you understated the threat; there were thousands of those things here, and some nearly got through our defenses.” Cassandra’s expression began turning livid, but before she could make the vociferous arguments that Leon could see raging about in her head, he hurriedly continued, “I don’t blame you for that, really. I’m fully on board with the idea that you didn’t know this would’ve been as chaotic as it was. I just think… that we should all probably take the potential threats of this forest a little more seriously. Can we at least agree on that?”
Cassandra still looked rather upset, but she reluctantly nodded.
Leon breathed a sigh of relief. “All right. Fantastic. How about we take an hour to rest, then, and pool our knowledge?”
The Evergolden Princess made a show out of thinking it over, even leaning back to whisper with one of her seventh-tier escorts before finally agreeing.
So, for the next hour, everyone was allowed to rest up a bit as Leon, Cassandra, and their top lieutenants got together and did what they’d been too arrogant to do before now: actually discuss, in detail, what threats they might face further in.
When that conversation was over, Leon revised their route. There were, as far as those in the Evergolden escort were aware, several ‘hotspots’, of sorts, within the Prota Forest. They’d never been able to settle the forest, but mapping it out had never been difficult. And those scouts, rangers, and cartographers that had created those maps also kept track of where they’d been attacked by the local fauna. As a result, Leon learned that three of his points with high concentrations of above or near-ground stone were within these high-danger areas.
He immediately decided that they needed to visit these three places first. In his mind, the Thunderbird research facility would be more than likely defended, whether intentionally or not, by the more dangerous creatures of the forest. Unfortunately, when he cast his magic senses out over the forest, he was again unable to sense any threats. Just like with the horde of eagles, there were no powerful auras to focus on, no great disturbances in the natural flow of magic in the forest that would indicate the presence of a powerful being or enchantment.
For all intents and purposes, it seemed like the forest was the very picture of peaceful and, to Leon’s sensibilities, inviting.
Still, in the interest of safety, they all collectively decided to proceed on foot. They were all high enough tier mages that even the rough forest ground was no obstacle, and neither were the dozens of miles they had to cross. However, as they got moving, Cassandra decided to mix things up a bit, and asked Leon if they could walk together at the front of their marching column.
Leon, not seeing any reason to refuse, agreed.
“So,” Cassandra said as they got moving, “when are you planning on telling me what you’re looking for?”
Her tone was light and playful, and Leon seriously considered playing along for a little longer. However, after the past day, he didn’t want to nearly as strongly as he had during the past couple of weeks.
So, he simply said, “When I feel like it, I suppose. Are you going to insist that I tell you what I may or may not be looking for?”
“I’m getting closer to insisting,” Cassandra admitted. “On the other hand, I’ve always loved surprises.”
“Did you love that ambush?”
“Ambushes don’t count—they’re ambushes. I’m talking about fun surprises, not something that might pose a real, tangible threat to the safety and well-being of me and my people. Will this pose such a threat?”
All playfulness in her tone vanished as she asked her last question, and as Leon easily picked his way around the roots of a massive, thick-trunked tree, he honestly replied, “I can’t say. I’ve never been here before, so I don’t know what to expect.”
“Hmm,” Cassandra hummed in thought as a smile of anticipation spread across her face. “This is starting to sound like a real adventure!”
With that, neither of them spoke for a while longer. Things became so quiet, in fact, with nothing but the sounds of exertion coming from their group as they quickly moved through the dense forest to distract then, that Leon almost began to feel bored. As much like his home as this place felt like, it simply wasn’t the Forest of Black and White.
After a while, this silence began to press in on Leon’s eardrums, constricting around him so slowly that he didn’t notice until it became nearly overwhelming.
The forest was silent.
Realizing this, Leon held up his hand and called out, “Hang on for a moment, everyone!”
It took a moment, but everyone came to a halt. There were a few grumblings from behind him, but without the sound of several dozen people trudging through the forest, Leon was able to concentrate a little better on what he was now becoming aware of.
“What is it?” Cassandra asked after Leon stared out into the forest for several seconds.
Leon could feel her aura starting to grow a little more intense, along with the auras of those further back. They were preparing for a fight, but that wasn’t why he called them to a stop.
“It’s damned quiet,” Leon observed. “No insects, no birds. Barely any wind.”
Cassandra, now cued in on what Leon was referring to, looked slightly confused as she cast her gaze around.
Leon continued, “You told me of giants and other creatures in this forest. Disappearances and the like. Where are they? Where are… anything?”
It was a heavy silence that filled the forest. The air was sweet with the smell of flowers, but Leon couldn’t hear the buzzing of even a single bee. He couldn’t hear a single bird call, nor distant roar of hunting predator, nor cry of pain and warning from hunted prey. Aside from the sounds of the people behind him and the wind blowing through the trees, the forest was suddenly dead silent. And at Leon’s tier, he could’ve heard the heartbeat of a pigeon two hundred feet away. The sheer lack of typical forest sounds that he would’ve expected was one of the more unsettling things he’d ever experienced.
“Oh, wow,” Marcus whispered from a dozen steps behind Leon, “that’s really creepy now that you mention it.”
“Maybe…” Alcander suggested, “… maybe everything went to ground after Leon annihilated a large section of the forest? If I lived here and sensed something of that magnitude, I think I would’ve gotten right the fuck out of here, too.”
“This is different,” Anna said from the back of her Attican Snapper, her expression grave. “Most creatures that sensed Leon’s attack would’ve gone to ground, for sure, but others would’ve run. They’d likely still be running, and doing so none too silently. Even then, those that didn’t run away would still be detectable. Others, those who’re less intelligent, would’ve seen Leon’s power as a challenge and might’ve attacked us. This is just… this isn’t right.”
Leon suddenly heard the snapping of a twig not too far away, and he projected his darkness magic, silently commanding everyone to quiet down. His retinue immediately complied, and armed themselves to boot as Leon turned toward the noise he’d heard and brandished his sword. Elise and Talal, meanwhile, huddled down in the center of their group, the armor Leon had made glowing with power as they both activated their shields of light.
In response, the Evergolden escort assumed a similarly defensive posture, with Cassandra in particular calling upon Sunlight’s power to coat it in burning white light.
But then, just as everyone’s tension was ratcheting up, a young wolf cub came stumbling out of the forest in their path. Only, even though it was a cub, it still reached Leon’s thigh, and had fur the color of the greenest grass.
The cub ambled about a bit, utterly oblivious to their presence despite the fact that none of them were hiding. But all eyes were turned in its direction.
“Aww,” Alix cooed. “Look at this little guy!”
Leon sensed her taking a step forward, and he held out his hand, stopping her immediately. “Stay vigilant!” he shouted. “Watch all around us!”
He knew it might’ve seemed a little like overkill given the fact that it was just one overly large wolf cub, and none of them could sense any of its fellows around, but Leon was finding some comfort in being paranoid. He hadn’t been able to sense the eagles, either, and they’d ambushed his flying convoy in enormous numbers. He wasn’t going to chance letting down their guard only to be hit with another ambush.
His caution turned out to be vindicated not even ten seconds later. He’d not even taken two steps toward the wolf cub before all the hells seemed to break loose. A wolf howl sounded in the distance, and then wolves seemed to spring out of nowhere at them. They appeared from behind trees, from within bushes, even in a few cases, from the tree branches. Dozens of huge, grass-green wolves, each one more than triple the size of a more mundane wolf, attacked them all at once, biting, gnashing, mauling, and howling. The silence of the Prota Forest was immediately shattered.
The howls didn’t last long. Two of Cassandra’s escort fell, but everyone else was ready, armed, and heavily armored. The howls were quickly drowned out by blasts of magic. Explosions of fire, booming thunder, the titanic grinding of stone, gale-force wind blades, and a roaring water dragon resounded through seemingly half the forest, and the wolves were almost immediately enveloped in deadly magic.
And then they burst through that veritable wall of magic power, bloodied, but not dead. Chaos reigned for several seconds as the beasts crashed into the traveling group, but another round of magic brought forth the terrible yelps of injured wolves.
Leon himself moved like water around stone, weaving in and around the wolves as they charged, slashing with his family’s sword and letting loose with the Thunderbird’s lightning. In but a moment, three wolves died to his power and blade, and then two more a heartbeat later.
The wolves weren’t particularly strong, but they kept coming, dozens upon dozens. If Leon had to guess, they would’ve been around fourth, or even as weak as the third-tier. He, and the other high-tiered mages in the party, went through the wolves like a scalpel through wet paper.
But, after about half a minute of intense fighting, the wolves suddenly stopped. The last one fell dead at Alcander’s feet, his massive ax buried in its head. More than a hundred wolf corpses had fallen around them, and would’ve formed a wall of corpses had much of the forest not been completely obliterated around them, the destruction wrought by their magic turning plants and trees into little more than piles of ash and dust on the ground for more than a hundred feet around them.
All except for one tree, blackened and stripped of bark and leaf, still standing just beside their group. Leon barely had the time to register how strange this was before the limbs cracked and bent, seized another of Cassandra’s escorts and Anshu in its limbs and lifted them into the air in the blink of an eye.
Anshu screamed in surprise, and then in pain, the Evergolden escort doing likewise. Others might’ve hesitated, and for the briefest of moments, the rest of the Evergolden escort did. Leon’s people, however, were a little more experienced, and moved immediately, the escort just behind him.
Alcander roared in anger at his comrade being attacked, and with a mighty swing of his ax, one of the branches holding Anshu up was severed. From the stump, a slight burst of dark green pollen erupted, filling the air with the smell of sweetness. The rest of Leon’s retinue rained blows upon the tree, and with each severance of a limb, another puff of pollen came.
Finally, Leon himself blazed past everyone and hit the tree trunk with the most intense fire he could conjure in the moment. Orange flames licked across the trunk, and in a moment, rendered it ash. Within the flames, Leon saw for less than a second a humanoid figure, and one that he’d known would be there from the moment that the tree started moving. It was short, with proportions somewhere between a child and an adult, though closer to the former than the latter. Its head was a little overly large, and if it hadn’t been obscured by his fire, Leon knew he would’ve seen huge, almond-shaped eyes that were as black as night, and skin like brown bark.
A tree sprite.
It was incinerated within Leon’s fire, and behind him, Anshu and the snatched escort both fell to the ground, and the forest fell silent again, only disturbed by the movements of those among their party, and the groans of pain from Anshu and the three fallen Evergolden warriors.