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Leon rushed forward as Anshu groaned on the ground. The three members of Cassandra’s escort were not too far away, and as far as Leon could tell, they were alive, but severely injured.

However, their physical injuries wasn’t what Leon was most concerned with.

“Helen!” he shouted as he slid to the ground next to Anshu. Helen shouted a reply, but Leon barely heard her as he activated his tau pearl. Healing magic flowed through the enchantments in his armor, down through his gauntlet, and into Anshu. The Indradian immediately relaxed, his unconscious groaning coming to a swift end.

There wasn’t much blood on Anshu, so Leon had some hope, but when he took the man’s helmet off, he found a very discouraging sign. It was hard to tell given the fact that Anshu was naturally very dark skinned, but Leon saw that there was already some discoloration around the man’s eyes.

Leon’s heart sank. Tree sprites were dangerous creatures, even to beings far more powerful than they were. Their trees could inflict great blunt force trauma, but their poison was far deadlier. The monster’s natural neurotoxin would essentially melt their victims’ brain, and the helpless victim would usually be awake and aware of it happening, and experience indescribable pain throughout the day-long process. Leon had only ever seen one man poisoned by a tree sprite—a man-at-arms that went north with Roland before Artorias was killed—and he was determined to have a different outcome this time.

The tau pearl healed Anshu’s wounds, but Leon didn’t think that was the end of it. He kept the tau pearl’s healing energies flowing, just in case.

“What is it?” Helen asked as she slid in beside Leon, while Cassandra’s people began tending to their fallen comrades.

“Tree sprite venom,” Leon explained.

Helen didn’t need anything more, and in a moment, conjured a vial about half the size of her index finger. “Hold him still,” she commanded Leon, and he followed her instructions immediately. He was in charge, but she was the specialist here.

With great care, Helen turned Anshu’s head, and Leon held the man’s head in place when she was done. She then took out a small knife and made a quick incision along Anshu’s neck. Blood immediately began to spurt out, but Helen pulled out what looked like an incredibly narrow enchanted funnel and stuck it into Anshu’s neck. The blood flow was stopped, and Helen poured the contents of her vial into the funnel, which flared with magic power for a moment as the antitoxin was injected directly into Anshu’s neck. From there, Leon knew that Anshu’s natural blood flow had likely already carried the antitoxin directly to his brain.

“That’s all I can do,” Helen said nervously as she took the funnel out of Anshu’s neck.

Leon scowled, but he wasn’t angry. If that was what she could do, then that was all she could do. He simply doubled down on using his tau pearl, then glanced at the other three who’d been downed by the tree sprite.

“See to them,” Leon ordered, noticing that the rest of the Imperial escort didn’t seem to be administering any antitoxin, themselves.

Helen nodded and got to work, while Leon turned his gaze back to Anshu. He thought he might’ve been imagining it, but he thought the discoloration around Anshu’s eyes was already lessening. Regardless, he’d fixed what he could fix with the tau pearl, and with some reluctance, he stopped and straightened up.

“Is he alright?” Valeria inquired as she joined Leon at Anshu’s side. She didn’t appear too upset, and for that, Leon couldn’t blame her. Anshu had done his best to keep his distance from the rest of the retinue, and for the most part, it seemed that he’d succeeded.

“I think he’ll live,” Leon replied. “Nothing else we can do, now.”

Turning back to the rest of his retinue, he noticed that they’d largely set up something of a perimeter around the small clearing that the battle with the wolves and the tree sprite had made. Alcander and Marcus had stacked most of the wolf corpses while Maia, Gaius and Alix were keeping an eye out for anything else coming out of the forest to threaten them. Elise and Talal were standing by Anzu looking quite out of place as they stared at all the blood and death. Most notably, however, was Anna, who had dismounted her snapper and crouched down to examine one of the more intact wolves that they’d brought down. She had its head in her hands, and she was quietly working on sawing open its skull with a knife and her light magic.

The rest of the Imperial escort that wasn’t tending to their fallen comrades were, like Maia, Gaius, and Alix, keeping watch, their weapons and magic at the ready just in case something else decided to jump out at them.

Leon made his way over to Elise and Talal, with Valeria at his side.

“Leon,” Talal said in stoic greeting, though the Samarid looked a little green around the gills.

Elise didn’t say anything, but she gave Leon a fairly glowing smile.

“You two all right?” Leon asked.

Talal nodded, and Elise responded by reaching back and running her fingers through Anzu’s fur. “With Anzu here,” she said, “I’m always alright!”

Anzu happily chirped and flexed his wings, and a few errant wisps of wind magic caused his feathers to flutter. Like a cat, he then rubbed his head on Elise, drawing out a quick laugh as Elise was almost knocked over, but she moved from stroking his back to his head.

She seemed to be doing fine, but before Leon could confirm that, Anna called out, “Hey, Leon! I think I found something!”

A moment later, Leon was at his retainer’s side, staring down at the exposed brain of one of the dead wolves. Immediately, he could see some of what Anna was concerned about, for the brain was covered in what looked like green mold and stank like the worst, most rotten hell.

“What in the hells is that?” Valeria exclaimed as she took a few steps back.

Leon was a little more composed, but he still laid a hand on Anna’s shoulder and gently pulled her away from the dead wolf.

“It’s fine,” Anna said as she shook off Leon’s shoulder. “Whatever this is, it seems inert, so I don’t think it’s contagious.”

“Better safe than infected with some mystery brain rot,” Leon responded. “Do you know what this is?”

“No,” Anna admitted. “But it’s starting to be familiar.”

“How so?”

“When I poked around in the remains of those eagles you brought down, I found similar signs of some kind of brain infection. I wasn’t sure back then, though, because you didn’t exactly leave many of those birds intact.”

Leon frowned awkwardly, but he didn’t apologize.

“Anyway, I think there’s something really wrong with this forest,” Anna continued as she stood up. “I’m not saying we should turn around quite yet, but this is… concerning.”

Leon nodded in agreement. “Yeah. This place is strange. I couldn’t sense any auras on this creatures during the attack. It was like they weren’t magical beings, yet they fought as if they possessed fifth-tier-ish power.”

“So it wasn’t just me, then?” Valeria said with some relief.

“Same here,” the sixth-tier Anna confirmed with a grave look in her eyes.

“Mystery brain infection, aura-less monsters…” Leon mumbled. He glanced around and, noting that the clearing was big enough to set up camp, decided that they should stop here for the rest of the day and put more thought into how they should proceed.

His decision made, Leon announced it, and met with little push back.

---

Two hours after sunset, the camp was built, with Leon’s fortified villa forming something like a stone wall around the small palace-tree that Cassandra and her people set up. Leon didn’t like doing it, but for the sake of defense, he was able to tolerate it. It helped that another wall made of stone had been set up around his villa by one of Cassandra’s earth mages, so if they were attacked in the night, his villa wouldn’t be on the frontlines.

Just outside of the camp was a large burn pit, also constructed by one of the Evergolden earth mages. Within it were the corpses of all of the wolves that had attacked them only a few hours before. All of them burned in white fire, Leon having made the decision not to try and save any of their corpses for material processing. He wasn’t going to take that chance after seeing a wolf with its brain covered in green mold. It might be a natural, harmless thing, but he wasn’t going to take any chances that it was some mysterious contagion.

Especially not with the knowledge that his Clan ran a research facility in these parts many years ago.

To the end of finding answers, after setting up the villa, Leon filled Nestor and Xaphan in on what had happened, though he was certain that both already knew most of it since they’d been paying attention to the battle.

[Sounds like this entire forest needs to be burned to ash,] Xaphan calmly stated. [Just let me out, Leon, I’ll see to it. This place will be little more than ash and charcoal by the time I’m done!]

[Hold your horses, candlestick,] Nestor caustically replied. [If burning this entire forest down were possible, don’t you think it would’ve been done by now?]

Though he hated to admit it, Leon agreed with Nestor. [This place is very wet,] he observed as he took a deep, humid breath. [There’s quite a bit of magic down here, and from what I can tell, it has a much higher concentration of water magic in the air than just about anywhere else I’ve been, save for the Wetlands. And that’s not even touching on the sheer size of this forest. Burning it down isn’t practical.]

[In demonfire, everything burns,] Xaphan countered, though not with that much conviction. He believed what he said, but Leon could tell that his demonic partner was simply resigned to not resorting to the most destructive method.

[Maybe next time,] Leon replied.

[Best not to make promises,] Xaphan said. [You don’t want to disappoint any more than you have to.]

[Xaphan, have I ever let you down?]

[Do you really want me to answer that?]

[No. Anyway, do either of you know what in the hells we saw today?]

Nestor answered first. [Hiding magical strength is an unusual, though not unprecedented defensive mechanism in the universe. That said, I’ve never seen it manifest that widely in multiple creatures in the same biome. First those birds, now the wolves…]

[This isn’t why the research facility was set up, was it?] Leon asked.

[No,] Nestor replied. [I would’ve been informed of such a thing. This forest was memorable back then, but this would’ve been of much greater importance.]

[Why? Hiding auras isn’t that difficult a thing to do…]

[Spoken like a true provincial,] Nestor scoffed.

[Indeed, Leon,] Xaphan said, [hiding an aura for a sapient being isn’t that difficult. But doing so perfectly is another matter entirely. There’s always just a little bit that gets out. That’s why when a non-sapient being showcases the ability to hide their aura, it’s always of some significance. There’s potential for study there, among other things…]

[What other things?]

Nestor answered, [Luxury pets. Weapons. Depending on the method of aura containment, possibly alchemical material.]

[I’ve fulfilled many contracts to procure such creatures,] Xaphan admitted.

Leon almost snorted in incredulity. [Really? People would waste your time with things like that?]

[People have wasted their time with a great many things,] Xaphan replied. [People reach out to demons to fulfill their desires, no matter what those desires are. And in my many millennia, I have interacted with a great many people, and fulfilled just about every desire they might’ve made of me.]

Leon almost jumped on that statement, but he let it pass without comment. Nestor, however, wasn’t so restrained.

[So you’re saying, demon, that you’re a whore? You’ve fulfilled every desire, haven’t you?]

[Just about,] Xaphan sniped.

As the two started to bicker, Leon sensed Cassandra approach, and to his surprise, she was accompanied by Valeria. The two women didn’t look to happy to be in the other’s presence, but they came to him with a look of purpose that seemed to outweigh their personal feelings. He turned to face them and greeted each other a quick nod of the head.

“I hope we’re not interrupting anything, Leon,” Cassandra said with a smirk that seemed to cry out that she wouldn’t care if she were interrupting, which she kind of was.

Leon tuned out his arguing soul realm guests and asked, “What’s going on? I thought we weren’t going to meet for another hour or so.”

“I got restless,” Cassandra explained. “So I went and grabbed Valeria and decided to start this meeting early.”

Leon looked at Valeria, who shrugged in ignorance of why the Princess had decided she had to be here, too.

Picking up on their wordless exchange, Cassandra said, “I figured we could all spar when this was over. Our current record cannot stand!”

“Ah,” Leon simply replied, and Cassandra gave him an exasperated look—he presumed for his plain unenthusiasm. Changing topics before she could start complaining, Leon asked, “How are your people doing?”

Cassandra took a deep breath, and for a moment, Leon thought she wasn’t going to let the previous topic go. However, she proved him wrong when she said with a very complimentary tone, “Your alchemist is good; my people are going to be fine. The tree sprite’s toxin didn’t get the time it needed to do any real damage, and our healers were able to take over after the toxin was neutralized.”

“That’s good to hear,” Leon said. “We had tree sprites where I grew up, and I saw one man die after getting attacked by one. He had to be put down by his superior because we didn’t have the ability to heal him, and we didn’t want to see him suffer.”

When he stopped talking, both Valeria and Cassandra remained silent. Valeria, he knew, was simply waiting for Cassandra to get to the point of her starting this conversation, while Cassandra looked awkward enough that she didn’t quite know how to proceed from what Leon had just said.

So, Leon proceeded on his own. He quickly informed them of the results of Anna’s study of the wolf remains.

“… and while it’s not a conclusive set of tests, it does indicate some kind of pattern. Does this sound familiar?”

When Leon finished, Cassandra took a long moment to think. “… No,” she eventually said. “On rare occasions, some bold hunters will bring something back from the Prota Forest, but whatever material they bring back, whatever carcass they might get their hands on, isn’t ever something worth noting for anything besides the sheer novelty. No strange mold covering a monster’s brain, and certainly nothing to do with this aura-less trait that we’ve been seeing.”

“A disturbing pattern…” Valeria muttered as she stared out into the dark forest.

Cassandra pursed her lip slightly, but after a moment’s hesitation, said, “It is. I’ve never seen such powerful creatures able to hold in their auras so well. It’s honestly rather disturbing. How are we going to see hidden enemies if they have no auras?”

“That’s a problem we’re guaranteed to run into,” Leon stated without a shadow of a doubt. “These hordes of wild animals have acted not at all like wild animals that I know. Wild animals are fierce, but not suicidal; they shouldn’t have thrown themselves at us like they did. They must be… Well, I can’t say anything for certain, but it seems entirely likely that something has been sending them at us for their own ends. What, I can’t say. But it’s disturbing, and I’d like to find out what’s going on.”

“As would I,” Cassandra said.

Leon nodded in gratitude for the support, then asked, “Then should I assume that any suggestions to retreat will be…?”

“Ignored,” Cassandra easily finished.

Leon nodded, though he wasn’t quite sure how to think. He supposed if he wanted to keep the research facility strictly secret, then taking this opportunity to fall back would’ve been perfect. However, he was already planning on plundering the research facility for everything that it was worth, so he didn’t much mind showing it off to Cassandra, especially since she already knew that he was of the Thunderbird Clan.

Additionally, given the nature of the research facility—it was here to study local flora and fauna, which had intrigued the researchers from the Nexus—he had a sneaking suspicion that the strange behavior of these animals had something to do with the facility. Finding it would undoubtedly reveal the secret of whatever was going on here, even if the real secret was that he was just jumping to conclusions with nothing more than the barest hints of evidence.

“So, then,” Cassandra said, pulling Leon out of his thoughts, “these locations you’re leading us to, they’re not going to just be ‘good spots for hunting’, as you claimed they’d be, will they?”

Leon still didn’t want to be completely open with the Princess, but after getting mad at her for her own obstinance in telling him about the forest’s dangers, he debated with himself how hypocritical it would be to continue refusing to tell her the truth. He glanced at Valeria, and she gave him a quick, resigned shrug.

He could interpret that well enough: she thought that the Princess was probably going to find this out sooner rather than later, and there wasn’t much point in keeping it as a great secret.

“We might find some stuff there,” Leon vaguely said. “I can’t say with any certainty what we might find, if we’ll find anything at all, but there might be something there. Something related to my Clan.”

Cassandra’s ruby eyes shone like red stars, excitement pouring out of her very being. “So,” she said, barely able to restrain herself, “this really is an adventure, isn’t it?”

Leon sighed, then softly chuckled to himself. “I guess it is. I guess it is.”

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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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