A note from warden1207

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It was the day after they entered the Prota Forest, and the decision had been made to continue. As they expected, though, the second day proceeded about as eventfully as the first, with their party being attacked three times as they trudged through the forest. There didn’t seem to be any kind of rhyme or reason to the attacks, but they were growing steadily stronger.

The first was easily repelled. Another pack of wolves had stalked them through the forest and attacked while their back was turned. Fortunately, this time there weren’t any tree sprites to support the ambush, and with Anshu and the others who’d been injured the day before fully healed, the wolves were no match.

The second was a little rougher, with a huge boar recklessly charging their position as they passed through a small valley, crushing the earthen obstacles that the Evergolden mages erected in its way. It didn’t stop until Alcander rushed forward and wrestled the boar to a standstill, getting a rough gouging in doing so when the boar’s tusks scraped against his forearm. Gaius ducked in and sliced the boar’s belly open, while Marcus shot it in the eye, so the boar went down and Alcander was quickly healed.

Finally, a solitary panther struck, and true to its nature as an ambush predator, it had managed to savage one of the Evergolden escorts before Leon put it down.

Worryingly, all of these attacks came with absolutely no warning. The beasts didn’t emit even a single solitary aetos of magic power, and the forest itself seemed to be working to hide their movements. They made no sound until the moment they attack Leon’s party, and even with all of his ranging experience, Leon could find no tracks of any kind along their path. Not for rabbits, not for squirrels, not for anything. The forest remained just as silent and still as it had been the day before, with the attacks being the only exception.

It was disturbing, but not so much that anyone argued for them to turn back. So far, their power had seen them through these obstacles easily enough, and that didn’t seem about to change.

However, there were a few quiet whisperings that they should call for backup, or at least let Evergold know what was going on. Even though all of their sustained injuries had been relatively minor and easily fixed with healing magic, that wasn’t necessarily going to always be the case, and Leon had been able to see that some discontent was growing within the Evergolden escort. They were too disciplined to bitch openly, but he could see it in their demeanor and hear it in their quiet whispers when they thought their superiors weren’t listening.

Cassandra had flatly turned down all requests to send for reinforcements, the idea that this was going to be a great adventure appealing to her vanity too much to ask for aid. However, her two seventh-tier escorts were able to convince her to at least make use of a comm stone to send back reports to Evergold.

Adding onto those reports came the results of Anna’s continued examinations. She’d cut open more wolf corpses, the boar, and the panther, and found that all of their brains were covered in the same strange green moss as those beasts from the day before. Leon and Cassandra had each ordered their people to ensure that their physical defenses were always up, and to flood their bodies with their magic on a regular basis to ensure that nothing was taking root within their own heads.

Still, they proceeded with great caution, and as a result, they didn’t make much progress during that second day. They reached the first of Leon’s three discovered points, and all they found was an enormous stone hill, mostly covered by dirt and local flora.

The hill was unworked, having clearly never seen the business end of a chisel or an earth mage, but as they drew nearer to inspect it a little more closely, a huge chunk of it began to move. The ground shook, the hill vibrated with greater and greater intensity, and then it suddenly fell still as Leon and Cassandra ordered their people to fall back into the forest.

But its stillness lasted only a moment, and this chunk of stone suddenly exploded out of the rocky side of the hill, held aloft by thick green vines covered in hundreds of flowers with bright blue petals surrounding dull gold discs. These vines coiled and twisted around the boulder, and the disc in the center of each flower opened, revealing the discs to be eyes. They weren’t human eyes, being completely round and colored like polished amber, but they flitted about with incredible speed, and as they all started locking upon Leon’s party, three more vines, each covered in flower-eyes of their own, burst out of the earth around the hill.

The first of these monsters was the largest and slowest of the group. The boulder its vines were wrapped around was easily twice the size of a carriage, and the central trunk of these vines was so large that three full-grown men would struggle to encircle it with their hands. The other vines were considerably smaller, enough that Leon was sure he could’ve wrapped his arms around them and grasped his own wrists.

As with everyone else in this forest, none of the vines emitted any magical aura, but they made their hostility clear when a wave of killing intent hit Leon and floored several of the weaker members of the party, including Gaius, Helen, and Alix. The big vine flexed, and then the earth at their feet split open and more reasonably sized vines sprang out trying to wrap themselves around the incapacitated members of the party.

Without hesitation, Leon responded with a wave of fire, turning most of these vines to ash in less than a second, freeing those who’d been grabbed.

“Kill them all!” Cassandra shouted, and opened up with her light magic.

An intense fusillade of magic was unleashed, and in a moment, the small vines were squealing like stuck pigs, and their amber flower-eyes were spinning in their sockets.

Leon kept up his pressure using fire. With every wave of his hand, another wave of deadly fire swept forth, consuming the vines attacking them.

But the big vine wasn’t going to take that lying down, and it flexed again, the fires that washed over it seemingly giving it no pause. The vine’s amber eyes then rolled about within their flowers, and a moment later, flashed with orange light. Intense beams of light lanced outwards from every eye, slicing one of the two dozen Evergolden escorts in half at the waist, killing her immediately. Three more of the escorts had limbs severed, and four more were injured.

Leon was enraged when he saw that his retinue didn’t escape the attack unharmed. Alcander took a beam in the belly, and while it didn’t slice through his armor, he was still hurled to the ground and didn’t move again. Marcus was blasted back, and like Alcander, went still.

Losing patience, Leon surged forward, his aura blazing with heat. All of the vine’s amber eyes swiveled in his direction and glowed again, preparing another shot, and Leon pulled his anti-light magic gem into his gauntlet. With a pulse of magic power through this gem, the light in the vine’s eyes faded, and it reeled back as if physically struck.

Leon closed the distance, but just as he came within good range to use his fire without putting the rest of the party in danger, the vine slammed back down, using the boulder it had entangled like an enormous club. Leon had to throw himself to the side to avoid being hit, and when he hit the ground, more vines came tearing out of the ground all around him.

Without hesitation, Leon let his fire magic pour of his body from every angle. He seemed to explode into orange flame, which then twisted around him into a fiery tornado within which the new vines disintegrated.

The big vine twisted away from this conflagration, but when its eyes turned toward the black figure within the fire and began to glow again, the light within their eyes vanished with another pulse of magic power. Leon then came hurtling out of his fiery twister, his family’s sword blazing with fire, and swung toward the vine, sending a huge wave of fire crashing down upon it.

A truly unnatural shriek came out of the vine, and as it burned, it twisted at Leon again, trying to crush him beneath its boulder before it died. However, before it could bring its improvised club back around, a water dragon crashed in and sank its watery jaws around the vine’s base, snapping and tearing at the strange creature. Almost simultaneously, Cassandra appeared in a flash of light, Sunlight alight with deadly power, and she cleaved right through the vine with seeming ease, cutting what was above ground in half.

The vine shrieked again, and its top half writhed on the ground as it burned in Leon’s fire. Maia’s water dragon, meanwhile, didn’t give up, kept its jaws locked around the vine just where it burst from the ground, and ripped with great might. The shrieking grew louder as the water dragon pulled the vine out from where it had taken root beneath the stony hill, and Leon heard the snapping of countless roots as the vine succumbed to the water dragon’s strength.

But he was incredibly unnerved as an enormous bulbous orb was torn from the ground, countless snapped roots coming out from its bottom half, while a dozen cut vines thrashed about helplessly in the air. Most distressing was what could only be described as a face on one side of the massive bulb, with a pair of large amber eyes half the size of Leon’s entire body whirling about in their sockets, and a huge, gaping mouth that lacked teeth, open wide and screaming in agony.

Now that it was out of the ground, the screaming was almost painful, hitting Leon’s eardrums like needles. He called upon his power, intending to silence this monster forever, but then, seemingly of its own accord, its mouth snapped shut. Its bigger eyes froze for a moment, then swiveled around to stare at Leon and Cassandra, who now stood right in front of it from where Maia’s water dragon held it aloft.

A massive wave of killing intent hit Leon, one large enough to have his vision swimming. Cassandra came out worse for it, falling to her knees from the sheer weight of this creature’s antipathy, but Leon was still in condition to fight. He called upon the Thunderbird’s lightning, then pointed his sword at the creature and let it all flow out of him.

The clearing that had formed around their battle lit up with silver-blue lightning. The heat set nearby trees that weren’t already burning on fire, nearby leaves were incinerated in a microsecond, and the thunder that accompanied Leon’s power shook and snapped some of the tree trunks around them that had already been scorched by fire.

Leon’s lightning fried the bulb, blackening it from the intense heat and popping both amber eyes like overripe grapes. But then, the bulb’s mouth, presumably in one last act of defiance, opened, and from it poured a veritable ocean of dark green pollen so thick it was opaque.

This cloud rolled over Maia’s water dragon immediately, and Leon heard it lose all cohesion in an instant. Making a snap decision, he summoned all of his skill in wind magic and tried to throw back this oncoming pollen cloud. He didn’t know what it might do, but he could tell that it wouldn’t be good.

At first, he didn’t think it would work, but then Anzu came charging in, as did two more of the Evergolden escort, both wind mages, and Leon’s wind barrier was bolstered enough that the cloud was rebuffed. As it roiled backward, it started to dissipate, and Cassandra sprang to her feet and shouted, “Fall back! Get away from this thing!”

Leon agreed wholeheartedly with the order, and he led his own people backward to put significant distance between them and the pollen cloud, making sure that his wind barrier remained up at all times. The entire party reeled backward as fast as they could, stopping only to grab their fallen companions, until they’d put more than a thousand feet between themselves and the now-dissipating pollen cloud.

“All right,” Cassandra said as they came to a halt, “what the Ashen fuck was that thing?”

Leon was surprised that she didn’t know what this thing was, given that it was in her Empire, but he didn’t let that thought out. Instead, he focused entirely on Marcus and Alcander, both of whom were still unconscious after taking those light blasts. He ran over to his fallen retainers and called upon the power of the tau pearl. Alix and Gaius, who’d grabbed both of the other former noblemen, had already started in on using some healing spells, but the wounds each of Leon’s men had taken were severe.

Marcus and Alcander both had intact suits of armor, but between some of the plates and wyvern scales leaked blood, showing that at least some of the vine’s attacks had managed to get through. How, Leon was unsure, but as he called upon the tau pearl to aid his people, it took a surprising amount of time before he got the slight resistance from the pearl that told him they were as healed as the thing could make them.

But Leon wasn’t done. He looked around and saw that the Evergolden warrior who’d been cut in half was already covered on a litter with two of her comrades standing guard around it. The other three who’d had limbs sliced off were being seen to, and Cassandra herself had taken charge, seeing to a sixth-tier Evergolden mage by holding up her severed arm to the stump and flooding the connection with ethereal white light, slowly reattaching the arm. Similar scenes were happening with the other two, and Leon quickly joined them, adding the power of the tau pearl to the mix. Soon enough, all three of the Evergolden mages were back on their feet, looking a little pale, but otherwise none the worse for wear. The remaining four injured Evergolden warriors had quaffed healing potions, and in this time, their wounds closed and were seen to by their healers.

“How’s everyone doing?” Leon shouted once it seemed like everything had calmed down.

He heard back from all of his retainers that they were fine, and when Cassandra did her own headcount, she came back with much the same results. All in all, they’d only lost the one Evergolden warrior who’d been cut in half.

Once all of that was done, Leon turned back to the battlefield. They’d made quite the mess of the area, blasting another huge hole in the forest and leaving little else save for ash and charcoal. The smaller vines had been burned to cinders, but the bigger vine yet remained, and Leon saw that Anna was already staring off in its direction.

He started making his way over to her, stopping for a moment to check in with Elise and Talal, who were both mercifully fine.

“What did you make of all that?” Leon asked Anna once he reached her.

His retinue’s beastmaster didn’t immediately respond, instead staring at the dead bulbous creature as it quietly smoldered on the ground. As Leon waited for her response, Cassandra joined them in staring at the unmoving vine monster.

“That was quite the fight, wasn’t it?” she excitedly exclaimed.

Leon turned to her, a little shocked at her unabashed enthusiasm. He didn’t blame her for that enthusiasm—there was a part of him that had relished the fight, too—but the fact that she was so loud about it after losing one of her people rather irked him.

Leon simply quietly responded, “It was… something, all right.”

“You’re overwhelming me with your joy,” Cassandra sarcastically replied. “Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts about proceeding?!”

Leon frowned and glanced back at her, and, conscious of the fact that the rest of the party was probably listening in, he replied as respectfully as he could without lowering himself, “Injuries are one thing. If it were just me heading out into this forest, that would also be one thing. But when people start getting killed and dismembered, then I’d say a little time to think is warranted.”

He wasn’t seriously thinking about turning around, but if he could convince the Princess to do the same by appealing to her responsibility to her people, then that was another thing entirely…

Cassandra stared at him for a moment, then turned away and didn’t respond, leaving the door open for Anna to finally speak.

“That was a little more dangerous than I think might’ve been apparent,” she said.

Leon, eager for any change in topic, asked, “What did you see during that fight?”

“Not much I can really say here,” she said. “Just that I think that cloud that it vomited at us looked a lot like the mold that was growing on those wolves’ brains.”

Cassandra, still listening to them, asked, “Are you saying that those wolves were attacked by that creature?”

“There’s a lot I can speculate about that,” Anna said, her tone helpless. “There’re too many unknowns. Maybe those wolves encountered another of these things. Maybe that mold is nothing. Maybe I’m completely wrong and the two aren’t that similar. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Regardless, I think if we see any more big green clouds, we should stay far away. Maybe kill it with fire, if possible.”

Leon smiled. “That, I can do.” He then turned back to Cassandra and said, “I think we should make camp here. Get some rest and prepare to scout out the other sites tomorrow. I think we’re going to have to reevaluate how we’ve been going about this.”

Cassandra looked almost ready to argue, but then she glanced up at the early afternoon sky, and then looked to her people. It was plain to Leon that none of them were eager to continue, especially after having lost one of their number, but they were all too professional to actively complain. Still the two seventh-tier mages leading the escort squad were staring quite intensely at Cassandra, and the Princess appeared to get the picture.

“Very well,” she said. “Let’s make camp, and then we can talk about how we to proceed.”


A note from warden1207

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