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As Leon flew over the forest, his caution never wavering, he asked Nestor and Xaphan both, [Were you two paying attention to that ambush?]

[No,] Nestor bluntly replied.

[I was,] Xaphan admitted, sounding like he was grinning madly. [That was quite a blunder on your part. Getting a little too used to your magic senses, are you? Can’t handle it when you’re unable to sense threats coming? Unused to actually using your physical senses?]

Leon gritted his teeth in frustration, but he couldn’t honestly refute any of Xaphan’s points. It was true: he was reliant on his magic senses now, and if he’d been paying more attention with his physical senses, then he might’ve avoided some pain. Given how quickly the goat men went down once he got going, he figured he might’ve even taken them all out before they managed a response, if he’d only been a little more on-point.

[Relax,] Nestor said, though his tone lacked any warmth. [You survived, so all’s well that ends well. Just don’t do something so stupid again.]

[And when you do,] Xaphan added, [call on me.]

[Really?] Leon inquired skeptically. [Is killing some feral goat men in the woods something you’d deign to spend your precious time on?]

[Not specifically,] Xaphan replied. [However, my healing is going slowly enough that I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to stretch my legs a little. Use my power, you know.]

Leon nodded. [I’ll keep that in mind. But for now, I was hoping to pick your brains as to how in the name of the Ancestors did those goat men know I was there?!]

[You were using your shadow cloak?] Nestor asked.

[Yes.]

[The one you cobbled together for your tiny Thunderbird form?]

[Uh huh.]

[You have to know that that one’s incredibly flawed. I mean, so is the one you’re using right now, but that one for your larger body is really bad. I’m surprised it even completely covers you from physical sight, let alone anything else.]

[It works well enough for about fifteen minutes,] Leon explained. [After that, the cloak starts to decay. It hadn’t decayed that much by the time I landed at that site, they shouldn’t have seen me. And yet, somehow, they did. They were strong, but they seemed to lack magic power. I’m just trying to understand everything here…]

Xaphan then suggested, [Why don’t you run through everything again? Go through it all with a fine-tooth comb and see if you notice anything you’ve missed.]

Leon took a deep breath and ran through the entire encounter with his soul realm guests. His initial arrival at the site, the ambush, his counterattack, and finally ending with the moving tree and its pollen attack that he was quite certain wasn’t possessed by a tree sprite.

[Hmm,] Nestor hummed. [I’ll try and think of something, but again, biology isn’t my thing.]

[Then pipe down,] Xaphan retorted. [Leon, have you considered the possibility that all of this is connected?]

[How do you mean? Connected how?]

[I’m saying that there’ve been quite a lot of encounters in this forest, have you considered the possibility that everything here shares some kind of will? I’ve seen similar things before, where some kind of creature makes its way into an environment and proceeds to take over everything within—usually with some kind of mind-dominating darkness magic.]

[You’re saying that you think everything here might be controlled by something?]

[Given what you’ve found so far, I would say this is a strong possibility. You breathe in that green ‘pollen’—I’m sure that’s not what that green stuff is, but we can go with that, for now—and that’ll cause that mold to grow on your brain. You’ll find your body being taken over by whatever created those spores to begin with.]

[That’s… a disturbing thought,] Nestor whispered.

[You’re one to talk,] Leon shot back with great venom. [That’s essentially what you tried to do to me back in the day.]

Nestor wisely decided not to respond, so Leon turned his attention back to Xaphan.

[If I wanted to confirm this hypothesis of yours, how might I go about doing so?]

Leon could almost see Xaphan shrugging in the brief silence that followed his question.

[Honestly,] the demon of flame said, [I’d just burn this whole forest down, hivemind or no. It’s already proven itself to be hostile and incredibly fucking creepy, I wouldn’t allow it to continue to exist.]

[Mmhmm. I’ll take your advisement under consideration, but I doubt my answer will be the same as the last time you made that suggestion. But, to get back to the point, that doesn’t really explain why they knew I was there when I was invisible.]

[You’d landed on a tree root, didn’t you? We just saw a tree move of its own accord, is it so hard to believe that you were revealed by physical contact?]

Leon frowned in thought. If even the trees could be turned against him, then there was no place in the forest that could be considered safe, and remaining invisible wasn’t a real option… not that he was in a hurry to drop his current invisibility.

He sent a quick warning to Maia and resolved to treat the trees themselves as potential enemies, too, so long as he remained within the forest.

Leon looked around at the forest as he flew over it, unseen—or so he hoped. As far as both danger and beauty went, he didn’t think the place yet held much of a candle to the Forest of Black and White, but it was still quite a beautiful sight. At the very least, burning it all down as Xaphan had suggested wasn’t something he was eager to do. As he admired the forest, he realized that he’d somehow gotten off course, and quickly corrected himself. The third site he was going to visit was the farthest from the camp, but he was a little surprised that he’d drifted off course so far.

[So, demon, you were just going to offer suggestion to confirm your theory?]

[Was I going to do that? Funny thing, I don’t remember ever intending to do so…]

Leon bit down on his anger, and though he was speaking mentally, he felt like he was still speaking through clenched teeth. [You were, Xaphan. Anything else would’ve been quite ridiculous, wouldn’t you say? After floating that idea?]

[Hmm, honestly, I don’t know how you would go about confirming this,] Xaphan admitted. [I’ve encountered such mentally-linked creatures before, but I’ve never bothered to study them. Perhaps this is something that you should involve someone else in?]

Leon rolled his eyes so hard in response that he almost thought they were about to pop out of their sockets. It seemed he’d reached the limits of what his soul realm passengers could do, so the conversation died down.

As he flew, he found his mind drifting several times as he passed over the endless green sea of the forest canopy, and every time he refocused and got his bearings, he’d found that he’d drifted off course again. He was still getting closer, but he found it a little strange that he kept drifting like he was. In a forest, even one as strange and eerily silent as this one, he was confident enough in his navigational skills to never get lost, or even to go off track, and yet here he’d done it four times already.

So, with Xaphan’s theory in his head, he came to a stop about five miles from the final site and gave himself as thorough of an examination as his magic senses allowed—which was exceptionally thorough. Fortunately, he found no signs that he was being mentally manipulated, but he flooded his system with the Thunderbird’s lightning just in case.

But, finally, after several hours of flying around above the forest, he arrived at the final site with large amounts of local stone at or near the surface. And what he found was fairly promising, being a large pit with stone poking through here and there, and a large pool of surprisingly clear water down in the center of the pit. Most of the ground was mossy and covered in dirt, but that dirt layer above the stone was thin enough that there weren’t many plants, let alone large trees, growing on it. What stone he could see resembled terraces moving down into the pit and had relatively regular shapes, though somewhat obscured by millennia of erosion.

Given what he could see, he guessed that he was hovering over a quarry that had been left abandoned for a terribly long time.

Taking some risk, Leon conjured his earth-manipulating gem into the gauntlet that usually held his anti-magic gems and activated the enchantment. He felt the magic reach down into the wet soil and start latching onto stone, and it didn’t take long for him to seize control of some fairly sizable chunks.

Leon pulled these chunks free of the earth and found that they were all of roughly the same size, being cubic, with all sides a little shorter than he was tall. Some of the chunks he checked were cracked and broken, but he could still see the regular edges carved by tools and smoothened by erosion.

‘This place must be where they quarried the stone for the research facility,’ Leon thought to himself. ‘Then it must be close!’

He cast his magic senses out wide, hoping to find any sign of what he was looking for. Unfortunately, he couldn’t detect anything, and the rest of the sites that he’d discovered with his sensor enchantment weren’t particularly close to this former quarry.

Before he could ponder what he’d found anymore, some movement caught his eye, and he instinctively rose higher into the air and let the hovering stones fall back to the ground.

Only a couple seconds after they hit the ground, quietly walking out of the forest came a massive creature of such size and obvious ferocity that he wondered for just a moment how he’d not seen it until now. A moment later, the creature’s lack of aura immediately explained why.

It was easily thrice as long as he was tall, with the body and head of a lion, the horns of a ram, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a scorpion. Its hide was a golden brown, with feathers to match, and a pair of burning red eyes that swiveled all over the quarry as if searching for something.

This was a manticore, Leon realized. Such creatures were incredibly rare, and as far as he knew, supposed to be incredibly strong. However, this one lacked all magical aura, so he wasn’t able to clearly see just how strong this one was. But what he could see was rippling muscle beneath its lustrous coat, long claws that glittered like polished black steel, an erect scorpion’s tail that glistened in the sun, and when it growled, Leon saw for just a moment vicious fangs that looked sharp enough to slice clean through a man with hardly any effort. Its mane and lack of pants made it clear enough that this manticore was male.

The manticore advanced further into the former quarry, made a deep chuffing sound, and then leaped down to the bottom of the quarry, landing right next to the small pool.

When the monster had first arrived, given his demeanor, Leon had thought that it had been looking for him. But as the manticore, still guarded, began to quietly lap at the water in the pool, he wondered if his assumption had been in error.

For a long moment, Leon watched the beast drink its fill, captivated by his size and raw physical power. He even considered the possibility of trying to capture him to bring back to Anna to add to her growing menagerie.

However, when the manticore stepped back from the pool and began pawing at the ground, Leon immediately abandoned those plans, for down in the dirt, he saw the manticore using one of his claws to scratch a crude water rune.

‘He’s sapient?!’ Leon thought in surprise.

Whatever he was doing, the manticore didn’t finish before he suddenly froze and glared back into the forest. Leon followed the manticore’s gaze and was even more surprised to see an enormous humanoid figure standing at the edge of the forest and the quarry, especially since he’d been actively trying to use his physical senses as much as his magic senses.

This figure had relatively human proportions, though was about the height of a stone giant. It lacked any definably human features save for its overall body shape, however, for its body was entirely made up of hundreds of sticks, twigs, and logs of varying sizes bound and held together by tough-looking vines, moss, and colorful mushrooms.

This, Leon realized, was one of the plant giants that he’d heard about. His eyes widened and he dropped down closer to the quarry. He didn’t get so close that he felt like he was in danger of being seen, but he wanted to see what was about to happen with a little more clarity and examine the newcomer a little more closely.

The manticore drew his attention when he loudly roared in challenge and assumed a threatening posture. The plant giant looked not at all disturbed and simply stood there at the edge of the quarry, seemingly staring right back at the manticore with nonexistent eyes. It had no face at all, but its ‘head’, made of a large piece of petrified wood, was still pointing at the manticore.

Two more plant giants then sprouted from the earth like whales gently breaching the surface of the ocean. They were slightly smaller than the first giant, but not at all different in any other respect. Once they’d assumed their positions, the three began to slowly make their way down into the quarry.

The manticore roared again, but the beast sounded much less sure of himself this time, and Leon wasn’t that surprised to see him turning around and taking off into the air, his eagle’s wings beating extremely hard to carry him to the opposite edge of the quarry.

The plant giants didn’t seem at all concerned and continued to head down to the pool. Leon avidly watched as they silently and motionlessly stood around the pool, but was disappointed when nothing more seemed to happen. He watched the manticore high-tail it into the forest and vanish from sight much sooner than he should have given Leon’s power, leaving Leon alone with the giants, watching them intently. From this close of a distance, he could definitely see the resemblance between them and the stone giants in the Border Mountains, but that didn’t mean that they were somehow related to golems. So, Leon decided to consult the expert.

[Nestor,] he whispered. [What do you take these things for? Golems?]

Nestor was quiet for a long moment, but Leon felt the dead man’s magic senses project outward. Nestor didn’t have very good range, so despite his own misgivings about getting closer to the forest floor, Leon dropped a little and did just that.

[No,] the dead man eventually replied. [No, these are something else entirely… These are not golems…]

Leon frowned. [Are you sure? You haven’t exactly been that welcoming to giants descended from your golems before…]

[That was different. Those were undeniably my creations; my arguments then were to try make you see your mistake in assuming that they were ‘alive’. These are something else entirely, these are not any kind of golem that I’ve ever seen.]

[Huh. What in the hells are they, then?]

[I couldn’t tell you, boy. Regardless, I would advise against tangling with them.]

Leon nodded in response, having not had any intentions of doing so to begin with.

He hovered in the air, watching the motionless giants for a while longer. It eventually became clear that they weren’t going to move again, and without any other kind of knowledge of just what they were doing, Leon decided to head back out into the forest in search of the research facility. So, with one last glance over his shoulder at the plant giants standing motionless over the pool, Leon flew back over the primeval forest.

As he rose back into the air, he projected his magic senses once again and located Cassandra and Maia. His river nymph mate was doing just fine, her water dragon having borne her all the way to her site, where she was looking around for any sign of man-made structures. This was quite relieving, for Leon saw Cassandra standing in the middle of a clearing, looking quite dazed and confused as she slowly turned in circles, staring at the forest around her. He couldn’t tell what exactly was going on with her, but he at least knew that it wasn’t good.

He took off in her direction, moving as quickly as he could. She didn’t look to be in any immediate danger, but given Xaphan’s warning about possible influence from some intelligence that governed this forest, Leon couldn’t take that at face value.

However, along the way, somehow, Leon found himself flying in the wrong direction. He hadn’t been turned around completely, but he realized at some point that his bearing was more than sixty degrees off Cassandra.

He didn’t stop to question it, but instead reoriented himself and continued flying with all haste in her direction.

When he reached her, he landed in her clearing with great energy, revealing himself as he landed.

Cassandra reacted slowly and with little in the way of understanding or recognition. She was in full armor, so he could only see her eyes, but they seemed dazed and unfocused.

“Cassandra!” Leon shouted, hoping she’d react in some way. However, she just slowly blinked and stumbled away from him.

Without hesitation, Leon lunged forward and hit her with an appreciable blast of the Thunderbird’s lightning. Her armor was powerful, but it lacked any independent power sources—its defensive wards, like nearly all armors that Leon had seen or created himself, were entirely powered by the mage wearing it. As a result, her defenses were down, and Leon’s power hit her hard.

The Imperial Princess reeled, then tripped over a root and fell to the ground.

“Ow!” she shouted. “What the Ashen fuck!”

She glared up at Leon in anger, her eyes now infinitely more focused than they’d been just a moment before, but that anger quickly turned to confusion as she glanced around at her surroundings.

“Where are we?” she asked.

“Most of the way to the location you were going to investigate,” Leon explained. “I found you just standing here in the clearing looking like you’d forgotten how to exist.”

“What?” Cassandra shook herself a bit, then pushed herself to her feet.

“Do you remember what happened?” Leon asked.

Cassandra didn’t immediately respond, but continued to stare at the forest around them. Her helmet obscured her expression, but from her body language alone Leon could tell that she was thoroughly confused.

“No…” she replied. “I don’t… how did I get here?”

Leon frowned. “Are you feeling all right? Well enough to get back to camp?”

“Of course I do, but why would I want to return to camp? I haven’t done what I need to, yet!” Cassandra indignantly replied, her confusion going full circle as it gave way to anger.

“Because something happened to you,” Leon incredulously replied. “Look, let’s just head back and get you checked out. Make sure that nothing’s wormed its way into your head. I have some reason to think that may be a possibility. This ruin I’m looking for isn’t going anywhere, so let’s err on the side of caution, yeah?”

“I’m perfectly capable…” she began to insist, but as she took a step forward to emphasize her point, she stumbled, barely catching herself before she landed face-first in the dirt. Leon instinctively rushed forward to try and catch her, but she just waved him off. After a moment’s thought, she whispered, “Fine, I think I could use a bit of rest anyway…”

Leon quickly sent an update to Maia, and then he and Cassandra, after taking a few moments to orient themselves, took off into the sky and started to slowly make their way back to camp. Leon was gratified to see that the Princess’ condition rapidly improve, but he was still deeply concerned to have seen her so affected.

As they flew, Leon once again found himself flying off course and in need of reorientation. This time, however, he didn’t just dismiss it. He started to think that maybe there was something out in the forest causing this phenomenon, but for the moment, he put it out of his mind. That would need to be investigated later, once the Princess was back in camp.

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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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