Whatever had happened to Cassandra to so discombobulate her, it had faded entirely by the time she and Leon had returned to camp. Her anger at having to return, too, had faded, and when they reached the palace-tree, she surprised Leon with a relatively humble apology. She then went to get fully checked out by her own healers, arranging to meet with Leon again when that was finished.

Her check-up didn’t take long, and she invited Leon to her palace-tree to discuss what had just happened about an hour later. By then, Leon had already gotten in touch with Maia, was informed that there was nothing worthwhile at her site, and asked her to return as quickly as she could. She acquiesced with great haste, making it back to the camp barely five minutes before Cassandra sent for Leon, and looking just a little haggard at the pace she’d had to set to do so.

During that time, Leon had informed Elise, Valeria, and the rest of his retinue about everything that had happened over his scouting trip, and he and Valeria began inspecting the most detailed map that they’d been able to acquire of the local terrain as closely as they could. However, that was put on hold as Leon, Maia, and Valeria all made their way into Cassandra’s palace-tree for their meeting.

Once they met with Cassandra in, surprisingly, an actual conference room within the tree instead of a chamber created by its branches and leaves, they were joined by four other Evergolden mages: the two seventh-tier mages in charge of the entire escort, and a pair of fifth-tier mages who seemed to be acting as secretaries for the Princess.

Pleasantries were had, and then Leon and Maia shared their side of the scouting mission. Maia had little to say, having encountered little else save for trees on her journey, but it took Leon almost another hour to get through his story with how many questions Cassandra and her people asked him.

Once he was finally finished, it was Cassandra’s turn.

According to her, she met with little resistance as she sped through the forest. No wolves, no goat men, no tree sprites. The forest seemed to her, for all its ominous reputation, to be perfectly willing to let her travel through it as she pleased. However, as she moved, she claimed that she apparently blacked out, and only regained awareness when Leon shook her awake. At first, she hadn’t realized that she’d blacked out, and had taken Leon’s suggestion to return to the camp and get checked out as a slight against her abilities, but in the hours since, she realized that there was a gap in her memories, and that there were at least twenty, perhaps as many as thirty or forty, minutes when she couldn’t account for where she was or what she was doing.

Fortunately, she’d come back with a clean bill of health.

Leon nodded when she mentioned the results of her check-up, and with Xaphan’s warning in mind, he asked, “If it’s not too much trouble to ask, how thorough was this evaluation? Did it only check physical capabilities, or were your mental faculties cleared as well?”

“You’re asking if I’ve been infected with that green stuff?” Cassandra asked.

Leon nodded again.

“I haven’t,” Cassandra replied. “At least, if that stuff was responsible for my fugue, then it was soon cleared out of my system by the time I was checked out. It’s surprising though, I wouldn’t have thought such a thing could get past my armor…”

“Does your armor have robust anti-darkness enchantments and other enchantments to help filter that sort of gunk out?”

Cassandra frowned in thought. “I can’t describe in detail…” she hesitantly replied, before one of the seventh-tier mages at her side spoke up.

She quickly explained to Leon, “The gear set aside for the Imperial family is of the finest quality. Obviously, none of us have the technical knowledge to truly go over it—not that we would even if we did—but suffice it to say, this sort of threat shouldn’t affect our Princess.”

Leon hummed in thought as he leaned back in his seat. His eyes drifted in Valeria’s direction, and when she gave him a questioning look, he nodded, and she brought out their map.

“I only mentioned it briefly since that fight with the goat men was much more spectacular, but there were several places where I realized I was flying off-course.” As he spoke, Leon marked these locations on the map, then marked down all of the stone-rich locations they were to investigate. “I enchanted my armor myself, and I have great faith in my own defenses against darkness or any other mind-altering magic that I may come across. Still, I believe that I may have been affected by whatever it was that you encountered, Your Highness.”

“You weren’t left wandering the forest, dazed,” Cassandra replied, just a hint of ice in her tone.

“I can’t explain that,” Leon replied without missing a beat, though he noted her slight bitterness, “all I can say is that I wouldn’t have ever expected to lose myself as I did in a forest environment. Whatever might be doing this is subtle, and it can slip past our defenses. That concerns me.”

[Why wasn’t I affected?] Maia wondered.

Leon smiled thinly. “I was wondering the same thing,” he said. “The only thing I can think of is that you never got into range of whatever this might be.” He indicated the map again. Maia’s site was the point that was farthest to the east. Cassandra’s site was roughly northeast, while the three sites that Leon investigated were between northeast and northwest, having started with the latter and then moved east towards the former. “This is useful, though, because it can give us some kind of idea of the boundary that this phenomenon has. I was thinking we could do a little more scouting and see if we can refine this understanding a bit. As it is, it covers a very wide range.”

Leon quickly sketched out an incomplete border around where he’d found Cassandra, the path he’d taken from the first site he’d investigated in the northwest and noticed that he’d been flying off-course, then all the way down to Cassandra’s site. He’d even noticed that he’d flown off-course on the way to her, as well, so he was able to mark off a large swathe of the local forest that could potentially be under the sway of this phenomenon.

“Very well,” Cassandra said. “We should get started on getting more accurate borders immediately.”

“Maybe we should wait until tomorrow morning?” one of the seventh-tier mages suggested, earning her a withering glare from the Princess. However, she didn’t flinch, and stuck to her suggestion. “Let’s just make sure that none of us suffer any ill-effects of whatever this might be instead of entangling ourselves even further into it.”

If Leon had to guess, he would’ve said that none of the other Evergolden escorts wanted to be here. He supposed he could understand, and while he was as eager as Cassandra was to get started, he didn’t want to push these people too far and engender resentment.

Cassandra seemed to consider her subordinate’s words, and when she glanced at Leon, silently asking him for his opinion, he just shrugged and said, “We’re in no hurry. This thing has probably been here for eighty-thousand years, so it’s not like it’s in danger of vanishing in the next twelve hours. One night won’t hurt, and it is going to get dark soon.”

With a sigh of frustration, the Princess wound up begrudgingly agreeing, and the group made their plans for the following day. Once that was over, Leon, Maia, and Valeria returned to Leon’s portable villa and filled in the rest of the retinue on what was going to happen the next day—and unlike this day, they’d actually have something to do.


Leon sat on top of one of the modules of his portable villa, the day’s events and what had been discovered still running through his mind. He stared out into the deep, dark forest, trying to understand what the environment was telling him, and trying to make sense of the problem they’d been presented with.

As an enchanter, he couldn’t understand just how Cassandra had been so affected, especially since he was still sure that he’d been affected too, to a lesser extent. After his experiences in the Serpentine Isles, having been led around by the nose by Jormun and that Primal God, Leon had made sure to study darkness magic in the eleven years since he’d left that awful island chain. He was no expert by any means, but his defenses on his armor were robust enough that he simply couldn’t understand just how he’d been affected without so much as the faintest of signs that his defenses had been breached. That spoke either to power beyond his comprehension, or he was missing the point.

He greatly hoped it was the latter, for that was something he could actually address. If the root of this problem was simply beyond his ability to understand, or was so much more powerful than him that he couldn’t even notice it, then he might have to turn back and give up on this expedition, and that was something that he was not at all willing to do without having very convincing reasons to do so.

In an attempt to understand this, he called upon all of his skill in magic—both of the magic that he wielded as a mage, and the skill he had as an enchanter—and tried to figure out how he’d try and accomplish the same effect.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t think of any ways to replicate this feat. Make something invisible? He could do that in several different ways. Affect someone’s perceptions and leave them stranded in the woods? Sure, he felt like that was within his capacity, so long as he had months of prep time and enough materials.

However, something so subtle that Cassandra was left with an unexplainable hole in her memory, and Leon had been led off-course in a forest multiple times left him feeling rather helpless.

[I don’t suppose you know of anything that might explain this?] Leon asked Nestor after giving the dead man as detailed of an explanation as he could of the conundrum.

[I know of a myriad of different ways to accomplish this feat,] Nestor haughtily responded. [That you can’t simply speaks to the volume of knowledge that you have yet to acquire, and how lacking in true skill you are.]

[Uh huh,] Leon grunted. He certainly didn’t appreciate Nestor’s arrogant tone, but he had no problem bowing the to the man’s expertise, and he was fully capable of admitting that for all his skill in the arts of enchanting, he was a rank amateur compared to his dead kinsman. Getting pissy over something like this simply wouldn’t be productive.

[Get to the fucking point, ghost!] Xaphan irritably shouted, giving Leon some second-hand catharsis.

[Such enchantments were well-known during my time,] Nestor explained. [However, they weren’t what you’d call ‘common’. This research facility didn’t have such protections when it was built, I can tell you that much.]

[Good to know,] Leon replied. [Can you provide any actual insight?]

[I’m getting to it, boy!] Nestor shot back.

[Faster, please.]

[I can’t identify exactly what’s being used,] Nestor growled, [but I can at least clarify some things. Firstly, I don’t think it’s using any darkness magic—at least, in your case. Such magic wouldn’t affect you the way it has. Secondly, you’d know if it had. Thirdly, such magic just to make you fly off course would be terribly inefficient.]

[Ok, so I haven’t run into any darkness magic. Can you guess as to what I did run into?]

[Why don’t you make a guess of your own, since you’re being so impatient?]

Leon scowled, but he played along anyway. He still had many hours left until sunrise, and a couple hours more after that before they could start their work.

[I’ve been wondering that very thing. I haven’t been turned around in a forest in a long time. This place is as close to home as I’ve ever been in outside of the Forest of Black and White. And yet, somehow, I’ve gotten knocked off course. From what I can remember, I didn’t even notice anything, at least until I did.]

[And you detect no darkness magic affecting your mind?] Nestor asked, clearly trying to lead Leon to where he wanted him to go.

[No. It’s almost as if one moment, I’m on the right track, and then the next, I suddenly realize I’ve been flying in the wrong direction for a while.]

[The simplest answer is that you’re simply mistaken.]

[I wasn’t. I don’t get turned around in forests.]

[Then if the fault is not with you, what’s the most likely option after that?]

Leon took a deep breath, weighing the options in his head for a long moment before answering, [An illusion.]

[Good. That’s what I was thinking, myself.]

Leon slowly nodded as he stared out into the forest, the entire place bathed in his magic senses. For all that he could see, the entire forest was empty, devoid of the smallest insects all the way up to the largest predators. It was so eerie, especially given what he’d seen over the past couple of days, and the only explanation was that false information was somehow being fed to him and his people. If the cause was not darkness magic, then the only other explanation that he could think of was that what he was sensing wasn’t what was actually there. The forest was lying to him, somehow.

[How?] Leon asked. [I can’t sense even a hint of notable light magic. Besides, what kind of power requirements would this place need, to block out such a large section of the forest?]

[Who says that’s what’s happening?]

Leon almost responded immediately, but took another moment to stop and think. Then, he conjured his gauntlet with the gem that allowed him to telekinetically control stone. It was next to nothing to find a small pebble in the soil around his villa and summon it to him. Once it was within his grasp, he took a few seconds to use his meager earth magic to carve a light rune upon it. Once the pebble started glowing, Leon used his gauntlet to throw the thing as far as he possibly could.

The glowing stone was blasted away from him and out over the forest, traveling more than half a mile before it began to dip. However, by then, Leon had already seen what he needed to: about a thousand feet away from him, the glowing stone had vanished for a split second before reappearing again, like it had hit the bounds of an illusion enchantment, and the enchantment needed a moment to account for the stone hurtling out across the sky.

[So,] he said after a few seconds of thought, [This illusion… Is only around us?]

[An illusion is around you,] Nestor corrected. [I’m sure there are others.]

Leon nodded in agreement as he turned this realization over in his head. If this one enchantment was all there was, then surely, he’d have seen what the illusion was trying to hide long before now. His range for magic senses was a little over two hundred miles, after all.

As Leon sat thinking this over, Nestor continued, explaining, [There are quite a few complex things going on here, I think. Were I in charge of handling all of this, I would probably use several layers of illusion magic to ensure that people don’t even realize there’s something here, and if anyone got curious enough to test that, they’d still come up with nothing. For those who got too curious, then more conventional defenses might come into play.]

Leon thought about the monsters that had attacked his group so far, and of the many reports—now seeming a little strange in their frequency—of dangerous monsters in the area, and of how confused Cassandra had been when he’d found her earlier.

[Illusions to ward away curiosity…] Leon murmured. [Monsters for those who start approaching and to give this place a reputation… and finally darkness magic to make sure anyone who persists turns around and can’t remember why…]

[Easy enough,] Nestor agreed. [Subtle. Such an enchantment scheme would play perfectly into how people might see a forest like this. Deep, dark, full of danger, and easy to get lost in. And if anyone manages to get past these defenses, I’m sure there are even more within.]

[Yeah…] Leon murmured. [At this point, I wouldn’t be that shocked to see the research facility still operating in there, and with all of the Thunderbird Clan defenses still running. If that’s the case, what might I expect?]

Nestor sighed dramatically. [Oh, I wouldn’t be that certain the place is still up and running, but I suppose there wouldn’t be much harm in assuming the worst. I would caution you against weapons like the ‘Lances’ that the people of this plane have aped, only much more dangerous. Golems are a given, I should think. Other than that, static wards like light barriers and fortifications of stone and metal are about what to expect. This place wasn’t nearly as sensitive as my lab, or the prison where our little fiery friend was kept, but those places also had large local garrisons to ensure security. This place would’ve had a garrison, to be sure, which would’ve pulled out in our Clan’s fall, leaving this facility without its most potent defense. As advanced as our wards are, they were all, for the most part, meant to stall an enemy long enough for a military response.]

[That’s heartening to hear, I guess,] Leon said. [I’m sure there’re more defenses now, though. This place is clearly not abandoned. But I question if it’s human. Still, whatever it is, it doesn’t want us here.]

[Are you going to turn around? Just let whatever this thing is toss you out like yesterday’s trash?]

Leon grimly smiled. [Of course not. I’m not going to stop until I either get inside that research facility or confirm that there’s nothing of it left. If someone’s trying this hard to keep me out, then that only means there’s something good in there, and I want it all the more.]


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