Leon, hovering in the air, watched as his retinue spread out over the treetops. His entire party was with him, save for Elise and Talal, who’d both chosen to remain back at camp—not that he could blame them, given the dangers of the Prota Forest. However, Cassandra wasn’t of the same mind, and despite her own brush with what Leon could only presume were the defenses of the research facility, she still insisted on joining them. In fact, so vigorously did she insist that Leon could only surmise that her brief mental subversion had done nothing but encourage her to find this place.
Along with Cassandra, four of the Evergolden escorts had accompanied them, including one of the seventh-tier mages and three sixth-tiers. The rest of their unit had remained at their camp, ensuring that it wasn’t attacked and destroyed in their absence.
What Leon had assembled everyone here for was quite simple: before they could start trying to subvert the defenses keeping them out of the wide section of forest that he assumed the research facility lay within, they had to first map out its boundaries.
To some extent, this had already been done—the previous day’s scouting missions to all of the sites with significant amounts of local stone had seen to that. What had Leon more confused was the fact that this area was on their maps. This large swathe of forest wasn’t just a giant hole in their maps, which he was inclined to assume meant that cartographers had been through this region before.
However, he had to catch himself when making that assumption, because Cassandra couldn’t remember having had her mind played with, combined with the fact that Leon could still see within this region with his magic senses—not that he could actually see anything of note. He supposed that meant none of the cartographers realized that they’d been forced out of the area, used their magic senses, and never realized that everything they were seeing were illusions.
Of course, all of this just meant that Leon didn’t think he could entirely trust their maps, nor what he was seeing with his magic senses.
As he pondered these things, his retainers kept spreading out across the sky, until they were separated by miles, each. Since they were all in the air and high level mages, they could all still see each other, though.
[Everyone ready?] Leon asked using his mental communication technique. His people, all of them sans helmets to allow him to speak with them in this way, nodded, gave him thumbs up, or otherwise affirmatively acknowledged him. He then glanced at Cassandra and her people, and after a similar exchange, Leon said, [Then let’s get to it. Remember, at the slightest sign of anything playing with your perceptions, halt and put on your helmet!]
Again, Leon’s order was acknowledged, and their entire group began to slowly fly forwards. They didn’t move in unison, however, with Leon, Valeria, Anzu, and the seventh-tier Evergolden mage all flying several hundred feet behind the others. They didn’t know how powerful the initial effects of the mental subversion might be, or where the boundaries of the enchantment lay, so for the sake of ensuring the entire group didn’t stumble into it all at once and have the entire party debilitated, these four kept an eye on everyone else ahead of them.
Like this, the group slowly inched across the sky, flying well below their speed limits and constantly on the lookout for anything at all that might pique their interest.
Alix, close to the middle of their group, was the first to react to something. Leon watched as, for a moment, she seemed to stumble in the air, then glance around as if trying to get her bearings. After a second or two, though, her helmet appeared over her head and she darted backwards a dozen feet and began furiously waving at Leon.
Leon waved back in the agreed-upon signal for her to wait there—with her helmet on, Leon’s mental communication was blocked, leaving them reliant on visual communication.
Gaius was next, having a similar reaction to Alix. After him was one of the Evergolden mages, and then everyone else shortly thereafter. All of them froze in the air, and Leon hurriedly scrawled down their locations on his map.
Once all of that was said and done, Leon had a dozen points on his map showing the outer boundaries of this effect.
Only Leon hadn’t pushed against this boundary yet today, and he was quite curious if he would experience something similar to the mild navigation issues that he’d experienced the day before, especially once he donned his helmet. So, with helmet in place and the other points marked, he slowly flew forward. After a few seconds, he blinked and realized that he was flying in a different direction than before. Despite focusing as much as he could, he couldn’t even say what had happened, just that he simply realized that he wasn’t slowly flying the in direction that he’d thought. He never even realized where any illusions began or ended.
He stopped and glanced back, noting with some relief that he hadn’t traveled that far compared to everyone else, so he marked his location down on the map and then flew back.
Unfortunately, despite their numbers, they’d still need to do this many more times before they had a better feel for the borders of this effect, not to mention testing if these boundaries remained true on the ground. If this effect was in the shape of a dome, then the boundaries Leon was marking might not be accurate to what they’d find down amongst the trees rather than flying over them.
So, with some resignation to the fact that this was going to take a while, Leon and Cassandra got everyone organized to start doing this all over again, but from a different starting point.
“It looks like this is a dome,” Leon said as he stared at the map on the table in front of him.
“But one that’s very tall,” Valeria noted from his left.
“Why would it need to be that big?” Cassandra wondered aloud. “This thing is more than a mile high! What could this thing be trying to hide that’s so tall?”
Her ruby eyes flitted in Leon’s direction as if expecting him to explain, but even if Leon knew the answer to that question, he didn’t think he would’ve.
The three of them, along with the rest of Leon’s retinue and the two seventh-tier Evergolden mages were all packed into the dining room of Leon’s portable villa. Cassandra had offered the meeting room in her palace-tree, but Leon had pointed out that his dining room was just a little bit larger, and he wanted his retinue to join the meeting since they were a part of the mission.
That, and he just didn’t want to meet again on Cassandra’s turf. That might imply that she was running this expedition, and not him, and that was not an implication he wanted to let stand.
As for his map, he’d managed to narrow down the territory covered by this strange magic into a rough oval about forty miles long from the east to the west, and about thirty miles or so long from the north to the south at its widest points. This zone narrowed as it rose, eventually reaching about a mile and half high at its center—which, Leon was quick to note, wasn’t the stone-rich site that Cassandra was going to investigate the day before. That spot, instead, was a little further west, a few miles removed from the center of this warded zone.
“A good question that I’m looking forward to having answered,” Leon replied when he returned Cassandra’s gaze.
The two stared at each other for a long moment before Leon turned his attention back to the map, but he could feel Cassandra’s eyes linger on him for a moment.
Leon continued, “Now the question is how to get in there. Since Her Highness can’t remember everything when she passed the threshold, that means we have no idea how quickly the mental intrusion ramps up, or even how much it might affect us when wearing gear that protects the mind from subversion…”
Cassandra glared at Leon for his little dig at her expense, but then suggested, “We could start cutting our way through the forest. That’ll give us a good idea of how far we can get…”
Gaius then quietly suggested, “A rope would do the trick just fine, and might not antagonize anything here that wants this forest to remain intact.”
He then found himself the target of Cassandra’s ire, and he paled slightly before Leon tapped the table and flexed his aura, relieving the pressure Gaius was under.
“I’m of the same opinion as Gaius,” Leon said as he stared challengingly at Cassandra. “Tie a rope around someone and send them into this marked zone. We’ll monitor as far as we can.”
Cassandra looked like she might try arguing, but after some contemplation, and exchanging glances with her seventh-tier followers, she just nodded.
“Fantastic,” Leon said. “We still have a bit of time left in the day, why don’t we try this now?”
“Last chance to back out,” Leon said to Alcander, who now stood in front of their group with a rope tied around his waist.
“Heh, back out?” Alcander snorted. “More like this is your last chance to take my place. Don’t try and tell me that you’re happy I’m going in and not you!”
Leon smiled wickedly and quietly whispered, “Don’t tell Elise.” Alcander wasn’t wrong; he wanted to be the first one to explore this mysterious place, shrouded by some confusion-inducing magic. However, he knew that was quite reckless, and with Elise taking part in the expedition—even if she was back at camp rather than with them now—his recklessness had to take a step back.
Besides, he was also extremely curious to see just what was going to happen when Alcander went in there, and there was great value in observing from afar rather than experiencing for himself.
Alcander chuckled a few times, but then turned serious as he stared into the forest ahead of him.
It was dark, both from the lateness of the evening and from the sheer density of the untamed forest out here. Yet, he was a fifth-tier mage, and such darkness was no obstacle for him. Still, none of them could see very far into the forest without their magic senses, and Leon didn’t even trust those right now.
“All right, then,” Leon said as he stood back. “Ready when you are.”
The rope around Alcander’s waist was not only securely tied around a stone pillar conjured by one of Cassandra’s mages, but also held by most of Leon’s retinue. It was incredibly long, and another of Cassandra’s mages was using a fascinating enchantment to rapidly growing thin vines that entwined around themselves to create more and more rope—no matter how far Alcander went, they’d have more than enough rope to pull him back. Only Anshu, Valeria, and Anna weren’t holding the rope, as they were too busy watching their flanks and making sure they weren’t going to be ambushed as they watched Alcander, but if needed, everyone could step in.
But with Anzu, Anna’s Attican Snapper, and the rest of Leon’s retinue holding the rope, Leon didn’t think that Alcander was in much danger of not being recovered.
So, without much further ado, Alcander began confidently strolling into the forest, quickly vanishing into the dense darkness between the trees.
Leon watched, his magic senses locked onto Alcander and the area around him. He saw his retainer picking his way through trees and over dry riverbeds and around shallow pits. Alcander was in full armor, his helmet secure, but Leon saw the moment that he started to be affected by the zone. Alcander’s confident stride faltered for a moment, and he started looking around a little more. But he kept moving forward, showing that while he was starting to be affected, it wasn’t quite to the point of total confusion that Leon had found Cassandra in the day before.
At least, not immediately. Alcander kept moving, his pace slowing, his head turning more and more frequently as if he were losing his way. And then he stopped, his head swiveling around as if he’d completely lost himself, and he got himself tangled up in the rope, soon falling to the ground. He flailed about like a drunk after a particularly bad night, and Leon was just about to calmly call this scouting mission off when Alcander suddenly disappeared.
Leon blinked in confusion, noting that most of the rope was still there, but Alcander himself and the last few feet of the rope were just… gone. What was left had fallen to the ground and ceased to move.
“Leon!” Cassandra shouted, but by then, Leon was already moving. Lightning surged through his body as his adrenaline kicked into gear. He could feel the self-recriminations coming on, but he’d barely taken thirty steps before Alcander suddenly appeared not too far away, on his feet, the rope still tied around his waist. He looked much the same as Cassandra had, staring around like he didn’t know where he was, what he was doing, who he was, or even which way was up.
Leon turned in his direction and sprinted for his retainer. Alcander turned to watch in dull confusion as Leon seemingly appeared before him, and barely reacted until Leon hit him with a jolt of the Thunderbird’s lightning.
Alcander fell, and a moment after he hit the ground, he shouted, “Ahh! What the fuck?!”
“Al?” Leon asked as he crouched down over his fallen retainer. “Are you all right?”
“Huh?” Alcander gave him a blank stare just barely visible behind his visor. “I mean, yeah, but… Wait, what’s going on?”
Leon sighed, then held out his hand to help the larger man to his feet. “Come on, we’ll explain on the way.”
“Well, that was a good idea,” Cassandra said with a hint of sarcasm once everyone was back in Leon’s dining room. “Good to rule out any possibility, I suppose.”
“Better to test the simple options, first,” Leon retorted a little testily. “I think we’re just damned lucky that we weren’t attacked at all during all of that. It’s been quiet today…”
“Maybe everything’s giving us a wide berth after seeing how the last few groups got their teeth kicked in,” Marcus suggested.
Leon frowned, but he supposed that made a degree of sense. Still, if Xaphan’s theory about all of the creatures here being connected in some way held true, then it was possible that whatever was controlling them was simply holding back some reserves. He was just concerned that he couldn’t sense anything around here. He knew that there were plant giants, manticores, and goat men, but he couldn’t sense hide nor hair of any of them. The forest for hundreds of miles seemed, as far as he could tell, to be dead silent.
“There are other tests we can run…” Leon murmured, thinking of the tracking arrow that Nestor and Xaphan had thrown together during the campaign on the Serpentine Isles. He’d learned the enchantment in the past eleven years and was confident that he could inscribe it onto anything. However, such a plan would only work if this confusion barrier was all that stood in their way…
“As far as I could tell,” Cassandra said, “Your man was teleported.”
“A surprising show of power,” Leon muttered, “but I can’t say you’re wrong.”
He’d seen enchantments that bent space before in Xaphan’s prison, but he couldn’t sense the same magic at play here. Of course, he could barely sense anything at all of use, but he supposed that was just par for the course at this point.
“This is a real conundrum,” Marcus said. “Honestly, if Al was teleported in there after having any ability to resist taken by this mind-clouding magic, then I don’t think there’s any real way to get in there—at least not without weeks or months of prep work…”
He trailed off, but when Leon glanced at him, he found Marcus staring pointedly at him. Leon thought he knew what the former noble was getting at, and loath as he was to admit it, just like with Cassandra, he couldn’t say that Marcus would’ve been wrong to voice it.
They didn’t have months. Leon was already risking things with Heaven’s Eye by leaving Occulara at such a critical time. He needed to take care of this in one month, at the most. Too much more time, and he wasn’t sure if there would be anything left for him to return to in Occulara; the Director would consolidate his power too much for Leon to be a meaningful threat.
Leon glanced around at everyone else in the room and saw similar looks of defeat, especially in the eyes of the Evergolden guards. Even Maia, Valeria, and Elise didn’t look particularly enthused, with Elise even offering Leon a sad, kind of resigned smile. Cassandra was the one exception, as she was staring at the map with a look of grim determination.
At this point, Leon guessed that Cassandra might simply refuse to leave. She wanted adventure, and they hadn’t run into anything that legitimately threatened their strongest members—he briefly wondered just how concerned Cassandra was that she’d lost two members of the escort squads so far. If Leon and his retinue were to leave, he felt like he’d just be giving up this problem for Cassandra to solve, and he’d never know what was in the research facility.
‘I’ve been too damned hasty,’ Leon thought to himself in frustration. He might have to choose between the research facility and his position in Heaven’s Eye.
“Let’s get some rest,” he declared. “It’s late. We can try something else in the morning. There are still plenty of possibilities that we’ve yet to test, so let’s not get disheartened and pack our bags just yet, yeah?”
He saw acceptance in his retinue, but a few rolled eyes and even one spiteful glare from Cassandra’s people. Cassandra herself barely even looked up from the map.
“Tunneling?” she muttered. “That’s too obvious, but worth a shot, right? Maybe trying to blast our way in? Or flying directly down from above its barrier? But the teleportation…”
Leon smiled as everyone else filed out of the room. At the very least, he could appreciate Cassandra’s determination in this regard. He felt it, too. Though this day hadn’t been that promising, he wasn’t about to—
As he was losing himself in thought, a horn resounded over their camp, and Leon’s heart skipped a beat.
That horn blast could mean only one thing: the camp was under attack.