When Leon bolted outside, his weapon drawn and armor donned, he found that the horn hadn’t been sounded for nothing: a dozen plant giants, each one twice as large as a stone giant, had surrounded the outer wall of their camp and were steadily advancing toward them.
Each one’s proportions were subtly different, but they were all roughly human in shape. For all their minor differences, however, they were all made up of tangled vines, fallen trees, and thick clumps of leaves. None of them radiated an aura—not that Leon expected them to, at this point—but he noticed that one of them was considerably more colorful than the others, with bright red flowers and white and pink mushrooms growing over its constituent logs.
This one unusual plant giant was the only one not moving; the rest were taking long, pondering steps toward the wall.
“Halt!” a sixth-tier Evergolden mage shouted.
Leon almost burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the order, but the fact that none of the other Evergolden mages stopped moving told him all he needed to know: the order wasn’t expected to be followed, they just needed to say it to justify to themselves what was about to happen.
Besides, it wasn’t like making the demand was going to do them any harm, so he supposed there wasn’t any reason not to try.
As Leon began running for the wall, his retinue came bolting out of the villa from several sides and joined the rest of the Evergolden mages in charging at the wall, ready to defend their camp.
The first blow came just as Leon leaped and landed on the ramparts—the first plant giant came to a halt within its arm’s reach of the wall and used its forward momentum to swing into a massive punch. The giant was large and undoubtedly strong, but Leon was still startled to see the wall nearly crumble when it made contact. The entire wall shook and shuddered under the impact, and several of the lower-tiered mages lost their footing.
Any possible ideas that this wasn’t an attack vanished under that blow. Magic began to fly, and the giants found themselves the target of a withering fusillade of elemental magic.
Leon himself launched himself into the air, spent a moment hovering as lightning surged through his body, and then he struck the nearest plant giant with a bright silver-blue lightning bolt. The wall again shook, but this time it was the force of the accompanying thunder that caused it. The struck giant immediately burst into flame, and one of its arms was severed and almost entirely dissolved into ash.
For just the swiftest of moments, Leon’s eyes narrowed. Just like the goat men, these giants seemed quite strong, but then proved themselves fragile. That had just been his opening move, and yet the giant had been horrifically maimed.
Despite that damage, though, the giant continued lumbering on, seemingly heedless of the fire that raged about it.
The floral giant, however, pulsed with potent and surprising power, and when it raised its hand, three bright red flowers bloomed along its arm’s vines. A moment later, the burning giant was quenched, leaving it horribly burned, and its arm still severed, but no longer actively burning.
Leon glared at the floral giant, feeling a hint of indignation at this thing that would douse his magic. So he reached up into the sky, his power causing a large cloud to gather above the camp. At the exact same time as a flash of light from Cassandra bifurcated a giant with a beam of white light from head to waist, three bolts of silver-blue lightning fell from the cloud, one striking Leon’s first target, and the other two the floral giant.
The first giant disintegrated, falling into a heap of charred ash at the foot of the wall. The floral giant fared better, but still not fantastic, as Leon’s magic ripped through its body and scorched everything it touched. Vines burned away and charred wood hit the ground, but the giant, as a whole, remained upright and mobile.
The wall, on the other hand, shuddered and cracked under the weight of Leon’s magic, with the top half of the section directly under where Leon still hovered crumbling. An Evergolden earth magic came sprinting over, shouting as she did, “Watch it! Don’t destroy our wall!”
Leon, thusly admonished, scowled, and hit the floral giant with two more lightning bolts, though he kept them a little more contained this time. And this time, the giant hit the ground, as dead as he figured these creatures could be.
The other giants fared little better in this time. Leon’s retainers, armed with their magic and his spell arrows, cut down three more giants, while Cassandra and Maia handled two each. The Evergolden escorts took care of the rest by blade and magic, and five minutes after the alarm was sounded, the camp fell silent as everyone stared off into the trees, waiting for anything else to come running out and threaten them.
Leon inundated the forest with his magic senses, looking for anything at all that might be watching them. The forest was characteristically devoid of anything notable, but Leon still inspected the place as thoroughly as he could, anyway.
Speaking for just about everyone, Cassandra shouted in disbelief, “Was that it? The wrath of the Prota Forest, and only a handful of weak giants?!”
Leon founded himself rather agreeing with the Princess. Given the forest’s reputation, he’d truly been expecting something different, and while they’d been violent, these past few days hadn’t quite been what he’d been expecting. They were harassed, to be sure, but hardly at every turn, and when they were attacked, their foes were dealt with easily enough.
Still, what the forest had displayed was more than enough for him to understand why no human settlements had been constructed within. If all of these attacks were happening with some kind of central intelligence, then it would be easy to hit anyone trying to build a village while avoiding more powerful mages who might be able to protect them.
Of course, that still left the question open of why that intelligence might be attacking them right now, though Leon suspected that it was because they were getting close to it in the center of the warded zone. However, he was still flabbergasted that the resistance had been so lackluster. The goat men, plant giants, wolves, and all the rest all at once would’ve been such a greater threat that he couldn’t help but wonder just why they were all coming at them piecemeal.
With a sigh, he landed upon the freshly rebuilt wall. Whatever the reason, the fact was that they were being attacked a few at a time, and that made their jobs much easier.
When he glanced around, though, he realized that ‘easier’ didn’t necessarily mean ‘easy’, as several weaker members of the Evergolden escort had been wounded, and one had been quite grievously savaged, with her chest and left arm looking like they’d been crushed entirely. The Evergolden healers were doing their thing, so Leon didn’t think he needed to step in, but he didn’t envy their pain, either.
Once everything was truly over, Leon made the rounds checking up on his retinue. Fortunately, everyone was just fine—in Alcander and Alix’s cases, even a little disappointed that the fight was over so quickly. Leon and Cassandra then met up on the walls to make sure they were on the same page as the other regarding the results of the battle.
When that brief meeting was over, Leon made his way to Helen and Anna, both of whom were busy with the most intact of the giant corpses.
“Hard at work, I see,” Leon said when he arrived.
Anna was crouching by the giant’s head, which had been torn tree of its body by one of Maia’s water dragons. Her snapper was nearby, while Helen was cutting the giant’s body open.
“Just seeing what can be seen,” Anna said.
“Anything stick out at you, yet?” Leon asked.
“Nothing over here,” Helen responded as she gritted her teeth in exertion and forced open some of the vines to expose the bone-like tree branches and logs beneath.
Anna took a moment to think as she poked around in one of the holes gouged by the teeth of Maia’s water dragon. “Maybe… I might have something,” she said, and Leon hurried over to her side.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Take a look at this.” Anna held several small vines within the wound open, revealing what seemed to be a wooden skull—or at least, something that served the same function as a skull. It was a hard shell buried within the vines, no larger than that of a human’s. Part of it had been cracked open, revealing some kind of glossy black flesh within.
“What in all the hells is that?” Leon exclaimed. He’d skinned plenty of animals before in his youth, so such sights hardly turned his stomach. However, this was so alien and unexpected that he couldn’t help but feel a little revolted.
[Have either of you seen anything like this?] Leon asked his soul realm passengers.
As Xaphan and Nestor peaked out of his soul realm, Anna replied, “I have no idea what this is. It’s soft like flesh, but dry and absent anything that can be thought of as blood. As far as I can tell, these things have no dedicated sensory organs, either, but I’d have to make a much more in-depth dissection to verify that, and that’ll take time.”
“Take however much you need,” Leon said. “Just be careful. Remember that the local fauna have been trying to spray us with that green pollen. Make sure you’re as sterile and protected as you can be.”
Anna smiled as her hands flashed with light magic, and then she twirled her knife in one hand and forceps in the other. “I’m well protected, no need to worry about that.”
Leon nodded, then shouted to Helen, “That goes for you, too!”
Helen didn’t even look up from her own dissection, but spared the time to give Leon a thumbs up.
As the two continued working to dismantle the giant, Nestor finally responded to Leon.
[I’ve never seen such things before, this is far outside my area of expertise.]
Xaphan’s crackling voice immediately responded, [Then why don’t you shut your mouth and let an adult speak.]
Nestor grumbled incoherently, but he went quiet.
[Good,] Xaphan replied. [Now, Leon. I think I was right in assuming that this is a hive mind you’re dealing with.]
[What makes you say so?]
[That thing in the giant’s head, it channels will and thought. It’s essentially a receiver of transmitted magic—darkness magic, in particular. These giants, assuming they were all the same, were little more than puppets being controlled from elsewhere.]
[So these giants are entirely artificial?] Leon asked.
[I would say so,] Xaphan confirmed. [You might have to ask the chattering ghost if you want to know more about how they operate, but that shiny black thing is most definitely a medium for darkness magic, and for exerting control over a puppet—or, maybe to make it a little clearer in your jargon, a golem.]
[What do you think about that, dead man?]
Nestor audibly scoffed. [An organic golem? Ugh, disgusting. An utterly absurd waste of magic talent. Stone and steel are infinitely more pliable and durable than wood and vine.]
[That’s hardly in question,] Leon responded. [That’s not what I wanted you to assess, though.]
Nestor sighed, sounding more than a little offended. [I refuse to call these things golems. The candle called them ‘puppets’, so let’s go with that. These ‘puppets’, then, were woefully inadequate. They exerted some physical power, but they crumbled under the weight of even the mediocre mages accompanying you.]
Leon agreed with that assessment, for the most part. [How about the actual way these things work? What can you tell me about that?]
[I’m not sure what I can say,] Nestor said. [All golems need power sources and processors. Wisps serve as both, but more primitive golems can use magic-storing gems and highly advanced enchantments to perform rudimentary, highly repetitive tasks. If these things are golems, then…]
As Nestor trailed off, Leon felt the subtle flutter of his magic senses cover the dead giants and probe in as far as they could, spilling past the openings made by battle and by Anna and Helen. After a few seconds of inspection, Nestor continued.
[Those black things in their heads likely act as both power source and processor. Where a wisp would autonomously power and control a golem frame, this… power receiver? That sounds about right… This power receiver essentially does the same thing. These things have no built-in power source, so whatever’s controlling the golems not only has to control them all at once, but also provide them with power.]
Leon’s eyes narrowed in thought, and he began to pace around the dead giant. [Could… the same be true for everything else?] he wondered.
[What do you mean?]
[Everything else we’ve encountered in this forest,] Leon explained. [None of it has emitted any aura, not even in those brief moments when they’ve obviously used magic power. It’s as if they’re completely magic-less beings, fading into the background of the forest. Maybe that’s exactly what they are, and those rare times when they use magic, maybe it’s from whatever’s controlling them?]
[How would that be possible?] Nestor wondered in turn. [I’ve never heard of anything that can simultaneously control a dozen golems, let alone that massive congregation of eagles you encountered on the first day, yet do so with such efficiency as to evade the senses.]
Leon frowned as he paused in his pacing. [I suppose that’s what we’d have to accept, isn’t it? Either there’re multiple things controlling everything we’ve encountered, or the thing that’s controlling everything has capabilities beyond what you’ve heard of, Nestor.]
Before Nestor could respond, Xaphan quietly interjected, his tone dripping with smugness. [I’ve heard of beings that can puppet frames in numbers beyond counting.]
[Oh?] Nestor sarcastically responded. [Well, by all means, please share!]
[The Primal Gods and Devils could, with ease,] Xaphan said, and Leon’s blood ran cold. He didn’t want anything to do with Primal beings—the one time below the Serpentine Isles was more than enough for him.
[Gods and Devils,] Nestor practically spat. [Poor examples given their power. That’s like saying a mountain has many rocks.]
[You asked for examples, and those are two,] Xaphan shot back. [But if you insist on eating shit, by all means, I shall continue shoveling. There are many beings in the universe, and they often come to demons for aid or power. Some come to us that are… disunited in mind, shall we say? They operate in a decentralized state, with their minds spread between many different bodies. There are others than can take control of something’s brain and use it for themselves. Still others can dominate someone else’s mind entirely, allowing them to keep their autonomy, but overriding their will entirely. I couldn’t give you any examples, Leon, that you’d recognize. The dead man might, might, but I doubt it, so I’ll not waste my time.
[Regardless, after everything I’ve seen, I’d be more than willing to guess that there’s just one being controlling everything in this forest. Nothing here is autonomous, everything is directly controlled by one overarching mind. The nature of that mind, and its limits, I can’t even guess at. But that’s what it is.]
[Everything in this forest…] Leon murmured as his eyes strayed from the dead giant to the grass and shrubbery around the camp. The scars of the first fight with the bulbous vine had almost entirely vanished in the couple days since, with the forest rapidly growing in to repair the damage. His eyes then drifted further out, to the trees around the camp. He’d seen a tree move during the fight with the goat men, but not since, though he knew that tree sprites were in the forest.
[Yes,] Xaphan said, almost as if he could hear Leon’s thoughts. [Everything in the forest.]
[It can’t be everything,] Nestor protested. [That’s too much for one mind to handle, even if everything has been dominated!]
[A thing doesn’t need a mind to be controlled,] Xaphan retorted. [This forest feels wrong, and I’ve felt such a thing before, when such a creature attempted to contact me, desiring knowledge of fire and how to protect itself against fire. Everything in this forest, flora and fauna both, have been dominated.]
Leon stared at the nearest tree—a tree about sixty feet tall held up by almost paradoxically thin, stilt-like roots. [This is…] Leon said, for a moment decidedly not believing Xaphan. However, before he could finish the thought, he had to stop to think again. [If you’re right, Xaphan,] he continued after a moment, [and I’m not saying I believe you, but if you’re right, then why the hells isn’t this intelligence resisting us more fervently? A couple attacks a day, on average, and attacks that’re easily dealt with? When it controls the entire forest, right down to every tree and blade of grass? Why would it even allow us to continue as we are?]
[Do I look all-knowing to you?] Xaphan replied. [I can’t tell you the innerworkings of such a fucked up mind. I’ve already said all I can say. Proceed as you please.]
[Maybe it’s best if you don’t speak anymore, then,] Nestor grumbled. [Honestly, Leon, the idea that one mind is controlling everything in this forest is ludicrous. Such a thing isn’t even possible in the Nexus.]
Still frowning in thought, Leon pointed out, [You said yourself that the reason the research facility was established here was to research something special that drew the attention of our Clan’s top minds, right?]
[Yes, but I would’ve been informed explicitly about what they found, and if they’d found a creature that can control so many different bodies, then I would know!]
[Would you, though? By your own admission, you didn’t care about what was going on here, and you devoted all of your attention to the moon stone back in the north. I’m sure you received reports of what was going on here, but did you ever read any of them?]
Nestor went quiet, but that in itself answered Leon’s question, he felt.
After a moment, Leon sighed and conceded, [This is all speculation. For now, let’s focus on getting into that warded area. Do either of you have any ideas?]
[I’m formulating a few theories,] Nestor said.
[I’ve got a few ideas of my own,] Xaphan replied. [Burning this entire forest down, for one…]
[Let’s assume that’s possible; would that be wise?] Leon asked as he glanced at the closest trees again. [Wouldn’t such a destructive tactic invite more active resistance? I mean, maybe what we’ve endured so far is the limit of what can be thrown at us, but I’m not convinced. I think there might be more going on here than is immediately apparent, or that whatever’s in charge here doesn’t necessarily want us dead. But burning down a huge section of the forest might be more than can be tolerated.]
[I’d like to see them resist when this forest has been rendered ash and charcoal,] Xaphan murmured, but Leon just rolled his eyes and ignored the demon.
He supposed, whatever the reasons for what was going on, the resistance thus far had been manageable. But if he wanted any answers—or anything else from the research facility, besides—then he’d have to get into that warded zone.