Leon stared out into the forest, his frustration great, as was his anger.

Three days had passed since they’d been attacked by the plant giants, and yet, nothing of real note had happened. They’d been attacked twice more by plant giants and wolves, respectively, and fought them off both times. Another Evergolden warrior had died, and most of the rest had been injured, as had Gaius, Alcander, and Anna, but they’d survived those attacks.

However, Leon was still rather flummoxed that the attacks were coming so disjointedly. He was still of the mind that if all this force had been concentrated, then they would’ve been forced to call their expedition off. As it was, the attacks were anger-inducing, but otherwise not much of a problem.

Not that he would’ve ever said so in the open. The Evergolden escorts weren’t enthused that they were remaining in the forest since they’d lost two people in the week they’d been in the forest, and he knew that one way to piss them off was to brush aside their comrades’ deaths.

During all of this, none of them remained inactive, though. For the most part, the Evergolden warriors remained in camp, making sure that they still had a fortified location to fall back to, if they should need it. Meanwhile, Leon, his retainers, Cassandra, and a couple of her escorts continued to probe the warded region. In that time, however, they’d found no weaknesses they could exploit, and were rapidly running out of options.

They couldn’t tunnel in—an Evergolden earth mage had confirmed that the region was too heavily warded to try that. If they did, they’d soon find themselves buried alive, or worse.

They couldn’t fly over the region, as when Marcus tried that, he found himself rendered unconscious and teleported to the ground.

Throughout all of this, the forest remained silent and aura-less, giving them no clues at all as to how to get past these wards.

Even more concerning, the Thunderbird herself couldn’t help much. While she was incredibly knowledgeable regarding enchantments, she claimed that she had no special interest in the art, and that Nestor likely knew more than she did in most fields. The only thing she was able to add to their working theories was that she suspected the wards at the core of this zone were created with ancient, not modern, runes.

And Leon wasn’t that familiar with ancient runes. He’d studied them a bit, to be sure, but modern runes were so much more practical to work with that his studies had never been particularly in-depth.

So, Leon was frustrated. He wanted to get into this warded zone, he needed to, but no matter what he tried to think of, nothing quite seemed enough. The problem, he thought, lay in his unfamiliarity with these wards. So far, he hadn’t personally tested them out, he hadn’t tried to walk through, and he was getting more and more tempted to try—and his temptation had started quite high.

And so, as he stared into the forest, he decided that now was as good of a time as ever. If they waited around too much longer, they’d eventually be overrun by the otherwise invisible denizens of the forest, their fatalities adding up. If they waited too much longer, Heaven’s Eye might not be waiting for him when he returned to Occulara…

So, Leon ignored the protests of his retainers, secured around his waist a rope, and started walking into the warded zone.

His armor was on, his defenses active. Xaphan and Nestor were both paying attention, adding their senses to his. Whatever was going to happen, none of them wanted to miss it.

Leon strode into the forest, not so much confident as he was provocative and spiteful. The forest had defied him enough, and he dared it to continue.

The forest seemed more than willing to take up the offer, as Leon noticed the mental defenses on his helmet flare to life. He couldn’t sense much magic in the air, but once he realized that something was up, he took a moment to stop and examine his environment further.

And once he did, he found that he could actually sense a few wisps of power, a few stray aetoi of darkness magic pressing in on his helmet, as soft and subtle as a spider web clinging to clothes.

When he sensed this, he couldn’t help but feel some real admiration for whomever had set up these wards. Enchanting was an art, and this warding scheme, at least in execution, was nothing less than a masterpiece.

Without hesitation, he conjured his anti-darkness gem and activated it. A wave of magic swept out from him, and for a moment, the thin, nearly imperceptible strands of darkness magic that had wrapped themselves around his helmet looked like they were going to resist, but then they snapped, and Leon was free.

So, he proceeded onward. However, he’d barely taken two steps before his helmet’s wards flared to life again as more darkness magic attempted to get past them.

Again, Leon used his anti-darkness gem, and again, the strands of darkness affecting him were severed. And this time, he was only able to take a single step before they snapped back into place, threatening to sneak past his defenses and enter his mind, clouding his thoughts and confusing him.

Leon used his anti-darkness gem again, but this time, the strands held. Leon tried again, and again, they resisted his magic. So he tried using his lightning, and this time, the darkness was torn completely asunder, leaving him to continue unfettered, though no less wary.

As he proceeded, he made sure to keep an eye on his surroundings, and on everyone behind him. The darkness wards were clearly not the only wards the zone had, and if he didn’t want to get lost in illusions, he needed to make sure that everyone around him remained consistent, ensuring that he was anchored in reality. So far, he could still see everyone else, and they appeared to be able to see him, and he hadn’t noticed any changes of the sort that had made the illusions obvious when he’d used a glowing stone to probe them.

He kept trudging on in the thick primeval forest, moving over roots, through thick shrubs, and between tall, sturdy trees. Lightning danced across his body regularly, staving off the darkness magic that threatened to test his defenses. He didn’t stop again until he felt a subtle surge of magic, and he lost sight of the rest of his party.

Leon immediately froze, but his power raced through his body, ensuring that he was ready to fight if need be. A quick inspection showed him that the rope around his waist was still there, and a quick tug showed that it hadn’t been severed anywhere, but after about twenty feet, it disappeared.

[Did either of you sense anything?] Leon asked the spectators in his soul realm.

[Light magic,] Xaphan immediately responded.

[The illusion surrounding you has strengthened,] Nestor added. [These wards are a cocktail of different magics, all designed to confuse and disorient.]

Leon nodded, but he backed up anyway until he reached the point where the rope vanished. He took another step, but unfortunately, he didn’t step out of the illusion. He didn’t need Nestor to tell him that that meant the cast illusion wasn’t strictly limited by range, and was probably moving with him. That was both concerning since he was the target of the illusion, and extremely enticing as a display of power and skill in the enchanting arts.

Leon’s heart raced, his eyes were wildly darting around to every shadow, and he was braced for anything, but at the same time, he couldn’t help but admire the handiwork before him. He could only sense the barest hint of magic power, and he guessed that if he weren’t actively looking for it, then he would’ve missed it entirely. A true master was responsible for this, someone who might even surpass Nestor…

There wasn’t much else to do except to continue. Well, he could turn around and try to make his way back to the party—he was only about a thousand feet or so into the forest—but he didn’t do this just to turn around at the first real obstacle. He wanted to see everything that the wards could show him, so he continued.

Leon proceeded onward, the illusion around him remaining stable for a good clip, and the darkness that attempted to worm its way into his mind continuing on without change. However, after another five hundred feet or so, things began to change. The illusions around him started growing more intense, and the darkness magic pressing in on his defenses received a huge boost in power. He was forced to channel his lightning quite intensively now to stave off the darkness, while the illusions around him made the trees look like they were shaking, the bushes and shrubbery look like they’d sprouted legs and started dancing, and like the ground flexed and rippled like water.

Leon almost lost his balance as everything he saw told him that he was moving in ways that he wasn’t.

After taking a few moments to get his bearings, however, Leon adapted, and kept on moving.

[Wonderful work,] Nestor murmured. [Simply wonderful… Such subtle workings, yet such a pronounced effect…]

In response, Xaphan sniped, [Are you going to keep sucking off whoever made these wards, or are you going to try and help?]

[Nothing I can do, I’m afraid,] Nestor replied, not rising to Xaphan’s barb. [Work of this complexity can’t really be undone without being able to see it.]

[Ah, so you’re useless. It’s good to recognize your failings…]

[I’m only as useless as you are, demon.]

As his companions descended into bickering, Leon turned his mind to the problem in front of him. He hadn’t yet been teleported, thankfully, but he didn’t know how much longer he could continue in the warded zone. So, he decided to test something that had been running through his head.

He conjured his anti-light magic gem into his gauntlet and activated it. He didn’t expect it to do much since the wards here were so much more powerful and advanced than his enchantments, but he was hoping he could at least disrupt the enchantment for a moment or two. He didn’t think he’d need any more than that.

But more than that was what he got, as a wave of magic power washed out from him, and the forest changed in the wake of that wave. The big things remained the same, such as the trees around Leon, the bushes and ferns, the flowers; but what did change was what Leon could suddenly sense. Appearing as if from nowhere came the sounds of birds, the buzzing of insects, and the glow of magic power. All that had made this forest so quiet and stifling was banished, revealing the true forest beneath, teeming with life.

And then the illusions snapped back into place as the power behind Leon’s antimagic pulse died out.

Leon was left speechless at the change. Only a couple hundred feet of the forest had been revealed, but the reveal itself showed so much that even his bickering passengers had been struck speechless.

Without hesitation, Leon used his antimagic again, dispelling the illusions around for a moment to get a better look. This time, however, he backed it up with a great deal more power.

His pulse swept outward, revealing again all that the illusion wards had obscured. It swept over a motionless plant giant, looking like it had frozen in place as it strode through the forest, stripping away the illusion that had made it look like a tree. The wave crashed down upon an old corpse laying in a ditch—the remains of some large beast, rotting in the daylight, swarming with carrion insects. His antimagic pulse then, for just a fraction of a second, hit a particularly large tree with a black trunk, branches covered in ethereal, translucent leaves, and with six-fingered hands carved around the base of every branch. As soon as his magic touched this tree, giving him just the momentary glimpse, the tree’s spectral leaves flashed with magic power, and his magic pulse was immediately canceled out, and the illusion snapped back into place.

‘That tree…’ Leon thought, captivated by what he’d just seen. ‘So much power ran through it… Was it some kind of hub for enchantments? If I were to cut it down, what might happen? Could I subvert the wards from there?’

When it came to modern runes, Leon was confident that if he were to find anything that might pass for a control console, he’d be able to shut down any enchantment. However, when it came to ancient runes, he wasn’t so sure, but he started making his way in the direction of that tree, anyway. With the illusions back in place, it looked like any other tree now, but Leon didn’t for a moment lose track of where it had been.

At least, he didn’t intend to lose track of it, but as he approached the tree, the forest started to shake again, and as Leon stumbled, his eyes fell to the ground. When they turned back up only a fraction of a second later, everything around him had changed. He was still in the forest, but clearly in a different section.

[Remarkable,] Nestor whispered. [Such subtle teleportation, too. My admiration for whomever set up these enchantments continues to grow. Leon, even if all the research at the old Clan facility has been destroyed, just getting a look at the runes that create these wards would be of immense value…]

[Yeah,] Leon said with some uncertainty. He agreed with Nestor wholeheartedly, but at the moment, he was a little more concerned with where he was. The rope that had been attached to his waist had been severed, leaving him without his bearings. He projected his magic senses, but it was almost as if he were standing in a completely different forest, now. Everything his senses were telling him indicated that he was no longer in the Prota Forest, and his pulse was rapidly accelerating.

He quickly used his antimagic enchantment again, and while it worked again, this time it only managed to spread out for about a hundred feet before the illusions snapped back into place.

[Be careful with that,] Xaphan warned him. [It seems like these wards are adapting to your probes, somehow…]

[Maybe wisps monitoring the enchantments?] Nestor wondered aloud. [These are certainly not running mindlessly; there’s some kind of intelligence actively monitoring this, I think.]

[A disturbing thought…] Leon replied as he glanced around. He was of the opinion that anything powerful enough to set up these wards would be more than strong enough to have put in more active defenses. As it was, the wards were now as suspicious as the constant attacks had been; frustrating, but not nearly as devastating as they could’ve been.

In other words, whatever was behind all of this was holding back, and he didn’t know why.

[Do you think I should try again?] Leon asked as he prepared to activate his antimagic once more, and with a great deal more power.

[I can’t predict what’ll happen,] Nestor replied. [Just know that you’re probably poking something right now, and they might poke back. This teleportation might even be them poking back.]

Leon frowned, but when he projected his magic senses again, he had to stifle his growing anxiety at how unrecognizable his surroundings were.

[I say go for it,] Xaphan said. [If they didn’t want you to go trooping through their forest, they should’ve put up a sign or something.]

[I think all the wards is sign enough, demon,] Nestor tiredly responded. [Honestly, what a stupid thing to say. And you were a Lord of Flame, too. No wonder you were so quickly usurped.]

The two began bickering again, and again, Leon tuned them out.

With more confidence than he felt, Leon held out his hand and used his antimagic again. The strongest pulse yet erupted from him, and just as it did before, the illusion was forced back. The pulse spread out, revealing more and more of the forest he now found himself in, and in nearly all respects, it looked nearly identical to the Prota Forest, so he calmed himself by telling himself that he was probably just in a different part of the large forest, in another heavily warded area only a few hundred miles away from where he started. He couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it, but he repeated it to himself several times to stave off his growing panic.

He found it far more convincing when his antimagic swept over a small crater in the forest. The nearby trees had been stripped of bark, the ground had been broken and cleansed of all plant life, and lying in the center of it all were the remains of five plant giants, all looking like they’d been utterly savaged by something, just barely recognizable despite the damage they’d sustained.

And Leon thought he saw the culprit: a manticore, laying in a pool of blood, its golden-brown hide ripped and rent, three large tree branches sticking out it like arrow shafts, one of its wings broken and hanging at an odd angle, and one of its rams horns snapped off. It was motionless enough that Leon almost thought it was dead, but he could see its chest gently rising and falling as it tried to take in a few shallow breaths.

Before Leon could evaluate its condition any further, the forest’s illusions snapped back into place, concealing the dead plant giants and the heavily injured manticore.

With nothing else to go on, Leon began making his way in the manticore’s direction. He kept himself on the lookout as best as he could for anything popping out of these illusions that would get in his way, but his path was as clear as it could be in such a dense forest. Fortunately, nothing jumped out at him, and he found himself much calmer when he reached the clearing. At the very least, he was hoping that he might find some answers investigating the remnants of this battle.

A note from warden1207

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