Chapter 823: Imperial Appetites
Adamant. The very word, after his conversation with Nestor, had Leon practically rubbing his hands in greed. The metal was mana-infused steel, in its simplest form at least, and that meant that any power that could flow through one’s blood could also flow through Adamant just as well. It was stronger than enchanted steel and could channel the wielder’s power better as well.
But for the one whose blood it had been forged from, Adamant was unparalleled. Leon’s power would flow through any weapon he made of true Adamant and would respond to him as if it were an extension of his own body. If it were old enough, as with his family’s blade, it might even form some kind of will, some measure of sentience that would keep the weapon with his line and out of the hands of others.
Of course, until he was capable of forging the stuff properly, all he could do was rub his hands together and dream of all the things that might be possible with it. The pseudo-Adamant that his armor was made of wasn’t the real thing, and while it was strong, it wasn’t as strong as it could be, nor would it ever develop any kind of will of its own.
After getting the tour of his new workshop, Leon had sat down with Nestor and had a long chat with him and the Thunderbird, even taking the chance of bringing Nestor back into his soul realm so that they could speak without going through him—letting him out again after the conversation was over, for obvious reasons. It was clear enough that, on his own, Leon wasn’t yet capable of producing Adamant in the way that the Thunderbird knew of, and Nestor couldn’t help with that in any real way.
Sky forging was the way that true Adamant was forged, as far as the Thunderbird knew. Post-Apotheosis mages from other Elemental Kingdoms in the Nexus knew of other ways of creating Adamant, but those were not known to either her or Nestor. And to properly sky forge, Leon needed to be at least post-Apotheosis, and Leon wasn’t even close to brushing against that boundary yet.
However, Leon had the Iron Needle, and he had thunder wood, two sources of near-limitless lightning magic. If used right, Leon could supplement his own power with that of the Iron Needle at least, and possibly succeed at creating true Adamant, and from that, create a new sword of his own.
Though he was excited about the possibilities such a forging technique presented, Leon was still incredibly conflicted about forging a new weapon for himself. His family’s sword meant more to him than he could describe in words, and replacing it, even with a weapon of his own making—a weapon made from his blood no less—wasn’t an easy prospect to face.
As much as he wanted to try sky forging, Leon guessed that he might be putting it off for a little while, until he could work up the nerve to replace his current weapon.
Still, he could hardly contain his excitement as he made his way back to his villa, leaving Nestor to run a battery of tests on the Iron Needle—nothing too invasive, as Leon was sure the Universe Fragment wouldn’t take kindly to being subjected to every experiment that Nestor could put it through, but enough to at least try and tease out a few reproducible reactions.
Leon would’ve been in there with him, learning how to better control the Iron Needle and seeing what he might learn from the object that essentially had complete mastery over lightning magic, but he had other duties to see to—first and foremost, spending time with his family, friends, and Heaven’s Eye. He’d been gone almost two months, and he needed to take care of his own business before he could lose himself in his research and development.
So, he first went and found Elise and Maia and spent a couple hours with them. Then, he called his retinue together and, with Valeria at his side, held a short training session meant more to spend time with his retinue than to actually train.
Then, it was off to Heaven’s Eye, where he formally relieved Talal of command over his branch of the guild. He spent the next few hours being briefed on all the fascinating and compelling research that had been done in his absence, along with being notified of a few bureaucratic, logistical, and personal issues his project leads had.
Fortunately, Talal was there to help with the organization and paperwork, but Leon still had to make peace between a couple of project leads who’d nearly come to blows over resource allocation while he’d been gone. One of them—the more belligerent one, Leon noted—had been reassigned from nature magic research just a few years before, and had been having attitude problems ever since.
Leon supposed it made some sense, as the project he’d been reassigned to was Tikos’ comm lotuses. His skillset wasn’t geared toward understanding the lotuses, though as project lead he was more there to ensure that the actual researchers stayed funded and on task. Leon guessed he was still resentful of his transfer, even if it was to a higher position.
So, as ‘punishment’ for starting a conflict between the comm lotus team and the MALL team, who the comm lotus team lead had accused of embezzling some of the vast resources Leon had been pouring into the project—which Leon knew for a fact was untrue— Leon had him reassigned to something more in line with his skillset: leading the team that would research growing silkgrass outside of the Northern Vales. It would be a smaller team and one that he could move to a more remote lab out in the countryside where he wouldn’t be a problem for anyone else in Occulara.
T̺͆h̺͆i̺͆s̺͆ c̺͆h̺͆a̺͆p̺͆t̺͆e̺͆r̺͆ u̺͆p̺͆l̺͆o̺͆a̺͆d̺͆ f̺͆i̺͆r̺͆s̺͆t̺͆ a̺͆t̺͆ n̺͆o̺͆v̺͆e̺͆l̺͆-̺͆b̺͆i̺͆n̺͆.̺͆c̺͆o̺͆m̺͆
Finally, he needed to see to the resource problems that were plaguing his ark research team, which had started presenting themselves even before he’d left. Fortunately, their primary problems were with magic power storage, with much of their budget going to large gems that could store the vast amounts of magic power that would be needed to power an ark, as well as to whatever quantities of Titanstone they could get their hands on. With the Iron Needle, Leon knew that he could solve at least the power issues, assuming he could master the Needle—the fulgurite that he’d seen in the Needle’s chamber had been more than powerful enough that he felt he could use it in place of other gems for power storage, which would mean breakthroughs in more than just his ark research projects.
He just had to figure it out within the next half year or so, or else he’d have to start making budget cuts to keep at least some of his researchers and engineers working.
With that done and all the other reports he needed in hand, Leon returned to his villa. Night had fallen by then, and he was both unsurprised and somewhat unenthusiastic about finding that both the Lord Protector and the Grand Druid were there, too, apparently waiting for him.
They accosted him almost as soon as he walked into the villa, and before Leon had even taken off his boots, the Lord Protector rushed over to Leon and pulled him into a tight embrace that almost lifted Leon off his feet.
“Welcome back to civilization, Leon!” Anastasios boomed as he squeezed Leon so tightly that Leon thought he heard his ribs creak in protest.
“Don’t squeeze too hard,” the Grand Druid playfully rebuked, “my dear Cassandra can’t marry a corpse…”
Anastasios laughed and let go, and Leon took a moment to regain his composure. Ignoring the Grand Druid’s comment, he said, “Glad to see you two here. How about we take this out of my atrium and go somewhere a little more comfortable?”
A minute later, they were in one of Leon’s more private sitting rooms, Leon in an armchair across from the two of them sitting quite intimately close to each other on a sofa.
“How was your journey north, Leon?” Anastasios asked. “You never did tell us what it was for, you know…”
Leon smiled and said not a word.
“That’s fine, though,” the Grand Druid said after a moment. “You claimed private business, so we won’t pry.”
“… Much,” Anastasios responded, but the Grand Druid poked him in the ribs, drawing a cry of surprise from the older man.
“How were things back here?” Leon asked, not interested in just watching the two of them flirt in front of him. “Productive?”
“Yes!” the Grand Druid exclaimed. “I spoke at length with your tree sprite friend. That one’s so knowledgeable about nature magic, I feel like we could speak for days and never get tired!”
Leon continued to smile diplomatically, but his eyes slid over to Anastasios.
“Your… other than human retainers are quite interesting, themselves,” the Lord Protector added. “Your wyvern and river nymph weren’t talkative, but I got a few words in. I’d still love to speak with your demon, though; you left before we got a chance to share words.”
“Right,” Leon responded. “I’ll get that set up right away. I think he’ll have to meet with one of my researchers soon, we can set something up in a few days.”
Anastasios nodded. “Honestly, Leon, the amount of magic that can be learned from nonhumans is staggering, you’re quite lucky not only to have a demon, but three—”
“Four,” the Grand Druid corrected, “don’t forget about that griffin of his…”
“Right, four, four nonhuman retainers. And all powerful enough to assume at least mostly-human form, too. Leon, would you allow not just me, but some of my Empire’s mages to come here on occasion to seek insight from your retainers?”
“I’m not running a school or some philosophical monastery,” Leon replied, a little more edge to his tone than he’d consciously intended. “I value my privacy, you two know that. And I’m grateful for all that you do for me with regards to the Keeper and the… less than friendly people to me and mine that are in your Empires, but…”
“I wouldn’t send a constant stream of people,” Anastasios assured him. “But the opportunity to speak with nonhumans about the magic that they were born with is a tremendous opportunity. It might not translate to direct power, but the light it could shine into my own people’s magical journeys could be invaluable. It might even advance our understanding of the magical elements by significant degrees!”
Leon slowly nodded. Thanks to the Thunderbird’s power, he had some affinity with water magic, and he’d practiced it on occasion with Maia. He’d discussed the element not only with her, but with the Thunderbird herself, Valeria, and several other strong water mages in Heaven’s Eye. But of all of them, he felt like Maia had been the most helpful when it came to understanding and applying water magic, even above the Thunderbird, though she couldn’t always describe it in human terms.
But he also knew that most of his nonhuman retainers weren’t particularly social. It would take some doing to get them to agree to speak with a bunch of Imperial pilgrims hoping for a kernel of knowledge or wisdom from the powerful beings living under his roof.
“I’ll speak with them,” Leon said after some thought. “I promise no more than that. But I will emphasize that while my services are guaranteed—to a reasonable extent—thanks to your support, my people are under no obligation to agree. My responsibilities and agreements are not theirs.”
“You are their Lord,” Anastasios protested, though his tone and aura both remained light. “If you were to order them to—”
“We will await word on their decision,” the Grand Druid interrupted, a look of admonishment sent Anastasios’ way. The Lord Protector simply smiled and nodded.
“So we will. I hope that we can all come to equitable arrangements, then. Please be assured that any of our mages that come here for words would come with adequate compensation. Guaranteed by the two of us, of course.”
“Rates will depend on them, and only if they agree,” Leon said, exasperation finding its way into his voice.
Thankfully, the Lord Protector dropped the matter there, and the Grand Druid pivoted.
“That’s all we ask, Leon. Now, are you going to be busy in the next few weeks?”
“I’ve just returned home and have a lot of work to catch up on,” Leon explained, his thoughts turning not only to the reports he had in his soul realm—several of which he was quite interested in reading—but also to the Iron Needle. “My plate’s going to be exceptionally full in the near future. Is there something in your Empire that demands my attention?”
“More like someone,” the Grand Druid with a knowing smile.
That smile had Leon thinking of blond hair, red eyes, and a confident smile. It also had him thinking of arrogance, overconfidence, and the crestfallen attitude of one who’d had to be carried off the battlefield despite her considerable power and prestigious title. He was able to maintain his stoic demeanor, but the Grand Druid stared at him as if she knew exactly whose face had flashed through his mind.
“It’s not my granddaughter,” she said, and Leon couldn’t help but feel some disappointment, though he kept it out of his expression. “I was just hoping you could attend a celebration we’re having in Evergold in three weeks. We’re celebrating the turn of the century, and such celebrations are always extravagant affairs. Many people of high station will be there, and I was hoping you would honor our celebration with your presence, and with that of your lovely family.”
“We’ll see,” Leon stated noncommittally. He figured Elise would love to attend, Valeria would be a little more ambivalent, and Maia would only go if both he and Elise agreed.
‘Would rather say ‘no’, to be honest,’ Leon grumbled internally but knew that an invitation from the Grand Druid wasn’t so easily dismissed.
“Of course, dear,” the Grand Druid replied, infuriating Leon slightly with her attitude. “While you’re there, there is a matter I was hoping you could help my Empire with. More than that, I’m not at liberty to say right now.”
Leon cocked an eyebrow, noting that even Anastasios seemed curious about what the Grand Druid was saying. “My villa is quite secure, it’s fine to speak your mind,” Leon said.
“Indeed it is secure,” the Grand Druid said. “And on that note, we ought to discuss the changes that have been made here in the past few weeks. We’ve noticed a strange golem wandering your halls, not speaking with anyone, but making adjustments to your security wards and supervising the renovation of one of your estate’s outer buildings. I would love to know what’s going on with all of that…”
She gave Leon a penetrating stare, though her smile remained unwavering. Anastasios, meanwhile, took a moment to tear his gaze away from her and redirect it in Leon’s direction, a rather expectant look on his face.
“Is this some legacy of your Clan that you’ve taken possession of?” he asked. “I ought to offer my congratulations on finding such a treasure. You have aided us both greatly in unlocking arks, golems, and more besides, but I can’t help but marvel at such a thing that can upgrade even your formidable defenses…”
Leon’s smile thinned, but he didn’t rise to any unspoken questions. “I’m a lucky man,” he said. “I’m grateful for what I have, and proud of what I’ve accomplished. Unfortunately, not all of the boons that I’ve been blessed with can be shared, and this golem is one of them. Its presence here at my villa is nonnegotiable, though I might be able to share a few of its upgrades with you… if I’m able.” He stared back at them both, daring them to press the issue. He could tell they were interested in whatever Nestor had done to his wards—Leon was already suspecting that there were ancient runes now incorporated into its ward scheme—but in this case, he wasn’t intending to give them anything if they were too arrogant.
Of course, he was more than willing to ask Nestor to kick them just enough information to get them to back off, but the truly valuable stuff was not going to be shared—especially anything that might compromise his defenses.
“Your generosity is truly legendary,” the Lord Protector said without a hint of sarcasm. “I hope you’re able to extract at least a little bit of information from that golem. Safety measures ought to be shared with us all, don’t you think? That we might all live in peace?”
“I love peace,” Leon replied with a muted glare. “I wish for nothing but peace. Those who bring war and death to my door are as unwelcome here as they might be at your palaces. I understand that you both love peace as much as I do, and wouldn’t want to see any such conflict break out that might threaten it. I’m sure I’ll be able to find something to help us all in this noblest of endeavors.”
“That’s all we ask,” the Grand Druid said. “Peace is all of our aims—and its preservation—and we all know that its cost is shared by all who benefit from it. It makes me happy that we’re all on the same page.”
Leon nodded, exchanging only a few more pleasantries with the Lord Protector and the Grand Druid before they both left him alone in the sitting room. And as soon as they were gone, he let out the ugly expression that he’d been repressing throughout the last half of the meeting. They treated him quite well, on a personal level. The Grand Druid was like a doting grandmother and the Lord Protector like a cool uncle.
But they weren’t either of those things, and their relationship, while it could be friendly, was still entirely transactional. As friendly as they could seem, they weren’t friends.
He couldn’t wait until he’d gained enough power to get them off his back as soon as possible, though he wondered if he could even get to that point. As they’d indicated before, his rapid rise in power had more people nervous than just the Keeper, and with the Iron Needle in hand, his rise would only accelerate.
He was starting to think that he might have to start thinking about actively reaching out to the Sky Devils, for just waiting around for them to contact him was taking longer than he’d like, and if he had to stand against the Empires, he’d need their support.
Assuming they were willing and able to give it…