Leon wasnt sure precisely when the Grave Warden was going to arrive, but when Tikos came to the palace with the latest batch of Hesperidic Apples, he couldnt help but feel like he was down to a matter of days. As the rough day of reckoning approached, dread settled into Leons stomach like a rock, and anger and impatience accelerated his heart rate whenever he thought about how much time he had left.
He'd spent much of the previous week ensuring that his Kingdom would run smoothly while he was gonefor however long that might be. He spent as much time with his family as he could, in no small part because he was extremely conscious that Ambrose was likely to ask something extraordinarily dangerous of him, and he still had no heir. To a large extent, he wanted to retain a great degree of control within his Kingdom, but knowing that if he died everything would crumble, he ordered the Elder Council to assemble if he were to be gone for longer than half a year so that the Tribes could create some kind of provisional government to keep themselves from fracturing and drew up an extensive will. No matter what, he wanted his family taken care of.
But even getting his affairs in order didnt calm him down. If anything, doing all of this, especially with the subtle comments many of his advisors made about the future of his dynasty, simply amplified his dread. And he didnt even know exactly when the Grave Warden was going to arrive, so every single second he had with his people was one he tried to cherish.
He took the opportunity to hand out Hesperidic Apples to also throw something of a party. It wasnt a large celebrationor even much of a celebration at allbut he wanted the people he was most fond of together, to share at least one more peaceful meal before potentially being separated again.
All of his retainers were there, save for the regretful absence of Anshu. Red, Leon noted, seemed most put out by his absence, and she spent her time in the celebration being even more aloof and surly than usual.
On the opposite side of the spectrum were Alix and Gaius. They werent acting too out of the ordinary, but Leon had noticed every since his last game of keeps with Gaius that the two had hardly separated. He assumed Gaius had approached Alix about starting a romantic relationship, and that she agreed to try, but neither of them had made any unambiguous statement about it and were remaining otherwise subtle about anything that might be going on between them.
He could only grin and wish them well with whatever they had, whether that be friendship or more.
Aside from his family and retinue, he also had Clear Day, Iron-Striker, the Jaguar, Nikolaos, Ipatameni, Frode, and Singer-in-Caves with him. They were all of the highest-ranking members of the Tribes who were present in the city and were all highly supportive of his reign. Increasing their power was a good move, in his opinion.
Other than them, Justin was also present, to his mild consternationthough, to his credit, Justin maintained a low profile, sticking to the corner of the room and not interacting with anyone save for Valeria.
Leon had been tempted to invite more people, including Cristina and Asiya, but in the end, had refrained. Tikos indicated that the tree sprites had only harvested enough for all of his people to get one each, with only two to spare. He wasnt sure what should be done with them but was leaning toward simply giving them to Tikos or Helen to use as either saw fit. He was sure his resident alchemist and tree sprite had some ideas of what to do with the apples.
The eating of the apples came and went without much fanfare. Tikos arrived, the apples were handed out, and everyone took their time to consume them. When it was done, they were left with six additional seeds that Tikos said were viable. In just a few years, those seeds would become new trees, allowing Leon to increase the number of people who could receive these power boosts.
Anzu finally reached the ninth-tier, and everyone in the room offered him due congratulations, but he was the only one among them to ascend. Still, everyone gained power, or in Justin and Iron-Strikers cases, healed further. Leon was satisfied with this result. Aside from Ambroses business, they werent operating on a time crunch.
But as everyone was celebrating, Leon found Clear Days hand subtly pulling on his sleeve. When he glanced over at the tau, he saw Clears aged face grimly set and his dark red eyes staring somewhere at the edge of the room.
Leon followed Clears gaze, not seeing anything until his eyes landed upon a specific spot, in which appeared a fairly average-looking man, leaning against the wall with a lazy smile on his lips. Hed simply appeared there, looking like hed been there the whole time and Leon had simply never noticed.
Ambrose, Leon identified as all cheer left him, leaving him bereft of its warmth and with nothing more than the cold nugget of dread in the pit of his stomach that seemed to grow ten times in that one moment.
Leon managed to tear his eyes away from Ambrose long enough to notice that no one else seemed to realize he was there, save for Clear. The tau himself slowly turned to face Leon, his expression still exceedingly grim, and nodded meaningfully to Ambrose.
Ill handle everyone else, he said. Ill keep them calm. But best not to waste too much time
Leon glanced at the others and found that no one was even looking at him, Clear, or Ambrose. For all intents and purposes, it was as if he and Clear had simply vanished from existence, with no one the wiser.
When Leon turned his eyes back toward Ambrose, they locked onto the Grave Wardens dark brown orbs, an understanding in them that told Leon without words that the Grave Warden was responsible for this strange behavior.
So, with growing dread and deep reluctance, Leon agreed with Clears assessment and whispered some last instructions to him before taking a step in Ambroses direction.
His foot landed not upon the marble tiles of his palace but on soft blue carpet alien to the Bullish dcor that Elise had insisted upon. Around him were not the polished white stone walls, intricate mosaics and reliefs depicting the Thunderbird Clan and the Ten Tribes, or most concerningly, any of his people, not even Clear.
He was alone with Ambrose in a strange, if comfortable, sitting room. The room was richly, if simply, appointed, with only two chairs, a large table, and a blue carpet beneath it. These few pieces of furniture were spectacular, though, with a significant amount of gold trimming and embroidery in the carpet and upholstery, while decorating the ceiling was a vision of the night sky filled with blue, green, and purple aurorae. Despite the magnificence of the aurorae, however, they cast no light upon the rest of the room, which was illuminated by soft white light from somewhere, though certainly not from anywhere within the room, for Leon could locate not a single light source.
Most concerning, however, was the fact that the room had no door. Wherever Leon now found himself, there was no conventional way out.
[Leon] Xaphan breathed, [Do not, do not, antagonize this man. He can end you with a thought He can end entire planes with a thought]
Leon, silently agreeing with Xaphans advice, fought not to let any of that concern show on his face or in his voice as he said, S-So well, that was impressive.
Ambrose breathily chuckled. Spatial magic always impresses. Please, shall we have a seat so we may talk? Have a seat?
Leon spared a second to glance around the room again. Youre not leaving me with much choice, are you?
Apologies for that, but the situation demands haste. Demands haste.
Yes, Ambrose confirmed. Were the situation not so dire, I wouldnt even be asking this of you. I cant investigate Arkhavi myself, so I need you to be my eyes. See the plane yourself, verify that the seals of the Primal Devils are still intact. Still intact. The fate of the universe itself, or at least all human civilization in it, could hang in the balance!
Youre laying a lot at my feet, Leon whispered.
[Hes trying to kill you, intentionally or not,] Xaphan grumbled.
When the alternative is to possibly allow Primal Devils to run rampant across an unprepared universe, then I do what I must. What I must.
Leon stared at Ambrose, and the man stared back. Leon felt nothing but honesty and conviction, and given the scale of the threat, he didnt feel like he could turn his back on the request, even if he didnt think he was powerful enough to deal with any of it.
He fidgeted, turning the problem over in his head, but he only started getting a headache. So instead, he contemplated turning down this request. He didnt think that there were many other people whom Ambrose could turn to, assuming everything hed told Leon was true. And besides, hed still have Xaphan and the Thunderbird, not to mention the Iron Needle, his armor, and his bloodlines. He had quite a few advantages that others of his tier wouldnt.
[Hes not wrong,] Leon rambled to Xaphan. [Im probably his best bet for seeing whats going on over there And the risks]
[So he says,] Xaphan testily responded. [Primal Devils created demons, you know that, right?]
[Right. Does this mean you have reservations about going there? Should I fear you turning against me in favor of one of these Devils?]
[You make me so confident in our partnership, demon.]
[And you are being asked to keep the icons that many demons venerate, locked away, imprisoned by a human of all creatures]
Leon frowned, wondering if leaving Xaphan behind would be the better move. But after some thought, he decided against it. He hated to admit it, but their partnership could be dissolved at any time, and Xaphan was weaker than Leon was at this point, not to mention their contract specified that they couldnt act against each other with the intent to harm. Besides, Leon could use Xaphans advice and expertise if he were to accept this taskwhich he was leaning towards.
How long do I have to think this over? Leon asked.
Youre going to do it, Ambrose unequivocally stated. I apologize for taking the choice away from you, but I cant risk this. The Primal Devils cannot be unleashed. Qo Weylekh must be found. And if those from the other planes can be located, as well as Qo Weylekhs Universe Fragment, then all the better. But you must go to Arkhnavi. You must.
Leon deeply scowled. Hed known this was coming and that getting out of it was a long shot at best, but it still hurt for Ambrose to do away with all pretense of choice. But he supposed that just underscored the seriousness of the situation.
His thoughts soon turned to his friends and family. To Valeria, Cassandra, Maia, and Elise, all of whom would be angry and terrified at his departure and that they couldnt accompany him. Must I do this alone? I cant bring anyone else with me?
You must go alone, I cannot send any more than one person. You must go alone.
Leon quietly cursed. Fine. How much time will you give me to say goodbye to my friends and family?
Ambrose stared unblinkingly at him for a long moment, then said, Ill give you five days. No more. He snapped his fingers and summoned a silver twig on the table in front of Leon. Ill come find you at the end of those five days and we can go over everything you need to know in greater detail. But if you finish getting all of your ducks in a row before then, snap that twig and youll be transported directly to my tower. Snap that twig.
Leon gingerly took the twig and sent it into his soul realm. With the task ahead of him, he was going to have a lot of business to deal with, especially since the thought crept into his mind that he may not be coming home from this task.
A Grave Warden was missing, which meant that his Universe Fragment was unaccounted for, and his charges could be out of their cages already.
For all his misgivings, Leon knew his duty. Despite the danger, he had to do this. He had no other choice that he could live with.
Fine, he said. Send me back. I have some arrangements to make. And then you can send me over.
Thank you, Ambrose sincerely stated, a look of immense relief crossing his features for only a moment. My gratitude knows no bounds. No bounds. After this, I will give you what I promised years ago: a means for your Kingdom to cross the Void and reach the Nexus.
Leon breathed a sigh of relief. In his emotional state, hed quite forgotten to confirm his compensation. The threat to all human civilization throughout the universe had quite taken his attention and held it in an iron grip.
Youd damn well better, Leon growled, and the look he gave the Grave Warden mustve been withering for Ambrose froze for a second, and then Leon suddenly found himself back in the palace, the mood in the room having been dampened in the short time hed been absent.
Leon! he heard Elise cry out as she rushed over and threw her arms around his neck. She held him tightly, not saying anything more.
Leon hugged her back and addressed the room. Seems like its time, he said. Ill be leaving in five days