King Ele'hunda held his chin as he stared at the piece of paper in his hand. There was a frown on his face and he clearly seemed to be angry about something.
He tore his eyes away from the parchment and looked at his precious daughter. "Dear, order Al'ka to investigate Elder Shan'len thoroughly," he requested without the power that his voice usually contained.
"Did he do something wrong?" Her Highness asked. She wasn't very aware of the inner politics of the council and her father, so she was naturally a bit curious as to what the elder might have done to displease her overwhelmingly mighty father.
"... It is no big deal. He is simply overstepping his bounds and letting his prejudices get in the way of his vision and the well being of the world tree. He cannot see what is truly beneficial to the tree and to his people," King Ele'hunda stated after taking a second to think.
"Of course, Father," Her Highness bowed politely.
"Ah," a look of realisation filled the King's face before he asked, "Have any of your suitors piqued your interest, Dear? While he is flawed and somewhat naive, Falin is an honourable and strong man with a bright future ahead of him as the Prince of the eastern world tree."
Her Highness flinched. "N-No... none of them interest me, Father."
In truth, Her Highness had cut all of her meetings with the men wanting to marry her short. Not a single one of them had truly liked her. Of course, she was the most beautiful High Elf in, arguably, all four of the world trees, but her suitors only saw her as a way to gain strong ties to the most powerful Elven ruler, her father.
'I don't want to be a pawn... I just want to be with...' the young Princess shook her head and smiled at the King.
"I see," not understanding the heart of the maiden before him, the King continued, "I shall arrange something to assist you in choosing a viable partner. Please make a decision soon. It pains me to see you live without a name."
"... Yes, Father. Thank you..." With those words, Her Highness left the throne room and went to find Al'ka.
She greatly wished that she could return to being outside of the tree. Her times spent with Al'ka adventuring outside of the world tree as they waited for Rachel Redtail to be ready for the keeper tests, were the best two years of her life, even if they were filling with danger.
Tal'hat'mata led Lone and the others through the large oak city and brought them to the point where the world tree's trunk connected to its crown. Once there, she avoided the teleportation enchantment that led to the base of the tree, and instead, entered a stairway that seemed to go down into the wood itself.
They walked for about fifteen minutes and soon found themselves to be in an expansive and busy chamber that was full of geared up and powerful Elves. Almost every single one of them stopped to look at the group of outsiders being led by a fairly young Elf.
Tal'hat'mata ignored the stares and proceeded towards a large metal door that appeared to lead deeper into the tree's core.
Two Elves that Lone could tell were SS-rankers were guarding this gate and they stopped their group just as they reached it. "Identify yourselves."
Tal'hat'mata calmly took out the sheet of cloth that she was given by the Red team headquarters' receptionist and handed it over to the guard. "I am the external leader of team Red-four. We have been tasked with slaying one-hundred monsters in the outer rim of the tree's heart. Once you've confirmed it, could you please bless us and supply us with a healer like normal?"
Tal'hat'mata had fought in the core before, however, she had only done so as a team of fifty B-rankers and A-rankers, and from what she recalled, they were all given Life and Movement blessings while being supplied with ten nature mages for support.
She didn't like thinking about those times because it was during that quest that her reputation took a nosedive and people started to act in the background against her despite the fact that she was a childhood friend of the King's daughter.
The guard looked down at the scrap of cloth that Tal'hatmata had given him and checked the details written on it. He nodded his head and handed it back to her. It was then that the other gatekeeper leaned over and whispered into his ear.
The two separated and the first guard frowned a little bit and then stated, "You are now free to enter."
"What? But the blessing and healers-"
"You are now free to enter," the well-armoured defender of the gate repeated himself emotionlessly.
Lone put a hand on Tal'hat'mata's shoulder and sighed. "Looks like some slimy fuck on the council wants to kill us," he said as he smirked at the guards.
The two flinched, almost as if the confirm Lone's accusation.
"I didn't know that most Elves were such untrustworthy bastards, but hey, we'll be fine. Ah, by the way, you two, or really, anyone here, you all might want to tell the King or someone on the council that I can probably cure the world tree of its sickness, or at least make it better. I've already dealt with a Darkness curse before, so it shouldn't be a big deal if I put my mind to it," Lone announced, shocking everyone speechless.
Without giving them a chance to react, Lone went through the large metal door and closed it after all of his teammates had followed him through.
The room of Elves remained quiet until they all realised the two important things that Lone had just said. First, he had denounced their species as a whole for the obvious mistreatment of their particular team, and second, Lone claimed to be able to heal the tree.
His rude comment to their species didn't matter much, it was normal for outsiders to not understand their ways, but the claim of being able to treat the world tree was very serious.
Normally, they would have dismissed this grand boast were it any other person that had said it. However, most of the people present had heard about the events of yesterday's keeper test and they were all aware of the fact that Lone was a soul oracle and that he appeared to have immeasurable healing capabilities.
Some of the warriors here had connections with the council, so they made haste to deliver this information to their contacts. No matter how skewed their views on other species were, the one thing that remained true to every Wood Elf and High Elf alike, was that they cared deeply for the world trees, and any chances to save them when they were in danger shouldn't be taken lightly.
"Why did you do such a thing?!" Tal'hat'mata shouted at Lone.
The nine-tailed Fox adjusted his Dwarven glasses and glanced around at what seemed to be a safe zone in the tree's core. Everything was dark and it almost resembled a labyrinth entrance of some sort.
"I only spoke my mind. Besides, I want to see the look on Shan'len's face when he begs me to heal the tree. Mind you, I will heal the tree regardless if I'm able to, but that asshole deserves to suffer a bit, right?" Lone said with a mischevious smile on his lips.
"You didn't have to force us into this place!" Tal'hat'mata was still quite clearly upset.
Lone scratched his head and replied, "Why don't we just leave then? You want those blessings and healers, right?"
Lone did have to admit that he had jumped the gun a bit. If Tal'hat'mata insisted that those things were required, then he wouldn't arrogantly continue to ask her and his teammates to resume the mission without them.
"It's not that easy..." The distressed High Elf held her forehead and closed her eyes tightly in frustration. "... Didn't you know that once you enter the core, you can't exit until you've killed at least ten Darkness monsters? This entire place was turned into a dungeon to make it easier to defeat the creatures, but now it's going to be our doom..."
From the back of their team, Rachel timidly raised her arm and whispered, "... I-I knew..."
Eolande floated around the room a bit and a question surfaced in her mind. "Where are the other people? If that waiting chamber was so full of Elves, then where are the ones in this place?"
Tal'hat'mata sighed and responded, "You really were taught nothing, weren't you, you two?" as she shifted her gaze between Lone and Eolande.
She walked towards the wooden hallway that led further into the tree's heart and pointed towards it. "Like I said, this place was turned into a dungeon by the efforts of the entire council. Every party that enters it has to slay at least ten monsters to leave, and the dungeon itself moves you and the Darkness creatures into an 'instance'."
"Ah, okay, I understand that. Why did they make it a dungeon though?" Lone asked as he gently traced his fingers across the wall.
"It was in order to slow down the tree's corruption," Tal'hat'mata claimed with a sad voice. As an Elf herself, the world tree's pain felt like her own personal agony. No matter how much her fellow kin were working against her behind her back, this place would always be a part of her, much like it would be for any and all other Wood Elves and High Elves.
"The Darkness monsters spawned by Ythmagobla's curse were consuming the core at an unbelievably fast speed, so the council willingly chose to sacrifice five of their members in a ritual to turn the entire heart into a dungeon that could barely contain and control those evil creatures," Tal'hat'mata narrated.
'Wow. That's quite brave, actually,' Lone admired. He didn't think too highly of the Elves thus far, but if there was one thing to be praised about them, it was their loyalty to the world tree.
Tal'hat'mata smiled softly and added, "In a way, it's made it easier to defeat the Darkness monsters since the dungeon won't allow them to create hordes like they first did."
The Demon Princess's face paled a bit. She had heard a brief explanation of the world tree's situation from her recruiter, but not in this much detail. 'Hordes of B-rank or stronger monsters? Not to mention, Darkness monsters. Father told me that anything with a pure attribute was highly dangerous, especially a primal essence like Darkness...'
Tal'hat'mata walked back to her team and finished by saying, "However, it has also deepened the curse's effects due to the long exposure the core has had to the monsters, which, in turn, has allowed more of the foul beasts to be born. It's practically impossible now for them to be cleansed and for the tree to survive. All we can do is try to kill as many as we can to extend the world tree's life as much as possible."
"Well, let's see what we can do then, right? I mean, we only have to kill one-hundred before we're allowed to leave and I can heal us if we get hurt, so why don't you lead the way and show us the ropes?" As always, Lone was being rather nonchalant.
If they couldn't leave until the job was done, then there was little point in sitting in this room as they twiddled their thumbs. Lone loved learning about the history of the tree, and he was fully intent of saving it to test the limits of the primal essence living within him, Darkness, but he could hardly make much progress on that matter today.
For now, all the Golden Foxkin wanted to do was to fight and earn the recognition of the biased Elves before enjoying Elder Shan'len's reaction to is arrogant claims which he was certain would be amazing to witness.
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