The atmosphere of the war room within Honeygreen’s trunk was eerie. The beings in the room sat between unending rage and apprehensive gloom. Six [Arbors], the supposed leaders and protectors of Esmel, waited for Vel and her group. They had yet to arrive from the warehouse.
A man of grass, a man of flowers, a woman of leaves, a man of splinters, a woman of thorns, and lastly, a man of aged wood. The last man was different compared to the rest. He was the original, the absolute power of these lands. But today he realised just how far his power actually reached.
In his long life, the man had defended his home from conquests. He watched the ones he was close to grow old and die. He watched nations be ripped asunder and pushed into the oceans. He’s seen it all, and he lived through it all. But this time was different.
For the others, it was a simple terrorist attack. Something the city has seen before. But for the ancient man, it was his past finally catching up to him. He told the others about his wife, the godly intervention, and what Esmel actually was. Only the outsiders considered it, no one from his enclave batted an eye. They didn’t so much as care about his past.
He knew the boy had many secrets. Most he hid well, but the old man had seen his reaction to the name Tiodepth. The unknown god that has caused so much misfortune. If he had known things would turn out this way, would he have accepted his quest? Would his wife still be alive?
But his mind kept coming back to the boy. What was his connection to this all was? The Unicorn Queen had sent him to help. And from his dealing with her, he knew she had a Divine backing. Which God or Goddess? He did not know, but he was certain the boy was even more instrumental in the well being of his city than already shown. Or destruction? The question lingered in his mind.
Was his city supposed to fail? Did he already fail? Did the Gods turn their backs on him and his people? The old man was tired, but he had a job. With their most recent losses, the job would get harder. Everyone in the room knew this, but the old man was the only one who took it to heart.
The others made political moves, they spit in the safety of their citizens if it meant they could push their agendas. They fought with other factions, forcing the loser to do duties they didn’t want. They cared for the lives of their men as numbers on a page. They were scourge, a scourge with a smile that told you they had your best intentions in heart. But they were lies. It was easy to prove their falsehood. Simply look at what a few outsiders found after a few days, compared to what the [Arbors] found after almost a month.
For all of their resources and men, they found nothing. If anything, they lost more than gained.
The spies. The old man hadn’t forgotten that someone was keeping things hidden. Playing in the shadows, helping the enemy. Missing bodies, invisible listeners in odd places, and most recently their losses at the warehouse.
As the early reports came in, it was clear to the old man that a major strategic blunder was made. The monster, one of the enemy leaders, was released back into the city after being confined in a warehouse. Granted [Arbor] Dripleaf had no way of knowing what was happening inside the walls, the question still must be asked. Did she release him on purpose?
His gut leaned him to the side of no. No she did not. The old man had known the militant leader for many, many years. Her past is as well known as was the others in his grove. Born from a “noble” family in Esmel, she made her way up the political ladder and eventually was powerful enough to become an [Arbor]. Her policies aligned in favor of the military and guard, and subsequently became their de facto leader.
Nobles were weird in Esmel. Strictly speaking, they did not exist. No family or house officially carried more power or influence than others. However, leaders did rise, and often from entire families. Instead of having governmental power over someone, they made connections and allies, ones who could follow in line.
It was one of the many reasons the old man didn’t like getting into the politics of his people. There were too many moving parts. His job was clear, protect the city and what secrets lie beneath. But he had failed… Maybe it was time for him to become active. Or maybe it was just an ill thought coming from a man who had just lost the closest thing to a son he has ever known.
The doors to the war room swung open with great ferocity. The armed guards posted outside quickly made rank and formed between the intruder and the leaders. But the only issue was that the one intruding was the only one in the immediate vicinity that was able to call herself a leader. The others were false or fake.
“Let her in.” The old man said quietly. His voice was heard over the action.
The guards parted to a small woman of Isle descent. She was angry and rightfully so. Her anger was focused on one in particular however. [Arbor] Dripleaf. Once Vel and her companions were inside the room and the doors had been closed, she made her anger known. Water that seemingly came from nowhere, formed into spikes and froze over. They embedded themselves in Dripleaf’s torso, throwing her into the wall, and pinning her inplace.
“How fucking dare you…” Vel spoke in a seethin but quiet voice. Unsettlingly quiet.
The other [Arbors] had begun to act, moving to provide protection for their comrade. But a hand forbid their movements. The hand was of the leader and original, Honeygreen. He watched the scene playout. The woman pinned to the wall looked at him in horror.
“We had him. He was as good as dead. All we had to do was wait for Bishop. But you gave him an opening, an out… But that is not even the worst part… You left.”
“I-” The woman tried to interrupt but three more Ice Spikes cut her off.
“You left your men to die. You didn’t even come back to help the survivors, or the clean up after. No... You left, probably with some sort of ill conceived notion of informing the others. You left them, even if you couldn’t help, even if you are powerless, being there is what matters. Laying the fallen to rest is what was important. You have failed as a leader, as an [Arbor] and as a person with a soul.”
“You’re right…” The woman on the wall spoke after a few minutes of silent contemplation. “I did run. I was afraid, not of Buzluc, but of the faces of the dead. I cou- I couldn’t face them. It’s my fault they died.”
The ice began to melt, and the holes in the woman began to regrow. Both of the two women took the seats. One looking to the side in despair, the other staring daggers at the other.
This time Max didn’t sit next to Honeygreen, instead he stood with the rest of his companions. His face was hard and void of emotion. Similar to the others in his party. It was at this point Honeygreen realised something. They were kids. Ages were sometimes hard to gage for adventurers, but it was the lack of emotions that finally caused Honeygreen to pause.
“Max. How old are you?”
Max looked up at the wooden man.
“I’m twenty two.”
The other [Arbors] looked up, slightly confused. Most didn’t believe it.
“What about you my dear Clammy?”
“And you Reep?”
The [Arbors] were now quietly chatting among themselves. Age matters little to [Arbors], after all, they are essentially immortal. But they each saw it now, what Honeygreen saw.
“Who… has the highest level class out of the three of you?” The [Arbor] man wearing grass as clothes asked.
The three looked between themselves and at Vel, who nodded. Bishop was the first to guess where this was going and very much so approved of giving this information.
“I am. Level sixteen [Archer].” Reep answered.
The [Arbors] paused. Calculating. “What about lowest?” The same grass man asked.
“Seven.” Clammy answered quickly. She was the second to guess the reason for their questions.
The room fell silent. Honeygreen chose to maintain the silence for a few minutes before continuing.
“I ask not to gloat or to make fun of, but to show the others who is actually protecting the city. The Humble Titans, a low ranked team of tier ones. Outsiders. Newborns. ” He studied his audience. Each looked guilty.
“Do you see? These children, along with their teachers, have proved their worth more than everyone else in this room. The most ironic part of it all, is that they have already completed what brought them here. Yes, that’s right. They could have left. But they choose to stay.”
“They choose to stay when their teacher wanted to leave.” Vel added.
“Now,” Honeygreen said, “I ask you all, and myself. Why is it like this? Why are children doing our jobs for us and better than us? Why have they been able to find clues and act on theories when we haven’t? Why have they put their lives on the line for us? They are just five people, and they have already done more for this city than it’s leaders have.”
The first to speak was Dripleaf.
“I… I will strive to be better… No. I will be better.”
“I too.” The splintered [Arbor] said. “I had been thinking about how you found answers in that mess of bodies, Max. It honestly inspired me. I thank you.”
The others quickly followed suit and spoke from their hearts.
“Good, with that out of the way, what happened today?” Honeygreen asked.
“I messed up. I called for my men to attack. I thought whoever was inside had lost when the sounds stopped. The monster was in a trap and I made an opening for him. He then butchered my men.” Dripleaf whimpered.
[Arbors] can’t cry. The bodies they used to communicate were only temporary constructs. Her feelings came across, however.
“What about before that? Why was he in the city? What was he doing?”
Vel looked at Max. It was then that the situation hit him. He was the only one who actually knew what happened. Wepish was dead, and Vel had followed him from away.
“We were putting my theory to the test. Wep-”
“What theory?” The flower [Arbor] interpreted.
“Ah, while I was inspecting the bodies in the Space Safe, I found some links between their injuries. The two bodies found in the center had varying levels of mana poisoning. Above normal limits commonly seen in humanoids even. Between that and a few other connections, I theorized that the living sacrifices must be drinking mana potions to keep the symptoms down. Absurd amounts even.” Max looked to the splintered [Arbor] for confirmation of his story.
He nodded and Max continued. “With the theory in mind, our group along with a guard unit lead by Captain Ism started investigating potion venders and stockers. After finding no leads, we split up and under disguise Wepish and I went to the bootlegger market under the city. There we found an Elf who sold items in bulk. We followed him to the warehouse. His guard was charmed and when Wepish and I investigated the inside. We found a hole saturated in plague and a very large plague beetle.”
Vel took over the rest. “I sensed Buzluc traveling quickly through the hole. Wepish left to alert the guards while I fought with Buzluc. Max stayed in the warehouse and provided support where he could. It ended with Buzluc being trapped between my spell, the wards keeping him in, and Bishop’s reinforcement.” She left the rest unsaid.
Silence reigned over the room once more. Lady Dripleaf slouched lower in her seat.
“Can you beat him if you were more prepared?”
“Yes, I know his attacking style. I already have a few ideas. But he’s not the issue right now. His swarm will take time to repopulate, meaning he will be out of the fight for a while. The issue is finding the living sacrifices and finding where Mallor is keeping his army.”
Honeygreen nodded, but before he could speak, the woman of thorns raised a pointy hand.
“The tunnel worries me. How is he able to tunnel under an Elven city? He would have to know, in detail, where our roots are. The only ones with that information is-”
“One of us.” Honeygreen finished. “We knew there was a spy, but that officially confirms it. It is an [Arbor].”
The temperature of the room dropped a few degrees. Each [Arbor] eyed each other, mulling over past dealing and knowledge. Eventually most came to their own conclusions. Dripleaf. It fit very well after all. She runs the militant faction that got first look at the rune sites, and she freed Buzluc.
“Stop looking at her, you dumbshits!” Vel commanded. “She’s not the spy.”
Surprise came over everyone’s face. Vel, the woman who just pinned her to a wall to berate and yell at her, was defending her?
“She’s obviously made a poor decision, but she’s not the spy. She has no backbone.” Vel’s words, while harsh, were also very true. She had run, afraid of seeing her lost men. Afraid of their gazes as they drew their last breath. “She’s no militant leader, but she’s not the damn spy.”
Vel didn’t know the woman’s history, but was able to guess rather well. Never had proper military training, never seen a real battle and somehow people follow her. Vel had seen it before, and will see it again. The story is too common for non-war races, such as Elves.
“I agree. Her past also adds to her standing as loyal.” Honeygreen added. “We can also safely remove [Arbor] Xylem. His history along with his help today is enough evidence for me.”
The splintered [Space Mage] [Arbor] nodded in thanks. Max had to agree. Maybe it was personal bias since they had the same secondary class, but Max never felt the man was malicious.
“We can remove Honeygreen also. If he was corrupt, then Gods help us, we are all screwed.” Vel noted. “That leaves three. Mr Grass, Ms Thorns, and Ms Flowers.”
“Let me introduce you all so you can have some more context. Mr Grass is [Arbor] Mertle, our youngest [Arbor] and leader of progressive faction. Most of the young minds of Esmel are a part of it. Ms Thorns is [Arbor] Thistle. Leader of the preservation faction. Their job is to maintain our beautiful city, and to decide on industrial changes. Lastly is Mr Flowers. [Arbor] Salvia. Leader of the healing faction.”
Max didn’t like where the rest of this meeting was going.