There was a sharp knock on the door to Silus Underwood’s office. The man himself had already been hard at work going through and organizing the information from the stack of reports on his desk, despite it barely even being dawn.
“Enter,” he called out while scribbling on the document in front of him.
The door swung open and the newly-appointed junior officer walked in while announcing her presence with a salute.
“Decanus Keira Morgana, reporting as instructed, sir!”
It was an all too-chipper voice that seemed to sweep away the stale atmosphere of the messy office and make it the slightest bit more jovial. Her upturned eyes, smiling lips and gently swaying tail gave off the impression of one that had obtained true happiness in the world. It was as if the sight of that frightened girl who didn’t want to admit to being sexually assaulted a few days ago was all but a lie.
“Ah yes, please have a seat, Decanus. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
The beastkin did as instructed and seated herself in the chair on the opposite end of the desk. Silus continued writing on the document - an estimate of the casualties should the Empire’s plans to siege Fort Yimin come to fruition - but his mind was elsewhere. He was stealthily appraising and observing the catgirl out of the corner of his eye.
Even though her behavior seemed odd and out of place at first glance, prior conversations with those close to her revealed it was actually the norm for her. Her mood supposedly swayed back and forth like a pendulum, to the point where one could call her volatile or unstable. Yet out in the field she displayed a surprisingly serious and reliable demeanor, as if she were a completely different person. Well, many adventurers were like that, but near-total lack of animosity in her was noteworthy.
In fact, the only time she showed any genuine hostility was whenever the topic of the Empire’s military came up. She seemed to hold some sort of grudge towards them, but it was important to note this was limited only to the soldiers themselves. She had no issue communicating or working with any of the human adventurers that sided with the Republic, which spoke favorably of her character in Underwood’s personal opinion. Indiscriminately hating the many because of the actions of the few was the sort of thing that fanned the flames of this damned war to begin with.
As for the girl’s character, Silus was able to reach the painfully obvious conclusion that she was too easy to read. She didn’t even try to hide her feelings and let her thoughts float onto her face without any hesitation. There was already somewhat of a rumor within the barracks how bad of a gambler she was because of that. Her bluffing skills were so bad that the other soldiers genuinely felt bad for indiscriminately winning her wages off her. It was at the point where it could easily be called bullying.
Long story short, her currently fluffy state of mind was most likely due to a very specific reason.
“You seem to be in a good mood,” said Silus after putting away the report he was working on.
“Hm? Ah! Yes, uhm, that is- I just got a letter from home, you see.”
“Good news, I trust?”
“Hehehe, that’s one way to put it!” she declared with a goofy grin.
The letter in question was from an individual called Rowana Slyth. It had actually arrived yesterday, but circumstances being what they were, Underwood used his authority to delay its delivery in order to read it for himself. The colorful language made it clear that she and Keira were more than just ‘roommates,’ and honestly made the elf more than a little uncomfortable. Digging into another’s personal life like that was a necessary evil in his line of work.
Still, the fact she was in a romantic relationship made it quite clear why she was so hesitant to speak of what transpired two nights ago. She was probably trying her best to purge the unpleasant memories from her mind. Well, that was possible in the literal sense with the help of a Psionic, but that was a rather extreme measure. Whether or not she actually visited those mental specialists Underwood mentioned during her debriefing was up to her. Even if he sympathized with her, however, he had more important things to worry about than her mental well-being.
“Now then, I must discuss a very sensitive matter with you. What I’m about to tell you is strictly on a need-to-know basis and is to remain a secret, understood?”
Keira’s giddy atmosphere was replaced with a more serious one as she saluted while puffing out her chest. The eye-catching Golden Crescent pinned to her uniform glinted in response to the slight movement. It was a relatively common award given out to distinguished individuals and was ultimately nothing more than a fancy trinket, but the fact she wore it with pride proved it was not a meaningless gesture.
“What do you make of this, Decanus?”
Silus reached into a desk drawer and took out the invoice that had been delivered to him several hours before the catgirl’s triumphant return. He passed it onto her, and she began reading it immediately. Her expression went from surprised, to curious, to grim, then downright shocked as she scanned it top-to-bottom.
“This… Uhm… Is this a prank?” she asked with an incredulous voice.
“I said this was a serious matter, did I not?”
“Ah, yes sir! Sorry, sir!”
Well, her first reaction was more or less the same as everyone else who saw that ridiculous scrap of paper, so Silus couldn’t really fault her for those words.
“But still, a prank? What makes you say that?”
“Well, even if you ask me that… I don’t even know where to start!”
“Then start at the first thing that caught your attention.”
“Yes, sir. Uhm, it feels weird for the Sandman to ask for money. Isn’t he an ally of justice?”
“You know that would technically make him our enemy, right?”
“The Empire claims Teresa herself is on their side, you know.”
Even if Teresa’s devoted most certainly took part in the war, whether the Goddess of truth, justice and retribution personally supported it was another question entirely. Mere mortals could not hope to comprehend the wills of the Gods. Besides, the concept of ‘justice’ was entirely reliant on one’s perceptions and preconceptions. Silus was not a man who could trust in something vague and fallible like that.
“To be frank, I’d be far more relaxed if this invoice was the real deal,” he admitted. “A motivation of wanting to make money is something I find easier to believe in than altruism.”
Of course one needed to be wary of loyalty that had been bought with coin. That wasn’t to say mercenaries and sellswords were untrustworthy, though. It all depended on how professional they were, and whether or not they abandoned their contracts whenever it suited them. This was also the kind of logic that the pragmatic Boxxy was expecting the elves’ higher-ups to display. However, Keira was supposed to be a young, idealistic girl. Therefore, it made sure to show a troubled and uncomfortable expression at the elf’s words.
“So then… this is the assignment you mentioned, sir?”
“That’s right. Although I do wonder why he singled you out.”
The reason the Mimic named itself as the courier was so that it would know in advance what sort of funny business the elves would try to pull during the hand-off. It was also a question of whether they would pay up willingly, but then it would just take what it was ‘owed’ through brute force, and the stingy elves would only have themselves to blame. Besides, even if they were short on military personnel, it wasn’t like the Republic’s coffers were light. It was quite sure they’d be able to dredge up the funds even with the short notice. As for the officer’s question-
“Maybe he feels I won’t betray him?” offered Keira.
“And what makes you say that?”
“I do owe him my life, sir. Twice, actually.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true.”
It was also not really a question as to how or why she caught the Sandman’s eye. Not only did the two meet practically face-to-face, but it also went without saying that she stood out entirely too much. She was the only beastkin in the 3rd Legion, and her fiery-red hair, ears and tail practically demanded one’s attention. Even the opposing force had no trouble singling her out after her capture. Her ability and potential were also outstanding, as evidenced not only by her results, but by how Faehorn himself gave her special, almost preferential treatment. And the last few days had more or less convinced Underwood her motivations to fend off the Empire’s invasion was no less genuine than his own.
It was her loyalty to the Republic itself that was still in question.
“What if I were to order you to betray him, though?”
Her face once again became deeply troubled, showing she was unsure as to what to answer. As expected, she was conflicted. Although Silus was curious whether her gratitude towards her savior or her duty towards her country was stronger, this was not the time for such pointless tests.
“Well, in the end I won’t be doing that. No offense, but it’s not like I expect an adventurer like you to follow a troublesome order like that so easily.”
“Err, thank you?”
“In any event, get your gear and get ready to depart within the hour.”
“So we’re actually going to hand over this much money? Just like that?!”
8,715 GP was quite literally a fortune. It was the sort of lump sum that could potentially set one up for life, or at the very least allow them to retire.
“Believe it or not, his rates are actually very generous. Waging war is rather expensive, you know,” said Silus with a dry chuckle. “Besides, it is my personal and official opinion we want to establish good relations with this entity, which is why we’ll even be giving him a little gift.”
“Understood, sir. Still, I feel uneasy carrying that much money by myself…”
“Who said you’re going by yourself?”
“Nothing in the invoice said you had to go out there alone, right? That’s why I’m sending you along with an armed escort, as well as one of the High Elves as insurance. Just in case this is some scam or trap.”
Boxxy mentally cursed its lack of foresight. This would complicate things, but it wasn’t like it would be impossible to deceive them.
“Very good. Now, do you have any questions?”
“Just one. What is this boxing tax supposed to be? Is this a thing that exists?”
Of course the Mimic knew the answer. While the ‘reasonable rates’ were something it discussed with Snack, the ‘boxing tax’ was something Kora suggested. Although she probably meant it as a bad joke, Boxxy liked the sound of it and added it anyway. However, it would be un-Keira-like if it didn’t ask about things like this. Besides, it was genuinely curious as to how the elves would interpret it.
“I suppose that’s the shipping and handling charge,” said Underwood with a humorless smile.
“Shipping and handling, sir?”
“The invoice was delivered in a wooden box, you know. Along with the enemy commander’s head.”
It would seem Claws did something unnecessary when she was dropping it off. Where and how did she even find a box in the first place?
“Good. Then you have your orders. Dismissed, Decanus.”
Keira stood up with a salute and exited the office while Underwood went back to his duties. Half an hour later she was fully geared up and went to meet up with her armed escort - a platoon made up of 50 of the garrison’s professional soldiers. One could easily tell them apart from the conscripted adventurers due to their gear. Although each individual wore something befitting their Job - light chainmail and padded armor for the scouts, thick cloaks and robes for the magic users and metal-plated armor for the vanguards - they all had a uniform feel to it. Mostly due to the predominantly silver-like color of their equipment and the eagle-wing-themed decorations and engravings along their shoulders and headgear.
And among them was the High Elf that Underwood mentioned - someone that had reached Level 100 of her Job and Ranked Up from a regular elf into a higher variant. She was an old elf, much like the various guild instructors, except that her face was still beautiful, elegant and smooth with very few wrinkles. She had pure white skin that contrasted with her long, raven-black hair and eyes, as well as her luxurious black robe. Strictly speaking, her garment seemed more like an evening gown than an adventurer’s attire. It looked as if someone had cut out diamond-shaped holes out of the fabric, exposing her navel, collarbone, shoulders, the sides of her thighs and her upper back to the world. Well, it was a high-class magic item without a doubt, but it was obvious this woman put too much stock into appearances.
“Greetings, child,” she said with a flourish of her arms. “Know that you are in the presence of Imiryl of the Maleficium! Fret not, for I shall guard your fragile existence without fail! All who seek to stand in my way shall be trampled under my heel!”
Her tone and attitude were condescending, to say the least. It was obvious she was looking down on the beastkin as a lesser creature - a burden she was forced to carry around. The soldiers around her rolled her eyes, suggesting they were already familiar with her prideful behavior.
“Hi! I’m Keira! I’ll be in your care!”
The woman called Imiryl was stunned silent by the catgirl’s excited-yet-casual tone.
“Wow, so you’re a High Elf like mister Faehorn, huh? I had no idea you’d be this pretty!”
The elf just stared unblinkingly at Keira, almost as if she was doubting whether she was seeing an illusion or not. What sort of behavior was this? Was this whelp before her unable to grasp greatness when she saw it?
“I mean, between you and me, he’s getting on in years a little, you know? I think his friend Lichter looks much better. Not that he’s my type or anything, but he’s quite handsome, isn’t he?”
“So I heard you were like, a super famous Wizard, right? Say, can you shoot lightning? I always wanted to see someone shoot lightning!”
The catgirl was basically bouncing in place in anticipation by this point, although this was mostly a ruse. Truthfully speaking, Imiryl was a dangerous person. Wizards were one of the few Jobs capable of using lightning Spells, which made them a natural enemy to shapeshifters like a certain Mimic-turned-Doppelganger. It also didn’t help that Imiryl’s personality was exactly as the rumors said - snobbish, prideful and overconfident. There’s no way she’d get along with the happy-go-lucky and bubbly Keira. However, staying in-character at this point was more important than being liked, especially since that Underwood fellow had his eye on her.
One of the soldiers audibly cleared his throat.
“Decanus Morgana, ma’am. I think it’s about time we set off.”
The beastkin was, technically speaking, the one in command of this little operation. The Sandman had named her personally, and she was one of the very few people to have met him, so she was the closest thing they had to an expert on the masked figure. Well, she also technically outranked the Legionnaire who spoke to her, even if slightly, so it was no surprise the man was trying his best to be as respectful to his superior officer as possible. Even if that superior officer was someone as childish and bizarre as Keira.
“Hm? Oh! Right! Sorry! I got a little over-excited meeting miss Imiryl in person. I heard so much about her at the guild, you know!”
“It’s understandable, ma’am, but we really should be on our way.”
“Yes, of course!”
The catgirl coughed once or twice to reign in her mock enthusiasm, then asked the soldier who addressed her earlier.
“Then, you have the package?”
“Right here, ma’am.”
The soldier gestured towards the man immediately behind him, who was carrying sturdy-looking metal chest that was locked up with a heavy padlock.
“Very good,” she said. “What of the ‘present’ I heard about.”
“I believe that is in Lady Imiryl’s possession, ma’am.”
Those words seemed to snap the needlessly haughty High Elf out of her stupor.
“Indeed it is,” she declared in a grandiose fashion. “However, its identity is not for one of your stature to know!”
“Okay! Then let’s move out, everybody!”
Relieved to have actually gotten some coherent orders, the soldiers assumed a loose, square-like formation with Keira, Imiryl and the gold at the center, and moved out through the front gates. The Hylt tree mentioned in the invoice was the oldest tree in the region, so it was a well-known landmark. It was also a good 20 or so kilometers south of the fort, so the group would normally have a long march ahead of them if Imiryl wasn’t there.
Once the patrol was out of the front gates and a good 300 or so meters away from the fort, the high-Level Wizard started casting a grand Spell.
A massive magical doorway sprang out of thin-air, one that was easily as big as the fort’s own gates. The scenery beyond the portal was that of a grassy plain, with an impossibly tall tree visible in the distance. One by one, the soldiers strode through the Transfer Gate as if it were an everyday occurrence. There was hardly any resistance, not even a peculiar sensation as Keira passed through it. It was as natural a sensation as going from one room to the other. Imiryl, who was busy maintaining the portal, was the last one to go through it, after which it collapsed in on itself.
All things said and done, they appeared a distance that was less than a 10 minute walk away from the tree in question. It was possible to transfer everyone directly under the tree’s canopy, but that might have been considered a hostile action by other party. As for why they had to step away from the fort, it was because there was a powerful ward around the place that prevented Spatial Magic from being activated. It was something of a standard procedure to fortify a stronghold against teleportation, otherwise they ran the risk of the enemy transporting their forces directly inside the fort and bypassing the walls entirely.
This bit of trivia came as a surprise to Boxxy since Transfamiliar worked just fine within the fort’s confines. Then again, the magical theory behind that particular Spell was very different from traditional Spatial Magic, so it made sense in its own way. It was a very welcome discovery, because it meant that it held an edge in mobility its enemies might not anticipate.
The armed escort resumed their formation and approached the 450-meter-tall tree warily. The Wizard had deployed a transparent bubble around them, a Mana Shield that should protect them from any incoming magical attacks. They raised their guard even further as they entered the shadow of the tree’s vast canopy, but there was still no sign of life. At least, not until they got within a dozen or so meters from the tree’s massive trunk.
“Who goes there?”
A woman’s voice rolled in from above, causing the soldiers as well as Imiryl to brace themselves. However, nothing at all happened for the next 30 or so seconds. Not until a certain catgirl decided to shout at her surroundings.
“Uhm! Hello there! I’m Keira! I’m here to see mister Sandman!”
“Do you have an appointment or something?”
“Yes! We’re here to deliver payment for, uh, services rendered!”
“Ah, you must be the kitty I was told about. What of those angry looking men and that old hag? They your mates?”
“Old hag… ?” muttered Imiryl under her breath.
“Yeah! They’re my escort! They won’t attack so, can I please speak to mister Sandman?”
“The Master will speak with you, and you alone! The others must leave my shadow if you wish for an audience!”
“Then, it’s okay if the others step back a bit, right? Okay, everyone, let’s-”
“Nonsense!” butted in Imiryl. “I shall not let this poor child be taken in by the likes of you! Show yourself!”
“I’m already in front of you, you old bat. Are your eyes just for decoration? Or do you perhaps need glasses in your old age?”
Keira tried to stop the enraged elf, but it was too late. And invisible wave of magic exploded out of the Wizard’s outstretched hand and washed over her surroundings. It was a Spell meant to negate ongoing magical effects by forcibly dispersing the mana that held them together. She was expecting to hit someone that was cloaked in Invisibility or was otherwise using an illusion of some sort, but ended up with a completely different response.
“Oi! That hurt, you uppity cunt!”
A living root sprouted out from the ground beneath her feet and delivered a splendid uppercut to the High Elf, knocking her into the air. A countless number of other, smaller roots sprouted out from the grassy soil, firmly entangling the entire platoon and forcing them to the ground before they could do anything. Only Imiryl managed to escape by flying up into the air with magic.
However, a number of green vines shot out horizontally from the tree’s thick trunk, firmly wrapping themselves around her hands, feet, mouth and throat. Not only was she unable to chant, but she immediately felt her MP drain away at a rapid pace. Those parasitic plants sucked her completely dry within seconds and fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes, leaving her in the same helpless predicament as the others.
Having been singled out, the High Elf was dragged across the dirt until she was at the very foot of the Hylt tree. It was then that the dryad residing within the venerable plant finally showed herself. The green-skinned woman walked out of the bark as if it were thin air, causing everyone present to stare at her with wide open eyes. She was much younger than Ambrosia, so her proportions were not quite as generous. In fact, her body was more like that of a young teenager, closer to Keira’s than Xera’s. She had the same hair-like vines growing out of her scalp, although her lack of antlers was, according to Ambrosia, a clear sign she had yet to mature into an adult.
The tree spirit silently looked over everyone present before turning her attention to the ‘uppity cunt’ at her feet. She squatted down and glared at her with a look that could kill.
“Why the fuck did you just disperse the mana inside my trunk, you twat?!” she said in a clearly pissed-off tone. “I need that shit to live, you know! Do you even have any idea how painful that was?! No, of course, you don’t! You hoighty-toighty High Elves are all the same! You think you know what’s what just because you’ve been around for a while! Well guess what?! You’re not the top bitch ‘round here - I am!”
The furious dryad took a few deep breaths as she calmed herself down a bit.
“It’s okay though. I won’t kill you. I’ll just have to teach you a lesson!”
A thick root jutted out from the soil behind her, and the dryad seated herself on top of it. She then gestured at the vines binding Imiryl, which dragged the powerless Wizard closer to her and forcibly bent her over the dryad’s knee. A few extra vines rolled up the hem of her dress-looking-robe until her tight white ass and lacy black underwear were visible to all to see.
“I shall now begin instructing you on the 999 reasons why you should respect your elders.”
The dryad then raised her hand and spread her palm wide.
She spanked Imiryl with all her might. The elf’s rump jiggled furiously in response while its owner let out a muffled yell of pain.
One could see the shockwave of each hit travel down her thighs, almost as if someone had thrown a stone in the still waters of a pond.
She had slapped her so hard that she left a bright red handprint on the nearly snow-white skin of her buttocks.
To say it looked painful was an understatement, especially considering how tears were already freely flowing from the High Elf’s eyes.
And of course, watching this all unfold, were the 50-odd members of Keira’s armed escort.
The vast majority of them thought the arrogant bitch deserved it, as it wasn’t the first time they were forced to work alongside her.
Still, there were some that felt bad for her, and even a few that envied her.
As for Boxxy, who was currently masquerading as Keira, it could only let out a metaphorical sigh.
‘The 999 reasons why you should respect your elders’ was definitely not what it had in mind when it told Snack to teach that impressionable dryad how to use non-lethal force.