It was now nearly 40 minutes since the dryad started ‘educating’ Imiryl, and she was just about done by the sound of things.
“Nine hundred and ninety seven.”
The Wizard’s face had long ago become a sopping mess, and her audience doubted whether that red palm-print would ever truly fade from her backside.
“Nine hundred and ninety eight.”
As for Boxxy, it briefly wondered if Xera had inadvertently created a new ‘ally,’ as the High Elf’s cries seemed to have turned to stifled moans rather than muffled screams somewhere along the way.
“Nine hundred and ninety nine.”
That should have been the dryad’s final lesson in ‘respecting the elderly,’ yet she seemed hesitant in letting her victim go.
“... Ah, sod it! Might as well go for the big 1,000!”
With a final parting slap, she finally released the sobbing High Elf and the rest of the platoon from their bindings. She tossed the sobbing Imiryl aside like a discarded rag and calmly walked back inside her tree.
“Now then, all of you except the cat - get the fuck outta my sight!”
“Y-you heard the lady!” stammered the released Keira. “Everyone else - fall back!”
The elves gladly did as ordered and moved away from the tree in an orderly fashion. A couple of them picked up the thoroughly humiliated High Elf and carried her off. They would try and apply healing magic directly to her bruised bum, but many of them doubted whether she would be able to sit down anytime soon. It was almost a shame this mission was supposed to be a secret - they’d have a heck of a story to tell back at the barracks otherwise.
Once everyone except Keira was a good 150 meters from the tree, they finally caught a glimpse of the supposed Sandman. A tall figure with a cloak wrapped around it had dropped down from the tree and landed with a dull thud on the ground that kicked up a good amount of dust. It walked up to the clearly startled Keira, and the beastkin began by profusely bowing several times, presumably in apology. The Sandman just sort of stood there and nodded a few times, after which they apparently began a proper dialogue.
The Rangers in the group were using their keen vision to track the exchange, but were unable to tell what was being discussed from sight alone. Even reading lips was impossible as one of them was masked while the other was facing the wrong way. Well, not like there was any actual talking going on. To begin with, the tall figure in the heavy cloak and the towel wrapped around her head was none other than Kora, and she and Boxxy were simply pantomiming a conversation for the benefit of their audience.
A few minutes later, the catgirl turned to face the platoon in the distance and sent them some orders through Whisper Wind.
“One of you bring over the payment - mister Sandman wants to see it. Oh, and don’t forget miss Imiryl’s present, too.”
The Wizard in question was curled up on the ground, hugging her knees in a fetal position. Even if her physical wounds had long been treated, it would take a while for the emotional ones to heal. Still, she at least understood the whole thing was her own fault, so she didn’t let out a peep and complied with the orders immediately. She opened her Item Box - a lesser version of Boxxy’s Storage Skill - and pulled out a Masterwork mithril rapier. It was a magic item she had personally enchanted, and something she was supposed to present to the Sandman as a gesture of goodwill. The Legionnaire that was in charge of the money took it from her and brought it over to the duo under the tree along with the all-important metal chest full of gold.
Keira met him partway, some 30 or so meters from the Hylt tree. Her eyes went so wide at the sight of the fancy weapon that they looked like they’d fall out of their sockets. That was an understandable reaction, though. Even the soldier that temporarily carried the weapon on his belt was more than a little impressed. It was a light, graceful weapon that could be used for both thrusting and slashing attacks. The narrow, pure white blade, intricately detailed spiral-shaped guard and jewel-encrusted handle made it an immensely beautiful weapon as well. As for the enchantments Imiryl put on it, they were the standard combination of self-repair, increased durability and added sharpness.
The beastkin took the valuables off his hands with a nervous ‘thanks’ and made her way back to the Sandman while the elven soldier returned to his colleagues with a bitter smile. That sword by itself was probably worth at least 1,500 GP, meaning he just finished handing over a total of over 10,000 GP to a complete stranger. It was a regretful sensation, but orders were orders. Besides, it wasn’t his money he was handing off, so it wasn’t like he took it personally. If anything, he was actually thankful to have had the chance to hold that beauty of a weapon, even if briefly.
The elven Rangers kept watching from a distance as their temporary commander unsteadily carried the heavy valuables over to where the Sandman was waiting. She set the chest down in front of him, unlocked it with the key she was given and opened it. The Sandman, seemingly satisfied with the amount, gave a grand nod.
However, when presented with the rapier, he clearly didn’t want to accept it for some reason. Keira fidgeted around a bit and flailed her arms around in a panic, seemingly trying to convince him to take it. She seemed to succeed at first as the cloaked figure’s massive hand reached out and picked up the comparatively tiny sword, but he then immediately handed it back to her. There was some more arm flailing and head shaking on the beastkin’s part that did very little to help the situation. Eventually she was forced to take it back with her to the others while the Sandman picked up the chest. Some vines descended from the top of the tree and carried the tall figure off into the canopy, hiding his form from sight. Again, that was mostly for show, as the gold in the chest had already been discreetly stashed away inside Boxxy’s Storage.
Keira silently re-joined the platoon with a deeply troubled look on her face. The soldiers had been mostly quiet as well, as they didn’t know what to make of the situation, nor did they particularly want to know. They weren’t paid to do troublesome things like asking questions. If anything, since their current assignment was supposed to be kept under wraps, keeping their mouths shut actually meant they were pretty much following orders. The only reason the Rangers were keeping an eye on things in the first place wasn’t out of curiousity, but so that they could react in case things turned violent again. It was a good thing it didn’t come to that, though. The distance between them and their target meant that the things they could have done to protect their young commander in that situation could be accurately described with the technical term ‘jack shit.’
So, with their duty fulfilled, they propped up the still upset High Elf so that she could open a Transfer Gate back to Fort Yimin. Or as close to the place as the anti-teleportation wards would allow. Once they were back at base, Keira marched herself back into Underwood’s office. The elf was more than a little surprised to see her return with the mithril rapier on her belt, and asked for her report.
Keira began explaining everything since meeting up with her escort, up to the point where they were addressed by the mysterious voice and asked to leave. Underwood let out an exasperated sigh when he heard Imiryl lost her cool and unleashed a wide-range De-spell.
“I knew I should’ve waited for Faehorn to return from his mission,” he muttered with his face in his palms.
Not only did she jeopardize the mission, but she also ruined one of his plans. The intelligence officer had secretly ordered his people to put a tracking Spell on a bunch of those coins, but a temporary enchantment like that was definitely dispelled by her rash actions. Well, not like Boxxy was going to fall for that anyway. Its magical perception had picked up on the oddity in the gold even before they left, and Claws was more than capable of ‘eating’ the residual magic, so Underwood’s efforts would have been in vain regardless of what that Wizard did.
“What happened next?”
“Well… the disembodied voice we heard said something along the likes of ‘That hurt!’ and then… we were caught.”
“Caught, you say?”
“Yes, sir. Roots came out of the ground, bound us and sucked up our MP. ”
“All of you? Including Imiryl?”
“Yes, sir. It all happened so fast that none of us could offer any real resistance.”
“Was this the Sandman’s doing?”
“No, sir. It was that green woman that showed up.”
“... Green woman?”
“Yeah, she walked out of the tree like it was nothing. She looked to be around my age, and had leaves covering her naughty bits. Oh, and her hair looked like a bush.”
“Strange. I’m sure there were no reports of such a person in the vicinity. Anything else you can tell me about her?”
“Uhm, mister Sandman knew her. Seemed to be her boss, actually. Oh, he also said her name was Cyrilla, and that she was a dryad.”
“A dryad? Like the legends?”
The most Underwood, or anyone else for that matter, knew about dryads was that they were divine spirits that dwelled within Hylt trees. There would sometimes be reported sightings of them here and there, but they were so extremely reclusive that very few people believed they were real.
“Look them up for yourself later, Decanus.”
However, Silus didn’t particularly feel like explaining all that to the catgirl.
“So then, what did this dryad do?”
“She, uh, spanked miss Imiryl.”
“Yes, sir. Pulled up her robe, bent her over her knee and everything. She wasn’t holding back, either. Her butt shook with each hit, you know.”
“And the others can confirm this?”
“Yes, sir. We were pretty much forced to watch the whole thing.”
“I see... But why spanking, of all things?”
“I don’t know, sir. She called it something like ‘the 999 reasons why you should respect your elders.’”
Silus took a deep breath.
“She didn’t… really hit her that many times, right?”
“She actually went for 1,000. Sir.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation. Humiliation like that would have turned that prideful woman into either a sobbing mess or a furious typhoon of destruction. And it was obviously the former, judging from how Keira was still around to tell the tale. Well, a strong-willed woman like that would bounce back in no time, but this was bound to come back and bite him in the ass eventually. Sure, he was the one that asked for her assistance, but how was he supposed to know she’d end up pissing off a freaking dryad of all things?!
“Alright, moving on. What happened afterwards? You said you spoke with the Sandman?”
“Yes, sir. The dryad released us from the roots and told everyone but me to leave. Mister Sandman showed up once the others pulled back. I apologized on miss Imiryl’s behalf and thanked him for saving me.”
“What was he like? His voice, mannerisms - anything you can tell me?”
The catgirl then repeated the same description she had on record - a tall man, about 250 centimeters in height. His form obscured completely, save for the two round yellow eyes glinting inside his mask. He had a voice that was strangely tinny, metallic even. As if it was coming out of a pipe. She compared it to that of the peculiar golem Paladin and Artificer that was currently helping shore up Fort Yimin’s defenses, only distinctly more masculine.
That comparison was a bit odd, but hardly surprising considering that the former gnome was Keira’s friend and Artificer mentor. In fact, he had heard tale that the explosive arrows she used in that ambush were something they worked on together. Whatever the case, Underwood made a mental dig into that golem’s activities further.
“I see. And what of the payment?”
“Well, sir, he took the gold, but didn’t want your gift.”
The catgirl apologetically took the Masterwork rapier off her belt and set it down on the table.
“Did he say why he rejected it?”
“He said it was ill-suited to him. And I think I agree. His hand was way too big to grip it. The guard was in the way and everything.”
“Hmm, so a practical man, huh? I expected him to accept it purely for its monetary value, but it seems he’s not just some greedy fool.”
“Er… you were testing him, sir?”
“Indeed I was. Actions speak louder than words, Decanus, and the fact he didn’t blindly pocket it is very promising indeed.”
This was something Boxxy had no idea about. In fact, it had very different reasons for ‘rejecting’ the weapon.
“... Decanus Morgana. What did you do?”
The way the catgirl was shifting uncomfortably in her seat while her eyes desperately avoided Underwood’s gaze was more or less the same as holding up a giant, flashing ‘GUILTY’ sign above her head.
“I, uhm, I tried… I insisted that he take it. I thought sir would be mad if didn’t properly give it to him. And, well, he did accept it for my sake…”
The beastkin’s voice trailed off, becoming increasingly quieter with every word while shrinking down in her seat.
“And then he… immediately… gifted it… back… to… me…”
She practically whispered that last part.
This was Boxxy’s true intention. It wanted Keira to use this wonderful weapon. It was so incredibly shiny that it wanted to have it near itself at all times. That, and having the beastkin ‘learn swordplay’ was a perfect excuse for her to seek out a melee-oriented Job. There was a high probability the elves would just take the weapon back and lock it up somewhere, but it had some very sound arguments prepared should that happen. After all, mister Sandman and Keira would meet again in the future, and the former would be very upset if he found out his gift was forcibly taken from its rightful owner, thus putting a damper on the ‘good relations’ it was meant to solidify.
However, Silus’s reaction was outside the scope of Boxxy’s expectations. He didn’t scowl, sigh or get angry. Quite the opposite in fact.
It was a full-blown, hearty laugh, probably the first one he’d had in a long time. It was at the stage where tears of joy welled up in the corner of his eyes as he pounded on his desk with his fist. The truly troubled Keira had no idea how to react to this, so she just stood there with an uneasy look on her face.
“Hahaha! Haha… Haaaaaaah.”
The intelligence officer calmed down a short while later with a long exhalation.
“He read me,” he said with a hint of admiration in his voice while staring off beyond the horizon.
No, you’re definitely misunderstanding something, retorted Boxxy inside its head.
“He totally saw through me, didn’t he?”
Definitely had no idea what you were up to.
“This is like he accepted our gratitude without taking our money!”
No no no, I actually really wanted the shiny things. I can’t eat gratitude, you know!
“I bet he even told you something like ‘You need this more than I do’ or ‘Use this to better protect yourself and those you love,’ didn’t he?”
Nope, it was just an excuse to let Keira keep the shiny thing.
“He’s testing me in return, I know it!”
The only thing I want to test about you is your flavor.
“Something like ‘Let’s see if you value your people or your things!’”
Things are more valuable than people though. Unless they’re shiny like Fizzy. Or tasty like Snack. Ah, but those aren’t really people, huh?
“Not to mention he has a dryad bound to his service!”
That’s mostly because she’s an idiot like her mother.
“What a formidable opponent you are, mister Sandman!”
No, see, the whole reason I’m doing this is to get you to pay me for eating tasty things.
“Have it your way then! Decanus Morgana, you will be allowed to keep that blade as a token of your benefactor!”
Okay, I like him. I’ll eat him first when the time comes…
“Use it with pride!”
Oh, right, time to get back into character!
“B-but sir! I don’t even know how to use a sword!”
“Then you will learn!”
“B-b-b-but this is too much! I can’t possibly accept-”
“You will wield that blade and you will like it! This is an order, not a request, Decanus!”
“... Yes, sir.”
Now that that particular matter was settled, Boxxy decided it was time to put some distance between Keira and Sandman.
“Ah! Sir! I almost forgot! He said to give you this!”
The catgirl dug around her pockets for a bit before bringing out a blue, cubic Comm-crystal. It was a rather expensive magic item, but still one that was commercially available.
“Oh, he left us with a way to contact him, huh? How very generous. Except...”
However, Silus noticed there was a slight problem. Not the fact that the crystal’s inherent blue light was barely even there - that was just a sign that the other end was out of range. Even if the military-grade items he and the 3rd Legion’s 1st Scouting Battalion could cover a distance of over 70 kilometers, the ones that were publicly available were usually much less powerful. It wasn’t a surprise that a cheap one wouldn’t even reach the Hylt tree that was a mere 20 kilometers away. Well, technically speaking, the other end of that Comm-crystal was inside Boxxy’s pocket dimension, but that was besides the point.
“Decanus, did he give you a password?”
This was the issue. It was impossible to activate the item on their side without speaking the necessary keywords. They could respond to any communication attempts, but not initiate them.
“Er, no, he didn’t. Sir.”
“So that’s how it is, huh? ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ As expected, a careful individual!”
The man once again stared off into the distance as if he just saw a mountain he has to climb, causing Boxxy to silently label him as a moron who gets needlessly motivated over unimportant things. A few moments later, Underwood turned his attention back to Keira.
“That will be all. Good work today, Decanus.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Also, I suggest you actually learn how to use this,” he said while gesturing to the rapier that was still on his desk. “Having it just be a decoration for your waist would be a crying shame.”
The news that the Empire was poised to siege the fort within the week had more or less been circulated among the troops. Thankfully, the Sandman’s actions seemed to have set them back for several days, giving them some much needed time to prepare. Even that much should be more than enough for Keira to grasp the basics of swordplay to the point where she could at least defend herself.
“Yes, sir! Ah, then do you happen to know if miss Hilda is around?”
“... I believe she’s out on patrol. She should be back within the hour.”
“Thank you, sir!”
She excitedly saluted once more, picked up the weapon after a moment of hesitation and then left his office. Silus in the meanwhile silently slumped back into his chair with a vague smile on his face.
“The dwarven instructor from the Knights of Elena, huh?” he muttered to himself.
He was about to point Keira to one of his subordinates for training, but realized that would have been a bad idea. The man he had in mind was a soldier first and a teacher second, which made him rather unsuited to be the beastkin’s instructor. An adventurer’s tutor had to be an adventurer, after all. Even if their Jobs were the same, their perspectives and frame of mind were completely different.
After all, one was a disciplined, seasoned veteran who had more or less mastered the fine art of combat, while the other was a violent, swearing drunk of a woman with a penchant for needlessly breaking things.
And he just sent her an impressionable young girl who was already known for her affinity for using explosives.
“The fort will survive until the Empire gets here… right?”