Keira found herself in a particularly strange situation. She was sitting in a large conference room she hadn’t been in before. There were 5 people seated around the opposite end of an oval table in front of her and 5 others standing around her, and all of them had their eyes on her.
She officially knew only two of the ones in front and to the left of her, as they were her direct superiors - Silas Underwood and Milo Faehorn, the latter of which had returned from his assignment barely half an hour ago. The one seated in the middle was an older elf that had slicked back black hair and the fanciest uniform of the bunch. He was Legate Aidun, the general that stood at the head of the Republic’s 3rd Legion. Immediately to his right was a green-haired male who looked extremely lanky and thin, even by elf standards, whose name was Drannor. He served as the Legate’s right-hand man as an advisor and strategist. On the far right was a middle-aged elven woman, who looked like a younger version the Wizard Imiryl, except that she had light, ginger hair that had been put up in a tidy ponytail. Her identity was that of Prefect Vera, the High Elf’s daughter and the officer in charge of Fort Yimin during peacetime.
Even if Kiera hadn’t been formally introduced to the latter three, Boxxy still knew about them since it had talked to all of them remotely as the Sandman. The Comm-crystal it gave Underwood was actually laid out in the middle of the table should the reclusive vigilante contact them again, but that was extremely unlikely to happen at that time. Which was dire news, because the elves gathered there urgently needed to speak with him regarding the item they had purchased from him earlier that day.
And of the 5 juvenile dryads that surrounded the young Decanus Morgana at the other end of the table.
“Mommy, mommy! How come you have those funny-looking leaves?” asked one of them while playing with the beastkin’s cat-like ears from behind her chair.
“Mommy, how do you make babies if you don’t have flowers?” inquired another who seated in her lap.
“Muuuum! Sis keeps hogging all the morning sunlight to herself!” complained a third that was tugging on her right arm.
“I can’t help it if I just grew on that side of you!” said the culprit, who was stomping her feet with an indignant look next to her.
“Uuuuu…. Mommy… it itches…” whined the last one while pulling on Keira’s other arm with a pleading face.
The elven leaders shared some difficult looks as the noisy disturbance in front of them didn’t seem like it would end anytime soon.
“Well, at least we know the item worked as promised!” said Drannor the strategist without even trying to hide the sarcasm in his voice.
“This is a dream, right? Haha, yes, a dream, that’s what this is!” lamented Vera to herself.
“Calm yourself, Prefect,” said Underwood. “You’re being unsightly in front of our… guests.”
“What guests?!” snapped the woman back. “They’ve been here far before any of us have, right?! If anyone here is a guest, it’s us!”
“Well… You’re not wrong…” answered Silus with a sigh.
“Primus Underwood is correct,” butted in the Legate. “This is no time to panic. We have to assess and adapt to the situation.”
Vera seemed to calm down a bit at those words, though the Legate’s slightly quivering voice showed he wasn’t completely undisturbed by this turn of events either.
“Continue your report, Primus.”
“Yes, sir,” responded Underwood with a respectful bow of his head. “So after Decanus Morgana accidentally triggered the Authority, the dryads had stuck to her incessantly.”
“This seems a bit wrong, though,” noted Faehorn.
He had been made aware of the situation through Comm-crystals while he was out on his mission, so he more or less knew what had been going on in his absence. He fully understood the circumstances after Underwood finished bringing everyone up to speed just now, not to mention seeing the dryads with his very eyes.
“What do you mean ‘wrong?’” asked Drannor. “The Authority called out the dryads and made them respect the user, just like the Sandman said it would.”
The Elder Dryad’s Authority was the name of the amber orb the elves had received from the masked vigilante. It was something that Ambrosia had personally prepared for Boxxy when she found out her liege would be headed further south and might come in contact with her daughters. Well, it was highly unlikely they would be her direct offspring, as the seeds that spawned them could have come from any Hylt tree, but that seemed to matter little to her kind. All of them could trace their lineage back to Azurvale’s original 12, so every dryad in existence would instantly recognize Ambrosia or one of her sisters as their ‘mother’ without a second thought.
Of course, that didn’t mean they would actually meet in person. A dryad’s way of life meant it was likely impossible for them to meet others of their kind unless they happened to grow in the same forest. However, that parental recognition was exactly why the Authority was so valuable. Simply put, it was a vessel that contained Ambrosia’s highly condensed mana - her essence, or ‘scent.’ Holding onto the amber and speaking the words ‘Mater est opus vobis,’ which loosely translated from the Divine tongue as ‘Mother has need of you,’ would release the stored energy into the surroundings. This would, in turn, summon all the dryads in the area to the orb, and they would instinctively regard the orb’s bearer as a messenger from their mother and treat them favorably. Indeed, that was how the Sandman and Cyrilla first met, and the situation in that meeting room proved the masked stranger was not talking out of his ass when he explained the item’s function. While omitting certain details, of course.
“Well,” said Faehorn while cupping his chin, “accidental activation aside, their behavior is a lot more extreme than ‘favorable treatment.’ They completely think of the girl as their mom, don’t they?”
“He has a point,” agreed the still distraught Vera. “And how come they’re all little kids?”
“Good question,” nodded Legate Aidun. “Well, Decanus? Anything you can tell us about all this?”
“M-m-m-me?! Why are you asking me?! I mean, sir!” responded a shrill-voiced Keira.
“If not you then, who?”
“W-well, I don’t- I mean uh…”
The 5 dryads had repeatedly ignored everyone who tried to address them. It was as if the beastkin was the only person in the world.
“Try asking them for yourself, miss Morgana,” offered Faehorn.
“Ah, right! Err, how should I even call them?” she mumbled quietly while the five green children kept pestering her. “Ahem! Kids?”
All of them stopped what they were doing and responded in total unison with the exact same innocent smile on their faces.
“W-why do you think I’m your mommy?”
“You smell like our mommy. Therefore, you are mommy.”
Again their voices rang out as one as they gave that nonsensical answer. They were so completely in sync they even nodded their heads at the same time.
“Yep! It’s the same smell as that fancy light that woke us up!”
The truth of the matter had to do with their species’ millennia-long lifecycle, which meant their kind matured incredibly slowly when compared to other living creatures. They also spent the vast majority of their ‘childhood’ mostly sleeping, blissfully unaware of the world around them. Many of them never even bothered to wake up, not unless some grave threat to their trees or some other disturbance.
If one considered this fact, they would accurately deduce that these 5 had been woken up for the first time in their lives. And, not knowing any better, assumed that the being bathed in that motherly essence was a mother-like existence to them. Unfortunately, Boxxy knew nothing about any of this. It would need to have a long chat with Ambrosia on the subject later, but for now it was truly befuddled, just like the rest of the room.
“Good enough, I suppose,” said Aidun. “Decanus, leave the room and wait outside until further notice.”
The catgirl stood up with a salute and left the room with her chattering entourage in tow. Their high-pitched voices could still be heard faintly through the thick door, but the room was infinitely quieter than it was before. The Legate was the first one to break the newly descended almost-silence.
“So, Faehorn, in your opinion, do you think she can control those dryads?”
“I wouldn’t know, sir,” answered the Ranger. “You really should ask Imiryl to give her opinion on that bunch. This sort of stuff is more her speciality than mine.”
“Ah, that’s going to be difficult, sir,” said Underwood. “She had an… unfortunate altercation with the dryad that shelters the Sandman, so she adamantly refuses to be anywhere near one of their kind.”
“An altercation you say? I didn’t hear anything about that.”
Silus briefly explained the details surrounding that event, including the humiliating spanking she received in front of her troops, much to Vera’s delight. It would seem mother and daughter had a falling out at some point in the past, so the Prefect found the rumor of the ‘Butthurt Bitch’ to be quite humorous.
Still, what he said seemed to catch the Ranger by surprise. Taking down a high Elf and an armed and alert platoon of soldiers in a matter of seconds was quite the feat to say the least. And according to the Sandman, she wasn’t even trying at the time. Which was why he suggested that the elves might want to mobilized the tree spirits living inside their precious fort to aid in their defense. This was also the reason why it let them borrow the Elder Dryad’s Authority in the first place. For a nominal fee, of course.
“I see… So that’s what this meeting is all about,” said the Ranger while nodding approvingly.
“As expected, you catch on quick, sir,” said Underwood with a wry smile.
The plan was rather simple - lure the enemy force inside the fort and use the dryads’ power to tie them down. Once immobilized, and secured, the elves could do whatever they wanted with them. Still, even if they pulled it off, there were bound to be those that escaped the trap. Faehorn’s experience told him those restraints were not as all-powerful as they would appear to be at first glance.
While it was true that Imiryl got taken down without being able to put up a fight, that was mostly because her affinity with the situation was bad. A Wizard, however mighty, was no different from a civilian once their MP had been stolen away. An absurdly muscle-headed existence like Hilda, on the other hand, would probably tear right through those roots and vines with brute strength. The Ranger himself was certain he would be able to avoid being caught with his superior speed, even if she took him by surprise. Those termites that incessantly plagued the Hylt trees were also not to be ignored. Their mandibles were strong enough to puncture steel, so it wasn’t hard to imagine them eating their way through those plant-like restraints.
In short, they had to remain vigilant even in the event that this plan worked, but it was still one that had the potential for a definite victory.
“I guess I can’t fault you people for taking that chance,” commented Faehorn.
“Well, it’s not like it was an easy decision to make, you know,” said the strategist while shaking his head. “Honestly, I don’t like it one bit. There are far too many unknowns regarding Primus Underwood’s contact. And I don’t like ‘unknowns.’”
“We’ve already discussed this at length, Drannor,” said the Legate. “Like it or not, we decided that the potential benefits were well worth the risk, did we not?”
“The potential benefits being the ongoing existence of this fort, sir?” offered Vera.
“Your sarcasm is noted, Prefect. Well, the item did indeed call forth the dryads, and they are treating the bearer of the Authority… ‘favorably,’ but what became of it?”
“Well, the answer is right in front of you, sir,” reported Underwood while gesturing at the brown, muddled orb on the table. “What you see there is the item in question, but it no longer holds any of the radiant luster it had when I first saw it. We’ll confirm it later, but even I can tell it’s more or less lost its power.”
That wouldn’t be permanent, though. In truth it just needed a week to recharge itself, but that wasn’t something the elves needed to know. Nor would they have the time to wait that long, as the enemy’s invasion was expected to arrive within the next 3 or 4 days. Faehorn and his team had spent most of the last week trying to slow them down, but they were unable to do much damage to the 30,000-strong invasion force. The 1st Scouting Battalion had already effectively blown their load with that landslide ambush on the first expeditionary force. While it was a huge success, it meant the Republic had shown the Empire their hand. As a direct result, the main force was much more thorough and careful in their approach, leaving little room for the elves to pull any tricks. In fact, harassing the Empire’s scouts was pretty much all they could manage.
“I see,” said the Legate. “Well, regardless of the… details,” he took a brief moment to glare at Keira’s empty seat, “we still have a hard battle ahead of us. Is there any chance of Operation Honeytrap succeeding at this point?”
He looked around the table, silently asking for the others’ input.
“I’m of the opinion I’d much rather rely on our soldiers than these dryads,” noted the strategist. “While our defeat is almost certain, it is our duty to inflict as much damage to these invaders as we can. Otherwise they’ll be able to regroup and move onto our next stronghold further north. We cannot allow those things to run wild and jeopardize our own troops.”
It was a cold, calculated argument meant to minimize the overall damage to the Republic. Losing Fort Yimin would be painful in and of itself, but it was better than giving up the rich mithril mines that lay deeper in Republic territory.
“I disagree, sir,” noted Underwood. “I think we should give Decanus Morgana a chance make up for her… blunder.”
“Was it actually an honest mistake?”
“I am sure of it, sir. In the first place, she would have had no idea what the item actually did, nor do I feel like my ‘contact’ would need to tell her of its function.”
“And you’re certain she can be trusted?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve thoroughly investigated her past deeds, her relationships with those around her, as well as her behavior. While she may not hold true loyalty to the Republic itself, her motivation to protect those closest to her is very much real. Not to mention she has reason enough to bear a heavy grudge towards the Empire, and would not let them do as they please.”
“The enemy of my enemy, huh?” mused Aidun.
“Will she be able to instruct those dryads properly, though?” asked Faehorn. Just because someone had ‘a favorable impression’ of another, didn’t mean they would blindly follow their orders.
“I wouldn’t suggest we involve them if I thought she was incapable of doing so, sir.”
The thing Silus Underwood was best at was dealing with people and sniffing out spies. That was why he was appointed as the one responsible for the highly individualistic adventurers in the first place. If he was willing to stand up for her to this extent, then the Legate found no reason to doubt his words.
“How do we know they’re capable of doing the same as this other one down south?” asked Vera. “Looks aside, they themselves said they just ‘woke up,’ right? Would they even know how to use their gifts?”
“Oh, we can easily ascertain their ability,” said the Ranger while crossing his arms. “The real problem is making them understand friend from foe, and motivating them to act on our behalf.”
“That’s exactly why I said we should give up on them,” chimed in the strategist. “They don’t just look like children, they completely behave like them. They’re far too innocent.”
“I see, there is that as well,” nodded Faehorn.
“What do you mean? Was this not what you were talking about.”
“There is no such thing as an ‘innocent’ monster, Drannor. And make no mistake - that is exactly what those creatures are. Unless we properly motivate them, they will not lift a single finger for our sake, even if their ‘mother’ told them to do it.”
The room fell silent as everyone present mulled over the Ranger’s words. They carried with them the weight of over 50 years of adventuring experience, and the authority of a High Elf who truly loved his country and its people.
“I think,” said Legate Aidun after a brief pause, “that there is merit to using those chil- those dryads. However, I would like to speak to the one most concerned before making a decision.”
“Should I fetch the Decanus, sir?”
“Please do, Primus.”
Underwood stood up with a salute and went out of the room for a moment. It wasn’t until he opened the door that the elven leaders realized the chattering of the quintuplets had died down at some point. The cause of that became apparent as the beastkin returned while carrying a sleeping dryad on either arm, while the other 3 were trailing behind her with drowsy steps. When she sat back in her seat, they all laid down at her feet and fell asleep.
Nobody could say a thing. Regardless of the circumstances, she completely looked like a mother.
It wasn’t until she spoke up that the Legate came to his senses.
“Ah, yes. It seems you have reached some sort of understanding with these… children.”
“Uhm, I- I suppose you could say that, sir.”
Judging from how they slumbered undisturbed despite the conversation, it was probably safe to keep talking. Still, the elves subconsciously lowered their voices. All of them looked perfectly serene and at peace, and having the slightly smiling beastkin look over them painted a rather uniquely precious scene.
I didn’t ask for thiiiiiis!
Inside her head, however, Keira was fuming.
These damned plants! Why do they have to make so many demands at me!? Always with the ‘mommy this’ and ‘mommy that!’ Argh! Why the hell did I activate the shiny ball like that?! Stupid! Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid!
This time, Boxxy truly had nobody to blame but itself. It had gotten a bunch of Levels during its recent gnoll hunt and even found a new, surprisingly tasty way of enjoying its food. When it came back, it immediately got paid and would likely receive even more money in the future if things went well. With its head so full of shiny, it completely zoned out and triggered the Elder Dryad’s Authority without meaning to. It was planning on letting someone else handle it, as not only would it attract the wrong kind of attention, but the Mimic really did not want to deal with any more dryads.
At least Cyrilla was smart enough to recognize it wasn’t her real mother. Their arrangement was a temporary thing, an understanding of sorts. She would help the Sandman, and in return the Sandman’s minions would help her with any miscellaneous requests she had. It was simple, straightforward and non-intrusive, but it really did not want to worry about making deals with 5 more of them.
And yet here it was. Saddled with 5 damnable, selfish brats that would. Not. Shut. Up!
Ah, this isn’t like me. I need to calm down.
Boxxy realized its temper had been flaring up a bit too much as of late. Mimics were creatures of near-infinite patience, but progressing along its life as a Doppelganger seemed to slowly be eroding that. Perhaps forcing itself to be so expressive all the time had some sort of feedback effect that affected its normally cool and collected state of mind? Whatever the cause, it was definitely a problem. If it hadn’t gotten so excited during the hand-off earlier, then it wouldn’t even be in this mess to begin with.
Hypothetical situations aside, the reality of the matter was that it was far too deep in this to just back out now, and it needed to deal with it. At the very least, the dryads would be physically unable to follow it once it left this place behind. Even if they tried, they would have no choice but to return to their trees afterwards unless they wanted to die, so it just had to put up with them until that moment came. Having finally decided on a course of action really helped settle the monster’s troubled mind.
“So, do you think you can do it, Decanus?”
Oh right, this guy wants me to play dryad tamer for a few days.
The Legate had personally spent the last few minutes laying out their plans for the siege. Boxxy only half-listened to them since it was the one that gave them the idea in the first place. It just really, really didn’t want to be the one doing it. Things being what they were, however, it had to play the hand it had been dealt by its own mistakes.
“I believe so, sir.”
“Hoh? Really now?”
“Yeah. It shouldn’t be too hard to tell the troops apart since the army colors are different.”
“Yes, that much is a given. But how do you plan to… motivate them?”
“Well, listening to these darlings go on and on made it sound like they think of themselves and their trees as a single thing. So then, we just have to offer them things that trees would like, right?”
“Hmm, very observant, Decanus. And a very sound judgement,” noted the Legate with a grand nod.
The old Ranger to his left seemed to be particularly proud that his former student was praised by a high-ranking officer like that.
“So then, what would we offer to their trees? Maybe some pest control or medical aid is in order?”
Aidun cupped his chin as he thought back on their words earlier. He remembered one of the juvenile plant-girls had mentioned something about itching. Perhaps she was dealing with some sort of infestation or infection they could assist with?
“Ah, sir, if I may?” spoke up the beastkin. “I think I have something far more suitable in mind!”
“What’s that, Decanus?”
“Fertilizer, sir. Enough to satisfy all five of these kids.”
“I see, that does make sense. Although, where do you propose we find that much manure on such short notice, Decanus?”
“Oh, I’m not talking about manure, sir.”
The catgirl’s beautiful face shifted ever so slightly. Her mouth was still curled up in an innocent smile, but her eyes practically oozed with hatred as she gave voice to her darker thoughts. It was the kind of monstrous logic only someone who had truly suffered could think up.
“We have 30,000 bags of first-grade fertilizer walking towards us at this very moment, do we not?”