A heavy silence hung over the meeting room. Faehorn, Underwood, Aidun, Drannor and Vera simply looked at their hands, unable or unwilling to say anything with bitter expressions on their faces. And yet, the person that caused this heavy mood had left the room well over 10 minutes ago with a smile on her face and a spring in her step.
“30,000 bags of fertilizer…”
As per usual, the first one to break the silence was Aidun, Legate of the 3rd Legion. He spoke in a quiet tone that was unbefitting of him as he slumped back in his chair. Having heard those chilling words once again seemed to inject some life back into his colleagues.
“Heh. Well, she’s not wrong,” muttered Drannor with a dry chuckle.
“Those eyes, though,” lamented Vera. “She totally doesn’t see the Empire’s troops as people anymore. It may be a good attitude for a soldier to have, but as a person…”
“I fucking hate this war,” growled Faehorn.
“You’ll have plenty of chances to hate it later, old friend,” said Underwood while slapping the Ranger on the back. “It hasn’t even started for real yet.”
“When did she become like this, Silus? She used to be this bright-eyed girl filled with hope and ambition. Now she’s… like that.”
“It’s just the shock of recent events. I bet this all just feels surreal to her right now, which is why she’s acting out like this.”
“You said she had ample reason to hate the Empire,” spoke the Legate, “but even I find that much animosity to be disturbing. What exactly did she go through, Primus?”
“... As far as I understand, she told a few of her close confidants about her life in the Empire, and how an Imperial patrol killed her parents. They had told her it was an accident, but she believes otherwise. And then there’s the matter of her recent assault, sir.”
Aidun recalled reading something like that in a report, but the details escaped him.
“Yes, sir. When she was taken prisoner following the ambush. The other prisoners said she was taken away in the middle of the night, but she had apparently returned… *Cough* without her lower underwear.”
Vera gasped with a hand over her mouth, Drannor just shook his head as usual, and Aidun pinched the bridge of his nose. As for Faehorn-
“Did I mention I fucking hate this gods-damned war?”
“Your displeasure at our foreign political situation is noted, Faehorn,” said the Legate dryly. “Still, I’m not going to pretend I understand her feelings, but I can’t fault her for her resentment.”
“I’m more worried about those dryads, myself,” said the strategists, trying desperately to change the topic. “Even if the ‘demonstration’ tomorrow proves they can be used, the effects an actual war will have on them… If they develop a taste for blood, we may have to abandon the fort for good.”
“Well, I doubt they’ll actually do it for the ‘fertilizer,’” noted the Ranger as he brought himself out of his stupor. “If dryads were really after stuff like that, the capital would be a graveyard by now.”
“You said it yourself though, they’re technically monsters, even if they’re supposedly blessed by Nyrie. Doesn’t that mean they may see us as the enemy eventually?” asked Vera.
“I think it will be fine so long as we don’t agitate or harm them or their trees in any way. They clearly don’t bear us any ill will, otherwise Imiryl’s prideful gaffe would have cost her far more dearly than a spanking.”
“I see, that’s fair, I suppose. But what about-”
The discussion regarding the long-term ramifications of Operation Honeytrap lasted for another half hour. They hadn’t even given the final say-so on whether they would risk it, but they were already considering the possible outcomes. Old battlefields near ancient Hylt trees were brought up, religion and the Goddess’s will were touched upon and various contingencies were roughly outlined.
This came to an abrupt end when the sole Comm-crystal in the room flashed and vibrated against the wooden table. The five elves shared a few knowing looks, and Underwood reached over, picked it up with his right hand and answered it. The transparent, blue-colored image of a man with a cloth wrapped around his head and a heavy cloak on his broad shoulders appeared out of thin air.
“Lord Underwood,” he spoke with an odd voice that sounded as if he were talking through a pipe.
“Hear me, my good fellows, lend me thy ears-”
“-for I have left mine in my other trousers.”
“It is good to hear from you, mister Sandman.”
The elf greeted the other party only after exchanging one of several ludicrous pass phrases they had set up. Of course, the one on the other end of the line wasn’t actually Boxxy, but Xera, who was filling in. Since the Comm-crystal showed only the bust of the other party holding it, it was painfully easy to obscure things like height or build.
“Likewise. I trust your compatriots and leaders are with you as per usual?”
“Indeed they are.”
The Comm-crystals also only projected the voice and visage of the one holding them. While the others had formally introduced themselves beforehand by passing the cube from one person to the next, they mostly let Underwood handle the actual communications. Well, except for Faehorn, but the Sandman didn’t necessarily need to know that one of the High Elves was in attendance.
“I trust you have already tried out my little bauble and confirmed its ability?”
Silus looked towards the Legate as if asking what to say.
“Do not tell him about the Decanus. Just say we have confirmed its effects.”
He nodded and turned his attention back to the Sandman.
“... In a manner of speaking. There were some complications, but we’re dealing with them.”
“Very good. I trust you will not misuse Nyrie’s children for your own ends.”
“Should we ask him whether letting the youngling dryads fight our war for us is a good idea?” offered Vera from the side.
“Do as she says, Primus,” ordered Aidun.
“Yes, about that… We are having a quandary whether that would be best for us in the long run.”
“... How come?”
“We have serious concerns that forcing so much death upon those dryad children will turn them into bloodthirsty killers.”
“Huuu, huuu, huuu, huuu.”
The cloaked figure let out a low, dry laugh.
“You should not apply your way of thinking onto others so easily, mister Underwood.”
“Tell me, do you give any mind to the grass and weeds you trample underfoot each day?”
“... No. I suppose I do not.”
“It is the same thing for the dryads. As living creatures, it is their duty to defend themselves, but they are ultimately apathetic to the struggles of us lesser beings. Before them, we are all but specs of dust, fleeting existences that will be forgotten all too soon.”
“Ah, as per usual, he says some rather depressing things,” mused Drannor.
“Still, children, you say?” asked the cloaked figure.
“Indeed. They all looked like they were 10, maybe 11 years old by elven standards.”
“Ah, that is unfortunate. I had hoped they would be more mature, but I suppose it couldn’t be helped.”
“Is this going to be a problem, after all?”
“Depends on your point of view. Once the Authority wears off in a week, they will all return to their slumber, and will likely not even remember the event when they next awake. Whether that’s good or bad is something you need to decide for yourself.”
This was information obtained directly from Ambrosia and passed along to Xera, who now relayed it to the elves. What they did with that knowledge was now up to them.
“We appreciate the input. Speaking of the Authority-”
“-I will want it back, of course. Though I suppose if you wanted to keep it for yourself, then I wouldn’t be able to stop you.”
“There will be no need for that. Please be assured that I- we plan to uphold our end of the bargain. Once we have confirmed the dryad’s effectiveness, we will be sending you the rest of the payment and the spent item through your chosen courier.”
“Very good, Lord Underwood.”
“Are we sure we want to do that?” asked Vera. “If that thing can let one control dryads, then the capital-”
“It doesn’t though,” interrupted veteran adventurer in the room. “Best as I can tell, it merely opens the way for a dialogue. There’s no compulsion involved other than the instinctual drive to ‘show up,’ as it were. Granted, those five seemed to revere miss Morgana, but they’re naive youngsters. I seriously doubt any one man can persuade the ancient ones in Azurvale to turn on us so easily, Authority or not. They’ve been there since the dawn of our civilization you know.”
“I suppose you have a point.”
“Ah, just so we’re clear on this, do expect to see me at the siege.”
Underwood turned his attention back to the cube at the Sandman’s words.
“Will we be getting another bill for your services, then?” he replied with a wry smile.
“No. This one’s on the house.”
“Is it now? How come?”
“... Call it protecting my investment.”
“I see. Whatever your reasons, do make sure you wear our army’s colors when the time comes. Would hate for our men to mistake you for an enemy combatant.”
“Who says I’m not?”
The elf made a bitter face as he was harshly reminded the being on the other end of the line was not always going to remain an ally.
“Huuu, huuu, huuu, huuu. Very well, mister Underwood. If you so wish it, then I and my minions shall fly your army’s silver flag on the field. Expect to hear from me again, same time tomorrow.”
The communication was cut off abruptly, and Silus let out a sigh.
“I always feel tense when talking to that guy.”
“Shouldn’t you have tried to track the communication’s origin?” asked Faehorn.
“We did, thrice. All three times pointed the other end as being at a certain Hylt tree south of the fort. Trying to track it even more at this point would only serve to antagonize him if he should find out.”
“I guess it can’t be helped, then. What of these minions he spoke of?”
“Demons, most likely. We’ve already determined his identity as a Warlock, and that he has at least two of them in his service. Possibly three.”
The bright blue light of the cube grew dimmer in the next instant, signifying that the other end had gone out of range. The cause for that could have been any number of things, such as teleportation, magical interference, being stored in a space similar to Item Box or intentional jamming. Given the Sandman’s Warlock Job, the first and last of those options seemed the most likely.
“Still, protecting his investment?” chimed in Drannor. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
It meant that Boxxy wanted its share of human flesh.
“He’s probably hoping we’ll keep him around as an assassin or mercenary,” offered Underwood. “Whether or not we take him up on that ‘offer’ is up to the Legate.”
“We’ll see how the winter season finds us,” replied the officer in question. “As for the matter of the dryads, I will withhold my final decision until I see what our Decanus has for us tomorrow.”
The meeting was adjourned, and Underwood, Vera and Faehorn left the room in an orderly and quiet fashion. The Legate and his strategist seemed to want to discuss things in private, so they stayed behind. It was still light out, so the Ranger went out to the courtyard to mull things over while the other two returned to their duties.
And there he saw a bizarre scene. Keira was giving one of the juvenile dryads a ride on her shoulders while the rest of them crowded around her. Seeing the adorable scene of them arguing who was next on ‘Mommy’s shoulders’ did wonders to heal his troubled heart. Unlike before, however, the beastkin didn’t seem troubled or anxious, but was genuinely laughing and having fun with them as they walked in full view of the entire fort.
Keeping those kids’ existence a secret at this point was both impossible and unwise, so Underwood and Aidun had both given Keira permission to show them around the fort and introduce them to the troops. And as expected, they drew a myriad of reactions from adventurers and soldiers alike. A few of the hard-liners scoffed at the ‘undisciplined display’ while others stared in blank amazement at the appearance of the legendary Hylt tree guardians, but most of them were like Faehorn and simply enjoyed watching the uplifting sight. Even if they were technically monsters, the appearance of happy, giggling children had the terrifying power to melt even the most jaded of hearts.
“Even if they’re monsters, huh?”
Come to think of it, was that Sandman fellow a person? No, it was highly likely he was a monster of some kind, which was why he went to such great lengths to keep his distance. His behavior was odd though, even by those creatures’ standards. Typically speaking, a monster had no use for talking and would just take what they wanted by force. The intelligent ones, on the other hand, steered clear of civilization since they would likely be hunted down lest they pose a threat later on. Even if the brutish ones caused casualties and were an all-around pestilence, it was those truly cunning and clever creatures that could cause the most damage in the long run.
Still, making deals with the elves was extremely atypical for a monster. Especially considering his objective was gold. He even asked for the amounts to be delivered in small change, such as 10 GP or 25 GP pieces whenever possible, so he was definitely aiming to spend it without drawing attention. That or he was making his own treasure hoard, but the only creatures that did such things were dragons.
Maybe he was some type of dragonoid, then? No, that was unlikely. Every monster that carried the blood of those mighty beasts was far too prideful to hide itself like that. Those things didn’t make deals - they demanded tribute. They were the strongest, the pinnacle of monsters, after all. They were so powerful that an adventurer would need a Level that was at least 10 times higher than the dragon’s before he could even hope to challenge it. Elder Dragons that went up to Level 75 were considered peerless existences that could quite literally topple nations by themselves if their ire was raised.
Thankfully, there existed only 4 of those beasts in the known world. One of them lorded over a stretch of land that once belonged to the dwarven kingdom of Horkensaft to the east, while the other ruled over the vast desert far to the southeast. The other two weren’t even on this continent. The fact the Republic was spared from dealing with those living disasters had always been something Faehorn was quietly thankful for.
“Mister Faehorn! Sir!”
The old Ranger was torn away from his thoughts when he heard Keira call his name while running over to where he was leaning up against a wall. Just as before, one of the dryads was riding on her shoulders while the other four followed behind while bickering noisily. Apparently this time they were arguing over which one of them was taller.
“Yes, miss Morgana?”
“I have some good news! Lilly here told me something very reassuring!”
Her eyes pointed upwards at the dryad who was happily playing with her cat-like ears while letting out adorable words like ‘So fuzzy!’
“Did she, now?”
“Hey, Lilly! Remember what you said earlier?”
“Hmm? About what, mommy?”
“You know, about elves like mister Faehorn here?”
The dryad’s emerald eyes met with the Ranger’s, seeming peering into his very soul. This was the first time he had seen any of them acknowledge anyone’s existence besides Keira’s and their own, so he was slightly taken aback. It lasted only for a moment, though, as she immediately turned her attention back towards the catgirl’s ears.
“What about them?”
“You don’t want to hurt them, right?”
“Of course I don’t! If I’m mean towards them, then grandma Nyrie would be sad!”
“Making grandma sad would be bad!” echoed the other four in a single voice.
“There you have it, mister Faehorn! That’s good news, isn’t it?!”
“Ah, yes, it is. ‘Good news’ might actually be an understatement.”
It would seem even these kids felt the influence of the Goddess of Fertility, and were forbidden from harming her followers. Well, the legends more or less stated something like that, but hearing it from the girl herself was immensely reassuring.
Keira raised a scolding voice towards one of them.
“Enough arguing about the evening sunlight, okay?”
“But she gets almost all of it!” said one of them while pointing at the other.
“You get most of the morning sunlight in return though, don’t you?”
“Then you should be more tolerant of your sister!”
“And Castelia! Don’t let this go to your head!”
The dryad that Torenia was bickering with suddenly put on a shocked expression.
“Mister Sun shines down on all of us, you know! His light and warmth is something you should share and not selfishly hog to yourselves!”
“Yes, mommy…” answered the two in unison with sullen faces. Keira’s ‘serious business’ face softened into the usual smile and she patted their heads lightly, which they seemed to enjoy quite a bit.
“Ah, mister Faehorn, will his excellency the Legate be needing me again today?”
“I don’t believe so. Why?”
The catgirl gently stroked the heads of one of the dryads to her left, the one that had been scratching her shoulder the entire time.
“Birchis here seems to have a termite nest in her upper branches, and I want to take my men to clear it out.”
She was officially a Decanus, which meant she had her own 10-man squad assigned to her.
“Ah, then that should be alright. Though I gotta say, I’m surprised you can tell them apart.”
Personalities aside, the quintuplets looked completely identical. Only their short grass-like hair showed any deviation as it swayed gently in the wind, but that was not nearly enough to differentiate between them.
“It’s because they always stand on the same side, you know!”
“What do you mean?”
The catgirl pointed in the distance, towards one of the massive trees on her right, one of the cornerstones of Fort Yimin’s fortifications.
“See, that’s Torenia-”
She then pointed to the tree that was immediately to the west of it.
“-and that’s Castelia. The one directly behind me is Lilly, that one over there is Birchis, and that last one over there is Pinea!”
“Oh, I see!” replied Faehorn as realization struck him.
The way the Hylt trees were positioned around the fort and the formation the children seemed to make around their ‘mother’ lined up perfectly. Indeed, looking at their relative positions drew the same irregular pentagon as the fort’s walls if one were to look at them from above. They probably did that without thinking, like a natural compass or homing instinct.
“To think it was something like that… And here I thought your maternal instincts were kicking in.”
“I mean, you hit it off so well with these kids. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll make a great mother someday.”
The catgirl’s dispirited response and diminishing smile seemed to raise the ire of the dryads, who looked at Faehorn with angry, pouting faces. For the briefest moment, the Ranger felt like the titanic trees in the distance shifted slightly towards his position. Nothing of note actually happened though, and the catgirl merely trotted off towards her quarters. Except that the usual spring in her step was gone.
“Hey, Keira! Heading back to the barracks?”
She passed by Lia on the way, but only gave a dull wave of her hand at the green-haired girl’s greeting. Noticing her friend’s sour mood, Lia’s eyes immediately looked towards where she had come from, and met Faehorn’s. She approached the old elf with a rather displeased look on her face.
“Mister Faehorn!” she said when she walked up to her still dumbfounded teacher. “Were you bullying Keira again?!”
“I did no such thing, miss Torlee. I just had a brief chat with her regarding those dryads, and then she started sulking when I complimented her on being a good mother.”
Lia closed her eyes, drooped her shoulders and sighed heavily.
Of course Keira would be upset if you told her that, she thought to herself. Her romance with Rowana would never bear that sort of fruit, you know! They can’t even adopt unless they’re married, and that sort of thing will never fly in this day and age! And you just reminded her of all of that!
Ranting inside her head was all she did, though. She couldn’t just spill the beans on their relationship, especially since she had promised to keep it a secret. It was unlikely, but there was also the possibility that Faehorn might have been one of those people. The kind that were not exactly accepting of same-sex relationships.
“Honestly, this is why men are…”
In the end she left in somewhat of a huff while muttering those words, leaving the old elf in an even more confused state of mind.
“... Was it something I said?”