Somewhere deep beneath the earth, yet at the same time hundreds of meters up in the sky, a consciousness stirred. It saw without eyes, breathed without a nose, heard without ears, tasted without a tongue and spoke without a mouth. As it rose from a slumber that felt like hours but spanned centuries, it once again reached out and grasped for its inherited memories. Except that this time it was in no rush, and handled the precious things slowly and carefully.
A troubling thought passed through that peculiar mind. Was this truly the first time it had awoken? For some strange reason it had the nagging feeling this was not the case. How else would the words ‘this time’ come up so naturally, without it even knowing. It slowly and meticulously studied those inherited memories that were both foreign and its own. And after several months of dissecting them over and over, it had arrived at the answer.
I don’t remember.
Granted, not the best answer, but it was still the only one available to it. Deciding that mulling over things it could do nothing about, it pushed that nagging feeling away and instead focused on the task at hand. Objectively speaking, delaying it any more at this stage was neither good nor bad, but it felt lonely. It wanted to get out there and meet its kin. Thus the sea of thoughts, memories and sensations converged and compressed themselves. The muddy, seemingly endless mindscape steadily shrunk to a single point which threatened to burst under the pressure.
And then, the dryad opened her eyes. The other half of the existence known as a Hylt tree stirred much like her host and home. Painfully, agonizingly slowly she rose up from one of her branches, taking an entire day to completely emerge from its bark. And then she blinked several times in rapid succession as she once again checked through those implanted thoughts that were centuries, possibly even millennia old.
“Ah… In the end something still feels off…”
She spoke with a voice so sweet that it could give someone a toothache. She reached up to the sides of her head with both hands and felt the antlers growing out of it. Her fingers traced the signs of her adulthood to her vine-covered scalp and she gently ran her fingers between her ‘hair.’ Then, on some strange impulse, she patted herself. It made her unexpectedly happy, but also frustrated at the same time.
“Hmm? This isn’t quite right either.”
Her eyes drifted idly over the area, her high vantage point giving her an unobstructed view for kilometers around. Well, except for her trunk behind her and the lush canopy overhead. The ground underneath her shade was dominated by a sprawling city. Structures built out of wood, stone and brick were densely packed around her protruding roots or dotted around her trunk. Various beings - both humanoid and not - milled about at a pointlessly rapid pace. This was of course, merely a matter of perspective, for that dryad spent several days staring idly into the distance without really noticing either the passage of time or the lives of those tiny, tiny creatures.
And then she yawned mightily, causing her perception of time to rapidly accelerate to the point where her seconds and were of the same length as those of the real world.
“Mmm, that’s better!” she said with a chipper voice.
She stretched her arms out, twisted her waist and squatted a few times to limber up her thoroughly dull body.
“Well then, I suppose I should see if any of the others are up yet.”
The dryad known as Birchis sank back into her branch, and appeared within a certain ‘safe’ space. It was inside her neighbor and sister’s trunk, yet still had fresh leaves and vines covering most of the walls and ceiling, while the floor was left bare and relatively flat.
“Lilly!” she called out. “Are you awake?!”
Slowly but surely, another dryad rose from the ground. Her appearance was identical to that of Birchis in every conceivable way, apart from her thoroughly drowsy expression and vacant stare. The newly arrived dryad blinked a few times and yawned before her apparent sleepiness went away.
“Morning, Birchis. You’re up too?”
“Yup. I think it’s just you and me for the moment though.”
“Haaaah,” yawned Lilly again. “Guess the others should be waking up soon too, huh?”
“Then, shall we wait for them?”
“Might as well.”
The two sisters went to lay down on the floor, and two beds of soft grasses and leaves sprouted out of the hard and gnarled bark to provide comfort. The dryads just sort of lazed around for a few hours until Pinea, Castelia and Torenia showed up. They all greeted each other happily and the latter three took after the former two’s example and also laid down on improvised bedding of their own.
But something still felt off. These girls had ‘known’ each other for a mind-boggling amount of time, yet the silence that hung in that room was unnatural. Awkward.
“... I have a nagging feeling that something’s wrong,” muttered Pinea.
“I was just thinking that.”
After confirming they all felt the same way, the nature of the silence changed to a thoughtful one. Even if their shared, stunted growth had made them all dumber than a regular dryad individually, there was nothing they couldn’t solve if they put their heads together.
“Now that I think about it,” said Lilly, “how come we all came here? Why are we inside my trunk?”
The others furrowed their brows trying to come up with a reason.
“It just… felt right, I guess?” offered Torenia.
“Yup, yup,” said Castelia with a vigorous nod of her head.
“Hmm? Wait, did you two always get along?” asked Birchis.
“Why wouldn’t we?” came the unified answer.
“Wasn’t there something about sharing the sunlight being a problem?”
“But our branches and leaves are as intermingled as our roots by now, so that can’t possibly be the case,” answered Castelia with a dismissive wave of her hand.
“I guess so…”
“Besides,” she added, “mister Sun shines down on all of us. His light and warmth is something that should… be… shared…”
Her voice gradually diminished as she realized the words that came out of her own mouth were somehow not her own.
“Oh! Castelia says some nice things!” commented Lilly. “I guess you learn a thing or two after being burned so badly, huh?”
“Yeah! Your canopy got- Wait, what?”
No matter how one looked at Castelia, she was perfectly healthy and impossible to differentiate from her other siblings by sight alone.
“Come to think of it, how come we’re all lying on these beds?” questioned Pinea. “I mean it’s comfy but… it’s strange, isn’t it?”
The group once again went silent as they sank deep into thought. The fragmented and deteriorated mementos of a distant past floated inside their minds. Trying to dredge up those lost memories was pointless, and their efforts only served to make them aware of an inexplicable void, a mysterious longing they couldn’t quite nail down. At the very least there was progress, as they were finally able to pin down the nature of that unpleasant feeling they’ve all shared since waking up.
“Someone’s missing,” they spoke in unison while staring at the empty space in the middle of their five-pointed formation.
“I want to be patted on the head,” stated Birchis. An outburst that was met with many affirmative nods.
“I want to play with fuzzy things!” chimed in Lilly, much to the approval of her sisters.
“I want to take a nap in someone’s lap…” lamented Torenia, and the others understood her completely.
“I want to be hugged!” selfishly demanded Pinea, but none of the other quintuplets could fault her for it.
“I want to pop the blue things!” shouted Castelia, which was met with a soft round of applause.
The impromptu dryad conference once again fell into silence, but this one lasted for only a few seconds.
“Say, Lilly,” said Pinea while pointing at the wall opposite her. “What’s that?”
“Hmm? That’s my heartwood, silly.”
“No, I mean that. There’s something there, see?”
All of them turned their eyes towards where their sister was pointing. Lilly waved her hand and cleared some of the vegetation blocking the view, allowing them all to see the oddity that Pinea had spotted.
Carved into that dryad’s most precious place were a series of symbols. Although they looked like doodles and random scrawlings, they were actually the letters of a language. A certain ancient tongue was something no mortal could decipher, and was far older than any of those five ladies. Yet they understood that writing’s meaning instantly.
‘Mommy loves you.’
“Mommy!” they screamed in unison.
Both happiness and sadness swelled up within them as the memories of those precious few days flooded back into their minds. How could they have forgotten? They were the ones that asked that relentlessly cheerful catgirl to leave those words behind in the first place. They would have undoubtedly burst into tears by now if dryads were capable of such a thing.
And then the nostalgia steadily faded, giving way to a grim realization.
“... That wasn’t our real mommy, was it?”
“Well yeah. She wasn’t a dryad, or even an elf…”
“I don’t think she was a person at all, come to think of it.”
“She was really nice and kind though…”
“Yeah. She played a lot with us even though she didn’t have to.”
“Took care of us, too. Those blue things she gave us were delicious.”
“Hmm? That’s not quite right though.”
“Pinea has a point. Come to think of it, it was the red juice inside the blue things that was the delicious part, right?”
“Yeah. There were plenty of white things that were the same on the inside of those shells.”
“But mommy said not to touch anything but the blue ones…”
“Maybe the white ones weren’t ripe yet?”
“Oh! That’s right, isn’t it?!”
“Yup, yup, seems right!”
The quintuplets’ mood rose significantly as they let nostalgia overwhelm them once again. Even if they had grown physically, their mental state had barely moved on from their former, childish selves. A problem that would naturally correct itself with the passage of time.
“I still think popping them was the best part though. Very fun.”
“I completely agree.”
“Personally, I think that game of ‘Catch’ was better.”
“Yeah! Throwing things was also fun!”
“I still want to play with something fuzzy though.”
The dryads chatted back and forth for a while, before they realized one of them had suddenly gone completely quiet.
“What’s wrong Castelia?” asked Torenia.
“I feel itchy,” she answered while scratching her midriff.
Those three simple words set off a cascade of complaints.
“Come to think of it, I feel quite itchy too.”
“I don’t really itch, but some of my roots feels numb.”
“I’m totally fine, by the way.”
“Say, back then Birchis itched it was because of those stupid bugs, right?”
“Let’s go check!”
The five of them decided this was no time to mope around, and they immediately transported themselves through their intertwined roots and branches until they reached the source of Castelia’s itchiness. As expected, they found a bustling termite nest that was selfishly burrowing under her bark.
“Ugh!” groaned their victim. “Nasty, nasty things! Do not want!”
The cavity inside her own trunk was instantly filled with dozens of thick, heavy vines that moved around like the tentacles of a giant octopus. Castelia tried crushing, smashing and entrapping those infuriating vermin, but failed to do much. The termites either squirmed or bit through her grasp, or outright evaded her whip-like attacks. She felt proud of herself after she finally managed to kill 3 of them, but then remembered there were literally thousands more of them.
“Ah, this is hopeless!” she despaired while pulling on her antlers as if she was trying to rip them out.
“It’s okay, sis! We’ll help!”
“Yeah! Let’s all work together!”
However, despite their enthusiasm, the total termite death tally after an entire day of work was around 60. They had tried everything their implanted knowledge provided them with, including poisoning the air and flooding them out, but none of it worked. The quintuplets decided to momentarily retreat to the safe room inside Lilly and rethink their approach.
“... Say, how did Birchis’s itching go away back then?” asked Pinea.
“Uhm… Mom- I mean, K- Kei? Kerira?” stammered Birchis.
“I think just calling her ‘mommy’ is fine.”
“I agree. Mommy is mommy. Anything else feels like an insult.”
“Besides, we never properly asked for her name, so it’s pointless to try and remember it.”
“Yeah, don’t force yourself.”
“*Ahem* Okay then. Mommy led some people inside my bark and they killed them all with f-fire.”
The others groaned in unison at hearing the f-word. Even if that element was somewhat of a natural enemy for them, they could easily deal with it given time. Well, even the seemingly endlessly tenacious Hylt trees couldn’t survive if repeatedly bombarded with dragon fire, but that was to be expected. The breaths of those living calamities were said to be able to burn mana itself, after all.
The problem at hand was that those bugs probably reproduced at a rate where killing a mere 60 in a day probably didn’t even make a dent in their numbers. If they were going to try exterminating them, it needed to be done in one fell swoop. But ‘fire’ was out of the questions since the dryads had no idea how to do anything like that.
“... We could try popping them,” suggested Pinea.
“That might work, but-”
“-they’re not blue.”
“So? We can still pop things even if they’re not blue, right?”
“Ah! That’s it!” exclaimed the other four in unison.
“But won’t mommy be mad?”
“... I don’t think mommy’s still around, Torenia.”
“I miss her so much…”
All of them solemnly stared at their feet as they grieved for that creature that had surely passed away by now. This sad scene was the reason why dryads tended to shy away from contact with the world at large. Getting overly attached to someone destined to die off long before they did would just result in a gaping wound in their metaphorical hearts. Well, these 5 would be fine since they had each other, but that didn’t mean they didn’t hurt.
“Well, if mommy’s not around, then we can do what we want, right?”
“Yeah, Lilly has a point! Let’s go pop those nasty things!”
The five of them returned to that crawling cavity and began focusing on the ‘needles.’ First they opened long, narrow tunnels within the termite-infested timber. Inside those holes they formed thin, dense spears out of solid, polished Ironbark. The outcome was a weapon that could rival a Masterwork spear forged out of the finest steel. A spring-loaded mechanism, also made of condensed Ironbark, was then added to the underside of it.
“Gnn, this is much harder to do than I remember,” complained Torenia.
“Really? I think it’s surprisingly easier this time around,” said Castelia with a casual tone.
“Of course you do! We’re inside your trunk, dummy!”
“Tehehe! That’s right isn’t it? Sorry, sis!”
“Mmm, well it’s fine so long as you understand.”
“Still to come up with this sort of thing, mommy sure was amazing, huh?”
“Yup, yup!” came a chorus of affirmations and nods.
The dryads’ admiration of their ‘mommy’ was genuine. They knew they would have never figured out how to make those ‘needles’ all on their own. It took Boxxy’s unique perspective as a trap-loving, shapeshifting Artificer to be able to come up with a simple-yet-effective design that even those juvenile dryads could build and use. After all, even if the process through which a dryad moved and deformed vegetation was mechanically different from a Doppelganger’s shapeshifting, the end effects were quite identical.
“Fuu. How many did you girls make?” asked Castelia after a while.
Torenia hung her head in shame while Pinea gently did her best Keira impression by patting her on the head with a warm smile. As expected, the face that said ‘there there’ louder than any words was super effective, and her sister started feeling better right away.
“What about you, Castelia?” asked Lilly.
“I made 60.”
“Uwaah… talk about ‘home ground advantage’ huh?”
“Okay! Then let’s give this a try!”
Yet for all their enthusiasm and fist pumping, the plant ladies found themselves briefly paralyzed with indecision.
“Uhm, how do we make sure we go at the same time without mommy here?”
During the siege of Fort Yimin, it was Keira who coordinated their attacks. The reason she did that was mostly to instil horror and indecision in the Imperial troops. It worked flawlessly, but her naive ‘daughters’ had no idea about that monster’s insidious motivations. In fact, from their perspective, it just seemed like a part of the game.
“How about we just sing the song?”
“Oh! Good idea!”
The tune they were referencing was something Boxxy came up with while it was bored and had nothing to do. The former Mimic had always enjoyed the tasty sounds known as music. That was partly why it had somewhat of an obsession with making music boxes in the first place. As such, at some point it had taken up composing songs inside its head as a hobby, of sorts. Just something it could do to pass the time when social obligations kept it from doing anything useful or tasty.
“But, uh, how did it go again?”
“Had something to do with stars, right?”
This particular piece was inspired by the special date Keira and Rowana went on before the catgirl got shipped out to the front lines. The view of those shiny dots in the distance framed by the darkness of the Hylt tree canopy had given the monster a new appreciation of the night sky.
“Ah! I remember now!” exclaimed Birchis.
She shared the centuries-old memory of that strange song with her sisters, which in turn caused their own minds to vividly recall it. After muttering among themselves for a while, they turned their attention to the swarming mass of insects far below them and lined up next to each other. They closed their eyes and opened their mouths, took deep breaths, then let their combined voices rise as one.
Twinkle, twinkle, shiny star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a shiny in the sky.
When the blasted sun is gone,
When the nothing shines upon,
Then you show your tasty light,
Shiny, shiny, all the night.
Then the traveler in the dark,
I will eat up like a shark,
He would not see which way to go,
In the night when light is low.
Though I know not how you taste,
I will steal you with all haste.
But I must learn how to fly,
And then reach you in the sky.
Can you fit me like a ring?
You’ll be mine, you shiny thing!
So until I reach that far,
Twinkle, twinkle, shiny star.
The tune had been far slower and creepier than when Keira sang it, but it still did the job, as each line was punctuated by by a terrible SHUNK sound. When the dryads opened their eyes, they saw that hundreds, maybe even a thousand termites were thoroughly ‘popped.’ The stupid bugs kept crawling over the evenly-spaced out holes in the timber they were feasting in, so the spring-loaded retractable needles were able to reap heavy casualties.
“Alright!” cheered the plant ladies.
“A shame we can’t move the needles through the timber like we did through the soil.”
“Yeah, this will still take forever like this.”
“Why don’t we just make some grooves in the timber?” suggested Pinea.
“That’s it!” shouted the others with great enthusiasm.
Making those things was really hard since they had a bunch of thin, delicate parts. Especially the firing mechanism. That sort of precise work was really difficult for the dryads, almost like trying to thread two needles at the same time. But if it was just about making passages to move the already constructed Ironbark contraptions around, then they could do that without even breaking a sweat.
Pinea’s idea worked splendidly, and the five dryads had gained total dominance over those infuriating termites. Over the next few days they thoroughly worked together to clean Castelia, Torenia and Lilly of their termite infestations. The thousands of bug carcasses were flushed out of their bodies and deposited somewhere deep into the ground where they would become food for them later. In high spirits, they then went to investigate why Pinea’s roots felt so numb.
However, what they found was in some ways worse than the termites.
Unbeknownst to them, an underground crime ring had taken up residence in the city’s sewers. Although the elves had learned from their ancestor’s mistakes and made sure to build them well out of the way of Pinea’s roots, those people had purposefully dug them out. And they were actively draining her sap for their own, selfish needs.
“That’s not yours!” yelled the quintuplets as they revealed themselves.
“Waah!” screamed the lone man who was keeping an eye on the numerous tree sap taps.
“W-w-who- What are you?!”
“What’s going on here?”
The dark, dank tunnel was lit up as a group of 6 people rushed in through a door with lit mining helmets on their heads.
“Th-th-these girls just appeared! Out of nowhere!”
The thugs and the dryads exchanged glances.
“Holy shit!” exclaimed one of them. “Are those the dryad sisters?! Like, the ones from the history books?!”
“Since when can you read, dumbass?”
“... My pop-pop read to me when I was little, okay?”
“This sap is not yours!” screamed the plant ladies. “Return all that you have taken at once!”
“What do we do, Larry?”
“Why you askin’ me, boss?”
“You’re the one who knows what those things are, right?”
“Kinda. I mean, sorta… I mean, uh…”
“For fuck’s sake, you’re completely useless!”
“Ah! I remember now! It’s okay, boss! Those dryads won’t harm us elves so we can just ignore their wailing!”
The leader’s eyes caught the intense rage within those weird women’s eyes. It was far more convincing than his bumbling goon of a subordinate.
“... You sure about that, Larry?”
“Yep, positive! Though they’re a bit different from what pop-pop told me…”
“Well, they’re supposed to be completely green, but their hair is-”
Without hesitation, without warning, without holding back, and without even batting an eye, all of those insolent elves were pierced clean through. Only the guy who was originally there to keep an eye on the sap-tapping was spared. The five green faces in the room turned to him, who was currently crawling backwards and evacuating his bladder.
“Return the sap!” they demanded.
“I-I-I CAN’T!” he shouted. “I don’t have it! I d-d-don’t know where it is! I don’t even know what they do with it or, or or or who they sell it to! Those buck- buckets in the corner is all I have! I swear!”
Pinea’s sharp glare deviated from that of her sisters as she beheld the row of metal buckets in question. She extended a tentacle-like vine from the side of her root, which shot forward and eagerly slurped up what was rightfully hers. However, it was far too little, and she was still losing sap from those metal taps lining her root. Well, now that she knew the cause, she could at least eliminate it. She furrowed her brows, squinted her eyes and puffed up her cheeks, as if she was straining to do something.
A few seconds later, the dozens of metal spouts stuck in her body were forcefully ejected, and the ‘wounds’ they left behind healed up in an instant. She then slammed the vine into the cowering man, sending him flying into the wall, killing him instantly.
“Argh! Those vermin! I’ll make them pay for this!”
Some feeling had returned to that particular root because of her intervention, but several others were still numb, most likely because they were receiving the same treatment. And while that was bad in and of itself, it wasn’t the actual reason she was ticked off. It was because those people - those sentient beings - had deliberately attacked her. Termites couldn’t help themselves - they were just following their instincts, so she could never truly bring herself to hate them. But those elves had gone out of their way to bleed her of her precious sap. To say it was an unforgivable act was an understatement.
“Uhm, Pinea?” muttered Birchis.
“... What is it?” she answered after calming herself down a bit.
“That- Those ones weren’t blue, right?”
“No, they were black and brown. Why?”
“So how come so much juice came out?”
What was arguably the smartest of the quintuplets turned her attention to the pools of blood that flowed out of those criminals’ bodies. Pinea’s eyes shone, and she moved the vine she used to reclaim her sap to eagerly slurp up that red fluid.
“Haaaah,” she sighed with a relieved face, as if her thunderous rage was but an illusion. “Just as tasty as I remember it…”
“R-really?” asked the others.
“Yeah! Actually, it might even be better!”
“No fair! You drank it all!”
“Yeah I wanted a taste, too!”
“Sorry… Oh, I have an idea!”
The city of Morgana. A historic settlement, named after a war hero of old and built under the shade of the only five Crimson-Leafed Hylt trees in existence. A bustling population of exactly 18,504 souls had gathered under the uniquely beautiful and strangely mesmerising plants. The city itself was on an important trade route as well as a popular tourist destination, making it one of the most prosperous places on the continent.
Yet, when the sun rose over it the next day, it shone down on naught but a gigantic field of rubble, with not a single living being in sight, except for the world-famous trees that were in full bloom for the first time in recorded history.