Keira walked into Underwood’s office and gave him a dispirited salute.
“Decanus Morgana, reporting for duty… sir.”
She talked in a low, shaky voice and there were heavy bags under her eyes. She probably didn’t get any sleep last night.
“Guh…” groaned Underwood.
As expected, seeing that relentlessly happy girl so extremely depressed tugged on Underwood’s heartstrings. It was the kind of scene that made him want to hug and comfort her, tell her everything will be alright. However, he kept such emotions in check as best he could. Not only was it highly inappropriate, but he also knew full well she had a certain someone back in Azurvale who would be more than happy to fill that role.
That’s why it pained him to say what he was about to say, but this too was part of his duty.
“Decanus. You have a very important mission today. You’ll be meeting with Mr. S again.”
Her tired eyes went wide and she shrank back a little.
“He’s not going to give me another weapon of mass slaughter, is he?!”
“No! Nothing like that!”
Silus wanted to comment on how an Elder Dryad’s Authority wasn’t technically a weapon in and of itself. However, doing so would only hammer home the fact this girl was solely responsible for all that death. The best he could do was reassure her with his words.
“What you’re fetching today is just an old heirloom that’s important to our ancestors.”
“I’m sure, yes.”
“So it won’t suddenly murder a lot of people for no reason?”
“Of course not. It doesn’t even hold any magical power on its own.”
On its own, huh? thought Boxxy. So that shiny amulet is part of something bigger? No wonder wearing it didn’t seem to give me any special effects.
“Understood, sir!” saluted Keira with a bit more vigor in her voice. “I’ll get ready right away!”
“Hold up Decanus. You’re not going alone.”
“Well yeah, the typical escort will be there, right?”
“That’s true, but I mean there’s someone else who… demanded to come along.”
“... Does mister San- I mean Mr. S know about this?”
“No. He does not.”
Of course, Keira already knew the answer to that question. Underwood had said nothing about a ‘special visitor’ over the Comm-crystal when they last spoke the day before yesterday, so she was just probing for information.
“And he doesn’t necessarily need to,” he added.
“The person in question wants to meet with the dryad in that tree, not Mr. S. A deal was made, and we have to arrange that meeting to honor our side of it.”
“... And by ‘we’ you mean ‘me,’ right?”
“Yes. I know this is sudden, but the approval for that came late last night and I hadn’t been able to contact Mr. S to let him know.”
Well, ‘Mr. S’ already knows anyway. I can handle that easily enough, though.
“This outsider’s presence is why we’ll be sending along some extra muscle along with the standard dispatch.”
“I understand, sir. I’ll make sure not to bring shame to the 3rd Legion.”
“Very good. Gear up and meet with the escort south of the fort within 15 minutes. Dismissed, Decanus.”
Keira saluted once more and walked out of the room. And while she seemed to liven up somewhat during the briefing, Underwood only saw it as a flimsy mask, a facade to reassure others she’s alright. He let out a brief sigh and went to stare out the window that overlooked the still-bloodstained interior of Fort Yimin’s walls.
“I should have told her we’re about to send her home…”
He briefly regretted not letting her know she’d most likely see her loved one before the day was out, but he wasn’t completely sure what would happen beneath that tree to the south. It was best not to give out false hope that might distract her from her duties. No, if anything, those duties were probably a distraction in and of themselves.
He kept staring idly out of the window, losing track of time as his thoughts wandered. He snapped out of it when he caught sight of Keira crossing the courtyard on her way out of the fort. A small smile spread across his face. She stood out way too much with that shiny red hair of hers.
“Well, she’ll get better so long as she’s lively. I’ll just leave it to those guys to cheer her up a bit.”
Keira walked past the remains of the south-facing wall just as Underwood was returning to his duties. A team of adventurers and soldiers were still clearing away the rubble and flattening the upturned soil. The bodies and their equipment had been more or less cleared up by this point, and only ominous stains remained. Once she was officially out of the fort, she immediately located her escort in the distance. It wasn’t much of a feat since a platoon of fully-armed soldiers stood out like sore thumbs on the grass-filled Clattering Plains.
The elven soldiers that were idly waiting about noticed Keira’s approach and instantly scrambled, lining up into 3 rows. However, only about 30 or so of the original 50 were present. The others had most likely died in the siege and had been replaced by new, unfamiliar faces. Boxxy made sure to make Keira look even more glum as it approached the formation. The officer in charge of this particular platoon - the same elf as before the siege - stepped forward and saluted.
“Decanus Morgana, ma’am. Permission to speak freely.”
It was strange that the elf who technically held a higher rank was speaking so formally to Keira, but the catgirl decided to roll with it.
“Go ahead, Optio.”
The officer went down on one knee and bowed forward, putting both of his fists on the ground. Much to Keira’s surprise, all of the other soldiers followed suit.
“If it wasn’t for you, we’d all be dead.”
Oh come on, really?! screamed Boxxy inwardly.
“But- But! Your c-comrades- And I-”
“We were all prepared to throw away our lives, ma’am.”
Did that Underwood guy make them do all this?
“It was your intervention that made the others’ sacrifices meaningful.”
And how come they pulled that pose off so flawlessly? Did they rehearse or something!?
“It also gave us, who were left behind, the chance to see another dawn.”
“The chance to meet our loved ones once again.”
And this long-ass speech, really?! Come on, I have shinies to acquire!
“And for that, we are all eternally grateful.”
Gah, what a pain! Now I have to act all moved and stuff!
Regardless of Boxxy’s inner annoyance, what actually came out of Keira’s mouth was-
“I… uhm… *Sniff* You’re very wel- *hic* welcome.”
The catgirl’s quivering lips curled into the first seemingly genuine smile she had shown since the siege. She even wiped away a few tears and sniffled several times. Seemingly satisfied with that reaction, the entire platoon stood back up on their feet and readied themselves for departure.
“The *hic* uhm. *Cough cough* Are the visitors here yet?” asked the catgirl while pretending to hold back her fake tears of non-existent gratitude.
“Yes. Mister Underwood said we would be escorting additional people to the meeting spot today.”
“First I heard of it, ma’am. Our briefing certainly didn’t say anything about it.”
“Apparently it was decided late last night. Very short notice.”
“Understood. Then is that them coming up behind you.”
Keira turned around to spot three figures moving up to them. On the right was the one-woman army known simply as Hilda. Her armor still bore the scars of battle, but it was probably still more durable than the standard issue Legion stuff. On the left was the High Elf Imiryl, whose face was painted with the color of despair. A single look at her immediately gave the impression of ‘don’t wanna.’ Well, if she was being forced to revisit that sadistic dryad’s domain, then her reaction was hardly a surprise.
What was a surprise, however, was the one in the middle. He stood at a height halfway between Kora and a regular person. His dark brown skin had been covered in ritualistic bright yellow tattoos, which were clearly visible since his large, chiseled chest was left bare. At least his lower body was covered by a pair of cheap hemp trousers with various holes and stains, tied to his waist wit a rope in lieu of a belt. His clean-shaven head dimly shone in the morning sun, while his bare feet made loud sounds with every step as they flattened the grass underneath.
And the massive, rune-inscribed shackles and chains that bound his hands and feet made his status as a prisoner crystal clear..
“Yo! How’s it hangin’ miss Merry Popper?”
Hilda raised a hand while shouting out a greeting with a casual tone.
“Miss Hilda!” shouted Keira indignantly. “Please stop using that embarrassing nickname!”
“Huh? But it fits ye so well! Especially after what ye did at the siege!”
Keira immediately became glum again.
“Yeah… that’s right isn’t it… I’m nothing but a monster…”
“Hilda, you blockhead!” shouted Imiryl-
-right before striking the dwarf’s helmet with her staff.
“Oi! What’s the big deal, ye stuck up cunt!?”
“That’s my line! Please avoid upsetting miss Morgana any more than you have to! I really don’t want to risk that… thing from lashing out at me just because the messenger wasn’t feeling well!”
“I would appreciate it,” spoke up the large man with a deep voice like melted butter, “if you refrained from insulting the honorable lady dryad.”
“Honorable?! There’s nothing honorable- I mean! Yes! Of course! You have a point! I apologize for my rash behavior!”
She bowed profusely and repeatedly to her own prisoner, who graciously accepted it with a light nod of his head. It made many of the bystanders question whether she was really the best person for this job. And indeed, she wasn’t, but standard protocol demanded that a high-Level prisoner had to be escorted by at least two people of similar strength. Mostly to subdue him alive should he attempt to escape. ‘Alive’ being the operative word here. Otherwise a single one of them would be more than capable of killing an MP-deprived, shackled and unarmed prisoner on the run.
“Uhm… who’s this?” asked Keira while pointing towards the black guy.
“Ah, that’s right ye wouldn’t know,” said Hilda. “This here is one of the Empire’s VIPs. His name is Rocky and-”
“Ruk’lunda,” corrected the prisoner.
“If I say yer name is Rocky, then yer fucken’ name is Rocky!”
The Berserker punched Ruk’lunda’s knee with all her idiocy-powered strength, causing him to fall down and buckle over. The unpleasant sound it made, combined with the weird way his leg was bent, made it quite obvious his kneecap was busted. And yet all the victim did was inhale sharply and groan under his breath as he struggled to keep himself upright.
“Can’t get too soft on this guy. Needs to know his place an’ all that,” explained Hilda while shaking off the traces of blood on her metal gauntlets. “Anyway, Rocky here, AKA the Black Tower, willingly surrendered after those five ladies were done with their performance. He fed the higher-ups some sob story about being deceived and losing his reason to fight us, then struck some kind of deal with ‘em. And now we have to make sure he meets with Mr. S’s pet.”
“Do not refer to-”
Rocky’s protests were cut short by a vicious punch to his other knee, forcing him to finally collapse to the ground.
“That enough for ye, Rocky? Or should I start workin’ on yer ribs? You know I’m in the clear so long as I don’t kill ye, right?”
“Hnnng. Point. Taken,” he growled through gritted teeth.
“See? Who says ye can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Anyway, that’s why we’re here.”
“I… see…” muttered Keira. She then turned her head to face her squad.
“You, you and you,” she pointed out towards 2 Priests and a Druid, “quickly heal the prisoner’s injuries so he doesn’t slow us down.”
“Yes, ma’am!” they answered and started preparing healing and recovery magic.
“What? But how will he learn his lesson if you do that?” argued Hilda.
“Then I suppose you want to carry him the whole way?” she snapped back.
The dwarf looked over the towering pile of man and very rapidly came up with an answer.
“... Okay. Never mind.”
Her armor already weighed plenty, so she was not confident she had enough strength leftover to carry that guy as well. ‘Rocky’ was healed up in short order and once again stood up on his feet. Imiryl then somewhat reluctantly opened a Transfer Gate. Even Boxxy could tell her gates were of a different quality and size than the ones her apprentices made. However, there was one slight problem.
“Miss Imiryl,” said Keira in a tired tone. “Please place us closer to our destination.”
The Hylt tree in question was technically visible on the other side of that portal, but it was so far away that it would probably take them an hour to reach it on foot.
“... Yes, ma’am.”
The humbled High Elf closed the gate and opened another one. This one was about 200 meters from the trunk, and was where she was supposed to open it in the first place. The platoon, the prisoner and the two escorts all walked through it. Well, except for the person that opened it. She had to more or less be dragged through it by the scruff of her neck by Hilda.
How come the prisoner is more willing to go than the person keeping an eye on him? questioned Boxxy. Is she right in the head? No, that one definitely has a few screws loose.
After reaffirming its intent to stay as far away from that twitchy Wizard as possible, Boxxy took the heavy coffer from the guy who usually kept an eye on it. Putting on a fake business-smile-but-not-really, it went off towards the tall trunk by itself. What played out once it reached the base of the tree was the familiar sequence of the tall, hooded figure dropping down from above, accepting the chest, handing something over to Keira and disappearing back into the canopy. It was all consistent with the last few visit, except for two details.
For one thing, the chest wasn’t filled with coins, but with gems, jewels, rings, sculptures and other luxurious trinkets of no practical application, despite their a high price. Their combined value would come out to about 12,000 GP, assuming one could pawn them off, but Boxxy had no intention of doing that. Simply put, it already had plenty of money to spend, and while piles of gold coins glittered in their own special way, it yearned for shinier shinies.
The other detail that was out of place was that, before he disappeared, the cloaked figure placed his oversized, gloved hand on Keira’s head and roughly tousled her hair. She appeared to protest at first by fidgeting and flailing her arms, but gradually calmed down and obediently let the Sandman stroke her head while she looked at her feet. After about a minute of this, he took his hand off her, gave her a thumbs up, and then ascended the trunk via the living vine that was waiting for him.
The platoon’s spotters finally calmed down, as it seemed that bit of physical contact was not as hostile as it seemed. The Optio then received a surprisingly upbeat long-distance whisper.
“Mr. S says it’s okay to meet with the dryad. Bring the prisoner to my position.”
The instructions were relayed to the high-Leveled trio, who started walking toward the catgirl. Some more willingly than others, but even Imiryl couldn’t act like a child forever. She had to face her fears properly, or else she might not get past her trauma. Or at least, that’s what she told herself. The fact Hilda flat out promised her she was going to bitch slap her into unconsciousness if she resisted any longer had nothing to do with her newfound determination.
Regardless of their motivation, the thoroughly annoyed Stonekin dwarf, the quietly excited Ascended human and the scared shitless High Elf soon found themselves standing opposite the obviously cheered up Keira.
Hopefully that performance will get that guy off my case, thought Boxxy.
“So, uh,” spoke up Hilda, “where’s this plant lady?”
“Right behind you!” came Cyrilla’s gleeful voice.
Imiryl let out a pathetic scream as she immediately bolted away from the dryad that had appeared out of nowhere. A small root popped out of the ground, making her trip and fall flat on her face.
“Hahahaha! That’s a great reaction you made there, cuntface!” said the mischievous plant lady. She then held her arms out while wriggling her fingers in a suggestive manner. “Just makes me want to tease you more!”
“Noooooo! Get awaaay! Oh, right! ... Flight!”
Finally remembering the existence of magic, the Level 100 Wizard bolted off into the distance. The rest of the escort could hear a distant booming noise as she disappeared beyond the horizon.
“Oh fer the love of- What the shit has her so on edge?!” asked Hilda with an incredulous voice.
“Mmmm, well, she’s just afraid I’d have to repeat the 999 reasons to respect your elders.”
“999 what now?”
“Technically it was 1,000,” pointed out Keira with an innocent smile.
The dwarf racked the brains that haven’t managed to ooze out of her ears with all the headbutting, allowing her to recall a certain scandalous rumour.
“Oh! Oooohhhh… Oh.”
“Anyway, this is the man I was talking about, miss Cyrilla.”
Keira pointed towards the towering Shaman that was almost twice her own height. His somewhat scary face was stern and his eyes were locked onto the dryad’s vine-covered head.
“Hmmm? This loser’s the one, huh?” said Cyrilla mockingly. She then eyed the myriad of yellow tattoos on his chest and arms, and gave him a few sniffs for good measure.
“Ah, fuck. Why’d you have to bring this prick here?” she complained. “I wouldn’t have come out if I knew there was a bloody Shaman out here! Let me guess, he’s here to complete that Rite of whatchamacallit, right?”
“Uh, hold on, there leafy!” spoke up Hilda. “What’s this Rite business about? Don’t think I wanna be allowin’ somethin’ shady like that!”
“You ain’t in no position to tell me what to do, gramps!” snapped back Cyrilla.
Hilda’s irritation turned to anger, which would usually translate into choppy choppy axey time. However, nobody who had seen what happened at that Fort would dare even think of being hostile to one of these plant ladies.
“Well, I don’t plan on agreeing on anything like that anyway,” continued Cyrilla. “I ain’t about to let some - *spit* - human tell me what to do. Do you know what those jerks did to my little sister further down south?! She hadn’t even gotten a chance to wake up before she got turned into a fucking house!”
She was referring to the preliminary force the Empire sent ahead to scout out and secure the surrounding area. The ones that cut down a 70 year old hylt tree just to make their camp following the Republic’s hillside ambush.
“Hm? What’s up with you, fuckboy?” said the dryad to the Shaman after calming down a little. “Why you crying for no reason? Do you miss your mommy or something?”
And indeed, looking at the prisoner’s face, one could see tears freely flowing from his eyes, although his face remained as serious as before. Then, in the flash of an eye, he went down on his knees and prostrated himself before the green dryad.
“I am sorry!” he shouted with all his might. “I am sorry for what my countrymen did to your venerable kin! Please, grill me, whip me, skewer me any way you like! I will atone for their sins with my own body, so please!”
The dryad adopted a disgusted expression and took a few steps back. In some ways this man appeared far more dangerous than that blue demon with the large wings.
“This shit right here? This is why I hate you fucking Shamans! And your Druids! You guys are way too fucking creepy whenever you hang around! Monster Tamers are cool though.”
“I beg of you!” he shouted some more. “Please let me make amends! For your sister to the south and the ones to the north!”
“The north? Do I have sisters there?”
“Umm, yes, miss Cyrilla,” interjected Keira. “A group of 5 of them, actually.”
“Then, did something happen to them?!”
“One of them got burned a bit by a dragon, but we chased that bully away!”
“Oh ho! A dragon, huh? I see, I see, so it was a dragon. Uh-huh, that’s rather unexpected. Dragons don’t usually show up around here, after all. I hope it wasn’t a yellow one.”
“Err, no. That one was green.”
“Ah, of course. A green one. Right, it has to be a green one, right? Mhm. Yep. Especially when you consider the sun and the… uh… climate and stuff.”
Cyrilla nodded her head several times while cupping her chin, then turned around to face Keira with a serious look.
“What’s a dragon?”
Before the catgirl could find the right words, a certain someone called out again.
“Please! I beg of you!”
“Ugh, can someone shut that guy up!”
“You got it, lady!” exclaimed Hilda before kicking him in the ribs with all her strength, breaking at least a few of them the process.
“Geh! Koff koff!” he sputtered.
“Aye! Glad to be of service!”
“Anyway, those guys are already gone. My new mates took care of those pesky humans for me. Even brought me back what was left of my precious unborn sister.”
“Yeah. That guy with the heavy cloak. Well, he’s not around much, but his pets keep me company. They’re teaching me all kinds of fun stuff!”
Keira was relieved she made sure to show only her Sandman shape in front of that girl. Dryads knew very little of subtlety and subterfuge, so Cyrilla would probably spill the beans right here and now if she knew Keira and the Sandman were one and the same. Still, this was a dangerous topic, so she decided to shift the conversation away from it.
“So, these ma- friends of yours avenged your sister?”
“That’s right! Don’t need no fucking Shaman’s help! Those bastards always try to curry favor with me, you know! Sometimes they hang around for months chanting some stupid words at me, but I just ignore them and hide in my tree. They either get bored and leave or they die of starvation ‘cus they’re idiots.”
“There, you see mister Rocky?” said Keira with a smile. “No need to get so upset, okay?”
The squirming man on the ground merely gave her a nod in return. Truthfully speaking, the whole reason he participated in this war was because he had been shown ‘evidence’ that the elves were exploiting the sacred Hylt trees. But after witnessing the reckless action of that Monster Tamer’s pet dragon, as well as the miraculous rate at which the tree recovered, he started having doubts if he was on the right side of this war. Those doubts grew into suspicion when the SHUNK-ing started. His connection to the soil allowed him to perceive movements that only the legendary existence known as dryads could pull off. And if the trees themselves moved to defend the elves, then there’s no way they were being mistreated.
And this meeting confirmed those suspicions. He didn’t know why he alone was spared from that massacre, nor did he care anymore. One of the living testaments to nature’s perseverance and grace was before his very eyes. Not only that, but she’d even shown to have become an ally of a sorts to these elves. With this, he had no regrets in voluntarily spilling the beans about everything he knew about the Empire. He was even willing to face his own countrymen in battle, but doubted the elves would be so trusting of him.
“We done here, Rocky?” asked Hilda while looming over him.
He nodded his head in affirmation.
“Alright then, up ye go!”
The dwarf lent him her shoulder, although considering the height difference it wasn’t exactly a reliable thing. Still, the two reached an awkward balance and started heading back towards the rest of the platoon. Their ‘ride’ was gone so they’d probably have to go back to base the hard way after healing up the prisoner’s ribs.
“Ah! We’ll be leaving now, miss Cyrilla!” said Keira with a smile. “Thank you for meeting with us!”
“Eh? He’s going away? Just like that?”
“Yup. Seems he just wanted to see you with his own eyes!”
“Oh. I see. Well, at least he knows his place.”
“Then, goodbye miss Cyrilla.”
The catgirl waved to the dryad as she jogged to catch up with Rocky and Hilda. A gesture the dryad unwittingly returned. Well, the important thing is at least that guy didn’t want to perform that stupid Rite. She didn’t quite remember what it was called, but she was sure she almost got roped into it once before, when she was younger and more naive. Of course she wasn’t about to just let anyone drink her nectar just so they can gain some Perk. Just who do those upstarts think they are?!
Well, that tall and diligent person she met a few weeks ago was different. Even though he used her mother’s Authority, he didn’t once presume to give her orders or make demands. He treated her with the respect she was due, and performed a number of favors for her. He even taught her a few tricks about handling various vermin all on her own. And all he asked in return was a quiet place for him and his minions to lay low. This was the first time someone had actually helped her out while asking so little in return.
It really was a shame only his pets were around lately. For if anyone had earned the right to sample her nectar, it was the Sandman. And Cyrilla was more than a little eager to present her teats to him.