In the middle of a certain plaza in the Ishigar Republic’s capital city of Azurvale stood a stone archway. The semi-circular structure was 20 meters wide at ground level and 8 meters tall at its highest point. Its edge appeared to be made up of a large number of slabs hewed from white marble that fit together like an elaborate puzzle. Several impossibly long vines coiled themselves around, running up and down the stone, almost as if they were holding them in place. Which, given the lack of any mortar between the marble slabs, may have been the case.
A foreigner who visited the city for the first time would most likely assume this was a monument of some kind. However, this hypothetical tourist would be gravely mistaken, for while this archway was indeed a landmark, it was by no means a monument. It wasn’t even one-of-a-kind. This structure, along with the secrets of its construction, were just two of many things left behind by Tol-Saroth. An unrivaled genius who lived long ago, and a name that was both hated and respected to this day. If any guests to Azurvale were to hear of that archway’s somewhat dubious origins, they would immediately understand why the people kept their distance. However, the presence of dozens of armed guards around it as well as the 20 or so wagons lined up at the edge of the clearing surrounding it would remain mysteries to them.
Well, at least until they actually saw it in action.
A quiet rumbling noise emanated from the ground. The archway started shaking and shifting, causing the soldiers that maintained the perimeter around it to raise their guard. The gaps between those marble bricks started glowing with an eerie green light. It began at both ends of the structure and steadily climbed up its sides. Several seconds later, both trails of light met at the very apex of the overgrown archway. The light coming from within it pulsed once, then twice, then thrice before going out completely.
“Ah, crap. Not again…”
One of the guards cursed under his breath while rolling his eyes. He then walked over to suddenly dormant archway that was as thick as himself and performed some percussive maintenance on it.
The solid kick he gave it did the trick, and the structure suddenly lit up with a much brighter light than before, along with a gentle hum. A few seconds later, the insides of the arch started filling up with multi-colored apparitions that steadily settled down into shapes. It was almost as if someone was painting a landscape on thin air.
“They should really have someone take a look at that,” grumbled the guard while returning to his station. “This is the 5th time this month it stalled!”
Despite his complaints, the shimmering Forest Gate in front of him successfully established a connection with its paired Gate hundreds of kilometers away. Looking through it from either direction would reveal the scenery of a town that was vastly different from that of the city of Azurvale. This was because its function was not too different than that of a Transfer Gate Spell, except the distance it covered was much more than any mortal could achieve on their own. However, it could only be activated once every two days and would stay open for only about 30 minutes. That’s why its operation was strictly regulated by the government. Anyone wishing to use this marvel of magic was to purchase a Gate Ticket in advance and would have to move in an orderly fashion once the Gate was open.
“Connection secure!” yelled one of the government workers towards the gathered carriages and travelers. “Proceed forward in an orderly fashion!”
The mass of people and wagons started moving forward almost as one, following the directions of the officials around them. Stepping through the gate would instantly transport them across the country, while an entirely different set of travelers would come out of the other side of the glowing archway. This was yet another feature unique to the Forest Gate. Normally speaking, Transfer Gates would create a two-way link between two points in space, but this structure was able to sustain two simultaneous passageways back-to-back. That way travelers could transfer both ways without bumping into each other, or troops and materials could be sent in from both sides if needed.
The Forest Gate’s activity was quite the peculiar sight, all things considered. However, it was something commonplace to the residents of Azurvale. The Republic used a system of dozens of such archways on a daily basis, so it was no surprise that those who saw them in use regularly would become desensitized to the sights and sounds. But even these jaded individuals would find themselves staring in its direction in disbelief on this sunny afternoon.
A certain red-haired, red-tailed and cat-eared beastkin girl burst through the gate almost the instant it had been opened. She dashed forward on all fours, crossing the large clearing around the gate in no time flat. She approached the line of startled guards, who had reflexively moved to block her. However, she just casually leaped over one of them while doing a front-flip.
“Hey Frank!” she called out while upside-down in mid-air. “Sorry, but I’m in a rush!”
She then landed with a small roll and kept running off into the distance. The startled guards watched her leave out of curiosity, but gave up on chasing after her once they realized who she was. As if they could forget the fuss she kicked up when she had to depart the capital through this very Forest Gate weeks ago. First-timers were always a bit twitchy, but the individual named Keira Morgana was something else entirely. They expected her to be excited, nervous or maybe even scared to pass through, but she defied all logic by somehow being all three of those things at once.
Ultimately, they all silently agreed she wasn’t anyone suspicious. They’d all been notified this truly unique individual had performed some great deed at Fort Yimin. Not to mention their colleagues on the other side should have already verified her identity and such. The town on the other end of that Forest Gate was closer to the front, so it naturally had a lot more security. All things said and done, trying to block her in the first place was silly. Chasing after her was even more pointless. After all, their job mostly involved to make sure people didn’t push and trip over each other, so running after a VIP like that could be seen as abandoning their duty.
Their reluctance to follow the catgirl was most definitely not because they believed they had no chance at catching her. This and that were completely unrelated.
As for Keira herself, she was currently sprinting through the busy streets while dodging people, running along walls and leaping over stalls. Once she got closer to her home neighborhood, she stopped being showered with cries like ‘Watch out!’ and ‘What are you doing, you psycho?!’ and was instead being greeted with ‘Welcome back!’ and ‘Good to see you!’ These antics of hers had pretty much become commonplace ever since she moved into that part of the capital, and the people who saw her acrobatic performances had steadily grown fond of them. Although she seemed reckless at first, she never bumped into pedestrians or knocked over anything. Rather than being a nuisance, her unrestrained and energetic demeanor injected some life into these old roads. It was already at the point where people were starting to miss seeing her run about with that pure, joyful smile on her face.
It didn’t take long for Keira to reach the front door of Rowana’s house, which she threw open with her usual greeting.
“Honey! I’m ho...me?”
However, much to her surprise, Rowana was not alone. Inside the small and surprisingly tidy house was a middle-aged elven couple that had the same brilliant silver hair as her. The three of them were seated around the plain wooden table and appeared to be enjoying a spot of afternoon tea. At least until a sudden ‘intruder’ barged in and caused them to stare at her in disbelief. The catgirl’s flushed and panting face gradually calmed down in the awkward silence. Her wide grin disappeared for a moment, but was a replaced with a more business-like smile right away.
“... Excuse me, I think I have the wrong house,” she stated matter of factly before trying to close the door and run away. However-
“Oh no you don’t!”
The man leaped from his chair and tossed a small vial at the ‘outsider.’ Keira just barely ducked under the container, which shattered against the Ironbark outside. Looking over her shoulder, she saw a sticky yellow-brown fluid steadily eating through the Hylt tree’s notoriously tough exterior while letting out some very untasty-smelling fumes. She turned her attention forward-
-just in time to see another one flying directly at her, which she once again dodged by ducking under it.
“Are you trying to kill me?!” she snapped at him.
“Yes!” replied the male elf while throwing a third one at her.
The catgirl jumped out of the way with a scream as the unknown potion destroyed part of the porch just outside the door.
“Dad!” screamed Rowana. “Stop this at once!”
“Mwahahaha!” laughed the elf, seemingly ignoring his own daughter. “You fight well, but let’s see if you can handle-”
His little speech was cut short by the other woman in the room, presumably his wife, smacking him over the head with a black frying pan, forcing him to fall face-first into the ground.
“Calm down, dear,” she said with an angelic-yet-cruel smile. “Surely that’s no way to treat a guest.”
Surprisingly, the guy stood up immediately afterwards.
“That’s no guest!” he argued. “She’s a scoundrel - a thief! Who else barges into someone else’s home with that sort of nonchalant attitude?!”
The wife struck him again, much harder than the first time. She had hit him so hard that it caused the floorboards his head landed on to break and crack while his feet went airborne for a few seconds. He then went completely limp.
“Please forgive my husband, my dear girl,” said the wife while hiding the now-bloodstained kitchen utensil behind her back. “He gets a bit excitable around new people.”
“... Um, okay? Well, uh, I’ll be going now…”
Keira jumped off the door she had climbed up onto and made to leave the house. Rowana had said she wanted to hide their relationship from her parents until she felt comfortable enough to break it to them. After all, her father was purportedly one of those people - the ones who didn’t approve of same-sex couples. Therefore, the diligent Keira would not dare to break her promise to keep her ‘arrangement’ with Rowana under wraps.
However, she was once again stopped on her way out.
“You’re Keira, aren’t you?” asked the old woman in a calm voice.
At least this time it was through words rather than dubious alchemically-strengthened acids. The catgirl stiffly turned around to face her with a quivering smile.
“Oh my, how splendid! My name is Doris Slyth, and this rather hot-blooded gentleman is my husband, Samulus. As you may have gathered, we are Rowana’s parents.”
“Err, good to meet you. Ma’am.”
“Likewise. But dear me, you really are a cutie, aren’t you?! Hohoho, as expected of Rowana’s new roommate!”
The way she emphasized ‘roommate’ while winking at Keira made it quite clear she already knew of their relationship.
“H-How did you…?” muttered Rowana wide-eyed. It would seem she did not miss her mother’s not-too-subtle hint, either.
“Hohohoho! You shouldn’t underestimate a housewife’s information network!”
“... Lia told you, didn’t she?” asked the daughter with a tired look on her face.
“No, silly. That child told her father, who told his brother, who told his son, who told his cousin, who-”
“Okay! Okay, I get it!”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Slyth?” spoke up Keira while pointing at the unmoving man on the floor. “Is… is he going to be alright?”
“Hm? Oh, yes, he’ll be fine! His little tantrums always leave him tired out and in need of a nap.”
Her face was still smiling, but the icy-cold stare directed at her unmoving husband could probably put out a raging inferno.
“No, you clearly knocked him unconscious, didn’t you?!”
“Nonsense! As if my frail arms could seriously harm someone as sturdy as Samulus!”
“R-right. Of course, forgive me.”
The old woman grabbed her husband by the collar and pulled his bloodied face out of the hole in the floor.
“-I do believe we will be going now. Rowana, make sure you bring this adorable child along with you when you visit us, okay? I believe the four of us have a lot to talk about.”
“... Yes, mom.”
“There’s a good girl.”
Doris gave her daughter a goodbye hug, then happily headed towards the front door while dragging her still-unconscious spouse like a bag of rotten potatoes.
“Thanks for looking after my daughter,” she whispered as she passed by Keira, just before she closed the door on her way out.
“So, um…” mumbled Rowana after a few moments of awkward silence. “Those were my parents.”
“And um… you’re back.”
“... Yes. I am. *sniff* I’m back, Rowieee!”
The catgirl literally leaped at the elf, wrapping her in a bear hug before she could even react. She pushed her down on the table and gave her a long, deep kiss on the lips as tears ran freely from her face. A few seconds later, she lifted her head up and stared down at the suddenly flushed Rowana.
“I’m- *hic hic* I’m home!” she declared with a half-smiling, half-crying face.
“Yes, yes you are!” replied her girlfriend while pulling her in for another hug, allowing the catgirl to cry into her shoulder without restraint.
Eventually the two of them managed to disentangle themselves and get off the table. They then sat down on the bed. The still sobbing Keira began pouring her heart out while Rowana did her best to comfort her. The beastkin told her about everything. The supposed abuse she underwent at the hands of the Empire, the imaginary guilt at being solely responsible for the death of thousands of people, the non-existent grief at Faehorn’s passing, even her made-up unwillingness to return to active duty a week from now.
Rowana didn’t say a single thing. She neither condoned nor praised Keira for anything she had done or gone through. Instead, she resolutely took in all her woes and sorrows while doing her best to ease her troubled mind. There was no doubt in her mind that Keira had gone through hell and back during the month they had spent apart. In fact, she had more or less expected her to come back with these kinds of horrible news.
But most important of all was the fact that Keira had returned to her safe and sound. The elf was even a bit proud of the young catgirl. Both for making it through all that hardship and for willingly laying her heart bare before her. Rowana could not erase the things that had happened, but she could still help her distraught girlfriend come to terms with what had happened.
As for Keira-
Hmm, I guess about 15 more minutes of inconsolable crying should do it before we settle down and she starts pampering me.
-it was business as usual.
After spending the rest of the day and most of the night ‘pampering’ each other, Keira silently disentangled herself from Rowana’s sleeping embrace and went outside. She then summoned Xera, who went inside to keep the elf from waking up. The nude catgirl ducked behind the house and assumed Boxxy’s favorite chesty shape. It then quickly and stealthily climbed up the tree and entered Ambrosia’s dungeon for the first time in a long while. The dryad herself popped up the instant it entered the main chamber and greeted it with a beaming smile.
“Milord! ‘Tis good to see thee again!”
“I had no idea thou had already returned!”
“Ah, sorry about that. It happened a bit suddenly so I couldn’t tell you.”
“I beg thy mercy, milord! Thou need not apologize for it is this one who failed to anticipate milord’s visit!”
“Enough of that,” it cut her off. “How goes your cooking training?”
“‘Twas hardly a bother, milord. I believe I have made a lot of progress, although it would appear thy ingredients are beginning to expire.”
“Oh? How come?”
“I do not know, milord. Humans are especially foreign to me, so I have no idea. I just harvest their limbs according to thy instruction, but it would seem they hath grown frail and stringy over the past month. I do not believe they would make a satisfying meal in their current state.”
“Hmm. I’ll go check on them real quick. Stay here.”
Boxxy activated Nexus Access and transported itself into the area controlled by the dungeon core’s Prison Management function. It was a large chamber that had no entrance or exit, making it impossible to get in or out without using the dungeon core. Inside were the four human specimens it had captured before its departure for the war, all of them chained and submerged into pools of green-tinted Waters of Life. That way it could feast on their flesh and bones all it wanted without worrying about running out of food.
However, just as Ambrosia had stated, they had grown frail and weak. Three of them were passed out, while the last one seemed to have passed away. How did it come to this? The Mimic double-checked that Prison Management was operating as intended and sustained their basic needs such as food and drink through magic, so that wasn’t the problem here. Examining its ‘dinner donors’ more closely, it noticed several unnatural symptoms. Their supple and well-muscled limbs were now almost literally skin and bones. Additionally, their hair had turned white, their backs were hunched over, their faces were wrinkled and their loose skin had become covered in various spots and lesions.
In short, they all seemed to have aged rapidly over the course of the last month.
This bizarre phenomenon was something the Mimic knew about. Apparently the Waters of Life, much like Rejuvenating Potions, as well as other of the more extreme alchemical products, sapped the user’s life force and reduced their lifespan. Meaning every time the dryad harvested a part of their bodies for her cooking practice, the forced regeneration caused them to age unnaturally. But still, to make all four of those youngsters into crippled old men and women - just how many times did she cut them apart? No, considering her somewhat zealous personality as well as how she needed neither sleep nor rest, it was surprising that only one of them had died.
Having confirmed all of this, Boxxy transported itself back to Ambrosia’s side.
“Seems they are suffering from the side effects of those Waters of Life,” it stated matter-of-factly. “Can’t be helped. Dispose of those things, and I’ll get some replacements soon.”
“Understood, milord,” said the dryad with a bow. “I shall endeavor to prepare a meal worthy of thy tastes at that time.”
“I’ll be looking forward to it! Now, I have some business to attend to.”
“... Of course,” she said with a somewhat dissatisfied scowl on her face.
Boxxy wasn’t sure what brought this on. It always made sure to treat the dryad amicably since the strength of the dungeon core’s hold on her was still uncertain. Antagonizing or displeasing her was something it wanted to avoid. And yet she was obviously pissed off about something.
“Ambrosia? Is something the matter?” it asked in a concerned tone.
The dryad’s displeased face twisted into a disdainful look. One that completely looked at her supposed liege as if it were a piece of trash.
“Milord, thou have been fooling about with mine daughters, have you not?”
“I asked for their help and kept them company, but I didn’t do anything to them.”
Other than making them murder a ton of people and possibly causing a mutation…
“Then why does though reek of some other dryad’s nectar?!”
Prior to its departure from Fort Yimin, Boxxy had dropped by Cyrilla’s place to pick up a few things it had left behind. Once the dryad understood that the ‘Sandman’ was about to leave, she eagerly offered it a drink of what she called ‘nectar.’ Not willing to turn down something that had such a tasty-sounding name, it readily took her up on that offer, prompting her to pull down her leafy bra and present her nipples to it.
The Mimic was a bit surprised to find out dryads had such things underneath those leaves. How come a plant had teats? Or rather, how come they had breasts in the first place? The more it thought about it, the less sense a dryad’s nubile body made. Then again, they were supposedly blessed by Nyrie herself, so this was probably just how the power of the Goddess of Fertility manifested itself.
As for the nectar in question, it was watery and vaguely sweet. The flavor was not exactly to Boxxy’s liking, but the Perk it got from it was quite tasty all the same.
Description: Becoming one with nature is a privilege, not a right.
Requirements: Drink at least 200 ml of Hylt Nectar.
Effects: Increases maximum HP by 3 for every point of the AFF Attribute.
Provides a permanent boost of +25 AFF.
However, the exact reason why Ambrosia had an issue with this was outside the Mimic’s understanding.
“Yes, that!” she insisted.
“Well, one of the dryads I met offered and I thought I’d give it a try.”
That seemingly harmless answer only made the elder dryad angrier.
“If milord wanted nectar, then I would have gladly given thou all that I had!” she blurted out while stomping her foot. “Thou had me at thine disposal, and yet thou went after some young floozy instead?! Milord is truly despicable!”
She ended her indignant tantrum by rapidly sinking into the ground and disappearing from sight. That little display taught Boxxy two very important things. The first one was that, just as it had suspected, the dungeon core did not have complete control over a being as powerful as Ambrosia.
The other, more troublesome realization, was that dryads were apparently capable of jealousy.