Chapter 2 – Forest Temple

“This will be the last room,” Julius stated, his eyes locked on the massive round door blocking off the final room of the Forest Temple. He turned to the young heroes it was his duty to guide and nodded to each of them. “In there, we’re going to be facing the final trial of the Temple. Like most dungeons, it will contain a guardian designed to protect the core and handle any threats approaching. Unlike most dungeons, the guardian here is specifically designed to test prospective heroes seeking to be proven worthy-”

“And gain the Temple’s treasure,” Sergio said, his voice slightly muffled by the green bandana he’d taken to wearing. 

Julius frowned. Mostly because Sergio clearly wasn’t taking their job seriously enough, though a part of him was still suspicious that the brat was still grinning at him from under that stupid covering. The least he could do was wear a helmet instead, but Sergio always complained about his limited visibility.

“Yes and no. Yes, the temple will have treasure, but that doesn’t mean you can afford to treat it like a normal dungeon. As I said, the guardian here is designed by Lady Chlora to test all of you.” He held up a finger. “Under normal circumstances, that is. But, given what we learned from her followers, it’s more than likely that the guardian may have gotten corrupted somehow or outright replaced by an entirely different foe.” 

“Ah yes, The Green Mother’s followers. Gotta love how ‘natural’ they are-ow.” Sergio grimaced, rubbing his arm as Sue frowned at him.

Sue took a breath, her cheeks a little pink from remembering the goddess’s unusual worshippers. Every hero had to deal with them sooner or later, and at least Julius’s group of students hadn’t started cozying up to every attractive elf and satyr out there, unlike one bardic idiot he could mention. “So what exactly does that mean for us?” she asked, “Aside from it being stronger than before, anyways.” 

“Well, it could mean a number of things. Adrien, any guesses?”

“Huh? Oh, uh…the dungeon-uh, Temple Boss will probably be stronger than normal.”

“Sue already said that.”

“Oh. Right. It’ll be eviler?”

Julius frowned, but nodded anyway. “That’s not completely wrong, actually. A normal temple guardian mainly exists to protect the core and test incoming heroes. It wouldn’t try to kill any of you and it would try to make things at least somewhat fair so you have a chance of winning. A corrupted guardian or replacement ‘boss’ won’t hesitate or have easy patterns to exploit.”

“Ah, Mr. Goldforge sir,” Sophia spoke up, “Is it possible that if someone did… ‘replace’ the guardian, they could still be in there with it?” 

“It’s certainly a possibility. Valondrac-” He tried to ignore how Adrien, Sue, and Sophia winced. “-is going to have a number of subordinates under her control. If one of them is the one corrupting the temple, we have a fair chance that we’ll have to face two strong enemies. In which case, I want you all to leave the stronger one to me.”

“But what if the boss is stronger?” Adrien asked.

“That probably won’t happen. It’s not a rule, but generally speaking, a Temple ‘boss’ won’t be as strong as, say, a Demon Lord’s general.”

“A demon general.”

“…Sure, you could call them that.”

“Uh, wait, what if the demon general is the one that corrupted the temple?” Sue brought up.

“Then I’ll help you handle them.”

“So what if it’s not a demon general? What if some random thing took over the temple?” Sergio suggested. 

Julius frowned. “Then I’ll help you with the random invader.”

“But what if the random invader formed their own-”

“If there’s two monsters in there, I’ll handle one of them. If there’s just one, I’ll help you with them,” Julius explained, trying to ignore his building irritation.

“Hm, hm. So what if there’s-”

“Okay, no more hypotheticals.” He sighed. “Do any of you have any actual final questions?”

“What did you have to deal with when your old group did this forest temple thing?” Sergio immediately asked.

“A giant green knight. It’s the usual guardian of the temple. Yes, the temple was structured differently when my old group visited, there were less demon plants and more slimes.” He pauses. “About the same level of beetles, though.”

“Huh. So why slimes?”

“Because the knight was infected by slimes that erupted out of it when its armor took enough damage.”

“Huh. Cool.” Sergio raised his eyebrows, sounding amused, while Adrien grimaced, looking a little revolted. Sue and Soph didn’t seem to care either way, so there was that.

“Are we all good then? No more questions?” A chorus of ‘yes’s’ and nods followed his question. “Great. Let’s go handle the boss.”

Julius promptly turned and placed his hand on the door, palm flat as he pushed against it. The stone shifted back and a turn of the wrist saw it roll off into the alcove in the doorframe. At least that was familiar.

The same couldn’t be said for the actual interior of the Guardian Room.

Rather than a stone room that held a garden and a kneeling knight, the room had been replaced by an oddly pink and humid cavern. Around the room, on both the floor and ceiling, were several patches of long, sickly green blades of grass, sprouting up and dangling down from the pink, almost flesh…Hm. 

Julius looked around the room, taking note of the oddly biological lights hanging from ceiling vines and protruding from the walls. There wasn’t anything in there that resembled a guardian, and the room seemed both smaller and longer than it should be. Past the lights, there was nothing but complete darkness. The room didn’t seem to have a far wall, and nothing about the Temple before now indicated that it had been so heavily corrupted. At least nothing he could notice…

What he did notice, however, was the soft, wet and squishing sound that Adrien’s boots made as he walked into the ‘room’. Well, points for subtlety. 

Julius grabbed Adrien by the shoulder and yanked him back. The kid stumbled a little, but found his footing well enough.

“H-Hey, what’s the problem?” 

“The problem here is that we’re looking right at the guardian.” Reaching into his pack, Julius pulled out two vials that were tied together, one filled with a red liquid and the other a clear liquid. “Sergio, this is your target. Hit it when it touches the ground.” 

Sergio nodded, nocking an arrow without any lip. Julius waited for a moment, smiled as he noticed a sudden blue glow come over everyone, and then tossed the vials into the room. 

And not a second after the vials hit a patch of grass, an arrow pierced straight through the both of them, causing a fire explosion to erupt from the patch of grass. In an instant, the whole fleshy ‘room’ was alight. An immense screech of pain washed over the group right before the ‘room’ reared back, and the flesh that had been melted into the stone stretched as it was pulled upward. 

“Good initiative, Sophia,” Julius praised as he watched a pair of massive, planty jaws snap shut, an angry growl echoing throughout the room. He slowly drew his sword off his back, getting into a good stance as the monster started to get past its pain.

“U-Um, th-thank you, sir,” she replied, her voice quiet and nervous again.

“Damn. That’s a big bastard…” Sue muttered. It really was.

Now that the “room” they’d been staring at receded, the actual interior of the guardian room became visible. The garden that took up more than half of the room was still as vibrant as the last time Julius had been there, if not more so. The flowers were bright and beautiful, vines and leaves completely covered the stone walls around them, and the sun was shining down on the room from the gaps in the large wooden ceiling that hung above them. 

Though there was one unpleasant new addition to the otherwise beautiful room.

Rather than a kneeling knight, a large, yellow-green flower bud was taking up the center of the circular garden. Its petals were covered in thick, bulbous lumps that pulsed with every motion of the massive, veiny vine that stretched out from its center. Its yellow flesh was speckled with green splotches, a pattern that extended all the way up to the massive head that was snarling down at them as purple saliva dripped from its maw. It easily took up a third of the room, but somehow, it just didn’t seem like the most dangerous thing in the room.

That honor went to the red-skinned dryad sitting on a wooden throne right in front of the bulb. Loose, long hair, a darker shade of red than the rest of her, draped over the dryad’s shoulders and, from what he could see, nearly reached her crossed legs, her curved, bark-like toes bared the world. Kind of like most of her cherry-red body. 

Like a lot of her green-skinned cousins, the tree-spirit seemed to regard clothing as a cute fad weirdos liked to engage in instead of something to bother with. There were some red leaves and vines draping across parts of her body to actually give her a modicum of modesty, though her figure was far less important than the large green orb she had in the palm of her hand.

“Hey, old man, why does she have the Temple Core?” Adrien asked, slowly stepping forward again. This time, he had his sword and shield at the ready. Kid was at least learning a little.

“Good question. I assume she’ll tell us in a moment,” he replied, keeping his eyes on the frowning dryad. 

She took her eyes off the orb, glancing towards them with slitted pupils. “Hmph. So it seems the noble ‘heroes’ aren’t stupid enough to walk right into the mouth of their enemy.”

“I don’t know about that. Adrien was about to-ow.”

“Don’t be a prick,” Sue muttered. He really needed to work on team discipline at some point…

“Well, this is for the better, I suppose. This way I can kill you myself after what you did.” Moving her hand to the side, a wooden pedestal formed up from the grass as she placed the temple core on top of it. Several wooden tendrils wrapped around the orb, securing it in place. 

“…Burning your plant creature thing?” 

“No! You humiliated my lord!” she growled, glaring furiously right at Julius as the wood from her throne wrapped around her body, encasing her skin in a wooden armor. “And for that, you deserve the most agonizing death imaginable!” As if agreeing with her, the massive plant behind the dryad roared. 

“Oh. Uh, right, that.”

“That?” Julius winced as Adrien glanced back at him. “What’s ‘that’?”

Sergio snorted, blatantly covering a chuckle. “Remember that thing with Valondrac a few days ago?”

“…Ohhh, that.” Julius could feel his eye twitching. “…It’s probably bad that Valondrac considered that a humiliation, huh?”

“Adrien! Don’t just say that!” Sue chided. 

“Ah, right, sorry. Just, you know, if a girl says you asking her out was humiliating-”

“Okay, first off, Valondrac is a demon lord, not some random lady. Secondly, Teach asked her to marry him! That’s kinda a jump from just asking her out.”

“Yeah, that’s fair-”

“Kids.” Julius frowned, glancing at each of them as they flinched from his tone. “Don’t you have better things to be doing right now than discussing my nonexistent love life?”

“…I-I thought it was sweet.”

“…Thank you Sophia, but that really isn’t necessary.” 

“S-Sorry.”

He sighed for a moment, before looking up at the dryad. “So, hi. Julius Goldforge, the man you want to kill. Any chance you want to tell me your whole evil plan and why you want to steal the Temple Core?”

The dryad just stood there, staring at him. “…You’re pathetic.”

His eye twitched again. “And that’s really rude-”

“No, it really isn’t. Gods below, you are a completely incompetent wretch! What sort of filth proposes to someone they just met!?” she shouted, a wooden spear forming right in her hand. She pointed the tip at Julius, her eyes visibly narrowed through the slits in her helmet. “Especially someone as revolting as you!”

“…I’m honestly more bothered by the incompetent comment.” Julius paused, then turned to his students and raised a finger. “Beauty is subjective, kids. Let no one’s comments on your appearance bother you, because anyone who decides they have to insult the way someone looks is a dick anyway.”

“But getting upset if they think you’re stupid is valid?” Sergio asked, an eyebrow raised even as he keeps two nocked arrows pointed at the dryad and its monster.

“Well…yes, actually. I’m not incompetent.”

“You really are,” the dryad called out sardonically.

“I’m really not.”

“I doubt that.” She twirled her spear for a moment before banging its haft on the ground beneath her and placing her free hand over her armored chest. “Do you even comprehend what types of glorious specimens you see before you today?”

“Well, you’re clearly a dryad who has been altered by demon magic. Based on the skin tone, I would guess you’re some kind of priestess of the Butcher. Or a druid, though I think those are exclusive to Lady Chlora and the Beast.” Julius raises the tip of his own sword to point at the drooling plant above and behind the dryad. “The big guy, meanwhile, is a Drosidera Gigantea, a rare breed of the Drosira species of carnivorous plants, commonly known as Snappers. The yellow coloration points to it being from the Korikalaba region of the Dark Lands. Or, more specifically, the original plant you got its seed from is from there, since I doubt you uprooted a huge plant like this one when it would be more convenient to bring a seed and just grow it with your natural magic.”

Julius let the stunned silence drag on for a few seconds before he smirked. “Is that about right, young lady?”

“…Just shut up and die already.”

“Why don’t you shut up and kill me then? If you’re not all talk, of course-” Julius batted the thrown spear to the side and charged straight for the dryad, shouting as he went. “Handle the drosi! I’ve got the dryad!”

With that, his students rushed off in different directions, scattering to make it harder for the drosi to focus on a specific target. Sergio was covering Sophia, who was layering protection after protection over the group, while Adrien and Sue moved in close, drawing the drosi’s attention.

Julius couldn’t afford to focus on their efforts though. He had a job to do.

The dryad sprouted two single-edged blades of wood from her armor, their handles dropping fluidly into her hands, and crossed them to catch his overhead swing, missing his fist until it buried into her abdomen. Most people focused on the sword and didn’t notice he was swinging it one-handed and the dryad was no exception. Her armor held solid though and she was quick to back up. 

Julius slipped a dirk from his belt, holding it in his free hand. Dryad’s could only be killed by destroying their tree, so going lethal from the start was his best bet–She made the first move, lunged for his face, he ducked and weaved, and she missed the dirk, getting a quick jab across her hip for her trouble.

The armor would be a problem. She could fix wood, and if it was hard enough–He ducked another cut, she was getting close to take advantage of his broadsword’s length but his knife was tripping her up as it slashed for her eye slits–he would need a hard swing to cut through it. 

Her eye slits closed and she leaned back, swinging again, trying to drive him back. He kept his steps light–plant mages were a pain because they could make grass lethal if they focused and there were far too many plants around already–and swung his sword in turn. She had to drop to avoid it, rolled and lunged again. Bloodthirsty, angry, he could use that.

He bounced on his feet, kept his steps light, grinned. He couldn’t see her face but she was stabbing faster now. One lunge too far and he slammed the dirk up into her throat. The wood buckled, didn’t break, but she flinched and he backed up fast and swung hard. 

Again, dryads couldn’t really be killed without destroying their tree down to the roots–they reminded him of liches in that regard–but nothing was good at handling a sword through the head. She had damn hard armor though, his sword was stuck and she was lunging again.

Behind her, arrows had lodged in the drosi’s thick throat. Adrien was getting some good cuts in on the thorny vines it was swinging wildly, but Sue was having trouble. He would need to get her some kind of enchanted cestus if she wanted to keep up the brawler style–he ducked a cut, switched hands with the dirk, left his sword in, spun as she lunged, drove it into the back of her neck–or maybe he could try getting her some grappler stuff? Hm. 

An offensive caster would be good too. He’d need to look into that, maybe bring Sophia to the Fire Shrines. Plant Clerics, or druids or whatever they wanted to call themselves, were nice enough to show her more healing and protective stuff, but he was not leaving any of his kids around those nudists. Nudist druids. Nudids? Druists? Things to think about.

The dryad was stumbling, fumbling at her neck and he yanked his sword out, grimaced at the lack of blood. She healed fast too, damn, something made doubly apparent by her yanking his dirk out and chucking it at him.

A glance back saw the dirk sink into the drosi’s bud and showed him Sue tossing what alchemical bombs they had up in the air as Sergio took fantastic advantage. He felt a swell of pride as their explosives erupted in fire around the drosi’s neck and it shrieked. Said neck was looking weaker, bleeding more obviously. Hm. That could work.

The dryad was staring at him. Well, not really, considering the blank helmet, but still, that wouldn’t work. He smirked. “What’s wrong? I thought you were going to kill me, young lady? You wouldn’t want to disappoint your master now, right?” He tried to ignore the twinge in his heart. “I know Demon Lords don’t tend to reward failures.” 

She bristled, her armor cracked. “I’LL GUT YOU LIKE THE FILTHY APE YOU ARE!” Ha, so he could still piss people off. Fantastic to know.

She lunged again and vines tried to wrap around his ankles to pin him and she sure as hell wasn’t expecting him to flip right over her. Opponents never thought he could be acrobatic. She whirled and caught a fist going with just the right amount of force straight into her armored face. The dryad went flying back, rolled across the ground, used vines to right herself right as Sue cupped her hands, flung Adrien up, and the legendary sword sliced straight through the drosi’s weakened neck.

“GAH! FUCKER! I’LL WEAR YOUR FUCKING INTESTINES LIKE-” Her bewildered silence as he smirked and pointed up made it all worth it. Honestly, the collapsing drosi head slamming right on top of her was a bonus at that point.

“Congrats kids! You’ve just taken down your first temple guardian.” He couldn’t help grinning, even though he knew it couldn’t be over yet.

“And a general as well!” cheered Adrien as Sue plopped down on the ground by him, the brawler taking the lull to catch her breath while Sophia walked over to heal the two frontliners. 

“So, does this mean we get some form of celebration in our name?” Sergio asked as he picked up any intact arrows that had been knocked out of the air by the drosi. “I think purifying a temple and killing a demon general deserves some kind of reward.”

Rather than respond, Julius just brought up his hand and held up three fingers, immediately catching his student’s attention.

Three… two…one. 

“….rrrraaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAARGH!” The drosi’s limp and severed head erupted in a shower of gore as a scream of intense, pure rage ripped straight through it. In the center of the rapidly dissolving chunks was the dryad, as intact as ever, though the same couldn’t be said for her armor. A good amount of it was sloughing off her crimson skin in messy clumps, all with a sickly, sharp, acidic scent that burned the air

Leveling his sword at the dryad, Julius remained still as she tried to catch her breath, her inhales coming hard and rough. Even after all of that, it was clear that no lasting damage had been done to her. Even her bits of exposed skin were healing faster than any acid could get through them.

However, even if the dryad was nearly immortal thanks to the fact that her tree was nowhere near there, she still had a limit to how long she could fight. Pain was pain, and even regeneration didn’t help mental wear and tear. 

Thankfully, it seemed that none of his students had taken their temporary victory as a sign that they could get arrogant. Adrien and Sue immediately jumped to their feet, stepping in front of Sophia to block her from danger as she started muttering protective chants again and Sergio immediately nocked two arrows, waiting for a signal.

Silence fell on the room as everyone waited to see who would act first. And, unsurprisingly, it was the dryad. However, rather than attack, all she did was stand and turn around, heading to the archway that acted as an exit for those who cleared the temple. 

“H-Hey! Where the hell do you think you’re going!?” Adrien yelled, pointing his sword at her and keeping his shield in front of Sophia. 

“…I have no desire to be captured by the lot of you, and I’m certain that idiotic mentor of yours doesn’t want to lose one or two of you.” All of the anger was gone from the dryad’s tone, her blood-red eyes narrowed in a far colder calm than she’d had before. Julius grimaced. She’d focused on him because she was pissed off, but if she started taking things seriously with his students in this sort of environment…

“So you’re just gonna go crawling back to your lord, battered and broken?” Sergio asked as he kept an arrow trained on her back. And then, with a subtle motion of her head that only Julius noticed, she glanced down at her right arm. Around her wrist was a band of what appeared to be alraune petals, the pale blue standing out against all the red. 

“…I’d rather live on in disgrace than be captured by you.” Ah, there was that spite.

Sighing, Julius moved to put his sword back into its sheath. “Let her go.” 

“Huh!? You can’t be serious!”

“We already won, and even if we did capture her, I doubt she’ll tell us any worthwhile secrets,” he explained, glancing at Adrien. The kid was staring at him now. He’d need to work on that. Always keep your eyes on the threat.

“Teach, this is a really bad idea,” Sue said, her eyes still focused on the dryad. She knew better already. Good.

“Yeah, it is. But a cornered rat is far worse than one that can run.”

The dryad barked a laugh, scowling. “A terrible comparison, but, for once, you say something smart.” 

“Hm. Can I get a name, at least? I doubt you’ll tell us why you wanted the Temple Core, but it’d be easier than referring to you as ‘the red dryad general’.”

Looking over her shoulder, the dryad glared at Julius. “Autumn. Don’t expect me to spare you the next time we meet.” 

“Heh, the same goes to you.” 

Autumn scowled again, then huffed, shaking her head in irritation. Abruptly, her body burst into leaves, her form dispersing as she returned to wherever her tree was, soon leaving the group in the garden. The red leaves soon broke into fragments, dissolving quickly into crimson dust. Julius couldn’t see a hint of blue in the air. Seemed the bracelet traveled with her

And, before a single word could be uttered, a victorious swell of music sounded out from the temple core, still in its wooden confines, along with a bright flash of green light.

“Huh.” Sergio straightened, patting his chest as the scratches and bruises began to fade from everyone’s bodies. “That’s useful.”

“I-It’s certainly easier on me,” Sophia noted, smiling a little again.

Another green light soon flashed out, directing everyone’s attention to a large pedestal off to the side of the room. Once empty, it now had five treasure chests waiting for them. 

“Heh, glad to see that hasn’t changed. Well kids, here’s yet another difference between a temple and a dungeon. Once you succeed in defeating the Temple guardian, you’ll gain a reward meant for each of you. Hence the five chests.” 

However, rather than cheer at that fact, the kids trudged over to get their reward, both Sue and Adrien looking a mix of irritated and upset. It looked like they really didn’t like having to let a demon general leave like that. Julius could understand the sentiment, and that just made his heart swell with sympathy for his old groupmates. He was waaaay too focused on beating the enemy at all costs back then.

Letting out a sigh, Julius walked up to his own chest, the one that had a symbol of a sword and dagger on it. He opened it up to find a dirk, similar in size and shape to his own, though with a greener hilt and druidic symbols carved into the blade. Well, that was handy. 

Glancing over to the fallen drosi, it’s carcass rapidly rotting as the Temple ‘cleaned’ itself of the corruption, he realized that his own dirk had likely been destroyed after the beast was slain. So, rather than get a reward, he’d gotten a replacement. Well, it wasn’t like he could complain. He’d already cleared this temple before. Taking the knife, Julius put it into his previous dirk’s sheath. Of course, it fit in perfectly. Seemed the gods were good for some things.

A glance around showed him the kids had their own nice rewards. New gloves and boots for Adrien and Sue, definitely going to be enchanted, and some matching green pendants of protection; a book on plant magic for Sophia, along with a sliver of wood that immediately melded into her staff, granted it a brief green glow and an extra notch at the top; and what looked like a new, larger quiver for Sergio, already filled with some green-tipped arrows, which he was pretty sure were called sprout arrows. They, well…it wasn’t good to get hit with them.

Sadly, it didn’t seem as if the reward did much to raise the group’s spirits. Adrien and Sue were still down, and that just brought down their friends with them. So with a subdued mood, they left the temple, taking a portal that led them back to a hidden room by the entrance. 

However, rather than being met with the quiet forest they’d walked through to get to the temple, they were met with a very, very different kind of sight. Nearby to the Temple was the imaginatively named village of Chloraton, where an entire conclave of Chloran–Chloradic?–druids took up residence. And it looked like every single one of those followers had come by to greet the conquering heroes. And what a sight that was. Woo.

“Oh brave heroes! We thank you for cleansing the temple of Lady Chlora!” Starting the congratulations was the leader of the Chloradic Church, the archdruid herself, a dark-skinned wood elf by the name of Namita Loren. Her curly dark-green hair seemed to almost sparkle in the sunlight, two prominent antlers jutting up from the crown of her head lending her an almost royal appearance.

“O-Oh, n-no problem!” Adrien replied as he did his best to look anywhere other than at the followers, an action Sue was copying and that Sophia and Sergio weren’t even bothering with. Though Sophia might’ve just been frozen in shock–no, that was definitely interest. Heh.

“As thanks, we have already prepared a feast for you! Even if Lady Chlora has already healed your wounds with her divine grace, I am certain all of you must be quite hungry!” 

“Th-There’s really no nee-” Before Sue could finish, Namita cut her off with a raised hand. 

“Nonsense! For us to not properly thank you would be as if we were insulting Lady Chlora herself!” And before another word could be said, the followers, all wearing nothing but smiles, came up the steps to grab them and lead them to the village. 

Adrien was very carefully averting his eyes from the fairly cute and pale young elvin man leading him down the steps while Sue took the opposite route and was trying to strike up a conversation with the four followers pulling her along and admiring her muscular arms. Poor Sophia was trying to sink into her robe as two satyr girls leaned against her, chatting cheerfully about how cute she looked, while Sergio was trying to hide how flustered he was by grinning and attempting to flirt, badly, with own escorts. It really wasn’t working.

Smirking as he watched his group get pulled ahead with their embarrassment practically steaming into the air, Julius soon felt his own arm be grabbed by Namita, the chubby wood elf pulling him close as they walked back to her village. Thankfully, her antlers were the type to jut upwards, so he didn’t have to worry about losing an eye, unless he tried leaning a little too close.

“Once again, I must thank you for helping us.” 

“It was no problem. And besides, helping out people is part of our job.” 

“True, true. Though I must say, I never imagined you would be the one to lead this group of heroes.” 

“Heh. The same could be said for you and this village.” 

“What can I say? Even bandits need to settle down eventually~.” Smiling up at him, Namita pressed his arm closer to her chest. “Though I’m certain you must want some more adult company after spending so long with those naive novices~.” 

“I see even after all this time, you don’t change.” 

“I am an elf, honey~. You should know how resistant we are to changing our ways~.”

Letting out an amused huff, Julius pulled away slightly. “Well, as enticing as that sounds, I’m going to have to decline.” 

“Very well. But the offer will still stand~.” She smirked up at him, then paused, pursing her lips in thought. “Oh, before I forget. I do know someone who wishes to join your group.” 

He raised an eyebrow. “Hm? And they would be?” 

“My daughter. She wants to find someone that I’m certain you’ll help her find.” 

“And who would this person be?” 

“Her father. You may know him as Cyrus Gerrish.” 

Oh. “Ohh…Hm. Really? You and Cyrus?”

“What can I say~? He’s good with his hands~. And his mouth~.”

“Yeah yeah, bard jokes. Still, kind of surprised I didn’t know about this one.”

“You have been sticking to that little shop of yours for the past decade or so and I’ve never been one to talk about family.”

“Hm.” Julius frowned. “How old is she?”

“Nineteen, currently. She’ll be turning twenty this year.”

“Huh. A young elf. Running into all kinds of rarities today.”

“Oh hush you.” She slapped his arm, grinning in good humor. 

He chuckled too. “Well, we’ll give it a shot. I can see how she fits in the group. What’s her name?”

“Maria. Don’t worry, you’ll be seeing her soon.”

“I’m sure I will be.” 

Namita glanced at him with a curious look, apparently checking if his words held any hidden meaning in them, before grinning again. “Yes, you will. She’s back with the others taking care of the cooking, so you should meet her along with the rest of your new group.”

“Nice to know. She cooks?”

“And dances and sings. Ah, my poor daughter, practically a woodland princess. Where did this old bandit go wrong?”

“Ex-bandit, right?” He glanced at her with a smirk and cocked eyebrow.

“Of course, of course. Don’t worry though, she can hold her own in a fight. Though I imagine you’ll be running her through the wringer with your training.” 

“It’s only fair. Everyone else had to pass my training and she’s going to do it too” 

“Heh, good. I wouldn’t want you treating her special just because she’s my daughter.”

Julius chuckled again. It was always nice to be greeted by old friends, and as they reached the village of pale trees shaped into walls, houses, and a vast shrine that mainly acted as a meeting hall for the local druids, he couldn’t help grinning. “Trust me, I won’t.”

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