Bonus Chapter 1 – The Crimson Dryad

Autumn had lived for a very long time. 

All dryads did; it came with the territory of being a dryad. Trees lived long lives, and so too did the dryads born from them, though Autumn didn’t really think there was a difference between her stationary self and her traveling self. 

It was like claiming a human’s brain was somehow separate from the rest of them, capable of acting on its own; humans were brains in the same way that dryads were trees, they were inexorably linked and only the truly stupid thought different.

Autumn had a very low opinion of stupidity, and an almost equally low opinion of humans. Really, most meatfolk struck her as unpleasant, though she had to admit some fondness for those she met much later in her life.

Before then though, back when she had her first grove in the sodden, swampy lands of her birthplace, she utterly despised all creatures of the flesh, whether they be matted with fur and hair or covered with scales and feathers. Even the wildlife irritated her, for they were coming into her territory and trying to eat of her fruits, the wretched things. Yes, that was supposedly the “natural state of things”, but fuck that nonsense, she was an immortal tree and liked her privacy.

Bees were somewhat tolerable though. Insects in general didn’t bother her overmuch. They were small enough that she barely noticed them. Everything else could go straight to Hell though. Well, they could once she actually knew what Hell was. 

Before then, she just wanted them out of her presence, which initially involved trying to smash them with her branches until she finally formed a traveling form; one that mimicked the elfin races in form, though she lacked any tails or antlers. Apparently she was “voluptuous”, which meant a great deal of staring whenever she appeared in front of some mortal and yelled at them to get off her property.

She was also green back then, back before a fateful encounter granted her a new family and faith. Her skin and hair, back then, were a dark, mossy green, something shared by most of her kind in the swamplands and not by her more vibrant, eastern sistren, though that was also much further in time.

Time was odd for her, old as she was, but she remembered when her first grove was invaded. Not merely encroached on by thoughtless animals or ignorant meatfolk, but actively, violently invaded by aggressive parasites looking to rip her territory away from her. 

Really, to compare them to parasites was to disparage simple creatures that merely sought to live, and even aided her ecosystems with their presence; these imbeciles, on the other hand, were simply callous, thoughtless conquerors seeking what wasn’t theirs for some bizarre, imagined sense of glory. 

At first, they came to take members of her grove, and the food that they grew. Their numbers proved to only stain the ground with their corpses and blood. And yet, despite her efforts her grove suffered from the invasion. While no one was lost, many remained scarred from the attack. 

Her hatred of the meat sacks began to consume her, and she became ever vigilant for invaders, placing traps and employing other such methods to defend her grove. 

As such, she was more than ready when the second invaders came, screaming about some misbegotten revenge. Whether they were part of the first invaders or not, she did not care. They were simply pests that needed to be disposed of. 

Such was how life was to her: protect her grove and prepare for the inevitable pests. With each invasion, she grew wiser and stronger. She knew where to defend and how to eliminate invaders quickly. And, despite her traveling body being immortal, she even developed armor to clad herself in. The wet wood of the swamp was easily manipulated and would protect her from even Fire, the loathsome element that brought her such pain when employed against her. 

Eventually, before she even knew it, the other members of her grove seemed to hold her as their leader. At first, she didn’t even know what this meant. There was never a leader within a grove; everyone simply coexisted. And yet, something swelled within her as the others looked upon her with awe and reverence. As much as eyeless, faceless plants could look, at least.

However, even with her power, there were things even she could not stop. 

At first, it was merely whispers, stories from outsiders who had set up for the night outside her territory, telling of a new demon lord called Irascagan. For her, this was of no matter. She had protected her grove from such matters before, and she would do so again if he tried to force them to bend the knee. 

And yet, despite everything she did, she could not stop the deaths that came with the first of his forces. Unlike others, who came to try and make them bend, these invaders only wished for death and destruction. For the first time in her life, she felt hatred not for those who came, but hatred at her own failure. 

The plants of her grove, the simple folk in need of her protection, died in droves with each push. Trampled, sundered, ripped apart by monstrous things she’d never seen before, reeking of unnatural rot, necrotic yet living all the same. Many felt no pain and would not be driven back, so her methods became more effective in response. Simple impalement on thorns and roots was not enough; crushing rarely worked either. 

Complete and total dismemberment, however, was immensely effective.

At times, it almost seemed like there was more gore than water soaking into her grove. And yet, the twisted things still came. Some were even fused amalgamations of plant and meat, things that sent a shock of horror through her very soul, and drove her into such a rage…really, she wasn’t entirely sure what happened that day. She felt somehow…fuller though, afterward.

Still, eventually, the reality of her situation dawned upon her. She would be ever defending against monstrosities as long as their vile creators existed, and she could not reach those creators from her grove. Not unless they were stupid enough to come to her directly, and it was very clear they weren’t that inept.

She needed to leave, that was clear, so she did something immensely uncomfortable. She absorbed her stationary self, pulling her entire being into her form capable of travel. It made an odd sort of sense to her; if her traveling self could be manifested at will by her stationary self, why not the opposite?

Still, the act sent tremors through her body, and in an instant, she was beset by desires and sensations she had never felt before. Thirst, hunger, simple discomfort at the cold…It was disturbing, yet necessary.

So in this lull of invasions, a period she knew would be taken by her enemy to regroup and replan, she clad herself in full armor and crafted a pack from the leather of the corpses not yet consumed. Within it, she filled soil and water, and then began to take her bewildered subjects and place them inside. Some needed contortion to fit, but she made sure the process was not uncomfortable, and spaced them evenly so they would all have a place in the deep transport.

Once prepared, she left the lands of her grove entirely, the land now stripped and barren of whatever the monsters could gain from it. In that, she felt a strong satisfaction. Her enemy would gain nothing from their victory, and all their efforts would be wasted.

And so she traveled. Further than she ever desired to, wandering towards a destination she did not know, but would be far better than anywhere near the monstrosities that had invaded her former home. 

It was an uncomfortable journey. The sensations of her body were persistent, and she found herself often having to pause for a variety of inane reasons her traveling form suddenly demanded of her. Though, in one positive, she did learn one quite nice fact about the creatures of meat: they tasted delicious.

So while the waters of the swamp were enough to quench her thirst and the beasts around her aided in quelling her hunger, she did still have to stop on occasion, merely to rest as she avoided the dwellings of the meatfolk. She was strong still, certainly; capable of bending the will of her kind around her to her ends with ease. But her body had limitations, and it was during one such rest that the monstrosities caught her.

She had wandered too far near one of their “roads”. The ground was easier to walk, a faster route, so she thought it would be worth the exposure. But when she saw the familiar monsters, scaled like some natural creatures yet twisted with bodies rotted and warped, clad in their steel armors, she knew she made a truly stupid mistake. 

Fighting them was something she had grown used to; however, when her grove was in a pack not even a few feet away, there was little she could do aside from stay on the defensive. 

And as the first of the creatures pierced her armor and stabbed into her traveling form, she felt pain for the first time in her long life. With her armor chipped away, and pain wracking her form, she fell atop of the pack containing her grove, in a desperate attempt to keep them safe. 

However, before the final blow could be delivered, a savior came to her. Turning as she heard bodies collapsing in the dirt, she found a robed figure standing before her, their arms moving with an almost hypnotic grace and brutality as they ripped the monsters apart.

At that moment, whether it be desperation over her grove being saved, or the pain making it difficult to think, she felt thankful for this meat sack. 

Despite this, she did not let up her guard once the monstrosities were defeated and her savior turned to look at them. 

“Hello there,” they, a figure that stood so stark in her memories, permanently defined by the blood red robes and pale white mask they wore, greeted in a calm, almost friendly tone, “I hope you are not hurt.”

She felt odd in that moment. It was the first time a meatsack had spoken to her with any type of kind words.

Still, her second reaction was immediate hostility, if just to judge how her “savior” would react. Thankfully, their intentions were genuine, and they simply offered reassurances that they meant no harm and merely wanted to see her safe.

She still remained highly wary, however, because she wasn’t an idiot and suspicious individuals were always potentially dangerous, particularly when she had so much she had to keep safe. Though it was somewhat appreciated when her savior gave her food and drink. And it was further appreciated that they sat and spoke with her about why she was traveling and what her purpose was. Not in an interrogative sense, merely…well, it was questioning, but…The point was, it was nice.

Their name was Zia. Apparently, they were a “priest–no, more a monk–well, technically a neophyte” of Mother Marrow. 

That was the first time she’d heard of Mother Marrow, yet she felt the draw even back then. The allure of Her. It was a feeling in the air as Zia spoke of their beloved protector, a feeling that drew the dryad in, and bade her to learn more.

The two traveled for a time afterward. The dryad felt it unnecessary, and even drew attention to the fact that Zia had originally been traveling in the opposite direction. Yet the strange meatsack, pink-skinned and smelling of strange blood, merely replied that their path had changed. According to them, the two met for a reason, ordained by their god.

The dryad thought Zia was an idiot, but having an ally was beneficial, so she tolerated the stupidity. They did make for a decent traveling partner, capable of defending her subjects when necessary and providing intriguing conversation at times. 

It was during that time that the dryad learned the most about her future deity, the glorious God of Blood, Defender of Her Own, deaf to the cries of peace and mercy.

Understandably, the God’s principles matched up easily with the dryad’s, though she didn’t fully give herself over to Mother Marrow at the time. The idea of becoming subservient to another rankled, so while she learned of Bloody magics and the Infernal Court called Phlegethon, she refused that initial opportunity to join the faith outright. 

Still, Zia gave her a gift when they parted, a simple mark to place and an incantation to intone if ever she should find herself desiring such a connection. So there, where the cold of her home melted away into a deep, warm humidity, the two bid their goodbyes, and the dryad tread her own path into the great jungles of Skiritaba.

The heat hit her like a wave as she crossed the boundary between regions, bathing her body in a warmth she’d never felt before. A very unpleasant warmth, at least at first. 

It was so different to her natural environment that she, quite naturally, utterly loathed the heat that swept across her skin, clinging in a horribly wet way as she trudged over unfamiliar brush and strange soils. The animals were quite different too; still easy to kill in many ways, but their poisons were different and their tastes unfamiliar. There were also a number of strangely sweet-smelling plants and beasts that rarely tasted as good as their scents claimed.

It was one such sweet scent that led her to the most important meeting of her life; her first encounter with Eytelia.

Her mouth had watered the instant that rich fragrance hit her nostrils. She devoured the flesh of a monstrous jungle cat barely minutes ago and yet the intoxicating aroma demanded her attention and appetite like nothing else before. She’d nearly stumbled as she pushed through the brush towards it, saliva outright leaking over her chin, until she reached the most beautiful sight she’d ever seen.

The dryad had never seen an alraune before, nor did she know what one was; really, all she knew was that the plant before her was alluring in ways she’d never known, to the point that all earlier hungry desires were forgotten entirely as she gazed upon the wondrous being in front of her.

Standing a great deal taller than her, the alraune was a beauty beyond compare; a vibrant flower of gorgeous, deep blue petals formed her lower half while her upper consisted of a bright, grassy-green body much like the dryad’s own darker, duller form, if significantly more voluptuous.

Long, blue hair spilled down her head and covered one of her equally bright blue eyes, glimmering like pools of clear water in the light of the grove as they widened, staring right at the stunned dryad. 

“Oh…greetings! I was not expecting a guest, particularly one such as yourself!” The alraune smiled, nearly stopping the dryad’s heart right then and there. “May I help you with anything?” 

“…Yhah…hah…Mmh, uh…mm…” she eloquently responded, slightly lifting a hand and then letting it drop to her side.

“Heh. Are you so struck by my beauty that you’ve gone speechless~?”

The dryad rapidly nodded, earning a surprised blink and a slight blush from the alraune.

“O-Oh…W-Well, welcome to our grove. I am Eytelia.” Eytelia curtsied, her petals shifting upward like a skirt. “I must say, I haven’t seen a dryad of your complexion before. Have you traveled far?”

“Hh.”

“Heh~. Still stunned?”

The dryad nodded, earning a giggle.

“I appreciate your honesty~. Well, you appear to have traveled for quite some time. Would you like to stay?”

“…C…C-C-Ckhh..mm hm…” She nodded rapidly, almost feeling lightheaded, then finally, for the first time in ages, took her pack down from her back. 

And there, the dryad found her new home.

Her own subjects mingled well with Eytelia’s, taking to the soil with only a small amount of encouragement needed, and soon enough, the dryad had settled in her new home. Her stationary self was finally planted in a decent patch of rich soil, where water was plentiful and sunlight bright, even through the leaves of the greater trees above.

She had found a home there, among the land of the alraunes, where the sisters of Eytelia rested in the buds of their own flowers, forming a wide territory that no reckless fool could hope to invade.

…And yet, the dryad still held that fear. 

She knew it was foolish, ridiculous even, to allow anxieties to overwhelm her. She had seen the defensive measures of the alraune. In an instant, they could pull their roots from the earth, much like vines, and use them to rip apart an attacker, assuming any invader of their territory could even overcome the sheer seductive power of their scents. The first time she had seen Eytelia easily snap the neck of a leopard and rip its flesh apart with her teeth and roots, she knew the alraune could handle any simple threat with ease…

Yet…the dryad had held that same confidence in herself, back in her first grove. A confidence shaken and shattered by the mad determination of brutish monsters. And she had far more to lose now…

It was those feelings, that desire to protect, building and aching over the course of weeks, that drove the dryad to perform a simple ritual, and meet directly with the Blood God Marrow. She who was immense and mighty, utterly massive and clad in armor the color of rich crimson, crafted from the still screaming anguish of those who suffer the slaughter of war.

“How interesting,” the goddess intoned amid a blood red sea, standing tall and proud over the dryad, “I have never had one of your kind call upon me before, little one.”

“…O-Oh great, mighty Marrow, I beseech you,” she stated, hating how her voice wavered. She clenched her fists, looked up and glared straight into the eyes of the goddess. “I SEEK THE POWER TO PROTECT THOSE I LOVE! I ASK THAT YOU GRANT ME SUCH A GIFT, MIGHTY PROTECTOR!”

“Ah, determined. Interesting. But why come to me, little one? Power can be found elsewhere, and much more easily. My little sibling, Vitriol, caters more to your kind than I. Wouldn’t you prefer the mossy depths of her graceful despair than the bloody seas of my violence?”

“NOT AT ALL! I DON’T WANT DESPAIR! I WANT TO PROTECT MY HOME!”

“…I can hear you just fine, you don’t need to yell.” The goddess sighed. “There are other methods you can seek to protect your home-”

“I don’t care! You’ll do fine!”

“…Again, you realize you’re a plant, right? You won’t be able to use the kind of magic-”

“I’m sure I can! I’ll work it out! You said I was the first dryad who called on you, so you don’t know if I can use it or not! Even if it is a different color, blood still flows through my body! Is the bark on my body not my flesh?! It should still fall under your domain!”

“…Little one, that argument would work far better with Tisserand than with me…Though, that is an interesting point…” At that moment, the goddess smiled. “I suppose I could give you a chance…Rot did gain that little champion of her own a few years ago, so really, why not? Perhaps you could be interesting.”

The dryad bowed, keeping her expression serious. “My thanks to you!”

“Geh heh heh…It’s a little early for thanks, little one. Still, don’t worry. I’ll only call on you when needed.” And with her words, a huge fingertip pressed down on the back of the dryad’s head, and in an instant, she felt a rush, and the world came into a new clarity.

Blood stood out to her far more starkly from that point on; the constant pulse of living beasts nearly overwhelmed her at first, but she endured and adapted. The only downside to this new power being the odd connection she received with meatbags. 

Regardless of what she may had thought of them before, the constant new feeling of Blood in the world let her know about any meatbags that were nearby and what they were feeling. 

Which, of course, meant her hatred of them only grew as she continually felt their pulses constantly increasing once they placed their sights on the dryad and her new grove. And yet, her new power also made it quite easy to dispose of them. 

With her new power, she believed herself ready. So she remained ever vigilant, waiting for the monstrous forces that she knew would come. To protect her new grove, and the one she loved, she would not falter. 

And when the day arrived, she struck without hesitation. 

It was almost interesting. Her new powers told her nothing about the twisted creatures, and yet it did tell her that, whatever they may be, they held no blood within them. They were simply puppets following commands. And so, with a rallying cry for battle, she led the charge into the midst of them, her alraune allies ensuring her protection from behind as their vines tore them asunder and her bodies split them apart.

As she destroyed the creatures with ease, she could feel a grin etch itself across as the rush of victory pulsed through her body. 

Even if her only goal was to protect her groove, she would admit there was some pleasure to be had in decimating her enemies. It was almost saddening once their numbers were destroyed entirely. Though that may have just been because their stench was currently overpowering the lovely smell the alraune gave out. 

The stench faded quickly enough, and her allies fed with glee, gorging themselves on the ruined flesh. She was not especially fond of the taste, but they seemed to care little, so it was no matter. Of more importance was what the alraunes began to call her, once they saw her green flesh speckled with red.

It was one of Eytelia’s sisters, Perilla, who first called her by her name: Autumn, for her newly red leaves. An alteration that marked her as different from all other dryads. Some dryads, the cheerful girl explained, could be yellow, or orange, or even deep browns, but they were those who changed with the season. None were ever red, and certainly none were ever such a deep, bloody crimson.

Eytelia said it made her look lovely. Beautiful and unique.

So Autumn she became, and Autumn she was for all of time.

The years passed, past that point, and routines were established. She’d taken it upon herself to become the guardian of her grove, an eternal protector of Eytelia and all her family, in a unique place where plants of the western swamps and the eastern jungles intermingled and formed hybrids anew. 

Still, circumstances changed sooner than she liked, and it was with an immense fury that Autumn met the newest intruder into her home. A woman, dark-skinned, yellow-eyed, and mostly human, reeking of ambition and plague.

“Good morning,” the white-robed woman greeted, curtsying in the daylight with a smile. She stood just barely beyond the border of Autumn’s grove, before two trees set as an archway. It was for that reason alone that Autumn did not immediately leap to attack the woman who had decided to catch her attention with a snap like thunder. “My name is Claire Valondrac, duly appointed Countess of Blekhon County and a few other titles that don’t really matter. May I ask if this is the Crimson Grass Grove?”

“No.”

“…No I can’t ask, or-”

“It isn’t. Leave.”

Valondrac blinked, then stared at Autumn, who met her gaze with as much anger as she could convey. “…Alright, I think there was a misunderstanding here, because you’re clearly a red dryad and I’m fairly certain there are no other red dryads out in the jungles of Skiritaba. So…that should make this the right grove, shouldn’t it?”

“…” Autumn didn’t move her eyes from Valondrac. 

“…So, since you’re standing here, listening to me, I suppose it’s a decent enough time to move forward with my offer-”

“No.”

“-so, I’d like to ask if you or any others in your grove might be interested in joining up with my forces,” she continued, as though Autumn hadn’t spoken.

No.”

“Are you sure? I am offering a number of benefits, such as guaranteed protected lands and access to plants and magic you can’t find out here.”

“My answer is no, festering meatsack! Now leave,” Autumn snarled in reply.

“One more question, then I will. Are you the champion of Marrow?”

The one question gave her pause and guaranteed her fate. “…I am.”

“Excellent! Then I’d like to challenge you to a duel.”

Autumn should have said no. She should have told the encroaching idiot to leave her land immediately or she would rip her apart in an instant. And yet… “Why?”

“Because I want to be Marrow’s champion too, and she said I could if I just so happened to beat you in a fight.” Valondrac smirked. “She also said that if I did beat you, you being her champion and all, you would join up with me as my newest vassal.” She held up a finger, cutting off Autumn’s irritated refusal. “But if you win, it would be the opposite. I would join up with you, in whatever capacity you might want me to serve you, and my own patron, Mother Rot, would give you a small bonus too. Maybe a certain title if you want? After all, I can’t very well call myself a conqueror if I’m conquered.”

“…”

“If it sweetens the pot a bit more, we could also add Drought’s support to the wager. She’s already expressed an interest in me, so…?”

“…Those terms are…acceptable.” Autumn held up her own hand. “For the wager. For the match itself…I want a physical contest. A match between the two of us. No tricks. No deception.”

“Aw, you don’t trust me?”

“No.”

“Ha. That is smart of you. So, what contest will it be? Fencing?”

Autumn glared at her.

“…You know, sword-fighting? A duel? I try to stab you, you try to stab me, so on?”

“Ah. Fine.” And so it was decided.

Both of them wielded wooden “rapiers”; long, narrow blades meant for stabbing, though Valondrac requested the tips be rounded to avoid deep injuries. Both of them fought–bereft of armor and robes, hiding no secrets and trusting in their own strength–under the eyes of the alraune, who cheered for Autumn and jeered the invader. And both of them were panting, soaked with sweat, and covered with cuts and bruises by the time Valondrac drove Autumn to her knees, the tip of her “blade” pointed straight against her throat.

“Good match. Welcome to the team.” And Valondrac’s smile was surprisingly kind as she helped Autumn back to her feet.

Autumn did not appreciate the gesture at the time. It confused her, it infuriated her, and she spat some quite unkind vitriol in her new lord’s direction. 

Yet Valondrac the meatsack merely laughed it off, and then began to chat with her on all manner of things. Autumn departed though, vanishing into her red leaves, then watched Valondrac as she walked among the alraune without fear, complimenting and praising them all, and while their new lord left in the afternoon–giving Autumn time to sulk with her Eytelia, who pet her hair and praised her efforts–she returned in the evening, with meats and alcohol and a cheerful grin on her face.

The party annoyed Autumn. At first. Then Eytelia called her over, smiling cheerfully in the conjured lights as her sisters laughed and cheered amongst each other. That was when she sat, and talked, and drank, and ate, all with Valondrac and her Eytelia.

She didn’t care for Claire. She wasn’t loyal. She hadn’t been inspired by her confidence or her unerring determination. 

She would be, eventually, but in that moment, eating and laughing with the second meatfolk who ever had the audacity to call her a friend, she only had the merest inkling that she could, one day, begin to like this very strange human. 

Or so she would say to any who asked.

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