Seedlings
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Year 79 Month 6

I chose five.  

5 young girls, around age 6 to 8 from the orphanage for the first batch of the minder-familiars. I've decided to use the minders in batches, so I can spread out my sample size over time. Why girls? No real reason for girls, it just so happens that Lausanne's friends or playmates are mostly, mostly girls.

Their reaction to having a minder-familiar contract is mostly shock, to them, all they can see is 'familiar'. The status as a 'minder' is hidden, duh, else they probably won't accept it. Amazing, they said. But these are young girls, their magic just starting to bubble out of their tiny souls. 

I had conditions, of course, things that Laufen helped me explain. 

  1. Regular dips into pod. Twice a week, so I can track changes to their body, and their soul. 

  2. They have to stay in a subsidiary tree I placed next to orphanage quarters. It's got room and beds for 20 children, though they are all densely packed together like a dorm. This is because my [dream tutor] only works when they sleep either next to me, or inside 'me'.

  3. Practice. Once they accept the familiar, they will go on a structured education and training programme, so that they become competent soldiers. 

I have 20 slots, so I plan to split them into 4 batches, using the first 5 as a guinea pig and refine the process as I go along. There are things I want to identify, such as how does the essence use influence the creation of 'skill' blocks in the soul realm. By looking at them frequently, I hope to gain some idea about how effective are essences, and how much do I actually need to use for it to start having an effect.

For the education programme, I task Jura to appoint some of the Order’s militia, to start these girls on simple exercises and drills. This world does not shy away from sending young children to fight wars, I think it's better to train them before they get sent to their deaths.

The girls take to training and education with much enthusiasm. Showing up promptly and listening to the various trainings and teachers intently. It's a small, focused class. One teacher to five girls, and its drawn out of my personal budget. The Order's budget allocates a discretionary sum to me, that I can do whatever I want. 

Anyway, the girls are really enjoying the structure, which is I find that quite strange, as I remember being a rebellious young child in my youth, but for orphans who never had structure, a welcome change of pace.

-

Next, following up on the hole. Further down, there’s a bit of a ‘space-warping’ present, similar to almost all dungeons and to some extent, my own [secret hideout]. 

“Dungeon?” Horns suggests, as the small squad of beetles venture down the hole.

“Magical presence is fluctuating, seems rather consistent with the presence of a dungeon core of some kind.”

“Not a leyline?” I ask.

“Doesn’t seem like there’s magical energies of a leyline, do you detect any?”

Well, sadly I know the answer is no. When we conquered the earlier dungeon, the presence of the leyline is clear. My roots, as magically insensitive as they are, could pick it up, because of how overwhelming the leyline’s presence was, once you go underground. None of that overwhelming magical presence here... unless it’s somehow magically concentrated and hidden.

“A core, then.”

“It’s deep, I think.” Alexis’s probe walks down the cliff walls. Some snakes and flying creatures start to engage the group of beetles, which the beetles fight off successfully. 

“Master, are you able to place your trees on the cliffs?”

“Further up, yes. But once the dungeon’s influence touches the cliff, no. There’s a ‘barrier’, in which my subsidiary trees cannot pierce.” I can use roots though, to create a path.

“At this point?”

“I’m afraid that’s in the dungeon, already.” Good thing is, I can see into the dungeon, because unlike the earlier dungeon, it’s not blocked. Perhaps this dungeon didn’t learn that sort of ability? Or not all dungeon cores have the same kind of power?

“Ah, could you put a tree right at the very edge, and then lower a bunch of vines down? Something for us to grab on if we need to jump and fight.”

“Ah.”

The beetles have no problems walking on the cliff walls that lead deep into the darkness below. The darkness itself doesn’t scare them either, their vision is naturally adapted to all light levels. But fighting while trying to grip onto the walls is not so easy.

“...your presence is getting faint, master.” Horns say.

“Hmm... I’m still connecting to my probe. Looks like my connection is stronger than yours. It’s just really crazy dark down here.”

“Tell master I’ll talk through you.” Horns say to Alexis’s probe, Horns’ communication is also a kind of ‘telepathy’. 

“I know. I can still communicate, but that means you’ve got to protect me.”

Snakes. These snakes have rough scales, perhaps it helps them move and hold onto the jagged cliffs. Some of these snakes are like nagas, part-humanoid, with four or six arms, and a long slithering body that helps them navigate the cliffs. The nagas are tough opponents to fight, and easily they can take on five or six of the beetles before dying. 

“TreeTree, your beetles are not suited for dungeon battles. They are tough, and their bodies strong, but their way of charging and fighting is not really appropriate in this environment. I would say only Horns with his skills is suited.”

“What are you telling master?” 

“Nothing.”

After another 2-3 hours of descending into the abyss, they’ve decided to stop and retreat, as the attacks from the snakes become relentless. 

“Master, I suggest a full scale invasion of the hole. Maybe 5,000 beetles, and 50 of the large beetles, all of us go into the abyss and attack everything we see. The dungeon’s structure is deep, and wavy further down, and there are a lot of monsters, but unlike the earlier dungeon, it’s still big enough for a large amount of beetles. A large attack force will work a lot better than a small elite squad.”

“I agree with the assessment. This dungeon seems to favor large, wide caverns and hallways. Ideal situation for a large force to just march in."

“Very well. Let's do it. Horns, you're in charge."

"Ayy! This beetle army is gonna kick some dungeon core backside! Beetles will be the very best!"

A week later, the adventurers nearby are treated to the view of a massive army of beetles descending into the abyss. It caused a massive panic, but as the beetles did not attempt to engage the adventurers, cleverly, the adventurers took the hint and left the army of beetles alone.

And Horns’s suggestion is working like a charm. 

Within three days of the invasion, like an unstoppable tide of destruction, the beetles charge in and flood the dungeon, the army of beetles slaughter all the snakes that has the misfortune of being in its path, and cleared most of the dungeon and most importantly, reached the core. 

The wide layout meant a large force could penetrate all the way in, even if we were outmatched one to one. And the space allowed our superior numbers to gang up on the individually stronger snakes. 

The core is trying it’s best to defend itself, spawning and summoning as many snake monsters as it can, but with 3,000 beetles left, and despite 2,000 beetles died fighting all the snakes and snake-like monsters, it’s unable to muster an army large enough to fight back the tide of beetles.

“Bring it back.” Horns and the army arrive at the core room, and with a strong nudge from the giant beetle, the dungeon core rolls off its pedestal.

And that, is how we beat the dungeon. 

I found it quite funny, because actually what the dungeon core needed to do, to successfully defend against our invasion, is to choke us off, but strangely, this dungeon core’s design choice was wide open spaces, large openings, big walkways. Big spaces, big walls, all allows for a large force to rush in and clear everything. Perhaps it’s an architect with a thing for big spaces.

And why snakes?

Ah, perhaps the dungeon core rolled the dice and got snakes.

With that, the army of beetles return with a dungeon core, taken from its home. Strangely, without the dungeon core, the deep hole continues to spawn snakes, although to a lesser frequency.

“Dungeon core.” A large circular crystal like structure, about the size of a basketball. I recall the earlier one being larger though. Or are there many variants? Perhaps it’s not something with a standard size.

“What are you going to do with it?”

“I would like to study it  of course. But between now and when I get that magic lab, it’s going to sit in my [treeasury]."

“...fair enough.”

Other than that, the beetles also brought back some interesting abyss vegetation.

[Tree-type obtained : Cave Trees]

[Plant-type obtained : Deep Moss]

[Special Tree-type obtained : Cliff Bonsai]

No levels for me, sadly. Horns and Alexis did get some levels. Sucks being a bystander.

Year 79 Month 7

“Tree Spirit, an audience please.” Yvon came marching to my main tree, alone. She didn't seem very happy.

“Yes?”

“What’s your plans with the orphans? I heard from Lausanne that you’ve given them familiars and started them on some kind of training.”

“It is as you heard, training. I intend to train them into warriors.”

“Warriors? Is that all there is to it? Surely there is more going on, what with the strange things you have been asking them about?"

Hmm, she's being rather aggressive. “What are you alluding to? If you have something to say, get to it.”

Yvon takes a step back, but then, she quickly adjusts her posture, such that she faces me head on, her eyes stare at my tree trunk. “What I hear is, there’s constant dipping into your... pool. That healing pod thing, with all of your feelers. So, I want to know, it’s not just training, are you also meddling with their bodies? Are you... altering them? And are your meddling with their minds as well?”

“Meddling, yes. Altering, maybe.” Well, yeah. I do plan to meddle. That's the whole point. 

Yvon shakes her head. “That... that’s not right. These are children.”

“You see to think there is a reason not to select children. Wrong. It is because they are children. Children can be easily molded, shaped. Their minds are flexible, receptive to change. And seriously, why now, Lady Yvon?”

Yvon pauses. Maybe when Lausanne starts to tell her what I’ve been doing with the 5 girls, it just flicks a switch. “Why? What do you mean why? Is it not something wrong to start using children for some kind of war plot? As your future war potential?"

“Many nations do so, choose young children and prepare them for war, in some cases from the day they were born. What I want to do, is similar. If you ask me why, ask all the nations before, and present, why. Fighting, war. Destruction. It’s a way of life in this world. Preparing these children for that way of life, so they, we, have a better chance of survival as a whole, is there a fault?”

Yvon nods, “It it your altering of their bodies and minds. Would it be something that would be irreversible? Such that they may lose their ability to have children?”

“As I currently plan it, no. And seriously, you would know better that the whole matters more than the individuals. Some must be sacrificed, and experience pain, for the whole to succeed. It is, as I said, strange, coming from you, Lady Yvon."

Yvon's face is complicated, a mix of worry, perhaps disgust, and fear. “Would you deprive them of a childhood, of friends? Would you isolate them, make them... inhuman? Would this sacrifice that you ask of these young girls, would it be too much for them?"

"Maybe. Maybe this burden is too much for them. To sacrifice their childhood to be my warriors, too much. But there is no one else, Yvon. These orphans yearn for a purpose in life, and I give them one. To answer a greater calling, to fight for me. For the valley. For all of us."

"That..."

“I suddenly find it strange, that you are concerned for these young girls. I don’t recall you being so caring of orphans, when you were in a position of power, so these words coming from you.... Sounds... hollow. ”

Yvon's eyes are a bit watery, is she trying to pull the crying lady trick? Sadly, I am a tree and such crying antics do not trigger a protective urge within me. “Yes, I didn’t do what I could. I had the power, yet, I was too crippled by politics, too confused by all the competing priorities. But now, I still had to speak up, I heard what Lausanne said these girls will go through, and I fear for these young souls. You send them into a life of only war."

“And so what? This is how the world is. Why do you want to speak up? Are you doing so to satisfy some kind of conscience that you suddenly discover you have?”

“Uhm. No. I am trying to care for these young orphans. They deserve a life better than war, now that we are at peace.” I think she lied. And that's hogwash, really. 

“Peace? You mean this peace that we have because our overwhelming might suddenly scared the shit out of our opponents? This is no true peace, Lady Yvon. It is a peace built on fear. A fear our power. And if you know better, this peace is maintained by power. Lady Yvon, if you truly care, and want to care, I would like to suggest you participate in their molding as warriors. Be their support, then. These young girls, they will need a matron to watch over them, to guide and advise them where I cannot. To be a ‘wise elder’ to these sheep, our future warriors.”

She froze, and her eyes twitched. “Again? You... you want me to be a part of it?”

“Yes. Since you suddenly have a conscience, come, join the training. Join me in shaping our future warriors. Our... future generals, our future knights. Perhaps you can then see for yourself, what I am trying to do.”

“Ahh....”

“So? Or was your earlier words just... something you wanted to get off your chest?”

Yvon finally nods. “I’ll do it. I’ll help you with these girls."

“Good. Make them strong, we will need their strength one day.” 

----

“Alexis, do you have any results from the treefolks study?”

“Ah yes. I got the dead treefolk and I’m starting my investigations... so far nothing, but I’m mainly interested in the kind of flexible muscle-wood that they have on their joints. Their body is fascinating under scrutiny, its both plant-like yet they also form muscle-like structures. It's like somebody just blended a tree and a person together to create a treefolk. Replicating that muscle like structure would mean we could make stronger creatures overall."

"How long so you need?"

"According to [research planner], probably 12 months just to understand the treefolk's bodily structures. There's a lot to unpack. The treefolk's brain is also interesting and worth another 12 to 24 months of study, and I reckon would have a benefit to your [root-brain complex]."

"Are they not a communal mind structure, like forests are?" It is said that forests form an intelligence through the interconnected roots, each tree a neuron. In this world, large, ancient forests often appear to have a will of its own, and over time, this will often pools together, and creates a [spirit tree] or [soul tree]. One of the many ways tree spirits are said to come to existence, naturally.

"Not exactly. Though treefolk have a head, their brains are actually distributed throughout their body, kind of like jellyfish. It's like a neural network, but with a few large hubs in the head, the heart..."

"They have a heart, yes?'

"Yes. Well, their heart is actually more like this main vessel through their body that runs from their leg to their head. In a way, its like a large muscled pipe..."

"Ermmm... never mind the details."

---

News for a distant land, as Nung, Takde and Salah eventually settle on a peace treaty. Though culprit of the massive blizzard still at large, the blizzard itself has been successfully dispelled, and the weather returns to normal. 

That said, ground zero of that spell is now a quasi-dungeon area, the presence of such blood sacrifice distorted the area such that it spawns zombies and monsters. It will take some time for the remains of such magic to decay. 

So, trade gets rerouted around the now cursed land, and the three nations reach a kind of awkward truce. Still, that means less [essence] for me from this battlefield. 

Further out, my travelling [soul harvesters] continue to bring back more souls, more [essences of death], more skill type [essences],  throughout the entirety of this continent, death remains a constant thing. Many small battles, many little monster attacks, little rebellions here and there. More death, more essences. And that is good for me. 

One good thing about this peace, is now I get more knowledge about our neighbours. And as more and more such little snippets filter through the grapevine, I learn interesting things, like, there is a vast sacred forest on the edge of Salah's capital, where the kings hunt. Or near one of the large cities of Nung, there is a large mountain where people claim ancient giants wander. 

Well, personally, I think it's time to take the war to Salah. They may be at peace, but I still have a small score to settle. 

The Salah kingdom's capital is really far away, so I have to undo my subsidiary trees that stretch to the abyss. It's the furthest I'm going, if I measure the distance in beetle, its about 2 and a half weeks away, so I am going to need a lot of subsidiary trees to create a line that connects the entire distance. 

It's a process that takes about 1,500 subsidiary trees, to create a line to bends with the terrain and eventually, the capital. I make it a point to hide the presence of the trees from plain slight, such that they appear "natural", and this endeavour took me the whole month, every day, putting a tree, altering its appearance, and then moving on. 

And there it is, the capital.

[Skill upgraded : Local rootnet access upgraded. Longer distance between subsidiary trees unlocked]

[Special trees type obtained : Root Relay Trees]

[Max Quantity of Relay is Level x 5]

[Root Relay are special trees with the dedicated purpose of expanding your root network. A single root Relay can create a simple root network that extends 10 x the diameter of a regular subsidiary tree. Does not have other functions. Looks like any other tree. Appearance is customisable]

Year 79 Month 8

Salah's capital. It goes by many names throughout its history, many kings have changed its name. The most recent name of the capital is Ransalah, after the King's beloved but deceased wife, Queen Rani. 

Next to the capital, is a forest, Salah's Royal Grove. In fact, most large kingdoms maintain a grove or a forest, for the purpose of having some supply of highly valuable herbs or plants, for the manufacture unique potions or medicines. Some temples, such as the temple of Gaya's headquarters also has a large forest which it cultivates for its own use. 

Now that my chain of subsidiary tree has finally made the long connection needed to arrive here, I pause for a moment to take in the view. 

It's a large capital, not as populous as it used to be after the non-human exodus, but still, there's a lot of humans in this city, perhaps 400,000 to 500,000, maybe more and the city sprawls to accommodate its large population. There are two rivers that run through the river, and it merges further down, and this splits the capital into three parts. 

The central southern chunk, where the palace, priesthood, mages and wealthy mostly live. Infrastructure is good, the roads paved, security is top notch and patrols are regular, staffed with the best behaved men. It's a place where, to be frank, people behaved nicely, because of the overwhelming presence of the royal guards, and the Archmagus. It's home to the official trader's market, though in reality it's more of a hipster market catering to the needs of the wealthy and elite. 

Then there's the east side, where the army's main quarters are, the river ports, and the warehouses. This is also where the Royal Grove is. There's not that many dwellings here, as space is few and far between, the Royal Grove off limits.

Then the west side, a large flatland where most of the citizens reside. Sprawling, messy, and infrastructure spotty, its the definition of a large city where the plans failed to keep up with the population growth. As a result, its a space where citizens often take things into their own hands, so there are multiple enclaves where there's some form of 'local rule'. Vibrant, energetic, and a space of constant change, the supervision from local authorities minimal, so long as the tax monies continue to flow into the right pockets. Half of the merchant corps exist here, and the true trader's market, where the trade volumes are high, and the shouting constant. 

How do I know this? Well, it was not hard for Jura to ask a Salah merchant to speak of their capital at length. Apparently, the merchants are incredibly proud of the peon's market, one of the largest markets found on in the region. 

It's a nice city.

A shame, really. 

65