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Daron huffed as she chopped through the thick undergrowth of the Nepone forest. It was a hot and humid day on Acias, and she was out exploring as usual. She could have sworn that the path she cleared out just a couple days before was totally regrown by now. It was a mystery to everyone how the Nepone forest seemed to fix itself, if not reinforced itself, in mere days. Some people had superstitions of magical beings that were responsible for filling the forest with energy, while others believed it was simply a happening of the landscape.

So here she was again, carving out the same path for what seemed like the hundredth time. She felt like it got easier every time, like she was getting farther and farther each time around, but there wasn’t the clearest ways of knowing. Just like the undergrowth seemed to re-flourish, any markings or carvings made into the trees would be healed too. Daron had tried to do exactly that before and she wasn’t able to find the marking she made the next day.

Today felt different, though. The plants seemed to honestly fall away easier than usual; she usually had to hack at them for a few minutes before being able to break through. It felt as easy as cutting grass this time. Being grateful for the break, Daron tried not to dwell on it, taking her blessings as they came. Thank you, Devr, she thought with a small smile. Hopefully her energy wouldn’t go to waste.

She continued her task for a couple hours longer, stopping for a break every so often before continuing her exploration of the forest. As time passed, Daron moved farther and farther away from the sunlight at the entrance of her path. Sunlight still filtered through the canopy, but it wasn’t nearly as bright as outside the forest. She soon saw a bright patch through the trees; she assumed it was a clearing in the forest. She was excited - this was something new!

Daron continued cutting her way through the forest, rapidly approaching the clearing. She was keen on seeing what could be there - whether it was a simple open field, something decrepit, or by some chance, another person’s camp. It was considerably quiet in the area; bugs were trilling in the heat, but the birds didn’t seem to be around.

As she broke through, she observed the area. It was interesting; it was open and grassy, but the vast majority of the trees surrounding the area were completely covered in viney overgrowth. That was the first thing that caught her attention, before she looked around more and noticed that the grass appeared to be cut down in a small area. She cautiously held her machete at her side as she approached the clearing, wondering what would’ve created it.

Eventually Daron saw that there was someone laying there, in the middle of it all. They were laying on the ground, on a pile of vines. They didn’t react when Daron approached; she wondered if they were dead, or asleep. Only one way to find out, she wondered, boldly stepping towards the person. As she got closer she noticed that not only were they laying on the vines, but that they were also intertwined in the plants as well. She put her hand on their shoulder and gently shook.

“Hey… Hello? Are you okay?” Daron asked, concerned. In a split second she realized she didn’t need to be at all - the person snapped awake in a moment, thoroughly alarmed by the touch. A few incomprehensible moments later, Daron found herself held in place by the vines with this strange person a yard away, looking at her in bewilderment. They immediately shot off questions: “Who are you? What are you doing here? How did you find me?”

Daron frowned at them. She pulled one of her arms from the vines that held her, but couldn’t move. "I thought you were dead! You were just laying there in the field.” She said, clearly upset. In the sudden frenzy, her machete had been knocked out of her hand and was laying on the ground now. Daron looked at it before looking back at the stranger.

“I’m not going to hurt you. My name is Daron.” She told them. They gave her a suspicious look, still clearly anxious, and did not respond. “Will you tell me your name? …Are you controlling these vines?” Daron asked.

The strange person gave her another look before responding. “Yes, I am. My name is Sheridan. You still didn’t say how you found me.”

Daron sighed. So she would have to play by their rules, as long as she was held by these plants… so she had to oblige their questions. “I don’t understand what you mean. You say that like I meant to find you,” Daron started, “I was just cutting down plants in the forest to explore, and I found this clearing, and I saw you. What’s your problem?” She was clearly bitter about the situation at hand.

Sheridan squinted at her before stepping towards Daron, leaning down and picking up her machete. “I have… reasons… to be paranoid. And I’m not totally convinced, considering you dropped this when I restrained you,” they said, widely gesturing with it.

Daron raised an eyebrow at them, looking down at the plants holding her in place, and then looking at Sheridan again. “Uh… I don’t think you have very much to be afraid of, here.” She said.

Sheridan contemplated on her comment, nodding when they realized and agreed that they clearly had the upper hand. The vines on Daron grew slack.

Daron flexed her arm, popping a joint. That was certainly one of the more unpleasant experiences of her life. She turned to Sheridan again. “Can I have my machete back, or are you going to threaten me with my own weapon?” She asked.

Sheridan shook their head. “No. Not yet. I don’t trust you,” they said, still watching her. “You cannot leave until we come to an agreement.” They told her.

Daron gave her a questioning look. “And… why is that?” She asked. Sheridan gestured for her to sit down, vines crawling across the ground to offer a softer seat than dirt. They sat first, and spoke after Daron did the same.

“Because I am a protector. You, Daron, should not have even found me in the first place. It’s dangerous if I let you just go tell the world about me… or any others like me.” Sheridan began. Daron felt a vine wrap around her leg. “I control these plants; I protect this forest, and everything inside it. I have noticed and seen you coming into this forest; I am the one who prevented your entrance. My own negligence has put me in this situation.”

Daron gave them a strange look, seeming skeptical. “You’re the reason I’ve had so much trouble? You’re the reason that the plants grow back, that the trees heal their markings?” She asked, baffled.

Sheridan nodded. “It’s my purpose to protect this place, excuse me, from nosy people like you. This forest is full of secrets that should be left to rot, not sought out for gain,” they told her. “The things I’m talking about are the things that made me like this.” They said, gesturing, a variety of vines moving in response.

The pieces started falling into place for Daron. Something had happened to Sheridan, here, and they regrew the forest to prevent people from finding it, and using it again. Being as she was, this only sparked more of her curiosity. “If you want me to just be quiet and leave, then we’re going to have a problem… but I’m willing to make a deal with you.” Daron said, ideas lining up.

Sheridan gave her another suspicious look. They hated getting caught with an adventurer like this - the kind that wouldn’t give in, the kind that wanted something in exchange. They sighed, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to get out of this the same as Daron was stuck here until they finished. “Fine. What do you have in mind?” Sheridan asked.

“For one, I want to know - and see - what you’re talking about. The vagueness has caught my interest. And second of all - I don’t want to leave here empty handed. I’ve been coming out here for weeks with nothing to show for it.” Daron said, excitement in her eye. She was finally finding something new.

Sheridan was silent for a while, considering what Daron said. They finally spoke up. “I will agree to this, but not for today,” they started, looking at the sky. The sun was nearing the treetops, getting lower with every passing moment. “You can come back here. I will meet you here, early tomorrow, and I will show you.” they told Daron. Sheridan reached down and picked a stem of rispere flowers from their vines, handing it to Daron as they said, “this is all I can give you for today.”

It felt like a sweet sentiment to Daron. She stood up from the ground, offering a hand to help Sheridan back up too. They took her hand and was swiftly pulled back to their feet. Sheridan handed Daron back her machete, believing they could trust in her now.

“Thank you, Sheridan,” Daron said, uncertain. She sheathed the machete in her belt. “I should leave now.” She said, looking towards the quickly darkening sky. Sheridan nodded.

“I will see you tomorrow, Daron.” They responded as Daron receded into the forest. The path she had cleared on her way in was still open as she left, and she managed to leave much faster than she entered. She was thankful to Sheridan for not regrowing the path.