Squall was faced with a difficult reality in fighting Atlas. Without the assassin, Squall would have been dead three years ago.
It was a surprise for Atlas as well. How could he have known that this man, who three years ago was hunting rats in the sewers to survive – would rise to command a major wasteland power?
A lopsided grin split Squall’s features. “Do you regret it?”
Atlas grip tightened around Malady, but his voice was unreadable. “I just feel pity for the person who saved you.”
Squall chuckled. “How do you know how he thinks if you aren’t him?”
Atlas’ eyes followed Squall’s allies as they closed in, unblinking. “Are you going to try and kill me?”
“I don’t want you as my enemies, but I can’t let Woodland Vale fall into anyone else’s hands. If you insist on trying to stop me, then I’ll be forced to bite the hand that once fed.”
Ruthlessness and savagery played on Squall’s face, but there was conflict as well. He’d lost a lot over the years, to the point where it’d start to make him numb. He was finding it easier and easier to shed whatever morals he had left.
Cloudhawk or Atlas, it didn’t matter. If they stood in his way, better to deal with them now.
He saw it in Squall’s eyes. His heart and mind had been stepped in darkness, determined to kill. He was beyond the point of saving.
But Atlas had never seen someone change so dramatically over such a short time. What happened to the young man that caused him to so thoroughly lose himself to darkness? What hatred made him willing to sacrifice everything?
“It seems I made a mistake.” Atlas spoke slowly, his voice low almost as though he were speaking to himself. “Today I will rectify it. At least it’s not yet too late.”
Squall responded with a tepid chuckle, but smoldering ferocity twisted his youthful features. “You think you can handle me? Hehe...”
Raven acted. His wrist folded back to reveal a barrel, and a tempest of lead quickly followed!
Under sustained fire from Raven’s heavy gunfire, even a person who specialized in physical hardiness like Eckard would be overwhelmed – much less Atlas. A man could be made of iron and still be blown to pieces.
Atlas was nimble enough to dodge, but if he did it would leave Cloudhawk exposed to the gunfire. He couldn’t move. Instead he left it to Malady.
He hacked the sword through the air, sending a hundred shredding waves of energy forth. They were so numerous and so fast it was hard to follow their passage. None of his foes had seen a sword used so rapidly.
Atlas had created a wall of protection in front of him through expert use of his weapon. If someone threw a pot of ink at him, not a single drop would pass to strike his body. Of all the talented youth of his generation, only Atlas was this quick.
The air was alive with sparks. The ground between Raven and Atlas was ruined from blade and bullet. Onlookers stared in shock at the display.
A brief lull allowed Atlas to react, and with an almost imperceptible flash he launched into an attack. Raven was quick, though, and raised his cloak of steel feathers defensively. Malady racked against the cloak, leaving no damage. As fast as the assassin was, Atlas’ weakness was obvious. He didn’t have the strength to force his way through a stalwart defense. His relics were focused on speed and stealth, not direct confrontation.
Raven swung his other arm around and belched a grenade from his wrist, which Atlas knocked away. A shuddering explosion quickly followed which knocked him back several meters and wounded him with the shrapnel.
Cloudhawk was watching from the corner of his eye and felt his heart sink. Squall was using the fact that Atlas was forced to protect him for an advantage. Despicable – Squall had said he was disappointed in Cloudhawk’s choices, but his wicked deeds were what was disappointing.
Cloudhawk shouted in anger, “What happened to your conscience, Squall!”
The leader of the Highwaymen showed no reaction, no remorse.
At Raven’s command, his technological fighting force joined the fray. They hefted their massive weapons and aimed them toward Atlas and Cloudhawk. Both men felt the air shift as a sense of danger filled their minds. They were alone – Dawn’s Terrangelica didn’t work this close to the door, and she was beset by the invading forces. Frost and Selene were warring with others, and everyone else was fighting for their lives.
Cloudhawk called to Atlas. “Hey, forget about me and get yourself the hell out of here!”
Although the two men were far from friendly, but in contrast to Frost he at least had some respect for the assassin. At least their relationship was clear, and they treated each other like men. Cloudhawk also wasn’t convinced Squall would really kill him.
Raven’s men pulled their triggers.
With only his sword to protect him, Atlas could brandish it twice as fast as before and still get hit. And he did; bullets found purchase in his chest, arms, abdomen – even his face. With each successive hit his defenses failed even more.
Cloudhawk couldn’t face it. “Are you fucking stupid?! Run!”
Atlas didn’t budge. This was his mission.
Ever since he was small, the assassin had undergone strict training. He was raised less like a human and more like a machine. To Atlas, he only had worth when he completed his assigned task. Today, that task was to stop the wastelanders from entering Woodland Vale by any means necessary. Part of that was supporting the Elysian forces, and he would not abandon them even if it meant his life.
Apprehension tore at Cloudhawk’s heart, undermining his focus. He had to get this door open!
Everyone reeled as suddenly a thunderous blast shook the ground!
The earth quaked much stronger than anything Terrangelica had produced before, as everyone turned to face a blast of energy that ripped through the canyon.
Ethereal blue light sprang to life in the eyes of the statues beside the door.
The statues’ eyes… what was happening?!
Fighting stopped as all attention was turned to the statues. Their enormous pikes stabbed suddenly at the crowd that had gathered by their feet, slaying a dozen wastelanders in the blink of an eye.
Incredible! These things could move!
Shocked and incredulous eyes watched as the statues came to life and pulled themselves forward. The spears they wielded – so thick several men together couldn’t wrap their arms around one – raked across the ground. Men were sent flying, in whole or in pieces, as the statues swept them away like refuse.
These enormous sculptures were too large, too destructive for anyone to contend with.
Despite the alarm Cloudhawk felt, he nonetheless recognized that this was part of Woodland Vale’s defenses. The door must have felt Cloudhawk’s fear and impatience, sensed the danger he was in. The statues were its response, dispatched to clear the threat.
Amazing… were these also left by the Vale’s patron, the Shepherd?
Massive pikes were thrust toward Squall’s location. Both he and Three-Eyed Spider who stood nearby threw themselves out of the way. Three-Eyed Spider, a wasteland scientist, had never seen such a miraculous event. His third eye popped open and fixed on the statues – stone, nothing but stone. How could they move like living things?!
“Deal with it, quickly!”
In the face of these mighty defenders, Raven was forced to turn his offense away from Atlas and toward this new danger. A volley of grenades were launched at the stone figures, scarring their surface but otherwise dealing no damage.
They were too big, and too sturdy. While their movements were clumsy, they were made of solid rock, so normal weapons were limited in what they could accomplish.
Squall burst into action. He leaped onto one of the spears and followed it up to the statue’s shoulder. As he charged forward, his left arm glowed with infernal power just before ramming his fist into the statue’s face.
A chunk of the monolith’s cheek split and fell away, but it didn’t seem to faze it. These defenders had no vulnerabilities, he could shatter their stony skulls and it would make no difference.
The sudden addition of these creatures to the battle sent trepidation rippling through the wastelanders. Suddenly the Elysians felt the pressure ease considerably.
All the while, light continued to diffuse through the stone door like the branches of a tree. Ten seconds more and it would start to react.
Atlas was hunched but still standing at Cloudhawk’s back, wounded in a dozen places. Thanks to his quality armor, none of the wounds were too serious. Squall and several of his allies were distracted by the statues, but that wasn’t the end of his troubles.
There were still the two Barren Kings to contend with.
“A true masterwork of the old gods. If the door is this magnificent, I ache to know how wonderful the world beyond it is.” Toad’s hideous face was twisted and foul, like melted wax. As he watched the statues, he croaked toward his companion in black. “But first, to deal with the Elysians. Shall you go first, or shall I?”
Canker answered by stepping forward, and raising his arms. The large sleeves drooped but nothing could be seen from inside but an inky darkness.
Suddenly, that darkness writhed free from the confines of the robe.
The fog spread quickly, created an orb of perfect darkness four or five meters in diameter. It was a strange and perfect darkness, like thick ink drawn together in an orb that filled their vision. From deep inside they could hear a faint buzz.
Atlas hesitated. He’d never seen anything like this. Wastelanders couldn’t be demonhunters… this attack had to be some kind of mutation, coming from the body of the mutant himself. But what kind of terrible power was this? Whatever it was, it would stop when the mutant’s head was cut off!
Atlas moved so quickly he became a streak of dull light. All corporeal material in his wake was cleaved apart, including the rotten body of the creature in black. It slopped to the ground in two cleanly severed halves.
Toad watched as his companion was felled and shook with gloating laughter. “Ah, Canker. How could you let this whelp get the better of you?”
The two pieces of Canker floated back into the air like shards of torn paper and fused back together. The black-robed mutant stood before them like nothing had happened, and the orb of darkness he’d summoned was undisturbed. A strange and measured voice hissed from the darkness of the robes. “His blade is too fast.”
Atlas’ image reappeared several meters away.
He knew his blow had struck, he felt it as he cut the mutant in two. But it didn’t seem to do anything… How?
An odd feeling drew Atlas attention to his weapon, where some residual darkness clung to the blade. When he looked closer, he saw that the darkness was actually infinitesimally small insects. 
That black fog was made of a huge number of minute insects. They crawled over his weapon after he’d racked it through the mist.
Atlas watched in shock as the tiny bugs gnawed at his weapon, quickly covering the blade. Of course Malady was a mighty relic, and no amount of insects was going to damage it. However he soon discovered that his cloak was also covered in them, so he ripped it off and threw it to the ground.
He watched as it was devoured before his eyes.
The mass of black insects was spreading and dissolved the cloak like acid. It didn’t take long for the clothing to vanish entirely, leaving only a nauseating smell behind.
Canker’s insects had brief life spans but powerful corrosive properties. When that acidic substance was released they dissolved and devoured anything they touched, making them incredibly deadly.
“You demonhunters… did you expect us wastelanders to collapse at the first blow? Perhaps today you will learn our real power!” Toad’s raspy and unsettling voice called out again. “Canker! Stop wasting time. We fight him together.”
1. Oh damn you guys, he’s fighting Oogie Boogie! As an aside, Tipsy was clever in his naming choice here and with this new reveal I’ve decided to make a change. In Chinese his name is 黑蚀, ‘black Canker’ or ‘black corrosion.’ At the time, all we knew about him was that he was pitch black, which made Eclipse seem like the proper choice. However, now that we see bugs are involved it makes things more complicated. The character for insect is 虫, which we can see nestled in the second half of Canker’s name. Interestingly that character – 蚀 – is a combination of 虫 and 饣which is the radical for eat! So eat bugs! In addition to Canker, 蚀 also means ‘canker’, and with the whole bug angle and their corrosive abilities I chose Canker to allude to cankerworms and the imagery of sickly dissolving.