The sound had come from a small clash. By the time Cloudhawk arrived at the scene, it had already finished.
He crouched up in the boughs of the giant trees with the ghost-faced mask pressed against his face. Peering through the leaves, he peeked at the scene before him.
Scar marks and bullet holes could be seen in the bark. Smaller shrubs and undergrowth had been trampled by something big. Corpses littered the grassy floor, some dressed as Elysians and some as wastelanders. But the wounds that had taken their lives were strange.
It wasn’t bullets or explosions that’d killed them, nor Skycloud arrows. He ruled out relics, too, based on the results he saw. The bodies were badly mangled by tooth and claw. Heads were cracked open like coconuts and their contents were conspicuously missing.
By the look of things, they were killed by some sort of terrible monster. The fight hadn’t lasted long, either. Whatever it was killed its prey quick, then consumed their brains.
When he was sure the coast was clear, Cloudhawk dropped down to inspect the battlefield more closely. Picking through the bodies, he recognized them as elite soldiers from both Skycloud and the wasteland. One of them wore badly damaged red robes.
Cloudhawk carefully followed the tracks and signs. He determined that the creature had snuck up on the expeditionary force in battle with the wastelander, and had attacked the Conclave priest first. The demonhunter was probably dead before he even knew what was happening. From there, the monster killed two more in quick succession. When the others saw what had happened they tried to fall back, but the beast gave chase and killed three more. Following the trails of blood, Cloudhawk found the rest half-eaten and buried in the underbrush a few meters away, killed before they could run very far.
Whatever this thing was, it was strong. It was somewhere close. He turned around and motioned for silence. Leaving Azura in a safe place, Cloudhawk then had Oddball scout around. With the stench of gore in its nostrils the little bird began its search.
Their target was big enough that its tracks were easily followed, especially for the bird’s keen eye. It followed the signs to an ancient cemetery, where a root system close to the surface had knotted together into a burrow. Inside was a strange, twisted thing.
Its entire body was green, and covered in scales. They were beautiful in their own way, like interlocking green gems. A long, serpentine body crouched on powerful legs, streamline and supple. Its head was crowned with a pair of short horns, and wings sprouted from the middle of its back that were large enough to give it the power of flight.
Cloudhawk murmured to himself. “What is a beast like this doing in Woodland Vale...”
It didn’t look mutated. The wastelands had big creatures of its own, but those were changed after a thousand years of alteration a harsh environment. Whatever cataclysm had ended the world, it had also compressed tens of thousands of years of evolution into a much shorter period.
There was a rule for the development of all living things – haste makes waste. Animals were no exception. Mutated creatures emerged with extra organs or physical structures, but the forced evolution caused flaws as well. Strange redundancies, unhelpful additions, and other negative changes. One could tell a mutated thing at a glance because it didn’t have the harmonious symmetry of a natural thing.
It was different here. Woodland Vale was isolated from the devastation that the rest of the world had suffered, and its creatures were not forced to rapidly adapt to a deadly atmosphere. What’s more, nothing about this creature looked out of sorts. The monster, in quiet repose within its lair, was obviously the product of continued evolutionary perfection over time. It was almost intuitive, completely separate from the beings of the wastes.
Cloudhawk was reminded of the reason Autumn left her perfect home. She had told him the Vale was under attack by a ferocious beast, one which was murdering her peaceful and defenseless people. With so many dead already, she’d been forced to seek answers out in the poisoned world beyond the stone door.
He’d seen what it had done to a group of hardened warriors. There was no doubt the monster was strong. He now had more than enough reason to believe Autumn’s story. This creature, with its powerful body and six-meter wingspan, had to be the monster she meant.
But it was strange. The Vale was closed off from the outside. How had a threat like this appeared only now?
The winged lizard sensed something. A pair of burning viridian eyes opened and immediately fixed on the little yellow bird flapping around its home. A thorny tongue, sharp as a rapier, shot from its maw to try and skewer the creature that had disturbed its slumber.
Oddball was taken by surprise. It hastily avoided the monster’s tongue and fled back toward Cloudhawk.
The brief interaction only proved that the monster was quick to anger. A sound somewhere between a hiss and a growl rattled from its throat like a hungry predator as it leaped from its burrow. Powerful wings beat once, twice, lifting it into the air with a speed to match Oddball’s.
“Blue, stay here. Stay as still as possible.”
Cloudhawk turned in the direction of the encroaching creature. He pulled Basilisk off his back, drew back its string, and released an arrow of energy through the forest.
Where it passed, leaves and branches withered and crumbled. They made gentle thuds as they hit the ground, completely petrified. The gray arrow brushed passed Oddball, toward the angry beast that was quickly gaining from behind.
But the creature was perceptive, and alert. It sensed the danger approaching.
Instinct forced its wings to beat harder and lifted the monster high, but the arrow still glanced off its back. The scales stopped the arrow from finding purchase, but their emerald hue turned into a rotten grayish-white.
The beast hit the ground, writhing in pain. Its back was already turning to stone.
Oddball returned safely to perch on its masters shoulder while Cloudhawk watched the beast suffer from a safe distance. It was a monster of explosive power, good at stealth, and was conveniently protected by a body encased in scales. No wonder it was so easily suppressing the human population here. It was no surprise how it had killed so many.
But Basilisk was deadly to any living thing. No flesh or organ could survive petrification.
Cloudhawk’s victory over the creature was more confusing to him than joyful. It was easily within the ability of Gabby or the others to put the thing down. Hell, Cloudhawk couldn’t take the old drunkard in a fight, so why hadn’t he handled this thing?
Azura cried out. “Careful, it isn’t dead!”
He hesitated, feeling the danger press in on him just as she gave her warning.
A flash of green, quick as a specter. It was too quick for Cloudhawk to defend himself and gave him no chance to. As the monster swooped toward him it lashed out first with its spear-like tongue for his head.
It was mighty enough to puncture iron plate, much less the comparatively brittle skull of a man.
Cloudhawk didn’t have time to dodge. Turning toward the tongue, his eyes went wide as the vision of his brainless corpse littering the jungle floor filled his mind. The creature struck, fast as lightning. Sparks flew and a ringing sound filled his ears.
Cloudhawk stumbled backward as stars filled his eyes, but otherwise he was unharmed. Never in his wildest dreams did he think the ghost mask would one day save his life in a manner like this.
His immediate reaction was to engage the phase stone and get away from the danger. When the monster reached its prey, dagger-like talons ripped through empty space, and the spry human had already threw itself off to its left. It answered with a furious screech, and when its long neck craned around the two made eye contact.
Green eyes met a pair of scarlet flames. Moments later, the fires had infected the creature’s own vision. Crushing pressure ensued, tearing claws through the beast’s mind. It wailed from the sudden pain and grew sluggish.
Cloudhawk lunged backward while drawing his bow. Basilisk continuously drew in energy.
Thrum! The arrow conveyed its curse to the beast’s foreleg, shoulder and lower jaw.
A blow like that was a death sentence to any mutant creature, but it seemed to have little effect on the flying serpent. It continued to howl in protest and swing around for another pass.
Catching a glimpse of its black, Cloudhawk saw that the scales of its back had returned to their normal vibrant green. His attacks hurt, but they weren’t having the intended effect.
It was somehow immune to the petrification curse of his bow. No matter how many times he shot it, the stone scales regained their luster. Without the benefit of its power, Basilisk was like any other normal bow.
How was it that this creature could resist the power of an artifact? Cloudhawk was stunned. He’d never seen anything like it.
The beast shook its head, clearing the invading flames from its mind. Regaining focus, it roared angrily at the irritating creature giving it so much trouble. Cloudhawk’s ability to claw into its mind would no longer work.
Cloudhawk’s mind raced, planning where to fire his next shot.
Before he could make his move, however, a large shadow like that of a giant bird swept over him. He only caught a glimpse of a lithe foot crashing down that thrashed the beast out of the air and into the ground. Its scales were unbroken, but the force had shattered its bones. The monster would not be rising again. With that, the newcomer approached and jabbed his metal staff against its head.
Its tough skull did not crack. However, the brains inside were immediately liquefied, then spewed from its eye sockets as those green orbs went dim and popped from their cavities. Two attacks from this man was all it’d taken to slay this indomitable creature.
“This is the only way to kill a dragon.”
The man who’d descended from on high to slay the dragon was a crippled old man. He was dressed in decrepit clothing that was more hole than garment, and his thin white hair sprouted like weeds from his head. One of his legs was atrophied, and when he grinned the old man revealed a maw of crooked yellow teeth. He looked like anything but a mighty warrior.
Cloudhawk looked at him surprise. “Boozer? You aren’t dead!”
The old drunk rolled his eyes and scowled. “You little prick, can you open your mouth without wishing death on someone?
Three more figures appeared from among the trees.
One was a lithe demonhunter with short brown hair, followed by a handsome blonde-haired youth with valiant features. The last was a beautiful young woman in an embroidered green dress whose ears drew up to a point.
Everyone was here. Cloudhawk breathed a sigh of relief.
The drunk caught sight of Azura while uncouthly excavating some earwax with a dirty finger. Curiosity in his voice, he spoke up. “Who’s the little one? Your bastard daughter?”
“Horseshit. She’s my disciple.”
“Makes sense, nothing you make could ever be this cute.” He casually threw his barbs at Cloudhawk while looking the girl over. “Bold to have a disciple when you don’t amount to much. Shameful, really.”
Cloudhawk wasn’t in the mood to trade insults with the crotchety asshole. He wanted to know what the fuck was going on.
Barb vomited her explanation all at once, doing just a passable job at describing their situation. Cloudhawk was having trouble following. This might have been avoided since Barb had left one of her relic needles with him when they parted. He could have used it to immediately know everything that was going on. However, they had not counted on the Vale’s otherwordly powers being so strong.
Upon entering the Vale, all of their relics were prevented from resonating with the outside world. Any attempts Barb made at trying to contact him through the needle failed. It was only after Cloudhawk had come into the Vale as well that Barb was able to pinpoint his location. She was the one who led the others here to find him.
As for what was going on here? Well, it was… complicated.
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