This burrow was different from the others they’d encountered. Instead of rocks, the entire structure – from floor to walls to ceiling – was all composed of tree roots. Layer upon layer of them tightly intertwined and stretching deep into the earth. As the small party made their way, they couldn’t help but appreciate the strange fact.
Suddenly, everything around them shook.
The root tunnel undulated like the bowels of some giant beast, and they were just a meal waiting to be digested. Cloudhawk called out a warning to the others. “Careful, trap!”
He words came half a second before black roots shot out from the walls. They writhed and struck like poisonous vipers, like deadly thorns. The bodies of the roots were black as night with the only exception being their pointed tip. Those were a bright crimson. Cloudhawk didn’t need to experience it to know they were capable of turning a human body into a meat skewer.
Belinda shouted after him. “The exit is gone!”
Cloudhawk craned his neck around and discovered that the roots had coiled together, conspiring to cut off their escape. He caught a glimpsed just as they spiraled shut, blocking out the last bit of outside light. Suddenly darkness enveloped them. But even without sight everyone could feel the cramped root tunnel beginning to constrict.
Nervously Barb called through the darkness. “What are we going to do?”
If they weren’t impaled by the roots then they would be crushed by them. Barb had found herself in several difficult spots over the years, but none this dangerous.
“This has to be some kind of defense measure set by the elder, to stop people from coming in. The roots are prepared to kill anyone who tries to come in from the outside.” Autumn had never entered the forbidden area, so she didn’t know how to proceed. She fumbled the flute from her robes, put it to her delicate lips and blew. Her consciousness focused on the artifact, concentrating on a single command. Retreat!
And then, everything stopped. Grasping tree roots fell still. Like obedient soldiers they drew back to open the passage forward.
Everyone breathed an audible sigh of relief. Thanks to Autumn’s quick thinking they survived what otherwise would have been a deadly circumstance and could proceed.
“The elder is definitely inside the mausoleum. He probably knows we’re here.” Autumn’s face was stern and serious. “I’m not sure what other traps or dangers we’ll find, and the enemies are hidden while we are exposed.”
It wasn’t like they had a choice. Outside dragons roamed the skies and patrolled the area around the Godtree.
“It’s just a tomb. Even if there are traps it can’t be worse than fighting a few hundred dragons, right?” Cloudhawk tried to stay logical. He turned a curious eye to the old drunk. “By the way, I saw you fighting that obnoxious preacher. You blasted right through a whole storm of fire. Since when did you become so strong?”
The old man arrogantly rolled his eyes at the question. “You haven’t seen a tenth of what I could do. That was just a little trick. But I had help from Miss Autumn, a little something she gave me to eat which has some surprising benefits.”
Cloudhawk then looked to Autumn. “You got awesome stuff like that here, too? I’ll have some of what he’s having. I should get something back for all the hard work I’m doing, right?”
This rascal has the nerve to even open his mouth! Did he think the boon she gave to the old man was just some ordinary food? It was a precious medicine, gifted to them a thousand years ago by their god. Only a few doses existed, and the main reason Autumn offered it to the drunk was to motivate him.
He was… sloppy, so say the least. But at least he was not a bad man. There was nothing evil in appreciating alcohol.  With the Vale’s resources and influence he could spend the rest of his days chasing the bottle of a wine barrel. At the time it was simple: Convince him to stay, and it would mean a lot for the safety of their home. She could not have anticipated the situation in Woodland Vale would have become so dire, so quickly.
As for Cloudhawk, she didn’t want him here even though she’d asked for his help. Wasn’t he part of the turmoil that had come to her people?
Of course it was just habitual bullshit on Cloudhawk’s part. It didn’t matter how fine the medicine was, it wouldn’t have much of an effect on him. Chalk it up to a passing interest on hearing what it had done for the old man.
Barb picked up on something and pressed him about it. “What are you thinking, Excellency?”
Cloudhawk turned back to the drunk. “Whose condition is worse, yours or the Crimson One’s?”
He answered honestly. “It’s a miracle I’m still alive. While the Crimson One’s injuries do impact his abilities, it didn’t stop him from nearly wiping us all out in the wastelands. So you tell me, who’s in worse shape?”
This was a problem.
If it had such great effect for the drunkard, could the same medicine be used on the Crimson One to make him whole again? If he returned to full strength as a Master Demonhunter, he would be the greatest weapon in all of the wastelands!
No more time for talk. The group continued deeper into the burrow.
It eventually empties out into a wide area with several colorful vines. Each one was laden with gently glowing fruit which was just bright enough to illuminate the space.
As they spread out from the small opening, stunned eyes look out over the thousands of intertwined roots which composed this chamber. It was the end of the tunnel, no other exit was visible.
Cloudhawk slowly walked further in. Something tickled at him, a sense of unease.
Situated in the center of the tree root temple were several altars, each one embraced by the roots that built this place. Unless he was mistaken, this was some sort of sacrificial chamber used by ancient priests in service of their Shepherd god. They hadn’t gotten to the mausoleum proper yet.
Cloudhawk opened his mouth to speak when suddenly he was stopped by the faintest nose off to one side. He spun toward the source. As they entered a flower had sprouted from between the vines.
It was a beautiful, brightly-colored bloom that looked something like a Morning Glory.
What Cloudhawk had heard was the bud opening. It was quickly followed by thousands more as flowers sprouted all around in some sort of fantastical welcome. It had to be galvanized by some kind of mysterious power, which lent the beautiful scene an ominous undercurrent.
“What is this…?” Cloudhawk had never seen anything like this. Yet even before he could finish the thought, plumes of some black substance began to seep from the walls. It flowed down to the floor, dark as ink, and spread in all directions.
“Bugs! Ah! They’re bugs!” Azura’s tiny scream filled the chamber.
Millions – possibly billions of small insects poured from the walls and skittered along the ground. Each one was about the size of a fingernail and were covered in pitch black chitinous armor. Tiny scarlet eyes blinked in the dim light of the chamber.
Crain took a swipe at a group of them with his exorcist rod. The ones he managed to catch exploded into sickening paste, but it only served to upset those around it. Wings popped from their backs and the insects rose up around their attacker.
“Aaarrgghh!” Crain screamed as the small black creatures encased him. Tigron rushed forward to try and help him, but was immediately swallowed up as well when he got close. The bugs squeezed through gaps in their leather armor, biting at their flesh, burrowing through their skin, digging through their eyes and up their noses.
The others looked on in helpless terror. What sort of insects were these?!
Cloudhawk yanked Azura to his side and covered her with his cloak. He shouted at Autumn. “Hey! Do something, make them stop!”
Autumn was frozen stiff. She had never been here, and like most Valites knew almost nothing about this place. She didn’t know what to do. What were these vicious, bloodthirsty monsters doing in the belly of the Godtree? She hadn’t even heard of insects like this.
Belinda couldn’t stand idly by any longer. Her hands rose, summoning an orb of fire which she flung at the cloud of bugs.
As the intense heat consumed several thousand of them, they watched as an unexpected scene unfolded. Many were consumed by the fire, their shells cracked and their innards boiled. However, a group of them seemed to gather the flames into their carapace and begin to glow. They hung in the air and skittered over the blow like fireflies.
One of them landed on Belinda and exploded, spitting fire across her skin. She yelped in a panic and started slapping at the spreading fire. “Sarge, help me!”
Claudia wanted to, but it was too late. She watched in horror as countless insects landed on her charge and detonated. Before she could blink the young woman was completely ablaze, flailing impotently. She screamed until her vocal chords were charred and fell into the insects, which quickly swarmed her body.
There were too many. Rei tried to escape but quickly succumbed, falling into the horde. She vanished beneath the black bodies.
Butcher was madly brandishing his war hammer, but for every batch he squished more were skittering along his flesh. They’d torn through his flesh already, but the madman’s tolerance for pain kept his standing.
Barb, Autumn… even the drunk and Cloudhawk felt the beetles’ bite. Even though they couldn’t pierce the old man’s tough skin they were still a threat if they got in through his eyes, ears or nose. There were too many important areas to protect, even the strongest person would be overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. They had no way to fight back.
What could they do? What!
Cloudhawk desperately clung to Azura while the evil bugs bug ate his flesh. Some had started to dig inside, and one had entered his abdomen and was gnawing at his internal organs. It was nearly painful enough to make him pass out.
No! I can’t let this happen!
He took several panting breaths as his mind raced for a solution. That’s when he smelled it – a strange fragrance. Smell... it was the smell!
“Hold your breath! Everyone, hold your breath! It’s fake, an illusion!”
Cloudhawk took one more gulp of air and then held it, but the bugs still kept coming. Whatever was causing this had gotten into his brain, so it was too late to stop breathing it in. More and more of the bugs were digging into his body. He felt himself starting to lose consciousness, darkness creeping in on the edges of his vision.
“Claudia, attack the flowers!”
She jumped to action, summoning the strength of her Tempest Flower. Metallic petal burst through the chamber like a cutting rain. The offending flowers were shredded, petals fluttering to the ground in pieces. Moments later nothing remained on the root walls.
Gradually, the bugs began to disappear. They vanished into smoke like dew before the morning sun.
1. Interesting aside; alcoholism is a problem in China. A lot is changing with the new generation – mostly because of health concerns – but for the poorer areas and the older folk, excessive drinking has tremendous bearing and effect.
Cancer and stroke are the big killers in China today. Liver cancer, of which alcoholism plays a part, killed so many that accounts for fifty-one percent of Liver cancer deaths worldwide. Of course China has a lot of people so they do everything big, and much of that is also attributable to HBV, but the numbers are still staggering.
Then there’s stroke, which was responsible for 11% of all deaths in 2012 (and has increased since then). The combination of poor air quality, the prevalence of smoking, and alcohol consumption make it the third most deadly disease and highest debilitating disease in China. For stroke in particular, its deadly effects are historically catalogued in ancient Chinese medicine, which had many herbal formulae and healing methods to deal with the onset and sequelae of the disease (see Zheng Gan Xi Feng San, Xiao Huo Luo Dan respectively).
Drinking in China – like in many cultures – is deeply ingrained in society, to the point where there is no real concept at all of alcoholism. People can ‘drink too much’ but there is no such thing as the disease of alcoholism. As such, there is no treatment for those who suffer from its crippling effects (which includes psychotherapy, which is practically nonexistent in China). I remember during my time volunteering with villages that day drinking wasn’t just encouraged, it was required to show respect to village elders (as was smoking). Drinking – often to excess – is a staple, in fact a highlight, of the holidays. While this is slowly changing, it is likely that drinking too much will continue to be a health and societal risk in China for years to come.