The agonizing pain of the insect bites gradually subsided.
It was the flowers the whole time. The beautiful, trumpet-shaped blooms were another one of the mausoleum’s defensive measures. Something in its scent had invaded their minds and produced visions – terrible, realistic visions. All four of Claudia’s novices were currently unconscious. Butcher, Gabriel, Barb and Autumn were drenched in a cold sweat. Even Cloudhawk and the old man had only narrowly escaped going mad.
What a psychic assault. The intensity of it proved the danger they were in by being here.
Cloudhawk quickly looked over Azura who was clutching to his side. She was frightened and pale, but unharmed. She’d recognized the insects even before Cloudhawk had. The small girl continued to impress.
“Are you alright?” He asked nervously.
Azura was wringing her tiny hands, feeling for where a bug had started to nibble at her. No mark could be seen however, so she bit her bottom lip and nodded assuringly. She didn’t want Cloudhawk to be concerned.
The old man’s face was hard as stone. “What happened?”
Cloudhawk looked around at the petals of Claudia’s Tempest Flower still floating through the air. Ruined petals carpeted the floor, a fact he took heart in. “The flowers let off a scent that weakened our will and psyche. It induced mental collapse that puts its victims into a coma. If we let it go on much longer the consequences would have turned us all into mindless vegetables.”
After a few moments, the young demonhunters began to come around.
Rei startled awake and immediately began slapping at her body. Her eyes were wide and wild in her pale face as she cried in a trembling voice. “Bugs! B-bugs! So many bugs!”
Her constitution wasn’t as strong as the others, so she hadn’t fully recovered yet. That all-consuming fog of fear was still hanging over her mind like a nightmare she couldn’t wake up from.
Belinda looked to be in a bad way, but managed to force a weak smile. She tried her best to look nonchalant. “It was a pretty convincing trick. Hmph. Sure gave me an early taste of what death is like – but a silly ploy like that isn’t enough to put me down.”
Crain and Tigron were the last to awaken. The encounter had caught them off guard, and they had no way to protect themselves. Thankfully, however, their torture was brief. A demonhunter’s mental strength was far stronger than your typical person, so over time they recovered without issue.
Cloudhawk spared a glance for Autumn. “Hey, you’re supposed to be one of the local leaders, right? Obviously you had no idea what was going on since you almost fell for it yourself. Doesn’t make much sense to me.”
“I’m not a leader for my people, not entirely. Only true elders know about this place,” shot shot back. But something did feel odd, so she continued with a lower voice. “I’ve never been inside the mausoleum, but every few years our people do come here to make sacrifices to the Shepherd. This… has never happened before. It must be a trap set by the elder.”
“There’s a whole lot of unexpected stuff going on in this valley.” Cloudhawk paused, absorbed in thought. They were here already, and even though the elder was prepared for them they still had to push forward. He cast another look around the sacrificial chamber. “I don’t see an exit. How are we supposed to get into the mausoleum?”
Autumn made her way to one of the sacrificial alters. Pressing her hands together and muttering a few words, she suddenly cut a gash in her wrist. Hot, fresh blood dripped onto the root and stone. It was quickly swallowed up, and the roots that her blood touched shimmered with strange red script. The crimson lines wound a path forward and everything vine it passed through came alive. Writhing like snakes, they slithered aside to reveal a large yet strange delicate stone doorway.
The others watched in wonder. No ordinary person could open the way to a god’s mausoleum.
Cloudhawk felt that his teleportation abilities were useless, too. Some kind of powerful energy hung over the entirety of this place. Only one with the blood of the tribe’s leaders or some holy relic could reveal the path.
The stone door slowly opened. A stuffy wind heavy with mystery and foreboding filled the chamber.
It swung back to reveal a passage way that was deep and wide. Like everywhere else its walls were lined with creeping vines and glowing fruit. Dim light illuminated the path as it continued into the heart of the tree like a pathway to some other realm.
As the doorway was revealed to her, Autumn’s pretty face glowed with devotion. Her hands pressed together before her chest, she knelt and prostrated herself before the altar three times while whispering prayers.
“Great Shepherd, please forgive me for disturbing your eternal rest.”
Cloudhawk was growing impatient. “Let’s go, don’t waste time. We have places to be.”
Oddball dashed into the newly opened tunnel, a streak of golden light. It was back a moment later having made sure the coast was clear. Everyone began to file in.
Each step they took further into the tree increased the sense of mystery and peculiarity. They couldn’t shake the sensation that something was watching them. And it was more than possible – this was the burial place of the valley’s ancient godly patron. All manner of secrets were likely interred here.
Punctuating this, the small group felt a wave of unease pass through them. Something unnatural. They were nervous, and on alert.
When they reached the end, Autumn put the Shepherd’s flute to her lips and blew. As before, the vines slithered away to grant passage into a chamber beyond.
It was the tombs antechamber, a space twice as large as the sacrificial hall they’d just come from. What immediately caught everyone’s attention was the tree situated in the center of the room.
It was a strange thing in many ways. For one, the fact that it was here at all was odd. What’s more it looked nothing like any tree they’d seen before. Maybe a dozen rectangular boxes that looked like coffins were nestled in its boughs and had started to grow into the bark itself. It was a macabre kind of cemetary.
Foreboding hung over Cloudhawk like a wet blanket. “What’s this tree called?”
Autumn faced the pitch-black tree with her hands folded devoutly. She spoke in hushed and reverent tones. “It’s the Charnel Tree. It guards and watches over the elders of the past. When they die, our elders are buried here inside the Charnel Tree so that they can spend eternity protecting the mausoleum.”
Her explanation left the rest of them speechless. What kind of bizarre custom was this?
Autumn paid their strange looks no mind. She shut her eyes and began to pray.
Cloudhawk had only grown more intolerant but was forced to suppress his complaints. He knew that not all of the Vale’s elders were like the one hiding here. What little he knew of Woodland Vale was that the head elder was chosen by popular vote, whereas other elders were determined by blood lineage. The bodies in that petrified tree were Autumn’s ancestors.
If her ancestors were going to make their power felt, he sure as hell didn’t want to upset them.
Autumn’s lengthy prayer came to end. She opened her eyes, looking upon the tree with a conflicted expression on her pretty face. Her sigh stirred the stagnant air. “Let’s continue on.”
They walked in, intending to go around the tree to the exit beyond. But as they got close Gabriel muttered an unsettling observation. “The coffins are moving.”
Much to their surprise he wasn’t kidding. Everyone stopped dead in their tracks. At the same time, Cloudhawk sensed a faint resonance coming from the tree. He watched as the entire tree began to shudder and the sound of ghostly cries rose from it. Fear gripped them. And then – crash!
One after the other, wooden coffins cradled in the tree’s branches fell to the ground. Every one of them hit the ground vertically like wooden tombstones.
Vibrations continued to tickle at Cloudhawk’s senses, but he still didn’t know what strange power this artifact was summoning. He turned to Autumn, searching for an answer, but she shook her head and just stared in fear at the scene. She had no idea what was happening. All she knew about the Charnel Tree was that it was here to protect the Vale. Why was it reacting this way?
“Son of a bitch, the dead are coming back to life?! We should’ve fuckin’ known nothing good would come from skulking around a tomb. Get ready to fight!”
Punctuating his words, the coffin closest to them burst open in a cloud of splinters. What stumbled out from inside was something like a human, but nearly two meters tall. It wore no clothing and the ancient skin was mostly replaced with knotted bark. Its features were indistinguishable.
Some sort of… mutant? No. That wasn’t right.
Thrumming relic power hung wafted off the gnarled humanoid in waves. No signs of consciousness were evident, but sensing the presence of an intruder it came alive like some sort of grotesque guard dog. Gurgling noises rumbled in its throat as it shambled forward.
Autumn was frozen in place. The scene playing out before her was unthinkable, a scene that wouldn’t feature in her darkest dreams. Pale as a sheet, she watched as her ancestors came to life as puppets under the tree’s command.
W-why…? This was supposed to be a place of honorable repose!
Belinda wasted no time with words. She summoned an orb of fire into her hands and flung it into the face of the closest creature. They were slow at first, but picked up speed as their old joints remembered how to move. As the light of Belinda’s fireball lit up its face, flesh from the defender’s left shoulder burst open with a splurt! Vines slithered free from within and entwined to create a shield. The fireball struck it and burned away harmlessly.
Cloudhawk scowled at what he was seeing. “Gabby, deal with this thing.”
At this command, Gabriel drew himself up and lifted his arms. Threads thin as a spider silk tangled around his fingers. Yet when the shambler saw him coming its right hand spat out stabbing vines, sharp as a switchblade.
Gabriel was a capable fighter. He dodged the piercing vines then planted his hands on the creature’s arms.
He pulled back, taking both of the beast’s arms with him.
They twitched and jerked on the ground even without a body to command them, like fish out of water. As for the monster itself, long roots were extending from the severed limbs to replace them.
Gabriel didn’t give it quarter. His infinitely sharp threads wrapped around their target and tightened. The monster’s body, though tough as steel, was carved into pieces like it was made of bean curd.
Was it finished? The question was on everyone’s mind as they stared at the heap of bark and flesh.
Confirming their doubts, the pieces of the shambler continued to move. Roots and vines reached out from each chunk and wrapped around one another to pull the pieces back together. It took only a matter of seconds for it to pick itself up from the ground. What’s more, it had morphed in a grotesque and terrible way. It was easily three or four meters tall now, with arms four or five meters long. Thin roots connected its top and bottom halves like the trunk of a horrific tree. Head, arms and body jerked irregularly in an unsettling and unnatural fashion.
It continued to gather itself together. Only a few moments more and all of Gabriel’s efforts would be reversed. The grim realization struck them all at the same time – this thing couldn’t be killed! Worse, other coffins were starting to open as well. Gnarled hands shoved the wooden lids open and stepped into the chamber, creatures that had once been men and women but now were indescribable horrors.
Cloudhawk watched wide-eyed, and as he did a sickening sense of familiarity flashed through his brain along with a single word.
1. Here’s a reminder.