These creatures were similar to the protofiends Cloudhawk had encountered deep beneath Skycloud. Only, perhaps more complete – more like Blackfiend the Undying, or Seraphs.
Fiends and Seraphs. They were the same, in the end. Human-shaped relics.
Reputedly the creation of these creatures required the blood of a god or demon, hence their dramatic names . Presumably the rigors of their creation were demanding. At least it could be assumed, since there was no mention of vast quantities of either Seraphs or Fiends during the Great War.
The Charnel Tree had to be some sort of… incubator. A way to turn the bodies of the Vale’s ancestors into servile relics. In that way it wasn’t very different from the chrysalises the protofiends had come from, just older. Obviously it needed more time to do its work.
Dryads, they were called. And they used to be human. Elders, in fact, with varying levels of psychic and spiritual power. That made them fine material for Dryad creation. In other words, while the process of creating a Dryad was much longer than the protofiends beneath Skycloud, the final product was far more complete. More like Squall’s formidable Blackfiend – only, there were quite a few here now.
“Mother… Father. Elders! Why can’t you rest?!”
Panic stricken, Autumn stared in horror at the Dryads. She couldn’t really tell which of them were her parents, they were all featureless creations of old bone and bark. But they were there, part of this nightmare coterie. She felt a pang of despair that began smolder into anger.
“You were the leaders of our Vale! Servants of the Shepherd! Why have you been turned into the demons?!”
“Hey, calm down. They aren’t demons – they’re probably closer to your god now than they ever were.” Cloudhawk could only imagine how much of a blow this was to her, but they were in a dire mess and if Autumn lost her head they were done for. “They can’t think for themselves anymore so don’t scream yourself hoarse for nothing.”
But Autumn couldn’t accept this. These were people she loved and respected, changed into abominations that were neither human nor spirit.
“They’re just relics with human shapes. Like dolls!” Cloudhawk could feel the vibrations growing stronger in the Dryads with each passing moment. It felt identical to when he fought the protofiends. The cold sweat that trickled down his spine was familiar, too. “Stop them, you have to. Otherwise we’re all dead!”
Easier said than done. He didn’t have time to explain to her what he knew had happened, and he probably couldn’t even if he did. A few sentences were all he could manage as the Dryads began to close in on them.
Their bodies hummed with awakening energy. Vines sharp as spears were spat from unliving flesh toward them.
The old drunk’s face darkened in the same moment he summoned the power from his relic. Golden light arose from Dawnguard, sweeping out to meet the vines and blasted them apart. Haphazard attacks from the others followed, yet nothing could stop the Dryads.
Claudia jumped into the air and summoned the power of Tempest Flower. Scores of metallic petals exploded outward and dug into the Dryads’ bodies, peppering them with shrapnel.
Belinda flung fireball after fireball at anything that moved. Dryads burned, but never stopped their attack for an instant.
Now instead of tree people they were shambling pyres of wood and metal. No living creature would have withstood such a vicious combo, but the Dryads were unfazed.
Ignoring the biting metal and roaring flames, they continued to manipulate lashing roots toward the invaders. Those closest to them shuddered as clouds of spores were ejected from their bodies. Fires were instantly extinguished and the cloud spread out over the others.
“Watch out for poison!” They shuffled backward to keep themselves outside of the toxic cloud.
However, some of the spores managed to land on Rei’s lily-white face and neck. Blinding pain paired with a maddening itch immediately racked her nervous system. Lines of purple spread out from the point of contact, marring her fair skin as the poison sought an artery.
Evidently the spores produced their toxin quickly, and spread it just as fast. She screamed in agony and fell to the ground. Patches of repulsive, rough skin arose on Rei’s face and neck.
Raising his hammer high, Butcher roared and flung it at the Dryads. It spun end over end, striking the nearest one with thousands of pounds of force square the chest. Force equivalent to being crushed by an elephant blasted through it, causing the Dryad’s body to explode into pieces. Residual force from the impact actually knocked the other Dryads around it off their feet.
Useless. The mangled pieces of his victim’s body quickly reassembled.
The hammer returned to its owner, but it had brought some of the spores back with it. Butcher snatched his weapon back and felt it immediately as the spores settled onto his right hand. Even for him, the pain was almost more than he could ignore. It felt like fire coursing up the nerves of his arm, while purple fluid bubbled under the surface of newly forming malignant skin. The reactions were so fast he only had time to stare in shock.
Belinda understood what Butcher meant. She summoned her fire and put it to his arm. The smell and sound of scorching flesh filled the air, but it stopped the growth from expanding. Butcher watched his flesh burn black without even batting an eye, like pain wasn’t a sensation he could register.
Nearby, Barb and the Sutherland brothers were trying to fight off the Dryads with exorcist bows. Claudia pummeled them with a cutting rain of metal. Belinda flung her orbs of fire without pause. While the Dryads were particularly fast, nothing the invaders did slowed them down. Morale was quickly collapsing. They’d never fought enemies they couldn’t kill before.
Cloudhawk’s face grew darker with every step they were pushed backward. “Can you make them stop or not?!”
Autumn wasn’t an idiot, she was going to get them all killed if she didn’t try something.
She put her faith in the flute, her only recourse. Putting it to her lips she took a deep breath and blew, her mind fixed on a single thought: Stop! A pure note arose and hung in the air, washing over the Dryads. They stopped… but Autumn’s heart sank as half a beat later they resumed their forward trudge.
Anger had crept into Cloudhawk’s voice as his nerves began to fray. “That fucking useless piece of shit flute! Can it do anything?!”
Autumn felt her eyes burn as tears threatened to rise. She didn’t want this! They were under assault, and any minute they would be overrun. She didn’t know what to do!
Cloudhawk forced himself to be calm and look around. His keen eyes began to spot details, like the fact that the Dryads’ attacks were all avoiding Autumn.
Like… they didn’t see her at all. The Dryads were only trying to attack the people who weren’t supposed to be here.
Autumn had the blood of her ancestors, leaders of the tribe. They would allow her to pass unmolested. In fact, it was more than likely all of these troubles wouldn’t have happened if she’d come alone. At least she was safe, even if the others were increasingly likely to meet their deaths here.
The Dryads couldn’t be defeated. After all, humans only had so much stamina. It was foolish to try and win over a creature that could never tire, and never stop. Even a Master Demonhunter could run out of strength, so there was only one method left to try. Try to sever their connection to whatever power kept them alive. Cut them off from the source!
“These things are drawing their strength from the tree!”
Cloudhawk decisively pulled Basilisk off his back and pulled back on the string. An almost imperceptible twang thrummed among the din. The arrow found purchase in the chest of one of the Dryads, and immediately the upper portion of its body was turned to stone. It crumpled apart, shattering against the floor on impact and scattering stone in all directions. This sort of attack would at least slow the relic’s recovery.
“Autumn, these things aren’t after you. Help them, and the rest of you cover me. I’m going after this fuckin’ tree!”
Cloudhawk jumped into action before anyone could protest. But the Dryads seemed to know his plan.
They centered their assault on him, and all of a sudden Cloudhawk was faced with a wall of deadly opposition. The phase stone’s power spring to life, so that poison spores and piercing vines passed by harmlessly.
Life and death depended on this ploy!
Cloudhawk rushed through the crowd of Dryads protecting their tree, Basilisk at the ready. He fires several arrows, one after the other, all aimed for the Charnel Tree. Where they struck, dark bard started to petrify.
The Dryads went mad, doing everything in their power to try and tear Cloudhawk apart. Forced to drop his phase field to attack the tree, he was left exposed.
“Go!” The drunk blessed Cloudhawk with Dawnguard’s light while swinging his iron cane. A blast of power issued forth and knocked several of the Dryads aside. Butcher, Barb, Claudia and her squad all rushed in to give him cover, with Autumn leading the charge.
Thankfully the Dryads didn’t seem very intelligent. The others hid behind Autumn like a shield, temporarily confounding their attacks. A brief respite, but enough to give everyone the breathing room they needed.
Cloudhawk arrived before the Charnel Tree. His Silver Serpents sprang into view, turning to streaks of silver as he hacked at the petrified bark. Cold steel flashed like he was chopping vegetables until – BOOM! A concussive blast rocked the chamber.
All at once the Dryads became sluggish, then still.
The old man laid into one of them with his shinning cane, smacking it to the ground. It didn’t get back up this time. He turns his vicious attacks onto the others.
“We did it!” Belinda caught one of the Dryads with a fireball, burning it to ash.
“You’re incredible, Warden!” She was practically jumping for joy. Her admiration for the scandalous demonhunter only grew with each passing battle, to the point where it was almost zealous. It was only natural – force someone to confront the possibility of death and emotions will rise.
Cloudhawk’s quick thinking and decisive action had saved their lives. Everyone knew it.
But before they could celebrate too long, several lumbering bodies appeared in the hallway they came from. While Cloudhawk and his crew were cleaning up the Dryads, they used the distraction to launch a surprise attack.
“Shit, dragons!” He couldn’t for the life of him figure out what these damn things were doing down here, nor did he have much time to ponder. They were on the group of humans in an instant, one of them knocking Barb to the ground and pinning here there. Another caught Gabriel in a bull rush.
It was then they noticed black-clad people clutching to the dragons’ backs. They had Elysian-made rapid fire crossbows in their hands which spat a volley of deadly bolts. This sudden, violent sneak attack took them all off guard.
Claudia and her squad were quickly surrounded.
It was too quick, and the dragon riders had specifically zeroed in on the weakest invaders. They were overwhelmed. Claudia fended off many of the bolts but caught several in the chest and shoulder. Her squad mates suffered worse, and were quickly brought to the ground.
Claudia was so furious she was seeing red, but the dragon riders were on her before she could react. They’d circled around them now, and were closing in for another attack.
1. Their names in Chinese are 神 (god) 侍 (servant) and 魔 (demon) 侍 respectively. Seraphs, detailed as servants of God, were chosen for the good ones. Fiends were picked for demons, as a ‘fiend’ is like a mini-demon.