What a shame. What a goddamn shame.
Cloudhawk looked down at Belinda’s body and felt his heart sink into the pit of his stomach.
She was the most promising of Claudia’s squad. She had looks, aptitude, intelligence, and a unique outlook. Although she hardly knew anything about the world, she’d been so full of confidence that it bordered on arrogance. But weren’t all young people the same? Why did Fate choose to rob her of a chance to live?
If she’d have survived, Belinda would have returned to Skycloud and become a skilled demonhunter. At the very least, she would quickly surpass her sergeant, Claudia. Belinda would have been a name to remember in Skycloud. Now she was a cold body.
What a loss. No doubt, when the rising stars burn out early it’s always a tragedy.
Rei hugged Belinda body and sobbed. Her own wounds weren’t healed yet, and the growth still festered on her face. If she didn’t deal with it soon it would permanently scar her, but the pain of her loss was all-consuming. She didn’t care about something so inane as her looks.
Crain and Tigron were also wiping away tears. Both young men were wracked with shame.
When Mason died they were furious, but not sad. But Belinda was their age. She was the gifted one, someone they’d known for a long time. As fellow graduates they shared a deeper connection.
Seeing a friend die in front of their eyes… they couldn’t hide the pain it caused them.
Of all of them, Belinda was the one that was supposed to survive! Either brother would have gladly traded their life, because all the rest of the team together couldn’t add up to her promise.
Claudia reached out and gently shut Belinda’s sightless eyes. She rose back to her feet and looked at the others with a face devoid of emotion. She wasn’t the same girl who entered the wastelands for the first time all those years ago. She was familiar with loss.
A squad member’s death was a leader’s failure. She felt the grief, the shame, and the remorse – but she was their sergeant. Claudia put all of that away. Her words were solemn and gentle as she wished Belinda’s spirit an eternity in the embrace of the gods, among the vaulted peaks of Sumeru. The remaining squad gathered around, and offered their fallen comrade a final salute.
Barb was touched by what she saw. Even Butcher, ugly as his spirit was, had respect for the young girl who’d given her life. So long as Skycloud had demonhunters as dedicated as she, it would flourish.
Azura was hiding behind a stele, quietly watching. She hid the moment the fighting started, since she couldn’t help. Because she was no sort of threat she was ignored by the creatures that tried to kill her friends. She was like a little rabbit, and who was threatened by a little rabbit?
Her big blue eyes were fixed on Belinda in her final moments, and Azura felt the cold sensation take root in her heart. It was hard for her to grasp that she would never see the youthful, powerful elder sister again. Just a second ago she’d been… this was death. Cruel and impartial.
Autumn had been wounded badly by the Dryads, but with a little healing she was stable. Belinda’s death struck her to the core. She was out here doing her duty, and this is what it earned her. She was beginning to understand how important strength and responsibility were.
The old drunk was cold as steel. A life like his, you became closely acquainted with death. He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped when he heard something. He was immediately on alert.
“That’s enough. We don’t have time to sit here and cry over our loss. Pack it up, we need to move.”
About then Cloudhawk could also sense that something wasn’t right. By instinct he turned his eyes to the tree and went rigid. The Dryads, all cut into pieces, weren’t dead. All the various pieces of them were slithering together.
They were all balls of whipping tentacles, like hideous octopuses. Vines slithered every which way, latching on to whatever was close and pulling the pieces back together. The Dryads didn’t reconstitute themselves completely – more like they were patched back together by a bad tailor – instead the disparate pieces became one monstrous amalgamation.
The abomination was easily four meters tall, ugly as hell and haphazardly put together. Vines peaked from the various fissures in it like excess thread, or sprouting hair waving incessantly.
It hadn’t pulled itself together entirely yet, but the threat it posed was clearly felt by everyone. Eager to rend the invaders limb from limb, it trundled forward though its legs could not yet fully support the bulk of its body.
The Charnel Tree was destroyed. Why weren’t these monsters dead? Cloudhawk scowled, his brows knit tight in thought. He’d simplified their predicament too much, the creatures didn’t just draw energy from the tree. They had energy of their own as well. It was foolish to think ripping them apart just the once would be enough.
Shit. Watching the shambling horror approach, Cloudhawk’s mind went immediately to that old fucker Majjhima, and the creatures he’d been hatching. He’d had perhaps a dozen of those protofiends at his beck and call, and when he absorbed their power he was almost too much to deal with. It was easy to assume, then, that this monster they faced now was at least as dangerous.
They weren’t strong enough to handle the super-Dryad on their own.
“Move it, go! We need to get out of here.”
Cloudhawk shouted the order, hoping to get them mobile before the Dryad completely rejoined. Autumn pointed them toward a hall entrance in the back and they began to flee in that direction.
As they all pressed into the relatively safety of the hall they heard a terrible roar from behind. Autumn looked back and felt the icy grip of fear take her. The massive Dryad was fully formed, and all over its body – from its shoulders, to its chest, to its arms – was all covered in savage-looking faces. Its head was four faces pressed together that could see in all directions at once. It was a creature that she couldn’t have imagined in the depths of her darkest nightmares.
The chamber’s floor began to crack as countless vines burst out from it.
Before their eyes, the antechamber became a writhing mass as vines reached out from everywhere. The Dryad crouched as wave after wave of undulating vines brought it forward as incredible speed toward the invaders.
Autumn gasped in a trembling voice. “Close the door!”
Cloudhawk and the drunk heaved against the door, forcing the heavy portal shut. They managed to close it before the deluge of flora could reach them, but the whole area shook from the impact as the Dryad raged against the doorway. No one knew how long the barrier would last.
Not long. Small creepers were already finding their way through cracks in the door and frame. It wouldn’t going to be enough to keep the monster at bay.
“This damn thing is too strong. Forget it, keep going deeper!”
Cloudhawk led the others down the hall, the blind leading the blind, racing as fast as their legs could take them. But it didn’t matter which way they turned or how fast they run, vines were whipping at their heels. The Dryad’s strength seemed limitless, and it kept on them like stink on shit.
Luckily the mausoleum was massive, and its construction labyrinthine. Cloudhawk threw himself down whichever path presented itself without any bearing, until they came upon a cave. It was different from all the rest of the mausoleum, since its halls were made of tree roots and the chambers were all deliberately constructed. In contrast, the cave looked perfectly natural.
Cloudhawk asked Autumn about it, but she was at a loss. The mausoleum was a mystery sinceancient times, a place forbidden to all but a handful. Any sacrifices were left outside in the chamber they’d already passed through, and dead elders were interred in the Charnel Tree. Beyond that, even tribal leaders rarely ventured far into the tomb.
This deep into the Shepherd’s final place, Autumn doubted anyone was familiar with the layout. She’d never heard anything about the deeper sections, much less a cavern.
But they didn’t have time to mull over it. The Dryad chasing them was ruthless, and tireless. Since there was no other way forward, they would have to take their chances with the cave. Cloudhawk and the others pushed ahead.
As expected, it was a natural cavern. However, somewhat unexpected was the damp and fetid air that smelled of putrid meat.
Barb appeared to sense something out of sorts. “Look, what is that?”
The cave floor was dotted with eggs, the smallest being three times the size of a typical bird egg. The shells were pale white, though slightly opaque to reveal a faint green hue inside. Barb hefted her exorcist rod and gave one a few good smacks. When it cracked open something spilled out, covered in viscous fluid.
It looked rather like a bird with no feathers, covered in tender pink flesh. Whatever had been growing in the egg was mostly formed, more or less ready to fight its way out into the world.
The party picked their way among the eggs, deeper into the cavern. 
As more of the area was revealed to them, everyone was shocked to find that the whole place was covered in eggs. Autumn in particular was stunned that she’d never heard of this place. Where were they? What was this place? What was such a strange cavern doing in the middle of her god’s mausoleum?
It was around them Cloudhawk, who had taken the lead, felt the ground tremble ever so slightly. It was faint, like a brief electric buzz. His face scrunched into an expression of confusion.
The old man saw it. “What’s wrong?”
Cloudhawk waved him quiet. His eyes peered into the darkness of the cavern, and then offered a thoughtful question to Autumn. “How much do you know about the mausoleum? Is it really just where the Shepherd’s body is buried?”
The question took her off guard. She wasn’t sure why Cloudhawk would suddenly think otherwise.
The others also began to feel an unsettling air settle over them. If it was really just a tomb, why would there be protectors as strong as the Dryads? What were all these eggs doing here?
“Honestly… I don’t know. It is said among my people that the Vale’s greatest secret is hidden deep in the mausoleum. Although, none of our elders going back generations knew what that was. Legends say whatever it is, it was the reason Woodland Vale was created. Our greatest treasure.”
She paused and her eyebrows furrowed in thought.
“With all the changes in the mausoleum, I suspect the elder is using outside powers. He must be trying to discover this secret. We can’t have much time.”
Adder? That asshole just loved to cause problems!
Cloudhawk’s eyes hardened with the promise of violence.
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