Figures began to emerge from the crystals. Where the Source was hard as diamonds for Cloudhawk’s people, to these spirits they were as malleable as water.
Once they exited the crystals their spectral bodies began to give off light. It was the condensation of powerful energy, enough to harm physical matter. Like swords they lashed out at the intruders. No fancy skills, no special abilities – just pure and brutal energy delivered with incredible speed.
Crack-crack-crack! Cloudhawk’s shield was subjected to a flurry of blows. Thankfully these monsters had no intelligence to speak of. They threw themselves at Cloudhawk without any tricks, but their attacks came quickly almost one on top of the other. It was becoming troublesome.
What were these things? Cloudhawk glanced into the crystals, narrowing his eyes for a better look and then suddenly freezing in place. Whatever was locked in those crystals was humanoid. Some of them were so blurry he could only make out the outlines, but others he could almost make out clothing and for a handful even features were visible.
People. They were people. More specifically, demonhunters.
They stared with empty eyes and slack expressions. Judging by their clothes, they came from various eras and Elysian lands. The only similarity was that they were all demonhunters, and capable ones at that.
“These are spirits!”
Cloudhawk hardly believed he was saying it. Could these be the same sort of spirits he first say on the spore planet? Spirits – ghosts – were a special sort of entity that were created with the help of circumstance and environment. They were exceedingly rare to be created naturally, and those that did emerge lasted only a short time.
“Look at their clothes. Demonhunters from the Elysian lands.” As Autumn spoke she was able to make out family crests emblazoned on their clothes. There were even a few Cloude and Polaris family members. “They didn’t come from this area, they were brought here and locked in the crystals.”
Demonhunters from all across the world… how could this happen to them?
Surely it would have garnered attention if all these demonhunters went missing. Someone would have demanded a search. Of course they would come home empty-handed, but to appear all the way out here as spirits in a cursed desert? It seemed unlikely.
Stranger still, there had never been news of demonhunter disappearances. There had to be thousands of bodies in the crystals and that’s just what they saw now. What else would they find as they pushed further in?
Demonhunters were heroes of their realms, warriors of awakened psychic power. Thousands of them – whatever the realm – were of huge worth. It stood to reason that so many being stolen and turned to spirits would leave some sort of trace.
A troubling thought leaped to the front of Cloudhawk’s mind. It fixed its hooks into him and he couldn’t shake it. “They’re corpses.”
Frost and Autumn weren’t sure what he was getting at. Yet before he could elaborate, Cloudhawk’s mind was wracked with stabbing pain. His defenses faltered and several of the spirits managed to slip through.
Autumn reacted quickly, lashing out with an incisive light. The spirits were cut apart and she raced to Cloudhawk’s side to help him fall back.
Abaddon raised his arm and summoned sand from thin air. They coalesced into a barrier, replacing Cloudhawk’s protections. From the moment the spirits couldn’t break through.
Meanwhile, Cloudhawk felt like someone was driving a knife into his brain. Flashes of visions, memories, flooded his mind. Were this from the Demon King? In the space of a moment he understood.
“I get it. Over a thousand years there are more dead than living. More perished demonhunters than breathing ones.” He stopped for a minute to get his bearings. “In every Elysian land there is one common thing they always say. When you die, your spirit is given to Mount Sumeru!” 
He was right. Elysian lands could be very different, but in death all were said to serve the gods eternally. So long as their faith was strong and their abilities recognized, death just represented shedding one’s mortal body and ascending to the gods’ side.
This wasn’t just some platitude. These were real souls!
Spirits were a special kind of energy that made up one’s essence. The soul is what allowed humans to cultivate and improve their mental power. As one's spirit strengthened, so did their psychic abilities.
At birth that spirit was weak, undetectable by any instrument, and gone when the body failed. One’s soul dissipated out into the universe, only to be gathered again in the formation of a new soul when a new life took shape.
What the gods did was create a place for these souls to live in so that they never dissipated. But that home wasn’t Mount Sumeru. It was Source. The question as to why these crystals existed was closely tied to the human denizens of the planet!
Gods destroyed planets. Tilled the soil to create Elysian lands. Cultivated humans. How was this any different from planting, say, an orchard of apple trees? When seedlings grew into mighty trees they bore fruit until eventually they stopped. But even without its apples the tree is valuable. At the very least, its wood is fuel.
The six Elysian lands were nothing but huge energy factories. When people died their spirits were captured and brought here. For those of a certain strength, their mental prowess joined with their spirit. Condensed psychic energy, over time, crystallized to form Source.
Over so many years billions of human souls were collected. The spiritual energy of millions of mighty demonhunters was gathered. This was the result. This was the fruit of their labor.
“Are you ok?” Autumn asked.
The pain had subsided, but Cloudhawk’s expression was dismal. “I understand everything. I know why the gods came here. I know why the population withers and eventually dies.”
Human spirits were a recyclable but non-renewable resource. The gods were after not just this spiritual energy, but psychic energy as well. The former allowed them to replenish their race while mental energy gave them a huge source of power.
Converting lowly creatures like gods was no easy feat. When a human died, their spirit still retained a measure of the thoughts and feelings it had in life. If there was any resistance to godly dominance then the crystals never formed. It required unfaltering obeisance.
What, then, was the most effective way to maximize production? Simple, establish a religion and get these stupid monkeys to worship you. Once that foundation of belief was settled then humans would happily give themselves up as fuel. As of today, untold millions had done just that – potentially billions of souls robbed and millions of demonhunters transformed.
That’s what this giant crystal represented. And it would have continued until the entire species faded away if no one had stood up.
In a few thousand years people would begin to find reproduction rates quickly declining. Those children that were born would have weaker wills so that, even though their bodies were strong, their minds would not grow.
As fertility rates decreased, populations would collapse until the species became extinct. Gods would take all the billions of souls they siphoned and use it to build more gods. After their memories were formatted, the gods would move on to the next planet to continue the cycle of eternal consumption.
“They keep coming. I cannot hold.”
Cracks were forming in Abaddon’s sand shield. Angry spirits were attacking from all directions.
Frost brandished Ashfall and cut down the shadows that slipped through. “They don’t seem to think, just attack anything that gets nearby. There should be a way to avoid them.”
Cloudhawk brought his mind back to the present. With a flick of the wrist he cast out the Cube and reality was split into boxes. Like interspatial building blocks they created a barrier around Cloudhawk’s crew.
Mindlessly the spirits flung themselves into the pocket dimension. Trapped within, they were no longer a threat. Dealing with the things were easy, it was like opening a bag and just letting flys wander in on their own.
Cloudhawk gathered up his power, extended it around the others and teleported them through the tunnel. He ignored the countless spirits that emerge to thwart them in a headlong rush to the crystal’s heart. His goal was already achieved – this place would prove what future the gods had in store for mankind, but it wasn’t enough.
He had to stop Belial.
1. Tipsy indeed hinted at this a long, long, long time ago with an offhand comment about spirits and Mount Sumeru. Unfortunately I can’t remember the chapter, but if someone finds it you win a virtual cookie.
3. Hellflower entered the cube for a day of study. She was looking forward to spending as much time as she needed with her books and experiments. Yes, as she stepped inside a sea of soulless black eyes turned her way.