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While Cloudhawk was battling Adder, his comrades were also embroiled in conflict.

Naberius had tried to protect them by weaving a trap at the entrance to the cave, but was foiled when they discovered that the Dryad could summon others like it. It took only moments for the cave to be filled with leaf-spackled tree people, crawling out from the vine-encased walls.

Incredible. He’d never heard of a power like this before.

They were independent constructs, seemingly composed of vines. What counted as a body was not humanoid by any stretch, they didn’t even have necks. But they did have faces – wooden face plates that looked like masks haphazardly draped over the vines. Hideous expression made the invaders’ hair stand on end to look on the tree demons.

The masked vines startled to gather and draw closer.

Stumbling forward their gait was slow, but by the way the cavern trembled with each step their strength was made evident. Vine-like arms were dragged like hammers and carried enough force to shatter rock or bone.

And there were a lot of them. More kept pouring out of the walls in an endless stream.

Their fighting style consisted of more than just brute force strikes. They were also able to attack from a distance with javelin-like spiked vines, or ensnare their enemies with poison-barbed creepers.

“Fall back!”

Claudia flooded the area with petals from Tempest Flower. Hundreds of metallic slivers burst out in all directions like bomb shrapnel. Many of the vine creatures were shredded.

But these summoned monsters were not normal creatures. They feared neither death nor pain.

Broken apart of blown to pieces, it didn’t matter. They pushed on as long as they could with mechanical determination. No matter how many they managed to cut down, more took their place.

It was like watching a slow motion tidal wave coming to swallow them up. 

One of them waved its floral appendage and a vine shot out from its waist. Friction from its lightning-fast passage made it sound like the air was tearing. The invaders scrambled out of the way.

Crack! It missed them and dug about a meter into a nearby wall.

As the creatures drew nearer, the humans could now see they were covered in thorns. Judging by the color of these barbs they, in turn, were coated in poison. Without question, getting pricked by one would be less than ideal.

They kept getting closer.

Forced onto their back feet, Naberius didn’t have a chance to weave his web. They were forced to flee, with the only end in sight a gruesome death. The masked constructs kept coming, rigid shambling bodies shuffling their way, coated in poisonous barbs. 

“We can’t hold them.” Claudia shouted. “Scatter!”

“No!” Butcher’s wide eyes fixed on her, furious that she would even make such a suggestion. “Demonhunters put the mission first, even if it means their death!”

Claudia scowled back at him. She wanted to yell fuck the mission! But she knew the truth, that there was nowhere to run. Right now it seemed like a matter or whether they died sooner or later.

All the while the number of masked vine creatures increased.

They weren’t proper living things, so they didn’t have soft underbellies or essential organs. No weaknesses. Killing them wasn’t easy, especially since they could attack from both up close and far away. They weren’t going to stop this hoard all by themselves.

“Gods give me strength!”

The howl came from Butcher’s scarred throat while he flung the enormous hammer in his right hand. Its massive weight displaced the air – woosh, whoosh! - while the chain it was connected to clanged noisily. When he let it go the hammer tumbled end over end for a dozen meters before smashing into the face of one of the vine monsters.

Its wooden face was smashed to splinters.

Once its ‘face’ was gone there was a surge of energy from inside the construct that was released like a mist. The vine-entangled form lost the ability to hold itself together and fell limp to the ground. Just normal vines again.

Everyone paused. Their faces! That was their weak point! Butcher’s reckless attack had revealed their vulnerability.

Claudia commanded Rei and the Sutherland brothers to use their exorcist bows. Strong though the wooden masks were, it couldn’t stand a direct shot from the Elysian weapons. One after the other, energy bolts started streaking into the encroaching mass of vines.

Each shot took one down. Simple and straightforward. Eventually they started to make a dent in their numbers, and then got the upper hand.

As it seemed the torrent was ebbing, the humans thought they were out of the proverbial woods. They were gathering for a final push to wipe them out when a host of vines struck from behind and caught Rei unprepared.

They hit so hard they could split rock.

Rei’s armor was cut apart and even a demonhunter’s sturdy constitution couldn’t protect her. The wounds were serious. The rest of the party wasn’t quick enough to respond, and another vine caught her in the leg and dragged her down.

“This is bad! They’re behind us!”

While they’d been focusing on the vine monsters ahead the Dryad’s scope of influence had grown. Several masked creatures had emerged behind them, catching the humans in a quickly tightening vice.

Because Rei was a healer, her typical strategy was to stay in the back. That put her right in the path of the masked monsters, and made her a priority target. Entangled by their grasping vines, Rei was dragged into their midst.

She was quickly surrounded. Her piercing screams echoed off the cavern walls.

Fury sprang up within Claudia. A hundred shimmering petals quickly gathered together overhead to form a cone-shaped bloom of metal.

“Let – her – go!”

The host of petals was thrust into the face of a monster like an awl pike. Though the petals were small enough that they could penetrate into the creature, they weren’t strong enough to destroy the mask individually. However, as more gathered inside of the creatures head they suddenly burst out, causing the entire upper half of the creature to detonate. The petals were flung out to find new target, and six or seven more of the monsters were quickly felled in the same fashion.

Rei was revealed to them, laying on the ground and covered in blood. She was trying to claw away with all of her might, when one of the monsters slammed both of its heavy fists into her back. Rei was pummeled into the ground, bleeding from every orifice, and unconscious. They couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead.

They’d already lost Belinda. The world would never again see the talented woman’s smile. Did fate wish to steal Rei from them, too? No! It couldn’t be allowed! It was unacceptable! That tragedy could not be repeated!

The number of petals Claudia could control was limited. After dealing with most of the creature that had threatened Rei, she was spent. Naberius was nearby with streaks of silver shooting from his hands. His daggers fell like rain and killed many of Rei’s assailants, but not enough.

Rei’s life was at stake! 

Claudia was weighing what to do when two figures streaked past her. She called out. “Stop! It’s too dangerous!”

Crain and Tigron were not the sort to disobey their sergeant’s orders, but they were deaf to her cries now. The young brothers charged into the fray, communicating with a single wordless look.

Neither Sutherland was very strong, so running into the middle of these monsters was almost a death sentence. They just didn’t care – how could they call themselves demonhunters if they didn’t save a comrade in danger?

Shame would haunt them for the rest of their lives in the brothers simply watched Rei die. Some things in life were more important than living; they would rather die saving a friend then living a long existence plagued by guilt!

The word demonhunter was synonymous with pride, and even novices like them wore it like a badge of honor!

“Bro, use it!”

Each brother produced a small relic, like pieces of a jade pendent. They fit perfectly together to form a full relic. IT was covered with intricate inscriptions, and if Cloudhawk were here he’d recognize it as a particularly powerful tool.

The Sutherland brothers had received this upon graduating from university. Until now, they’d never had cause to use it.

This Sutherland family heirloom wasn’t just powerful, it was also very unique. It demanded a huge amount of mental energy, so much that two demonhunters were needed for the relic to engage. Two wills, two minds, joined in focus and belief.

Crain and Tigron had grown up together, as close as brothers could be. However, it was difficult even for them to achieve the sort of total unity the relic demanded. Now, though, in this key moment when they were of singular mind and purpose, maybe it would answer their call.

Hideous wooden faces turned toward them. If their gambit didn’t work, the brothers would be doomed. 

Together, they called on the relic’s power.

A dusky light bloomed around the pieces, and as it crept up the brothers’ bodies they began to change. Crain and Tigron melted away into two strands of smoke that gathered together.

Two heads. Six limbs. Three meters tall. Their combined body was somewhere between realities, half visible like some kind of divine avatar.

Claudia knew they had the relic in their possession, of course. However using it was exceedingly difficult. She didn’t expect them to be able to summon its power so soon.

In summoning the relic’s strength, it transformed the brothers into some kind of conjoined quantum state. Dual frequencies that, when combined, created the creature they saw before them.

It was more than just transformation. Their strength, mental energies, and physicality rapidly increased by several orders of magnitude.

With Crian and Tigron as one, their combined power was easily four times what they could accomplish on their own! Even Claudia wasn’t sure she could fight the amalgamation they’d become.

The two headed, six armed goliath charged into the creatures. Almost immediately whipping vines were sundered and thrown aside. One meaty fist plowed into the vine creature hovering over Rei and turned its mask into dust. They picked her up and carried her back to the group, while vine creatures viciously slashed at their back all the while.

It was no use. What the Sutherland brothers had become was more than human, and soon Claudia and Naberius had come to their aid.

The remaining masked creatures that had crept up behind them were relatively few in number. It didn’t take long to cut them down. However, while the threat from behind had been dealt with, the pressing mass of twisted wooden faces before them was only growing. Butcher and his hammer was the only thing standing between them at the writhing torrent. He’d smashed a dozen or more of them to pieces in succession, but he’d been wounded a number of times as well. Word of his mad bravery was proven true once again as he single-handed faced the hoard in defense of his colleagues.

Naberius’ face darkened. “It’s too late.”

The passage out was thick with plants, that writhes and slithered like a hundred thousand angry snakes. It spread into the cavern at a rapid pace. Strong though they were, the slow pace of the masked creatures reduced the threat. Given time Naberius and his crew could have cut them down. The real danger was the Dryad, which was quickly coming to finish them off.

“I can hold it off for a while!” Butcher’s body was slick with blood, but he stood tall before them like he felt nothing. With a growl he smashed his hammer into the face of a vine monster that got too close. “Fall back and set your trap. Go!”

Claudia could hardly believe what she was hearing. “Butcher, you-”

“Stop wasting time!” His voice was harsh and defiant. “You can’t all die down here, you’re the next generation of Skycloud’s strength. You’re also more talented demonhunters than I. Our realm still needs you!”

For a moment everyone was silent. Cruel, hideous and tyrannical, Butcher was infamous for the terrible things he’d done. Yet here it was, a day when this nightmare of a man was willing to lay down his life for others – others he didn’t even like.

Among those he was willing to die for was a madman who had carved the flesh from his bones and tortured him brutally. His grotesque appearance was a direct result of this evil act. 

Butcher shouted at them. “Go!”

A smirk spread across Naberius’ face. “You’re an honorable man. We’ll settle our grudge in the next life.”

He was the first to fall back deeper into the cavern. Seeing this, Claudia was left with no choice but to abandon Butcher as well. She had a responsibility to what remained of her team. She ran after him.

Butcher was left alone.

Though considerably wounded, the injuries did nothing to rob the man of her iron will. On the contrary he almost grew taller with dark pride. He was a warrior, and the greatest battle of his life lay before him.

I give my life to the gods of my home. 

A holy warrior never yields! Attack! Attack! 

For our grand army! For the gods! Press on! Skycloud, forever!

Seeped in righteous fervor, Butcher threw himself at the masked monsters with everything he had. His strikes landed true, stronger than ever before, and his hammer obliterated everything before it. In these moments he wielded more strength than a demonhunter twice his grade.

His mind descended into a frenzied rage. The light from his eyes blazed with a level of devotion he’d never felt before, as though he’d spent months in prayer. Twisted masks appeared before him and fell, splintering beneath his hammer. It felt like the power flowing from him was limitless, and every step forward was miraculous.

The creatures’ numbers dwindled.

Butcher’s heart seethed. The soul of a holy warrior burned inside him. The savagery of the fight pushed him even further, awakened his potential, and filled him with a pure and brutal joy. Butcher fought like he never had before. It was faith! Faith had granted him power!

He didn’t know what would happen next, but he wasn’t afraid. He was eager to meet his end. He yearned for it!

Vines swarmed in around him. Eventually a towering figure appeared, like a demon marching through a tearing green tide.

What an ugly, devilish horror!

At least a dozen rotting skulls protruded all over its body. Its entire body was a hideous synthesis of corpses haphazardly sewn together with vines. As the Dryad rose to its full height before Butcher, the powerful aura it bore washed over him. Indomitable. Unyielding.


Press on!

For the glory of Sumeru!

For the honor of Skyloud!

Our armies will not be defeated!

Butcher launched into his final assault without a shadow of doubt.

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