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Book 4, Chapter 29 - Between the Hammer and the Anvil

 Of course, it wasn't so simple.

What caused Cloudhawk to ask the question was something strange he'd heard. A sound he'd encountered only twice before. The first time was several years ago in the wastelands, the first time he came upon the phase stone. The second was when he found the skull in Hell's Valley.

And then, now.

Cloudhawk wasn't evne strong enough to summon a tenth of the phase stone's power. He couldn't recall a tenth of the lifetimes of memories that'd been trapped in the skull. But even so, he could guess with a fair amount of confidence that Shepherd and... whoever had owned the phase stone before him had some kind of connection. Whatever secret was hidden in the mausoleum had something to do with this sound. What exactly, though, he couldn't guess. They would just have to continue to find out.

Man, whatever his benefactor was, it was strong.

He hid something here, and the Shepherd built an entire secret garden to protect it. It was almost hard to believe. What exactly was the creature that had gifted Cloudhawk so much? He was beginning to sound like some sort of god!

Crrack-crack-crack! The faint sound of grinding stone reached their ears.

Cloudhawk learned from Oddball that the monster chasing them had reached the cavern entrance. It was following their trail, and would soon be upon them.

"Son of a bitch. That leafy cocksucker is still after us." There was no question that the Dryad was strong. If it caught them here they weren't going to escape intact. He called for everyone's attention. "Follow me!"

He followed the familiar resonance deeper into the cavern. Much to everyone's surprise, the natural cave was part of a complicated system of openings.

This time, as Cloudhawk led the small party, he wasn't picking directions at random. He focused on that odd feeling, a sort of hunch that nagged at the back of his mind. IF he could just get to where the call was coming from, it was for sure where the elder was hiding.

They were close.

Very close.

As they closed in on the source a deep growl emerged from the darkness of the caverns. A green body darted at them, fast as an arrow. It was as fast and ferocious as a tiger, reaching for them with razor-like talons.

"Excellency, watch out!"

The rod in Barb's hands roared like a hurricane as she heaved it toward their attacker. Boom! A pulse of concussive force that was hard to see with the naked eye shuddered through the air. It slammed directly into her target.

The sound of a dozen bones snapping followed. The creature was flung against a nearby wall so hard it was almost liquefied.

Barb was panting. "Where did that thing come from? It just out of nowhere for his Excellency!"

Autumn pointed at the body and muttered with surprise "It looks a lot like a dragon."

Everyone took a closer look. Shit... she was right.

It was lizard like and the whole body was covered in green scales. A pair of immature wings were folded against its back. It was a dragon, wasn't it?

All at once it hit them. This is where the dragons were coming from!

What Barb pulled out from the egg was an unborn dragon. The one they just killed must have been out for a while, but not yet full-grown. That was why it was so weak.

After seeing all those eggs in the cavern, it was no longer a surprise why there were so many of them flying around the skies of Woodland Vale now. If the Valites knew that these creatures that threatened them came from the bowels of their god's mausoleum, what would they think?

They didn't stand around to ponder the question, for lithe green-scaled bodies began to slither toward them from the surrounding caverns.

All of them were immature dragons. They were about the size of tigers, but didn't have the power or defenses of their grown brethren. What made them dangerous was the sheer number. With the Dryad closing in, they were running headlong out of the frying pan and into the fire. Only way out was to cut a path forward.

Naberius wasn't bothered by the flood of critters. On the contrary, he was elated. A fervent bloodlust burned in his eyes. "I've been locked up for so long, then I'm let out and all we do is run, run, run! Now I get to kill! Ah-hahahaha!"

His mad cackling rang off the walls as Naberius launched an attack.

Right away several of the dragons were carved to pieces. More came, dozens of them like an army of ants, gnashing teeth and swiping claws. But Naberius only laughed maniacally as he plucked his Shadethread. He wrapped them around the throat of a nearby dragonling and pulled, severing its head from its body. Silvery needles embedded themselves in the abdomen of another and then dragged across, eviscerating it. Blood and organs spilled across the cavern floor.

"Even this psychopath can't handle them all himself. Let's help."

It was obvious to Cloudhawk now that he'd miscalculated how dangerous this mission was. IF he'd known he wouldn't have brought all these people with him. He especially wouldn't have put Azura in this sort of life-threatening environment. All he wanted was to give the girl a chance to see the world. Now he was struggling to keep himself safe, much less his disciple.

The child looked up at him. "Teacher, I want to fight too!"

Autumn spoke up as well. "Give me a weapon! I won't stand here and be useless."

Cloudhawk was struck by their determination. Activating the power of his phase stone, he pulled out two weapons and handed one to each. "You two protect yourselves."

Azura clutched the Elysian crossbow in both arms, and even still struggled to hold it straight. Her eyes were wide as a vicious dragon came leaping toward her. Fear was obvious in those big blue eyes, but she didn't hesitate. Almost by instinct she leveled the crossbow, and pulled the trigger.


Elysian excelled in craftsmanship, so when the two frail girls fired their crossbows neither were knocked back by the recoil. Their bolts assailed the nearest dragons, deadly as a hail of gunfire. Several hit the ground with bolts jutting from their skulls.

Cloudhawk nodded approvingly. "Well done. Let's go."

Azura heard her heart racing in her ears. Her little face was flushed with excitement, and holding the crossbow high she shouted, "I'm ready to fight with you teacher, shoulder to shoulder!"

Although these dragons weren't fully grown, they still fought as hard as an average wasteland mutant beast. They'd stumbled into their home, and there had to be hundreds of hungry lizards desperate to take a bite out of them.

Cloudhawk, the drunk, and Naberius took the fore. They were the strongest fighters and tried to keep the rest of the group at least partially covered. They pushed forward through the throng, leaving in their wake as trail of blood and viscera. The broken bodies of the dragons were left in heaps.

Claudia kept Autumn and Azura safe in the middle of their crew while offering long-range support to the front. Rei had also picked up a bow and was firing at whatever got too close. Barb, Tigron and Crain took up the rear.

Thankfully it didn't turn out as difficult as they feared. The dragons numbered in the hundreds, but cramped passageways meant they only needed to face three or four at a time. Cloudhawk and the others were trained killers, they knew how to handle themselves. A bunch of baby lizards weren't going to stop them. Forging ahead like a bulldozer, it was only a few minutes before thirty or forty corpses lined their path.

Cloudhawk was soaked in blood, scales and bits of flesh. He and the others were cutting down the dragons almost faster than they could plug up the way forward, but he was not happy with their circumstance.

Oddball was in constant contact, and he was telling him that a large number of vines were reaching through the cavern. The Dryad was getting closer.

If it weren't for all the fighting, everyone would be able to hear Cloudhawk's teeth as they ground together. He sped up as quick as he dared, anything to get them out of danger quicker. Suddenly, from deeper in the cavern he heard an angry roar. This one was particularly fierce, and he felt it shudder through his bones.

A powerful, ice-cold blood lust washed over them, seeping into their souls. The dragons felt it to, and as though on command scattered into every crack and crevice.

"Why are they running?"

"Because they were told to. It looks like we're about to meet their mother."

Barb shuddered as the roar started to work on her nerves.

Autumn had told them before that the reason Shepherd's flute didn't work on the dragons was because a stronger will commanded them. Judging by the fact that hundreds of young dragons scattered at its call, they were about to figure out where that will came from.

Claudia looked at Cloudhawk with a frown. "What do you think?"

He shook his head. "Nothing we can do. Whatever it is, we have to fight our way through!"

They walked into a wider portion of the caverns. Six fully grown dragons were crouched within, surrounding one that was different from the rest. It was a sort of dragon they'd never seen before.

It was at least half as large as the mature dragons beside it, but the most striking difference was its complete lack of scales. Instead, the whole thing looked like it was carved from emerald, head to toe. Nothing like a monster at all, more some sort of incredible gemstone statue - if a statue that completely flooded the cavern with murderous intent.

Barb was half-crouched, ready for anything. "Is this the dragon king?"

Cloudhawk nodded. "Yeah. It's a divine beast."

"You mean something like the chimera, Anima?" The old drunk asked.

Indeed. Cloudhawk could sense the familiar resonance coming from the dragon king's body. It was the same one he felt from Oddball, and the creature that guarded the Temple.

In addition, Cloudhawk could tell that the dragon king had something else in common with Anima. It was old - at least a thousand years old, fully grown. An infant creature like Oddball was a mere speck in comparison to a beast as ancient as this.

The dragon king had to have been the Shepherd's, back in the time when Woodland Vale was being created. It meant the Shepherd must have blessed the dragon king with the power to make lesser versions of itself, which it could control. With the death of its master, the dragon king's eggs would no longer hatch and thus laid in wait, nestled in the darkness of the cavern.

Now it seemed the dragon king had come to recognize a new master. The elder was the one causing the eggs to hatch, and all the tragedy that followed.

Autumn's flute was Shepherd's, a powerful godly artifact. However, the dragon king was a thousand-year old divine beast. Both were comparable in power, but Autumn was not strong enough to use it to its fullest - and certainly not enough to overcome the will of such an ancient thing.

A Dryad behind, the dragon king in front.

Now they were really caught between the hammer and the anvil.

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