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Book 4, Chapter 30 - Divide and Conquer

 The dragon king gleamed with light like an emerald statue. Its presence filled the chamber with frigid menace. A pair of green eyes blazed with internal light, smoldering with anger, and each breath from the creature stirred the air around them. Even just in its breathing the arrogance of command was obvious.

A thousand years old. This was no typical monster, the dragon king had to be at least as formidable as the Temple's protector.

Autumn's face had gone white. Barb was struck dumb with amazement. No one had anticipated that this creature would be what controlled the dragons.

Claudia broke the stunned silence. "Maybe we can convince the dragon king to fight the Dryad that's after us."

Urging the tiger to eat the wolf? A risky endeavor, but if successful it could save them from a dire situation.

"Are you joking? We're caught between them with nowhere to go, the Dryad's hunted us across this mausoleum, and we can't go forward. That thing is determined to tear us apart, so what are we supposed to do, turn into air? Even if we were able to hide somehow, we are the Dryad's target. Invaders. The dragon king has lived down here with them for a thousand years, what makes you think they'll fight?"

While the Shepherd's puppet was a mindless killing machine, the dragon king was not. It heard and understood everything they said. Its lips curled up into something that would be called a sneer from a human mouth.

A fierce and tyrannical aura poured off the creature. It slowly rose to its feet from a lying position, long neck held high, and stretched it crystalline wings. Every inch of the magnificent creature looked like it was carved from precious gems.

It was preparing to attack! The dragon king roared! The sound echoed off the chamber walls and stole their will, causing the invaders to tremble in its presence.

Opening its toothy maw, a green light roiled in the dragon king's throat. The breath attack poured out like a thunder wave. Cloudhawk and the others scattered in any direction they could to avoid it. Green tendrils of fire-like breath were so intense the stone ground cracked underneath it. The whole cavern shook violently.

No quarter was given to the invaders, no chance to fight back.

Towering above its children, the majestic dragon king roared an order. Lesser dragons standing guard nearby threw themselves into action without fear. Divine beasts were most threatening when drawing on the mental power of a master, but a creature like this - with age and ability to rival the Temple's guardian - was a dire threat all its own.

Though there were few who knew of it, Anima held high respect within Skycloud. It had the capability to sense danger for hundreds of kilometers in all directions, which made it the perfect protector for the Temple, and in fact all of Skycloud city.

The dragon king's unique ability was controlling lesser beings there were similar to itself. All of the hundreds of creatures stalking Woodland Vale's skies were under the yolk of their king. Not even Autumn and the Shepherd's flute could break its hold. That fact alone was enough to prove how fearsome an opponent the dragon king was.

Divine beasts did not have ordinary bodies. As part of that they did not reproduce in the same way as other creatures might. However, the dragons were natural entities, and after a thousand years of reproduction their progeny filled the caves. There were enough of them to threaten the entire Conclave of Judgment, if the Vale were to rise in defiance.

The old man shouted toward Cloudhawk. "Destroy their leader and the rest will follow. You go, deal with Adder and the elder!"

Cloudhawk could sense that the source of the strange call was close. Adder and the Vale's elder would be there too. Any other time he might've been able to teleport right to where his targets where, but for the moment there was a gemstone dragon in front of him and a hideous undying Dryad behind. Were the old drunk and Naberius enough to deal with both threats on their own?

He wasn't strong enough to teleport all of them to safety.

"Why are you still wasting time?!" Naberius growled at him. "Let this wine-soaked hobo deal with the dragon. I'll handle the monster that's following us. If you aren't going to go after the leaders then just die and get out of everyone's way!"

The old man's power was without question. But could this psychopath really handle the Dryad by himself? Unlikely! It was suicide.

No more time to hesitate. Six dragons were closing in the wake of their king's breath attack, ready to enact its deadly orders. Meanwhile the dragon king remained behind, preparing for another blast. Already they could see sparkling energy gathering in the depths of its translucent throat. Was it preparing to coat them all in dragon's breath this time?

"Alright, I'll go confront Adder. Take care of yourselves!"

The decision was made, though it wasn't like he had a choice. If they didn't do anything then they were all dead. He couldn't take everyone with him, but he could take two. So he called Autumn and Azura close.

Since Shepherd's flute was useless here, she wasn't any help to the fight. As for Azura, she was just a child. Although she was improving quickly she still didn't have the strength of even an average adult.

Leaving them stuck between the dragon king and the Dryad was leaving them in the path of the reaper's scythe. Besides, they would probably get in the way of the others. So he reached out with his mind for the phase stone, filled it with his power - and then three of them vanished from view.

With that, the old man grinned. He lightly tapped the ground with his cane, each gentle motion causing the stones to crack. Sensing the danger wafting from him, the dragons didn't rush in to clamp their teeth around his throat.

His cracked, yellow-toothed smirk never faltered. His hoarse voice called to one by his side. Barb, young miss, stay and help me. The rest of you can handle that monster coming up behind us."

"Then we leave this overgrown lizard to you." Without any further wasted words, Naberius raced back toward the mouth of the cave. Butcher, Claudia, and the three novices followed.

Barb used her exorcist staff to knock aside a clumsy swipe from one of the dragons. She was curious as to the old man's behavior. "Senior, why did you have me stay behind?"

"Aren't you always bothering me about wanting to learn how to fight like a Templar?" He tepidly replied.

A sudden burst of force thrilled through her and she focused it against a dragon. It went careening through the cave and smashed against a distant wall. She shook her head, tousling her short hair. A stern expression gave way to excitement and anxiety. "Senior... why do I get the feeling you think your days are numbered? Or that you're planning to die against the dragon king. This isn't you passing on a legacy, is it?"

"Cut that shit out! Fuck this, I'm not teaching you shit, forget about it!"

"Alright, wait! I'll learn! Of course I want to learn."

He brandished his cane, and its golden light retracted to envelope himself. Soon after his already mighty aura grew more vigorous. He was still a cripple, still looked like a beggar with one foot in the grave, and nothing had changed on that lecherous face... but somehow in that moment he was once again the mighty Skycloud War Saint of old. Invincible, and with all the noble bearing of his long-lost station.

Fast... so fast! Barb didn't even see how he did it. She caught a glimpse of his cane dart out like an arrow, and then suddenly one of the dragons was launched backward with its head split wide open. It pinned the beast to the nearby stone wall.

His body shimmered and then vanished, like a ghost. Following a strange trajectory, the former Templar streaked through the air. He plucked his cane from the dragons corpse and, ignoring the others that were racing toward him, swept right passed them toward the dragon king itself. Meanwhile his voice rang through the cavern.

"Alright, then here's your chance. These five dragons are your responsibility. Kill them, then I'll accept you as my disciple."

Barb felt like her breath was stolen. How was she supposed to do that? Five on one, and these dragons were not easy foes. They growled and hissed at the drunk, preparing to strike.

So be it. She steeled herself with a defiant grunt, raised her exorcist staff and threw herself toward the enemy. The dragons didn't have time to attack the old man before she caught up to them. She was on them in an instant, whipping through their midst like a deadly wind. Barb's exorcist staff smashed the nearest dragon's skull to pieces.

The rest roared in anger, and switched their focus from the old man to the young girl who dared attack them.


Naberius and his crew arrived at the entrance to the cave. It was already covered in writhing vines. They bristled from the crags and crevices like a thousand snakes and were creeping further in. At the rate they were moving, the whole cave would be covered in only a matter of minutes.

Claudia frowned as she looked over the situation. "We aren't strong enough. We can't fight this thing."

Naberius responded with a cruel laugh. He hurled throwing daggers at the opening, each one connected to a thread humming with energy. They weaved around the entrance until it was covered by a nearly invisible net. "Doesn't matter how strong it is if it doesn't have a head."

Claudia began to grasp his plan.

While the Dryad was very strong, it lacked any real intelligence. It was sure to run headlong towards them, through the trap Naberius was laying. As a result the thing would be immediately shredded. No doubt the mausoleum's protector was strong, but everything had its limits. They could fight it like guerillas in the complicated cavern system, with the help of Naberius' pre-laid Shadestring traps.

Every time the creature came back to life, it used some of its own energy. Eventually, if they killed it enough, it would stop coming back. But only a fool would fight it head on.

Claudia glanced at Naberius. Looking at him with new eyes. Yes he was brutal and bloodthirsty, but he was also shrewd. He was smart enough to know the right tactics to use in a place and circumstance like this. It was backed up with the strength of a high-grade demonhunter.

Then a blanket of vibrant green appeared from the cave entrance. Suddenly the area was alive with bright green vines and tangled underbrush that seaped along the ground toward them like someone had spilled a pot of dye.

They watched, faces dark. The Dryad got here faster than they'd thought.

Rei yelped in surprise. "There's a face in the wall!"

Everyone followed her eyes to a harrowing scene. Wood was growing out through cracks in the wall, wrapping together into the shape of a human face. The tough bark made it look like the face of a wrinkled old man with big wide eyes.

The face was just the beginning. More vines gathered to create a body, a fully-formed plant-man with a wooden mask to hide its hideous features. It was like some nightmarish creature birthed from the depths of their psycho, simply emerging from the wall.

One. Two. Three. Five. Ten. More of them just kept appearing from the moss-covered stone, numerous as leaves in a tree. One after the other they shambled forward with expressionless faces in an endless stream.

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