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    Chapter 63: Lord of Ashes

    Moving through the ashen sand and piles of fallen leaves, a giant monster was coming down the hill.

    Sunny gulped, his expression turning dark.

    The creature was as large as a house, with its eight segmented legs resembling tall pillars. Its form was similar to that of scavengers and centurions, comprised of a crab-like carapace and a protruding, somewhat humanoid torso. However, this was where the similarities between them ended.

    Instead of chitin, the behemoth's shell was seemingly made out of polished, lustrous metal. It was as though its whole body had been once submerged into a crucible of molten steel, emerging from it encased in an impenetrable suit of shining armor.

    Beams of sunlight were reflecting from the chrome surface of the carapace, creating the bright glimmer Sunny had noticed. Massive but strangely elegant, the steel monster resembled a giant knight. Sunny was ready to swear that he had noticed the shapes of seven stars carved into its chest.

    However, that knight was corrupted and evil. It radiated a sinister aura, like a demon summoned from hell to sow death and slaughter. The polished armor of the creature was covered with long, jagged spikes. Its humanoid torso had four mighty arms, two ending with powerful pincers, the other two — with razor-sharp, terrifying scythes.

    The demon's head was more pronounced than that of a scavenger and crowned with several tall, sharp horns. Its metal face was almost human-like, but simultaneously repulsively monstrous and bestial. Just looking at it made Sunny's skin crawl.

    'That thing… is scary.'

    Whatever that creature was, its rank within the carapace legion was clearly higher than that of a centurion, not to mention of a lowly scavenger. It was the next step in their evolution. A general or a commander, perhaps. What were they called… legates? Praetorians?

    Holding his breath, Sunny watched as the Carapace Demon descended from the Ashen Barrow. Stopping in front of the transcendent soul shard, it looked briefly at the kneeling centurion.

    The deadly awakened monster shrank under its gaze, as if terrified of the larger Nightmare Creature. Sunny knew how it felt, since he did the same when the behemoth's eyes had briefly glided past his shadow's hiding place.

    Not paying the centurion any attention, the Carapace Demon picked up the gleaming crystal and turned around. Then, it unhurriedly returned to the shade of the giant tree's branches.

    Sunny slowly exhaled.

    "Sunny? What is happening?"

    He looked at Cassie, whose face was full of worry and curiosity. After hesitating for a little while, he said:

    "There's a new threat. Stay quiet a bit longer, I'll explain later."

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    Back at the footsteps of the tall hill, the carapace centurion was finally ready to stand up again. Sunny was in a dilemma. He had to follow the monster to make sure that it doesn't stumble on their hiding place on its way back to the labyrinth.

    However, he was also extremely curious to see what the Carapace Demon was up to in its lair on the top of the Ashen Barrow.

    There was no time to think things through properly.

    Making a hasty decision, Sunny sent his shadow sliding over the grey sand. It masterfully avoided the carapace centurion's eyes and was already climbing the tall hill a few seconds later.

    'One look. I'll just take one look.'

    Hiding in the deep shade cast by the majestic tree's scarlet crown, the shadow glided up the slope and approached the place where the Carapace Demon had disappeared from its sight.

    On top of the hill, the ground was covered with fallen leaves. The Ashen Barrow was indeed larger than any high natural feature they had encountered before, vast and spacious as an actual island. However, the traces left behind by the massive creature's pillar-like legs could be easily seen.

    They led the shadow to the center of the island, where the obsidian tree's enormous trunk was rising from the ground, with its broad roots stretching in all directions.

    The Carapace Demon was standing beneath the tree, looking up at its lower branches. The transcendent shard was still clenched in its pincer.

    'What is it looking at?'

    Sunny made the shadow trace the creature's gaze and noticed several round, appetizing fruits hanging between the scarlet leaves. One of them looked especially ripe.

    Suddenly, the demon dropped the soul shard into the sand and, completely forgetting about it, raised its body. It stretched a pincer up and gently grasped the fruit, then pulled on it.

    Without any resistance, the fruit tore off the branch. Holding it as something fragile and extremely precious, the massive creature slowly lowered itself to the ground. Then, it carefully brought the fruit to its mouth and took a small bite.

    'Its… eating fruits? This abomination is vegetarian?!'

    Bewildered and not quite sure of what he had just seen, Sunny had no choice but to command his shadow to leave and hurry to the base of the hill. The time was up, and if he wanted to catch up with the carapace centurion, he had to act with haste.

    Gliding over the fallen leaves, the shadow descended from the Ashen Barrow and flew back in the direction of the labyrinth, soon catching up with the retreating monster.

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    Feeling a lot of relief, Sunny made sure that the centurion's route would not put him on the collision course with the knoll they had been hiding behind and finally allowed himself to relax... slightly.

    He waited until the scythe-wielding monster was completely gone before slowly rising back to his feet.

    "It's safe to come out now."

    Nephis and Cassie stood up, stretching and massaging their limbs. Suddenly remembering how tightly they were pressed against each other while hiding behind the knoll, Sunny just barely avoided turning red with embarrassment.

    'That's… uh… was a necessary measure!'

    He was almost glad that the Carapace Demon had appeared at the perfect moment to take his thought away from that situation.

    "What happened?"

    Nephis looked at him and raised an eyebrow. For once, her expression of indifference did not look very convincing.

    Sunny glanced at the not-so-distant Ashen Barrow and shivered.

    "There's danger ahead. We need to return to the Bone Ridge. I'll explain everything once we're safe and sound, back at the camp."

    She opened her mouth to say something, but then thought better of it and remained silent, simply giving him a nod. The trust they had built was enough for that much, at least.

    Sunny summoned the Echo, tied the golden rope around its torso, placed Cassie's makeshift saddle back on its carapace and helped the blind girl climb to her seat.

    Picking up the saddlebags, he fixed them back onto the scavenger and took a step away. They were ready to go.

    Before that, however, Sunny had one more thing to do. Coming close to the knoll, he used his hands to brush the sand off its surface.

    Soon, the onyx black surface was revealed beneath. It was the same exact color as the bark of the colossal tree growing from the center of the Ashen Barrow.

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    The knoll was, in fact, just a small portion of one of the tree's giant roots, raised slightly above the ground in this part of the wasteland.

    Sunny looked around, trying to calculate the size of this sea of ash. Finally, he was starting to understand what had drained all life from the giant patch of the crimson labyrinth.


    Back inside the Bone Ridge, they were sitting around the fire. The delicious smell of roasting meat filled the air, making Sunny's stomach produce embarrassing sounds. However, it wasn't time to eat yet. He was in the middle of telling the girls about what he had seen.

    "... after the centurion kneeled, another carapace creature came from the top of the Ashen Barrow. Only this one was not one of those we had seen before. It was easily twice the size of the centurion, six or seven meters tall. I can't even imagine how much it weighs. It looked like a moving house."

    Nephis frowned, clearly not happy to know that there was such a behemoth barring their way.

    "What's more, its carapace is not made of chitin. Instead, it looks like some strange metal alloy. I don't think we'll be able to cut through it. I also didn't notice any gaps in that monstrosity's armor, not even around the joints."

    Cassie gulped, turning her head to her friend. Changing Star, however, remained silent.

    Sunny sighed.

    "In addition, that thing has four arms instead of the usual two, a pair with pincers and a pair with scythes. They're even bigger than the centurion's. Its carapace is littered with spikes, and it has long horns on its head. It also looks… uh… more human-like. It almost got a face, albeit an extremely ugly one. And its eyes… well, I think that it is more sentient than anything we had faced before."

    Nephis was thoughtful. After a while, she said:

    "It is probably an awakened demon."

    Nightmare Creatures with one soul core were called "beasts", the ones with two cores were called "monsters". Three cores belonged to a class of creatures known as "demons", with "devils" right above them with four cores.

    Sunny gave her a nod, indicating that he was in agreement with her conclusion.

    "Or maybe a devil. In any case, I think we should avoid that scary bastard at all cost."

    Changing Star stared at him, tilting her head a little. For a minute or so, there was only silence.

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    Sunny gritted his teeth, then sighed, then blinked a couple of times. Finally, he gave her a doomed, crooked smile.

    "Let me guess. You want to kill it..."

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