Close to the evening, with the sun tiredly descending toward the horizon, a strange creature walked out of the colorless remains of the labyrinth. If "walking" was even the right word.
Dragging its legs in the sand, the creature somehow floated forward without moving them. It looked like a carapace centurion, or at least a close approximation of one.
All the necessary parts were in place. The creature had a black carapace with a menacing crimson pattern on it, a humanoid torso, eight segmented legs and two arms ending with formidable bone scythes. However, all these parts looked mismatched and strange, as though put together by some clumsy sculptor.
Additionally, the centurion moved as if it was seriously drunk.
The carapace was careening to one side, sometimes scraping against the sand. The torso was swinging back and forth for no apparent reason. The scythes were awkwardly lodged behind the creature's back, crossed against each other at a strange angle.
At some point, one of them simply dropped to the ground. The centurion stopped and hesitated for a few seconds, as though unsure what to do. Then it left its scythe arm behind and continued on its way as if nothing had happened.
A perceptive observer would have noticed that the creature seemed to possess two shadows. The first shadow was as one would expect, its shape identical to the creature itself. The second one resembled a human. It briefly showed itself from beneath the larger shadow when the centurion abandoned the runaway limb.
The human shadow then proceeded to facepalm and shake its head in utter contempt.
The whole situation was nothing short of being completely bizarre. But, for better or worse, there was nobody around to notice the weird creature.
Unobstructed, it traversed the wasteland, moving in the direction of the Ashen Barrow. Soon, it was almost at the footstep of the tall hill.
The sunset was approaching.
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The strange centurion plopped on the ground at the base of the Ashen Barrow and stopped moving completely. Awkward and lopsided, it looked like a parody of the other monster of its kind who had kneeled gracefully at the same spot a few days prior.
Additionally, it arrived without a tribute. There was no transcendent soul shard in sight. Added to the disrespectful pose, this transgression was more than enough to get the centurion killed.
Perhaps… it was suicidal.
On top of the barrow, the Carapace Demon moved and rose from the ashen sand. His shining armor glistened, reflecting the light of the setting sun. Encased in bright metal, with a crown of horns adorning his head, the demon looked fearsome and sinister. Gazing down, he lingered for a few moments.
Two dark scarlet embers ignited in the depths of the demon's eyes. Shifting his terrifying scythes, the giant monster walked forward, slowly descending from the hill to face the strange visitor.
The ground shook as he approached. However, the bizarre centurion did not even flinch. In fact, it remained completely motionless.
The Carapace Demon stopped some distance away from the suspicious creature. He observed it, clearly understanding that its pathetic appearance might be a trap. The labyrinth was full of unimaginable dangers. Rashly approaching an unknown foe was not something an awakened demon, who possessed his own form of intelligence, would do.
At least that was what the three Sleepers had assumed.
However, they were wrong.
Just a second later, the Carapace Demon lunged forward. Its scythe flashed through the air, severing the centurion's torso in half. The adamantine chitin was cut apart as though it was made of butter. The upper half of the monster's torso flew off, revealing… only emptiness inside.
…On the other side of the Ashen Barrow, Sunny, who was running up the slope with all his might, cursed under his breath.
That was too soon!
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He thought that they would have more time. Who knew that the Carapace Demon would turn out to be such a daredevil? He didn't even hesitate before going all out!
With Cassie riding piggyback on his back, Sunny gritted his teeth and tried to run even faster.
It was time to switch to plan B…
A moment later, the weird centurion's carapace came apart, setting the Echo that had been hiding underneath it free. Pushing the pieces of chitin away with its powerful pincers, the scavenger rushed toward the towering demon. It was aiming to duck underneath it and, hopefully, mess up the giant's legs.
The first part of Sunny's plan was rather simple. They were going to use the remains of a dead carapace centurion to disguise the Echo, which was much smaller in comparison, as one of the officers of the carapace legion.
Then, they would send it to the base of the Ashen Barrow to lure the demon away. The three of them were going to circle the hill and hide themselves under the grey sand in advance, then run up the slope and to the center of the island as soon as the demon had left.
The Echo was supposed to buy them enough time to climb the great tree and conceal themselves in its branches. Then, Sunny would dismiss the Echo, thus finishing the first stage of the plan. He never intended for the scavenger to actually fight the fearsome demon!
However, the Carapace Demon's unusually swift act of aggression had messed up the timing of the whole thing. The decoy was already destroyed, yet they weren't even halfway to the tree.
In this situation, there was no choice but to order the Echo to attack, hoping that it could stall the giant monster. That way, of course, Sunny was putting his scavenger at risk…
But there was no other choice.
Just as he was about to reach the crest of the hill, the Echo tried to hide itself beneath the Carapace Demon's massive body. It was doing the same thing that Nephis had done when fighting the first carapace centurion, intending to use the size of the enemy against it.
The difference was that this time, the smaller participant of the fight was clad in a sturdy carapace, as opposed to a squishy human girl who had no protection. Even if the demon tried to crush the scavenger with its weight, it wouldn't be able to kill it.
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However, the demon understood it too.
Moving with incredible speed, he shifted his torso and struck out with a pincer. The scavenger was swatted away like an irritating insect, flying through the air and heavily crashing onto the ground. Its carapace had almost cracked.
Running toward the great tree, Sunny grimaced. He wanted to dismiss the Echo, but knew that it was too soon. They needed more time…
Ahead of him, Nephis was already approaching the enormous black trunk. Not wasting any time, she removed the seaweed rucksack from her back, gently laid it on the ground, and began climbing, grabbing onto the cracks of the onyx bark.
Meanwhile, the Echo was shakily rising to its legs. A stubborn light was burning in its eyes. Producing a loud screech, it clacked its pincers in the air and once again rushed toward the demon.
'Go get him, buddy!' Sunny screamed inwardly, wishing his scavenger luck with all his heart.
The smaller creature bravely ran toward the steel behemoth, raising its pincers to attack. It was followed by two shadows — one bestial, the other one human.
Sunny was quickly shortening the distance to the great tree…
Below the hill, the Carapace Demon calmly stepped toward the rushing enemy. Its four arms moved in unison.
Suddenly, the scavenger's arms were sliced off. Its body was gripped in two giant pincers and raised into the air.
Sunny didn't even have time to react.
A fraction of a second later, the demon slightly strained its arms and tore the Echo in two, separating its torso from the carapace and crushing both halves into a bloody pulp.
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On top of the hill, Sunny stumbled.
The familiar voice resounded like a tolling bell in his ears.
[Your Echo has been destroyed…]