LORE ARCHIVE – Survival Instincts

Clara took a knee and reached down to trace the outline of a footprint. She pressed her finger against the centre of the pad, testing the softness of the large canine print. Liquid oozed from the edges, darkening the leather of her gloves. Taking a whiff, she didn’t catch anything unusual, just the standard musty odour of tilled earth.

Out of habit more than anything else, she rubbed her fingers together, scraping off some of the mud. Her attention turned to the nearby woods, still shrouded in lingering morning fog. The trail led to the woods in a direct line. The large number of prints made it difficult to judge just how many creatures raided the village, but it had to be at least four.

Adjusting the pack across her shoulders, Clara stood and stretched. She relished the moment of relief when her shoulders popped, releasing some of the tension. Even with her powers, age continued its slow and inevitable onslaught against her body. But her experiences taught her to welcome this progression, a reminder of her journey along The Winding Path.

Her experience also made her invaluable to Lord Thomme, which was why he had selected her to investigate the reports of missing villagers. From what she gathered during her preliminary interviews, something had broken down the doors of five houses, and a person had gone missing from each one so far. Her investigations had led her to this animal trail going further into the woods.

Most of the tracks looked like plague dogs. Despite the name, the beasts weren’t disease-ridden, but were called that due to their mottled pink skin. One of the footprints, however, was much larger than the others—larger than any plague dog she’d ever heard of. Not to mention, plague dogs avoided civilized areas and were much more comfortable in the deep wilds.

Clara slowly headed toward the woods, keeping her eyes open for any movement. When she reached the tree line, she stopped, putting a hand on the rough bark of one of the gigantic trunks. She didn’t dare close her eyes, but tilted her head to the side to focus on the sounds coming from the darkness under the boughs. The creaking wood sounded like an ominous portent.

Before stepping forward, she drew her curved blade, twirling her wrist to refamiliarize herself with its weight. Her skin prickled when she took her next step into the forest, the temperature dropping as she left the field.

The trail became more difficult to follow, but she still found broken branches, torn-up dirt, and other signs of animal passage. About a dozen paces in, she spotted the remains of several corpses heaped in a pile, most or all of the meat gnawed from their bones. The grisly sight answered the question about the missing villagers.

From here, the path split in several directions, looking like something had caused the plague dogs to scatter. Clara crouched down and studied the clawed-up ground, peering around to make sense of the chaos.

She didn’t hear anything, but the hairs on the back of her neck suddenly stood on end. The leather of her armour creaked as she shifted her weight, pulling her blade in tight to her body and tightening her legs.

As her warning senses screamed, Clara jumped aside and tucked her shoulder, rolling across her back and coming around to her feet as a plague dog landed where she had been crouched a moment before. It growled and snapped at the empty air. Clara stepped back, not taking the option of attacking the beast.

Another plague dog lunged from the darkness to her left. The beasts were coordinating their assault. If she had tried to counterattack the first, she would’ve had fangs in her calf by now.

Rather than continuing to retreat, Clara lunged forward, sinking her sword deep into the dog’s side. Blood gushed from the wound and the creature gurgled, staggering to the ground as she wrenched the weapon free. She dove over the animal’s back, knowing stopping meant her death.

Several more of the beasts growled from behind the trees around her. She couldn’t tell if the echoes were playing tricks with her or if the pack had truly surrounded her. Flicking her blade with a wrist snap, she ran to a tree and put her back against it.

The movement gave her a bit of reprieve and a chance to observe her surroundings. Three of the beasts stalked around the trees toward her. Fighting them with her blade would be suicidal. Tapping into her internal energies, she reached out and hurled fire at the beast in the centre.

A blossom of flame burst around the creature’s body, singeing the fur and making it yip in pain. The flame lashed out, dancing to the neighbouring plague dogs and charring their skin. The one she targeted turned and ran, taking only a few steps before a much larger plague dog emerged from the trees and slammed it to the ground, pinning it with a giant front paw.

The new arrival looked to be twice the size of the others. The brute looked at Clara with a vile intelligence the others didn’t possess, narrowing its eyes as if daring her to challenge it. The plague dog pinned under its paw squirmed to get free, the flames still dancing along its skin. The leader reached down and snapped the subordinate’s neck in a single bite, never breaking eye contact with Clara.

When it came around the tree, Clara saw its size was not its most remarkable trait. A large green… >something covered its entire back, the bulbous mass extending several tentacles that reached out in multiple directions. They swayed gently in the air, as if caught in a nonexistent breeze. The form was semi-translucent and caught the briefest of glows from the moonlight, almost making the creature shed its own light as it pushed forward.

The other plague dogs lowered their heads and pulled back, creating an opening for the leader. The growls stopped, replaced by a silence more terrifying than the ready threat of the beasts.

Clara lashed out with her magic again, trying to weaken the creature. It’s skin shrivelled and the wrinkles covering it deepened, but the magic had less effect than she anticipated. The brute took a step back in response, shaking its head before roaring a challenge back at her. It charged forward, the earth shaking with each footfall. If the withering attack weakened the strange animal, it didn’t seem to care.

Tapping into this much magic could be dangerous for both herself and the forest, but adventurers did not reach her age without listening to their instincts. She summoned a larger flame, willing it into existence around the leader and pouring in all the energy she could muster. Normally, the blaze would burn a plague dog to cinders before jumping to another, risking setting the entire forest ablaze. But the green substance slid around the monster’s body, shielding it from the magical attack. The licking flames did nothing more than reflect off the moving carapace.

The beast pounced, trying to pin Clara against the tree with its massive paws. She rolled toward it, getting under its reach and avoiding the blow. She reached up and slashed with her sword as she passed, slicing the creature in the side. The green substance somehow hardened the instant before she hit, making her blade dance off with a thud of metal on whatever-it-was.

The attack left her exposed and the huge beast twisted around, snapping at Clara before she could get out of the way. Its fangs pierced her arm, tearing through the armour and into the flesh underneath. Her own blood warmed her skin and soaked into the torn edges of the stiff leather gauntlet.

As she backpedalled, the gigantic brute advanced, jaws snapping like a flag in a windstorm. The strange green tentacles also seemed to be reaching out directly at her. Clara did everything she could to stay ahead of the bites and the glistening pseudopods. When her ankle hit a root, she ducked, narrowly avoiding the claw-studded paws swiping at her head. The talons ripped chunks of wood out of the tree, sending them flying through the air.

Clara danced to the side, thrusting with her sword and trying to pierce the green coating. The surface turned her weapon away again, making her stumble as the force of her blow shifted her sideways.

One of the waving tendrils stretched out to touch her armoured shoulder. Clara pulled away, and a section of the green substance separated as well, sticking to her. She didn’t hesitate, reaching up with her sword and using the curve to slice away the ooze. It smacked against the ground with a wet plop, but she didn’t dare give it any more attention, not with the beast still attacking her.

If it was more than a pure animal, perhaps she could lure it into a feint. As the creature stalked her, she staggered, letting her weapon hang down and to the side.

When the monster saw her weakness, it pounced, seeking to end the combat with a final overwhelming attack. Clara dove forward, holding her weapon up and planting her shoulder behind it, using the full force of her body to drive it into the beast’s unprotected underbelly.

She had to drop into the dirt, but the ploy worked. Between her force and the monster’s lunge, her weapon penetrated its flesh and slashed it open from chest to pelvis. Gutted, the plague brute fell to the side, struggling to breathe as its eyes clouded over.

The other plague dogs scattered, something Clara appreciated as she dug herself out from under one of the lead animal’s limp, heavy legs. The beast smelled like death, a scent she never thought she’d get out of her armour. Panting for breath, she walked around to its head, weapon still held ready in case she needed to strike one more time. To her relief, the creature’s eyes closed and its chest stilled. The various tendrils retracted into the green substance on its back.

Now she needed to find a wagon driver willing to help her cart the carcass back to Lord Thomme. He’d want to see the body of the brute and present it to the people.

* * *

It took a few hours to find a wagon driver willing to offer their services in the name of their lord. But by sunrise, Clara was carting the plague dog into the lord’s hall. She unloaded the beast onto the floor, staining the polished stones possibly beyond the hopes of ever being pristine again. At least the creature no longer bled.

“My lord, I return from my successful hunt with the body of the creature responsible for terrorizing your people.”

The lord stood up from his throne and stepped forward when he saw the unusual carcass, his advisors filing in just behind him. The green substance still clung to the plague dog’s back and curled around its side. Some of the shine had diminished, but it still looked unlike anything she had seen in all her years.

“What is that?” he asked gesturing at the dull green ooze.

“I don’t know,” she replied, “But whatever this monster is, it drove the pack to very unusual behaviour—like attacking the villagers.”

As she spoke, her head dipped forward and snapped back up. The previous evening’s exertions and lack of sleep threatened to overcome her. Once she finished giving her report, she intended to collapse in her bed for half a day at least.

“It looks like a plague dog, but much larger,” Lord Thomme said.

“Yes, my lord. And as far as I can determine, the substance made it much smarter as well.”

Clara gestured at the green mass on the creature’s back. As she did, its eyes snapped open. It pushed itself up, staggering and offering a weak snap at the lord. He yelped as one of his advisors yanked him back.

Clara tore her weapon free of its scabbard, her exhaustion dropping away as adrenaline coursed through her. She knew how to dispatch the beast once and for all, and she needed to do so before it completely recovered.

The revived brute slipped on the smooth floor as it turned to face Clara, but she stepped around its leg. Her arm blurred as she sliced several cuts through the creature’s neck. She continued cutting, even after the beast collapsed to the ground. When she finally stopped, her arm hanging at her side as she panted, she looked to the creature’s underbelly. The wound from their previous fight had sealed over. Small traces of the green substance lingered where the skin puckered.

“What should we do with it?” one of the advisors asked, his question cutting through Clara’s curiosity.

She summoned forth her magic and lashed out, pouring flame into the creature’s unprotected skin.

“We burn it to ash. It’s too dangerous to keep around.”

As the corpse burned, Clara collapsed to a knee, catching herself with one hand against the cool stones to keep from falling on her face. Her exhaustion threatened to overcome her and she knew she lacked the ability to keep it at bay any longer. She heard the guards rushing forward and her vision swirled, churning the meeting hall into a kaleidoscope of colour.

Through the haze she caught a glimpse of the villager driving his wagon out the doors, a patch of bright green peeking out from under the collar of his shirt. Darkness drowned everything before she could say a word.

***

This week’s Lore Archive entry was created by Dylan Birtolo. Dylan is a Game Designer for Lynnvander Studios and has worked on games like DragonfireShaowrun: Sprawl Ops, and Henchman.

Art by William Liu, a freelance artist from Toronto, Canada, who is passionate about designing and illustrating creatures and approaches life with a calm, curious demeanour.