The air still stank of blood and death. The battle was four days ago, but the stench would linger for many months to come.
Jaylene watched her team as they climbed the final foothill. They were forty strong, but greener than she would like. The campaign had depleted the army’s numbers; many of their best soldiers had fallen because it was easier to die than it was to continue fighting. Their replacements were merely adequate. She had voiced her concerns, but the Warlord wanted a trophy to commemorate his recent victory, and it fell to Jaylene to deliver.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this,” she had told them before setting out. “Do what I tell you, and most of you will come back alive.”
Thankfully, she didn’t anticipate too many complications. Their quarry was large, but predictable. Numbers and coordination would be more important than hunting prowess, even if the team’s youth was beginning to try her patience.
“Battle’s over,” whined Hector. “Why we back now? I’m hungry, I’m cold, and ain’t nothin’ here to find.” His shoulders slouched like those of a petulant child. Which he was. Hector was young. Barely even 16. He had been pressed into service as part of the tax after his mother (and his brothers) had died at the front. Every family was obligated to provide one individual for the war effort. Hector’s father had more value as a smith, so Hector was what Jaylene was left with.
Colt saved her the trouble of a response.
“We are here because your Warlord expects it of you,” said her second in command. “Ours is not the place to question.”
Hector grumbled, but listened. Jaylene locked eyes with Colt. She knew he had the same misgivings, but she was hoping his steady poise would calm the rest of the party.
They crested the hill, and the battlefield sprawled out before them.
“Blazing hell. What happened?” asked Hector.
“This is the last stand of Harlon Peller, Sole and Presiding Elder of the Marshlands,” said Tamia. There was a hint of sadness in the warrior’s voice that endeared her to Jaylene. Like Jaylene, Tamia understood what had been lost. Each woman had joined with Warlord Darius after their respective nations had been conquered. Harlon Peller was simply the most recent conquest. She had held out for months and extracted a heavy price, but her death meant that her efforts had been futile. The Marshlands would be dissolved, and its people would become fodder for Darius’s machine.
Jaylene despised the arrangement, but she had nevertheless used her prowess as a hunter to secure a privileged position apart from the standing army. It was far safer than fighting at the front, and it gave her value to Darius. That generally made things easier. She disagreed with a lot of the things she did, but she had seen what happened to those who disobeyed his whims.
Jaylene surveyed the field. The wasteland teemed with life, even though every soldier lay dead. Carrion birds circled the skies. Worms and insects burrowed through rotten flesh. However, she did not see what they had come for. She frowned. Were they too late? Had someone else been here first? She shook her head. No, that didn’t seem likely. No one else had troops to spare for such a task. If they had, there would be more evidence of a struggle.
Then she heard the telltale splintering of trees in the forest that edged the east side of the field.
“There,” said Colt. A skilled archer, he always had the sharpest eyes in the group. She followed his finger, and saw the tops of the trees swaying unnaturally on the horizon.
“I mark you,” said Jaylene. Soon, what looked like the top of a boulder rose out of the canopy and lurched towards the battlefield. More trees shattered and fell as the hulking thing rolled through the forest.
“Lord almighty, that thing’s huge,” said a voice from the end of the line.
“I thought we had big ones at camp,” said another.
“Steady,” said Jaylene. “It’s not here for us. But stay sharp. It will kill you if it has to.”
She didn’t know if that would calm them, but it did get them to shut up, which was good enough. Jaylene watched as the creature lumbered onto the field. Next to her, Colt whistled softly. His reaction was understandable. They had both hunted big game before, but this was massive, even for a Gravehide Warbeast. An adult Warbeast was usually as big as a barn. This one was at least double that size. If it stood on its hind legs, it would be damn near as tall as a cathedral. It looked like a walking mound of stone and soil, with leathery grey hide that contrasted with the smooth, silvery streak along its head and back.
“What do you think? Should we bring it back alive?” asked Tamia. “Seems like a waste to bring it down. A beast that big could break a siege all by itself.”
Jaylene thought about it—the Warbeast was a spectacular specimen—but ultimately shook her head.
“Aye. But it could just as easily destroy the camp if we can’t keep it under control. We have siege breakers. We were told to bring back weapons, and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
“You’re the boss,” said Tamia, resting on her sword. “Just tell me when.”
The Warbeast stopped in the middle of the field and let out a low, raspy grunt that seemed to vibrate the wet grass at their feet. Then it started to graze. When it raised its head, the liquefied parts of a dozen corpses spilled out of its half-open mouth.
The younger members of the group retched as the masticated limbs splashed to the ground. In truth, the sight looked more gruesome than it was. Warbeasts did not eat flesh. They ate metal. But teeth made for breaking steel had no trouble with skin and bone. A Warbeast would grind a human down to pulp just to get at the heavy plate mail it was wearing. It was a lot more efficient than peeling the weapons and armor off a moldy skeleton.
“Wait until it’s had its fill,” said Jaylene.
“It’ll take a while,” said Colt.
“Aye. But I don’t want to fight that thing while it’s hungry.”
They waited for another two hours, until the Warbeast had cleared out a circle nearly half a mile in diameter. Then it dropped to its haunches and let out a satisfied snort as it lay down on its sizable belly. It rested its head on thick forelegs that stretched in front of it like a dog.
“All right, that’s our cue,” said Jaylene. “You were trained for this. You know what to do.”
“Do we really have to fight that thing?” moaned Hector.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Because that’s what we were told to do. Now get ready. Harpoons, fire on my mark.”
Jaylene climbed over the rise and slid down the far side of the hill. Colt, Tamia, and three dozen soldiers followed. The party fanned out as they marched across the field, striding confidently through the knee-high grass. Unlike other game, there was little need to sneak up on a Warbeast. Creatures that big had little interest in anything as insignificant as people. Though they were well armored, Warbeasts did not chase their food, and this one certainly didn’t perceive them as a threat. Jaylene had learned to use that to her advantage. Strike first and strike true, and even the largest monster would fall without much of a fight.
As they approached, the grey, lumpen mass came into greater focus. The body was covered in coarse grey fur, while its forelegs looked like rough stone, as if they were wrapped in loose boulders from a quarry. The smooth, silvery streak on its back proved to be a metal carapace that grew out of its skull and stretched down the full length of its spine. All of the metal the creature had consumed was being pushed to the surface through its skin, a natural armor literally forged from the digested weapons of the fallen. Gravehide Warbeasts were scavengers. For them, there was no feast better than the aftermath of war.
That was why Darius had sent Jaylene. A Gravehide Warbeast was sure to follow any battle; just another creature feeding on the war, as well as one of the spoils that went to the victor.
The terrain became easier as they reached the area the Warbeast had cleared and they no longer had to step over corpses and sharp objects. Here, the ground was a soggy soup of blood and ichor that made it impossible to distinguish the squelch of friend from the squelch of foe.
They finally reached their prey. With a wave from Jaylene, the troops moved to surround it. The giant lazily studied them with an eye the size of a wagon wheel. Jaylene fearlessly met its gaze and raised an open palm. She looked to her left, where Colt nodded. She looked to her right, where Tamia did the same. Then she closed her fist.
With a twang, twenty harpoons rocketed into the legs of the monster and it roared to life. Jaylene smiled. No matter how big they got, her harpoons were always strong enough to pierce the toughest skin.
The ground shook as the Warbeast clambered to its feet. It lifted its left foreleg and two men were pulled off the ground, both foolishly clinging to the ropes from their harpoons. They soared through the air behind the massive limb, screaming until they landed some sixty feet away. The others had been smart enough to let go of their ropes, or had already staked them deep into the ground. The beast struggled against its restraints, ripping several spikes out of the ground as it circled and spun. One soldier was trampled as she got too close. Hector was impaled on a spike that was whipped around the circle. He gurgled for a moment, then fell silent.
But the giant was tired and confused, and only managed to entangle itself in the remaining ropes as it searched for the source of its agony. It soon tripped and fell back to the earth in obvious pain.
The second volley went out as it landed. This time, the harpoons arced over the back of the creature and embedded themselves in the ground on the opposite side, where her troops rushed in to pull them taut. The beast tried to rise again. A few ropes snapped, but the rest held firm as it struggled against the thick cords of its cable prison.
“One more,” yelled Jaylene. A third volley soared over the living boulder. This time, the creature could not push off its forelegs. Instead, it rattled the air with an agonized roar, desperate for the freedom that was now denied.
Satisfied, Jaylene circled her quarry, coming to a stop in front of its massive, armored skull. She still found it difficult to believe that the metal carapace was natural, a perfect helm that seemed to exist solely to batter the wooden doors of a keep. The Warbeast snorted, its hot breath visible in the cold air as black gunk pooled on its nose and around its eyes. It again stared at her with its wagon eye, this time with a hint of sadness that resigned it to its fate.
A true hunter, Jaylene would not let the creature suffer without cause. She stepped forward and focused her energies, taking a few minutes to build the degenerative power of her spell. When she was ready, she detonated the stack inside the Warbeast’s head. It recoiled from the force of the explosion, then collapsed and lay still, dead from the energy burst inside its skull. Black smoke wafted from its nose while its tongue oozed slowly from its mouth.
Jaylene nodded to Tamia. She took the greatsword off her back and approached the monster’s considerable belly. She made a long incision, a process that took several minutes due to the thickness of its skin. The smell on the battlefield somehow became worse after she exposed the creature’s innards. Tamia sighed. Then she crawled into the opening, emerging some time later covered in slime. In her hand was a small piece of metal coated in yellow bile. Beneath the grime, distinct layers of cold blue, black, grey, and green had somehow been fused into one piece of steel that shimmered like a puddle of oil in the muted sunlight.
“There’s more here than we can carry,” she said. “This one’s worth a fortune.”
Jaylene turned to Colt. “Go back and report,” she said. “We’ll wait here for retrieval.”
“You, you, you, and you, with me,” said Colt. “And someone grab that hunk of metal.”
Tamia handed the sample to one of the soldiers, and the five departed. With any luck, they would be back before sundown with enough smiths to break the beast apart and enough wagons to carry back the lode. That was, after all, what they had come for.
As fearsome as they were in battle, Warbeasts were often worth much more dead than alive. The metal on its back was good salvage (and this one had a lot of it). The metal in its gut was priceless. The best weapons were forged from Arlin Steel, a unique alloy that only seemed to form when other metals were digested and compressed inside the stomach of a Warbeast. Jaylene guessed this one had enough raw material to arm one of Darius’s covert raiding squads, and that would make the Warlord happy. Conscripting troops was easy enough, but good swords were hard to come by.
Jaylene watched Colt’s small band disappear over the rise. Then she addressed the rest of the group.
“Bury the dead. The fresh ones, anyway,” she said, eyeing Hector’s bloody corpse and a gigantic horned beetle lurking near the edge of the battlefield. “The rest of you start carving. The faster we get this done, the quicker we can load the wagons and get back to camp.”
There was a bustle of activity as the party went about the tasks they had been assigned.
Tamia approached Jaylene and pulled a small piece of metal from her pouch. “Got you something while I was in there,” she said, still dripped in muck and slime. “Figured you might want to add it to your collection.”
Jaylene thanked her and pocketed the trophy. She always kept something from every kill, though in truth she took little pride in this one. There was no thrill here. It was a clean and efficient, a murder performed to sustain a war that had no purpose beyond itself, a being conquered simply because it was there.
Deep down, Jaylene longed for the wilderness and the glory of the hunt. She wondered if she would ever get to experience the freedom that had for so long been denied.
Help Nomnivore Games release more free lore stories and new DLC for the EMBERWIND role-playing game through our new Kickstarter for EMBERWIND: Core, live now!
Go toe-to-toe with Gravehide Warbeast by downloading its free DLC Foe Card.
This week’s Archive story comes from Eric Weiss, a Toronto-based writer, performer, and media critic. In addition to his work with EMBERWIND, he is the current Associate Editor (and former Games Editor) for ThatShelf.com, as well as the writer and co-creator of the stage play Not All Fedoras.
Art by CRUSHVisual Studios.