Bestiary Series: Survival Instincts

Clara knelt and reached down to trace a clawed footprint, its fresh edges casting shadows in the bright moonlight. She pressed her finger into its centre, testing the softness of the large canine print. Blood Hound?…no, something else. Taking a whiff, she didn’t catch anything unusual, just the musty odour of fresh earth.

She rubbed her leather-clad fingers together, scraping off mud while scanning the nearby forest, now shrouded in evening fog. The trail led straight into the woods. The large number of prints made it difficult to judge just how many creatures had raided the village, but it had to be at least five or six, counting the leader.

Adjusting the pack on her shoulders, Clara stood and stretched, relishing the moment of relief when her shoulders popped. Even with her powers, she felt every additional year of life in her bones a little bit more. But her experiences had taught her to welcome this progression, a reminder of her journey along The Winding Path.

That experience also made her invaluable to Lord Thomme. It was why he’d selected her to investigate the recent raids on villages in his lands, and the missing villagers. From what she gathered during her interviews, a pack of beasts had broken into five houses, and at least one person had gone missing from each.

The most recent attack earlier this evening had resulted in another person being carried off, but the rest of the family had fought back, and severely burned the leader of the invaders. When asked to describe their attackers, the only answer Clara got was that they were like nothing the other family members had ever seen before.

That and the tracks leading out of the village were what had led her to this animal trail leading into the woods. Most of the tracks looked like plague dogs. Despite their name, the beasts weren’t disease ridden, but were called that due to their mottled pink skin.

The footprint she had just examined, however, was much larger than the others—larger than any plague dog she’d ever heard of. Not to mention, plague dogs typically avoided civilized areas, and were more comfortable in the deep wilds. If they were coming out to attack humans, something was wrong in the forest.

Clara slowly walked toward the woods, all of her sense alert for any movement. At the tree line, she put a hand on the rough bark of one of the gigantic trunks. She didn’t dare close her eyes, but focused on the sounds coming from the darkness under the boughs. The creaking wood sounded like an ominous portent to her ears.

She drew her curved sword, twirling her wrist to refamiliarize herself with the heft of the blade.  Her skin prickled as she stepped into the forest, the temperature dropping once she left the open field.

The trail became more difficult to see, but Clara found enough broken branches, torn-up dirt, and other signs of passage to keep following her quarry. Usually at ease in the forest, tonight her senses jangled with each step, as if she was being watched. She peered around, searching for any sign of an ambush, but the dense woods remained desolate and silent.

As she walked further in, another scent drifted to her along with the surrounding pine, broadleaf, and ferns—the coppery scent of fresh meat. Several minutes into her journey, she came upon the remains of at least a half-dozen corpses heaped in a pile, most of the meat gnawed from their bones. The remains of the latest addition to their cache—a young man—lay nearby, devoured from the chest down.

The formerly straight path of the pack also ended here, the tracks now going in several different directions. Clara crouched and studied the clawed-up ground, trying to make sense of the chaos.

In the distance, she heard a muffled whine, followed by answering yips. Fingers tight on the hilt of her knife, she crept forward toward the sounds, hoping to catch the pack by surprise. Branches and brush clutched at her arms and legs, as if imploring her to turn back, but Clara was determined to put an end to this threat once and for all.

The animal noises grew louder as she approached, and Clara was grateful she was coming in downwind of the pack, for she had no doubt they would attack her on sight or smell. But with slow, careful steps, she was able to get close enough to the clearing to get a look at what was going on.

It was plague dogs, all right, a half-dozen of them. They seemed to be surrounding one of their members who was hunched on the ground, and Clara caught a new scent on the wind, that of burned flesh.

As she watched, she noticed the rest of the pack members weren’t behaving like they normally would, as subordinates under a clearly defined leader. Instead, the group seemed to be all focused on the wounded one, as if they were somehow communicating among each other about it.

Clara stood on tiptoes in an effort to see better, and that when one of the dogs yelped in surprise as it was yanked off its feet and pulled toward the one in the center. Her eyes widened as green tentacles from some sort of creature on the back of the central animal curled around the other plague dog and pulled it toward the one in the middle.

The central dog was much larger than the others, but in the moonlight trickling down through the trees, Clara could see its face was severely burned. The tentacles were coming from a larger mass on its back, covering it like some kind of protective shell.

She stared in fascinated horror as the green organism extruded even more tentacles, and transferred itself to the new host. The previous carrier rolled over dead, its large, limp body already deflating now that the other creature had left it.

The new host snapped once at the being that was flowing over its back, but then it went still as the symbiote flowed onto it and settled into place. The plague dog’s muscles began to snap and pop, and it writhed in pain as it almost doubled in size right before her eyes. It growled, although in pleasure or pain she couldn’t tell, and its eyes took on an eerie lambent green gleam.

Suddenly, the larger dog turned its head to look straight at her.

As one, the rest of the pack also turned and looked at her. Pale lips curled back from inch-long fangs as every plague dog in the clearing growled in one voice.

Clara drew upon her magic and threw out a hand. Fire bloomed bright from her outstretched fingers, the glare making the pack whine and look away. Two dogs were caught in the burst, yelping and running as their coats were set ablaze.

She used the distraction to turn and ran back into the forest. Even if the two she had burned were out of the fight—and she doubted they were—taking on the other three at once was suicide. And that wasn’t even counting the new leader—along with whatever sort of beast was now attached to it.

Fear lent Clara’s feet speed as she shot through the dark woods, her leather boots pounding against the black soil and fallen leaves. She heard the rest of the pack breaking through the trees behind her, and knew if she could get back to the field, she might have a better chance to escape—or at least see them coming at her.

A series of yipping barks on her right made her shift a few degrees left to avoid the dog that seemed to be pacing her. But she had only taken a few steps in the new direction when a shadow burst out from the underbrush at her.

Clara instinctively ducked and tucked her shoulder, rolling as a plague dog sailed overhead, jaws snapping at now-empty air. She rose to her feet as it landed a few steps away, skidding to a stop as it looked back at her.

Another plague dog appeared out of the darkness to her right, fanged mouth also open wide as it charged at her. They tried to herd me into an ambush!

Instead of retreating, Clara lunged forward, sinking the point of her sword deep into the second dog’s throat. Blood gushed from the wound and the creature gurgled, falling on its side as she wrenched the weapon free.

The other dog had turned and was coming back at her. Clara cast her magic again, and the attacking plague dog was wrenched violently aside, slamming into a nearby tree with a thud. Sliding to the ground, it picked itself up and shook its head, saliva flying from its mouth as it tried to recover. Instead of attacking again, it whirled and ran off into the woods.

Growls from more of the beasts sounded from different directions. Clara couldn’t tell if the echoes were playing tricks with her, or if the pack had truly surrounded her. She ran to the nearest stout tree and put her back against it before looking around.

At least three more of the beasts stalked through the trees toward her. Tapping into her internal energy, she reached out and hurled more fire at the beast in the centre.

A blossom of flame burst around the creature’s body, singeing its fur and making it yip in pain. The flame spread from her initial target, dancing to the pair of plague dogs nearby and burning them as well. The first one she had targeted, its tail on fire and its back catching, turned to ran. But it only took a step or two before the larger plague dog emerged from the trees and slammed it to the ground, pinning it with a giant front paw.

In the firelight, the plague brute looked more than twice the size of the others. It glared at Clara like it was actually studying her, as if daring her to challenge it. The plague dog held under its paw squirmed to get free, flames still crackling along its skin. Without breaking eye contact with Clara, the leader stretched its long head down and snapped the pack member’s neck in a single bite.

The bulbous mass on its back quivered, and its several tentacles quested out in multiple directions, as if testing the air. The light green form was semi-translucent and caught the glow from the fire on the plague dog’s body, almost making the creature shed its own light as the plague brute 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 cripple the leader, or at least the creature on its back. Its skin shriveled and the wrinkles covering it deepened, but the magic had less effect than she anticipated. The brute stepped back under the assault, shaking its head and snapping at the air, then it opened its cavernous mouth wide and roared at her. It followed that up with a charge, kicking up dirt and leaves with each footfall.

She summoned a larger flame, willing it into existence around the leader and pouring on all the energy she could muster. Normally, this blaze would have burned 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, going under its reach, and slashed at the creature’s side as she passed. The green substance seemed to harden the instant before she hit, making her blade bounce off with a thud of metal on its surface.

The huge beast twisted around, snapping at Clara before she could dodge or pull back.  Sharp fangs sank into her arm, piercing the armour and into the flesh underneath. Her blood warmed her skin and soaked into the torn edges of the stiff leather gauntlet.

As she backpedaled, the gigantic brute advanced, jaws snapping like a flag in a windstorm. The strange green tentacles also seemed to be reaching out toward her. Clara did everything she could to stay ahead of the bites and the glistening limbs. When her heel hit a root, she fell backward, narrowly avoiding a claw-studded paw swipe at her head. The talons ripped chunks of wood out of the tree, sending them flying through the air.

Clara rolled to the side, thrusting her sword at the green coating. The creature’s surface turned her weapon away again, jarring her arm as the force of her blow drove her sideways.

A waving tendril lashed out to fasten on her armoured shoulder. Clara pulled away, and a bit of the green ooze came with her. It slid down her arm fast than she expected, bringing a surprising chill as it approached her bleeding wound. Her hand clenched beyond her control as the ooze touched her bare skin. More out of instinct than conscious thought, Clara drew upon her magic again, this time willing the flame to burst into life on her own arm. The fire bloomed, and she cried out as her skin singed and she caught the odor of her own burned hair. But after a few seconds, the blackened remains of the goo flaked off and fell to the ground.

The larger plague dog had paused its attack during this, but now padded toward her again, tentacles waving all around its head. Clara knew she couldn’t last much longer. If it thinks, at least more than a pure animal, perhaps I can lure it into a feint. As the creature stalked her, she staggered, letting her weapon hang down and to the side.

Spotting her weakness, the monster pounced, claws outstretched and mouth open wide to tear into her. As it sailed through the air at her, Clara dove forward, holding her weapon up and planting her shoulder behind it, using the full weight of her body to drive it into the beast’s unprotected underbelly.

Between her force and the monster’s lunge, her blade penetrated deep into its flesh, slashing it open from chest to pelvis. Blood and viscera rained down on Clara, nearly blinding her until she frantically wiped the gore away.

Gutted, the plague brute fell on top of her, turning its head to try and snap at her one last time even as its eyes clouded over.

The other plague dogs scattered as Clara pulled herself out from under the lead animal’s limp, heavy legs. It smelled like death, a scent she never thought she’d get out of her armour.

She had just stood up when she felt something wrap around her leg. Looking down, she saw a tentacle slithering up toward her chest. Clara pulled away and slashed her blade down, chopping the tentacle off of the main body. Retreating out of range of the other tentacles on the plague brute’s corpse, she scraped the rest of the bit of green off her armor, then hacked it to pieces on the ground before burning the rest.

Next Clara turned her fire on the main body of the creature, Its tentacles flailed and writhed in the air, but she made sure none of them came close to her. The amount of green coating shrank under the directly-applied blaze, and the tendrils grew thinner and less frequent, until the beast appeared well and truly dead. A few bits of the charred coating still clung to its back, but when Clara prodded them with her sword, they didn’t move.

Satisfied that this strange threat had finally been defeated, Clara headed out of the forest to find a wagon driver to help her cart the carcass back to Lord Thomme. He’d want to see the body of the brute for himself and present it to the people to assure them that the threat had been vanquished.

And she needed to make sure no one touched the remaining green spots on its back. Just in case.

* * *

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 large plague dog into the lord’s hall. She unloaded the beast onto the floor, staining the polished stones possibly beyond the hope of ever being pristine again.

“My lord, I return from my successful hunt with the body of the creature responsible for terrorizing your people.” Clara had tried to clean herself up as best she could, but was aware that she was still quite a sight, covered in dried blood from the plague dog and nursing the nasty burn on her arm that she was too exhausted to heal yet.

Lore Thomme rose from his throne and stepped forward, his cluster of advisors right behind him. The remains of the green substance still clung to the plague dog’s back. It had hardened under the fire, and its shine had diminished, but it still looked unlike anything she had seen in all her years.

“It looks like a plague dog, but much larger,” Lord Thomme said. “What is that?” he asked gesturing at the patches of dull green ooze.

“I don’t know,” Clara replied. “But whatever this monster is, it drove the rest of its pack to very unusual behaviour—such as attacking the villagers. And as far as I can determine, the substance made it much smarter than the average plague dog as well.”

As she spoke, her head dipped forward and snapped back up. Her exertions, injury, and lack of sleep over the past night threatened to overcome her. Once she had given her report, she intended to collapse in her bed for half a day at least.

“And you are certain there are no other examples of this…thing around?” Lord Thomme asked. “It won’t due to announce that the creature has been slain, and then have the attacks resume elsewhere.”

“Yes, my lord—” Even as she spoke, the plague brute’s eyes snapped open. It pushed itself up, snapping weakly at Lord Thomme. He yelped as one of his advisors yanked him back.

Clara pulled her weapon free of its scabbard, her exhaustion dropping away as adrenaline coursed through her. She had realized how to dispatch the beast once and for all.

The revived brute slipped and staggered on the stone floor as it turned to face her. Her sword arm blurred as she slashed at the creature’s neck, continuing to cut even after the beast had collapsed to the ground. When she finally stopped, the plague dog’s head had been severed from its body. Her weary arm, still clutching her blade, hung at her side as she panted for breath. As the lord and her advisors recovered, she examined the creature’s chest where she had slashed it earlier. The grievous wound from their previous fight had nearly completely 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.

“We burn it to ash.” She said as she summoned her magic and lashed out one more time, pouring searing flame into the rest of the corpse. “It’s too dangerous to keep around.”

As the body burned, Clara collapsed to a knee, catching herself with a hand to keep from falling on her face. 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 pulling his cart back out of the palace doors. A patch of bright green peeked out from under the collar of his rough shirt.

Clara tried to lift an arm and point at him, tried to scream a warning, but 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 DragonfireShadowrun: 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.

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