“Sickle-Fiends? It would be Pesca’s Blessing if another century passed before we ever saw another one of those terrible creatures.” - Norbert Winlass, Alcidean Human landowner, shortly after an attack by a group of wandering Sickle-Fiends.
“Gamashatians? We only wish they could come for a visit more often. Little can compare to them in taste.” - Aer’rtrugh Wroa’rrhg, Al-Shanian Merfolk merchant, shortly after an attack by a group of wandering Sickle-Fiends.
Soon after the gatehouse opened the next morning, Cal was out of the city and back on her journey. A quick perusal of the new map she received courtesy of the Lady Governor showed that it was indeed more detailed than her old map, and far more up to date as well, with visible changes in many places.
Her current end destination would be the City-State of Paradise, loosely considered part of the Coalition of City-States, but in actuality an entirely independent land, despite its position in the intersection of four neighboring powers.
Then again, nobody would have been suicidal enough and attempted to have their will enforced to a city that not only has the highest concentration of Unliving in the lands, but also an Archmagus population that numbered well into the three digits - More high-end power than all four of their neighboring powers have on hand put together.
As Cal plotted the route she would need to take to reach Paradise, she noticed that the proper roads would have required her to take a detour, which easily more than doubled the travel time.
Whereas if she took a straight route through the Salir Woods located between Hoststadt and Jonkver, the next city in line, it would be a much shorter trek, though it passed through less civilized lands, with only a small village three-fourths of the way into the - for her - three-day trip.
And she would be not be truthful if she were to say that news of a potential group of Sickle-Fiends did not play a factor into her decision where she chose the straight route.
Sickle-Fiends, or Gamashatians as they were called back where she came from, were amphibious, aggressively territorial creatures that resembled insects and crustaceans both, and groups of them could be found in relatively shallow ravines on the ocean floor, as well as deep in the woods on land.
The creatures rarely ventured outside their domains, unless the group had grown too large, at which point it was speculated that the group would have divided themselves under the current alpha-female - the matriarch of the brood - and a challenger, and those would then have fought each other, with the loser and its group driven out of the territory.
These losers then inevitably ran across settlements, and attacked them as per their nature. Were the settlement a mere village with nary a militia to repel the creatures, more often than not the Sickle-Fiends would have killed or driven away the settlers and claimed it as their domain - until the nearest army or militia were sent in to eradicate them at least.
They rarely had much luck were they to run into larger, more proper settlements however. From what gossip she caught wind of, the attack on Hoststadt had not even caused any casualty to the city, and barely a handful of the creatures escaped with their lives.
A handful of creatures she had a mind to hunt down.
To the surprised looks of other travellers, she diverged from the road the first time it turned, and continued her path straight into the Salir Woods, which loomed in the distance. To all onlookers it looked like she merely strolled through the woods renowned for dangerous wildlife, where travellers that delved too deep rarely ever came back out.
Most of the so-called “wildlife” had not even dared to trouble her, both predators and prey chose to stay well out of her way as she traipsed through the thick undergrowth of the forest. The only one that chose to accost her was an emaciated wolf, with red eyes and froth that bubbled on its maw, clearly a rabid creature.
She relieved it from its suffering as she punted it so hard, its front half was cleanly severed from its rear half, sent to who-knows-where.
It was not until half a day into the woods that she spotted signs of passage of the sickle-fiends. Three or four creatures, as best as she could tell, at least one of which was a juvenile. Cal started to have her magic infused into her body and picked up her pace, as she closely followed the trail of cut marks on trees and butchered animals that the creatures left in their wake.
She saw no sign of the creatures themselves on the first night, but finally found her quarry early in the next day, barely an hour after dawn.
From her vantage point up on the branch of a distant tree, she could see four of the beasts, as they feasted on a dead wild horse. Three were adults, with one smaller juvenile creature.
They looked oddly similar to certain insects, their oblong lower bodies perched atop six crab-like legs, with a thinner upper body that sprouted from one end, which ended in a bulbous head atop the stem-like upper body of theirs.
Two triple-jointed forearms sprouted from either side of their upper bodies, each one ended in three sickle-shaped serrated blades of carapace from which the creatures derived their name.
Their entire forms were coated in much of the same carapace in a manner not dissimilar to a crab’s shell. Their dull bluish hue looked odd in the mostly brown and greens of the forest.
The creatures were born hunters, predators high up on the food chain. Cal knew from experience that these creatures located their prey through reflected sound - an ability that gave them a great awareness, but only applied to one direction.
She also knew that their sight was poor at longer ranges, but that they perceived not light, but the heat of their surroundings. Where she was, on her perch atop a tree a good twenty meters away from the creatures, as none of them faced her direction, she was as good as invisible to them.
Something that changed after she gathered her magic, channeled it into her legs, and covered the twenty-meter distance in a single leap that left her former perch broken.
The creatures reacted when they heard the thick branch snap under the violent force of her leap, but by the time they raised their heads, she was already on top of them, and swung her Halberd - hammerhead-end first - towards the nearest of the creatures, one of the adults.
The Sickle-Fiend did not have time to react before the hammer pulverized its bulbous head and sent its decapitated body down as it twitched on the grounds, its head brutally exploded under the forceful impact and splattered bits of orange brain matter and grayish fluid everywhere.
The other three would not go down as easily, however. Sickle-Fiends were fast creatures, and their namesake sickles easily shredded through most forms of armor short of chainmail - one reason Cal did not even bother to wear any of her leather armor, for it would not have made any noticeable difference.
The main reason the creatures were not seen as a great threat were their helplessness when faced against a defended city wall, or an organized group of soldiers. To have fought three of them - even if one was a juvenile - alone, in melee combat, would normally be considered as nothing less than attempted suicide.
The Juvenile one reacted slowly, and Cal kicked its abdomen hard, which sent the creature away until it crashed against a tree, where it fell and twitched. A crack was visible on its carapace where her kick landed. Down for the moment, but not out of the fight yet.
On the other hand, the two adults that remained split to the sides with amazing agility - speed she would have needed an infusion of magic to match -, as both threateningly raised their sickle-claws and eyed her with their seven unblinking eyes.
The one to her left hissed at her, its four mandibles opened and revealed its horrific lamprey-like mouth, where blood and bits of the dead horse dripped from its maw.
She had stood on top of the horse carcass the creatures fed on mere moments ago, - not the most ideal footing -, and held her halberd horizontally in a defensive position.
The creatures seemed wary - not unusual for survivors from a botched attack like these -, and seemed unwilling to be the first to test the waters.
So she purposely left her side open, as the one creature on the right was unable to resist the temptation and struck at the intruder. Its sickle-claws slashed down, only to have met thin air as Cal leapt to towards the left one, the other creature left with its claws stuck in the horse carcass it had slashed into in its eagerness.
Cal wanted to end the fight fast, so she struck the Sickle-Fiend’s left claw hard with her weapon, which sent it away, and purposely left her left side wide open.
An intelligent, thinking creature would have been wary of a feint, a trap of some sort. Sickle-Fiends merely ran on predatory instinct however, so it took the perceived opening and swung its other claw hard towards her torso. It was betrayed when its claws failed to find soft flesh, the expectation where it ripped its prey into shreds of blood and gore on its way out denied.
The creature felt the flesh barely yield to the claws that never failed it before, as they barely sliced into the flesh before muscles hard as rock contracted on its blades and kept them in place
It never saw her halberd swept across what passed for its neck and cleanly severed its head from its body.
Unfortunately, the other adult sickle-fiend - probably the deposed alpha-female or its challenger for it was the largest of the adults at nearly two and a half meters tall - extracted itself from the horse carcass faster than she expected, its right claw landed on her left shoulder as she turned - it would have hit her on the head had she not turned -, similarly failed to dig deep into her flesh, but it kept her in place.
The Sickle-Fiend hissed in triumph as its other claw punched through Cal’s abdomen and out her back.
At least, it did until she smirked and grasped the claw on her shoulder with her left hand - the one embedded deep in her torso wouldn't have went anywhere anytime soon.
The creature looked at her, dumbfounded that the prey had not died under its claws, and kept that dumbfounded look as Cal brought her halberd back around with a back-handed swing that brought the hammer end as it smashed the creature’s bulbous head from the side.
It stilled for a moment, before its legs gave out and the creature unceremoniously crumpled into a heap.
Cal let go of the claw on her shoulder, and gripped the one embedded in her stomach firmly, as she twisted off what served as the creature’s hand from the claws. Its serrated form would have resulted in more damage if she tried to pull it out, so it was better to push it out instead, which was exactly what she did.
The three detached, spotless claws fell to the ground as she pushed them out, and an odd sight was visible in the wounds they caused. If one were to peer closely, they would have seen many, many streams of blood, some thick, others as thin as a hair, as they bridged the gap between the two sides of the injury - an injury that would normally have crippled if it had not proved fatal to most -, and continued their flow unperturbed by the wound on their way.
The flesh slowly, yet visibly closed the wound, as nary a drop of blood left the body despite the injuries sustained.
A Water-Blood mage’s body was their playground, and it took a lot of damage to kill a competent one, with nothing short of complete and utter annihilation sufficient for ones of Cal's caliber.
Pain on the other hand, was an old friend by now, one whose mere presence helped let her know that she still lived, for it was when you no longer felt any pain that you truly needed to worry.
As she leisurely walked to the now groggily-standing juvenile, Cal dispatched it swiftly as she removed its head with one swing of the halberd, before her mouth formed into a predatory grin.
She deftly stored the four carcasses inside her storage pendant, and left the area - she had not wanted any disturbance from other wildlife for what comes next. It took her roughly an hour of further travel before she found a large clearing that was suitable for her purposes.
After she made a small bonfire out of firewood she collected along the way, she went to a nearby stream, cleansed herself from the blood and filth, and washed the dead Sickle-Fiends. She set up a large pot that hung over the fire, filled with clean water from the stream, and with a machete, deftly dismembered the one Sickle-Fiend she brought out - the largest adult -, as she cleanly separated its arms, claws and legs and tossed them into the water that had since boiled.
She stored the rest of its carcass back into her storage, and brought out the decapitated head of the adult instead. A few quick motions and she had pried its skull open, the yellowish-orange glob that was the creature’s brain exposed.
She brought out a small bowl, and deposited the brain she extracted into it, with a handful of various herbs from her storage, a dash of oil, along with a pinch of salt and pepper, and the juice of a citrus fruit, before she mixed everything vigorously with a wooden spoon, until the ingredients turned into an orange-ish slurry with specks of dark green.
With a smile on her face, she plucked out one of the boiled limbs of the creature out of the water with her bare hand - boiling water was far from enough to even scald her. The creature’s leg had turned from its original dull bluish hue to a vibrant red one after it was boiled, and she deftly cracked the shell with her hand, peeled the hard carapace away to reveal the steaming, pinkish-white flesh within. She reverently applied some of the brain-mixture on top of the flesh and bit down.
The nostalgic flavor made her moan in satisfaction, a flavor she last tasted a century ago.