Woe to Atlas. The great city destroyed in a single day by a single, cruel man. On that day, ten years ago, the sky rained blood. People fled, but not everyone escaped. They say the man who caused Atlas' fall was of elven descent, with eyes the color of the sea and hair as black as a moonless sky. He rose above them all and proclaimed that he would be the harbinger of the end times.
All the creatures on the streets of Atlas, from the tamed pets to the beasts of burden, transformed into horrible monsters. Their infectious bite would forever transform other animals into fiends. However, any intelligent creature simply perished as their mana fluctuated out of control, burning up the body of the poor fools who were bitten.
The man, this bringer of doom, was given a moniker: the Calamity King.
Ten years later, he is still at large, roaming the earth and planting the seeds of the end times. The bloodfiends, the creatures who bore the Calamity King's curse, finally spread to the outskirts of the Arcadian Empire…
I should have hired adventurers, I should have hired adventurers, I should have—
Juniper threw themselves forward as a red-eyed howler lunged toward them, instead colliding with a tree. This sinister creature had once been a wolf, now cursed blood transformed it into a bloodfiend. With matted fur and jagged spines, the horse-sized monster barely resembled what it once was.
The poor, unfortunate prey of this particular howler was named Juniper. They prepared for bandits and beasts, but a monster like a bloodfiend was on a whole other level than what they were used to contending with.
The prey ran, clutching a glowing flower in their fist. Why is there a bloodfiend here!? Their thoughts cursed the lack of preparation for such an unexpected twist. What should have been a slightly dangerous stroll turned deadly in the blink of an eye.
Their heart thudded in their chest, but the sound of the stomping paws behind them drowned it out. They understood that they couldn't outrun the howler for long in this race through the brisk moonlit air, which would surely end in Juniper's demise if they didn't act.
Snapping jaws closed in on Juniper as they leapt forward in tandem. Its teeth, long and sharp like horned daggers, dripped with venom— the kind that could weaken someone like Juniper with a single bite. Juniper yelped as they reached into their satchel, grasping for anything that could help. With each passing moment, the creature seemed to surge forward with unnerving speed, as if propelled by its desperation to capture its exhausted prey. Juniper pulled free a bottle that seemed to be full of vines and thorns.
The little alchemist spun around, faster than they had ever moved before, finding the howler mere inches away from their ankle. Without a second thought, they threw the bottle with all their might directly at the howler's face. It made a loud shattering noise as it broke against one of its spines. Thick, wriggling vines burst out of the broken shards and wrapped themselves around the howler, trapping it in a tight stranglehold.
As the creature flailed in desperation, Juniper grasped onto a slim thread of hope. With their final bottle of tanglevine they may have bought themselves enough time to flee. Gritting their teeth through the fire that rushed in their veins, Juniper pressed onward until the twinkling lights of Hearthwood filled the horizon just beyond the hill.
A howl, so close Juniper could feel its reverberations, startled them. It began with a single howl, then two, and soon an entire chorus echoed through the woods. Relentless in their pursuit, the pack of howlers closed in on Juniper, their heavy paws pounding the ground with thunderous force.
Juniper could feel their presence like a suffocating weight, their hot breath lingering on the back of their neck. The air resonated with the cacophony of their furious barks, their collective hunger driving them to the brink of frenzy. Juniper's weary legs threatened to buckle beneath them, their gasping breaths betraying the limits of their endurance. The chase grew more dire with every passing second, their escape teetering on the edge of impossibility.
Juniper, about to give into panic and pain, turned their head to see the source of the loud bass sound. A man captured the bloodfiends' attention with his guitar. He smiled brightly as he played a jaunty tune, his strings glowing subtly with each pluck, all the howlers circling him like prey. His joy seemed to radiate, unaffected by anything. As a howler pounced, expecting an easy kill, the man sidestepped it then bashed it on the head, knocking it unconscious. The creature collapsed into the dirt with a plop. Two more charged towards the guitarist, who whirled in place and sent them flying as they jumped towards him. They collided head-first into the backside of the guitar, which Juniper realized had metal reinforcement.
"Here boy!" His raspy, youthful voice held a mischievous edge that seemed inappropriate. Juniper gasped at the swift-footed grace as the man lashed out, delivering punishing blows with his guitar. However, as one of the howlers clenched the neck of the guitar in its jaws, another lunged toward the man's back.
Juniper's heart pounded against their chest as they charged towards the howler, adrenaline coursing through their veins. They reached into their pack and pulled out a pair of gleaming hand shears, the metal cold against their palm.
With a swift lunge, they thrust the shears into the creature's side, eliciting an otherworldly scream that pierced the air. The howler faltered, momentarily losing focus and ceasing its attack. It turned to face Juniper, baring its razor-sharp teeth in a menacing snarl. As fear gripped them, Juniper tried to turn and run but stumbled, falling to the ground with a thud.
As the man freed his guitar, he swung at the closest howler's skull with lightning speed. He turned to Juniper, who struggled to get up, and ran to them.
The stranger shouted, "Watch out!"
He interposed himself between Juniper and the attacking howler. Scooping Juniper into his arms, he suddenly cried out and flinched. He twisted his body around in an arc, gasping as he did, and brought his guitar down on Juniper's attacker with a satisfying thud.
The last howler slumped to the ground, its defeated form a testament to the duo's victory. Juniper's weary gaze surveyed the scene, their guard still firmly in place despite the apparent safety. Silence draped over the clearing like a heavy shroud, yet Juniper couldn't shake off their wariness.
As their racing heartbeat gradually slowed, Juniper's exhaustion mingled with lingering apprehension. The weight of the recent danger hung in the air, but something else tugged at their consciousness—a sense of unease at the unexpected turn of events.
"Hey, put me down!" Juniper's voice carried a touch of gruffness as they forcefully pushed the stranger away, a shield of defensiveness rising instinctively. Their gaze narrowed, measuring the stranger's reaction, waiting for a sign of ulterior motives. "Who are you? Why are you out here so late?"
"A hero, of course," the man said. His smile faltered slightly as he staggered backward. Juniper expected the man to be exhausted. It took whole adventuring parties to down howler packs, yet this stranger did it alone. "I could ask you the same question. Do you enjoy deadly, midnight strolls?"
"I needed to get something for my sick father," Juniper said. Despite this stranger's help, Juniper knew bandits moved into these woods a few months ago. Who knew what this man might want from them? "There's never been a bloodfiend in Hearthwood before..."
"Could I get a reward?" Of course, he's an adventurer. Juniper's stomach churned with dread at the thought. Adventurers had no sympathy for normal people like Juniper. They were all greedy, amoral bastards.
"What do you want?" Juniper braced themselves for a ridiculous price they'd need to haggle.
The stranger winced, genuine pain etching lines across his face. His eyes held a glimmer of both surprise and amusement, seemingly unfazed by Juniper's attitude. He asked, "Could you pay my doctor bill? Hehe..." Blood stained his fingers as he clutched his injured arm, the consequences of his selfless act manifesting in the physical toll it had taken on him.
Juniper's eyes widened, a flicker of concern cutting through their guarded demeanor. The unexpected sight of the man's vulnerable state spurred Juniper to run towards him, realizing just then the price this man paid to save them. With a faltering step, the man's knees buckled beneath him, and he collapsed onto the unforgiving ground.