Shift World I Book III Chapter 5
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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The group traveling from the outskirts of The Whitecoat's compound lost their zeal as their elation over killing a Fury faded back into despondence. Even with The Paladin leading the pack, it would have been impossible to stop an ambush from taking out the flanks or rear of a thirty person party. Even worse, they risked killing a Fury and alerting the enemies that the survivors found a way of fighting back.
To avoid detection, they traveled through overgrown farmland, wooded off-shoots, and grasslands instead of the main highways. A week into travel, the group crossed one of the resistance's greatest failures. A provisioned army had struck its banners and marched toward The Whitecoat's compound following a trail of destroyed villages. Although they had no idea how the Furies destroyed towns and warehouses, they had known the enemy plundered their victims. For months, the resistance gathered supplies, armor, and weapons to launch a counter-offensive. That army had met their fate in an open field.
Nort, Ban, and Timore entered that unsheltered expanse while everyone else hid among the trees lining the plain. Ban drew a water steel dagger, and Timore unsheathed his barbed dragon fire steel sword. Nort found it unnecessary to draw a weapon but remained on edge as they approached the decimated landscape. The trio shuffled through waist-high grass, sliding their legs to ensure steady footing. Huskie bound through the foliage, moving unobserved except for swaying plants.
The trio breached the tall grass and watched dumbfounded at the camp's visage. Chunks of ground had burst into divots surrounded by mounds of dried mud. Hundreds of these divots poxed the field. In some areas, blades of grass barely broke free from bunches of dirt. Wooden frames lay exposed as wind-torn cloth-lining laid in tattered pieces. Broken apart chests dotted several house frames.
Ban turned to the people at her flanks. "I think this is the force we sent to intercept the Furies at the Whitecoat's compound. We provisioned and sent as many people as possible to trail the wake of destruction rippling down the Lush Forest. Barlin sent back reports, and everything seemed alright, but the reports stopped. It took a long time to scrape together enough fighters to come back."
"This is the force you were able to outfit?" Nort looked back in the direction of the rabble that accompanied them from The Whitecoat's compound.
"You were gone, so I guess you couldn't possibly understand. It's been chaos since the Furies showed up. People disappear and sometimes reappear, usually not. At first, we didn't know if they were attacked or if the couriers had been murdered. We thought we only needed to give them more powerful weapons, but..." Ban looked over to the field. "I guess they might have fled. I don't see any bodies. Let's see what happened here."
Ban skulked to a mud ringed divot and examined the dried crust. A hand eaten down to bone and cartilage reached through soil as if clawing at the mud tomb. Ban scrapped her dagger across the mud's surface and exposed a skeletal face.
Nort continued to the tent frames and entered through what would have been the side if the walls had remained intact. Nort approached a knee-high clay jar filled with murky rainwater. Nort scooped out a fleck of grain floating along the jar's rim and smelled the piece of unmilled oats. Time soaking in the water gave it a pungent, rotting smell, and his nose scrunched up. Nort picked up a lid from beside the jar and replaced it. Some of the liquid overflowed onto his hands and shoes. A curious idea struck as he watched water dribble down the pot.
Nort held down the lid with his left hand and drew a bear-claw dagger. The twisted cord grip rested firmly on his palm, locking the weapon in place. Nort thrust the blade through the jar's side, and stilled himself, trying to feel if anything moved inside. A moment later, he withdrew it, and rainwater streamed from the hole. Nort sheathed the dagger with a tinge of disappointment.
Timore moved to canvas resting on a mound as high as a person and pulled down the sheet. The mud had solidified in a human shape. A skeletal back jutted out almost as high as its skull. Timore placed a hand over the hump and gingerly pressed. The dirt compressed and hardened. Timore pulled back his hand in surprise and then set it on the mound's arm and pushed. The soil crumbled and gave way without much force. He tried the same on the mound's base, but the pressure of holding up the torso shattered the leg.
The dirt pile tipped over and drifted toward the ground. The body crashed, and dust flew in every direction, cleaning a shield resting on the skeleton's back.
A lion's face in yellow enamel stared up at Timore.
Shadows crept along the Grainfort's exterior walls mixing in with panicked, frantic soldiers and workers. The maelstrom started after frustrated bosses couldn't find their workers. Their sour moods exacerbated when the people they sent looking also disappeared. The head kitchen master discovered the incidents' nefarious nature when he opened the pantry and found a pile of dead husks. His screams alerted the keep's guard, and the hunt began.
Timore ran behind a pair of guards rushing through a hall to check for external threats. Since Timore wore the light leathers common to Foresters in the Lush Forest instead of The Mandrake armor, he quickly caught the guards without raising suspicion. Just before a turn in the hallway, he placed his hands on the fleeing soldiers' necks, and a pair of withered husks dropped. As the bodies hit the floor, a different pair of guards rounded the corner. An out-of-breath man addressed Timore. "Don't touch them! We don't know what's happening!"
Timore feigned being upset and addressed the closest guard. "I know what's happening..."
The confused guard stepped forward, and The Mandrake clasped his throat. "We tried to avoid death, and Mom and Biporn paid the price!"
With a dull flash, the guard's dried husk of a body fell. The remaining guard scurried from the harrowing scene but ran right into the clutches of Birn. The guard flashed, and a withered husk fell to the stone. Birn picked up a red crystal that fell from the victim's mouth and placed the stone in a soft leather pouch. He extended his arm toward Timore who dropped three stones into the bag.
Birn addressed Timore. "We'll gather the valuables after clearing the keep. There isn't much we can do until Triled arrives, anyway."
"OK. If we don't hurry, we might have to fight the whole village."
"Not if Thrips is doing his job. No, you're right, we better hurry." Birn and Timore hurried toward the keep's center. To their surprise, guards filled the hall leading to the main reception room and dining hall.
Timore stepped forward. "Please help us..."
A woman clad in sunshine steel armor with a white strip down her left side replied. "Stay back, you monsters! We know it's you! Stop pretending!"
Timore scowled and rushed the guard. The Lion's steward drew a sunshine steel sword and met the charging men prompting three guards lingering by the door to remove steel swords. Although unarmed, Timore could dodge her strikes using his unnaturally high speed. After ducking a horizontal slash, Timore grabbed his opponent's cuirass, just under the arm, and his hand glowed. The armor melted away. When skin touched skin, her deceased body dropped.
Birn towered over three dead bodies near the door and waited for his son. Timore picked up her sunshine steel sword, and Birn held a steel sword. The pair pushed the double doors. Large windows on the room's northern face illuminated the space. Hope drained from the occupants' faces as sword-wielding strangers stepped over the guards' bodies.
Birn and Timore stared down the crying widows, children, and scared workers. Timore's heart wavered, and he checked his father for reassurance. Birn's watering eyes and pouting lips hardened. He lunged and grabbed the wrists of a crying mother and child. The pair fell to the floor as husks.
Birn turned back to Timore. "Never forget what you've lost!"
Timore steeled his heart and rushed into the swirling, panicking crowd. Body after body hit the floor until the room fell quiet. The pair surveyed the corpses, and Timore spoke, "Where's The Lion?"
A man stood at the mouth of the hall agape at the destruction. His sunshine steel armor glistened under a decorative mane flowing from the back of his neck. A shield pressed with a lion's face and a special weapon made with three barbed hooks meant to represent claws completed the look.
"How could you do all of this? For What?"
"We need what you have." Timore squared off to the man.
"What could we possibly have worth the genocide?"
"We need these gems to fight the Furies. The weapons, armor, and food will fuel our army."
"You damn hypocrites will destroy this world to save yours?"
Anger flashed in Birn's eyes. "Hypocrite? We know that everything you have came at the expense of your Shift World! We are paying your deeds forward with much greater care than you showed those poor people."
"When I finish you here, the world won't care why you monsters attacked." The Lion pounced.
He ran at an average human's speed, slowed further from avoiding stepping on corpses. Bones cracked under Timore's steps as he charged the crazed warrior. The Lion slashed his pronged club at Timore, but he dodged the swipe. Birn lunged toward The Lion as he recovered. The sword scraped across The Lion's sunshine steel armor without penetrating.
The Lion counterattacked and knocked the steel blade from Birn's hands. Timore thrust his sword into The Lion's forearm, where the blade penetrated enough to tear skin. The club fell, but The Lion shifted a sunshine steel sword into his hands and fixed his armor while in the Shift World. The Lion slashed at Timore, who parried the blade with his sunshine steel sword. Timore stabbed at The Lion's chest, but he blocked the blow with his shield.
During the fight, Birn recovered his steel sword and waved his hand over the blade. It thinned and extended. Timore tired, but The Lion had been replenishing his stamina in the Shift World every few minutes so he fought like he was well rested. Birn sneaked behind The Lion and thrust the blade between the cuirass and shoulder armor. The Lion roared, and his shield hand limped.
Birn shouted. "Rest now. Regain a little strength since we can't do it in our world."
Timore backed away as The Lion turned toward Birn. "Don't think you will win this way..."
Timore used that momentary break in concentration to pounce and slip his hand under The Lion's facemask. He shouted, a light burst forward, and a husk fell with a ringing clank.
A set of three shifters entered in a rustle, dragging along a half-dozen guards tied up with leather rope. A young man approached with an exasperated, dumbfounded expression. "What did you do here? How could you?"
Birn responded. "Thrips, we did what we had to do. Now you will have to help us."
"What?" The man swallowed.
Birn walked to the first tied guard and touched his arm. He dropped dead with a light glow. The remaining guards panicked and attempted to flee, but the three shifters held them in place. One by one, Birn dissipated their life energy, and the bodies dropped. The group eyed him incredulously. He held up a crystal. "First, we need to collect these. They will give people in our world the power to win. Isn't this better than ravaging this whole world?"
Timore stepped forward. "I have an idea too. What if when these people left, they took everything from the keep. I mean, they took all of the supplies with them and traded it. People won't think to look too hard if the people left and didn't disappear, right? Then we can trade everything here for even more. Win the game with one throw."
Birn nodded. "We must hide everything we've done. Take the bodies and put them in a spot where they'll never be found. We must collect all the metal and food and bring it to our world. There's a plan to attack the Furies. Let only these people die to save everyone."
The group of three shifters eyed each other and looked back to Birn. A cocky young man dressed as a courier addressed him. "What should we do after this? I don't think we could handle this work like you can..."
The realization of what they did began to sink in, though anger still lit the back of Timore's eyes. Birn came up with an idea. "Continue to watch this place from town. The leaders of this world are hard to predict. See just how many people pry into what happened. Destroy this place and flee if anything strange comes up and disappear until we find you again."
Birn paced from the room, and Timore waved down the courier before he followed. Timore whispered to him to avoid Birn from hearing. "There may be this woman that comes. She carries a whip and buckler. Her name is Karp the Scorpion. She's very aggressive and will kill you on sight if she suspects a thing. She even killed Mom and Biporn for no reason. She's a monster, and if she comes, I think you should do this..."
A young woman accompanying the courier frowned at hearing Biporn died and hung on every word of Timore's explanation fighting back tears.
A moist nose nudged at Timore's face, and he became conscious enough to realize that he was thrashing and screaming in his sleep. He laid on his back, and Huskie plopped onto his stomach, squeezing out the man's air. Timore looked up to the sky where stars blanketed a sea of black. The moon fled to the distance, shining some light onto the horizon, but a quarter moon couldn't keep the tree-covered field lit well enough to make out more than the bushes. Ban sat near a fire burning inside a circular pit, staring outward into the darkness.
Timore pushed Huskie off his chest and sat up. Ban looked at him through the corner of her eye and returned her gaze to the trail leading from the camp. She spoke low enough to not wake up the slumbering people. "Have a nightmare?"
Timore let out a little grunt and rubbed loose dirt off of the back of his head. "Kind of. I guess you could say I was dreaming of the past."
"It wasn't very loud, but I heard you screaming. That sounds like a nightmare to me."
"I don't know. When I think of nightmares, I think of things that didn't happen. These dreams feel like punishment."
Ban's lower lip twisted into a frown. Although not a very empathetic person by nature, she didn't seem to enjoy someone like Timore carrying so much guilt. "Everyone alive in this place both gives you their gratitude. With all you've sacrificed, with all you've lost, how can you feel like this is your fault? It's true we share some of the guilt even if the other survivors were too far away from the murder to feel much connection."
Triled frowned. "I don't think you should blame yourself for staying hidden away during all that. Unlike us, there's no way for you to protect yourself if The Bog Djinn or Royal Envoys came sniffing around the Village at the Wyvern's Cove because you let yourself be known. We even had to fend off ambushes sometimes. I just can't imagine it would be possible for you..."
"I guess we both have to carry our guilt, but in different ways. I have the guilt of impotence, sitting around watching the world fall apart, but it must be worse for you. You had to see so many people you care about killed..."
"The part that hurts the most is that our losses lead to nothing. It might have been better to never even have tried."
"Every loss brought us closer to finding a weapon to fight the Furies, but you can't start at the end. There's no way to know what would have finally worked."
"It's easy to say that when you haven't seen the things I've seen. Even The Paladin wants The Mandrake dead, and he doesn't even remember who that is."
Huskie sensed Timore's mood and started rubbing against him to try and relieve the pain. Huskie's tail wagged and occasionally hit Timore's face.
"You see how much the people in this world love you. Try to be grateful for that, I guess. The people in my world are fickle. I'm sure they have already forgotten about The Mandrake and the shifters who caused all that trouble. Some people will be forever changed, but the world will return to normal thanks to the restraint your family showed."
Timore rolled onto his back and stared into the sky. Huskie laid down next to him. "I hope you're right. If everything we did in both worlds was for nothing, I don't even know what I'd do."
The motley group living a life similar to both refugees and resistance fighters marched through a forested swamp. Finally catching a break, the unusually dry season meant they strolled down a path of compact soil instead of wet, sucking mud. The group entered a clearing, and the leaders went on edge. They tried to hide their discomfort, but soon it spread like a virus.
Bushes rustled just outside the valley. Ban called over Nort. "Do you see that over there?" Ban pointed to a field's edge. Nort squinted and still couldn't find anything threatening. Without having a chance to ask her meaning, a head with long, disheveled hair popped up.
"Everyone get behind me. Ban watch the path. Timore, watch the rear. You two, keep an eye on the other side of the field." Nort pointed to a pair of people with drawn swords. They nodded, and the group scrambled to get in formation. Nort turned to their watcher. "Come out here!"
The face popped back out of the bushes and a woman tentatively stepped toward Nort. She wore tattered cloth pants and a white shirt. Blue flowers adorned the shirt's left shoulder running down to the bottom right seam. The outfit would have befitted the servant of a medium lord, if not covered in mud with holes dotting the cloth. The woman strolled onward, and Nort braced for her to disappear into the air, meld into the earth, or become water. When she approached within a few steps, Nort lunged and grabbed her wrists. Surprised for a moment, she calmed after realizing what this must have looked like.
"It's OK. I understand, but a Fury doesn't need to approach you like this. You wouldn't see them coming. Besides, they are nothing like us."
"What do you mean?"
"They look like us, but you can't understand them. They don't move like us. They don't think like us."
Nort couldn't comprehend her meaning and didn't trust her. The Whitecoat came from a different world, and everyone understood his words. He blended in perfectly except for a slight accent, which sounded like it came from somewhere in the Lush Forest. A woman from the crowd ran up, and embraced the harried woman.
"I guess you know her?" The words slipped from Nort's mouth.
"Yes, she is a steward at the Hunter's Quarry."
The group relaxed. Ban and Timore returned to Nort after asking nearby group members to watch the flanks. Ban approached. "Do you have any news from the Hunter's Quarry?"
"Kind of. I left when the Furies approached. They made some kind of camp out of dirt hovels. My lord sent me from village to village to find help, but it didn't work. Everywhere I checked, the people had already disappeared. You are the second group."
"Who was the first?"
"I found a group outside of The Whitecoat's compound. I stayed with them for a while, but we didn't learn anything, and I left. Is any of this group from there?"
Ban rubbed the back of her head. "No. Unfortunately, we completely lost all the forces at The Whitecoat's compound. One survivor came to Triled to get supplies and fighters, and while we prepared what we could, word came that the Furies destroyed the camp. We sent a smaller group to investigate, and the field looked like a flood washed through. We didn't even step foot in it until after we found The Paladin."
The confused woman looked over Nort. "What would he matter?"
"He can stop the Furies from using powers. That can even kill them if he does it at the right time."
"Come with me!" The recently found survivor grabbed Nort's arm and stared into his eyes. "Come with me, and we can stop the siege."
Nort looked over Ban and Timore. Huskie stood at Timore's side, panting and wagging its tail. "We are returning to the Crossroads. Come with us."
"I will come with you, but before we reach the Crossroads, let's stop at my keep. It is nearby, and they will want to hear how to destroy the Furies."
Given the destruction Timore and Nort witnessed on the way to The Whitecoat's compound, he didn't believe that such a conspicuous location could still stand.
"Fine, but don't get your hopes up. I just... please don't."