Shift World I Book III Chapter 8
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Flames spread between buildings, rising from smoldering straw into a fireball skimming across roofs. The Fury slithered through a mostly intact section of the Crossroads with only the roofs blackening from its daily patrols. The fire shot north, leaping from the angled roof of a two-story house and landing onto a warehouse's flat roof. The ball transformed into a smoldering tornado and shot skyward before drifting east.
As it floated, the cone shrunk to the size of a small rock before landing on a wooden shed. The shed rumbled and creaked as if supporting a full person's weight. The walls bowed as the flames spread and spewed into nearby alleys. Super-heated air bounced between two structures. Flames burst through the alleyway's entrance catching a refuse pile that rotted under a potted bush. The fire hesitated before shooting free.
Water bubbled out of a nearby sewer drain, spilling onto the Crossroad's narrow walkway. The rushing liquid knocked off the sewer's clay lid and gushed on to the street. A head-shaped protrusion formed along the water's boundary, facing the fire Fury momentarily before shooting free and pouring down the road. The fire Fury lurched up the bush to reach a nearby wooden roof. As the fire ascended, a gust of fresh air filled the burning matter shooting a smoldering ball into the sky.
An air Fury carried the flame in circles above the Crossroads. The fire and air mingled until the burning matter shrunk to palm-sized, and the air deposited the flame onto rooftops. The fiery spirit traced the building tops until reaching the city's outskirts.
Someone in sunshine steel armor lingered under a tree imported by a long-forgotten homeowner. Inside the inferno, the Fury hummed in anticipation of ingesting the pig person and seizing their magical skin. The flames shot toward the unsuspecting target, and the warrior shrieked and fell behind the tree. The fire scorched the ground while passing the flailing person. The flame hesitated as a shadow emerged.
A gloved hand reached into the fire. The Fury's anticipation turned to anguish as a natural warmth turned into searing pain, centered around the glove. The agony spread and eased momentarily as the hand withdrew, but the warrior in sunshine steel thrust a sword into his solid section.
The Fury's body formed around the blade that pierced his stomach. Steel wrenched his body out of its ethereal form and into his corporeal state. His own fire consumed his flesh even as the mysterious man threw away his flaming glove. Something that the Fury could only approximate as relief crossed the pig man's face. The Fury's consciousness left the magical world, to return to nature.
"Wow, that was close." Nort shook off his hand as he watched the Fury's body burn into a husk.
Ban looked up from the corpse. "I guess that glove is much better than burning your hand?"
"I think it'll work. It only matters for the fire ones, though."
"When it cools down, we will move it near the other corpse." Ban looked to a ditch near the base of the tree. A ground Fury exploded under the soil after ambushing Nort while he lay waiting for enemies to approach. The surprise didn't ping as sharply as when a bloody explosion hit him after stepping in a puddle, but he didn't realize enemies could be so challenging to detect.
Shutters blew opened and closed on a nearby building. The off-putting clanging sound spurred Nort into not wanting to take any more risks. "I think we retreat, for now. Hide the bodies and let's return to camp."
A warrior clad in steel chainmail dangled in midair, suspending by an invisible foe. Lifeless legs hung limply from a crushed spine. Nort saw that grisly sight from several buildings away and rushed toward the bakery where a wind Fury suspended a hapless fighter.
Nort and the fighter had been in the middle of luring Furies into an ambush, but his companion wandered off. Nort only realized the man's peril when trailing screams erupted from the nearby buildings. Nort followed the cries for more than fifteen minutes.
A swirling mass of irregularly shaped air clumped around the man's neck, which lifted him up. Nort sneaked past the bakery and crept in through a broken door, but couldn't find the man's body on the sales floor like he predicted. Between when Nort spotted the dying man and entering the bakery, the corpse had disappeared. Nort bent over and brushed the floorboards looking for blood.
Light dust covered his hand. Water dripped from the corner of a support beam that held the roof in place. Nort touched the dripping water which felt slick and didn't react to his touch like a Fury hid inside.
"What are they doing?"
As Nort wondered, the wind howled, hitting the building's exterior. The roof bent and twisted. The sudden, unnatural movement dizzied Nort, and he steadied himself on the support beam. The beam splintered. Nort searched for a way out and remembered that he could escape through any wooden wall. He bull-rushed through the outer wall's weak, bending wood and burst onto the street. The bakery's roof collapsed, also bringing down the external walls.
Nort dusted himself off and glanced over the rubble. Then, an unnatural bubbling mess in a nearby drain caught his attention. Nort skulked over, and the water splashed and churned in a frothy pool, like a river that refused to move downstream. As the water maintained its position, a translucent set of eyes peered up to Nort and examined his features. Nort wondered if the off-putting display served any purpose other than to recognize its enemy. After a few moments, the eyes disappeared as the liquid rushed down a slope into the sewers.
In the sky, a wind blew toward the Lush Forest. An air Fury had watched Nort face off with the water Fury, but it left as its companion fled. Air rushed passed the mountain range surrounding the Crossroads. Trees in the distance rustled. Nort looked down to the sewers and then, up to the Lush Forest, but thought better of trying to chase down the wind or water.
Finishing a new scouting mission, Nort returned to the secret catacombs under the Crossroads after his scouts had safely returned. He trotted with a smile even though he hadn't killed a new Fury for weeks. He hadn't lost a scout for weeks and forced the last of the remaining Furies to flee to the Lush Forest. To his surprise, solemn faces greeted him at the tunnel's entrance. The somber mood confused The Paladin as he expected jubilation. Nort approached Timore, who sat petting the scruff under Huskie's ear.
"Have you heard?"
"About the Furies fleeing? Yeah. Tairent and Filt told us when they came back a few minutes ago."
Tairent and Filt ate bowls of stew near a fire on the other side of the open area. They weren't celebrating or spreading the word about the Furies. The scenario didn't make much sense to Nort. "Did something else happen?"
At first, Timore looked up at Nort. Eventually, he broke eye contact by watching Huskie, who half-read the mood and tried to be somber, but still half enjoyed getting petted. "Something's wrong with Triled. Ban's with him now, but we can't figure out what's happening."
Timore rose, and Huskie followed. He motioned to a nearby tunnel. "Come, follow me, and you'll see what I mean."
Timore guided Nort through a winding hive of interconnected tunnels and run-offs. They reached a door in an area positioned just under the main compound. Timore knocked and waited until a voice beckoned him inside. The room closely resembled a closet with only enough space for a bed, wardrobe, and chair. Ban sat in the chair while Triled laid in the bed. "Come on, baby, just tell me what's wrong. What's happening to you?"
Triled's skin sunk as starvation and worry sapped away his life force. Bags hung under his eyes as he looked at Ban and mumbled. "I can't. I can't stay. They have you. If I stay, they will hurt you. They will know, and they will hurt you."
"Who is going to hurt me? What's wrong!?"
Triled turned his attention to Nort. "I can't stay, so you can't stay! I must go, or they will kill her. If you leave, she can be free!"
Ban frowned and pushed Timore and Nort from the room. "Just stay away until I figure out what's going on. Do you understand? Nowhere near here until I say so."
Ban eyed Timore, and he nodded. "Come on, Paladin, we need to give them some space."
Ban paced while Triled wasted away. She watched him, and his eyes followed her. Triled thinned. Ban walked to the bed. Triled scooted up so that he sat with his back against the headboard.
"Why won't you tell me what's going on?"
Triled eyed her and shook his head. "I can't. He'll find out. You will die."
Triled thinned again. An odor so pungent that tears filled the corner of Ban's eyes wafted from Triled. She couldn't imagine Triled's pain while laying in that kind of stench for days at a time in the Shift World.
"What's happening to you?"
Triled coughed up a pungent liquid whose smell filled the small bedroom. Ban bit her lip. "I'll find out for myself." Ban shifted to her world to explore and returned to the bedroom. "I found you! You're near the Village of the Bamboo Coast. I think you're fine. Someone named The Narwhal is watching you, but you seem fine. Is that what's wrong?"
"They will kill you... I can't stay..."
Ban shifted back to her world and returned. "The Scorpion is there. I found her skulking around the Village of the Bamboo Coast. She doesn't suspect anything. Are you afraid of her? I know what she did to Timore's family, and something seems off, but she only cares about finding the princess."
Triled stared into space. Ban returned to her world and shifted back to the room. "The Narwhal attacked, but we ran away. There's nothing happening. You're fine! What's the problem?" Ban shifted to her world and came back again. "I was captured, but I escaped. Someone named Rong the Turtle found me after an explosion killed The Polar Bear! I'm alive! I'm safe! Come back to me..."
"You're not. The Bog Djinn has you. He'll kill you if I try to escape." Triled clutched a long dagger with a water drake pressed into the handle. "It's a lie. You're lying to me. Only The Demon's Wrath will free you, and then, we'll be together."
Ban shifted to her world again, but inside the room, only an instant passed. Ban reached for Triled's hand, but he pulled away with a terrified expression.
"I've heard you're in the Crossroads. Someplace called the Aviary, where The Demon's Wrath holds his prisoners. There's a tournament happening next month. It's a front for some kind of battle. I'm going to use that to find you. Do you hear me? I'll find you."
Triled's eyes softened. He sat cross-legged, leaning against the headboard. He lowered his head to his knees. "Only The Demon's Wrath can free you. Once I kill The Bog Djinn, you'll be free."
Ban shifted to her world, and when she returned, Triled looked healthier and happier. In the Shift World, after the battle of the Crossroads finished, Ban washed the putrid liquid off of Triled. At first, he acted like a man suffering withdrawal. Gradually the haze caused by his dependency lifted. They had spent weeks resting in Ban's world but couldn't afford to spend any more time away from Triled's world. Neither Ban nor Triled had liked lying to The Scorpion about Nort and wanted to avoid her.
Triled shakily pulled off his comforter. His face twisted, and he dry heaved at the putrid liquid smell that remained. Ban gathered up the pillow and blankets, rushed to the door, flung it open, and tossed the sheets into the hallway without a care for what passerby's might think.
"Get these out of here as quickly as possible!" Ban shouted to no one in particular and slammed the door. Her focus turned back to Triled. He laid on the bed, struggling to drag his legs over the side. Ban rushed to meet him, took a firm hold on his legs, and gently swiveled him. He wrapped his arm around her neck for support, and she slid a hand along his lower back.
"Be careful when you stand. You could barely hold yourself up in my world. Try not to collapse here!"
Triled let out a low chuckle. "Thank you for the concern, but if we can't fight soon, we'll lose our chance at beating the Furies."
Ban smirked. She held a confusing mix of relief over saving him from The Demon Wrath's torturous taming methods and worry that his words held truth. A few more weeks and he may have been nearly beyond redemption like The Horse Thief. It took Karp close to a year to accept what happened to her. According to The Bog Djinn, even those closest to her, like Slart, had feared the Karp they knew would never return. In many ways, she never did, or at least, hadn't yet.
Supported by Ban, Triled hobbled to the door, and they went to find Nort and Timore to concoct a plan to punish the remaining Furies.
Compared to the enfeebled mess hacking up globs of foul-smelling liquid, Triled had become the epitome of health. Every day he spent at least an hour walking around the underground catacombs. Each time the journey became more natural. Even though the lessened strain gave his friends hope, fighting the Furies wasn't going to be a stroll around the tunnels. Shakily strolling up to an enemy might get him or even one of his companions killed. The one he especially didn't want hurt sat holding his hand.
Triled squeezed Ban's hand with light pressure. She smiled, rose from the bed, and let go. His heart immediately raced. Although not her fault, The Demon's Wrath exploited Triled's love for Ban to torture, drug, and manipulate him. Under normal circumstances, a down-shifter from his world could waltz out of any prison cell by destroying half of the tower. The Demon's Wrath convinced him while in a drugged state that a merchant lord name Trolt the Bog Djinn held Ban captive, and if Triled escaped, The Bog Djin would kill her.
Unknown to Triled, The Demon's Wrath bluffed. Karp the Scorpion, commonly known as The Horse Thief at that point, accidentally killed Ban's captor, Dorac the Polar Bear. The Polar Bear murdered an elderly couple who healed Karp after she sustained injuries during an ambush. A shifter named Rong the Turtle found her while investigating the safehouse's explosion. Triled, unfortunately, had no way of knowing any of this as he languished in a toxic mixture of drugs known as putrid water or Time Waster. The isolation, starvation, drugs, and fear kept him pliable until Ban rescued him.
He now couldn't stand to be away from Ban. The effect had been so unexpectedly strong that his heart fluttered just because she walked to the door and pulled it open. She waved down a worker.
"Bring Timore and Nort here, please."
The man nodded and continued up the hallway. As Ban turned, she saw Triled breathing slowly as he stared at her. His hand opened and closed as though she felt gone even while he stared right at her. Ban returned to the bed, sat in a chair on the side nearest Triled, and retook his hand. He returned to a healthier semblance of normal. Ban smiled.
"They are on their way, and we can talk strategy."
Triled nodded. A few minutes later, a knock rang from the door. Ban perked up. "Come on in."
The door swung open. Nort and Timore filed in. "How are you doing?"
"I'm doing great!" Triled forced a smile.
"It's a bad day today, but he has been getting better overall." Ban's demeanor and inflection read, 'don't push him too hard.'
"That's great to hear! You'll be up in no time helping us with the Furies."
"I'm just tired now, but in a few weeks, I think I'll be able to fight again."
"We can use the help. We have a plan, though that might be a bit generous."
Ban eyed Nort. "What are you talking about, Paladin?"
"We know the Furies have fled into the Lush Forest. We suspect they must have taken over some kind of fort or stronghold. Timore and I will investigate the Lush Forest while you recover here. Then once we've found something concrete..." Nort smashed his fist into his open hand. Ban didn't seem moved.
"That's more or less what we wanted to say to you, but I'm worried." Nobody liked hearing the word 'worried' from Ban's mouth.
"What could you be worried about? They can't even get near me without dying."
Ban squeezed Triled's hand. "Up until they met you, Nort, there wasn't anyone in this world that posed a threat. These Furies never had to consider ways to deal with a person that can render their abilities worthless. We should have learned that lesson from... when the murder of The Whitecoat was avenged. Without powers, Karp the Scorpion killed many people from our world. At the height of her abilities, someone in her world took her and twisted her mind. Her fortunes changed that quickly. What would happen if the Furies took you?"
Timore held his head in shame as the conversations turned to his past transgressions, but he put on a brave face to avoid alerting Nort.
Ban continued her warnings. "That monster that held Triled captive in my world did it without powers. He did it without even fighting. All because he knew where to strike. It's an enemy we know nothing about. There could be someone as fierce as Karp or as calculating as Bron mixed in with the survivors. We have to consider that as an option."
Nort puckered at the rebuke. "We won't do anything like that. Until all of the forces have gathered, we aren't going to attack a stronghold. I promise."
"Do we know if they left anyone in the Crossroads?"
"There aren't any we could find. It's hard to say for a certainty when people can turn into water and hide in a pipe, but I think the Crossroads is safe."
"Wonderful. I think we can declare the operation to take back the Crossroads a success."
"Why are we running? If we weren't so careful, we could just take everything we wanted." Timore complained yet again, and Birn looked at his son.
A small caravan traveled up a side-road. The shifters from the upper-world lugged crates full of valuable metal goods and food. After clearing out a keep and disposing of bodies, the travelers moved to the next town to meet with Triled the Wolf to return the goods to their world.
"You know who you sound like, right? How did that go for The Sunflower?" Birn chided his adult son.
Timore's face reddened. "How did all this work out for Mom and Biporn? If we all supported him back at the festival, everything would be fine now!"
Birn's head shook, and his scowl turned into a frown as guilt ate him away.
"You never had a difficult life before all this started. If you saw our world before The Whitecoat came, you'd understand. Those who have hard lives must choose between cruelty and empathy. You can cruelly kill those who have what you need and take it for yourself, but you lose everything you could have traded in the future. That's the choice we had to make. Jorn wanted cruelty."
Timore pointed to a deserted keep in the distance. "Is that what you are calling... what did you say? Empathy?"
"I guess you can both be right and miss the point. We are living in a wide gray area between empathy and cruelty. We kill as little as possible, but we still have to kill, but if these weapons work, there will still be a world. The Sunflower's idea was easy, but nothing would have been left."
"If power was all we needed, we should have used it to get what we want. We've sustained more deaths this way than just wiping everything out."
"It's business, son. We have traded with the people of this world. They have taken some of ours, and we have taken some of theirs."
A wagon wheel lodged in a divot in the road, interrupting the conversation.
"What happened there?" Timore wore frustration on his face.
"Easy. Someone decided to leave town on a rainy day and cut this divot in the mud. The mud dried, and now, we're stuck. All this happened because one person couldn't be bothered to think about everyone else's future. It wasn't an issue when they went down this road, but had they gone down it more gently a few days later, people wouldn't be getting stuck in their wake until the next rain..." Birn gave a self-righteous smile at the convenient teaching moment.
"That may be true, but by leaving in the rain, they made it to the market first and sold their goods. The ones who left later paid the price for hesitating." Timore nodded.
"I guess not all analogies work very well. If we can beat the Furies with only sacking a few more keeps, the world will move on with nothing but the memory of that strange time a bunch of lords disappeared. Once we rebuild our world, trade will start again."
"I don't see how you can be sure we'll be forgiven so easily. There's really no way to be redeemed from what we've done. In that sense, maybe it would just have been better to go all the way."
"You won't recognize the moment you can be redeemed until after it's gone. If you are brave enough to seize it, and there are people left, there are people left to forgive you."