Shift World I Book III Chapter 10
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Nort and Timore sat in front of a hand-drawn map resting on a table inside a house. The village sat close enough to the Furies' hideout to make a day trip, but far enough away to not draw attention from monsters or enemies. Nort looked over the map. A ring of trees encircled a field, small village, and keep. A moat surrounded the keep. Nort had drawn the document based on his reconnaissance, so most of the critical features only showed a rough outline.
An advanced guard appeared a few hours ago and informed Nort and Timore that Ban, Triled, and the remaining forces would arrive in the village momentarily. A tingle ran down Nort's back as he saw Ban and Triled enter the woodworking shop they had retrofitted into a command center. Ban looked more serious than usual as the weight of taking care of Triled and spending a great deal of time in the Shift World drained her stamina. Triled looked leagues better after a month recovering, but bags still hung deeply under his eyes. Even though simple movements seemed to suck his breath away, he didn't look moments away from falling into madness or despair. Under normal circumstances, such a dubious description indicated a grave cause of alarm, but now they were just glad he had survived.
"Do you want time to rest?" Nort halfheartedly asked, looking up from the map.
Ban shook her head. "No. We don't have time to spend resting. We need to end this, or there will be no world left to save."
Nort bit his lip at the melodramatic declaration. If the world could be beyond saving, then it must have reached that point long ago.
"I guess there are different levels of being saved." Nort conceited as he turned his attention to the map. He pointed to a house in the south-eastern part of the village. "Skeletons and devils made a nest in this building."
Nort lifted his finger and brought it down on another building. He pointed out several areas and finished after showing the fifth building. "We will need to take out these nests as we march toward the keep."
"Why bother?" Ban shrugged as if she didn't understand the threat of low-level monsters.
"If we attack the keep directly, it will probably wake up the monsters resting in these buildings. If that happens, we are going to be pinched between the Furies and this bridge." Nort drew a circle around the main road between the keep and bridge. "We also don't know the lengths the enemy will go to stop us. They could destroy the bridge while we cross. We would suffer some losses, but with the monsters gone we'll still have the option to retreat through the village. If they remain, we might be ambushed and have to fight our way back."
Ban gave a grim look. "Before we worry about the tactics, we need to know the logistics. How many Furies are there?"
Timore frowned. "We don't know."
"You don't know but want to attack? How reckless can you be?" Ban crossed her arms while admonishing Timore and Nort.
"We never see the Furies in their human forms, which makes counting them... difficult." Nort emphasized his words by pointing on the map. "We know that one Fury flies in the wind, here, above the keep. A fire one is near the second floor, usually over here. One causes the water to move around the moat. We suspect that a ground type Fury hangs around the treeline in the rear of the field."
"So that makes four. Why do you say we don't know?" Triled arched a brow.
Timore shook his head. "We know of at least four types that have been seen at once, but we don't know if there are multiple of each type. Like with the moat, does only one Fury agitate the water? Do the air Furies take turns flying above the keep? What's the point of the fire Fury on the second floor? Is that just a Fury taking a break from one of the other stations? We can't tell the different gusts of wind apart."
"Alright, I get it." Ban conceited that they would probably have to launch an offensive without knowing everything or risk scaring off the Furies forever.
"Even if we don't know that information, can we launch a two-phase offensive where we find that out in phase one and take out the enemies in phase two?" Triled rubbed his chin.
"What are you talking about?"
"I have a plan..."
Shrouded in darkness, Nort, Ban, Timore, Triled, and Huskie skulked toward the nearby village. Ban, Nort, and Triled wore their typical armor, except they tied cloth wraps around their heads to cover their faces. Looking out small slits would hinder their vision during fights with an intelligent enemy, but the group covered their faces to confuse monsters. Twenty fighters waited at the field's edge to cut down any stragglers that made it that far out.
The group passed half-way through the open field, seemingly undetected. After reaching the village, Ban and Triled needed to travel between dens clearing out the pockets of monsters. Timore and Huskie needed to escort Nort to the stone bridge. Huskie could detect Furies hidden in the ground or air, and Nort planned on using that knowledge to slip through holes in their defense. Once inside the keep, Nort intended to sneak from room to room, killing any Furies that lingered inside. Once the monsters and off-duty Furies died, the twenty auxiliary guards would charge in from the forest.
Because the Furies ended up much weaker in a direct fight, the warriors expected to hold off the attacks until Nort systematically took them out. Nort believed they concocted the optimal plan despite their ignorance on the Furies numbers and positioning. Plans, however, never survived the first encounter.
The group watched a ball of fire almost akin to a flair approach. An idea sprung to Nort. "Grab me!"
Timore clutched Huskie by the nape and pulled him toward The Paladin. He grabbed on to Nort with his free arm. Ban and Triled already clutched on to his legs. A fireball flew several feet above the group and splintered into five pieces that twirled and arced, heating the area to an uncomfortable temperature. Smoke mixed with the breathable air and the group choked on the acrid filth. They helplessly endured the orbs' blinding light, but Nort's improvisation appeared to be working.
The fire danced at a distance before slowly rising from the ground, chard embers replacing overgrown grass. The tunnel pulsated between the shining epoch of its power to a duller light, closer to a campfire before fracturing and drifted back toward town. Nort struggled to see anything with bleached eyes.
Timore, Trilled, and Ban released Nort, and he stumbled. Shadows moved across his field of view, and he could hear footsteps approaching. Nort drew a bear claw dagger and focused on the clattering feet. He struggled to sense the oncoming people's distance and speed, so he closed his eyes and concentrated. The low growl of a devil closed in. When the monster reached striking distance, Nort swiped the blade at chest level, but his hand fruitlessly swooshed through empty air.
Nort opened his eyes but could only make out a shape similar to a person with a raised arm. He guessed the creature prepared to strike down with a rock or heavy implement. During the momentary hesitation, Huskie growled and leaped at the monster, dragging it to the ground. A jet-black fluff darted around his vision, shaking what looked like a practice dummy with flailing limbs.
His vision cleared enough to see Timore lunge on the monster with his sword and stab the creature's chest. It laid out flat, unmoving. Timore pulled free his barbed fire steel sword with a crunch. Nort and the rest of the group's vision cleared well enough to find a horde of monsters barreling down from the town.
"It was a trap, not an attack..." Ban's face paled under her mask.
Timore defended the formation's front since his water steel armor protected him against flimsy attacks. Ban drew a water steel staff from her back and squared into a fighting stance. Triled readied a dragon fire steel short sword to cut down the approaching enemies. Timore belted out a command to charge, and the group plunged into the stream of oncoming monsters. Fervent skeletons and devils slashed and clubbed Timore as he crashed through, but the weapons bounced off of his armor without leaving a scratch or dent.
The monsters attacked anything not moving in sync with the herd, which made the masks worthless. Ban and Trilled threw them off without hesitation, but Nort left his on, hoping to use his to sneak past any non-frenzied monsters remaining in the village. A devil that must have been a farmer in life swung a hoe at Timore, and the weak wooden handle snapped when his armor didn't give even a little. He cut down that devil with a vertical slash.
The stream of monsters parted around Timore faster than he could stop them. A skeleton carrying a steel dagger reached Ban and lazily slashed, but she swiped the creature's hand with her staff and knocked the blade away. The confused monster gripped its wrist, and Ban clipped its head, knocking it out cold. At the same time, monsters assailed Triled. He dealt with two devils with quick slices that sent limbs flying, the partially dismembered devils attacked again as the next monsters arrived.
The devils threw their limbless upper bodies into Triled and knocked him over monster corpses. One devil crawled toward the tripped Triled like a worm pushing itself along the ground. Before it could kick or bite him, Ban's water steel dagger flew through the air and plunged into its head. Triled pulled the blade free and sunk it back into the other injured devil. This time, the monster slacked and stopped moving. Unfortunately for Triled, a row of skeletons reached him before he completely recovered.
The skeleton lunged, and Triled caught its hands. The monster bobbed its head, trying to bite an exposed part of Triled's arms or shoulder, and he rolled to avoid the teeth. Nort jumped forward and sunk a bear claw knife into the skeleton, and it slackened. Triled threw the monster away, which freed Nort's blade.
After cutting down twenty skeletons and devils, the stream of monsters stopped. The group continued on to the edge of town and hid behind a shack. A panting Triled spoke first. "At least we cleared out all of the monsters."
Timore shook his head. "No, that was probably not even one-third of the total. We still need to clear the rest."
Ban frowned. "Why can't we ever catch a break!?"
Nort chuckled at such a conspicuous display unexpectedly coming out of someone as stoic as The Water Drake. "Do we stay with the plan?"
Timore appeared to be reflecting on his options. "I don't think they expected us to fight. If they did, the Furies would have swooped down while we engaged the monsters. If we can get to the keep undetected, I think they'll assume we ran away."
Ban nodded. "Ok. We continue with the plan then?"
Triled peeked from behind the shed and surveyed the village. Although a few monsters meandered between buildings, none of them grouped in violent waves. After finishing his assessment, Triled sneaked deeper in the direction of the shop that Nort had labeled 'Nest #5.' Ban followed.
Triled pressed his back against a nearby wall outside an empty doorway. A few moments later, a skeleton ambled out. Triled stabbed his sword into the base of the creature's head, and it dropped dead. The pair continued deeper into the village and out of sight.
Nort followed the path used by Ban and Triled but didn't stop outside of the houses because he and Timore still had covered faces. Stepping over the corpses of fallen monsters, Nort, Timore, and Huskie plunged deeper into the village. Half-way through, the trail of bodies veered, but the pair continued on an alternate path. A few minutes later, Huskie stopped, turned to a nearby house and growled while its fur stood on edge. Nort inched between Huskie and the medium-sized wood house.
Smoke smoldered between the wall's outer planks.
"I think we found the first fire Fury..."
The news seemed to put Timore on edge as he cautiously strafed to put Nort between him and the wall. Timore snapped his fingers with a dull metallic clank, and Huskie joined his master. Huskie's fur slackened when the smoke stopped drifting from between the slats.
The house's floorboards creaked as a solid being stomped away from the wall with thundering steps. Nort felt a line of sharp tingles crawl from his lower back to the base of his head. He struggled to grasp the full meaning of why the Fury transformed from elemental to human. He also wondered just how big the Fury must have been to produce those steps. The indecision froze Nort and Timore in place, but they seemed to share the idea that indefinitely waiting wouldn't solve their problem.
Nort skulked to the door, placed his hand on its face, and gently pushed. It crept open with a slight whine from the hinges. He stepped into the main space, each wall had a doorway leading to a darkened bedroom. Nort skulked toward the one closest to where they heard the floorboards creak. Timore moved to the bedroom wall with each step landing with a clanging thud. Nort wondered if he could use the sound to his advantage by ambushing the Fury if it left the bedroom to find the noise's source.
Nort slid out a bear claw knife and hid behind an overturned table just outside of the room. As he predicted, the Fury reacted to the noises outside and marched toward the exit. The footsteps stopped well before reaching the doorway. Timore looked to Nort, and he motioned for Timore to lightly kick the floorboards. Timore's toe tapped the floor, and each hit rang out with the sound of cracking wood.
Inside the room, the footsteps continued, sped up, and then, changed direction. The unseen enemy pounced toward the bedroom wall, and without a moment to react, the lightwood boards shattered. A howling monster wrapped Timore in black, veiny arms. A head similar to a mix between a man and bat's glared at the trespassers. The asaghi's seven-foot body lifted Timore and dragged him through the house's sidewall and into the street.
Timore fell with a crunch onto the village's overgrown grass, and Huskie sprang into action before Nort could grasp the situation. The dog bound through the newly made hole and chomped onto the monster's wing. It screamed in anger and thrashed about seemingly trying to throw Huskie. Nort rushed through the hole while Huskie distracted the beast. With a better look in the bright outside light, Nort noticed something strange about the asaghi's wings.
Slices cut swathes from the burned, veiny skin connecting the thicker supportive tissue. Even some of the monster's connective tissue had been crushed beyond repair. The beast looked like it might have been purposely crippled to keep it grounded in the village. The idea of a town full of grounded asaghi sickened Nort. The monster finally flung Huskie down to where Timore struggled to stand.
Nort went to grab Timore's hand but stopped after realizing that doing so would crimp the part of the armor pinned between Timore and the ground. After much difficulty, Timore rolled onto his stomach and started getting back on his feet. The asaghi pulled back its head, breathing in deeply. Nort backed closer to Timore who grabbed Huskie. A moment later, the monster's head shot forward, and fire smashed into The Paladin.
The flames fanned around Nort, licking his gambeson and dissipating harmlessly. A few moments later, the monster stopped to survey the damage. A confused look spread over its face when an unharmed Nort stood in front of Timore and Huskie instead of charred corpses. The asaghi howled so loudly that monsters inside nearby houses frenzied and tore apart the buildings' interiors.
Nort faced Timore but balked at the sight of scorch marks running through the overgrown grass where the asaghi's flames forked. He snapped back to reality. "I'll try and deal with this thing. You keep an eye out for anything it might have called. Also, stay away from its breath at any cost."
Timore followed along with the simple plan, but his body language read of incredulity at the part about avoiding the flames. Timore nodded anyway and watched the group's rear for incoming monsters.
After a moment of the asaghi's hesitation, Nort noticed that it held a water steel reaper. The handle and blade had a slight curve with stylized etching and embossing, indicating a weapon and not a tool.
Nort took the initiative and charged. In response, the monster swung its reaper, but Nort ducked below the incoming blade and stabbed the monster's arm. The asaghi shrieked, but the bade didn't leave damage. It shook off the injury as easily as Nort might have shaken off a scratch trickling blood. Nort guessed that enough strikes could take it down, but he didn't want to alert the entire village or the Furies with a prolonged fight.
Realizing that Triled and Huskie trailed far behind, Nort danced around the monster, and it followed while preparing an attack. Nort weaved and ducked until he spun the beast, and its head tilted back releasing its breath away from Timore and Huskie. The breath engulfed Nort, but the fire harmlessly dissipated.
Nort looked back for Timore, who fought off an onslaught of devils and skeletons drawn by the conflict. Nort grunted before shouting after Timore. "I'm going to draw this thing away. You concentrate on clearing out those monsters. We'll make up a new plan later!"
Timore faced Nort but had to redouble his efforts on the monsters without responding. Nort turned, and the asaghi followed down the main village road. When monsters ambled from houses to view the spectacle, Nort stabbed them or the asaghi bisected them with his reaper. Nort sprinted until he ran out of the village and halted in an area approaching the moat. He faced the charging enemy.
At first, Nort worried about the devils flanking the towering asaghi, but its rage ran so uncontrolled that it crushed the monsters within reach. For their part, the weaker creatures instinctively swung their weapons at the asaghi, but couldn't penetrate its thick black hide. The beast barreled out of the village trailed by a wake of corpses. The monster swung its water reaper horizontally, but Nort ducked. This time, Nort aimed a strike for the monster's arm while it slashed the reaper. The bear claw blade caught the skin and cleaved a cavernous wound that stretched from wrist to elbow.
If the same wound happened to a person, they'd likely bleed out within a few minutes. Still, monsters didn't bleed, so the injury seemed surprisingly superficial. The asaghi rebound and prepared the reaper for a downward strike. Nort punched the reaper's wooden shaft, and it bent under the shock of his fist, twisted, and then snapped. The confused monster lowered its guard and slowly brought the weapons to chest level. The remaining reaper looked like it could still make a serviceable sickle, so Nort grabbed its shaft just under the blade, twisted, and snapped the head free.
Nort jumped and flung the sickle head up the road. After the monster roared and fire shot high in the air, it glared, winded up, and hurled the sickle's broken shaft. Nort had thrusted his head back, but the splintering wood grazed his forehead, cutting the flesh underneath his headwrap. Luckily, the wrapping stopped blood pouring from the scrape from seeping into his eyes. However, he'd be blinded when the cloth reached its limit.
Air swooshed above him, and Nort realized his vulnerability, but he couldn't leave until finishing the fight. The asaghi threw the second handle piece, and Nort dodged. Emboldened by the crude but effective strategy, the monster picked up a stone and hurled it at Nort's leg. He jumped back, and the rock smashed into the ground, creating a wide divot. The assault advanced, utilizing every stick, rock, and debris that laid in the field. Each time the monster threw, Nort dodged, but he came closer to the moat.
Nort became pinned just outside the raging water, but the asaghi also ran out of debris to hurl, creating a stalemate. The monster spread its wings but couldn't fly because of its damaged wings. It stared off at the keep and howled in anger. The beast trudged toward Nort, punched, and missed with the incoming fist. The asaghi kicked, hit, bit, and swung its wings until its enemy tired from dodging.
After Nort grew tired, one of the asaghi's fists caught his body. The knuckles smashed into his woolen gambeson with an ineffectual thud. To Nort's surprise, the monster only striked him with an average person's power. Emboldened by the lack of damage, Nort held onto the creature's arm as it tried pulling free. The monster beat him with wings that felt no stronger than a flapping chicken's. The asaghi roared and kicked, but Nort twisted his lower body to avoid the strike.
After a few moments, Nort let go with a wry smile. "Good fight."
The asaghi looked as though it understood that speech existed, but couldn't comprehend words. A moment later, two sets of footsteps approached. Timore, running at full speed, arrived at the monster and plunged the broken sickle head into the creature's back. A typical strike with water steel wouldn't do much damage to an asaghi, but since Timore used his body weight while running at full speed, the weapon's tip penetrated several inches.
The monster roared and whipped around to see his attacker. The asaghi lifted its head to breath fire. With a loud grunt, Nort kicked the back of the sickle head. The blade sunk in another six inches until the metal cracked and shattered apart. The weapon's fragments sprinkled down, but a large chunk of water steel stayed in the asaghi's chest, puncturing where its lungs and heart would be if it still had those things.
As the scholar effect started wearing off, fire poured out of the wound instead of shooting toward Timore, boring a hole through the monster's chest and innards. A moment later, the fire smoldered, and the asaghi dropped lifelessly.