Story 4: By Sea

It was dawn on the calm and temperate waters of the Trader’s Bay. The Merciful’s Jeshan Shifter was crouched on a short platform projected over the port side of the ship. He was clasping a vein of Stream in his hand firmly, held over the deep ocean and the vein disappeared far underwater once it was outside of his control. Atop the mast, the Bessan scouting in the Crow’s Nest was silent and watching the horizon through his hand lens. The sun’s light was beginning to fill the sky with an orange glow as the deck bell rang out one chime and a sailor yelled “Ahead full speed!”

 

The Jeshan held the Stream constantly while on duty and maintained a branch of it to grow up the mast, within range of the Bessan. This task alone required a fundamental commitment of mental energy, not to mention his additional responsibilities and requirements. The two Shifters fell into their morning duties and the Jeshan opened the water and pulled the ship through it with the power of the Stream. Soon, the sails were flush with a wind that was being empowered by the Bessan in the Nest and the vessel raced through the water of the Bay with unnatural quickness. The Jeshan, sprayed with hissing water as he parted the low swell to ease the passage of the bow, felt the Stream tugging on him to be released back to its natural place on the floor of the Bay. He had to keep his mind focused on holding it or else it would snap away and he would not be able to retrieve it again. If the Stream was to return to where it would normally be on the seafloor, it would be too far away to call back. The ship would need to return to shallower water under its own power so that the Stream could be grabbed again. Aware of those things, the Jeshan continued concentrating and passed the wooden ship through the sea with haste as the Merciful patrolled on the open Bay.

 

Their ship was a member of the Blue Fleet, an extension of the Last Knights of Realm. They operated an elite peacekeeping armada on the middle and east Bay to stifle some of the flagrant criminality and piracy. Their home port is located at Naruna, but they also have well-established presences at Cheed, Greenwall Port and Teayl. It was essential for the land and sea to both be secure in the free and independent region of the Fold, as this too was a part of their Old Way. They and their seafaring counterparts in the south (the Royal Navy of Realm), patrol the waters of the Trader’s Bay and secure it from rampant danger.

 

The mast alarm of the Merciful rang out as the ship raced through the open sea. “Column of smoke, zero nine zero!” He shouted, pointing over the starboard side to the distant horizon with his hand lens. The Jeshan turned due east but saw nothing. Clearly scouting not being his strongest skill.

“Make your heading zero nine zero.” The Captain on the bridge said, and the ship turned. “Ahead flanking speed!”

 

The call went out and the Jeshan Shifter poured his energy into parting the waves for the ship to slide through smoothly to its target. The Bessan blasted the wind into the sails and accelerated the ship with a torrent of air. The Merciful raced across the Bay to the column of smoke with remarkable alacrity. Once their ship got close, they could see what remained of the burned passenger vessel slowly sinking into the sea. The Merciful slowed and began to rescue those already in the water. They took the crew and passengers they saved below deck as the stranded ship sank. The sailors confirmed they had been viciously attacked and boarded by a much smaller, faster ship which flew a black flag and may have had a Shifter helping them.

 

The sailors hurried about climbing the mast again and setting the rigging for fast travel. Men darted about on different jobs, all working to bring the ship to readiness. Having come to a complete stop to collect survivors from the attacked vessel, the Merciful turned itself about.

“Mast sighted bearing zero nine zero!” The Bessan signaled down from the Nest while holding the Stream.

“Bessan!” The Captain shouted from the deck. “Is that them?”

The Bessan in the Crow’s Nest could feel the Stream being tugged in the direction of the ship, but he could not see anything more. “That one probably has a Shifter on board!”

“Understood.” The Captain said. A Shifter at sea is a dangerous weapon, not to be abused.  “Let’s hunt these pirates down!” The Captain shouted, and his crew let out a hearty roar in agreement.

 

As the pirates sailed out into the open eastern ocean, the Merciful began her chase. The Blue Fleet vessel lurched forward, then gathered speed rapidly as the Shifters and crew labored. The Jeshan Shifter held the Stream firmly and concentrated as the crew unfurled the sails. He opened the path for the ship to be guided through with little resistance. The Bessan churned the wind fiercely as the wood groaned against the strain and the Merciful surged towards the horizon.

 

From the Crow’s Nest of the pirate ship, the lookouts spotted the Merciful coming up from the west and gaining speed rapidly. He sounded the alarm and men began to scramble about the deck of the ship readying themselves for potential combat. Some of the sailors took their bows and their quivers and lined up on the sides of the ship, igniting their torches; hoping to get a chance to set their enemy ablaze.

The pirate Captain looked wildly up at the sailor in the Nest. “Blue Fleet?”

The sailor nodded.

“Scum,” He grunted angrily to himself. “We’ll show these Knights how we do things in the Trader’s Bay! We will not run today men! It’s them, or us!” A great cheer went up amongst the crusty criminals. The pirate Jeshan Shifter turned their small vessel about and the men at the helm began to charge straight at the Merciful. The pirate Captain had a smile on his face which grew larger as the two ships settled into headings would bring them hull to hull. He pulled his fancy Captain’s hat lower on his head and stared forward menacingly. The Jeshan could not bring the ship close to the same speed as the Merciful, but could ease its journey through the water while the wind carried it, and at least that was in their favor.

 

“They are charging us Captain!” A deckhand of the Merciful at the bow shouted.

“Good.” The Captain said confidently. “This should be over quickly.”

He looked up at the Crow’s Nest and shouted, “do they have a Shifter?”

“Yes,” the Bessan said. “One Jeshan. On the port side.”

“Okay then.” The Captain looked out across the deck with steel in his gaze. “All hands to battle positions, and ahead ramming speed! Prepare for starboard side attack! We turn on my orders! They have a Jeshan so men, be ready!”

 

The pirate Captain’s grin was changing to a snarl as the Merciful continued on a collision heading at ramming speed. He noticed the distance between the two ships was closing rapidly.  The pirate Captain then entertained the possibility that this might be his very last mistake at sea. I will break this man. He thought to himself in a bold sort of delusion.

He turned to face his crew and bellowed, “Notch your arrows sea rats and prepare to fire starboard side! Turn the ship to port on my signal! Let’s burn these fools! Ready the oil at the railing! Drench them in burning death!”

 

“Prepare yourself for what they may do Jeshan and react,” the Captain of the Merciful shouted. “Bessan, once we pull broadside, light them up. All hands brace! Hard to port!”

 

The Merciful broke from its ramming course and so did the pirate ship, just as they began to come perilously close to colliding. The Bessan in the Nest struck his flint and ignited some frayed paper as he huddled with the Stream in his hand. Both vessels turned and exposed their starboard flanks to each other for a few moments as he rapidly created a small fire in his palm. The Bessan stood up as the ships came broadside and channeled the raw power of his ethereal elemental mastery. The archers on the enemy ship fired a volley of arrows with perfect placement and timing, while they readied the hot oil to be launched on their next pass. The Bessan unleashed his fire into the air between the two ships at the same time in a violent, expanding blast wave. He cast forth a scalding arc of devouring death which incinerated the arrows before they found their targets. The colossal burst of flames lashed the pirate ship, burning men on the rails, who died instantly or fell overboard screaming. The oil ignited and exploded in a devastating, concussive blast. The starboard deck was gone and the hull had been breached. Fire was spreading all over the ship as flung oil set the sails ablaze. Men were cast about in the blast, pulverized by splintered wood and many more threw themselves in the water to escape burning to death. The power of the ignited oil had blown the pirate Captain’s hat overboard, which he took as a bad sign.

 

The Jeshan on the pirate ship acted quickly and splashed water up and over the starboard side and the sails, but the damage was done. The ship did not sink, but it could not escape and now coasted away from the Merciful helplessly. Its sails were little more than singed tatters and many of the crew were dead or no longer aboard. The opportunity to strike back was fading rapidly for the pirate Jeshan and with what he had left of his strength, he blasted the stern and rudder of the Merciful with a column of displaced water. The powerful blast split the hull below the sealine and shattered the rudder and the Merciful pivoted away, wounded and hobbling.

 

The ship was rapidly taking on water in the lower stern hold as sailors ran up from below decks to deliver the news. “We have enough time to abandon ship sir” one of the deck crew said. The captain looked forward at the closing distance between his ship and the pirates’.

“How much time?” He said.

“Five minutes or less before the stern is underwater sir.”

“Ahead full.” The Captain leaned forward. “Move to the ship to firing position. Jeshan, you snap that ship in two on my order.”

 

The indignant and crisped remaining crew of the pirate ship took to the stern of their crippled vessel and fired more arrows as the Merciful as their enemy coasted within range. The pirate Captain on the deck of his charred ship rallied his men to fight. “Stand with me and we will take that ship right now!” He screamed desperately, having become less inspiring since he lost his hat. The Captain truly had nothing left to lose as he shouted, “give them a volley men!” To what was left of his crew.

 

“We are within range Captain!” The Bessan in the Nest shouted.

The Captain of the Merciful turned to the Jeshan on the port side of the ship, “do it!”

 

The Jeshan used his power to whip the Stream in his hand across the surface of the water like a white hot rope of raw energy which sizzled and hissed as it raced towards the pirate ship. The Stream collided with the hull, which disemboweled the ship in a ferocious blast that sent splintered wood fragments flying out in all directions. Water rapidly poured into the gaping chasm amidships and it sank violently, folding into two sections.  Archers on the rapidly listing stern deck continued to fire on the Merciful, but soon fell into the sea, unable to hold on. Within a matter of moments, the pirate vessel had vanished beneath the surface of the Trader’s Bay.

 

The Merciful itself listed heavily as the stern of the ship sank. The Jeshan worked quickly to mend the broken hull and repair the wood so the Merciful no longer took on water. They were disabled for the foreseeable future and it was going to take them many hours to empty the lower sections of the ship. They would have no rudder as they limped to port in Teayl because that was something even a Shifter could not repair at sea.

 

The Merciful rounded up the survivors who were swimming in the water where the pirate ship went down and shackled them below decks in the bow to be taken back to the port. They did not locate the pirate Shifter once the ship had sunk, but the Captain was confident the danger was over.  “All hands stand down,”  he shouted, marveling at the fine hat his men had given him that they pulled out of the wreckage. “We sail for Teayl where these criminals will be brought to justice. You all performed admirably today. We are going to be rotating in new duties this afternoon until we empty the hold of seawater. Let’s work together and get ourselves ready to sail as soon as possible.”

 

The Jeshan used what was left of his stamina just to hold onto the Stream as his duty relief came in to take over and the crew of the ship started to form a line to pass buckets. He handed the Stream vein to the second Jeshan, who would assist in the removal of the water from the hold as well. The Bessan in the Crow’s Nest was also relieved of duty and would need to rest before he could render his Shifting again.

 

As they came back to their quarters, the Jeshan looked out of his cabin window at the sun now climbing high into the sky and the midday hour nearly upon them. Just another day on the Trader’s Bay. He thought to himself.

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Story 3: The Kindred of the North

Ra’Kesh, an older and grizzled Nomadic Barbarian, was taking the long road home after an unsuccessful hunting trip further to the south. He was hoping to chance upon something before arriving back home in the mountains as he trudged towards his stopping point for the night. Ra’Kesh was aware that the land  had emptied itself of life in the once fertile hunting grounds. There were no flying birds racing overhead anymore, no animals to pursue through the woods. The only residents now were poisonous creatures, beasts and the Brown Harpies that circled the dead as they lie rotting in the thin snow.

 

His trip to the south had disturbed and he’d seen very few game animals. He walked past many gutted carcasses, and fading bones. To him, his homeland felt  more desperate; in fear of not surviving the winter having held onto too little food. There was a panic in the air. Now the North was stripped bare of its resources. For a Barbarian warrior like Ra’Kesh, he knew that grim times were ahead for his people unless some of the other hunting parties that had gone out from the tribe had been more successful. Somehow, Ra’Kesh knew that they were having just as little luck finding food as he was. This land is more dangerous now than ever before. He thought to himself.

 

The lumbering Barbarian plowed forward through the deepening snow which was now only about as high as the midway point of his shin. He knew, however, that the snow would deepen as he made his way to the top of the valley.  Ra’Kesh was a skilled Nomadic Barbarian, and unlike the Humans that ventured through these lands, he had no fear. To him the North was his ally; his home. He was at peace with the outcomes of his life yet he was not ignorant to reality.

 

In Ra’Kesh’s mind, there is no fairness in his people being deprived of food for the cold season, but it was a fact of life in the North. It was hunt, or be hunted. Ra’Kesh did believe that his ancestors would not let their people die of starvation this winter, but he did not know how it would come to pass. He held his axe in one hand and his shield was over his shoulder as he continued to march forward through the narrowing valley. The snow fell densely as he gained altitude and the sun sank lower to the horizon.

 

One more night out here. He said to himself as he unpacked. Ra’Kesh made camp here many times before after much more fruitful trips south. Tonight, he had no meat to bring home and an aching belly of his own. He insulated himself with a little snow-structure to, hopefully, prevent much of his smell from escaping his camp area and trap warmth. He did not light a fire as this was a bold action to take when traveling alone and a way to bring on unnecessary attention. Instead, Ra’Kesh laid his rolled furrs out over an area he had cleared, revealing the cold frozen dirt beneath. He tore into some jerky as twilight neared an end.  The swirling stormclouds above were veiled in darkness by the onset of night.

 

Something had been following Ra’Kesh for a portion of his trip home from the hunting grounds. Earlier in the day, it had stalked while the Barbarian marched up the valley slowly. Its prey had been unaware of its presence in the woods not far off his pace. It had watched while the Barbarian took to the side of the valley and established a place to set up camp. Now, as dark had come on, the creature went from observing, to hunting.

 

The clouds overhead could be heard to whisper as they moved with the furious northern wind. Somewhere in the darkness above the valley, they roiled. The temperature plummeted and Ra’Kesh tried to rest. The cold was penetrating his thick skin, but he could still fall into sleep. Just before Ra’Kesh had fully relaxed, there was a sudden clap of thunder.

 

The creature approached from the north coming down at his camp from behind his pile of snow he had made around himself. This monster relied on many senses, formulated plans and weighed options. It waited in the shadows, slinking low, still many feet away. The creature could smell his stink clinging to his clothes and furrs.  The creature salivated, crouched, recoiled and sprung into action. It hurled itself through the air and onto the camp at astonishing speed and with near perfect silence. The creature being of such significant size that when it landed it created a massive plume and blasted frosty snow thrown out in all directions. It tore at the bundle of rags, but found no one in them. Much to its surprise, Ra’Kesh had somehow known it was coming.

 

It was only then that, to the great shambler, the conspiracy became apparent. The suddenly stormy sky above unleashed a blast of lightning upon the Abominable as it lurched in the clearing of the devastated camp. It was struck with white-hot energy as it stood to its full twenty-five feet. Scalded and screaming, it raised its fist and let out a roar that echoed across the valley. It spun about, looking for its enemies while its flesh crackled and crisped across its left flank and back.

 

Scarred from the startling shock of the lightning, the creature whirred about and spotted Ra’Kesh. The Barbarian had  run far out into the open valley, but then turned around to face the creature in a combat stance. The Abominable squared up on the Barbarian and pounded its fists into the ground, galloping to a raging charge with its mouth gaping wide.

 

Ra’Kesh set his feet, and calmly recoiled his axe back behind his shoulder. As the massive creature advanced, the Barbarian aimed carefully and waited. He stood his ground as the lumbering colossus bore down on him at a fatal speed. Ra’Kesh hurled the axe with deadly precision. The twirling hand axe sank deep into the Abominable’s face, shattering its eye. The wound rocked the creature and it frenzied in wild agony. It swiped forward with extraordinarily vicious rage as it fell to the ground and flailed its massive arm across the open valley floor. The Barbarian was broadsided where he stood and was cast into the air like a thrown doll, disappearing into the night. It cradled its injured face with the other hand as it tried to stand, fumbling about, disoriented and in writhing pain. The creature pawed angrily at the axe and knew it still had an enemy out there somewhere. It peered into the darkness with its good eye.

 

The Abominable huddled in the snow, screaming from its wounds and franticly searching about. Behind it in the forest, a tree was uprooted swiftly and was brought down hard on top of the Abominable with choking speed. Branches snapped over it’s body and the trunk squarely clobbered the creature over its head. The force of the impact flattened the monster into the ground, while the tree then slid down and pinned the Abominable to the earth. Stunned by the sudden brutality of the attack, it groaned and tried to get back up. The clouds opened and a new bolt of lightning came down from the sky. This one, however, was much more pinpoint than the previous in its accuracy and it struck the Abominable directly on the top of its head as it lie flat on the earth. The force of the lightning upon the Abominable’s skull was like a savage weighted hammer brought to bear on a pumpkin. The tree then fell naturally to the ground, and silence reestablished control of the valley once more.

 

From out of the shadow of the woods several hundred feet away, a Jeshan Shifter emerged from the forest and began to trudge across the valley floor over to where the Barbarian had been flung during the battle. As he walked closer, he discovered the Ra’Kesh had been impaled against sharp rocks to the side of the valley where he had landed. The broken fragments of his wooden shield still hung onto the straps around his arm, which was sprawled lifelessly beside his mangled body. The Jeshan removed his hood and met the Barbarian’s gaze.

“I’m sorry,” The Shifter said. The Barbarian looked back at him with tired eyes. They both understood.

“How long had it been hunting me?” The Barbarian asked.

“At least since yesterday,” the Shifter said. “It is dead.” The Barbarian looked up at the sky and saw no stars, but could feel the cold breath of the North stinging his cheeks as the last drippings of life escaped from his body. “You didn’t have to help me.” .

“Yes I did,” the Jeshan said in reply. “We are kin of the North together, and you would have done the same for me. We all must protect each other in these dark times.”  The Barbarian smiled a little at that. My hope is not fading after all. He  mused to himself as he grew more tired.

“So,” the Barbarian said gruffly. “I always knew I would meet a Shifter one day. Your kind our the link between our world and the world of my ancestors. You have the light of my kin in your eyes.” The Jeshan said.

The Jeshan smiled, “you Barbarians, wasting your last words to wax poetic.”

A long silence passed as they looked upon each other, and the snow fall thickened.

“Thank you,” his voice beginning to fade. “The ancestors saw you tonight.”

“Soon, you will be with them. Become one with the Stream.” The Jeshan then pulled a vein of Stream out of the woods, knelt beside the broken warrior and passed it over the Barbarian’s outstretched hand. “The Stream sees everything,”  he said softly. “Tonight, you dine with the greatest warriors of your tribe in the grand Hall of Bones. Feast, my friend, and rest well on a full belly. The days of battle are over for you. I will take the Abominable’s flesh  back to your people. They will not starve this winter. They will live because of your sacrifice. The creature could not have been defeated without you and you die with honor tonight.”

“By the light of the Stream be bound!” The Barbarian said his eyes charged with intention, despite those being the words spoken by the Shifters who graduate from Naruna, not of anyone who comes from the Frozen North. The Shifter smiled and passed his open palm over the eyes of the Barbarian.

“May it show us the way.” He said in formal reply, and with that, Ra’Kesh was dead.

 

The Jeshan took about the grueling duty of skinning, gutting, cleaning, and packing a great deal of abominable meat into several bags and carryalls that he had. He used Ra’Kesh’s furrs to pack more flesh and the snapped limbs of the tree he used to pummel the Abominable to make a large sled.

 

The Jeshan Master was true to his word and he carried a great deal of fresh meat back to the Barbarian’s tribe, walking all night and arriving early in the morning. They were a famished lot that had been waiting for its few warriors to return from the hunt. The Jeshan told them that one of them would not be coming back. “He gave his life so that you all could live.” He said aloud as the tribe listened. “Let me tell you of how he died in battle.”

 

The Jeshan spoke of how Ra’Kesh the Slayer had, attacked and defeated the Abominable, and then fed all his people with it’s flesh. Ra’Kesh was a skilled warrior, and a brave Nomadic Barbarian and the Jeshan described his axe flying through the air and impaling the creature in its eye. He made sure the stories they will tell of Ra’Kesh the Slayer will go on through the generations.

 

Though they cried that their father, husband and friend would not come home, he would never be forgotten in the tales the tribe will tell that would pass down from the parents to their children. Ultimately, the Barbarians understood that this was the way of the North, and that death comes for everyone, in time. There are many more who die then there are who live to do great deeds. Now these Barbarians had a warrior of their tribe who had done both. The Barbarians gave some meat to the Jeshan and he accepted gladly. He gathered his belongings and prepared to go, having shown his honor to the Stream and to the tribe.

 

“We are all here together,” the Jeshan said before them. “We must all remember that we are kin of the North, not just kin by our race, and that we must protect our land and each other so that life may go on as it always has. I have always been here. I will always be here, watching.” With that, the Jeshan vanished into the night, as the wind started to increase and the snowfall around their homes deepened.

Story 2: Terrorism

A group of four Jeshan Shifters crept along a south-facing wall of the City of Realm for a great distance, shuffling horizontally, hiding in the blind spot underneath the parapet. There was a common Stream vein usually very nearby which would have typically prevented this type of intrusion. However, the group had spent a long time earlier in the day, before making this journey, moving that vein away from the base of the wall slowly. They did this so that they could sneak by undetected now and they ensured their tampering would go unnoticed. It had taken them several hours, but now they just needed to avoid being physically sighted instead of detected by the Bessans along the City wall. They slid sideways for close to a mile until they found the hatch near the base of a perimeter tower. Once it was open, they quietly and quickly filed into the dark and cramped tunnels underneath the City. From inside, they closed the hatch and shuttered themselves into darkness. The group lined up single-file in the tunnel and sprinted for the dungeons of the Great Keep, several minutes away.

 

Shortly past the midday hour, the Bessan Shifter 18902 at south perimeter defenses reported a militia hiding in the trees firing arrows at the patrol guards on the south city wall. That section of the defenses has its border against the open wilderness of the land between the southern countryside  and the ocean. While beautiful, however, this area represents one of the most vulnerable potential entry points into the City of Realm.

 

The City Commander took the situation quite seriously and sounded the general alarm. Soon the bell tower of the Keep was ringing out the cry to take up arms or seek shelter. Soldiers began to pile out of their barracks and form up in the streets, marching towards the gates. The City of Realm readied itself for battle for the first time in many generations. People ran from the open marketplaces and common buildings to find shelter in their homes as the deep thunder of the bells echoed through the alleyways.

 

“You hear that mate?” One bandit  outside the wall said, nudging another. “Now we’ve really pissed them off!” A dozen skilled archers and twenty or so really terrible archers were, essentially, preoccupying the entire fighting force of the City of Realm as it pooled behind the south gate, pelting them with misguided and non lethal arrows. There were a smattering of no more than fifty deviant infantry guarding a Jeshan Shifter at the base of the outer fortifications. The Jeshan was not powerful enough to shatter the wall, but could sway it a fair bit. It wobbled and groaned under his influence. More men were hiding further back in the trees, waiting for an opportunity to rend the Realm’s poorly trained soldiers. The raiders were brutal fighters, and these cadets in their colored armor had only their numbers to hide behind. The Realm’s soldiers came pouring out of the gate and into the wood bordering the city wall, scattering into a defensive perimeter. Many more of them came rushing out and filled in behind with their swords glistening bright. A few hundred of them filled a large clearing around the entrance to the city and held their ground.

 

The Jeshan lashed the Stream like a white hot whip against the hard stone surface and had a largely visual effect, rather than actually causing much damage to the structure itself. He did make sure to give it a healthy shove to get the men on top of it fearing he could bring it down. The Shifter waited until the Realm’s soldiers had taken up defensive positions before using the power of the Stream to stick them all in knee-deep mud. A few hundred of them stood paralyzed, or fell over, unable to do anything to escape. Scores of them were butchered by a wave of arrows and more soldiers fell as the rain of projectiles thickened. A group of archers in the deep woods continued to fire at the stranded soldiers, while a few redirected their attention to the walls. The soldiers abandoned the perimeter, as they could not defend it from the Shifter without risking being shot by an archer. The men of Realm stayed away from the walkway where the raiders had range. “There must have been a hundred archers or more, all very well concealed.” Proclaimed the City Commander, disgusted with the turn of events. “Send more soldiers out through the south gate and dispense of the archers first. 500 men!” the Commander said. His steward turned and left to deliver the orders.

 

Meanwhile, Lord Emperor Marion Dimsdale III had gathered the heads of the royal noble houses for a meeting in the war room of the Keep. There, the nobles and their top advisors peered out from the upper levels of the central tower down at the South wall of the city. Smoke was rising from deep in the woods and the first reports were of heavy losses for the Realm. They grumbled over the disturbance and pigeons carried news back and forth from the command center just outside of the protection of the keep, where the City Commander was in charge of the defense of the city. The Lord Emperor turned to his Field Marshal and nodded. The Marshall turned and went about enacting the Lord’s request. The nobles grumbled that no previous Lord Emperor in the last hundred years has been forced to marshall the army and defend the city. “These are strange times.” a noble was heard to say.

 

The Commander, from his lookout a few hundred yards from the Keep, was sure the soldiers of Realm would handle this rabble, despite the initial losses. The Bessan Shifter slave at his side held a vein of weak blue Stream in her hand. “Is everything normal? Are they attacking from any of the other districts of the city?” The Shifter peered into the Stream but did not see what was happening in the passageways underneath the Keep. In their minds, no one could ever get into those underground tunnels because the entrance was constantly monitored. Or at least, so they had thought. Today, however, they had been outwitted by a group of very devious Jeshans. “Everything is fine except for what 18902 has reported at the south wall, all areas say no activity. Stream is undisturbed, no artificial motion, all access points are secure.”

“Excellent.” The Commander said. “We should have this taken care of in no time.”

 

Far outside the wall, close to 10,000 armed raiders were hiding in the woods only a few miles away in a small patch of forest near the coast, waiting for “the signal.” They had been in the area for some time, and none of them were sure what the signal was, but knew that if they waited for the signal, they were sure to go on the greatest raid of all their lives. Many respected sources were very clearly told what to do, and where to look. They did have some riders at the edge of the woods facing north, which they were clear is where the signal was going to be coming from. More raiders were accumulating as word had been spreading for days. No one had any clue what was going to be raided this far south, and in The Realm no less. All the cities in this country are guarded, and the only thing that’s due north is the City of Realm, which none of them were expecting to raid today. As a result, most were thinking they were going to be disappointed  despite the promising quality of the claim.

 

Near the south gate, the distractors had accomplished what they were supposed to, but they had also got the south gate under control and were confronting any that came out of it. The bandits and soldiers of the Realm began to skirmish in the woods, with a terrible advantage going to the raiders in the melee combat.

 

At the blaring sound of trumpets, cavalry of Realm came charging out of the forest with the Field Marshall at the head and trampled any in their path. The cavalry ran through the bandit encampment, butchering the archers in an abrupt and unexpected attack. The bandits looked at each other in dismay “They likely came out of the garden gate!” One of them shouted. “Which I thought we had covered…” In truth, they had simply neglected to send anyone to watch the garden gate. The remaining archers scattered into the woods and the men of the Realm surged.

 

The Jeshan Shifter looked at the wall, closed his eyes while holding on to a vein of Stream and caused it to grow up, and into the City. His time was running out, as his infantry protectors were not going to last much longer. He realized what was at stake and he channeled his concentration into sending it as far into the City as he could.

 

The vein of Stream expanded over the peak of the wall, back down and along the ground in the direction of the Great Keep. The Lords of Realm on horseback spotted the Jeshan Shifter channeling and ordered a full attack. They charged ahead and the infantry guarding the Jeshan held out their pikes; a few with swords behind them stood their ground. The Stream had crept far into the city, but not quite far enough.

 

The Jeshan was quickly consumed in the cavalry charge and was slaughtered, along with the remaining pikes and infantry. His Stream vein started to roll back a little, but then, it accelerated forward until it crept all the way inside the main hall of the Keep. The vein spiraled down the stairs and into the dungeons where the Jeshan Shifters were waiting, calling to it. They had been reaching out and pulling on the Stream towards themselves once their ally Shifter had propelled it far enough for them to grab.

 

In the command center, the Bessan Shifter spotted the Stream vein intrusion. “Sire,” she says flatly, “I think something is happening.”

He sternly looked down at her, perplexed. “What?”

“The Jeshan, he’s…” She trailed off, suddenly realizing along with the others.

 

The cavalry mowed down the last of the raiders outside the city walls and rounded up the remaining soldiers of Realm at the gate. A great cheer went up amongst the men as they stood victorious. “Send a pigeon to the Emperor, young squire,” said one of the Lords of Realm from atop his white steed. “We have won the day!”

 

The Bessans discovered what was happening all too late to do anything about it. These Jeshans had tricked them somehow and had breached their defenses. Now, their worst fears realized, their enemy stood, Stream in hand, right in the beating heart of the Realm.

 

“Oh sire…” the Shifter beside the City Commander said and the Stream fell delicately out of her hand in defeat. She looked at him, eyes wide with terror. “I, I’m sorry…”

“What did you see!?” He screamed.

 

Their run through the dungeons was over and, together, they held the Stream tightly in their hands. One of them clasped a crudely arrowhead shaped crystal and they all marveled at it once it caught the light of the Stream and radiated with power. “Streamstone” one of them said.

 

“It’s going to make us into legends.” Another said. “By the light of the Stream be bound, brothers. For Strayalis!” They chanted together.

 

They closed their eyes, and all clasped the crystal of Streamstone and felt themselves blending back into the Stream, their true home. A great power began to reverberate and amplify between them and the Stone. With the energy of their combined life forces, they commanded the Stream, through the power of the Streamstone, to unleash a violent expansion of the earth around them and to grow as high as possible until all of their vital energy was gone.

 

Suddenly, behind the City Commander, the Great Keep of the City of Realm exploded outward from the base in an expanding, rising ring of solid earth, rock and shocked brick that extended out above the City. The resonating blast grew upward rapidly but blew less outward as it rose higher into the sky. The accelerating blast tapered as it climbed above the city forming a spire of falling earth several hundred feet vertically where the Keep once stood. It reached its crest in an instant and dissipated, allowing the displaced dirt, stone and brick to rain  down upon the City.

 

Mammoth hunks of the fortifications as large as whole city blocks slammed down into the homes of the nobility, merchants and upper class. The area around the mount of the Keep was completely consumed by a great wave of falling dirt and rubble as a shower of debris fell in the majority of the outer urban area that little could hope to survive. Whole tower sections crashed down onto entire neighborhoods and historic districts, erasing them under ten feet of crushing brick in an instant.

 

A burning wave of charged dust came roaring down the streets as the debris fell and it was followed closely by a shockwave that tore grown men right off their feet and cast them aside as the city began to disappear. Millions of homes were obliterated under a crushing rain of earth and brick fanning out in all directions. A great gust of maddening wind was finally cast out from the City as the Keep fell; having breathed its final breath. It did not seem possible that many in the area behind the walls could have  survived the devastation.

 

The outer City wall and districts were pelted with huge pieces of the Keep and rock that had been cast violently and far into the air. They smashed against the ramparts and some blasted through them; sending even more brick debris flying about violently. The extensive damage inflicted on the City and the defenses had exposed it to attack from all directions; there were great gaping holes in the fortifications. Smaller bricks and chunks of the Keep landed in the outskirts, often rolling through many houses before coming to a stop or slamming hard into homes, pulverizing everything around where they land. A cloud of vicious, choking dust then fully enveloped the City and all became lost to sight.

 

No bells rang out, just the faint sounds of screaming could be heard carrying over the wind. The afternoon coastal flow slowly pushed the dust of Realm out to sea as the midday sun sank lower in the sky.

 

The 10,000 raiders stood at the edge of the woods a few miles away, dumbfounded by what they had just seen. “Do you think that was the signal?”

Story 1: The Huntress and Her Prey

Her left arm was held straight out into the air, grasping the longbow firm and on a bold arc. A fierce breeze whipped through the tall grass all around as the ranger crouched. An arrow was notched and a glistening greenish yellow vein of Stream coiled around the hand that held the string taught. Her eyes were shut tight and she appeared to be in deep concentration. Abruptly, the skilled huntress released the arrow into the sky. It was unclear what she might be firing at as it quickly vanished on a trajectory that took it high and  far.

 

Motionless, like a stone gargoyle, she was poised and continued to listen. The Bessan’s eyes were still shut tight as her arm slowly lowered. Without hesitation, she sprung to her feet and was on the move. The darkly clad Shifter launched out of hiding into the open field running full speed, pursuing something in the general direction her projectile had been fired. The thick but short black cloak on her shoulders snapped behind her as she raced through the grass.

 

The ranger ran forward a few hundred yards, paused to tap the Stream briefly, then charged off much in the same direction she had been going. The accuracy of her chase improved as she repeated this process. If this Bessan huntress had someone marked, there was almost certainly no escape. Her prey, in this case, had the courtesy to never stray too far from the Stream to be completely hidden from sight.

 

The Bessan paused and surveyed the clearing she had come upon, seeming to recognize the place. The huntress looked down and dabbed at some blood on the ground.  Crouching low to the earth again, the Shifter snapped the sparkling green and orange Stream back into her hand and closed her eyes. Without opening them, she delicately unsheathed her bow, notched an arrow and aimed high into the gathering night. The motionless ranger waited several minutes before taking her shot and the arrow vanished on a deep arc into the distant wilderness.

 

Coming back to life quickly this time, the Bessan raced forward, releasing the Stream. Her short, raven-black hair frolicked about her shoulders lightly as she sprinted. Climbing up over a hill and back down the other side, the huntress closed in on her prey. She slid quietly through the tall grass and could feel the thick stalks tugging at her cloak and sword scabbard. She broke into an open area and came upon a perforated human in studded leather armor and a tattered, bloody cloak. He was crawling along the ground and the Shifter was displeased that he had snapped one of her arrows. The human was not able to run anymore and had, essentially, given up. It became apparent that the multiple wounds he had received were weighing on him.

“Well,” he said, hands in the dirt. “You have me.”

 

“Indeed.” She said flatly. “Why did you run? Running doesn’t solve anything. Running makes people come chase after you, and, well, now here we are.”

 

“I know,” he mumbled painfully. “But if I had betrayed them, they would have treated me much worse than you ever will. You see, they have no problem eating your eyeball right out of it’s socket even if they suspect they’ve been wronged. You probably wouldn’t ever be that hungry or angry. I think I’ll take my chances with you.”

 

“You seem well aware of how brutal they are, and yet you turned them on a helpless city, unable to defend itself from a most gruesome foe.” The ranger seemed a bit outraged at his casualness, while she sheathed her bow back beside the quiver.

 

“Yes.” He was solemn, but resolved.

 

“Why?” She pleaded. “Those were your people, your brothers, your sisters. What do you have left? What are you hoping to be the King of now? What could they have offered you to make you do this to your own kind?” Her tone elevating as the Ranger grabbed hold of him by the shoulder buckle of his armor. She marched off towards the deepening wood some distance away, dragging her kill behind her like he was a slaughtered animal.  The grizzled man smiled and winced as the arrow in his leg collided with objects on the ground. His lifeless limbs rolled over rocks and logs, leaving a thin trail of blood behind.

 

“You would never understand.” He said almost to himself, looking down at the world going by. Grunting occasionally in displeasure.

 

“Honestly, I’d really like to know what it took to convince you that THIS was what you needed to do. That your part in a scheme could enable such death and pain must have some explanation.”

There was a moment of silence that seemed to carry on for a agonizingly long time.

 

“I just wanted to see it burn.” He started laughing, first slow, then higher and sharper, until he was cackling. “I remember their screams. So many. Children. Screaming…” The flames were still roaring in his eyes.

 

The Bessan Shifter backhanded him with her chain gauntlet across his face. “Enough!”

 

When dusk came, she tied his hands and feet down to the earth so he couldn’t wiggle away and made no fire. The ranger settled down in a clearing in the low brush many miles from the road, but not quite to the protection of the trees, to set camp for the night. It would be another few days journey hauling this traitor back to Naruna for further questioning. The ranger thought as she healed him, treated and bandaged his wounds. Sadly, she realized he had left an alarmingly long trail of blood to her location, which was of concern to her. There is nothing I can do about this now. The ranger conceded to herself.

 

As the sun went down and darkness crept in from all sides, there was a deep red glow on the horizon, growing thicker and darker the lower it went. “Smoke. So much smoke.” She said aloud, and to no one in particular. Smoke had been billowing from her city when she left, but that was two days ago. The air of the Fold was still thick with it. Even if the city the Bessan Shifter had been born in was gone, she would not stand for that to be the fate of other people’s homes across the Kingdom.

 

Gaining what they can from this traitor is of paramount concern, she thought, as the plan to destroy the city had clearly been waged in secret, on multiple fronts and with the assistance of many. Unraveling this sordid catastrophe is  going to take time. Did we even have time? Was it already too late? Things were moving so rapidly now… To her, a great deal had changed in a short time; the stakes had been raised to a new and perilous level.

 

“I know what you’re thinking,” her prisoner began with his back to her and his ear close to the ground. Perturbed by his noisiness, she glowered at him sternly. “You’re thinking, ‘I wonder if I torture him, what information I could get long before I reach Naruna. Then wouldn’t I be just such a good little ranger, so very praiseworthy, having learned so much from the traitor beforehand?” He scoffed in outrage to his own spun reality. “I’ll never talk to you, no matter what you do to me.”

 

“Won’t you?” She jested. “It would make my job so much easier, and then I wouldn’t need to take any of my tools out or get them dirty.” the Shifter composed herself and snapped back. “I’m not wasting my time discussing anything with you. You’ll talk when we get to Naruna, or you’ll show them what they need to see.”

 

He lifted his head from the ground suddenly and raised his voice. “As a matter of fact,” he said boldly, snapping around to face his captor and seeming encouraged, “I don’t think we’ll be going to Naruna at all. No, I have decided I am going to escape now.”

 

She chuckled dryly, and leaned in towards him, “and just how did you plan on doing that?”

 

“Not me,” he said. “Those Anten behind you might help, though.”

 

Several Anten entered the clearing, spotting the ranger right away. The leader of the group leapt at the Shifter and tried to push her down. The nimble huntress used the momentum of her fall to glide over her prisoner and land a short distance away from the Anten. While tied to the ground, he was shouting something in the Anten tongue. His way of telling them he is an ally, that is, if they speak the dialect he’s using. She thought.

 

Gathering herself, the ranger kicked the Anten who had jumped on her away while it tried to get up; its balance being compromised. Using that momentum, she sprung for the safety of the tall grass behind her. The Anten wasn’t deterred by her attack and also quite dexterous; it lunged forward and grabbed her leg as she tried to flee. In an instinctual reaction, the Shifter snapped the Stream to her hand and used her mastery of the ethereal elements to blast the Anten in the face with a wave of black, tainted fire. The scalding flames turned pure again as it caught on to the surrounding grass and began to spread. Two of the Anten who had moved in for the kill were also set ablaze and they fled screaming madly. When the black fire snapped into existence a thunderous boom of sound and energy was created, which terrified the other Anten. The warrior held onto her foot even as his body burned, and the flesh of his face melted away to the bone. The remaining Anten in the patrol began to run about wildly as the flames grew brighter and larger. The ranger severed the burning Anten’s arm with her sword and cut the bonds of her prisoner. “If you run from me, I will find you.” The stern huntress whispered to him. He paid her no mind, and ran off by himself into the night.

 

The poisoned Shifter grabbed her stomach and limped away through the grass. The ranger stumbled forward, light headed and sick. She wobbled about looking for something to hold onto, reaching out with her hands. She gripped the trunk of a tree and the Bessan remembered her training. Breathe. The Shifter took several minutes to regain composure as the poison of violating the natural order was flushed from her body.

 

As she gained greater distance from the fire, things became clearer in the darkness. The ranger crouched and slid through the brush as the Anten darted about, searching. Then, the screams of her prisoner cut through the night air. He seemed to have been captured and was very likely being eaten alive. Damn. She knew the mission was over.

 

The Bessan came to a clearing and headed towards the deepening darkness of the wood when an Anten attacked from the empty shadow of the tall grass.  The Shifter whirled about and dodged the fierce swing of its axe. She spun away and created some distance between herself and the Anten. It spat and hissed at her angrily, then charged. Snapping the Stream back to her hand again, she thrust him away with a mighty breath of wind following her outstretched, clenched fist.  The Anten was shoved as he reeled against the force of it and was moved back a dozen feet or so.

 

The feral savage was swift, strong, and did not lose its footing when the wind blew him away. Instead the warrior recoiled and leapt vertically into the air. The vicious warrior raised his axe high above his head and released a chilling, guttural scream; hurling himself into combat. The Bessan Shifter looked at him for a moment as she communed with the Stream. To the Shifter, time slowed down and her keen senses were greatly heightened. She made sure no other Anten were nearby and brought into focus what would be the most efficient way to resolve this situation. Decisively, the Shifter held out her flattened hand as her brutal enemy reached the peak of his leap. Then with authority, the Bessan clenched her fist and brought the  elemental force of the wind in behind the Anten, smashing him violently against the ground. His body impacted at extreme speed and was ripped into fleshy chunks which scattered out in all directions into the grass at the perimeter of the clearing. The Shifter released the Stream and sprinted for the cover of the trees. Once she had some distance from the scene of her battle, the ranger looked for a place to avoid the Anten patrol which would surely investigate that scream.

 

Waiting high in a tree for a few hours, the Shifter remained motionless until the Anten patrols had moved on. She went back to her prisoner’s remains and searched through what was left of him. Within his saturated garments, she found some handwritten notes in a language she didn’t understand. It was an item she would have to bring to the Maesters in Naruna. “It’s something,” she sighed. “It’s better than nothing.”

 

“I may have lost the mission, but I have not lost hope.” The ranger stared back at the land set ablaze by her defensive fire as the flames spread into the deep woods.  “This land is burning.” With that, she took to foot again, heading back southeast across the Fold to the city of Naruna and the Academy. The road home would take a few more days, and the weight of her failed mission wore heavy on her already. As she made her way through the woods. The ranger’s bones ached and she needed to find another safe place to rest soon. The mounting pressure of the days ahead weighed on her, while feeling a great sense of pity for those who would be caught up in these perilous times. My part to play isn’t over yet. She thought confidently.