Story III: The Kindred of the North

Each step forward in the land of endless light was a burden to him. The skins he wore were hot and stuck to his skin. The breeze that burned past him stunk of carrion and pollen. This land was unfamiliar to him, yet, he knew that this was the place where he had the best chance of locating some game.

Talith strode through the valley headed north towards home. He had been venturing in the distant southern lands for many weeks but had not made a kill for his kindred. Along with his massive form he carried a sleigh filled with supplies: salts, leather wraps, bedding, carving knives and other things he might need to preserve fresh meat for the long journey home. On his shoulders he wore the burden of the families who were going to be hungry. He had nothing to bring to them, no nourishment for the Tor children whose aching bellies had driven him into the Fold in the first place.

As he ventured further into the twilight, the smells of home came back to him. He could almost taste the snow, and the bitter wind that sung in pain. He himself knew a new kind of ache, that of disappointment. On this three-week long divergence into the south, he found nothing, and was returning to his tribe without one morsel of food for himself or anyone else.

The further he ventured, the darker it became. The shadows were lengthening, and the cold was increasing. Soon his boiling blood began to cool, and things felt more natural. The south was a putrid land, but rife with things to kill, as he was told. All the preparation for his journey had been for naught. He saw no elk or deer, no goats or boars. Just the rotting, fetid carcasses of the dead. The vile stink of decomposition was what he would remember of a land emptied of living things, harboring only the black harpies circling, waiting.

As he neared the base of the Ranges, a storm was beginning to form atop the mountains. He peered north, seeing now his journey up this valley would be halted by the onset of weather. Talith looked ahead and saw a line of trees and a small grove where he could make camp. It was still a long way to go, but before the sun was finally beneath the horizon, he would be there.

***

It lurked in the dim light of the north, and it had been watching. Talith did not see, but as the sun became nothing more than a feint glow distantly, it waited for him. The creature was massive; more than 20 feet tall and lined with patchy white fur revealing scaly grey skin. Its wide eyes were used to being in the darkness, but it too had come south in search of food. Now this unsuspecting Tor had ventured past it, caring the sweet, sweaty scent of tired muscles and flesh. It stalked from a great distance, always being sure to hide itself in the lengthening shadows. As the Tor crept close to the scattered woods at the rim of the valley, it soon knew it would taste blood on its lips again.

***

Talith reached the area he felt was a safe place to make camp for the resting hours. Even though he was not able to commune with the Stream himself, his bones ached, and his arms hung limp, desperate for rest. Now he was finally close enough to home to start to feel at peace. He pulled his sleigh beside him and began to offload his burdens. Talith used a shovel to clear the ground, which had a crispy permafrost layer hiding the fertile soil beneath. He stretched out his skins to make a bed and went about gathering some branches to erect a shelter. He covered it with the remaining pelts he carried with him. This was enough to keep him protected from the bellowing front that was now rolling down the slopes headed his direction.

As the clouds began to snuff out the fading light of the distant sun, he felt both like he was coming home, but also telling some of the children that they would starve.

The darkness created by the storm enveloped the valley with a thick rain of frozen water developing into a cold slurry along the ground. Talith dug out a trench around his hut and forced the water away from his bedroll. He had but a small supply of cured meat that he had prepared on one of the first days of his hunting expedition, from a weakened boar that he had slaughtered. It was lean and starving, which had made it easier to kill, but by now, nothing would be left of it to bring home. It was much the same with all the other creatures in the southern lands; they were lean and famished, not ripe for eating. Talith felt the guilt of knowing he had failed his people. They depended on his strength and his cunning to bring them the game they could not harvest safely in the north, and now, he would come back to them with an aching belly of his own.

***

It had his scent filling its nostrils. Lurking a good distance away, it watched as the Tor pitched his little tent and readied itself for rest. Soon, it would slowly stalk, and move in for the kill. Its lips were wet with the anticipation of filling its mouth with juicy flesh and cracking bones in its teeth. The anticipation for this starving monster was nearly too much to bear, but still, it lurked silently. The Tor made no campfire, but it wouldn’t have mattered since the creature had already acquired a liking for the sweat of this unsuspecting Tor. Like so many others that it had eaten, this one would be no different. Only that the creature hadn’t fed itself in such a long time, that it would savor every last mouthful as it devoured the blood and meat of its prey. As the Tor in its hut settled down to rest, the storm was beginning to come down and wet sleet mingled with snow fell all around. The pounding noise of the rain hid the creature’s steps as it crunched across the tundra and came closer and closer to the sleeping Tor.

***

The wind was whipping circularly around through the trees and flapping the skins of Talith’s hut frantically. There was a piercing scream to this wind, and it kept the Tor’s eyes open as all light vanished and the fury of the weather became the only concern. As Talith tried to close his eyes and pacify his body, a snap of unexpected thunder filled the air.

***

The creature had at last come close enough to see the Tor’s camp clearly, and it now began to crouch and approach slowly, from downwind. It too heard the crackle of thunder in the air but was too preoccupied with the coming kill to pay it any mind. As the last obstacle was cleared, the monster leapt high into the air and raised its massive fists up above its head, bringing them down into the tent and shattering the structure. It quickly scraped for the Tor but found only an empty bedroll. Releasing a cry of frustration, the creature stood upright, towering amongst the tall northern trees.

It was then that a furious bolt of charged lightning split the sky and blasted the creature over its left flank. The energy ignited fur and ripped the creature’s thick skin with an electric hiss. Bellowing madly, it exited the trees and rolled in the falling snow to extinguish the fire.

It was then that it saw the Tor, standing in the open clearing of the valley floor a short distance away, holding its tiny axes in each hand.

***

Talith saw it in the reflecting light of the ice forming on the ground, and it was truly more massive than he had ever heard tell of. This Hunter was three times his size, and as its large eyes acquired him, he knew that he had but one chance to make a stand against his impending death. The Tor always know that their end is never far when traversing the Ranges, but now, as he stood face to face with the enemy, he felt the minutes of his life slipping away.

It charged, burying its fists into the falling snow, headed straight for him. Talith only had once chance, and he took it.

***

As the creature, enraged, charged the Tor, it’s prey suddenly hurled one of its axes which then lodged itself into a big wide eye of the Hunter, shattering its forward progress and sending it caterwauling into the freezing dirt in a crumpled heap. Grasping frantically at its impaled eye, it lurched forward in a maddening frenzy and smashed Talith with the back of its hand. The Tor was struck hard flew through the air, disappearing into the darkness.

***

A second bolt of lightning struck the creature as it roiled on the ground, igniting its fur once more and sending it into a frantic frenzy. From the woods, one of the tall trees suddenly became uprooted and drifted through the air towards the creature. The tree tilted and smashed the massive body of the Hunter several times until it was pinned flat on its belly, whimpering in a state of disorientation. Then, without hesitation, a third blast of lightning shattered the creature’s skull sending bone chunks and brain pieces all over the valley floor, with the smells of crisped skin and cooked meat filling the air. The storm overhead was passing, and the light of the distant sun returned to find the once hidden scene occupied by a carcass of massive proportions, and a black cloaked Shifter emerging from the shadow of the treeline.

The Shifter walked over to the far western end of the valley, where Talith had landed. He was broken in all his joints, shattered against some jagged rocks with a bit of blood leaking out of his mouth.

“I’m sorry I could not save you,” The Shifter said as he knelt beside the dying Tor.

“You are a shifter.” Talith said in the common tongue. “You tried to save me. You did not let it feast on me.”

“I will save you now.” He said, wiping the blood from the dying Tor’s face.

“Save my people.” The Tor whispered as his breath was leaving him.

“We are kindred, you and I,” The Shifter said. “This land is our home and we must look out for each other.”

“I go to my ancestors.” The Tor said.

“You go with honor, Talith son of Kaylor. You go to them as a slayer of the Frozen Hunters. Your people will know what you did today. They will never forget your name.”

Talith died there in the frozen mud of the Trader’s Fold, only a dozen miles from the beginning of the Ranges. He would not see his home again, but because of him, his people would live.

***

Sefarian skinned and cured the Frozen Hunter and all the bounty of its flesh. He stacked it gently on Talith’s sleigh and wrapped it in the skins the Tor hunter had used as protection from the weather. He grasped the massive sleigh’s reins and marched slowly back up the valley, towards the base of the mountains where Talith’s people dwelt.

***

When he arrived, they gathered around him. They saw Talith’s axes, and knew he was dead. No Tor leaves his axes behind. Sefarian the Cobbler told them of how their brother of blood had died, trying to bring them enough food to survive, and that he had. He had killed a Frozen Hunter with one throw of his axe. That he was the bravest tor this Shifter had ever seen.

“Tell your children of Talith the Slayer. He gave you this flesh of his own life, so that your children would know his name.”

Sefairian did not stay, and the Tor gifted him some of the bounty he had brought back to them. “I will always be near. We are kindred of the north. We must look out for each other.” And with that, he trudged off into the icy fangs of the foreboding Ranges.

 

Story IX: Empty Glasses

The breeze was coming up from the south with the warmth of the distant sun carried on it. There had been no storm rolling in from the teeth of the Frozen Range for many cycles of the Blood Moon, and the windows of the tavern had been open all night. Kietrich was running a dirty rag over the tables, casting the dust onto the floor and into the air that the wind had deposited inside. The purple sky and distant glow of the sun in the far south set him at ease, while the thin vein of Stream that ran up the south facing window told him the time of resting would soon be approaching. Typically, the patrons he knew best would wait until the time of resting was upon them before seeking to imbibe.

“How long are you going to stare out that window Kit Rat?” Marta screeched in mock castigation.

“Don’t call me that,” Kietrich scowled. “I’m not a rat.”

“No? You certainly scurry around here like one, picking the scraps off the plates. Don’t think I haven’t noticed you.” Marta continued to hammer him with her shriveling tone and squinty eyes.

“If you fed me properly, I wouldn’t need to!” He shouted, turning to face her with a look of fondness. Kietrich’s eyes sent a message other than his tone. He adored this woman, and most definitely enjoyed this feigned indignation and banter they often shared. She too had a look for him, one that spoke of just how precious he was to her. In this dusty tavern, the two of them had found a life on the distant edge of the northern Trader’s Fold.

“Did you hear that Ellanore?” Marta said, turning to the dog quietly observing in the corner nearest to the door. “I feed you enough, don’t I?”

Ellanore’s eyes acknowledged that she had heard her name but seemed not to agree with Marta’s assessment. Kietrich laughed uproariously.

“That cursed mutt has always been on your side ever since you came around.” Marta grumbled, looking vexed by the broken allegiance with her fur-covered companion.

The door of the tavern swung open and the first two patrons of the night came crashing in, headed for the bar.

“Malthias and Andor! Good to see you both after so many weeks!” Shouted Kietrich as he finished dusting off the last table. “How have you been and where were you off to this time?”

As they both took a seat and signaled Marta for two tall glasses of ale, Malthias spoke first in a somewhat downtrodden tone. “We went looking for a place to build a new home, but this last trip north was more trouble than it was worth. Andor and I were robbed on the way road to Mirondale!”

“That’s terrible!” Marta exclaimed, folding her arms across her chest. “But you still went north anyway?”

“Yes,” Andor said, looking into the now half empty glass. “We wanted to find a place to build our lives together, even if we had no coin to buy anything to stake a claim to the land.” Andor reached across the bar and clasped the hand of his partner. “We feared for our lives, but they spared us and took what they wanted, even our horses. We still have each other though. We went looking just north of the lake but decided to head home soon after.”

Malthias looked into his partner’s eyes. “We got to talking more than we do on our usual trips, so in a way, the fear and time not traveling by horse have brought us closer together.”

“Well that is something!” Kietrich said loudly as the door opened again and more dusty farmers walked in.

“Welcome!” Marta looked over the tavern as it slowly began to fill up with patrons. Kietrich was already moving around taking orders for both food and drink, and the first cask of wine had been opened. Marta knew there would be more of that as the night went forward. These people were hardened from the trauma of the lives they led, and the perils of the places they made their homes. Yet, they were resilient and proven in their desire to earn more for themselves, and to do so with a sense of unwavering honesty.

“Have you seen the Last Knights around these parts lately?” One of the farmers asked Marta as she poured a cup of wine.

“No, I have not,” she began slowly. “Though, did I tell you about the time that Lord Islay came into this bar?”

“Oh boy,” Kietrich sighed. “Not this story again.”

“I love this story! Tell it again Marta!” A younger man from one of the outlying farms said.

Ellanore put her paws over her ears and settled into the floor.

“Go ahead Marta, they all love that story.” Kietrich said taking a seat near her.

“First, Kietrich, can you bring me the last cask of Imperial Blue? It’s out in the cellar. Everyone shall have themselves a glass by the end of the story!” She said as a cheer went up in the cozy cantina. “That was what Lord Dorian Islay asked for the day he came through my door, and at the time, there wasn’t a single drop of that sweet wine anywhere in town…”

As Kietrich moved outside and closed the door behind him, he could hear the muffled sounds of Marta’s voice as she enthusiastically began to tell the tale. Only the softest tones escaped the shuttered windows, but he knew he wanted to be with her, at this dusty old tavern, for the rest of his days. This was where he was happy and felt most alive. He had walked a terrible road himself and understood Andor’s pain when he spoke of the robbery, and the dreams for their future suddenly in peril. His path forward had been put on hold many times, but now, at last, he was walking into it with his eyes wide with gratitude. He loved Marta, and suddenly realized he should marry her and make this place, this tiny little town, their home forever.

Kietrich moved around the stone building and clasped the metal handles to the cellar, unlatching them and swinging the doors wide. It was dark within, so he snatched a torch off the corner of the building and held it before him as he walked down the steps.

He quickly found the distinctly blue-painted cask and slung it under his arm as he walked back up into the perpetual twilight of the northern Trader’s Fold. Arriving at the dirt landing atop the stairs, he set down the cask to close the doors to the cellar behind him. A noise came from the trees several feet away, the sound of something rustling in the leaves. He peered over but saw nothing and paid it no mind as he turned his back to clasp the cellar doors closed.

***

Marta reached the end of the story and a great cacophony of laughter and cheering echoed off the stone walls, but she quickly noticed that Kietrich was not in the tavern with the cask of wine she had asked for. Thinking first of scolding him playfully, she pushed open the wood shutters on the window nearest to the back of the building and shouted into the dim world beyond the torchlight. “Kietreich you better stop pissing and get yourself back in here! The good people are waiting for their wine!”

Her shouts were met with no response. Ellanore was there too, with her nose pointed out the window as she began to bark. A little lump started to climb up in her throat as she turned back to the tavern, eyes starting to widen with fear.

“Well,” Malthias said. “Where is that boy?”

As they emptied into the dim, a collection of the men of the tavern and Marta all walked to the back of the building, where they found the cask of Imperial Blue sitting upright on the ground, next to a torch that had gone out. The dirt had been moved and some of the plants disturbed, but there was no sign of Kietrich. Marta shouted for him as did others, and still, they heard nothing. Her voice echoed off the tall tree trunks and into the distant black of the northern sky. Little tears pooled in her eyes as the men fanned out to search the woods and cellar. A Stream vein running along the ground was a faded red, but as the patrons came back together where Kietrich’s torch had been left in the dirt, it turned a deep and remorseful blue.

 

Story IV: By Sea

It was the start of the waking hours on the calm and temperate waters of the Trader’s Bay. The great sailing warship Merciful’s Jeshan Shifter was crouched on a short platform projected over the port side as the bow carved the swell with a hissing spray. Clasping a vein of Stream in his hand firmly, he maintained his hold as the ribbon of light disappeared far underwater once it was outside of his fist. Atop the mast, the ship’s Bessan Shifter was scouting in the crow’s nest; scouring the horizon through his hand lens. The sun’s endless light blasted proudly in the blue sky while the deckhands relayed the order to proceed ahead at full speed on their patrol.

 

The Jeshan held the Stream constantly while on duty and used his Shifting abilities to send a separate branch of it up the mast, within snapping range of the Bessan. The intense labor of maintaining a hold on the Stream was essential to the operations onboard their warship. Soon, the sails were flush with a wind that was being empowered by the Bessan and the vessel raced through the water of the Bay with unnatural quickness. The Jeshan breathed in the salty air screaming past him as he parted the rolling swell with his Shifting; easing the passage of the bow through the water. The Stream tugged on his closed fist as the ship sailed smoothly, itching 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 be lost. If the Stream was to return to where it would normally be on the seafloor, it would be too far away for any Shifter to call back. The ship would need to return to shallower water under its own power so that the Stream could be retrieved, which would be a catastrophic loss of time and function. Aware of those things, the Jeshan continued concentrating and passed the wooden ship through the sea with haste as the Merciful searched on the open Bay.

 

The stern and well-constructed warship Merciful was a member of the Blue Fleet, under the jurisdiction of the Last Knights of Realm. The Knights operated an elite peacekeeping armada on the central and east Bay to stifle the flagrant criminality and piracy which are often a peril of living in the Trader’s Fold. Since Realm had long ago vacated the lands and waters outside of their Southern Spiral, the Blue Fleet kept the peace at sea and provided rescue to those caught by the powerful storms that come out of the south.

 

The mast alarm of the Merciful rang out as the ship raced through the open sea. “Column of smoke, zero nine zero!” Shouted the Bessan as he stared at the horizon, pointing over the starboard side.

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

 

The call went out to sail at full speed 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 charged air. The Merciful’s mast and sails groaned under the intense forces and it charged across the Bay to the distant column of smoke with remarkable alacrity as the deckhands scrambled to lash down ropes and prepare for possible combat.

As they approached, they could see what remained of a burning passenger vessel slowly sinking into the sea. The Merciful decelerated and sent out the lifeboats to rescue those already in the water. They took the crew and passengers they were able to save below deck as the stranded ship broke apart and disappeared into the depths. The crew of the now destroyed passenger ship confirmed they had been attacked and boarded by a much smaller, faster ship with a Shifter on board.

“That pirate galleon moved around us easily while their archers fired on our sails. Once we were ablaze, they took some distance and washed my crew overboard with waves created by their Shifter.” The leader of the surviving crew conveyed. “Then he split our hull and they left to the south.”

“We are sorry for your loss,” the Captain began. “we will set out after these pirates immediately. They can’t have gone far. We will keep you, your crew and passengers safe until we reach port at Teayl.”

 

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 full readiness. Having come to a complete stop to collect survivors from the attacked vessel, the Merciful pivoted about and waited for a course.

“Mast sighted bearing one-eight-five!” The Bessan signaled down from the nest while holding the Stream.

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

The Bessan in the crow’s nest could feel the Stream being tugged in the direction of the ship, but he could not feel or see anything more. “That one probably has a Shifter on board! I can sense his power.”

“Understood.” The Captain said. “Let’s go have a look, shall we?” The Captain shouted, and his crew let out a hearty roar in agreement. “All ahead flank!”

 

From the crow’s nest of the small pirate ship heading south, the lookouts spotted the Merciful coming up from the north and the warship was gaining speed rapidly as it approached. They sounded the alarm and the pirate crew began to scramble about the deck of the ship preparing to set the sails. Some of the sailors took their bows and their quivers and lined up on the sides of the ship, readying 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?” He shouted. The sailor atop the mast nodded in agreement.

“Scum,” The pirate captain 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 gathered on the deck. 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 a collision course. He pulled his fancy Captain’s hat lower on his brow and glared forward menacingly. The pirate Jeshan could not bring the ship close to the same speed as the Merciful but could ease their journey through the water while the favorable wind pushed from behind.

 

“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. Its surely them sir.”

“Okay then.” The Captain looked out across the deck with iron in his gaze. “All hands to battle positions, and ahead ramming speed! Prepare for port 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 full 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 battle. I will break this man. He thought to himself, twisted up in a false sense of boldness mingled with fear.

He turned to face his crew and bellowed, “Notch your arrows sea-rats and prepare to fire port side! Turn the ship to starboard on my signal! Let’s burn these fools! Ready the oil at the railing and cast it on them as we pass! Drench them in burning death!” The crew lit their braziers, readied the oil to be cast and notched their incendiary arrows, preparing to fire.

 

“Ready 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 ready… Now! Hard to starboard! Turn!”

 

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, shielded from the wind, with the Stream in his hand. As both vessels began to turn and expose their port-side flanks to each other, he Shifted his spark into a small, contained flame in his palm.

The Bessan arose as the ships came broadside and channeled his power through the crackling flame in his clutches. The archers on the pirate ship fired a volley ahead of the oil with hopes of setting the mast and sails ablaze. The Bessan unleashed a blast of fire into the space between the two ships in a violent, expanding plume. The scalding surge of burning, devouring death incinerated the arrows in-flight before the ships were fully beside each other. The colossal wave of fire enveloped the railing of the pirate ship, rendering some archers to ash while others not directly hit fell overboard screaming as they burned. The oil ignited in the cauldrons and exploded in a devastating, concussive blast, sending wood splinters and human shrapnel across the deck. The top of the port hull was gone, and the breach extended below the waterline. Fire was spreading all over the ship as oil splattered from the initial blast set the sails ablaze. Men were cast about in the fray, pulverized by wood fragments and many more were thrown in the water, escaping death by fire. 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 used his Shifting to splash a wave of water up and over the side and across the sails, washing some of the remaining crew overboard in the effort to preserve the ship. However, the damage was done; the pirate ship did not sink immediately, but it could not escape and now drifted 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 Shifted the water underneath the stern of the Merciful upward, breaching the ship with a powerful displacement and destroying the rudder entirely. The gaping wound in the Blue Fleet ship began to fill with water, and the Merciful listed idly without the ability to control its course.

 

“We will not have much time before we too are sunk, sir” one of the deck crew of the Merciful said. The captain looked forward at the closing distance between the two ships, both crippled.

“How much time?” He said.

“Five minutes or less before the stern is too far underwater to be saved, sir.”

“Try to move us closer,” The Captain leaned forward. “Once we are within firing range, Jeshan, you snap that ship in two on my order.”

 

The somewhat stunned and crisped remaining crew of the pirate ship took to the stern of their dying vessel and fired more arrows at 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!” To what was left of his crew.

 

“We are within range Captain!” The Bessan in the nest of the Merciful shouted.

The Captain turned to the Jeshan on his platform extending over the side of the ship, “do it!” The Jeshan used his Shifting to whip the Stream in his hand across the surface of the water like a white-hot rope of sparkling, raw energy which sizzled and hissed as it rippled out towards the pirate ship. The Stream collided with the hull in a thunderous crack, disemboweling the vessel with a sparkling explosion of energy. The burst sent wood fragments flying as water surged into the gaping chasm amidships. The pirate ship sank violently, folding into two sections and crumpling beneath the surface of the sea.

 

The Merciful itself began to sink further as the stern continued to fill with water. The Jeshan worked quickly to Shift the wood back into place on the broken hull so the Merciful would stay afloat. They would not be able to sail again until the water in the hold had been removed and would have no rudder as they limped to port in Teayl.

 

The crew of the Blue Fleet warship rounded up the survivors who were swimming in the water where the pirate ship went down and shackled them below decks to be taken back to port. They did not locate the pirate Shifter once the ship had sunk, but the Captain was confident the danger was over having seen the violence of the blast that tore the pirate’s galleon in two. “All hands stand down,” he shouted, marveling at the fine captain’s hat his men pulled out of the flotsam. “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 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 both exhausted Shifters came back to their quarters, the Jeshan looked out of his cabin window at the ceaseless sun shining down on the glistening sea; with the midday hour almost upon them. Just another day on the Trader’s Bay. He thought to himself.

 

Story VIII: Royal

The sun was ceaselessly burning when Lord Lorica Alwitter awoke to the dayrise bell echoing across the vast City of Realm. The thin vein of Stream that ran over the railing of his balcony was flickering with a sustained pale blue, with shards of red and orange flashing infrequently. He held out his palm to it, instinctually, but did not snap the Stream. Never here. He reiterated, with focused thought.

Though the sun never left the sky, there was a time to rest and a time to rise. The Stream told him, even before the dayrise bell sounded, that his mind was waking up. The Humans learned quickly after they conquered these lands that the mind cannot sustain without rest. Yet, they have done such things in the brightness for all to see.

The Stream did not truly speak to him, as it did for the Bessan Shifters captured as slaves for the Realm. He did gather feelings and pulses of intent on occasion from it, but nothing he could act upon; like an itch he couldn’t reach. He was a Jeshan Shifter, and a master of the physical world, but this was not a thing that was known to anyone else in the Realm. Lorica kept a secret within, that, with one lapse of focus, would cost him his life without hesitation.

He sat on the edge of his bed, readying himself for his day in service of his House; putting on his garments and socks with his robes and armor nearby. Without any warning, other than a slight, soft little sound almost too faint to notice, Sesha pounced on him from behind. She too was in her morning clothes, having slunk a long distance down the corridor unnoticed. Only if someone had seen her sneaking along, he mused. It was a pleasant surprise.

“You are quite good at that, you know?” Lorica said through his smile as he rolled on the ground. “You should join me at the barracks this morning and show the men a thing or two about agility.”

“My talents are mine to use as I will, and I’m certainly not giving away my secrets for free!” She snarled. Standing over him while he collected himself slowly from the floor. Lorica let out a healthy chuckle on top of his strewn garments.

“I imagine my lady has a price in mind already?” Lorica said, standing and looking for the rest of his scattered clothes on the ground. “I’m ready and willing to pay you whatever you ask to come down and soundly defeat Lord Lorica of House Alwitter in front of his men. This sounds like a most rewarding transaction, especially for my standing in the army.”

She laughed uproariously. Sesha was a Human he had fallen in love with. She was a citizen resident of his noble House Alwitter; the daughter of the family representative of the northern districts. Her family and his own had worked together in the City of Realm for many years for his noble House, much as many of the familial members were succeeded by kin of their own families. This tradition of locality gave some of the older noble Houses a unique and rich understanding of life in the City and nation of Realm that few newer Houses could hope to possess.

“If they made any armor that actually fit me correctly,” she said as she strutted around the room, making her way to where he had risen from bed. “I might name that price.” She continued until she was sitting on the edge, atop his disheveled sheets with her night clothes opening slightly. “Right now, there’s only one thing I want.”

Lorica knew that he felt strongly for her, and he judged himself harshly for ensnaring her in his interest. Her wit and intellect were a rare and wonderful gift she had to give, and together, they always complimented each other well in their engagements. Their love was a secret, just like his being a Shifter was a secret he kept from her. In his personal life, he had constructed a set of teetering conditions, one dependent on the next, yet still accepting that despite the tenuous stability they brought. Sometimes, we risk to grasp for something not before achieved; a plain of existence only conceived of before, but not then attained. He had risked his own instability in the constant vigilance against being discovered as a Shifter, while inviting a personal experience of true Humanness and mortality.

Lorica could not yield to his instinct to commune with the Stream, but he could feel the deep emotional bond and physical union he would have had with the ethereal force of existence, in the indulgence of this remarkable woman who he adored. His dilemma was clear to him from the onset many years earlier; that there would be no life with her in it once it was revealed what he was. His house would be destroyed and all those he sheltered would be slaughtered.

***

They lingered together after, she, lightly exploring the contours of his body with the soft tips of her fingers. His left arm was under her pillows as she alighted on his chest while Lorica stared at the vaulted ceiling, deep in thought.

“Where are you going, when you disappear like that just now?” She said with such tenderness despite the profound gravity of the subject.

“Going?” He stalled, realizing he’d been caught.

“I feel you… it’s not me that has your mind out of sorts, but something else, something like a dream that takes you away from me for a moment.” She was looking up at his chin as she spoke, still touching his body with her fingers.

Lorica was stunned in his thoughts but composed in his actions. “You know I’m not sure where I go, but I am glad for the time we have in this room together.” He diverted weakly.

“You’re not sure?” She wasn’t letting the topic escape so easily. “Sometimes just when we talk, and I see you staring out of the window. Other times I see it when we are together, and you are still here with me, but I feel that you have gone somehow. I’m not sure if I can really explain why I think that, but it is a thing that I feel inside my chest.”

She is like a Bessan in some ways, even if she is not, he thought. She had an ability to see inside him in a way that no other Humans or Shifters had before her. She was looking within him and seeing that he could not be with her forever, that even as he loved her, the truth of the impending future was slowly destroying them. She could somehow feel this happening before it was actually taking place. He was at a crossroads. This was a domain in which he knew he could not change reality as he could when he Shifted in the physical world. In his heart, and hers, he was powerless.

“There’s no answer I can give you.” Lorica said, looking down into her eyes. “I don’t understand it myself. You and I have always seen something more within each other. You are not like anyone I have met, and neither am I to you. In this space we have together, we can be safe.” He continued, but more earnestly. “Sesha, this world is not a forgiving place, and we are both aware of that. Even now, we defy order to be in this space together. I can’t explain who I am, or what you see in me any more than I already have. There can be nothing more than this, here, now, as you have known for some time.”

“Why?” She pleaded. “I love you Lorica. I want to be with you… all of you. I want this life we have now and more, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do want it, and you, very much,” he said sadly. “What is and what we desire are two things that are often not the same. That is the reason I said the world does not forgive and does not oblige the whims of love and the emotions of those who are entrapped by it. The truth can reveal, but it can also rend, sweet woman. I’m sorry, but there will be no time when we are as you dream.”

At this, she turned to her side, facing him, with a stunned, sad look on her face. “Lorica,” she said slowly. “Why must you say these things?”

“Because you and I both know they are true, and no matter how we wish that they were not, they are. There is no bridge we can build now that will span the growing distance between us.” A moment of silence fell between them as they came to terms with the reality of the situation. “This is why you wished to speak to me about this, because you saw this pain that I carry within, knowing our time will end. The joy you have given me is more than I could have ever hoped for, Sesha,” he took her soft hands in his. “Please forgive me for loving you as much as I do and being here with you in a way I could not promise to preserve. This is a wound inside me that you have seen because you know me… because you love me.”

“I still love you now Lorica,” she said, with tears. “What will become of us?”

He paused for a moment in thought. The fleeting impermanence of life was again reminding him that even the most delicate, beautiful of expressions are no more than paper in the fire; flashing brilliantly then fading to little more than a crisp of ash in moments. Warm, bright and pure when burning, emotions such as love, joy and desire illuminate, but cannot sustain in this imbalanced world he resided within. While he remained in the City of Realm, he would be living a lie, and the future of a lie is nothing worth having.

“We will burn up.” He said.

Sesha placed her head back down on his chest and wept.

***

Lorica Alwitter strode down the corridor towards the northern wing of the estate. He arrived with several formal salutes from the House guard stationed there, as he walked up the stairs to the great hall.

“Ah,” a master of house Bethel, in colorful flowing robes, said as he caught sight of Lorica in his uniform and armor. “Good to have you here at last. We have been waiting for some time.”

“You, master Bethel, are the one that has been waiting unnecessarily.” He retorted confidently. “The quarter bell has not sounded, has it?”

“No, it hasn’t,” master Bethel admitted begrudgingly.

“I imagine you are, more to the point, unhappy with the increase in our cost for maintaining the protection of your transports across the Trader’s Bay. This was the primary concern I wished to address with you at today’s gathering.” Lorica was cool, strong and confident in his speech as he strode over to the main conference table as others then took their seats. “We are gathered here today to discuss the agreed-to terms of the Blue Fleet’s protection of your Houses’ vessels traveling across the Trader’s Bay. I believe master Bethel has a concern about the recent change in his House’s rate.”

“How dare you increase the cost of our escort in this way!” He shouted, standing and pounding the table. “You do realize how many people depend on those food stores, and that we will raise the cost of those shipments to compensate?!”

“I do know precisely just how many people depend on those deliveries, master Bethel, and would dare not impugn the necessity of what your house provides the Realm as well as the Trader’s Fold and even my own home on Teayl.” Lorica began with authority. “But those great sums of vital food are not the only thing your granary ships are transporting across the Bay, are they?”

The master of the house looked perplexed. “Why Lord Alwitter, whatever do you mean?”

“We have told your merchants, ship captains and dockmasters this at all the ports they land, and now I will tell you as well: you must stop transporting Shifter slaves illegally to and from the City of Realm to continue our arrangement at the current rate. You will be charged tenfold the current rate unless your actions change at once.”

“How dare you accuse house Bethel of such a thing!” the master screamed in anger. “We are guilty of no such crimes and refuse to pay this rate!”

Lorica waved over his right shoulder and a guard opened a side door of the hall, near the front, to a smaller room which was dark within. “After you, master.” Lorica gestured as they entered with a few others from the table.

Inside the room were two small windows and a round, short column rising to about waist height in the center of the hard, stone floor. From outside one window, a dim blue Stream vein was bent down the wall, across the floor and had been intentionally contorted across the flat-topped column for easy access, then back out the other window and into the City. A small child in a full-body black cloak and long hood was held by the guards of House Kyrone, between where the Stream came and left the room. She was not permitted to speak or move.

“Shifter,” Lord Alwitter said callously. “Please show master Bethel how his ships have been used to transport Shifter slaves to the Realm.” I’m sorry. Forgive me, sister. He said to her in his mind, forcing himself to play a most loathsome role of just another noble exploiting a Shifter slave, ripped away from her parents at five and used by the Realm ever since. Tonight, brave Shifter, I will see you again. Hold on. The Bessan Shifted the Stream and showed the master, in his mind, what he needed to see to confirm he had been false in his outrage. The Stream always knew the truth.

“We will look into this at once, Lord Alwitter.” He said as he left the Streamroom without further protest.

***

In the cold, pitch dark of the catacombs, Bessan Shifter slaves gathered near a very small fire on the cold stone ground. The Shifters that lived down here could not take much light in their eyes; being raised in near total darkness had caused them to become acclimated. They survived on the spoiled foods and other wastes ejected from the upper levels for them to eat. The Realm viewed Shifters as an abomination that could be exploited for power and gain without guilt. They were sub-Human and easily expandable since more of them were born and harvested all the time amidst the common folk of Realm. Thousands of Bessan Shifters had been enslaved over the decades, and thousands more Jeshans had been killed outright upon discovery. Only the Bessans could be controlled.

At this point in the resting hours the Bessan who had been in the room with Lorica earlier that day was glad not to have been killed or consumed by the Stream in her duty as so many others were. She was alive, but huddled in her thick robes against the catacomb wall, awaiting the scraps of the day’s last meal.

Somewhere far away, echoing in the empty chambers of the undercity, she heard something coming. Others had noticed as well and directed themselves towards the sounds nervously. From out of the shadows, two grown men emerged, sloshing out of the ankle-deep water of the unused canal. One of them wore tan, etched leather armor, had flowing, thick hair and a long bloody spear in his right hand while the other was concealed by a black mask, black gloves and a long, pale blue cloak with a hood. The man in the mask spoke quietly. “Come with me Shifters, and do not try to snap the Stream. You are going to get out of here right now. If there are any more of you down here, signal for them at once. We do not have much time.”

The Shifters stood to attention and gathered around at his request. “Hold hands and grab a hold of Doren here. He will take you to the exit. Do not try to snap the Stream and stay silent or we will be revealed. You are going to be free if you can stay together and follow orders.” The man in the mask said earnestly. The children took direction and formed into a line behind the spear-wielding warrior.

“Let’s go kids,” he said with a sort of antic disposition. “We’re going on a boat ride!”

One of them lingered, looking at the man in the cloak before joining the others

“It’s you.” She said. “From the Streamroom.”

“Yes,” Lorica said, keeping his mask up so that she would not see his face, “I am sorry for what I had to do, but you will be free now. Come with me and you will never have to Shift against your will ever again.” He finished, smiling under his mask, and taking the girl’s hand, they ran off together into the shadow beyond the light of the fire.

 

Story II: Terrorism

A group of four Jeshan Shifters crept along a south-facing outer wall of the City of Realm, shuffling horizontally, hiding in the blind spot underneath the extended parapet. There was a naturally occurring Stream vein a short distance away, which would have typically prevented this type of intrusion from transpiring without being seen or felt. However, the group of Shifters spent a long time earlier in the day, before making their journey, moving that vein away from the base of the wall slowly. It took time, dedication and skill to accomplish; to not be considered an irregularity for the Realm’s Shifter slave scouts on the walls to draw attention to.

 

It had taken them several hours to prepare, but now they just needed to avoid being physically sighted instead of detected by the Bessans along the City wall. They slid sideways for a short distance until they came to the base of a wall tower protrusion, which had a small, unlocked hatch leading under the wall. Once it was open, they quietly and quickly filed into the dark and cramped underground passageways, remembering the maps they had memorized down to the number of steps. Corridors and catacombs covered the entire distance from outer wall to Keep; formerly dungeons and secret escape tunnels used in times past. The Jeshan Shifters would be forced to navigate in complete darkness as they gathered their things, beginning to head towards the center of the City.

 

Shortly past the midday hour, the Bessan Shifter 18902 at south perimeter defenses reported a bandit militia of less than 200 Humans in the trees firing arrows at the patrol guards on the southeast city wall, bordering the woods. She also noted that they had a Shifter with them, who had taken up a position at the base of the wall. That section of the defenses was lightly patrolled as travelers did not often come to the City of Realm by way of the southeastern lands. The rolling hills and deep, wet forests was home to few, and no reported attacks had occurred on the City from there before.

 

The City Commander on duty took the situation quite seriously and called for the general alarm. Soon the ringing of the Keep’s booming bell tower was blasting out the cry to take up arms or seek shelter. The sound hammered off stone buildings and down narrow alleyways for all to hear.

 

Soldiers began to pile out of their barracks and form up in the cobblestone streets, some for the first time. They followed the instructions of their leaders, and marched towards the gates in their colorful, shiny armor. The City of Realm readied itself for battle for the first time in many generations, and common people quickly shuttered themselves indoors fearfully. They ran from the open marketplaces, common areas and businesses to find shelter in their stone houses while others fled to the northeast and the safety of the harbor.

***

“You hear that, mate?” One bandit outside the wall said, nudging another. “Now we’ve really pissed them off!” They laughed as the sound of the Keep’s alarm bell rang out into the southeastern woods. A dozen skilled archers and twenty or so not very skilled archers were, essentially, preoccupying a substantial fighting force of the City’s soldiers, as the very well-groomed combatants pooled behind the southeastern gate. Archers made quick work of soldiers on the wall, while many arrows flew up and over hoping for a lucky strike. There was a smattering of no more than fifty bandit infantry guarding a Jeshan Shifter at the base of the outer fortifications, protecting him from projectiles or harassment. The Jeshan was not powerful enough to break the wall with his Shifting but could sway it a fair bit. It wobbled and shook under his influence while men teetered and pitched on top of the walkway, some falling off. More bandits were hiding further back in the trees, waiting for an opportunity to rend the Realm’s poorly trained soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. These raiding bandits were brutal fighters, and the cadets in their colored armor had only their numbers to hide behind, not skill.

 

The Realm’s soldiers came pouring out of the gate in a single column; into the wood bordering the City wall. They scattered into a defensive perimeter around the area they intended to protect with many more of them rushing out to take up staggered positions, with their swords and pikes 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 wall, with 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 before turning his attention elsewhere.

 

The Shifter waited until the Realm’s soldiers had filled into their defensive positions before using the power of the Stream to sink them all in thick, knee-deep mud, liquifying the earth they all stood upon in an instant. A few hundred of them stood paralyzed, or toppled, and, generally, unable to escape or defend themselves.

 

The soldiers of Realm were butchered by a wave of lethal arrows and bandit men darted in to skewer helpless soldiers with spears or pikes, while even more soldiers fell to the next rain of projectiles. A group of archers in the deep woods continued to fire at the stranded soldiers, while some redirected their attention to the walls again, keeping them clear.

 

The soldiers abandoned their posts, as they could not defend the gate or the wall from the Shifter without risking being shot by an archer. The men of Realm stayed away from the walkway where the raiders had range, and therefore, huddled in a nearby tower while their brethren on the ground tried desperately to close the gate.

 

“There must have been a hundred archers or more, all very well concealed!” Proclaimed the City Commander, disgusted with the turn of events as he read the report. “Send more soldiers out through the south gate and dispense of the archers first. 500 men! Keep that gate open and keep our men running through it!” 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, given the events unfolding. While there, the nobles and their top advisors peered out from the upper levels of the central tower, down at the southeastern wall of the City, a great distance away. Smoke was rising from deep in the woods and the first reports were of heavy losses for the Realm.

 

The nobles grumbled over the disturbance and many pigeons carried news back and forth from the command center, just outside the protection of the Keep, where the City Commander oversaw the defenses. The Lord Emperor turned to his Field Marshal and nodded, communicating something mutually understood, as reports continued to come in of the Commander’s blunders. The Marshal turned and went about enacting the Lord’s request, disappearing down the corridor. The nobles noted that no previous Lord Emperor in the last hundred years has been forced to sound the alarm and defend the City from attack. “These are strange times… a Jeshan Shifter openly attacking the City?” a noble was heard to question. The Lord Emperor looked out across the expanse of the City.

“There is nothing to fear Lord Bethel,” He cooed reassuringly. “This is the Realm.”

 

The Commander, from his lookout a few hundred yards from the Keep, was sure the soldiers of Realm would handle the bandit 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 Commander snapped at her.

 

The Shifter peered into the Stream but focused on the areas where there was noticeable conflict. The Jeshan at the wall was hard to ignore. She saw the few but quarrelsome bandits in the woods, and that the perimeter defenses were secure and had been monitored constantly for intrusion. She saw people sheltering in their homes, while some were fleeing on ships. There was nothing abnormal going on from what she could see, given the situation.

 

“Everything is fine, except for what 18902 has reported at the southeast wall, all areas say no unusual activity. The Stream is undisturbed, no artificial tampering, all access points to the City are secure.”

 

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

***

Far outside the wall, a sum of soldiers nearing 10,000 was gathering at an area designated by a letter that circulated throughout Strayalis and parts of the northern Realm as well. There was to be a raid on one of the large cities of Realm, and all who could fight were welcome to come. The meeting place was several miles west of the City of Realm, on a sheltered overlook. The letter had the mark of a well-known Syndicate, and Shifters have verified, many times, that the intent of the message is not a game or jest. Action will be taken, as stated, and those who gather to await the “signal” will be rewarded. Kijj had sent many skilled warriors; they were confident their island city was not to be the target. The coastal city of Karthanis sent many men too, in hopes of raiding something other than Karthanis.

 

The event had attracted all: from grotesque figures hardened by battle in the arenas, to simple folk of the Trader’s Fold or the Realm. They thought themselves capable of riding to battle and winning something of value for their kin, even if it had to be taken from someone else.

 

The Shifters present near the encampment indicated that they were passing the midday hour, and the signal would be coming soon. Even more men arrived from the eastern cities, eager to be a part of what was to come. The City of Realm had not yet taken notice of the army camped a short distance away, for no Realm scout traveling nearby was allowed to survive long enough to find them out.

 

Near the south gate, the distractors had accomplished what they were intended to, but most favorably, had also come into possession the gate itself and were confronting any soldiers that came out of it. The bandits and defenders of the Realm began to fight in the woods nearby, with a terrible advantage going to the raiders in melee combat.

 

Then, at the blaring sound of trumpets, armored cavalry of Realm came charging out of the forest with the Field Marshal in the vanguard, trampling all in their path. The destriers slammed through the bandit encampment, flanking and then slaughtering the archers in an abrupt and unexpected attack. The charging horses smashed men flat as they carved a path through the woods, leaving many of the bandits dead in their wake. The remaining survivors in the woods fled west, abandoning their friends at the wall and gate as the cavalry cut them off.

 

The Jeshan Shifter looked at the wall, closed his eyes while holding on to a vein of Stream, and caused it to grow up, into the City. He knew his time was running out, as his remaining infantry protectors were not going to last much longer. The importance of the next few seconds became apparent as he channeled his concentration into sending the glowing vein as far into the City as he could.

 

The vein of glistening white Stream expanded over the peak of the wall, back down, and along the ground in the direction of the Great Keep. It crept and grew along the cobblestone street as fast as the Jeshan outside the wall could push it.

 

The Lords of Realm on horseback spotted the Jeshan Shifter channeling and the Field Marshal ordered a full attack. They changed direction and charged the infantry guarding the Jeshan. The bandits held out their spears; a few with swords behind them stood their ground against the onslaught. The Stream had crept far into the city, but not quite far enough.

 

The Jeshan was consumed in the cavalry charge and was butchered quickly, along with the remaining 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. It 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 inside the City for them to grab. The City of Realm had been designed in such a way to make it difficult for Shifters to use their power while inside the walls, and certainly not without being noticed.

 

In the command center, the Bessan Shifter felt, then sighted the Stream vein intrusion. “Sire,” she said flatly. “I think something is happening.”

 

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

 

“That Stream came from outside the wall and it’s being pulled from…” She paused, swallowing hard. “There are Jeshan Shifters inside the City… beneath the Keep…” She trailed off, as the other Bessan slaves realized what they had allowed to occur.

 

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

 

The Bessans realized the pending doom too late to do anything about it. These Jeshans had eluded them somehow and had breached their defenses in a most devastating way. Now that the plan was complete, the Bessans saw what was about to transpire and a great wave of terror swept them all away.

 

“Oh sire…” the Shifter beside the City Commander said, as the Stream fell delicately out of her hand in defeat. She looked at him, eyes wide with the truth. “They have a Streamstone and they’re going to kill us all…”

 

“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, radiating with power. “Streamstone” one of them said.

“We must be quick, they know we are here.” Said another.

“By the light of the Stream be bound, brothers. For Strayalis! For the end of the Realm!” They chanted together, clasping the Streamstone as one.

 

They closed their eyes and surrendered their life-energy to the Stream, as the ultimate sacrifice to serve as the fuel for one final action. A great power began to reverberate and amplify between them as each Jeshan channeled his dying will into a final request. With the energy of their combined life forces, they commanded the Stream, through the power of the Streamstone they held, to unleash a violent expansion of the earth around them; growing as high as possible until all of their vital energy was gone, and the Stream could be Shifted no more.

 

Suddenly, behind the City Commander, the Great Keep of the City of Realm exploded outward from the base in an expanding, rising ring of flying earth, rock and shocked brick, extending violently into the City. The resonating blast grew upward in a towering column of accelerated debris, rising high into the sky. The monstrous blast tapered as it climbed above the city forming an echoing spire of dust and haze while displaced earth, rock and tons of stone bits rained down on the city, pulverizing it.

 

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 most 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 mounds 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, burning air 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 complete 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, shattering everything around where they impacted. A cloud of vicious, choking dust then fully enveloped the City and all became lost to sight. The Jeshans had given their life to destroy the City of Realm, and most of those who lived there, and they had succeeded.

 

No bells rang out, just the faint sounds of screaming could be heard carrying over the wind. The constant coastal flow slowly pushed the dust of Realm out to sea as the shock of the sight began to take hold on those who had seen it.

 

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

 

Story I: The Bessan and Her Mark

In the perpetual dimness of the northern Trader’s Fold, a young female Bessan Shifter, clad in the armor and black cloak of a Ranger, stood motionless. The Ranger’s eyes were closed fast yet she seemed to stare off at something distant. A fierce breeze whipped through the tall grass all around her as she began to lower herself slightly. Slowly, silently, she unpacked her bow and smoothly collected an arrow from her quiver. In her guiding hand, she also held the Stream. The eternal twilight of the Fold made the glinting heartbeat of the Stream in her clutches seem even more alive, and it told her the time to rest would be upon her soon. The young Ranger channeled her thoughts through it, and abruptly, released the arrow into the sky. Her eyes remained closed as the projectile vanished on a trajectory taking it a great distance away.

 

Motionless, as if carved in stone, she was poised and continued to listen. The Stream flickered and sparked as she suddenly released it, and, without hesitation, jumped to her feet and was on the move. She accelerated in the general direction that she had, shortly before, sent her arrow into the sky. The Shifter sprinted through the landscape for several minutes, paused to tap the Stream briefly, then charged off much in the same direction she had been going. The Ranger’s leather armor was well maintained, as was her attire; practical and effective like a trained Ranger of the Academy would wear. She ran swiftly and uninhibited through the hilly savannah with her short sword and daggers tucked away efficiently. Though she was fair, everything about the way she carried herself spoke that she was a hardened warrior.

 

The Bessan Shifter paused and surveyed the clearing she had come upon, seeming to recognize the place. She looked down and dabbed at some blood on the ground, which she knew right where to find instinctually.  Crouching low to the dirt again, the Shifter snapped the sparkling green and orange Stream back into her hand and closed her eyes. As she had a few moments earlier, she delicately unsheathed her bow, notched an arrow and aimed high into the sky. Motionlessly, she waited several minutes before taking her shot. The projectile vanished, again, 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 truly miserable creature nursing two wounds in each calf from two very well-placed arrows. He was dragging his legs along the ground and the Shifter was displeased that he had snapped one of her shafts in his attempt to liberate himself from it. This Human was now hers, and by the looks of it, the multiple and crippling wounds he’d received had left him surly and defiant despite his new predicament.

 

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

 

“Indeed.” She said flatly. “Running was not the choice you should have made. It’s a shame you don’t understand the Stream. There was a better way.” She jerked the broken shaft free of his calf, rendering a great shout of agony from her captive.

 

“Spare me your prophetic nonsense, there’s always a better way,” he mocked painfully. “I knew exactly what I was doing. I don’t fear you, or the Academy. You filthy, condescending Shifters are all the same.”

 

“I don’t want you to be afraid,” she said flatly. “I want you to tell the Instructors what you know and die in agony in the catacombs of Naruna.” With a smile, she jerked her second arrow free and enlarged the Human’s wound significantly. He screamed in pain, but quickly it turned to a kind of laughter.

 

“Quiet.” She muttered. There was a line of trees not far ahead, which seemed a much better place to camp. She didn’t fear making a fire in this countryside, she knew these lands, and there was little chance of raiders this close to the cities, or no wild animals to be worried about in this part of the Fold. Nevertheless, she needed to risk fire to cauterize her captive’s wounds before he bled to death.

 

“Don’t you want to know why I did it?” He said, almost boastfully through his gnashed teeth.

 

“No.” The Ranger replied, dragging him along, towards the trees, as though he were a sack of useless meat incapable of moving himself.

 

“Of course you do,” he continued. “Those were your friends. Your precious fellow Rangers and Shifter scum all died in the fire as the citadel burned and fell in upon itself. I helped the Anten. I helped them get inside and I helped them get the bridge down. I watched all your precious Last Knights and Rangers burn in the streets and be eaten alive by the Anten.” He had a sort of twisted smile at his recollection.

 

“I don’t need you to tell me what I already know, Human.” She quipped, clearly uninterested in the invitation to be outraged. “The Academy will extract everything you know about this betrayal, whether you want to give it to them or not. They will enter your mind and rip it away from you, so maybe the information you have can still save many others who have yet to be killed. Then, when the Instructors are satisfied they have deprived you of your usefulness, you will die in agony as I have said.”

 

When she reached a favorable campsite, she tied her prisoner’s hands and feet down to a stake in the earth, so he couldn’t wiggle away. The Bessan Shifter used her elemental mastery to take a flint spark and quickly create a small campfire by enlarging the spark into flame, with the help of the Stream. She heated her dagger and cauterized the moaning Human’s wounds as his screams echoed loudly into the forest lowlands. He had been weakened to a degree that made him largely dependent on her for everything, which, she mused, much better than him getting away. It’s unneeded trouble to lose him and then spend time finding him again. Our business is to the South, not the East.

 

Her instincts were to put out the fire as quickly as possible after it had served its usefulness, but it had still taken time and been visible. She surveyed the clearing in the low brush near the edge of a deeper wood where she had set up camp. It was a place of scattered trees, softly-rolling hills and tall grass. She did notice that there were no birds or animals nearby, and the Stream confirmed this scouting observation.

 

Shadows crept in from all sides, and the Bessan looked to the faint orange glow on the distant Southern horizon, growing to a blood red at the edge. That’s where Siegecrest was. She would only be able to remember the place, for it would never look the way it had, ever again.

 

The Academy must grow to understand how this happened, and what it means for the security of the Fold. How far does this treachery go? Have other cities been affected? It was not helpful, she lamented, to use her Shifting ability to see the places she feared to look at through the Stream. It could show her, if she asked, but she truly did not want to see the carnage of it. She felt it, however, the bleeding wound events had left upon the natural order, and her accumulating sorrow of not one but many catastrophes. There are many who have died, and their screams are all I can hear when I open myself to the Stream. She knew in her heart that the great city founded by the true Last Knights of Realm would be sacked and burn to ash, to then be ruled by creatures that eat the flesh of all those they kill, leaving no Humans or Shifters alive.

 

Her captive rolled over in his restraints and put his belly on the ground, forcing his head into the dirt. He closed his eyes briefly, pausing, but then opened them suddenly. “You know,” he began casually. “You’re going to die here.”

 

“Really? Are you going to get out of those bonds and sneak up on me Human? You can’t even walk.” She snapped.

 

He lifted his head from the ground suddenly, looked around the perimeter of the clearing, and raised his voice. “As a matter of fact,” he said boldly, twisting 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 right now.”

 

Alerted by his unusual behavior, she continued to banter as she began to look around, “and just how did you plan on doing that?”

 

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

 

Several Anten entered the clearing, spotting the Ranger right away. The leader of the group leapt at the Shifter and tried to flatten her. The agile Ranger was able to act quickly and crouch away, popping up beside her captive. He was writhing on the ground while shouting something in the Anten tongue, she supposed. If that utterance is what he had his hopes of survival staked on, he’s in trouble. She thought as she quickly cut his bonds, so he could attempt to flee.

 

Gathering herself, the Ranger kicked the Anten who had jumped at her away while it tried to get up; with several other Anten closing in on her. As she darted into the tall grass to avoid the open, trying to drag her prisoner with her, the Anten she kicked then lunged forward and grabbed her leg. 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 from the tips of her pointed fingers. When the black fire snapped into existence, a thunderous boom of sound and force of energy was created, which terrified the other Anten in the patrol. The explosive shock that radiated from the Bessan’s hand blew the ashes of the fire skyward in a plume, pushed her and her prisoner apart while flattening the grass all around. The scalding flames ripped through the Anten’s skull and turned yellow-orange again as it caught on to the surrounding grass, spreading rapidly.

 

Two of the Anten who had moved in for the kill were ensnared by the engorging flames and they flailed about in agony as they burned. Yet, the Anten’s dead grip held her foot even as his body incinerated, and the flesh of his face melted away to the bone. The Anten in the patrol began to run about wildly having just collected themselves after the concussive blast. The flames grew brighter and larger, basking the area in radiant light, bordered hungrily by the darkness. The Ranger severed the dead Anten’s arm with her sword, grabbed her prisoner and carried him into the contrasting area beyond the illumination of the fire. “If you run from me, I will find you.” The Shifter whispered to him, clearly in agony herself from some unseen wound. He paid her no mind, pushed away from her and limped off into the rolling grasslands to the East.

 

By conjuring fire from nothing, she suffered the poisonous, tainted effects of violating the natural order. The Shifter grabbed her stomach and limped away, reeling, through the grass. She lurched forward, light headed and disoriented, she was unable to snap the Stream or Shift. She wobbled about looking for something to hold onto, reaching out with her hands desperately to avoid falling. She gripped the trunk of a tree and the Bessan remembered her training. Breathe. Let it pass through. Breathe!  The Shifter took several minutes to regain composure as the poison relinquished control.

 

Things became clearer in the dim sky as she gained greater distance from the fire. Just above the Western horizon, the Blood Moon was rising. The skilled 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 seemingly empty shadow of the high, tall grass. The Shifter whirled about and dodged the fierce swing of its axe instinctually as it cleaved the air where she had been standing. She spun away and created some distance between herself and the Anten with her agility. It spat and hissed at her angrily, then charged, great axe in its clutches.

 

Snapping the Stream back to her palm again, she thrust him away with a mighty gust of air following her outstretched, clenched fist. The wind was already blowing, and her acceleration was empowered by that alignment, harnessing the power of order rather than the poison of violating it. The Anten was shoved away hard as he reeled against the torrent, displacing him some distance and keeping him from melee range.

 

The feral savage was swift, strong, and did not lose its footing when the wind knocked him away. Instead the warrior recoiled and leapt vertically into the air with astounding might. The vicious, savage Anten raised his axe high above his head and released a chilling, guttural scream; hurling himself into ferocious combat.

 

The Bessan Shifter looked at him for a moment as she communed with the Stream. She used the Stream to locate the other Anten, noting that they were far enough away to have this combat go immediately unnoticed. She felt the power of the moving air around her; the twisting, churning energy that was easy to feel but impossible to see. Using the Stream as her guide, she brought into focus what would be the most efficient way to resolve her current 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 split into indiscernible fleshy bits which scattered outward in all directions and into the grass at the perimeter of the clearing. Little more than a smudge of blood and some disturbed grass remained as the Shifter released the Stream and sprinted for the cover of the trees. Once she had some distance from the scene of her battle, she looked for a place to avoid the Anten in the area, which would surely investigate that scream. The Anten are patrolling in the Trader’s Fold. She thought fearfully. We are at war, and the Last Knights are not going to save us now.

 

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 Instructors at the Academy of 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 they 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 thinning savannah, the Ranger’s bones ached, and she needed to find another safe place to rest soon. The Stream told her the time of resting had passed, yet she found no time to recharge herself for the long journey back to Naruna. 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 and stealthily headed South, avoiding further detection.

 

Stories of Realm – July 2018

I will be releasing some short stories that occur within the Realm universe, if not having anything to do with the novel itself. Consider these independent of the main narrative, and only provide a “taste” of certain aspects of the universe. Nothing contained in the short stories will parallel or approximate events that take place in the novel.

I am working through the editing and proofing, but the first of them should be released by early July. Stay tuned for some content!

The Story Begins – December 2018

Come with us on a journey through the vast and perilous landscape of the Kingdom. My narrative is a high-fantasy fiction is like no other that has come before, with the characters and unpacking of the plot provided by a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. See the About section for more details.

4 heroes will rise to face the challenges of the days ahead, and their story unfolds here.

Check the menus above for content prior to the release of the story itself, and get caught up on the basics of this universe.

Introduction and Prologue

Regions of the Kingdom

Nations, Cities and Factions

Noble Houses of Realm

To those who come to listen, I hope you enjoy imagining it as much as I have.

I look forward to the release of Chapter 1 in a few months. Thank you all, and I hope you find this epic tale entertaining.