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, but they were not flagged or perceived for completing this critical task that would enable their infiltration of the inner City.
It had taken them several hours to prepare, but now they just needed to avoid being physically sighted instead of detected by the Bessans patrolling the ramparts. They slid sideways for a short distance until they came to a protrusion forming the base of a tower, which had a small, unlocked hatch leading underneath the wall itself. Once it was open, they filed into the dark and cramped passageways, recalling the maps they had memorized down to the number of steps. Corridors, cells and catacombs covered the entire distance from wall to City-center; formerly dungeons and secret escape tunnels used in times past. The Jeshan Shifters would be forced to navigate in complete darkness as they gathered themselves, heading into the tunnels that led under the Great Keep.
Shortly past the midday hour, Bessan Shifter scout 18902 at the south perimeter defenses reported a bandit militia of less than 200 Humans firing arrows at the patrol guards on the 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 were home to few.
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 piled out of their barracks and formed 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?” 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 smattering of skilled and novice archers were pestering a substantial fighting force of the City’s soldiers collecting behind the southeastern gate as they waited to enter combat in the woods. The archers made quick work of those on the wall, while many arrows flew up and over hoping for a lucky strike on an unsuspecting militant. There was a cluster 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 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 experience or skill.
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 bandit Jeshan Shifter waited until the Realm’s soldiers had filed 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 then hardening it again. A few hundred of them stood paralyzed, or toppled, and, generally, were unable to escape or defend themselves.
The men 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 cadets of the Red Army 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 cadets of Realm 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 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. “We need more soldiers out through the south gate immediately and tell them to dispense of the archers first. Send all 500 men! Keep that gate open and keep the soldiers 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 unfolding events and the general anxiety caused by the disturbance. 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 Realm.
The nobles grumbled over the situation and many messenger birds carried news back and forth from the command center. The small solitary tower just outside the protection of the Keep was where the City Commander oversaw the defenses; a structure only used when the City was under siege.
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 had 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 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 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 5,000 was gathering at an area designated by a letter that circulated throughout Strayalis and parts of the northern Spiral as well. There was to be a raid on one of the large cities in the area of the meeting site, and all who could fight were welcome to come. The meeting place was several miles east of the City of Realm, on a sheltered overlook, but none of the bandits perceived the City as the target. It was believed that his meeting place was chosen because of the proximity to some of the smaller cities of Realm like Gateway and Harveston, but roads also led both east and west from their vantage point as well.
The letter had the mark of a well-known Syndicate, and Shifters had used the Stream to verify, 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 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 animal or Human scout traveling nearby was permitted to survive long enough to find them out.
Near the southeastern gate, the distractors had accomplished what they were intended to, but most favorably, had also come into possession of the gate itself and were confronting any soldiers that came out of it. The bandits and defenders of Realm continued 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 focused all his concentration into sending the glowing vein as far into the City as he could.
The ribbon 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 across 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. The horses 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. With each passing second, the Stream grew closer to the Great Keep, until it was just outside the steps of the entryway.
The Jeshan was consumed in the cavalry charge and 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 group of Jeshan Shifters that had been navigating the dark passageways under the City were waiting, calling to it. They reached out and pulled on the Stream towards themselves, once their ally Shifter had propelled it far enough inside the City for them to ensnare. The City of Realm had been designed in such a way to make it difficult for Shifters to use their power while within the confines of the walls, and certainly not without being noticed.
In the command center, the Bessan Shifter felt, then sighted the Stream vein intrusion as she shifted, peering into the situation. “Sire,” she said flatly. “I think something is happening.”
He sternly looked down at her, perplexed. “Report at once.” The other Bessan Shifter slaves became united in their concern over the unfolding events.
“That Stream came from outside the wall and it’s being pulled from…” She paused, swallowing hard as the Stream revealed the full view of what was happening. “There are Jeshan Shifters inside the City… beneath the Keep…” She trailed off, as the other Bessan slaves realized what terrible calamity was likely in store, and that this intrusion had been totally unnoticed until now.
“Alert the guards of the Keep at once! Commune with the other scouts and call everyone you can to the site where the Shifters are hiding!” The Commander blared, hoping his elevated tone would somehow affect a speedy resolution.
The cavalry mowed down the last of the bandit raiders outside the City walls and rounded up the remaining soldiers of Realm at the now liberated southeastern gate. As they looked about the battlefield, a great cheer went up amongst the men as they stood, victorious. “Send a bird to the Lord Emperor in the Great Keep right away, young squire,” said the decorated Field Marshal from atop his glistening 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 unbridled 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 Realm!” They chanted together, clasping the Streamstone as one.
Closing their eyes, the Jeshans surrendered their life-energy and bodies to the Stream, as the ultimate sacrifice to serve as the fuel for one final action. All were absorbed into the Streamstone as a great power began to reverberate and amplify. They had one more shift; one last act before their deaths:
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; growing outward and upward indefinitely, 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 over and above the City. The resonating blast grew upward in a towering column of accelerated debris, climbing high into the sky. The monstrous blast tapered as it rose 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 roiling dirt and rubble as a shower of debris fell in most of the inner-City urban area that little could hope to survive. Whole tower sections crashed down onto entire neighborhoods and historic districts, erasing them under huge piles of crushing brick in an instant.
A burning wave of charged dust came roaring down the streets as the debris fell, swallowing up the City in a few moments. Millions of homes were obliterated under a crushing rain of earth and brick fanning out in all directions. It did not seem possible that many in the area behind the inner-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 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 that cavalry would have no difficulty riding through.
Smaller bricks and chunks of the Keep landed in the outskirts, often rolling through many houses before coming to a stop or cratering 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 5,000 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?”