Thorgaut was ready to crash. The event of the evening left him feeling wound up and tense. It also felt wrong to lie down in the bed of a man he had just killed. So, he didn’t think he would get much sleep as he prepared to lie down.
But exhaustion got the best of him, and he fell asleep even before his head hit the pillow. He had a strange dream of himself walking around like a shuffler in the forest still looking for his friends.
But the sensation of transforming into a shuffler became more vivid and realistic. He felt unable to breathe as if he was slowly suffocating. When he awoke, he realized why. The sheet had somehow wrapped itself around his face and neck during the night.
Thorgaut unwrapped the sheet and pulled it off his face. Then he laid back down and tried to sleep again. His anxious mind wouldn’t allow it though. It whirled along at a furious pace and refused to let fall asleep again.
The smell of meat roasting over an open fire also didn’t help any, and his stomach started growling. He tossed and turned for a few minutes longer, then finally rolled out of bed to get dressed. He followed his nose to the kitchen where Halldora was setting the table. She smiled warmly.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked as she handed him a cup of tea.
Thorgaut grunted and shrugged as he took the cup.
“Are you feeling okay this morning?” she asked.
He shook his head and sighed. Halldora reached out a hand to touch his forehead. He reflexively slapped it away. He saw a flicker of fear on her face.
“Are you able to say anything, Thorgaut?” she asked him gently.
“Of course,” he growled. “Why wouldn’t I be.”
She smiled and turned around to pour a bowl of porridge. Halldora put it on the table in front of him. She sliced some bread and spread a generous helping of butter across it.
Thorgaut realized why she had seemed so interested in his silence.
“You thought I was becoming a shuffler. Didn’t you?” he asked her. He stared at her intently as she took a bite of her bread.
She chewed slowly and swallowed her food before looking up at him. “It could have been a possibility, I suppose, after your fight with them last night?”
“How so?” Thorgaut asked. He continued to watch her for any sign of reaction.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” she asked. Halldora pointed to the bowl that he hadn’t yet touched. Thorgaut shook his head. He no longer felt hungry. A mix of smoldering anger and burning curiosity took hold of him. Curiosity about how she created and controlled these creatures. And at the same time, anger that she had put his life in danger.
“I dreamt that I had become one of those things,” he said.
She looked at him in shock. “Really? What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing much. I was out looking for my friends in the woods, but I couldn’t breathe and woke up.” He continued to watch her, but couldn’t read any of her expressions. She hid them well.
“It’s possible that you’re in the process of turning.”
“Turning?” he asked. “You mean, like becoming one of those things myself.”
“Did any of them bite or scratch you in the scuffle? Or did their vomit and blood splatter on you?”
Thorgaut stirred his porridge slowly as he tried to remember the events of the night before. He looked up at her and shook his head.
“I don’t think so,” Thorgaut replied. “They weren’t very fast, and they weren’t armed. So, they didn’t harm me. One did throw up near me though.”
Her face showed no expression, and she still displayed no sign of emotion. So, Thorgaut couldn’t get a read on what she was thinking.
The idea that he might be turning into one of the shufflers terrified him like no battle ever had. His father had raised him to fight to the death.
Death was not something he had been taught to fear. His people believed that death was merely another step forward into the afterlife. One more step in his life experience and journey.
But the thought of not being able to die. Or worse yet transformed into one of those things was horrifying. If Thorgaut were unable to fight and die a warrior’s death, he would continue to suffer on forever. And once turned, he would no longer be able to fulfill his duties and earn his position as a warrior worthy of Odin’s hall.
Everything around Thorgaut seemed to slow down and come to a standstill. Even time itself seemed to slow down and pause to allow the realization to sink in. His life was ending, and there was nothing he could do. Everything became crystal clear, and his senses seemed to magnify everything around him.
The buzz of a fly around the bread was deafening. The smell of the freshly baked bread and roasting meat made his mouth water. The glint of the sun rays shining through the window reflected in Halldora’s bright blue eyes. The taste of the herbs on his tongue that lingered on his taste buds long after he had finished drinking his tea.
Every cell in his body suddenly seemed to come alive and pulse with rhythm and life. The moment seemed to stretch on as fear and denial swept over him.
Then the rage began to build. Thorgaut wanted to slam his fist on the table and then throw it over. He wanted to grab Halldora and choke the life out of her, and then chop off that stupid shuffler’s head. But he squeezed his fists and tried to control himself.
“How do I know if I’m turning into one of those things?” he roared. He looked down at his hands and realized he was shaking. Thorgaut took a deep breath and placed his hands on his lap. He looked up again and saw that Halldora had backed away. There was fear in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said and sat back. “I just don’t want to become one of those things.”
Halldora stepped forward and placed her hand on his shoulder. “I don’t think you are,” she said. “I only asked you that because you didn’t answer my questions this morning. Inability to speak is one of the first noticeable signs. Shufflers can’t talk, so I just thought…” Her voice trailed off.
Thorgaut gave a sigh of relief and chuckled nervously. “You gave me a real scare there for a minute.”
She smiled back at him. He noticed that her eyes twinkled in a way that took his breath away. Halldora turned away under his gaze and started to clear the table.
“So, how did you create these shufflers?” he asked. “You just collect some shuffler vomit and sprinkle on your friends as they lay dying.”
She returned to the table and shook her head sadly.
“Creating a true shuffler is an ancient art of the necromancers among my people. My father grew up among them and learned their ways. He made sure my brothers and I all learned the ancient arts as part of our education.”
“So, you chant a spell, wave your hands, and voila. Out comes a shuffler?” he asked.
“Not exactly. It involves invoking Hades and making a blood pact. Hades is a bloodthirsty creature and always requires a sacrifice. He is the original shuffler master.”
“You invoked Hades and sold your soul in exchange for the lives of your friends?”
Thorgaut shook his head in awe. “I knew you had some real gumption living out here in the woods by yourself, but that’s crazy.”
Halldora had her head down and sat quietly.
“So, what did Hades demand in exchange?” he asked.
“Everything. Hades required everything I had and even what I didn’t have,” she said glumly. “But at the time, I had already lost my family and everything I held dear. I didn’t think I had anything left to lose. All I wanted was to avenge the deaths of my family and friends.”
“He’s coming to collect his due,” Thorgaut stated. He knew. He had heard the legends and tales of old. Halldora would pay the ultimate price. He didn’t know what it was yet and wasn’t sure he wanted to. So, he changed the topic back to the shufflers.
“So, when shuffler blood or vomit touches someone, they turn into a shuffler as well?” he asked?
“Yes,” she replied. “The true shufflers are the reanimated corpses of the dead or almost dead. But the second generation of shufflers turned by blood or vomit are still living souls. The effects aren’t as strong in them, and they can’t be controlled as easily.”
“That’s why Vriobrum is different from the other shufflers,” Thorgaut exclaimed.
She nodded. “The effects become weaker with each passing generation. After several generations, a person doesn’t fully change. They just get sick. I’ve even heard that a seventh generation shuffler eventually healed himself.”
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