Shift World Chapter 10
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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One year had passed since the dragon incident at the Grain Fort. As otherworldly tales of the dragon attack spread, the village became known as the Dragon's Roost. Throughout that time, Karp and Nort continued searching for answers along the trade route. Several more emptied keeps lined the caravan road, but there were no mass graves, hidden walls, dragons, or assassins lying in wait. Karp appreciated not having to kill anything for a while, but the stagnant investigation flustered her. Karp and Nort visited The Bog Djinn to get leads on places to scavenge in the Shift World and then returned to the Village of the Traitor's Tavern.
Now that Karp had arrived home, the banality of everyday life crept in, and she had to meet with Slart to review the store's ledgers. Numbers swirled in her mind, and coded shorthand overwhelmed her senses. She let loose an exaggerated sigh, loudly shut a ledger, threw her feet on the edge of the table, and leaned back in her chair.
˝want to go to the tavern instead?”
Slart giggled, placed her pencil in the ledger's binding, and sat back away from the table.
˝You know we can't do that...”
Slart was only ever this serious when something was on her mind.
˝is the new council still dogging you about selling off our rare items?”
˝They don't realize the market is about to ugh...implode.”
˝Yeah. Normally expensive niche goods have flooded the market in exchange for normally inexpensive items. Those inexpensive items have become expensive in comparison, but luxury goods are becoming increasingly insolvent. On top of these missing forts, most lords have become scared by the threat of whatever caused the other lords to flee and have been buying up steel, food, wood, clay, and iron. Right now, food has only slightly raised in price, but the first bad harvest or harsh winter and a tomato will cost more than a steel helm.”
˝so wouldn't now be the time to trade?”
˝I’ve been secretly trading steel and iron for food, so if the market collapses, the Traitor’s Tavern will have food for years, but that’s not what the council wants. The fools think I should liquidate everything and build a village hall that ‘rivals a provincial palace.’”
˝shouldn’t that be cheap and easy right now?”
Slart thought about how she could relate the problem to Karp.
˝OK, so right now, I could trade a sunshine steel helm for about a dozen highly ornamental desks.”
˝Lords all around the Lush Forest have been buying up lumber to fortify their keeps and barracks. They’ve done this with extra furniture and the like, so the lumber depots have warehouses full of desks nobody wants. So, if I go to them with a dozen desks, how much lumber do you think they'll give me? Enough to frame and build one room? Before this started, you could have probably rebuilt the whole village hall with that same helm!”
˝why not directly trade the helm for the lumber?”
˝You might get a better deal I guess, but then maybe we'll get enough for two rooms? Three rooms?”
˝but why wait?”
˝The only way this steel will become valuable again is by waiting. Either there really is a war coming and when it starts, there will be an arms race. During that arms race, we can trade these weapons for keeps, lordships, land, or something of real value. Similarly, if the market does implode because of a food shortage, we can trade for metal weapons. For example, I got twelve barrels of rice for a steel dagger, but if the market bottoms out, I might be able to get two yellow daggers for that. If we snatch up other rare items in the same way, we can control the supply when prices on metal rebound! So, why trade everything we own for a silly building when we could be the next Bog Djinn?”
Karp was always a little scared of Slart's business sense.
˝what if neither of those things happens?”
Slart laughed maniacally.
˝Just kidding! I'd sleep easier, that’s for sure! It might be too late to stop it, though... It's not that I want either to happen; I’m just preparing because it probably will.”
˝we haven’t given up trying to stop it; we just don’t know what to do. i mean, nort still trains every day.”
˝Really? What's he do?”
˝well, we practice with stave, do a lot of sparring. i know he's always trying to figure out new ways to use his mace and shield. he sneaks around everywhere surprising people.”
˝Is that going to be enough to stop all this?”
˝we spoke to trolt before coming back to the village, and there might be something else we can do. according to him, that crumbling tower that almost crushed wili is probably the sun spire. he said it's only a month north of the crossroads and if we travel south along the mountains, we'll run into abandoned factories. those factories made all kinds of tools, equipment, and other goods. we may find something useful since we're looking for tools and not just the rarest metals.
“after a month, we should arrive at the clay gate, or whatever it's called in the shift world. shortly within the crossroads is a building made of three tall towers connected by one-story buildings. that place was some kind of academy where people researched all kinds of things. they might have something that can help us fight or find the shifters.”
Karp left out Trolt's warning that monsters had overrun the Crossroads, and not just devils and skeletons but asaghi and dragons also perched everywhere at night.
˝Will it take, uh, long?”
˝we'll only be there a month? a month and a half? it will be like i didn't even go anywhere at all.”
Karp and Wili appeared next to the Sun Spire. The sight of the building that had almost killed him sunk Wili's stomach. When Karp explained her plan to travel to the Crossroads and find new technology, Wili relaxed. The pair didn’t explore the Sun Spire, but even just seeing the building pained them both, so they were happy to travel south instead.
The next day, Karp and Wili found a small village that likely belonged to the people who maintained the Sun Spire. One-story houses flanked an unremarkable two-story clay village hall. The hall's roof had mostly collapsed, and one wall had caved in centuries ago. Karp motioned for Wili to wait outside, and she entered. Small wooden benches lined the front of a clay stoop. No creatures or corpses defiled the building, but there were no valuables either. Karp and Wili moved on without checking the surrounding houses.
Two days later, Karp and Wili were continuing down the main highway. The sky grayed, and wind swirled around the road. Within thirty minutes, every step agonized the travelers. Sand blew around and between Karp's arms as she tried to block the blinding, swirling wind. She couldn't see any structure, and her three-person tent wouldn't stop the gales. They had no choice but to continue. Thirty minutes of torture later, a house with a wooden fence sat fifty yards into the desert. Karp motioned for Wili to push for the home. Sand blew in from her side of the road, and wind struck their faces as they trudged toward the house.
Karp blocked the gales with her arms, but the wind swirled past her guard and scratched her face. She choked with every breath. She turned her head down and closed her eyes. Every time she opened her eyes to correct course, intense pain shot from her cornea. Wili and Karp spent twenty minutes traveling fifty yards to the house. Karp struggled to open the side door and finally crashed inside. She hid behind the remaining portion of a partially collapsed windward wall. Although freed from the wind directly striking their faces, Wili and Karp wheezed and coughed from still-circling dirt and sand.
Karp and Wili endured the wind until morning. Then, Karp pushed the door, but it wouldn't budge. She eventually climbed through the collapsed section of the wall. Sand was blockading the side door up to the handle. Wili coughed, and chunks of sand and mucus evacuated his lungs. Dirt covered him from head to toe. Dirt crusted Karp's white armor, too, making it indistinguishable from the leathers she wore underneath.
Karp and Wili traveled the road another four days and then needed more supplies. Wili had only ever willingly shifted once and needed instruction to do so. Karp explained Nort's description of imagining the desert and feeling sunlight. She suggested that Wili imagine a forest and the feeling of shade on a warm day. That didn't work. In frustration, Karp punched him until he shifted. They returned with supplies, and Wili was able to shift on demand after that.
Three days later, a building twice the size of Karp's warehouse appeared on the horizon. It could have been a castle but lacked any fortifications that usually adorned a dungeon, castle, or fort. Karp and Wili entered and ensured they were alone before examining its contents. Several benches sat at each of a dozen large tables. Small wooden handles were scattered about the countertops. Cracks and an empty hole drilled in each handle’s end ruined them. Karp and Wili looked around the rest of the building, but there wasn't a single scrap of metal or any useful tools. Wili moved a broad beam to check underneath, and a small section of the warehouse roof collapsed. He jumped back from a falling beam, but it clipped his side and tore several links in his mail.
Blood trickled down Wili's stomach, but his ribs weren't fractured. Karp bandaged the flesh wound and then fixed Wili's hauberk. They departed the warehouse quickly after having risked their lives for nothing.
They returned to Karp's world for supplies after traveling another five days. Five days after that, Wili and Karp came across a new warehouse. From the outside, it stood a similar size and construction as the last building, but the interior was vastly different.
Two massive stone ovens lined the northern wall, and one oven was centered on the eastern wall. A strange machine dominated the room's center. An inverted log suspended by pulleys hovered above a stone tabletop resting on a foundation of clay bricks. A wooden wheel was connected to a series of stone gears. The wheel spun the gears, and the gears raised the log using ropes on pulleys. When the wood was high enough, the gears disengaged, and the press dropped to the table.
Karp spun the wheel and noticed a small red gleam. She stopped the log around a foot off the table and waved Wili over to hold the wheel. After moving to the strange contraption, she sprawled out on the tabletop and felt around the log’s face. The support ropes creaked and frayed.
˝just hold it.”
A light glow shone from the log’s face. The pulleys began to crack under pressure. A clank sounded under the press, and Karp slid out a plate of dragon fire steel. Wili lowered the log and breathed a little easier. The red steel plate was about the size of a large dish. Karp molded the metal into a new buckler that was smaller than her seashell buckler. The increased strength, though, was worth the trade-off.
Karp and Wili checked the rest of the facility and found several corpses, but no devils, banshees, or other creatures. One body wore steel chainmail, which had dulled and stiffened over time. There were no other valuables in the factory. Wili returned the chainmail and seashell buckler to Karp's world and obtained supplies during the trip too. Then, the pair left the facility. Shortly after exiting, a snap cried out from the factory. A massive crash shattered the clay bricks. Wili looked at Karp, who nervously chuckled and turned a light shade of red.
Three days later, they started to see a second mountain range intersect with the chain of mountains they were following. That intersection was their destination. The Bog Djinn was correct about the spire. Five days later, they found another factory just before reaching the Clay Gate. Daylight faded, but Karp and Wili decided to check for valuables before securing a safe house and heading for the Crossroads in the morning.
The factory had processed leather goods. Tables dotted with sewing kits cluttered the main production floor's center. Tanning racks lined outer walls. Most stands were empty, but large sections of leather still hung on a few.
The pair eased when they looked inside and no creatures despoiled the wide-open space. Karp started picking up packs of sewing needles, and Wili searched the room's perimeter. He tore down a dry, cracked sheet of leather from a rack in the corner, but there were no valuables. Wili did it again and again until he discovered one frame hiding a steel sword. The discovery turned unpleasant, though, because the devil holding it screeched at the influx of sunlight. The devil's first swing tore Wili's riding cloak and grazed his arm, but his chainmail prevented the glancing blow from inflicting severe damage. Wili tripped and fell to the ground.
The devil stood over him, swinging its sword. Wili rolled to dodge the blade, but his luck ran out, and the devil's slash landed squarely enough to cleave through chainmail and draw blood from his left forearm. Wili grabbed his wound, and the devil stood, poised to land a killing blow. But then a yellow knife punctured its eye, and it dropped dead to the ground. Karp hurried to Wili and grabbed his arm. She pulled up the sleeve of his hauberk, and blood pulsed from a gaping wound. She frantically pulled bandages from her bag and put pressure over the injury. The wound bled for close to an hour, and then night was almost upon them.
Karp pulled Wili's undamaged arm over her shoulder and dragged him to a nearby house. She dropped him on the bed in an empty room. After returning to the main space, she shouted and banged her feet to draw out any monsters hiding in the shadows. Nothing came. Karp barricaded the doors and windows and returned to Wili, who lay on the bed, passed out from blood loss.
A few hours later, Wili shook and trembled. Karp tried to wake him, but his eyes wouldn't open. The trembling continued for a few more seconds. Karp felt Wili's hot and moist forehead. The bandages on his arm held, but each movement risked reopening the wound. Karp paced while considering how to save her friend. He could offer no help while unconscious. Karp needed fresh air. She cracked a nearby window and just stared at the Crossroads. The room fell into a dead silence. Afraid that the silence meant that Wili was in trouble, Karp rushed back to the bedroom and placed her hand on Wili's neck. He was breathing and had just stopped moving in his sleep. She slumped into a chair near the bed for the rest of the night, waiting for him to wake. He lay still until morning and woke to Karp half sitting on a chair and half lying on his bed. His stirring woke her, and she sat up, wiping her eyes before speaking.
˝we got careless.”
Wili didn't have the energy to elaborate or argue. Karp stared into space for a time before addressing him again.
˝you didn't see what i saw last night or hear what i heard. if you had, you might not want to go through with this, but you did almost die yesterday, so maybe you have your own hang-ups. i'll ask you this anyway. do you want to go on, or do you want to go back?”
Wili didn't answer her for three days.
Karp and Wili stood outside of the final safe house before entering the Clay Gate. Wili adjusted a strap so that he could sling his shield to his right arm in an emergency since his left arm was now incapable of blocking. The devil had cleaved Wili's arm to the bone. The wound would completely heal as long as it didn't open. Bandages covered his left forearm. Karp carried a large sack of supplies, and Wili ported nothing.
˝I'm not an invalid! I can carry a bag too!”
˝no. i'm not going to risk it. you should even have that arm immobile.”
˝I can't. What if I need to flee? Or there's an emergency.”
˝well... we'll compromise. you don't have to wear a sling, but i'll carry everything.”
Wili ground his teeth and fetched his traveler's cloak, dawned the hood, and started moving. Karp hurried to catch up, but Wili pretended not to notice. They were walking in silence as they reached the Shift World's Clay Gate.
A twenty-foot-tall stone wall spanned the gap between mountain ranges. A thirty-foot-wide gap broke the barrier in half. Holes pockmarked the stone wall's face around the space. Little steel spikes glistened several inches down into the holes. Most likely during some bygone era, shifters had scrapped an iron or steel gate that was anchored in those holes. Karp and Wili strolled through the missing section and traveled into the Crossroads.
After several hundred yards, they came across buildings unlike the ones in the Arid Desert. Nomads built almost exclusively clay structures, and buildings in the Lush Forest were mostly wood. It was, however, carved stone mortared together that created the buildings in the Shift World's Crossroads. Artisans had even hammered some of the buildings into the sides of mountains. The roads and roofs of houses were stone. Every aspect of the Crossroads felt as though it was made an eternity ago and had endured a solitary existence ever since.
The structures that sprawled in front of Karp amazed her. Roads led to towers standing prominently around the skyline, but no one walked the streets. No voices echoed around the stone halls. No curious children peeked out of houses to check on the strangers walking through town. Karp thought back to Slart's fear that one disappointing harvest could plunge her world into despair or an inevitable all-out war would destroy everything. Karp was afraid that Slart wasn't overreacting. One day, fortunes could doom their world like the Shift World. The Traitor's Tavern Inn would be devoid of revelers enjoying a drink, and empty crates would fill The Whitecoat's warehouses with no workers to replace the goods. Fields and towns would show the scars of battles fought over the last morsels of food. Corpses would linger where they died because the living would have departed the world and no one was left to bury the dead.
Karp's realization that she wasn't alone dragged her from her thoughts. The presence of monsters lurking just inside the stone houses and dungeons permeated the atmosphere. The Crossroads waited to come alive at night, and the emptiness of day felt kind in comparison. After several hours of traversing the main street, three towers formed a triangle up a side street. Karp and Wili cautiously followed a side street much larger than the thin alleys that jetted between houses and dungeons but smaller than the main road. Karp felt uncomfortable being so close to the buildings. A sign at the end of the way read ˝Academy.” Wili and Karp approached the nearest tower. The wooden door was still completely intact. A fleeting moment of optimism made Karp feel that everything could be alright. She looked over to Wili and whispered.
˝can we really be this lucky?”
˝Ugh, don't say that.”
They pushed the heavy wooden door, and it scraped across the floor, leaving a streak in the dust and dirt. Karp drew her water steel dagger and placed it in Wili's uninjured hand.
˝if anything comes.”
Karp put her back on the door and pushed. The door scraped closed with a pop as it seated in the door jamb. Wili turned to watch for stray creatures as they entered the building. Karp drew a throwing knife and readied herself for monsters drawn out by the noise. Nothing showed, and she returned the weapon to her buckler. She and Wili entered the closest room. One medium-sized window lit the classroom well enough to make out the desks strewn about the interior. The sun would set soon, and Karp and Wili still needed a safe place to spend the night. They cleared the room, then closed and barricaded the door.
˝we'll spend the night here, and we'll begin looking tomorrow.”
Wili reached out Karp's knife and pointed to writing on the blade. A fourth word written near the blade's tip stood apart from three words etched into the flat of the blade near the handle.
˝that's a long story.”
˝Don't want to tell me?”
Karp was embarrassed but thought for a minute.
˝the short version is that i once had a dagger i treasured. the first time i went to the traitor's tavern, i wanted to buy clothes, but i didn't have any money. so i went to the shift world to find something to trade and was attacked. i almost died but managed to kill the skeleton. well, about a year later, i returned to the shift world to face my fears.
“the skeleton was dead, and i took my dagger back. that dagger kind of became a symbol that i survived and moved on. the more time i spent in the traitor's tavern, the more i felt like i didn't just survive one attack, but i survived my whole life before that. one day, i traded that dagger to get this dagger. i never really felt right about it, but it seemed silly at the time. this is the dagger that i used to kill the sunflower. if i had never traded for this dagger, it's likely i'd be dead now.
“so i guess you could say the dagger is a little bit of an unclear symbol for me. well, after you were attacked and i didn't know if you were going to live through the night or die, i stayed awake the whole time thinking. i was wondering: is all this worth the trouble? was all this worth the risk? and i thought. i looked out the window and saw the skyline and thought some more. i finally came up with an answer and etched it into the blade. now, if i'm not sure or start to waver, i'm going to look at the blade.”
Karp's outpour of sincerity shocked Wili, and he contemplated her words.
The next morning, Karp and Wili unbarred the door and quietly pushed it open. They crept into the hall. Karp carried a yellow throwing knife, and Wili brandished his shield on his right forearm. Even though the city came alive at night, nothing had managed its way into the tower's first floor. Karp and Wili cleared the empty halls and classrooms. Only one room showed signs of life.
Unlike the light wooden doors of the tower's classrooms, riveted heavy oak comprised this door. Three locked bolts secured it shut. Karp put her hands over the locks and melted away the metal. She slid open the first bolt, and something inside stirred. Creatures crashed against metal and frenzied when Karp removed the second bolt. Wili positioned himself to Karp's right so that he could block incoming attacks. Karp drew her dragon fire dagger, slid open the final rod, and pulled the door. The clattering expanded into a cacophony.
Karp jumped in front of the opening. Wili stepped between her and the windowless room. They were ready to fight anything that came, but nothing approached. Observing the pitch black from outside the room was futile; a lit torch appeared in Karp's hand. The clattering intensified as they stepped into the darkness. The sound slowly died away as they explored. Scrolls, precise cutting instruments, and diagrams filled shelves above tables lining the left-hand wall. Straps adorned tabletops, and bins filled with soil and bone fragments rested underneath. Monsters didn't hide in the darkness, so Karp and Wili focused on the noise's source.
Cages lined the room's right side. The cages varied from small enough to hold mice to large enough to hold a tiger. Most contained skeletons of animals still confined when The Conqueror had blighted the Crossroads. Others held creatures. Not humanoid creatures like skeletons or devils but mutated animals, like dragons pounding on cages. Small stone walls and iron bars pinned a rat that had grown to monstrous proportions. Its nose and teeth protruded from the metal bars, and its lower body was completely immobilized. Karp felt sorry for the rat and made sure it wouldn't hurt any more.
Another cage held a snarling dog that had lost its silken fur. Scales had replaced its soft skin, and blackened eyes sunk into a gaunt face. Green liquid drooled from a mouth of pointed teeth. Another cage held a disfigured bird. The bird's scarlet eyes sometimes flickered. Wings of jet-black feathers spread as Wili approached, showing fanciful shapes and spirals underneath. Karp's head swam, and she lost perspective of the bird's size and distance when she looked at the patterns. She forced herself to turn away, and they continued searching. There were five dogs and four birds in the hundreds of cages that lined the room. Karp and Wili headed for the second floor.
Books on animal husbandry, anatomy, and physiology filled the second floor's library. After several hours of searching, they hadn’t found manuscripts useful for fighting shifters or any historical documents for The Bog Djinn. Mostly empty dormitories occupied the fourth floor. Karp and Wili spent the rest of the evening searching through scrolls and books in the third-floor offices. Then, night fell, and the city resurrected.
Karp peeked out of a window. Lines of devils, skeletons, and banshees marched the roads in a grisly parade. Skeletons ambled from place to place, sometimes resting on the street and sometimes entering buildings. Devils and banshees ran about the street. If a devil collided with a banshee, the banshee screamed and all nearby creatures frenzied. Asaghi perched on the roofs of houses and two-story buildings. When another asaghi landed on a rival's roof, they'd fight until one left. At least one dragon sat atop every tower, but many housed two or three. Fire lit the entire night sky; dragons burnt the higher regions, and asaghi flew lower. An asaghi ascended and shot fire skyward. The flame skimmed a nearby dragon, and it shrieked in pain.
Dragons rose in response to the cries. A dragon circled beneath the asaghi and shot its leg with a fire blast. The asaghi dodged to pull its seared flesh from the line of fire. Another dragon flew by and bit off an arm and landed on a nearby tower to feast. A large male tore the asaghi's right wing, and it plummeted four stories into a mob of devils. The hordes screeched, hacked at the asaghi, and carried off the pieces. Karp shuddered and curled up under the window and fell asleep.
Karp dreamed that she was back in the Village of the Traitor's Tavern. Slart sat crying over The Whitecoat's husk outside of the Traitor's Tavern Inn. Karp approached, and Slart turned to face her friend, but Karp recoiled instead of embracing her at their reunion. Slart's skin was pulled taut over her bones and was aged like a husk. Her fingers crumbled into sand, and the destruction continued up her hand. Her face twisted into a caricature of fear until her head also crumbled away. Korg's body also disappeared. Karp rushed into the Traitor's Tavern Inn to find someone to help, but the inn was devoid of people.
Karp opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. Her left hand rested on the water steel dagger's sheath. Karp focused her breathing until she calmed. She closed her eyes and tried to sleep again.
Karp was now at the Grain Fort after the dragon had attacked. The partially collapsed keep burned with a cloud of acrid smoke. Karp stared at the burning ruins, and the pile of rubble morphed into the general store at the Village of the Traitor's Tavern. Karp searched Village Square Road for survivors. A charred, dismembered body littered the road, but it wasn't the courier from the Grainfort. Nort's scorched face stared up at Karp. His eyes followed her as she circled to check it was him.
Karp woke again. She stared at the ceiling, tapping the dagger at her side. She tried to sleep once more.
This time Karp marched with Wili down the empty alleys of the Crossroads during daylight. Wili walked ahead of Karp and passed a bend. Karp arrived at the turn, but Wili was gone. Karp continued up the road, but there was no academy, and she realized that she was in her world, not the Shift World. The only signs of people on what should have been crowded streets were her own footsteps echoing between buildings. Karp rounded another bend and found herself at the Founder's Day Festival.
Food stalls, ale carts, and exhibitions stood tall on Village Square Road, but no workers sold food or drinks. Pots of oil sat atop a cart, but the jugglers were gone. Karp ran past the village hall and arrived at The Whitecoat's staff fighting competition. The crowd evacuated the deserted rink.
Karp opened her eyes, sat up, and looked at Wili sleeping at a nearby table. She lay back down, drew her water steel dagger, and held it to her chest, but she didn't try sleeping again.