Shift World Chapter 10
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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The next morning Karp looked out the window while she ate breakfast; the city slept again. There were no dragons in the air, no asaghi perched on buildings, and no other monsters marching around the road. A dark spot on the stone street where the asaghi fell was the only sign that anything had moved during the night. Karp finished her meal and packed her gear.
Karp unbarred the stairwell door after Wili finished getting ready. Karp drew a throwing knife, and the pair descended to the first floor. They breathed a little easier when nothing was disturbing the hallways that led to the second tower. They stalked a hall lined with empty classrooms, and there was still no sign of creatures or danger as they entered the second tower. They closed off the entrance to the first tower and the hall to the third tower. Every classroom, lecture hall, and storage room was conspicuously empty. The second tower had a heavy oak door like the first tower, except this door only had one closed bolt.
Karp rapped on the door with the back of her hand. Nothing moved inside. She placed her hands on the lock, and it melted away. She slid open the bolt, and still nothing stirred within the room. She pushed the door, and it sluggishly swung open with a loud creak.
Small cubbies honeycombed the left wall. A different plant name labeled each crevice. The labels ranged from the mundane, like wheat, to the exotic, like starfire bush. Karp counted the rows and columns and estimated five hundred holes, of which the vast majority housed at least one jar. Some jars held pollen, others housed seeds, and others still held extracts particular to that type of plant. A series of large tables rested against the right wall. Each table held a set of pestles and mortars, scrolls, and textbooks. Nothing was hidden within the room, so Karp and Wili moved to the second floor.
The second floor housed libraries and offices. Most of the library's books weren't useful, like tomes that chronicled the history of growing wheat in the Shift World or treatises that contemplated and speculated on why plants produce food or how they became that way. Karp found useful encyclopedias that described poisons, medicines, and culturing plants. Sunset was only an hour away by the time Karp and Wili ascended to the third floor.
Scrolls discussing plants and flowers filled the third floor's offices. The manuscripts were so full of technical jargon, though, that neither Wili nor Karp understood much of their content. The two of them returned to the second-floor libraries, sealed the doors, and covered the windows with layers of paper. Karp read by candlelight to prevent illuminating the room with too much light. She spent hours cataloging beneficial ingredients or plants from the books on poisons and medicines and then searched the library stacks for information on some of those ingredients. Karp stopped working by midnight; by then, Wili slept with his head on a pile of papers.
Karp picked up her candle, removed a blanket from her pack, moved to Wili, and draped the woolen cloth over him. She bent over and blew out the candle sitting near his head. She blew out her own candle after moving to a two-foot-wide window in the northern corner where she peeled off the paper covering a diamond-shaped window.
Karp watched fire dance in the sky as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The air swirled, popped, and disappeared. She observed the pageant, but the dancing had started shortly after sunset and Karp knew it would continue until sunrise. She looked to the road after her eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Rivers of monsters flowed and crashed as the carnival continued in full swing. Karp still felt uneasy watching everything, but it was beautiful if she emotionally distanced herself from the danger. Finally, though, she tore herself from the spectacle and lay between the library stacks, away from all the windows; however, she still couldn't fall asleep for the night.
Karp hadn't slept well for several days and had spent most of the previous night lying between library stacks, thinking about returning to her world. Since she couldn't sleep in the Shift World, after Wili woke, she asked him to take her home. After sleeping in her own world, she then returned to the Shift World. She and Wili prepared to reenter the second tower. Karp unbarred the library door and headed into the second floor. Nothing on the second floor was disturbed, but Karp drew a throwing knife and snuck into the stairwell. Karp's usually stiff gait now moved more fluidly but less precisely. Her body moved like each step was part of a series of dances steps.
She descended the stairs and entered the first floor. Once again, nothing jumped out at Karp as having been disturbed in the night. She crept to the heavy oak door that secured the storage room. The door remained shut, so Karp lowered her shoulder and pushed. Wili stood by with his mace in hand in case anything had trespassed during the night. Karp fluttered into the room, found plants she had cataloged last night, and Wili returned them to her world. Karp and Wili headed for the third tower after collecting the last of the seeds. The hall leading to the third tower housed empty classrooms and lecture halls. Karp and Wili were both relieved that no creatures were lurking, but the lack of valuables tempered any excitement.
The third tower's door differed from the ones in the first two towers. Steel bolts secured riveted heavy oak boards. In the long-forgotten past, guards behind a pair of windows flanking the entrance would have controlled access. A sign read “biological weaponization,” and Karp and Wili exchanged glances.
˝i guess this is why the bog djinn sent us here.”
Wili didn't acknowledge her words. Karp put her hands over the locks, melted them away, and slid open the bolts. The door creaked open. Karp noticed a large sliding bolt riveted to the rear of the door, which was paired with a metal latch attached to the wall. Had the bolt been latched, Karp and Wili couldn't have entered the tower without waking half of the Crossroads.
Karp and Wili pushed open the door and stepped into a blackened room. Karp waved an empty hand toward Wili, and a torch appeared. She reflexively recoiled at two robed figures and readied her dagger. The figures never moved. She crept toward her adversaries, but they didn't react to her presence. The torchlight then illuminated the faces of a pair of mannequins. The riding coats were like nothing Karp had ever seen. Instead of the thick tanned leather common to the lush forest, these thin coats took on a light yellow-tan hue.
Most riding coats kept riders clean and protected from the elements. These coats, however, had several hidden pouches and compartments designed to hold scrolls or documents. Some of the pockets appeared to be made to store little jars. Small sheaths also adorned the inside. These coats likely provisioned scouts or spies for several days. The skins themselves were well crafted and would be useful in the future. The genuinely remarkable leather was hard and sturdy but flowed like cow leather.
Karp stopped examining the cloaks, and Wili pointed to a small plaque on one of the mannequins.
˝no wonder i've never seen these before.”
Yeti lived in the Creeping Ice and were twice the size of bears. Tales claimed that these monsters lived in the most inhospitable tundra and that unfortunate creatures wandering into blizzards became a yeti's prey. Sometimes yeti ravaged communities near lakes, and entire encampments of Nomads died defending their homes. Few accounts of these creatures existed because only those who fled while monsters were devouring their friends and family survived long enough to tell the tale.
˝these two coats probably came from one beast and likely at a high cost.”
Karp removed the coats and looked at Wili. He rolled his eyes, and the coats disappeared. Karp and Wili scoured the room. Most of the articles were useless, but Wili eventually waved Karp over to a desk located in the corner.
˝Give me a thick piece of leather.”
Karp reached from under her cloak and handed Wili a small sheet of soft leather. Wili folded the swatch until it was two inches thick. He reached into an open desk drawer, took out his hand, and violently slammed his fist onto the counter. A strange object stuck out of the small leather swatch, and a liquid oozed from the leather folds.
˝what is that?”
˝There is some kind of metal coil inside the tube that pushes out this thing's tip, but when the tip receives enough pressure, it retracts. Anything on the inside leaks out into the target. According to that scroll, these have a sleeping liquid inside.”
Karp unfurled the scroll, which diagrammed tubes, feathers, and wound metal. A description of how to make the darts filled the scroll’s bottom.
˝maybe we can figure out how to make these later.”
Wili shrugged indifferently at the prospect. The pair scoured the room until Karp came across a series of small bowls sitting on a little table. She called Wili, and he sauntered over. Karp returned the scroll to the table.
˝if this works, we could have a big advantage over both people and monsters. if we take these crushed shimmerfish scales soaked in linseed oil and mix them with a reagent made from the starfire bush, we can create a mirror. So, if we try that in mid-air, maybe we can camouflage ourselves.”
Wili looked a little skeptical and confused. Karp reached over, pinched a dusting of powdered scales in her left hand and starfire reagent in her right, and threw both in the air. Some of the powder sparked mid-air, but most of it fell to the ground. Wili laughed at the failure, but Karp looked down and smiled. Wili followed her gaze. Doppelgangers stared up from reflections on the ground.
˝i think i just need to work on the timing.”
They stared at themselves; after half a minute, the images began to fade. After a minute, the illusion disappeared altogether and only fine ash covered the ground at their feet. Karp and Wili spent the rest of the afternoon scouring the tower for useful gear. They only found untested hypotheses regarding the use of plants and animals for weapons.
Karp and Wili sealed a small room on the second floor as night began to fall. Karp outfitted the new travel cloaks with weapons and provisions. She attempted to make a dart of her own using a steel plate and melded the materials into the correct shapes, but the darts continuously failed. When she stabbed the leather, the tip never retracted, and she was simply banging her fist on the ground.
Wili lay sleeping without even attempting the pretext of reading. Karp quit for the night also and tried to sleep.
The next day, Karp and Wili finished looking through the third tower. Although they didn’t find any more useful prototypes, they found a few books that might interest Trolt and a book on weapons. Most of the weapons were standard fare in Karp's world, but she hoped to find some unique variations. She spent that evening perfecting darts and cataloging items they might want to collect before departing the Crossroads. In the morning, Karp and Wili unbarred the door to the third tower's library.
˝we need to go to the other towers and retrieve some items before we leave.”
˝for example, we need the plants to make a paralyzing potion. if you make the potion with one dose of nightshade and one dose of poppy extract, you can paralyze a person. two doses of nightshade and one dose of poppy, and they die. two doses of poppy and one dose of nightshade, and they will pass out. if we can get the plants, i can grow those materials myself.”
˝Fine, and then let's get out of the Crossroads.”
˝i have to get things from the first tower too.”
˝Fine, but then we go.”
Karp and Wili slowly cleared each hall and room before entering and collecting the goods they needed. Wili was ready to leave after Karp collected crushed mud crab shells and shimmerfish scales.
˝i have an idea.”
˝i think we should stay here for the night and leave in the morning. this way, we can make sure we aren't missing anything that we might lose the chance to get later.”
˝Do you really want to press your luck?”
˝nothing has gone wrong; we aren't pressing anything.”
˝Yeah, but one mistake and it's all over.”
˝just be careful then! go ahead without me if you want.”
Anger flashed in Wili's eyes as he stormed up the first tower's stairwell. Karp and Wili sealed up the second-floor library and covered the windows after dusk fell. Wili couldn't sleep well, though, and lifted his head off the desk to find Karp poring over books and scrolls. Karp looked up when he stirred but returned to the manuscripts.
˝Look, Karp... I'm just tired.”
˝so sleep now. i know you can't sleep in my world, so here is fine.”
˝You don't... Look, what do you plan on doing after we’re done here?”
˝well, we're going to find a safe house outside of the crossroads, leave some supplies, and return to my world.”
˝I meant after that.”
˝oh, i guess nort and i are going to figure out how to use these new weapons and slart is going to try to break lark out of her shell. i'll probably have two beers with every dinner for a while.”
Karp tried to smile, but her generally even affect always made her smiles seem fake, despite feeling happy or genuinely wanting to comfort someone.
˝Why are you doing all this?”
Karp sat uncomfortably since the answer involved a level of vulnerability that she didn't like to display.
˝I know you do it for the future. You hope to save those you love and want a happy ending. Each time you go home, I see it in your face. You come back energized and willing to take on anything. I don't have that. This is my life. The killing and violence are all I know and I’ll never get to know anything else, and I'm just tired.”
˝is this why you've been so upset recently?”
Wili scoffed at the question.
˝I swear for how smart you are, in some ways, you are just so naive. After this, I'm done. If Nort needs something from your warehouse or armor or something, fine, but I'm tired of this world and don't want to come back.”
The weight of Wili's words fell heavily on Karp. The implications of his declaration cut her, but he knew full well what his request meant. She sat in shock, trying to think of a way to convince him his existence was worthwhile despite everything he said being true.
The candle in front of her flickered. A slight draft chilled the room. The windows were covered, and there wasn't much wind in the Crossroads. Karp looked around the room. A sheet of paper hung off a window. She blew out a nearby candle and skulked over. She reached down to steady the makeshift curtain blowing back and forth. The breeze stopped after Karp grabbed the sheet. She peeled it up. She couldn't see fire in the sky. She pulled the sheet back further and stopped at two eyes with a dull yellow hue and a bright yellow iris. The eyes narrowed.
Karp stumbled from the shock of an asaghi pounding on the side of the wall. Wili jumped up with his shield and rushed to Karp. The wall weakened and cracked. Karp gathered her materials, and Wili returned them to her world just as the wall caved in. The asaghi entered the tower's library just as Karp and Wili rushed to the barricaded door. Wili shifted them into the yeti skin cloaks. Karp removed a pop-gourd and hurled it at the asaghi. She threw a steel dagger at the pop-gourd, and it popped in the asaghi's face. The asaghi shrieked in pain and surprise. The creature shot fire all around the tower, burning nearby books and scrolls. Wili grabbed a table and charged the asaghi, pushing it out of the tower.
The asaghi flew erratically, sporadically rising and falling. Wili looked down from the hole in the wall, and the monsters near the tower converged on the academy. Wili looked around the alleys surrounding the tower, but there wasn't a safe escape route. An idea hit him, and he rushed to the stairs and grabbed Karp's arm. The pair moved to the third floor and pushed open a balcony. Wili climbed the railing and jumped onto the roof of a nearby house. Karp followed, and the two ran across the rooftops. Loose stones and shingles fell into the mobs as they ran. Devils threw trash at the pair.
Karp jumped a wide gap and continued to run, but Wili cried for help. As he hung off the edge, Karp released her whip and threw the end. Wili grabbed the handle and pulled himself onto the roof. Karp rushed over to help him to his feet. She pulled him over the lip of the roof, and Wili scurried to the top. She sat and looked back.
Most of the tower was burning. Asaghi and dragons circled the flames, occasionally skirmishing. Karp and Wili continued along the rooftops until the monsters lost interest or couldn't find them within the twisting alleys. The pair jumped down to the empty road and continued toward the Clay Gate.
After a while, the monsters on the ground stopped pursuit and enemies no longer wandered ahead. Karp and Wili felt at ease for the first time in an hour, but near the Clay Gate, two devils stepped out from behind a building. One devil carried a water steel short sword. Karp stabbed its neck on her way by and took its sword. Wili bowled over the other devil, and they exited the Clay Gate.
Karp and Wili peered back to ensure that nothing followed.
˝the fire must have drawn them.”
Wili just nodded in agreement. The two turned away and headed toward shacks on the outskirts of the Crossroads. Wings beat from above, and the pair looked up just in time. An asaghi crashed down into the desert sand. Dust and sand blew into the pair's eyes as the monster landed. Karp threw a pop-gourd at its face and set it off with her whip, but the asaghi turned and covered its eyes. After the explosion, the beast thrust its head toward Karp and shot a fire blast. Wili jumped between the two and diverted the fire. The blast cut a divot into the ground.
Karp flung a dart at the beast. The dart stuck in the beast's armor-like skin, but it had no effect; she unleashed several more. That much poison would kill most people, but the asaghi seemed mostly unaffected. The asaghi tried to hit Karp with a yellow whip but misjudged her body due to the riding cloak. The blade only pierced the yeti skin. The edge, though, caught in the leather, and Karp removed the coat to avoid getting pulled. The asaghi caught the yeti skin that was stuck on the whip's blade, removed it, and flung it back toward Karp. Wili tried to flank the asaghi, but it jumped back and ineffectually shot fire at him.
The asaghi's movements slowed as the poison seeped in. Karp used the monster's momentary hesitation to embed her whip's blade into the creature's shoulder. It dropped its weapon. The asaghi grabbed Karp's weapon with its uninjured arm and pulled her closer. Wili jumped between them and smashed the asaghi in the face with his shield.
The asaghi staggered back and fell. Karp pulled her whip from its shoulder and caught the blade in one motion. Wili walked to the asaghi and nudged it with his foot.
˝It's passed out.”
˝tie it up.”
Wili bound the asaghi with its sunshine steel whip. Karp removed her darts whose steel tips had only slightly penetrated the asaghi's tough skin. The pair walked to the nearest house, barricaded the door, and quietly sat until dawn.
Karp and Wili left the shack after sunrise and headed for the bound asaghi. They arrived several minutes later, but the asaghi had died within the last few hours.
˝they look more human in daylight.”
Wili nodded. A shadowy dungeon obscured most of an object's fine details. In the sunlight, though, the asaghi's unique face became visible. Karp didn't know any stranger with its face, but she could imagine meeting a stranger with its features. She found that idea unsettling.
Karp and Wili spent the remaining daylight traveling north along the mountains in order to distance themselves from the Crossroads. They spent the night at a house in the shadow of a burnt-down factory. In the morning, Wili shifted out of the Shift World.
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