Shift World I Book III Chapter 2
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Huskie circled Timore's unflinching figure as he sprawled near the firepit in the cave's center. Huskie lowered his nuzzle and poked Timore's rib cage. The drowsy man groaned and rolled to face away from the impatient dog. Huskie released a bark, which half resembled a snort, and Timore buried his head deeper into his improvised pillow of rolled-up blankets. Huskie reversed direction and licked Timore's face the moment it appeared in range. Timore gave an exaggerated sigh and rolled on his back, staring at the cave's ceiling. The dog plopped onto Timore's stomach, and he reflexively partially sat up. Panting to release excess heat from the nearby fire, the dog gingerly turned to his master, releasing damp, pungent breaths into the young man's face.
"That's enough of that." Timore pushed Huskie from his lap and unsteadily rose to his feet.
"Are you always this loud in the morning?" The Paladin sat with one foot raised onto a bench, balancing a bowl on his knee. A runny white liquid drizzled from a wooden spoon as he attempted to slurp the bowl's contents.
"I wasn't that loud, and yes, he does this every morning."
The Paladin glanced around the dividers that dotted around the cave's expanse. Tired, bloodshot eyes peered through the wooden slats and eyed the talking pair. "You were loud enough."
Timore's face puckered at the rebuke, but he seemed to think better of dragging out such a trite conversation. Baba Luan inched her way to the party of three, and The Paladin raised in deference. She carried two small, bumpy pouches.
"Then, you've settled on leaving today?" Baba Luan asked with a weak smile. Timore and Nort nodded, and Huskie wagged its tail, blissfully unaware of the conversation's gravitas. "Good. Place the bags inside your tunics, and you will be able to eat when you stop. Leave them outside, and you'll find you carry ice."
The elderly woman reached a trembling hand to each Nort and Timore, and they collected the pouches. She gently lowered her unencumbered limbs as the men felt the bags and guessed at the contents. Round nuts swished around as Nort thumbed the left side. A second smaller pouch lined the inside, likely full of the milled corn he ate for breakfast.
"Nature has sent you to find the Furies, and with our ancestors' protection, they will not venture to this sacred place. I wish I could offer more, but then we may all starve."
Light pats and scrounging noises emanated from the main entrance. Huskie's hair stood on edge as it released a deep, throaty growl. The grate creaked and snapped. Wood splintered and shattered, then, blew into the cave. Inhabitants camping near the entrance screamed and fled through the center. Huskie instinctively bounded toward the chaos with Nort following on his heels. Timore reached for his armor, but donning the metal over his wool clothing proved more difficult than anticipated.
Huskie joined a pair of hunters swiping steel-tipped spears at an encroaching bear. Mangled patches of fur cut swaths from an otherwise pristine dark brown coat.
"He's survived a Yeti attack!" Nort eyed the shouting survivor, unsure of his meaning. But every Nomad from the Creeping Ice understood. Yeti dwarfed even the cart-sized bear that rampaged through the common area. If a bear somehow survived an encounter, it lost the fear of death and people. In the age of metal, a bear could injure or kill several men before spears and axes felled the animal, but a sane bear wouldn't risk receiving a lucky shot. Similarly, men felled a bear at a high cost but avoided conflict without extensive planning since otherwise someone nearly always died.
Huskie leaped in front of the bear but dodged back when its claw swiped toward the dog's neck. The older hunter, swung for the bear's paw with a pitted iron sword. The blow sent the blade flying and didn't even slow the animal's advance. The bear burst past on its way to maul a deer tied to a post. The deer thrashed, bucked, and kicked the bear's left eye. Two bites to the deer's neck killed it, and the bear chewed at its robust neck muscles.
Nort picked up the fallen sword, charged, and struck the bear's side with a two-handed slash. The sword bent around its rib cage like a reed smacking a barrel. The creature whelped, but The Paladin only managed to distract the feasting animal without inflicting damage. The bear swiped at Nort, and he dived behind a solid divider. The bear charged the structure and wildly swung through the weak wooden slates. A paw caught in the frame, but the raging beast regained its balance as the furniture collapsed.
Huskie bound to the bear's side and leaped onto its back, biting its skin through a patch of missing fur. The bear howled and bucked, which sent the dog flying onto the nearby deer carcass. The bear faced Huskie, and Nort stabbed at its side with an iron-tipped spear one of the locals had thrown him. The spear's shaft bent in the beast's thick hide and barely scratched the skin. The bear howled in anger. The younger hunter thrust his spear into the bear's side while it faced Nort, and this time, the shaft held firm. The weak iron tip penetrated the bear hide two inches, and the enraged beast focused on the young man.
The young man desperately searched for an escape route, but accidentally cornered himself at the animal's flank. The bear burst forward and chomped the boy's leg. His leg jerked backward as jaws clenched onto the shin. Blood dripped from a jagged wound while the animal's teeth wrenched. The young hunter howled, dropped, and clutched his injured appendage.
A clattering cacophony of metal scrapping barreled through the cave. The bear faced his attacker, lurched, and swiped at the approaching man. Timore slid to a broad stance, thrust his hips, and slashed his barbed fire steel sword. The blade clipped through the incoming paw's soft padding, removing half of its foot in a bloody mist. The bear's remaining leg ineffectually smeared crimson across The Manta's water steel cuirass. The bear balanced on three legs, avoiding lowering its stump into the dirt. The bear snarled, but Timore brought his sword across the easy target's neck, severing its head in a single motion.
After three steps, the body collapsed as the head dropped off. In the end, only a few wooden dividers splintered apart, and one elk died. The young hunter's leg would eventually heal, and everything turned out as fortunate as the Nomads could have prayed for.
Nort and Timore stayed another night to celebrate in the fashion of the cave inhabitants' forefathers. Wooden dividers lined the outer walls instead of breaking up the space. Benches circled smaller fires, and groups mingled around the small refuges. Hunks of elk and bear roasted on spits, and celebrants sliced chunks as the meat cooked. Grizzle dripped into collection pans that siphoned the valuable fats away from the fire. A bear and elk's hides dried near the rear exit, which led to the valley's small reprieve.
Instead of dancing like the foresters at the Wyvern Coast or playing games like patrons at the Traitor's Tavern, Nomads valued words. During extended journeys through the Creeping Ice, conversing became nearly impossible outside a cave's protection due to the layers of cloth and fur over travelers' mouths and ears. People tended fields, hunted game, and practiced their arts during most waking hours to sustain the community and didn't have time to chat. The rare occasions where fortune shined upon community members became the means to connect.
Baba Luan stepped forward in a traditional ceremonial outfit. Elk-skin lined with the fur of a gray wolf covered her arms and legs. A beaded pattern of a man fighting a great beast decorated a bearskin pelt covering her chest and back. The community hushed and turned from their respective circles to form one large ring.
"Nature has served us again!" Baba Luan swept a hand toward the meat cooking on an open fire and the pelts drying on racks near the entrance. The crowd cheered, and she waited for the noise to die down before speaking.
"Nature pushed us from our homes to the lands our fathers' fathers and mothers' mothers once called home. Our ancestors again protected us by bringing The Paladin and Jorn's young apprentice Timore the Manta to fight the Furies. Now, nature has brought forth the first test. This bear's desire to make us a part of his flesh guided him here, but this time we have killed it and made it a part of our own."
Revelers cheered while eyeing the cooking meat, and a few even instinctively wiped their mouths. "Our meager parting gifts almost brought shame upon our ancestors, and they created the opportunity to right that wrong!" Baba Luan removed three several-inch-long knives affixed to her belt. The deceased bear's claws had been sharpened and polished into blades. "These were the greatest weapons known to man before the time The Whitecoat shone metal before the lands. The bear let us hunt, skin the hides of fallen prey, and even work wool. Now, I give these blades to The Paladin, who is destined to never wield sword or spear made of iron or steel."
Baba Luan handed Nort the three blades. He affixed them to leather pouches hung from the belt that supported the breeches under his gambeson. "I'm afraid no gift we can bestow upon The Manta is greater than the sword and armor he already bares, but that armor risks becoming a curse. I give to him this elk-skin cloak to protect the precious metal from cold and snow."
Baba Luan presented Timore a supple riding cloak made from one continuous piece of elk hide. Undoubtedly the previous owner would receive the hide that now tanned. Timore gladdened at having something to stop cold from chilling his metal armor so much it could damage his skin.
With the presentation of the riding cloak, the impromptu ceremony concluded. Groups of people joined together to eat and chat. The small community's remaining children ran in circles, chasing one another in a natural dance that ended when their energy waned, and the night came to a close.
The next morning, Nort and Timore woke to riotous activity throughout the cave as people prepared to make up the last day's work. Nort tightened a leather belt to seal his woolen gambeson over his thick woolen pants. Timore slung his newly gifted elk hide cloak over his armor. Huskie briskly followed Nort and Timore as they stepped from the cave's main grate entrance.
A shot of burning light reflecting from vast expanses of tundra blinded the pair. Huskie accidentally walked into the back of Timore's leg and nearly sent him tumbling into the show. The old hunter guarding the entrance nearly laughed at the sight of 'nature's heroes' almost falling at the outset. The trio turned south and clung close to the mountains.
The range bent westward and jutted out east, forcing the two to snake along a winding route instead of heading due south as they would have liked. Crisp winds turned into freezing gales outside the protection of the mountains. They continued the trudge only consoled by the thought of eventually reaching warmer air. The frequency of forested indentations surprised Timore but lent him critical insight into how such a prominent outcrop remained undiscovered for so long.
They may have walked on for seven hours or ten hours, but the blinding light and unchanging scenery made deciphering time nearly impossible. Timore jerked to a stop, and Nort peeked around his friend from under a hood. A lake shimmered above a white field like a mirage in the desert, but as they approached, it grew instead of disappearing. The lake ended at the mountain's base and continued for miles into the tundra. If someone threw a stone at the opposite bank, it'd probably drop just shy of the shore. A layer of ice coated the water, giving the lake a calm surface.
"What do you think?"
"We must go around. No choice, really"
"Thin ice, I take it?"
Timore's grimace read of annoyance at a fool so incapable of grasping the situation that he may be more of a burden than solitude. "Yeah. It's obviously not even an inch thick..."
Timore bent to the lake and tapped with the first knuckle on his right index finger. The water steel gauntlet rang in pulses momentarily delayed from hitting the surface. The ice cracked open on the forth rap, and chunks bobbed in and out of the water.
"The worst part is that any boat with you in it would probably break on a sharp chunk."
Nort looked down into the hole, and a pair of fish eyes peeked back. The creature floated toward the surface, and he could just make out the mouth opening, sucking in water, and closing again. Small bits of floating algae stayed in the fish as water spewed back out.
"Why isn't that just a big chunk of ice?"
Timore pointed past the nibbling fish and then to the lake's bottom. A barely visible red glow emanated on the lake floor. Steam flew from vents but cooled and returned to the water.
"Those vents heat the water. It's still too cold for us to travel through, but it stays warm enough to remain unfrozen. At least everything but the top. It's called fool's ice. When I lived here, we often heard stories of Foresters or Clay Workers who walked over ice they believed to be solid and fell in. Some were rescued in time, but others died, or the cold disfigured their skin and limbs."
"Too bad you just can't clog the vents, then you could easily cross."
"Actually, fish is one of our primary foods. The vents feed the fish, and the fish feed wolves and bears. We eat all three. Once the people in the cave get settled in, they'll send parties up here to fish again."
Huskie rooted around the lake's edge as Nort and Timore talked. It must have caught a surprising scent and traveled inward toward the mountain.
"Are we going to cross the lake today? It would be dark before we can return to the mountains again."
"No. We will have to find a cave and spend the night there. We start at the first valley and search the back, just like before."
Huskie bent closer to the ground, licking packed snow. Timore and Nort turned to walk away, and Huskie howled. The noise surprised the pair so much that they lurched back to face whatever enemy frightened their dog. Huskie smiled while panting, out of breath from the cheerful howl. Huskie yapped while following a scent and whipped its head about to make sure the humans still followed. Just outside where the lake's water ran into the mountainside, a cave large enough to fit a wagon bore into the rock.
Timore unsheathed his sword and tapped the entrance's rocky wall. Echoes bounced through the passage, but nothing responded. Nort drew a bear claw blade and followed closely behind. Still blind in the dark, Timore inched forward but couldn't make out the space's contents. A moment later, his eyes adjusted enough to outline a wooden divider resting next to hay. Timore shuffled his feet as he approached the divider. A few feet from hay piles, he kicked pieces of wood. Although clumsy, he managed to reach his destination without falling on his face.
An elk's rib cage rested on straw matting with chunks of rotting flesh still caught between the bones' corners. The rest of the elk couldn't be found, but claw marks on the wooden divider painted a picture of what happened.
"There must have been people that used this cave as an outpost, and when they ran, a bear moved in. Since it hasn't been back in a few days, I think it was the one who attacked us."
"You think this is how it knew to find the entrance?"
"I don't know about that, but it's warm here because of the firepit with plenty to burn." Timore systematically snapped reeds from the wooden divider and tossed them into the nearby pit.
"Just in case, I'll take the first watch tonight."
Huskie circled Timore, who laid balled up a few feet from smoldering ash inside of the firepit. Huskie poked Timore's shoulder, and he rolled away from the dog, who reversed course and paced back to Timore's front. Huskie poked Timore's head, even though he hid it under his travel cloak. Timore rolled onto his back and lowered the leather from his face. Huskie dropped onto his stomach, and Timore let out a low grunt. The dog licked his master's face, that smiled half in annoyance.
"I'm glad to see the bear didn't come back at night."
Timore blushed after getting caught, shirking his guard duty. "I mean, it would have come back around dusk if it were coming today. Since it didn't, no point in worrying." Timore gave an unconvincing, thoughtful nod as he spoke.
"Eat and get dressed. I'd rather spend a few hours of daylight at the next cave than frantically run to the next place."
Timore ate a sparse breakfast of nuts and gave Huskie strips of dried elk. Timore noisily slipped on the full set of The Manta's water steel armor.
Nort absentmindedly began a conversation while he waited. "The Manta, huh? Where did you get that name from? I don't remember anything about Jorn's apprentice being especially good in the water."
"I got the name from the armor, obviously." Timore pointed to a manta ray pressed into the back of the cuirass. "I inherited it after the previous owner died, but it is so flashy that I just got the name too."
Nort's face read of a mix of indifference and skepticism, but as long as no further questions came, it didn't seem to matter to Timore. After fully dressing, the trio left the guard post and stepped into the blazing sun. Luckily, a layer of overcast helped lessen the snow's reflection, and they could look around almost normally. At least it would be lucky as long as the cloud didn't portend an incoming blizzard. Still, neither Nort nor Timore knew much about how to predict the weather, and so, they didn't give a second thought.
The overcast day gave Timore and Nort a better view of the lake. Unlike their guess of a few miles, the lake actually stretched into the distance so far they lost sight of it behind rolling mounds of snow. The lakeshore stayed free of deep snow, but the frozen mud created uneven footing that cracked under their steps. Sometimes, lumps of clay broke in half, and Nort or Timore almost slipped on the slick surface. As Nort tried to retain his balance, a hidden knowledge began to boil up.
He and Korg used to train in footing and walking with soft steps. After practice, he found himself quickly becoming more skilled than he remembered. The steps became more balanced. His footfalls landed so quietly that Timore sometimes needed to make sure Nort actually followed him. Timore, on the other hand, clanked and scratched with every step since he walked without a care in the world. Within a few more miles, even Huskie couldn't tell when Nort walked or stayed still. Timore mumbled under his breath. "That explains a lot..."
This strange ability Nort found transfixed himself. A few more hours passed, and an unexpected sight greeted the travelers around a snow mound. Slender reeds grew from muddy flats lining the shallows. Brown tails grew from the reeds' ends with the heaviest also bending the plants' shafts. The largest plants bowed almost back to the water's surface. Nort reached from the lakeshore over the shallows to grab a reed.
A seal barked and scurried through the reeds, leaving a wake of shaking plants. Just out of the shallows, the ice cracked and splintered, and the creature disappeared under the surface. Displaced water bubbled back through the hole and spread a thin film over the remaining ice. The group wondered if dinner just ran away as they watched the surreal moment pass.
The hot vents at the lake's bottom increased in frequency and glowed brighter. The light ice layer disappeared while slick snow covered the lakeshore. Mud and ice clung to Nort's deer hide boots, and Timore feared that his sabatons might freeze to his feet despite several layers of socks. Patches of snow stuck to Huskie's fur, despite his constant shakes. The sky darkened as clouds rolled in from the overcast that started the day. The trio pressed on until mysteriously wandering upon an abandoned town at the lake's head.
Snowdrifts covered the town's protective wall, which camouflaged ice and snow-covered roofs. In the town limits, someone had torn down many hardwood structures, leaving empty crawl spaces filled with small ropes and ties that previously held together the missing structures. Many of the traditional small-scale wooden structures stood unmolested. On the inside, however, valuable metal tools had been removed without a trace. Nort prowled to a close-by bedroom. To his delight, cotton blankets and comforters still rested in a closet.
Most of the remaining houses similarly lacked valuable metals, tools, and wood. A two-story hardwood structure stood mostly intact in the village center, surrounded by the foundations of smaller dwellings. Nort and Timore trudged to the entrance. Upon arriving, Nort lowered his shoulder into the door, and it bent inward like a piece of paper bending at a light touch. Then the edge snapped clean off, and the door flew open.
The two men dragged their found goods into the hall, and the cold abated ever-so-slightly. Nort threw his bundle onto the stone floor and walked toward a cabinet that still laid at the sidewall.
Nort shot back and reached for a bear claw blade, but eased when he couldn't see a present danger.
"What was that for?!"
Nort glared at Timore as he responded. "I don't want you to break that thing when you drag it over. I'll do it."
Nort pondered the words as Timore thrust his side into the cabinet, and it scraped across the hall's stone floor. He struggled over cracks formed from periodically freezing water, but the bulk moved after he wobbled the furniture's edges.
"I'm... Uh... sorry. Just a little on edge in this ghost town."
"Ghost town?" Timore's question rang with genuine confusion. Timore continued to push the dresser until it snapped over the doorway, and cold air stopped flooding into the hall.
"Yeah, here. This deserted town. It looks like no one's lived here for generations."
"Oh. No. It's probably only deserted since Baba Luan, and the refugees fled from near the Crossroads and stripped and carried away the houses. The cave wouldn't have enough to support the community if they didn't. Did you see a large wood mill that could have produced their firewood or doors?"
"Wouldn't that have taken months?"
Timore beckoned for Nort to follow. He and Huskie sauntered to a firepit in the room's center. He began feeling around the base of the fire, pushing every stone.
"Weeks, maybe. Houses in the Creeping Ice are made to be taken apart. It's much easier to replace a wall that's damaged by a bear or yeti that way."
An unnaturally square stone shook under his hand, and he pulled it free.
"But why would they take their time fleeing if the Furies were coming?"
After removing the forth stone, Timore reached in and pulled out a chopped block of wood. He raised it up and shook it to get Nort to take it.
"I don't think that's why they left. You heard all the nonsense about nature and ancestors. Baba Luan probably just convinced everyone to pack and leave. That thing I saw, it couldn't possibly have followed people out here."
Nort stacked the wood Timore pulled from the floor into two knee-high piles. Timore propped himself up and eyed the piles.
"That looks good for tonight."
"What were you saying about the Furies?"
Timore's expression soured as he picked up the smaller stack. "That thing that attacked my family. It controlled fire like nothing I've ever seen before. In the Shift World, we shot bolts that hit a target, or they missed. This thing shaped it, gave it life. How does such a monster survive in this cold."
"How can fire survive cold?"
"No, I mean, how could a creature that lives on heat survive in the cold. There isn't anything to burn on the snow. Only what you carry. If it didn't know the ways of the land, it would get lost and die. Understand?"
Nort and Timore walked the wood into a smaller room attached to the great hall. In the Creeping Ice, the keep's lord and his family lived in the smaller room while not using the gathering room. Even after cross-world trade allowed people to live outside of the communal caves, obtaining enough firewood to survive the year challenged the new way of life. Jorn, Timore's old master, even thought of opening a cross-world trade in the villages that started springing up. Timore always wondered at the surprisingly naive business plan. Shifters from the villages found bringing supplies to be a sacred duty and often didn't charge the community for anything they scavenged for free. His childhood friend Triled often left the Crossroads to make rounds toward his hometown and donate wood, food, and other essentials.
"I guess. If what you're saying is true, then we will have a fight when we get to the Crossroads."
Timore grabbed a tinder box. He removed kindling and stuffed it under a pyramid of multiple sized logs. Flint struck a steel triangle on one of the stone firepit's bricks, and sparks shot onto the lint. A thin, gray stream of smoke drifted upward. The smoke thickened, and an orange flame licked onto the base of a piece of wood.
"Touch that log, but only for a second."
Nort reached out and touched the log. The moment his finger contacted the wood, the fire caught, and he jerked his hand away. Like magic, the flame slowed until it gradually spread.
"The wood in this world burns too quickly. What we import from the Shift World is much better for heating a hall but pretty difficult to catch without a lot of practice."
Nort understood that Timore wanted to evade talking about the Furies further, and since he didn't want to talk him out of going, he stopped asking. The pair laid out their newly acquired furs into improvised beds and prepared to sleep for the night.