Shift World I Book III Chapter 9
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Nort and Timore skulked to the edge of an expansive field and surveyed a nearby town. Comparable to The Grand's Meadow in the Lush Forest in Karp's world, the settlement sat a few hour horse ride away from the Crossroads. If the Furies didn't flee to such a distant area, Nort would feel that they didn't see him as a legitimate threat.
A three-story keep loomed over the small village. When metals first came to the world, a local lord built the structure from imported hardwoods with a single room made of quarried stone. That room's walls held a patchwork mosaic of stone flowing trough a gradient from dull, off-red gray to lustrous onyx. Mixing wood and stone naturally camouflaged the building's exact shape and dimensions by breaking the building's visual consistency. Despite that, Nort judged each floor as slightly higher than average because nearby single-story houses didn't reach the top of the first floor.
He watched for signs that Furies had prepared defenses, but he couldn't clearly observe the castle at his current distance. An intense wind lifted red banners adorned with green badgers that hung from the tips of parapets. The cloth dropped as soon as the air finished passing by. Trees lined the field's far side, and their leaves didn't move before or after the gusts appeared.
A few minutes later, the banners blew again, but once more, nearby trees remaining unbothered. Nort stroked his chin, trying to decipher the significance. He scanned the building's main floors and stopped at motion near the center of the second floor. A thin, gray line wavered and rose, dissipating in the unnatural breezes. Nort turned to the base of the village where nothing seemed out of the ordinary. One-story houses faced away from the main keep to meet travelers headed in to visit the local lord. The homes closest to the keep featured hardwood walls, beams, and glossy enameled covered roof tiles.
Further from the keep, the houses degraded in quality until becoming softwood houses with thatched reed roofs. This far north in the Lush Forest, thatched reed houses became deadly during winter nights. So, Nort believed that the village must have had an elaborate series of tunnels or basements that sheltered families during cold weather.
Timore tip-toed to Nort with Huskie following at his heels. Timore stopped shy of Nort and faced into the village.
"Can you see any signs of the Furies?"
"Yeah. I think so, at least. Something's blowing those banners in regular intervals, and I think that's smoke." Nort pointed to a pencil-thin streak of gray drifting out of the building's second floor. Timore nodded.
"What about the village?"
"I don't know. I can't see anything in the village itself, but a Fury could hide in a basement or water basin, and there wouldn't be any clue."
"I'm pretty sure they are holed up in the main keep. If they are spending time in the village, it's only for patrol or something."
"Did you find anything on the perimeter?"
"It's like we thought, this is the closest point to the main keep I think. The pit we saw encircling the keep is full of water."
"You walked all the way up to the pit?" Nort furled an eyebrow.
"Of course not! I could see it sloshing over the rim." Timore reached down and pet Huskie, who wagged his tail.
"Oh. So it's actually a moat. That's...worrisome."
"Why? Can't swim?"
"What do you think is moving the moat's water? I mean, there isn't a river or anything."
Timore's eyes widened at missing his discovery's obvious implication. "Just go in, grab it, and hold the Fury underwater! That would probably do it!"
"I guess, but I'm not the only one going to fight. What if someone else falls in while we cross? What are we going to do to get by without being spotted when we don't know where in the moat that thing could be? I don't like this level of uncertainty."
"You're starting to sound a lot like The Whitecoat. With you there, we can just rush across the bridge, and they will have no chance but to flee."
"You sound just like The Sunflower now. When we had the element of surprise, we could act brazenly, but I'm sure they have been thinking up counter-measures. Even if we have superior armor, and they can't hurt me, we still need to stake out this place before making a move."
"I got it. I got it."
Several hours after staring at an unchanging landscape, Timore played tug with a bored Huskie. He grabbed both ends of a stick while Huskie chomped its center. They pulled back and forth in a playful stalemate until Timore bent his knees and used his legs to drag the over-sized dog. Huskie dropped so low that he almost sat and scurried backward.
Nort shot a look their way when Huskie growled. Timore held onto the stick with one hand, brought his other to Huskie's face, and tapped his wet nose. "Boop!"
Huskie released, stared at his nose cross-eyed, and confusedly scrunched his face. Nort shook his head and returned to surveying the landscape. Getting bored felt inevitable with so little happening. Except for around twenty minutes where the flags stopped waving, nothing changed. "What's your goal after all of this?"
"Well, probably just go back to my family's compound and try to rebuild the Crossroads. I think many of the people of the Creeping Ice will come join me since there's no way for them to live in the tundra."
"Too much of the old knowledge has been lost. I don't think most of them know how to interval burn softwood and hardwood. Plus, it may take a long time to mend relations with the Shift World, so I don't think we will get much coal or hardwood any time soon."
"Just go back to Korg's world and try to make everything better."
"What? No. I will never be able to shift again. I guess it's the price for coming back."
"Did you remember something about how you got here?"
"Oh, um... just falling toward a pit of spikes and then, I was here."
A throbbing headache struck Nort at the mention of spikes.
"Rebuilding relations between our world and Korg's will probably fall on Ban and Triled. Even though Ban is from that world, I doubt most people will make a distinction."
"I think you might be underestimating Ban. She may not have been clever in trading, but she's exceptional at reading people. Within a few minutes, she can understand someone. One day, she will figure out how to channel that into getting what she wants, and then, she might be a better barterer than even Korg. She does suffer from a lack of ambition, though."
"What do you mean?"
"We never spent a lot of time together, despite both being apprentices of The Whitecoat. When we both happened to be nearby, he had to keep chastising her for not paying attention or not studying. I think her goals must have always been pretty small scale, kind of like Karp."
Nort's head hurt. It took a moment to realize that he never met Karp or heard much about her beyond the most superficial information. Nort couldn't fathom why he thought he knew her personality. Timore interrupted his thoughts.
"What about you? Once this is all over, what are you going to do?"
"Find The Mandrake, I guess. With all that's happened, I don't know how much I blame her for everything, but I just want to find out why she killed Korg. Closure, I guess you might say." At Nort's words, Timore wore a shocked expression. "Well, I mean, it's only natural, right? Korg was really my only tie to this world. Then one day, I came here alone, and he's gone. I just want to find out why. I'm sure she had a good reason, but I want to discover it before moving on. I know there's a good chance she can't come to this world, so maybe I'll just have to ask the people who knew her. I mean, if these shifters keep coming, that might become my whole life."
Timore frowned and nodded.
The keep's scenery hadn't changed during the pair's vigil, but both men felt uncomfortable. The longer they stayed off boredom near an enemy, the more likely, even if accidentally, the enemy could discover them. They decided to leave and reach a nearby village in the dead of night to avoid exposing themselves after departing tree cover and running through open fields.
In the part of the Lush Forest containing the Fury's base, a thin layer of clouds draped over the sky. But as luck had it, stars coated the night sky unobstructed, and a half-moon hung above the horizon. The nearby field was illuminated much brighter than Nort wanted for the operation. Nort crouched and skulked through overgrown grass. Although the weather hadn't cooperated, anyone standing watch at the keep would have difficulty seeing intruders sneaking through the field's overgrowth.
Nort skulked to the overgrown grass's edge and laid out, watching the nearby town. Moisture from damp, mossy ground soaked into Nort's gambeson, sending a chill down his spine and making an unpleasant mission even worse. Nort looked over to Timore, who also laid in the muck. Rustling sounds emanated from a nearby building drawing Nort's attention. A realization crossed his mind, and his eyes darted around looking for Huskie, who rested behind Timore, panting. The rustling sound grew as similar noises came from multiple buildings.
One of the buildings' doors creaked open and a skeleton ambled into the moonlight. Nort instinctively held his breath but despite his fear, eventually started breathing again. Timore seemed unphased by the monsters. Nort lightly cleared his throat to call Timore, and after a few tries, Timore glanced over. Nort motioned toward the monster.
"Oh, that. I ran into those all over the Shift World. We don't really have anything to worry about," Timore whispered.
"I guess they look worse than they seem?"
"Those are the weakest type. I bet there are even devils mixed in. We have to worry more about them, but neither can really damage my armor, and they won't affect you. I don't think. Maybe stay away from their weapons?"
"Oh, great. How did they figure out how to even make those?"
"Probably by accident. They shot off a fire bolt, missed, and then created one. After that..."
Nort frowned. "These are the types of surprises I wanted to avoid."
"Cover your face, and they pretty much ignore you. Mill about a little, and it's like you're one of the group."
"How do you know this?"
"Like I said, I've run into a few of these in the Shift World. I kept my helm on inside keeps with monsters like these, and they just ignored me. I cleared out rooms pretty easily that way."
"Ok... I have a plan, then. You walk around the village. See if there's anything that could be called a... hive? Somewhere they gather. I'm going to check for a way to cross this moat, there has to be one."
Timore nodded, stood up, and skulked to the village's edge. The skeleton that exited a house ambled up to Timore with shaky, twitching movements and glanced over. The monster's eyes crawled around The Mandrake's plate armor from sabaton covered feet up to a closed-face helm. Timore shied away so that the skeleton never looking in his eyes. The monster finished its examination with several quick sniffs and then, mindlessly followed Timore deeper into the village.
"Stay here." Nort pointed to the ground under Huskie, and it plopped to the grass with a low whine. Nort skulked to the closest building. He rested his back against a softwood wall and peeked around the corner. A trail of about a dozen monsters followed Timore as he zigzagged down the road. The flow of monsters somehow felt familiar, but Nort couldn't remember ever seeing anything similar.
Nort cracked a sly smile as he thought. I really hope he finds a way of ditching those things before we leave. Oh no, what if he doesn't...
Nort shook away the thoughts and marched through the village, darting from building to building. After only around ten minutes, Nort exited the small town without any refuge between the last house and the moat. Nort crouched low to avoid detection and crawled through overgrown grass inch by inch, frequently stopping to peer up to spot any signs that a Fury discovered his location.
Although a much shorter distance than the village's length, Nort spent twenty minutes reaching the moat. He peered inside and held his breath. Although the water should have been still, it swirled in lapping gasps. The water churned and bubbled from a point spiraling through the dead center. Nort continued watching for a clue for the number of shifters inside the water, but its erratic nature made finding quiet spots nearly impossible.
Nort sighed, leaned back on his heels, and thought. I guess I should just say there are a lot. I wonder if they prefer to wait over in the castle itself.
After gazing at the water, Nort turned to his secondary objective of scouting for a bridge. Nort spotted it at the end of a dirt road running through the village. Despite the difficulty of using stone in construction, the keep's lord built the bridge using neatly cut stone crossing there seemed possible since the enemy wouldn't destroy such an irreplaceable structure.
While focusing on the bridge, Nort failed to notice that the water calmed. A chilled breeze sent shivers down his spine, and he turned to leave. To his dismay, a ghostly apparition condensed in front of him, clutching a knife. The attacker muttered in an unfamiliar language while swinging down. Nort pulled out a bear claw knife as he rose too slowly to block the incoming blow.
Even if the blade shattered on impact, the damage could disable or, possibly, kill him. Instincts took over, and Nort shifted to an unknown world.
A grunting man slashed the air over the head of a little boy. His face read of shocked surprise both because he found himself standing in a reed hut in his own world, and the pig-man he ambushed turned into a child. The boy wore a similar-looking gambeson to the demigod that killed his people with a touch, but it hung limply over his body. The man grabbed the boy's hair and pulled back his head to more clearly look at his face.
The face looked like a mix of the pig person he attacked and the lion people from his world. The man wondered if he just hadn't gotten a good look at his victim. If the boy came from his world, he'd understand why the boy's strength matched a lion, but not how the pig-man had forced him to shift away from the pig world and why he turned into a child. After finding no answers in the crying child's face, the man stepped outside and looked around.
He sighed in relief while surveying the sprawling village's hand-weaved reed huts typical in any settlement in the forested region of the world. He shook at the idea of the cold of the frozen tundras east of the mountains, and only the foolish tried to live in the desert where winds ripping through open expanses blew apart a settler's weak reed dwelling, and dehydration and sunstroke eventually took your life.
A smile crept along his face because he recognized a weaver walking by, which meant he stood in the capital village. The man waved to the weaver, who gingerly approached, and the man asked about the chief. As the weaver motioned an answer, the mysterious child wandered from the hut crying into his gambeson's sleeve. The man snapped at the child to stop, but the boy responded with a queer glance as if he both understood and didn't.
The boy looked at the weaver and buried his face back into his sleeve. The weaver's gaunt face, scraggly teeth, and missing patches of hair probably scared the urchin. A great shame must have befallen the boy since the glutinous pig people fattened themselves on readily available food. They even devoured monsters that hunted the people in his world while precious food laid in trash piles in the gutters. The pig people consumed so much that they didn't even eat their dead. Letting any food waste was the ultimate disgrace, and the lion people woke to right their arrogance.
The man grabbed the boy's hand and dragged him toward the village center. The surprisingly docile child followed with a mere whimper. The man stopped to gaze at a man and woman working in a nearby field. They slashed at the ground with sticks that had bent metal tips. The pair's gaunt features glistened with sweat, but they still smiled with cracked, blackened teeth. The food from the pig's world had saved the couple from starving, and the lion furies had gifted those tools. Back when they only had reeds, breaking ground had taken several hours to till a small patch. Wolves or tigers devoured residents when communities lingered in place for too long, which made intentionally growing plants impossible.
The man looked at a hardwood fence encircling the field. Animals couldn't enter anymore, not easily at least, and the pigs' weapons killed attacking beasts that breached the barrier.
His shaman and god's words were just and he had to obey. The mighty take from the weak, and that was the way of the world, cruel and impersonal. The lion people took from the pig people because of this truth. The man enjoyed seeing his people live from the spoils of that other world, but indecision also gripped his heart. If his people ever forgot the way of the world, then they might become pig people for some different world.
The man continued up the road and balked at the smell of cooking flesh. He had spent so much time in the pig's world that his old friends' lives felt like a distant memory. He pulled the boy to a group of mourners standing before a ceremonial basin. A crying mother lowered her head in between glances into boiling water that filled the stone basin. The people of the world couldn't work stone with only reeds, but their ancient ancestors learned that leaving a boulder under dripping water formed a natural bowl. As enough years passed, droves of workers moved the basins to drier areas.
In the rare instances that a community obtained meat, they moved to one of the basins scattered around the forest and burn reeds to boil meat off the bone. His friend's child struggled to live since before the time the lion people received the gift of travel. Despite their efforts, he never recovered. Now the family prepared the child to serve the community one last time. Although not hungry, the man decided to return to his friends to show respect after dealing with the devil he dragged around the village.
The boy in his charge pulled away from the sight and smell of the ceremony. The man guessed with the child's disrespect of the dead, he really was a pig person. The man scowled and dragged the child further up the road. After a few more minutes, the pair arrived at a slightly larger than average reed hut. Implementing the materials found in the pig's world made a shack's foundations strong enough construct it larger. However, the man couldn't imagine needing a house as big as the ones in the pigs' world, and the lion people still needed some time until they could build large houses.
The man pushed open the flaps leading into the shaman's hut, where his leader gathered with a group of workers to discuss the projects the villagers needed to complete. In one look at the child's gambeson, the chief's face darkened. In the man's world, people wore limited clothing made from sewn plant fibers similar to hemp. The pig people's fragile cloth fell apart during the hard life of his world. No peasants wore materials from that world, and guards needed permission from the shaman to wear armor.
While hearing an explanation on how the boy ended up in the world, the shaman became increasingly hostile as the man answered he didn't know too many times. The workers' haggard faces inspected the boy. They undoubtedly also wondered if future children would look so healthy if their hard work paid off. The shaman waved away his other guests, and they filed out. People with cracked teeth, sunken eyes, and patchy, dirty hair eyed the boy as they departed. The shaman waved the man to bring the shifter for closer examination.
The shaman inspected the boy's eyes, teeth, neck, and shoulders with sharp tugs that jerked around his head. Tears welled in the child's eyes, and he bawled like a newborn. The shaman's face contorted in a disgusted look, while conveying that he suspected the imp would be no good for the village. The boy's right hand clutched a claw large enough that it must have come from an animal far more formidable than a mere whelp could have handled. The shaman grabbed the hand to snatch away the claw and accidentally scraped his finger on the weapon.
The shaman turned from disgusted to outraged as he motioned for the man to surrender his knife. The man dutifully handed over his blade. The shaman held it overhead, and plunged it downward, thrusting toward the child who shirked away and threw up his hand in defense.
Before the knife landed, the world stopped moving, and the man looked confused. He stood in a frozen version of the pigs' world where the fully grown demigod still blocked the man's attack, even though he now stood several feet away.
The world cracked apart, and he returned to his world this time, with the shaman's blade thrusting toward a child frozen in a defensive position. The man instinctively searched for his knife, but the shaman still clutched it. The world shot back to the pigs' world. The man felt like he received a hit to the side of the head. The world flashed to his world faster, and the pain increased. The man wanted to stumble away, but the flashes locked him in place.
He wasn't sure of his current world as the flashes happened too quickly for him to process. The force struck him to the ground. He wanted to morph into his air form, but the pain pinned him. The pig's demigod slowly turned to face the man as he must have realized the attack failed. The blows eased when the world stopped jostling, but the pain and nausea lingered. Before the man regained enough composure to return to his air form, the pig's demigod leaped on top of him, pinned him, and raked the claw knife across his neck. The man coughed up blood, too confused to know which world he inhabited, unable to shift, turn into air, or defend himself.
His consciousness faded away with one lingering regret, thinking a lion could kill a demigod.