Shift World I Book III Chapter 11
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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A disoriented Nort stood over the asaghi's lifeless body, trying to rearrange his bloody headwrap. While he fiddled with the cloth, Huskie walked behind him, sniffing at the ground. Nort didn't pay the dog much attention and couldn't help but wonder why Timore stopped clearing out the village and came to him.
"Did anything happen in the village?"
Timore surveyed the area, clearly uncomfortable at being exposed to any enemies lurking behind the nearby keep's walls. "All our friends came charging after hearing that thing roar. They took over clearing out the small fry, and I rushed here. Good thing, huh?"
"You really saved me. I'm glad to have an ally like you."
Timore turned aside in embarrassment, even though Nort couldn't see his face under the closed helm. Nort's head wound stopped bleeding, and the rearranged cloth on his forehead no longer sagged. Still full of a fresh appreciation for Timore, Nort praised his friend more. "Once these Furies are done, I think people will be glad someone like you will lead them!"
"I don't think you know what you are talking about..."
Nort couldn't tell for sure, but Timore's eyes read of sadness. Nort tried stepping over the asaghi corpse but misjudged the height and stumbled. Timore thrust out his hand and caught him by the elbow, but his gauntlet distorted and pushed flat from the effect of a scholar's touch.
Timore let go, and the gauntlet hardened, pressing against his forearm. He tried sliding it off but couldn't move in no matter how much pressure he applied.
"You're going to have to help me get this off later!" Timore fumed.
Exasperated, Nort pulled off the head wrap and threw it to the ground. "I don't even need this anymore! I don't know why I'm even bothering. Let's just get out of here. The Furies are at least smart enough to stay away, but this mission is a failure. We'll think up something else."
A light breeze shook overgrown grass as wind strengthened until the tips of plants began to shear from air pressure. A gale howled from the keep's direction, and Timore looked up, his body language reading of panic. After a moment of indecision, he lowered his shoulder and body-checked Nort.
"You need to live for the world to survive!" Timore gasped as his chest's plate armor collapsed in. Nort stumbled back, and hit Huskie, sending the dog flying into the moat. A boulder the size of a man's upper body crash into Timore. The Mandrake's armor had already begun hardening, and the impact crumpled in the cuirass driving jagged metal shards through Timore's skin. Timore limply spiraled away.
Nort hit his head on a rock, and the world spun as he watched Timore land. His sight blackened while Timore writhed, but Nort passed out before learning his friend's fate.
The world darkened as Timore looked over to where Nort had landed. Blood lightly trickled from The Paladin's scalp, but he mostly seemed alright. Timore's breaths shallowed as The Mandrake armor closed in tightly on his chest. Every full breath felt like his last so he slowed his breathing. The lack of oxygen made it difficult to move his head, let alone stand. As he watched Nort, water gushed over the moat's bank.
A cresting wave shot toward Nort and splashed in the grass several meters away. The water didn't disperse. Instead, it formed a naked woman who showed signs of a lifetime of famine. She tentatively walked to the unconscious scholar and poked him. He didn't move. Timore tried raising his hand, but his muscles didn't respond, and he only mustered a slight shake in his hand.
Wind circled above until shaping into a naked man similar in age to the woman. They clasped hands, and he pulled her standing. They spoke in a language that Timore couldn't understand. A moment later, they turned from Nort to Timore. The man spoke in more of a guttural voice, which sounded like growling. The man angered and shook his head before they returned to Nort. The man threw Nort's arm over his shoulder and strained to pull him off the ground. The woman slipped under Nort's other arm, and they dragged him toward the stone bridge.
Timore's hand stopped shaking when he ran out of the energy to even try. Paradoxically a coolness ran through his extremities while a warmth spread through his chest. As he laid wondering if help would come, he saw his parents standing over him. The face of his mother, Jara, smiled warmly, but her eyes seemed worried. His father, Birn, looked down with his typical mix of understanding and contemplation. His parent's hands fell on him and rolled him to his back. His breathing slightly eased, but they didn't seem happy.
"I tried..." Timore sputtered between gasps. "I tried so hard.. can I see them now?"
Jara started crying so Birn held her close.
"The time came for redemption. Don't. Please don't be upset with me. I know I could have done it better. We all did as much as we were able. Even you gave everything. This world can still be saved, he's still alive. For all we did to The Scorpion, to all we did to that world, there's still a chance. Let's go. Let's go see what happens, together..."
A final wave of darkness washed over The Mandrake.
Ban and Triled ran to the massive corpse of an unknown monster with a burnt-out core and armored black skin. Crippled wings attached to its back, which gave an ominous feeling. Ban turned from the monster and ran toward Timore, who laid on his side with an outstretched hand. Ban dropped to her knees and pulled off his helmet. Triled knelt next to her.
Timore smiled. He breathed shallowly, but his eyes still darted between Timore and Ban. Ban felt a little more relaxed at seeing his chest slowly rising and lowering, but she gravely worried for her friend. She looked over to Triled, who still had trouble showing emotions due to his torture at the hands of The Demon's Wrath, but his bloodshot eyes sunk into dark bags even though the rest of his face remained stoic. Ban motioned for Triled to help her move Timore, and they rolled him over. Ban fell back and burst into tears.
Timore's breath eased some, but the damage looked worse than she imagined. Timore's breastplate folded in under the pressure of a sudden attack, breaking apart and burying itself in his chest and abdomen. Likely, metal shards slowed the bleeding enough to keep him alive, but soon the blood loss would overtake him. Timore began some kind of confession, but it came out in a weak wheezing voice. Triled rushed to Ban's side and held her tightly.
The words weakened as he continued and became harder to understand. Ban only made out his final words, "Let's go see what happens, together." With that, Timore stopped breathing.
While Ban watched in disbelief, Huskie approached with water-drenched fur and mud-covered paws. Huskie nuzzled Timore's side and waited for him to move. When he didn't, Huskie turned and paced around his master's other side. Huskie nudged with its nuzzle again and slightly whimpered when Timore didn't move. Huskie dragged himself and licked his owner's face, but Timore didn't react. Huskie despondently laid across Timore's stomach without bouncing, panting, or barking. He lowered his ears and rested, knowing that this time, his master wasn't waking up.
Nort sat up, wincing as his head throbbed. The back of his head felt slightly wet. Unsure what covered his hair, he sniffed the liquid and winced at the unmistakable metallic smell of blood. The cut on his forehead still burned, and the last few moments of his consciousness came back.
In his mind, he saw Timore push him, sending him tripping over Huskie. Next, Timore had fallen, but he couldn't remember why. Was he thrown down, or did he trip over the asaghi's body? A sudden pain had knocked Nort out, and he awoke in the cramped room. Nort had to figure out his location and the reason for his imprisonment.
Cut and laid stone formed the walls, which meant the room hadn't been built into underground tunnels like in the Crossroads. A cool breeze wafted in a window, barely the size of Nort's forearm. His stomach sank at the realization that he sat in a keep's main prison room. Only the Furies' keep could house a jail capable of holding people at such a high risk of escape that they warranted a stone cell.
Spurred on by worry, Nort unsteadily rose and sauntered to the room's main door. Iron reinforcements crisscrossed hardwood panels. Although he didn't know all of the perks and drawbacks of being a scholar, he learned long ago how upsettingly easily he broke wood and metal. He pushed, and the door bent outward, but to his surprise, the straining wood stopped after several inches. Unsure of the trap on the other side, Nort tested several different spots. In some areas, the door bent several inches and in other places, barely moved at all.
Nort continued prodding until he concluded that the object behind the door must have come to a point at the areas that only bent a little. Nort pushed an area flanking an obstruction. The wood twisted, and with a snapping pop, a stone spike pierced the door. Nort stood in wonder at the elaborate trap.
Nort wondered as the door melded back into its original shape, except with an eye-sized hole. Nort bent and widened the peephole. Looking outside, some kind of stone wagon covered in spikes sat inches from the entrance. Had he tried rushing through, the wagon would have impaled him. Even though it may not have killed him right away, he would have been unable to move due to excessive blood loss.
At first, Nort couldn't let go of the idea that the keep's jail had been specifically designed to hold someone like him, a scholar. As he thought on the matter, a realization dawned. Most shifters had access to weapons and tools strong enough to take down that impressive door. If the manor's lord needed a shifter alive for some reason, their prisoner would still have access to any weapons left in the Shift World. The designer probably meant to imprison a shifter by making it impossible to escape without creating enough noise to alert the whole building. Nort didn't feel even slight relief at the conclusion that his imprisonment in that room must have just been a coincidence.
Nort peered out the window to guess the time. Without a strong sense of direction or clues from the landscape, he could only guess that he had slept until some time in the early afternoon. Nort turned from the window, returned to the door, and focused on listening. Someone's voice drifted in from further down the hall.
The speaker seemed to be welcoming someone with a low, guttural growl. The language seemed familiar, even though he had no memory of ever learning it. A second voice returned the greeting. The voice spoke with a higher pitch and softer inflection, but the language still ground into him. The man spoke again, and the woman quipped back, but the words still didn't make sense. By the time the man departed, a single word had come into his mind. It festered there and spread until his understanding of the situation caused him worry. 'Pig people' may have been the most dehumanizing phrase he ever heard.
Hours passed, and Nort's jailer seemed bored with watching an old wooden door. During the time, she often murmured to herself. The words seemed to convey the feelings of 'how did it come to this' or 'when will this finally be over.' At one point, she sang to amuse herself. Nort still couldn't give an exact translation of the muddled words, but he understood that song described her ideal life. She wanted a village to be safe, a child to grow healthy, and the other necessities that a person of any world would wish for. Nort did question his understanding because he felt she sang something about her friends eating her body. Despite accidentally translating the incredulous lyrics, his progress understanding the foreign language surprised himself.
Later, she sang a children's rhyme. In the song, rabbit-people scurried about a field until a wolf-person, or something, snatched them up. The rabbits would try to convince the wolf not to eat them in some quirky fashion, but the wolf always ate the rabbits. In each verse, fewer rabbits had appeared when the wolf returned. In turn, each rabbit sacrificed itself until the final rabbit remained. Instead of begging for its life, it gave up and asked the wolf why it ate rabbits even after it became so fat. The wolf replied that the strong eat the weak, and nature could survive no other way.
A man walked up to the woman and greeted her, which she gladly reciprocated. Nort could make out some of the words.
"Did.... thing... happen..."
"Not... hole... door..."
"... god... revenge... strong."
The woman sighed. Despite the holes in the conversation, Nort felt as though he mostly followed the meaning. The man asked the woman if he did anything, and she replied, not since putting the hole in the door. Nort wasn't sure if the last part meant they wanted revenge, or if they believed he wanted revenge. Nort listened more intently.
"Chief... a decision..."
"Pig people... break... tomorrow..."
"God ... pig people... help?"
"God... pig people... before... kill."
The man laughed but stopped when he saw his companion didn't join in.
"Pig People... need... cruel?"
"Pig people... need... eat..."
"Blue Pig... didn't..."
"Blue Pig... rotten... friend... poison..."
The man laughed again. Nort felt like he only partially understood the conversation while ignorant of his captors' society. He thought he realized that they planned on breaking the spirit of the people of his world tomorrow and that somehow involved him, but he didn't follow their train of thought. He guessed that blue pig referred to Timore, but he couldn't understand who would have poisoned Timore. Before he drifted too far into thought, Nort focused on the words again.
"Strength... way... ignored... not afraid of punishment?"
"Hmmm... friend... eat... they... punished."
"We already punish... not follow... strength. Are we next?"
The man seemed to be back peddling as the woman asked him questions. Nort got the feeling that his captors considered themselves as doling out punishment for something that they now ignored. The woman left, and the man remained to watch after the jail cell.
Nort contemplated the cryptic exchange while piecing together the meaning.
She seems a lot more sympathetic toward us than the man. They plan on ending everything tomorrow and killing me at the same time? Is that why I was kept alive? Were they just afraid to throw me in the moat and walk away? Why are they talking about Timore? Did they also take him? Are they saying that he poisoned me? I poisoned him? Timore poisoned one of them?
The sun fell, and darkness obscured what little Nort could see from the window. A new guard amused himself by throwing a wooden ball against the wall. The clattering sound lasted for hours, and the sound hurt Nort's head in addition to his forehead's throbbing cut. Hunger pangs clenched his stomach as it became clear his captures hadn't planned on feeding their prisoner.
A new guard approached the ball-throwing man.
"Still doing that, I see."
The speech sounded almost natural to Nort.
"Yes... what..." The off-going guard's speech still seemed a little unintelligible, but eavesdropping became much more manageable.
"Have you heard about tomorrow?" The on-coming guard pressed his compatriot.
"...course. Don't... the details."
"Tomorrow, we kill the pig people's demigod, and they will submit to the lion people."
"How? He can... our blessings."
"The pig demigod may have power, but he's no stronger than a regular man if we do not use wood, metal, or vengeance."
"I see, that's why the cage of stone."
"Why? These vermin mean nothing to us."
"They buzz around the castle like flies. They scheme! The weak always scheme."
The guard who spoke unintelligibly sucked in air and spit it out with a pop.
"This is the last night, and the world will..."
Nort's concentration faded, and the man's meaning lingered undecipherable, but he could understand the point.
"Pst." A sucking noise awoke Nort, and he decided between which of two points of light in the cell to inspect. One shone in the door where faint torchlight crept through a hole the size of his palm and the other barely visible light came through the window.
"Pst." The noise came from the window, and Nort rose quietly sneaking to the outer wall. He looked through the window, but couldn't see anything no matter what angle he tried.
"Hello?" Nort's tentative whisper seemed to boom around the empty cell in the dead silent night.
"Good, you're here!" Ban stood outside of the cell's window so that Nort saw her eyes.
"What? Why are you here?"
"I've come to get you out!" Ban's patience seemed to wear thin. "I don't like being in the open, so I don't want to talk for too long. There are two ways to get you out, and I need to know which way you prefer." Ban slumped back out of sight.
"How did you make it this far so easily?"
"Easily?" Ban scoffed. "This wasn't easy. The rescue for tonight took months of training! We had to make a deal with The Scorpion..."
"The one that helped kill The Whitecoat? How could you do that?"
Ban hesitated before answering. "She has repented now that The Mandrake's dead. She has bargained to help us, in exchange for a favor she will collect when everything is finished."
The news of The Mandrake's death simultaneously saddened and elated Nort. Even with his revenge finally finished, his sadness intensified. Nort had no idea why someone that only existed to him as an idea affected him so much.
"I hope that she does not request too much... what's this plan?"
"First, I can blow a hole in the wall using this thing called a blast gourd. It will take down the wall, and we will have to make a run for it. I don't think I have to tell you how risky that will be. Is there anything you can hide behind?"
"Oh. Wonderful. If I shift to my world, then you would come too. I could then come back without you, sneak out of the castle and bring you back to this world. I have reasons I don't want to do it that way, though..."
"Yes, I understand. I don't like that choice either. One plan puts me in danger, and one plan puts you in danger."
"What are you talking about?" Ban asked incredulously.
Nort thought he had understood the situation well. "When a shifter shifts near me, they risk great physical harm. Timore and I were first thrown to the ground when we arrived. A Fury once ambushed me, but shifting near me pummeled him to the ground, completely incapacitated them. You wouldn't want that to happen here if the enemy watches."
"Oh, is that what you think? When we spoke to Karp, she claimed something similar happened. A tower started falling on Wili, you from a different world, I guess, and Nort from her world caught Karp between worlds while trying to learn to shift. That's when she experienced something similar."
"Caught between worlds?" Such an abstract answer didn't please Nort.
"Yes. Something must have happened to you after shifting to the Furies' world. Something made it so you couldn't stay. No idea what."
"They plan on executing me tomorrow. In front of everyone. They know our forces are scattered around the keep."
"That's why we need to get you out, regroup, and start to fight again!"
"I don't think you understand. I have a plan..."