Shift World I Book IV Chapter 1
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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"Right, in this world, you call him The Morning Shield." Triled the Wolf relayed such an earth-shattering proclamation as though he said an obvious statement not even worth elaborating on. Karp shakily strolled over to an empty seat near the bed and sat down. Triled laid in the bed, recovering from his taming in the Aviary.
"are you telling me that you knew where he was this whole time?" Karp spoke so coldly that Ban went on edge, but Triled stayed too shaken from his experience to pick up on such subtleties.
"I-I'm s-sorry, Scorpion." Ban's voice trembled. "The only time I really spoke with you, you weren't exactly well... Plus, you never asked me to elaborate on The Paladin, so I didn't think you really cared. It was much better for our world if I didn't say anything, so I didn't."
"i see..." Karp wondered just how long people would say that her weakness made her problems worse. The hardest part was that it still felt like a valid reason. "bring him back here now, and i'll consider what you say."
Ban and Triled looked each other over, hesitating to answer, and Karp lost her patience. "just spit it out!"
"We can't." Ban's answer seemed too blunt to be a lie.
"can't or won't?"
"Can't. Though, I'm not sure we would anyway. I understand how hard this must be, but our entire world is at stake..."
"i'm sick of the world being at stake! you see what's happening here? nothing's better after the world was saved. things even got worse."
"I refuse to believe that'll happen to us..." Ban's cheeks flushed, and she avoided Karp's gaze.
"everyone refuses to believe it'll happen to them, which is why it always does. why can't you bring nort back?"
"They have him..."
"they? this is a tedious conversation." Karp glared at Ban, who squirmed under the weight of Karp's anger.
Ban described the shifters in her world, which became known as the Furies. Karp's face twitched at the incredulous tale of people blending into earth, wind, water, and fire. The description of Furies eating victims' corpses drained the color from her face.
"cannibals have him?"
Ban shook her head and explained how Nort's power canceling abilities helped the people of her world kill the Furies.
"your group found out the hard way that relying too much on powers gets you killed. this is even worse, but if he had that kind of ability, how did they manage to take him?"
"We don't really know the exact details..."
"what aren't you telling me?"
Ban explained the grisly scene of Timore's crushed and twisted armor, the dead asaghi, and the reports of a limp Nort being carried into a nearby castle.
"so they could have killed him, but didn't? i think i understand them, at least if i think on what the demon's wrath would do..."
"Like what?" Triled gave a trailing question and drew a surprised gasp from Karp, who had completely forgotten he still sat in the room.
"if their leader's a cruel man like bron, he's probably planning to make a spectacle of killing nort. sort of sending the message that even the person who can kill them with a touch is no match. though, if they're wise like the whitecoat, maybe they want to study nort to find out why he has the powers he does."
"Let's just hope they want to study him, then." Ban softened her voice to try and ease Karp, but The Scorpion only raised an eyebrow.
"no. we better hope they want to execute him."
"What? Are you crazy?"
Karp sighed loudly. "if they want to study him, you'll never be quick enough to save him. they'll take him to that castle and run tests until he dies or shifts away. you won't even get the chance to intervene. if they plan on making a spectacle of his death, you'll have time. you can rescue him as long as he hasn't been executed. i'm sure you even have an idea where they'd do it, too. go there and set up a trap. if they just started torturing him to find his limits, there's nothing you can do."
Ban's face paled. "We do know where Nort's being held, at least. He's probably in the stone room, otherwise The Paladin could just walk through the walls to escape."
"walk through walls? are the materials of your world really that weak?" Ban curtly nodded while Karp asked. "either way, you shouldn't return to your world before your training finishes. even if they don't kill him right away, and don't want to risk torturing him, it'll be soon. before we talk any more, i want to hear everything that happened in your world."
It took several days for Ban to explain the full circumstances since the Furies' arrival. Karp ended up most interested in the discussions of their powers, the various fights between Ban's people and the Furies, and Nort's interactions with the shifters. After spending another day reflecting on options, Karp returned to their chambers to answer their plea.
"i think that the tactics i developed to fight the shifters here will work well in your world. have you tried using many projectile weapons?"
"We've used wooden arrows and spears, but they didn't do anything."
"i mean metal."
Triled's eyes widened. "Throw metal? I guess that's common here, but that would be completely unheard of in my world."
"keeping away from an enemy that can kill you with a touch is only common sense, isn't it? it also sounds like metal has some kind of special effect. either the flame avoids the metal because the shifter themselves moves away or the metal disturbs the powers. i have an idea for both, but it's more practical to assume metal effects them in elemental form."
"You're agreeing to help then?" Triled asked with an excited, rising intonation.
Karp pouted. "when the merchant begged me to help, i never really expected anyone to come. so, i find it very difficult to answer."
"I can understand how you don't trust us. I'm going to say something at the risk of it sounding like a threat, even though that's not how I mean it. If you want Nort back, you don't have a choice." After spending nearly a week transparently answering everything The Scorpion asked. Ban seemed to have run out of patience.
"i know that's the truth of it... we'll not have much to do while riding in the carriages down to the royal port, we'll start then."
"first, you're going to have to learn to make the tools." An iron ingot appeared in Karp's hand, and she dropped it on the wagon's floor.
The apathetic driver hit a divot, and the ingot bounced and clanked on the floor when the vehicle settled down. Triled grabbed the metal and looked to Karp for further instructions. Karp pulled a small sunshine steel dagger from a groove in her buckler and handed it to Triled.
"can you feel the knife's balance?" Triled nodded. "i made this one small to fit snugly in my buckler, so you can make yours bigger if you want. don't try to make them smaller. you must learn to make them with precision. why? because you'll lose the ones that miss and will need to use different ones. start now."
Triled placed the ingot on the floor and waved his hand over the metal. A stream of iron broke free and puddled in his palm. He rubbed his hands together, and the liquid bent and twisted until the amorphous blob started to resemble Karp's knife. Triled pinched the edges, smoothed bumps, and sharpened the blade. A moment later, he handed the solidified, finished weapon to Karp.
She accepted the handle and tested its balance by opening her hand. It quickly shut after the blade started slipping. Karp reached to her side and picked up a piece of paper from a small stack. She pinned it to the floor with her left forearm. Karp slashed the sheet, picked it up, and spread apart the rip. She looked to the grinning Triled. "not good enough."
"What? Look how well that cut!" Triled pouted.
"the sharper the blade, the easier it will penetrate whatever you hit, but you must learn to throw the blade consistently. sure, if the blade's sharp enough, hitting a half-degree off could still kill, but to get that type of consistency, you need a well-balanced knife. you made the handle too heavy. the blade gets a little thicker before tapering to a point that's far too round. there's no way you did that on purpose, so you won't be able to remake this knife again! if you can't remake an exact copy, your practice will be worthless! melt this back into the ingot and try to make another."
Karp handed the blade back to Triled, and he tried reforming the knife with her criticisms in mind. After finishing, he handed it back to Karp, and she ran another series of tests.
"much better. i want you to make four knives per ingot, thinking about how you're making them. when you're done, i'll inspect the knives again."
Karp shifted three more ingots into her hand and placed them next to Triled. Next, she turned to Ban and handed her a shock gourd, a spiraled piece of metal, and a tool that looked like a deep spoon on a long, thin handle.
"since you can't use powers, you're going to start off by preparing a shock gourd to be used as a pop-gourd. take that metal spiral and drill a hole through the stem. yes, like that, but don't puncture the skin or you'll get a nasty shock. go straight down, good. straighten, i said straighten!"
The gourd buzzed and shot from Ban's hand, and she instinctively yelped as it flew away. Karp sighed.
"pick it up. you won't be able to use it as a pop-gourd but practice the next steps. take that spoon and put it in the hole. good, now dig into the soft flesh and pull out a spoonful. if you hit something hard and scrape, pretend you just got shocked."
Ban fished around the gourd's inside and pulled out some of the fruit. "What should I do with this?"
"put it in the bowl over there." Karp pointed to a bowl sitting to Ban's left.
"Oh? What'll we use this for later?"
"soup probably. it makes good filler for pies or quiches too."
"Umm. I wasn't expecting that answer." Ban chatted while fishing out the rest of the guts, but her spoon stopped with an unexpected jerk.
"pretend like you were just shocked..."
Ban frowned. Within a few minutes, she cleared out the rest. Karp nodded, and then, a basket with dozens of gourds appeared in her hand.
"put the gourd in that empty bowl. the good thing about working with shock gourds –you eat your mistakes, but it gets boring if you make too many. while triled works with the knives, clean out all these gourds. when either of you finish, let me know."
After handing the basket to Ban, Karp moved to the front of the wagon and climbed beside the driver. She put up her hood to hide her face and watched the upcoming road.
The convoy of covered wagons stopped in a staging area of a local way-station about three days south-east of the Crossroads. Triled, Ban, and Karp strolled around a field to stretch their backs and take in the landscape before the sunset, and they'd sleep in the wagons. Karp looked to Ban and Triled when the trio arrived at the field's far corner.
"here should be good."
"Good for what?" Triled nervously scratched his arm.
"practice." A simple target, a panel no higher than a child with different sized circles and squares painted on its face, appeared in Karp's hand. She counted ten paces and shoved the spiked bottom into the ground. The throwing board stood fast, even as Karp vigorously pulled and pushed the top.
"take out some of your knives, triled."
Karp motioned for him to follow her lead. She removed a sunshine steel dagger from a seashell buckler attached to her arm. She threw her arm forward and released the blade, which shot straight. The edge looked as though it would land in the right half of the largest circle, but the knife glided left and smashed into the area's dead center.
"if you don't make these knives with absolute precision, you will not understand the path they take."
Karp jogged twenty steps away from the target board. She withdrew a knife and motioned for Ban and Triled to vacate her throwing lane. This time, Karp flicked her wrist at the last moment, and the weapon tumbled end over end. The edge struck the board two inches right of her original strike and stuck into the wood. Karp strolled up with a satisfied look.
"see what i'm talking about? if i flicked my wrist a little too hard, the handle may hit the board. same result if i didn't flick enough. if the blade were off-balance it would've flown off course or not hit straight."
"Why did the way you throw change?" Ban rubbed the side of her face.
"well, throwing straight's better for short distances. it's pretty much a guaranteed hit that'll penetrate as much as possible. it's hard to control, though, which means at longer distances it's harder to compensate for the blade's trajectory curving. especially since locking your wrist and throwing hard is difficult. plus, it's more likely to bend slightly off course and not hit firmly. a tumbling throw goes much straighter, and as long as you get a feel for it, the blade will generally hit what you throw at. since it's going straight and fast, no need to hesitate while you aim."
"Is there, like a rule when to use each?" Triled quizzically looked at Karp.
"not a hard and fast one, if that's what you mean. straight's better close up, end over end's better far away. take out your knives and try each type."
Triled removed a dagger from his pouch and threw straight. The first attempt wobbled and sailed wide of the board, almost flying into the woods. Karp shook her head. "try the other throw."
Triled palmed another knife and threw it with a flick of his wrist. The dagger twirled forward and smashed into the center circle but landed handle first and bounced off with a clank.
"not bad. that one's just a little too hard or soft. try doing the same, but slightly stronger."
Triled nodded and took out a third knife. This time, he threw with a low grunt but waited too long to release, and it flew straight into the ground. Ban laughed.
Karp looked over to Ban with a self-satisfied smile, "those who laugh, have to play!"
Ban stopped laughing. "I'm surprised you remembered that..."
Triled removed one of his throwing knives and handed it to Ban. She tested its weight and balance. In a smooth motion, she threw, and the tip embedded on the edge of the largest circle.
"throw it straight instead." Ban nodded and reached to Triled for another dagger. She let it go a moment too early and edge embedded in the top right corner of the board. "not bad. i'm guessing you never practiced more than at a throwing board which is about half this distance. you got the basics but need to work on your aim."
Karp supervised their practice until night fell, and they returned to camp.
Most people in Karp's world traveled on foot except for those that could afford horses. Almost no one traveled by wagon, so lords didn't maintain the roads as a common means of transportation. A few days later, Karp, Triled, and Ban sat in a bumpy ride, and every few feet, the wheels hit a new lump or hole, and the group jostled. The swaying motion made Karp feel a little sick, but staring outside of the canvass covering made her feel a little better.
"come over here, triled, and bring that ingot."
Triled crafted more daggers. By Karp's estimation, he had become much better, and she wanted to teach him the next lesson, so he didn't bore and start slacking off. Beginners often died after resting on their laurels. Triled sat, and Karp handed him a coiled sliver of metal. "this is like the drill i gave ban, but flexible."
Triled squeezed the spring between his fingers with little effort, and it coiled until he released. It slowly spread back out. Triled opened his fingers too quickly on his next test, and the spring slipped to the ground. Triled picked it up. "What's this thing for?"
"you'll be making these." Karp lifted a dart from under her cloak and handed it to Triled.
The dart's body fit snugly in his palm with a needle that stuck out as far as his middle finger. "What does this thing do?"
"it's a throwing weapon. you fill that tube with poison and hit them with the pointed tip." Karp pulled out a folded-up leather swatch from under her cloak and placed it on the wagon's floor. She jabbed a dart into the material, and water leaked from the tip and oozed out of the folds. "once the tip penetrates skin, that metal coil contracts and liquid oozes out."
"Do you use lethal poison?" Ban looked over from a corner with a concerned expression.
"it depends on your goal. you could use poison if you're sneak attacking someone. making it clean and inescapable means that even if they run..." Karp gritted her teeth and shook her head. "when would you want to not kill them? hmm... well, if you want to take them hostage, obviously. also if you're at a big battle. well, there would be several advantages to using knock-out poison over lethal poison..."
Karp sighed at the increasingly complex questions Ban, and Triled asked. "if you fought on a field full of darts, you might not want one of your own people stepping on one and dying, right? plus, since they are thrown weapons, any surviving targets could pick one up and throw it back. you probably don't want a hail of poisonous darts coming back." A realization struck Karp. "in my experience, fighting with the followers of the mandrake, knock-out darts greatly effect powers. they become sloppier and harder to use. another great reason to use them against shifters."
"If they're dead, won't their powers be harder to use?" Ban spoke with halfhearted sarcasm, but that didn't stop Karp from answering honestly.
"a cornered animal will lash out with everything it has. if the shifter knows they're going to die but still have control, they could blight the whole area before dying. you don't want someone to destroy the board to win the game."
When Ban and Triled were satisfied with the discussion on darts, Karp had Triled make springs and went to the back to show Ban her next tasks. Karp plopped down, and a tray of small jars with a pestle and mortar appeared in her hand. "you're going to learn how to make the poisons." Karp removed a lid from the closest jar and peeked inside. She lifted the pot and held it close to her body.
"first, you're going to need to learn to find the herbs. everything here is common in the lush forest but can easily be mistaken for other things. i'm going to reach out this jar, and when i do, i want you to look at the leaves and smell their aroma. whatever you do, don't touch them. accidentally touching a corner could result in blisters, much more than that could be deadly..."
Ban nodded gravely, and Karp held out the jar. Under further inspection, the teardrop-shaped leaves had splotches of darker green that faded into brighter, more vibrant shades. Ban cautiously brought her nose to the jar and smelled. The leaves had a lovely aroma for such a dangerous poison. The scent faded, and Ban opened her eyes to see the container slowly drifting away from her face.
The jar shot up, and Karp shouted, "A BUMP!" The pot jerked to a halt, and the leaves flew out, covering Ban's chest and face. Ban let out a blood-curdling scream and scrambled against the back wall clutching her face. The wagon slowed as the driver frantically called the horses to stop. Triled flew to his fiancee, almost knocking over Karp's alchemy set. The other wagons stopped, and the occupants filed out to help their distressed comrade.
A wall of dumbfounded warriors watched the scene unfold from the rear. Ban had stopped screaming and picked leaves off her body with a mortified expression. Karp laid out in the wagon, grabbing her stomach with tears rolling down her cheeks because she laughed so hard. Karp barely gasped out, "tea leaves... those are tea leaves..."
With such a conspicuous audience, Ban stopped trying to remove the leaves that fell down her shirt and glared at Karp. The convoy members observing the spectacle stood dumbfounded until Tark shouted for the journey to continue. Once Karp settled down, the spectators left, and the convoy and lesson continued. Karp removed the lid to an almost identical jar, smelled the contents, and held it out to Ban. The frowning Ban snatched the pot from Karp's hand and investigated the contents. At first glance, the leaves looked almost identical. On closer inspection, the leaves had slightly rigid edges and smelled rotten compared to the tea.
"those won't eat you away like i said before, but touch them too much and you'll get a little swelling. extract the poison, and you'll definitely swell if you touch the liquid. drink tea from the nightshade, and you'll die terribly. hit an enemy with tea extract, and they'll only get mad you didn't throw a dart with honey and milk."
Karp gave a little smile before continuing; pretty sure that Ban wouldn't forget the differences between herbs any time soon.
A few days later, the convoy stopped for the night in a farmer's uncultivated field. Karp brought Ban and Triled to the field's edge to practice. First, the pair threw darts at target dummies the size and shape of adults. The team reliably hit the marks within thirty feet, but the further away they walked, the less accurate their strikes. Karp nonchalantly responded, "i guess this means you'll have to be close."
The pair had similar results when throwing knives, but without water sloshing around inside, the blades flew more consistently. They not only struck the dummies but hit relatively close to the points they targeted. Happy with their progress, Karp retrieved two whips from the Shift World and shifted into her armor. She handed out the weapons and removed her own from her hip.
"these are the best countermeasures i've found against shifters. when you lash, the strike quickens close to the enemy. plus the blade approaches from unpredictable angles which you can easily change. whips are surprisingly easy to fix too. probably the most important feature's that it lets you stay away from their touch. a downside? well, this is both bad and good, but they're difficult to perfect. that's good because an enemy can't just pick up your weapon and use it, but it may take years to master. it's not like a spear that you just stab or a sword you easily slash."
"I'm not going to have to smell it am I?" Ban glared at Karp, but she brushed it off with a wry chuckle.
"how about a demonstration?" Karp dropped the whip's blade and lashed the left dummy's head, blowing it to pieces. The next strike flew toward the leg, but Karp twisted her wrist, and the weapon's tip flew up at the last minute and cut a hole through its shoulder instead. Karp feigned attacking the left dummy and destroyed the right's legs. Whenever it appeared the leather and steel would move at a predictable angle, it veered off course at the last second except for the final attack, which flew straight. The lack of trickery made it feel even more deceiving.
Karp taught the rookies how to operate the whip's hidden mechanism built into the handle and instructed on the more refined form of handling the strap and predicting the blade strikes. By the end, the duo was helplessly lost, which Karp had expected. "most of what i explained won't sink in until you actually use the weapon. you'll need to practice every day, and i'll reexplain each time. ideally, you'd practice with these weapons in the upper-world and just sleep in the wagons while we travel. since you can't do that, don't expect to become too good before your fight with the furies, but knowing how to use this weapon will help when new ones show up, i hope."
Karp replaced the targets and spaced out Ban and Triled, so they didn't accidentally hit each other. Just as she expected, the newbies' lashes flew around wildly while the whips' straps hit the dummies instead of the blade on the few times they managed to connect. Karp sighed at the pathetic attempts and spent the time between corrections thinking about the night's dinner.
Shouts woke Karp in the middle of the night, and the confused woman bound to her feet and searched the darkness for the source. The wagon that she shared with Triled, Ban, and the driver shook so violently that the crude suspensions creaked as though they could snap at any minute. A light glow rose from Triled as he backed further into the corner. Karp's face sunk as she realized that he blocked the rear entrance.
"Calm down. Please just calm down." Ban reached for Triled, and although he stopped screaming, he still glared past the woman he loved. The light glowing around him gathered into a consistency that appeared like a wafting gas. The driver woke during the commotion beset with panic.
After assessing the situation, Karp shifted into her Scorpion armor, clutching a knife. The blade thrust into the wagon's white canvass cover and sliced an opening. "run, as far away as you can!" Karp threw the driver out of the hole, and he sprinted to the field's edge. Warriors from other wagons approached, and Karp shouted a warning. "IF YOU'RE NOT A SHIFTER, RUN! IF YOU ARE, STAND BY OUT OF SIGHT!"
A decisive voice in a time of panic commanded obedience, and the gathering warriors scurried off in two directions. Karp turned her attention to Ban and Triled. "can you calm him down?"
"I... don't know... this is the first time..." Ban half-answered as she approached Triled, whose face read more of a drunken stupor than panic. "Come back to me, baby. Please!"
The words moved Triled to look at Ban instead of the darkness in her direction, but his eyes didn't show understanding. Ban reached out to him, and the gaseous light seeping from him parted as her hand approached. Triled whimpered as her skin came close to touching his face, "Ban... I love..." The light condensed further into a matter that closely resembled thin lightning arcing across his chest and arms.
Before Ban touched her lover, a dart flew past her side and embedded into Triled's unprotected shoulder. The sudden pain caused the lightning to flair momentarily, but as the poison worked, the light faded until disappearing altogether, and Triled shut his eyes.