Shift World I Book IV Chapter 6
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Triled and Nort had traveled down the Southern Trade Route at a leisurely pace for two uneventful weeks. Since they rode on horses, though, they traveled much faster than if walking the whole distance. Nort and Triled took the Southern Trade Route because it would be quicker than heading north. The banal road didn't make the traveling any more fun, to say the least. Unlike the Main Trade Route, which would have taken the pair past the Crossroads, the Grand's Meadow, the Grain Fort, the Milling Town, and a slew of small to moderate-sized villages, the duo only passed around ten small villages.
The tiny villages didn't even have an inn, let alone a grand one with delicious food and comfortable beds. On the nights when they managed to rent a room, Nort and Triled shared one with two small beds. Karp had justified sending Nort with Triled by claiming he needed to be close by the agitated shifter if he had a nightmare. So, they couldn't sleep separately. Barns couldn't be rented into individual rooms, and Nort was tired of being with Triled all the time.
Possibly as an effect of the torture he endured at the hands of The Demon's Wrath, Triled had a bland personality. Though, Nort couldn't rule out that he wasn't just always that way. He had a lot of experience dealing with dull people, of course. Karp seemed like the most uninspired person you could travel with for those who didn't know her well.
She rarely spoke unprompted and conversed flatly when she did have something to say. However, she enjoyed food and drink as much as Nort and would make sure to stock up on both if they were going to spend long stretches on the road. That's not to say he hadn't had weeks of eating dried or boiled food, but she at least wanted to avoid that fate. Nort struggled to convince Triled to eat at a tavern even if they passed by one.
Nort also appreciated and shared Karp's mischievous side. Tricking shop owners or rearranging someone's barn for no real reason contained an inexplicable fun. The few times he suggested pulling a prank, Triled shot him down with a dirty look.
Triled and Nort rode into a village's outskirts so bare that it didn't have a gate along the road to identify it. They'd have asked someone for the village's name, but no one walked around the streets. The houses seemed mostly intact except for weeds and grass that overgrew the siding and doors. Missing patches of straw or broken wooden slats deformed the roofs. Nort and Timore rode to a small inn and tied their horses into a nearby stall.
"Is this something..." Nort hesitated since he feared breaching the awkward topic of Timore with his travel companion, "that The Mandrake did?" Triled flinched at hearing the name.
"If you mean Timore in particular, then no. He traveled along the other branch of the trade route, as I'm sure you know." Nort nodded, and Triled continued. "I can't say for certain that someone from my world didn't have a hand in this, but we picked our targets very carefully. I can't imagine gaining anything from attacking here..."
Nort thought on Triled's words as they approached the inn's front door. Two pieces of parchment were tacked into the wood. The first showed a picture of a woman that resembled Karp but was deranged to the point of looking almost ravenous. It described the crimes of a villain known as The Horse Thief, but Nort only skimmed the paper.
"I hope we don't run into her!" Triled gave Nort a stupefied look, but he busied himself reading the other notice. "It has come! Run! What do you think that's talking about?"
Triled shrugged. "That's incredibly vague. My guess is that whoever wrote it did so in a hurry and presumed the reader would understand."
"Want to investigate the village?" Nort asked coyly, almost like a child asking a parent who they expected to say 'no.'
"Sure. I think we should. What's that look for? We'd be in a bad spot if we got waylaid by whatever this posting's about." Triled surveyed the village that ran mostly perpendicular with the road and ocean on the southern side.
"This way." Triled walked south along the village's main road. Open, breezy homes like those found in the Wyvern's Cove flanked the streets.
The closer the pair traveled to the ocean, the more substantial and obvious the signs of water damage. Some of the structures even had broken apart and scattered as if hit by a wave, but others had more moderate damage. One roof had been completely torn off, and a nearby one remained caked in dried mud. Soon, even the road looked pitted.
"It's like a water Fury came through here..." Triled spoke half indifferently and half with a pained melancholy.
"What do you mean by that? You think Furies came here?"
"It's not possible for the Furies that visited my world to come here, and the furies from my world that come here can't manipulate water like this... I just meant the damage is too inconsistent to be a giant wave or flooding caused by rain."
"You're trying to say something that can throw around enough water to destroy houses just came along? Haha, get real."
"That makes more sense than clouds that can selectively rain or furies that can't possibly come to this world..."
"Doesn't it get confusing to call different groups of shifters all 'furies?'" Nort decided to capitalize on a chance for conversation as they walked past increasingly damaged houses. They couldn't see the beach yet, but almost every structure laid scattered in pieces.
"Isn't it more confusing just to call everything a shifter? You're basically doing the same thing but worse. There are three types, after all."
"Not really..." Nort tried to think of a way to justify his double standard, so he weakly rebutted. "Almost all shifters are down-shifters, so if you want to specify a different kind, you just say that. Like I might say an up-shifter like Korg or The Bog Djinn."
Nort beamed at how easily and skillfully he won that argument, and Triled shook his head as they continued toward the beach. They stopped at raised sand dunes along the gap between the end of the road and the ocean. Triled and Nort laid on their stomachs while peering into pits dug into the sand. Knee-high boulder-shaped objects laid in puddles of seawater with a look of blue or purple scales covering the surface. Compared to an inexplicable pink tinge in the ocean, the water inside the pits shone in a rich crimson.
Nort and Triled exchanged glances and fled, deciding that whatever had dug out the sand wasn't their problem as long as they stayed far away from the sea.
A week later, Triled and Nort arrived outside of the Ivory Coast, the Royal Envoy's seat of that region in the Lush Forest. Surveyors didn't demarcate officially defined regions or capitals in the empire, but rather, regions were inexactly divided into areas similar in certain respects. The Ivory Coast belonged to the territory of the southernmost central coastline along the main trade route. At some point, Nort and Triled crossed from an area that respected the lord of the Royal Ports to arbitrate disputes into somewhere the people relied on the Ivory Coast's lord. The locals would understand who to turn to, but travelers like them hadn't a clue.
A contingent of Dragon Guard and merchants surrounded the capital's four-story main keep made of pitch-black sea stones colored with a light-coral paint. No matter how many layers they had put on, the building maintained closer to a burnt rose color. Ivory tiles covered each staggered layer of the roof. A slipshod barricade blocked off the keep's main door, and guards watched out of windows above and to the side of the entrance. Given that a contingent of only around fifty fighters held the keep, Nort and Triled guessed that the siege continued mostly for propaganda reasons.
Both sides seemed to scream that the out-in-the-sticks location only held symbolic significance. If Mard the Pup, the current local lord, had so few forces that she couldn't rout fifty guards, then she likely planned on barricading the doors until her supplies ran out. If the Royal Envoy wanted to retake the building, or Mard had sufficient troops herself, the contingent wouldn't stand much of a chance. The sieging soldiers only slept and lived in a series of unfortified tents, which would be easy pickings for an organized force.
Losing the Crossroads weakened the Royal Envoys, but they still remained a thorn in the side of troops in the Lush Forest. Since neither Nort nor Timore wanted to get embroiled in a prolonged campaign to starve out the Royal Envoy, they continued up the road toward the Wyvern's Cove.
After another week, Triled and Nort arrived at the Village of the Wyvern's Cove. Nort had been vaguely aware that a shifter known as Danil the Narwhal held Triled hostage. He managed to escape with his lover Ban the Water Drake. Karp, never one to idly gossip didn't elaborate on the details. So, he only knew the bare minimum. Nort, always interested in the minutia of peoples' experiences, wanted to ask Triled questions when they passed barricaded off-shoot roads. With an uncharacteristic restraint, Nort managed to withhold his inquiries and thought it more prudent to investigate the village instead.
"Let's stay here for the night. I know it's kind of early, but I think we deserve a chance to stay at a real inn." Despite how hard Nort tried to avoid bringing up any uncomfortable topics, Triled still gave him a look like he felt entirely off-put. "Isn't this much better than sleeping on the side of a road in some flooded rice paddy?"
"Fine..." Triled relented with a sigh, and the pair continued riding their horses through the main street. "Do you remember if this village has stables? I think the horses could use a good rest too."
"I've never been to this village before." The houses they passed had a patchwork of different types of wood fixing splintered boards and doors. Entire hovels looked constructed from the debris of destroyed buildings. Still, they didn't appear much worse than the reed shanties built in alleyways and roadsides.
"I forgot you weren't with The Scorpion when she was here." Triled let slip the opening Nort had waited for.
"Oh, were you here before?" Nort gave a cockeyed smile, and Triled shot him a queer glance.
"I thought you knew that when you asked to stay here. Though, the answer is actually pretty much no. I was being held like a hostage at The Sunflower's old manor. Then, I met with Ban in the fields outside of town, and we fled."
"Oh. I thought that since you were from near here too..."
"I spent most of my time in this world living in the Village of the Bog Djinn, though I did spend a good amount of time at the Bamboo Coast. Unfortunately, I didn't meet Ban in my world until after we agreed that us shifters wouldn't leave the villages we worked in. She came to me a few times, and I snuck out into the rice paddies with her, but I never had a chance to come here. Jorn pushed to open up the Bamboo Coast as the second hub, but it never came to pass."
Nort and Triled arrived at the inn and found a stable large enough to fit their two horses. They tied them inside and then entered the main building. A lethargic old man sat at the counter skimming over a sketchbook he must work on in the downtime between clients. At first, he perked up at seeing Triled's dragon fire helm but then became apprehensive as the armored pair approached.
"What brings you here today?"
"We're just passing through." The man showed a mix of disappointment and relief, a strange juxtaposition for such a straightforward answer. "We have two horses in the stable. Do you have someone to tend to them?"
"Ah, yes. We do. That will be an extra fee, however. Two steel each for the night."
"That's pretty reasonable. We only need one room, however."
"I'm afraid most of the cost is wrapped up in tending to the horses. I hope you understand, but you can use two rooms for the same price..."
"Right. I always forget how expensive horses are. In the past, The Grand or Tark took care of everything."
"... I... don't want any trouble... really. Please."
"It's a fair price. We don't mean to be any trouble. My friend's just careless in the things he says. We would prefer a single room with two beds for personal reasons." The man looked more relieved than before but still visibly shaken, and Nort didn't understand what just happened. The man reached out a key, and Triled exchanged it with four large steel coins. Nort and Triled headed to the room so Nort could drop off the food and clothing he kept in his luggage.
After arriving, Triled opened the door and peeked inside. The inn suite was divided into two sections, a master and servant quarters. The master section had a double-sized bed flanked with furniture, wardrobes for clothing, a desk for working, and chairs. The servant's quarters only had a single bed with a small cabinet. Nort concluded that he'd have to fight Triled for who gets to use which bed. "What a strange layout for an inn room."
"This is the VIP suite. He probably thinks I'm a Royal Envoy or Dragon Guard because of my armor, and you're my servant because of your armor." Nort had forgotten that dragon fire steel usually signified high status since Karp often used it, but people didn't treat her any differently.
"Oh. Is that why the innkeeper was so nervous? That makes sense now." Triled shook his head while Nort thought out loud.
"He was nervous because you basically threatened him! And all over one or two steel pieces. You really need to learn some perspective!"
"What?! I didn't do anything like that!"
"Just think about it! While discussing prices, you name drop the crowned princess and the highest-ranking member of the Royal Family in the Lush Forest. You do this standing next to a Dragon Guard in a place that's still recovering from a raid by Royal Guards!" Triled didn't sound very angry, but he shook his head with a hand rubbing his temple.
Triled rolled his eyes at Nort's ambivalence. "Let's just go get something to eat."
Nort was glad that they finally settled on something he could agree with. The pair left the room and headed to the nearby tavern. Luckily, the two buildings they needed the most, the inn and the bar, mostly survived the raid untouched. Nort had never seen anything like the restaurant's inside. A large open dance floor sat in front of a raised stage near the bar. All of the seating and the throwing board rested in the room's back.
"What an unusual set-up."
Triled shrugged. He seemed unfazed but still not entirely sure what to make of the tavern. The pair walked up to the bartender when they didn't see any waitresses. The worker perked up at seeing them.
"Oh, good! Are you here to help with our problem?"
"We're just passing through. We got a pretty similar response from the innkeeper, did something happen?"
The despondent woman nodded. "I guess then you don't have an army in tow?"
"No, just the two of us... what could you need an army for?"
"There are about a half-dozen hideous monsters in the fields and a swarm of deadly frogs..."
"Oh, that's it? Want us to take care of them?"
"Huh?" The dumbfounded woman stared at Nort.
"You really shouldn't make an offer so lightly! What's wrong with you?!" Triled shook his head, and the woman beamed at the stranger's confidence that they could actually win.
"Really? You'll do it?" Even as the woman implored Nort, who now smiled ear to ear, Triled put up his hand to stop that awkward exchange.
"You said there are about six of the big ones, but how many frogs are there?"
"We really don't know," the woman pouted as though she figured out that playing a little helpless fired-up Nort, "there are a lot of them, but the real problem's the ugly biters. A careful group of villagers could kill the frogs and take back the field, but there's nothing we can do against those stupid fish."
"So all we have to do, really, is kill those six fish, and then the problem's solved...?"
The negativity didn't deter Nort. "OK. Triled, you have that set of full plate armor for me, right? Barkeep, bring the food to the table closest to the throwing board and gather the villagers while we eat. We'll make a plan from there..."
Nort waited on the edge of an overgrown rice paddy poxed with divots. If they acted carelessly, fighters could trip on the underwater holes, but the hazards wouldn't affect the substance of the plan that Nort, Triled, and the villagers devised. First, they needed to approach one of the six grotesque mounds near the field's center. Unlike a typical ugly biter, which resembled a boulder, the monsters' glowing green veins projected an other-worldly appearance. None of the frogs lingered out in the open around the paddy's raised dirt paths or in water shallow enough for them to conspicuously stick out of the top.
Nort wore full plate armor that Triled had stored in his world for use when any exposed flesh could spell disaster. Instead of just appearing in the armor like Nort did when dealing with Wili, Triled had just returned the armor to the inn.
Heavy boots sloshed in stagnant, unkempt water Nort splashed up to the closest ugly biter with his shield in one hand and a mace in the other. After arriving a few steps away, the creature awoke and swam through the muddy ground. The monster leaped, and Nort smashed it between the eyes, dropping it to the soil. To his surprise, it thrashed, biting the air. After a moment of inaction, the mouth full of snarled teeth wrapped around Nort's leg.
An ugly biter's teeth couldn't penetrate a tree trunk. Thanks to Nort's powers as a scholar, his plate armor took hardwood's characteristics, and the ugly biter's teeth weakened to where they creaked and snapped along the metal. Nort tried wiggling free as his mace flailed toward an enemy who flopped from side to side, intending to tear flesh, but only scraped away its teeth enamel instead. In a moment of primal confusion, the monster broke free of Nort. Triled used that opportunity to skewer it with his dragon fire sword.
Five ugly biters remained, and the smell of bloody death frenzied the animals from a relaxed, camouflaged state. Mounds rose through the paddy's filth as five tunnels converged toward Nort and Triled. For non-monstrous ugly biters, traveling underground provided a certain degree of stealth that these massive creatures lacked.
The first mound reached Triled, who recoiled just in time for the hill to burst, and an ugly biter shot through empty air biting in the last spot it remembered a person. As the fish's exposed body trailed past, Triled slashed its flank and left a bloody trail. Four ugly biters remained.
Another mound shot toward Nort, and he braced for the ugly biter head-on. As the monster erupted from the soil, Nort bashed the side of the creature's face and sent it sliding along a watery path. The disoriented monster flopped as it tried to right itself, but Nort followed through with a series of mace strikes. The first hit disoriented the fish further. The second slowed its breathing and made its jumps more lethargic. By the fifth strike, the ugly biter stopped moving altogether.
Two ugly biters approached Triled in tandem, and he sheathed his sword and popped off his gloves. Triled hopped back and forth between the monster's paths to cause them to approach from several meters apart instead of converging on his location. Both fish leaped as they reached the man's estimated position, but Triled stood between the leaps with his hands held in close to his body. After the mouths full of jagged teeth passed, Triled held out his arms and gently tapped the creatures' sides. The monsters glowed for no more than a heartbeat, and after the last of their light faded, husks of their former bodies splashed into the paddy's water.
One last ugly biter circled Nort and Triled, seemingly unwilling to approach. "That one is either too smart or too stupid to come at us."
Triled thought on the words when low croaking sounds poured out of the woods nearby. At first, the noises didn't feel ominous, but the cacophony grew as the frog monsters approached, and they bellowed loudly after reaching the paddy. Splashing sounds arhythmically staggered as frogs landed. One came down ten feet from Nort.
Its tongue shot out and clipped Nort's armor, leaving a streak of acrid green slime. Nort dodged the next lash, but he couldn't possibly approach the last ugly biter while dealing with the frog's attack.
The town's villagers made it clear they wouldn't engage the frogs until all the ugly biters had been dealt with. Nort and Triled contemplated their options and independently came to the same conclusion. Without immediate action, nothing was going to change.
Nort and Triled charged the last mutant fish, but it veered off course and headed toward the woods lining the rice paddy's edge. Nort assumed the animal instinctively fled, but the creature looped back upon reaching the water's edge. Nort and Triled hesitated after realizing they had been surrounded by swarming frogs piling out from the nearby woods.
Tongues lashed at Nort and Triled, and each man used radically different strategies to avoid the attacks. Triled jerked his upper body to dodge the blows and calmly swiped away his legs and arms. Nort let the tongues fruitless bounce off of his armor. Even if a barb managed to touch his skin, he doubted the liquid could have the hallucinatory effects it showed in other people. Nort rushed onward to face the ugly biter and keep it from moving on The Wolf, who barely kept ahead of the frogs' lashes.
A tongue whipped in from the right, another shot from behind and a final attacked his leg. The lash from the right passed by without contact. Triled's leg pulled back in time to let the tongue miss, but the attack to his back landed squarely on his dragon fire cuirass. Luckily the creatures didn't seem intelligent enough to purposely aim for weak spots. Still, eventually, he'd adjust poorly, and a strike would land in a section between plates.
A tongue shot close to Triled's upper body. His hand glowed as he moved it toward the creature to kill it with a touch. Just before making contact, though, he balked at the sight of an acrid green slime running down the tongue's length. Even though he pulled away at the last moment, a bolt that resembled a shock of static electricity flew two inches from his palm and hit the frog. It glowed and slumped down into the marshy water. Triled looked at his hand, stunned.
Nort closed in on the last ugly biter, but it still fled at his approach. In frustration at not being able to even attack the monster as he'd like, Nort flung his mace at the circling mound, but he only managed to puncture an empty dirt shell. Nort grabbed the mace's handle on the way by and tried catching up to the monster, but dragging around all that heavy armor tired him quickly, and the gap increased.
As Nort slowed, he heard calls rumbling from the field's edges. The villagers barreled into the fray to fight the frogs that swarmed Triled. The rag-tag group fought the animals using hoes, sickles, and kitchen knives. They wore multiple layers of everyday leathers, which would do little more than stopping a glancing blow from scratching their skin. The villagers held their own while the frogs spread out in front of them, but if Triled and Nort couldn't stop the creatures from flanking, the casualties might be catastrophic.
Nort looked to the fleeing ugly biter, and its movements erratically shot from side to side. He realized that while traveling underground, the monster couldn't possibly tell who moved around or if they had strength similar to the shifters. So, Nort hurried to cut off the beast from fleeing north, and it circled to the gap between him and the villagers. Taking from his cue, Triled moved to the field's outer quadrant and the monster now only circled in a small area. A group of villagers saw the impromptu strategy and moved to the last edge, completely cutting off an escape route.
Nort and Triled marched in closer to the fish that hesitated in place. The pair silently bet on the monster lashing out in a direction where fewer people made noise, and they prepared for the chance to attack. Nort limbered his arm by swinging his mace in circles while Triled opened and closed his hand to prepare for releasing a death touch. As the pair drew closer, the animal made a decision and shot toward The Morning Shield.
Nort sprinted to intercept the rising mound, and just as they met, the ugly biter shot out of the dirt. Its mouth of snarled teeth closed around Nort's arm, but he pulled himself away as the jaws clenched shut. Nort swung his mace three times, killing the thrashing ugly biter in a mist of glowing green blood. The energized villagers charged, and within a few minutes, all of the frogs had either died or fled.
Nort and Triled returned to their shared inn suite to clean up after their fight with the monsters that lived outside of the village. By the time they finished helping the villagers clear out the frogs, so much mud-encrusted them that a passerby wouldn't have been able to tell the color of their armor. Frog and fish viscera covered Nort from head to toe due to him clubbing his enemies with a mace. Triled didn't wear the worst of the filth since he killed most of the creatures with a touch. Nort had already cleaned himself off in the room's stone tub, and he started cleaning off the mud and guts from his armor.
At first, Nort felt self-conscious bathing naked in the same room where Triled waited, but after the other man didn't react, Nort relaxed and even forgot he had company. After draining the tub and refilling it with a mix of hot water taken from the room's little stove and cool water drawn from a nearby well, Triled started bathing himself. Triled currently washed as though it were natural to do so with company nearby.
"I discovered something weird during that fight..." Triled fished in the bathwater for a bar of soap that had slipped out of his hand. Nort began to wonder why he relaxed so much while naked. He had heard that some people through the world casually shared living spaces, which included baths and guessed Triled heralded from that kind of place. That wasn't the norm in the Lush Forest where Nort grew up.
"Did something happen? You fought like I imagined one of you, ugh, furies would have."
"Now that I hear someone actually call me that... you can just say shifter. Anyway, I killed an enemy without actually touching it. I don't think I've ever done that before."
"You weren't one of the ones shooting fireballs or shockwaves in the keeps you attacked?" Nort instantly felt awkward describing the shifters that way, but he couldn't easily sugar-coat mass murder.
"Actually... I never really used the powers like that. Most of the time, the people that used it did so on accident. We never really wanted to kill anyone in a way that might create monsters. I mean that I killed the monsters with the ability where I pop their life force."
"Pop their life force? What are you talking about?"
"That's just the best way I know how to describe what happens. If you inject a little energy into someone, their life comes flooding out like a tomato popping, or something." Nort never could hide his emotions, and his face read of pure disgust. "In the past, I've always had to touch something directly, but it worked from a few inches away this time."
"Do you think you can make the range even further? That's a pretty scary thought that someone could snap their fingers and kill you from across the room."
"Obviously, we couldn't do that to you! I don't even know if this time was just a fluke. Timore discovered the power on accident while about to die, and we never really experimented with it."
"There are probably many ways to use your shifter powers besides the touch. You guys probably would have conquered the world if you had bothered to figure it out."
"Well, think about it. The Furies had many ways to control their powers. They could change into different elements. Think of each one as a new way of using the powers. Shifters from this world can use shields in many ways. There had to have been more ways to use your powers too."
"We thought that it was just a power like the others. We mostly only used it because it didn't create monsters nearby, not because it was convenient."
"Shifters from this set of three worlds all seem able to use the destructive type of powers, but then have their own unique types too. The destructive types change things into monsters, and the unique type doesn't. Using shields doesn't create monsters in the Shift World, your death touch doesn't here, and the Furies used the elemental forms near people pretty often, and they didn't change. Protecting things in the Shift World and melding with elements in your world seems to have obvious implications. If you figure out what your power actually does here, you could probably find out many ways to make it powerful." Nort spoke casually while polishing his helmet. After a moment of quiet, he looked toward Triled, who completely stopped moving and stared silently at Nort. Nort wondered if his simple explanation could actually be some kind of paradigm-changing revelation.
"How... how do you know all that?"
"Well..." Nort continued to clean his armor. "Some of it I know from the legends about shifters from here. I've had to sit through how many meetings about the Furies in your world? And me from that world took notes. I'm kind of just filling in the blanks with some of the feelings I had and passages from my book..."
"You're like The Strange Man, I guess. He knows a great deal and yet seems to hold much back." Nort kind of hoped that Triled didn't compare him to someone like Barp, the only strange man that immediately came to mind.
Nort and Triled had agreed to spend the evening at the tavern at the Wyvern's Cove. Triled and Nort sat near the throwing board like did while traveling with Karp. Nort couldn't participate in the game since the knives he threw only bounced off the board and stuck in the ground. Triled had become better at throwing thanks to his training, but he still seemed lost at how to play. Instead, the pair ate hearty seafood soup and drank a wyvern's egg mead.
Like every other mead, honey formed the base, except bees cultivated this honey using pollen from wyvern's eggs flowers that grew on nearby cliff-sides. The pollen imbued a slightly bitter and fragrant taste, which outstripped honey produced around crops like wheat. With the fishy soup made by catching bass in the cove, the meal tasted much differently than Nort's typical cuisine, but he found it pleasant.
Tolf had grabbed Triled and dragged him away to play a game at the throwing board. By Nort's count, Triled had already lost three games and was losing at a fourth. Even though ability mattered most for simple games, Tolf seemed to have realized that even a child's riddle stunned his opponent. Triled looked to Nort for help getting out of his predicament, but he only smiled and tipped his glass.
"Can I sit here?" A woman about as old as his mother, Slart, came strolling up with a mug of mead. She placed her hand on a chair on the opposite side of the table. Her sleeveless leather shirt and knee-length shorts were typical of the southern Lush Forest. A merchant's white stripe ran down her left side.
"Sure, go ahead." The people in the tavern seemed to have the custom of drifting from table to table and talking. Otherwise, Nort may have thought something of a woman in her lower thirties trying to start up a conversation in a bar.
"Thank you so much." The woman sat and pulled the chair closer to the table. She ended up slightly turned while adjusting the chair. Nort concentrated on looking into her eyes and not down to the open shirt exposing her side and bust. When she stopped moving, she looked Nort in the eyes and had a wry smile. "That's much better, don't you think?"
"I'm glad you're more comfortable." Traveling with Karp for so long, he never practiced his conversationalist skills. He couldn't think up anything better than that response. The woman's smile spread, and she looked toward her cup as she gently played with the mug's handle. "Isn't this mead just wonderful?"
"It's great, isn't it. It just makes you want to never leave..." Hart giggled and sipped the sweet alcohol. "I hear you two were rather impressive in the fields."
"Oh? I don't mind a little praise..." Hart giggled at the surprisingly direct response. "I'm not sure how much I deserve it, though. Same with The Wolf over there. We just used our powers as shifters to win."
"I'm surprised you can talk about your master like that." Hart gave Nort a little bit of a mischievous grin, which reminded him a bit of Karp when she thought of a prank to pull.
"I bet you'd get along well with Karp..."
"Karp? Whose that?" Hart seemed a little disappointed at the turn in the conversation.
"Karp of the Traitor's Tavern. She likes to get a little naughty after drinking too."
"Karp the Scorpion?" Hart's face drained, and she stiffened up. Nort wondered just what may have transpired while trapped in the upper-world. "What's your relationship with The Scorpion?"
"We're family." Hart seemed to have melted in the seat and let out a strange noise like she was desperately trying to think of something to say.
"Ummm... could we please pretend like this, uh, conversation never happened?" Hart spoke with pleading eyes. "I thought me and her got along well, but I don't want to die..."
"Huh? Why? I thought we were getting along great!" Hart shook her head and hands fervently, trying to break off the conversation. "Wow, Karp must have really done something bad to you. Well, if you want, I'll talk to my mom, and she can probably get Karp to forget whatever it is."
"Your mom?" The woman let out a little giggle, but her face hardened again. "Oh, sorry. But, what does your mother have anything to do with this."
"Well, she's Slart of the Traitor's Tavern. She's the one that's closest to Karp. If she wanted to, she could convince her to forgive you."
"Ohhh..." Hart's eyes widened in a realization, and her relaxed air returned as she took another drink. Then, for a split second, she paused as another revelation hit her. "If you are Slart's son, and your name's Nort, does that mean... You're The Morning Shield!?"
Nort nodded. He wanted to comment about his shield but then realized he left the armor stacked in his inn room. "I thought that everyone would have figured that out already... So what is the problem you're having with Karp?"
"Oh, there's no problem." Hart let out a chuckle while flagging down a serving girl. "Maybe if we have a few more of these, we'll get into it later..."
"Oh, um, OK... glad that's settled then..." Nort was just glad the tension dissipated. Also, he never had someone buy him a drink before, let alone a pretty woman. A girl that looked about thirteen or fourteen came up to the table. Nort thought that people around that age usually didn't work at a bar at night, so the approaching teen surprised him.
"Hey Kawi, guess who he's related to?" The girl put a finger on her lip like she planned on feigning a guess, but in reality, she didn't care. "Karp the Scorpion!"
"Wow!" The girl had a much more positive response than Hart first did. "That's amazing! How's she doing? She saved this town, you know!"
"Really? I don't think Triled said anything about Karp saving the town..."
"Triled? Like Auntie Ban's fiance?" The girl looked over to Triled at the throwing board.
"What? Isn't that guy named The Wolf or something? Ban never said he was a named shifter."
"Triled the Wolf's him. His fiance is named Ban the Water Drake, so probably the one you're thinking about."
Hart squirmed in her seat in excitement, and Kawi dashed to the bar to retrieve mugs of mead. Like a wake through a lake, word spread of Nort's and Triled's identities as Kawi passed the bar's patrons. Excitement grew as people realized that the fiance of a woman that the town helped raise, and the family of a previous savior killed the monsters saved the village. The two shifters received a constant barrage of attention and free drinks. Eventually, the night devolved into dancing and music. Even though Hart never had a chance to explain Nort's misunderstanding, he still thoroughly enjoyed himself.