Shift World I Book IV Chapter 9
by Christopher W. Gamsby
Nordic devised an intricate set of training and team-building exercises to preserve good order during the downtime. After spending the morning preparing for the event's start, the crew anxiously waited topside.
Nordic the Shark paced in front of everyone. "Alright lads, I know you just had a grueling journey through that storm, but I also know if you just lay about, you'll get in nothing but trouble." The crew laughed. "This is no laughing matter!" Of course, his rebuke just made everyone laugh more. "Given how crazy this whole trip has been, I feel like we have shown ourselves to be poor hosts indeed. So, for today, in honor of our esteemed guests, and maybe for a little treat for ourselves, I hereby commence this waterside picnic!"
The crew cheered and rushed for kegs stacked on the weather deck's center. Nordic had asked the shifters to bring back a large percentage of the stored beer and fresh food now that it wouldn't make them sick to temporarily travel between the two worlds. By the time Karp had finished retrieving trays of fresh bread, the ocean's slight rocking had started bothering her again, but luckily she grew accustomed to the motion pretty quickly. She couldn't imagine how terrible it would feel for her to make those trips during the height of the hurricane, where the waves became so powerful that she walked along the walls.
The picnic that just began amazingly resembled one on a beach. Most of the crew lazed about under the sun, drinking mugs of ale and conversing. Karp assumed they talked about knots or something since she really had no idea what would interest someone that lived out to sea. Karp made her way to a steel barbecue set up near the starboard railing. Sausages and meat skewers grilled on a crisscrossing wire mesh. The aroma of charring seasoned meat smelled just like the food prepared during the Founder's Day Festival in the Traitor's Tavern.
The crew finished cooking so efficiently that lines never formed. Karp walked to the pile of kegs with a skewer held in her mouth. She removed a mug off the stack and filled the cup with a fruity smelling blueberry shandy beer. Karp removed the skewer from her mouth and sipped. She took turns biting the skewer and drinking from her mug while strolling to the ship's stern.
A throwing game erected in front of the railing caught her attention. Unlike the throwing boards located in bars in the Lush Forest, this game didn't involve sharp objects. The reason ended up being relatively simple, throwing around knives could damage the deck's waterproofing. An errant knife landing between treated wooden boards damaged the tar sealant and let water drip in. That kind of damage wouldn't sink the ship or anything, but a steady drip of water rotted the floorboards or molded the walls underneath. Although these leaks naturally formed anyway, they weren't left to sit long, and no captain would promote a game that causes more damage than necessary.
The throwing game involved small wooden balls flying into cut out holes in an agreed-upon pattern. The game would have been much easier than the throwing board if not for a few considerations. The first time Karp played, she couldn't zero in on how any particular ball flew through the air. Wood naturally had an uneven density due to knots and other imperfections. Even a skilled craftsman struggled to make a perfectly proportioned ball. Some balls were too heavy or light or even lopsided.
In her first game, Karp threw the ball directly, but it drifted in weird directions from being uneven or flew too softly or hard because of the weight. Her most embarrassing throw came when a lopsided and lighter than expected ball flew past the board and into the ocean. Needless to say, the nearby crew found it amusing enough to laugh at the poor showing. The strategy used in her second game proved more fruitful.
Throwing the ball with enough spin managed to compensate nicely for most of the balls' inconsistencies. Though it helped at first, it became apparent that competing on the open ocean would make it challenging to play. Sometimes, crosswinds knocked the balls off course, or a headwind sped up the throw, so it hit too high. After a strong tailwind, the ball could stop midair and sink back to the deck.
Karp ended up finding the game's massive inconsistencies both exhilarating and frustrating. Frustrating because she had a nasty competitive side and always wanted to win. Exciting because the randomness meant that even skilled players could lose at any time. Excluding when playing with Slart, her win rate at the throwing board had been in the high ninety percentage. There just weren't enough strong competitors to consistently challenge her. Still, in this version of the game, she only won around fifty percent of the time.
Karp decided to bring the game back with her to the Traitor's Tavern and teach it to Nort since he couldn't play at the regular throwing board. Granted, without the wind blowing every which way, the difference between losing and winning really came down to how well the throwers predicted a particular ball's path. In that sense, it might not be any more challenging than playing at the throwing board with a borrowed knife.
After playing for a little bit, Karp decided to roam about. Groups of people mostly played games with painted clay tiles or cards. Games which involved sitting for extended periods had never really appealed to Karp since she needed to keep her body active to focus her interest. She decided to take a detour to get another meat skewer.
Baln walked up, and just before greeting Karp, an aberrant wave shook the ship. Unattended tiles and cards fell to the deck with rhythmic chimes. Without a word, the pair passed mumbling, cursing sailors cleaning up their games and walked to the portside railing. Unexpectedly, they couldn't see any signs of a wave that knocked the ship for a loop. The sea looked so calm that even a small wave should have been visible.
"That's weird..." Baln thought out loud when they looked out to the open water. Some of Drom's Troupe walked up to the most forward part of the portside railing and looked out. The sea darkened around the ship as if something massive circled underneath. The shape wasn't uniformly solid like a whale. Instead, it writhed in coils like a snake and then disappeared beneath the ocean water.
The blackened shape appeared again fifty yards away. The end of the coil closest to the ship lifted from the ocean, and water drained off a set of undulating flaps connecting a massive dragonesque head to an eel-like body. Shiny purple scales bulged out from veiny sacks as its body breached the surface. Even though only a fraction of its body was visible, it still stretched out further than Sea Breeze. The monster turned to the ship's prow.
The monster bared fangs similar to a striking snake, but each one stretched out longer than an entire person. The undulating neck flaps squeezed in, and a stream of liquid smashed into the railing where some of Drom's Troupe watched the sight unfold. Most people flew back onto the ship's deck, but one unlucky woman bounced off the side and fell into the roiling undertow.
Panicked shouts of "Man overboard!" reverberated around the deck as sailors came from their stupor to realize a legendary leviathan attacked the ship.
The member of Drom's Troupe that fell into the sea flailed about as she struggled to stay above water. People born in regions away from the ocean commonly didn't know how to swim, and the drowning woman panicked. Her fervency increased as Sea Breeze pulled away further.
Falling off a ship with no one noticing was one of the greatest dangers any sea goer faced because the boat kept moving. Luckily for her, Nordic and his crew frantically prepared the vessel to loop back around. Still, large vessels couldn't turn quickly, and within a minute, one-hundred yards separated the desperate victim with the ship. In the distance, the leviathan uncoiled, sending out lightly cresting ripples that centered near its body and spread from the tip of its head while it glided through the open ocean.
The leviathan slithered toward the woman, who stopped fighting the current. She bobbed, sank, and popped free of the water just long enough to catch her breath before dragging under again. The leviathan's head breached the surface, creating a streaming wake. The creature's mouth opened, and ripples scattered around post-sized teeth. The beast closed in.
"Stop trying to turn the ship..." Nordic gave his order in a dull, almost depressed manner. "Run full speed ahead, and bring out the narwhal hunting gear."
A chorus of sailors shouting 'full speed ahead' and 'battle gear, ho!' spread outward from Nordic's location to the ship's bow. Karp gave Nordic a helpless look, and he shook his head as if to say he understood her feelings but couldn't do anything. He motioned for Karp to follow and moved to the starboard rail. A band of crew lugged out a mobile harpoon launcher and snapped it into a deck plate.
"what's that thing going to do?" Karp looked over to Nordic.
"Hopefully, annoy it into leaving..." Given the circumstances, Karp guessed he wasn't just sarcastic.
"that's all we can do? it's like hitting a person with a pinky-sized arrow."
"Yeah. The largest things we normally see are narwhal. For some reason, they sometimes view a ship as another one of their species encroaching on their territory. So, all ships have these to damage or kill whale-sized creatures. Though, most animals have sort of a primal wisdom and avoid pain even if it isn't fatal. Let's hope it's true this time..."
Nordic motioned for Karp to follow and headed for the ship's bow. "I want only scouts to remain topside. Clear everything off the weather deck. Prepare yourselves like we're in a storm. Only stay out with a lifeline and a team securing the line!" The crew saluted and rushed about implementing his orders. Nordic motioned for Tan the Wyvern and Tark the Last Demon to follow him to the bridge.
At the bridge, Nordic's composure faltered, and he spoke in half a grunt and half a growl. "How could this have happened?"
"Unfortunate happenstance, I'd assume." Tark spoke so deadpan that an eavesdropper could be forgiven for thinking Karp had interjected.
"bad luck? i don't follow." While Karp addressed the princess, Nordic unshuddered a nearby window, presumably to hear any reports about the creature.
"Unlikely. Possible but unlikely. Though the only other explanation I can think of is equally outlandish." Nordic folded his arms in frustration.
"what's the other explanation?"
"We're near its territory, and it attacked to drive us off."
"that's what assumed, though i base that off my knowledge of other creatures. i'm not familiar with the sea in general, and leviathan in particular. why's that unlikely?"
"Just because we're nowhere near a leviathan's home territory. We also aren't near land, which means we're not near a nest."
"Pray tell, what conditions are optimal for a leviathan?"
"They live in the acid sea at the very south of the ocean. We shouldn't be near there."
"we seem to have pretty strong evidence that we are..."
"Impossible! We've been traveling mostly east for a week straight. In fact, the mountains should be within range... oh no..." Nordic walked to the ship's compass, which showed them traveling east by southeast. Nordic slid his hands around the compass's casing and balked around its bottom right. The captain got on his hands and knees to inspect the casing's leg. "It's broken. Give me the repair kit."
One of the crew waiting on the bridge jumped up and retrieved a box affixed near the door leading into the ship proper. He rushed back to Nordic, who removed several small iron plates, which he fed under the snapped leg. The more he added, the less the compass wiggled when pushed. Nordic stopped after the compass held fast. "Helmsman. Once an hour, check the compass to make sure the patch is holding."
"Aye aye, captain."
"While we wait for the instrument to right itself, let's talk strategy. Tan, I remember one of your titles has something to do with a leviathan, correct?" Nordic turned to Tan.
"Fighter of Leviathan? That's not a literal title, I'm afraid. It's just based on an old story from my village." Tan shook her head.
"I see. That's disappointing. Karp, you've killed dragons before, correct? Does that give you any insight into this thing?"
"i don't think this could be any more different than a dragon... a dragon's large by human standards, but this thing is large even compared to a boat."
"Still, any advice you could offer will be of great help."
"let's see... the dragon from the village of the grain fort we just damaged enough while it attacked that it bled out. for the dragon from the crossroads, i destroyed its brain while it was distracted. the dragons i killed in the shift world were either distracted or blinded with pop gourds. the asaghi i killed were pretty similar. attack their weak points when they are disoriented or overwhelmed.
"now that i think about it, it was sort of the same with the followers of the mandrake. i struck a weak spot in the sunflower's armor, surprise attacked a woman dressed as a beggar, stabbed through a hole in the royal armor, pushed a man out of a tower, so he crashed on the debris below, really there are lots of overlap here.
"when it came to the polar bear and the narwhal, i just used overwhelming firepower to get rid of either of them. do enough damage quick enough, and they won't be able to escape in time." The explanation stopped when Karp noticed that Nordic, Tan, and Tark all stared at her with slacked jaws and doe-eyed expressions.
"what? why did you ask me if you didn't want the answer..."
"It's not that, we just didn't realize you did all that..." As Tan spoke, the princess and Nordic nodded in agreement. "We knew nothing about what you did in the Shift World and only suspected your involvement in some of the followers of The Mandrake. Like we knew about Jorn and the Grain Fort, but... wow, just to hear it all laid out there. It even sounded like you meant you killed many different asaghi."
"oh, sorry, that was an accident. there were only four or five, something like that."
"Really..." Nordic scratched the side of his head. "Well, here we can't use powers, so..."
"yeah i know. that's why i don't use powers in the shift world because i couldn't use them while fighting the followers of the mandrake..."
"WHAT!?" Tan, Tark, and Nordic all let out incredulous replies while Karp thought about whether she should start trying to master her powers in the Shift World now that she no longer needed to hold back for training.
"Oh, so I've granted a means to dispatch adversaries utilizing any protection to someone already so prolific..." Tark's face sank a little.
"To think she'd be so casual about everything..." Nordic's statement made Tan and Tark unconsciously nod along. "So to sum it up, we need to either hit it with overwhelming firepower or find a weak spot while it's distracted or blinded..."
"in reality, we probably need to hit a weak spot with overwhelming force while it's distracted... though there is possibly a third option..."
"Oh, I can't wait to hear this..."
"let something else more powerful than yourself take care of it."
"Oh. I thought you were going to say something insane again. What made you think of that?" Tan's eyes softened as she waited for Karp's explanation.
"in the bigger settlements overrun by monsters, sometimes a devil would run into a banshee, and its cries sent the nearby monsters into a frenzy, and a horde of skeletons would kill it. that happened a lot in the crossroads at night. actually, that kind of makes me wonder how there are still monsters there... like sometimes asaghi flew too high, and so dragons would either kill them in the air or hit them to the ground. i'd imagine they'd die when they hit the ground even without the skeletons and devils cutting them to pieces."
Again, her three companions stared at her with shocked expressions explanation. "what?"
"You used to... scout.. overrun cites... during ni-night? Even the Cr-Crossroads?"
"sure. it's pretty safe if you lock up the building you're in and don't make any noise."
"What would you have done if you got caught?!"
"oh, that only happened once in the crossroads. the dragons and asaghi ended up too distracted by the burning building to follow us. except for the one that found us in the first place, hurting it must have really ticked it off, and it just followed us for hours. i tried capturing it but must have used too much poison, and it died... though leaving it tied up outside might have been what killed it. i guess that makes option four, poison! this has been a fruitful talk."
"Huh? Capture an asaghi? What would you have done with it if it lived?!" Tan slapped her forehead and violently shook her head.
"Karp, if you would indulge me. For perspective, I had once acquainted a lord who encountered a banshee and promptly evacuated the premises and themselves." Karp nodded along with Tark's explanation. "Surviving a banshee had been so noteworthy that he persistently bragged about fleeing... understand?"
"it's not my fault that you nobles kept the origin of monsters a secret. i mean, i ended up killing many of them, banshees included, before i knew that. now, i just go by them without them attacking me or me attacking them, mostly."
"You know how to avoid having them attack you?" Nordic seemed surprised.
"mostly. at least for skeletons, devils, and banshees. not really sure about dragons or asaghi unless you stay far away from them. if that counts, then yes, all major types of monsters."
"Major types of monsters?" Tan seemed confused by the ambiguous phrasing.
"sure, most living things can turn into monsters. i've seen dogs, rats, birds, and even fish monsters. not really enough to know exactly how they think compared to the more human ones. though i guess dragons are not human-like monsters."
"I think this conversation has gone too far. We just live in a different world compared to her..." Nordic cleared his throat, and Tark and Tan nodded in agreement. He focused on the compass and looked toward the needle. "The compass should be set by now. Oh no... we've been heading almost due south..."
- - -
Nordic the Shark and Karp the Scorpion climbed a series of rungs that lead from just outside the bridge onto the top-most observation platform. The platform may have been the highest point of the ship's superstructure where people could still stand and watch, but only three people could stand comfortably. Nordic went because, as the ship's captain, he understood the ocean and sailing better than anyone else, but Karp wondered why she'd been chosen. Eventually, she just assumed it had something to do with her general lack of sense of self-preservation.
A sentry already sat atop the observation deck, looking out to the water surrounding the vessel.
"Report." Nordic looked at the man.
"Nothing so far, and no sign of the leviathan returning. I think something may be wrong with our heading, though..."
"Why's that?" Nordic already knew about the incorrect heading, which made Karp guess that he wanted to see his subordinate's logic.
"Well, we couldn't tell around noon, but now that it's a little later, the sun's on the wrong side of the ship!" The man pointed to starboard. "Shouldn't we be heading away from the sun by now?"
"Very good. An observation I would expect of one of my sailors! If you're ever in this position again, report your suspicions immediately!" Nordic proudly nodded but seemed to notice that the sailor gave him a confused look. "You see, we just discovered that we're traveling south, so The Scorpion and I are checking for any landmarks to see how far we might be."
"Oh. I've only seen water, and no sign of the leviathan again..."
"i think we've been traveling south for several days by now."
"That's a bit pessimistic, don't you think, Scorpion?" Nordic sighed.
"remember when the sails needed to be adjusted?" Karp looked out into the water, using her hand to block the sun. "are you sure the winds actually changed? i mean, everyone was locked inside because of the storm..."
"Is that the only evidence you have?" Nordic wore a worried expression.
"well... leviathans live near the acid sea at the edge of the world... right?" Nordic nodded. Karp barely made out a red gradient that started as a pink tint but formed a burgundy hue along the horizon. "well, we ran into a leviathan, and i'm pretty sure all that red water over there must be the acid sea."
"Great..." Nordic also squinted at the horizon. He turned inboard and looked down to the weather deck before shouting. "OI! 115 degrees port!"
"115 degrees port aye!" The crew shouted from the deck below while scrambling to readjust the sails and rudder.
"We'll stay up here and watch until the ship changes course." After Nordic finished, Karp nodded. The crew required a surprising amount of time to prepare the vessel to change the header. The acidic water drew closer before the ship's trajectory changed in the slightest. The vessel started veering in a swerving loop that almost reached the pink acid's start before finally righting parallel with the dangerous water. Nordic shouted down to the crew again. "OI! Run straight for five minutes before continuing to full header!"
"Five minutes, aye!" The crew returned his call.
"I don't think we'll ever be this close to the world's edge again. So why not take a peek?" Karp appreciated that view, but besides the unnaturally red water, she couldn't make out anything before the horizon. One minute later, the ship passed what looked like a stretch of clean water running through the acidic water.
"i think that must be from a leviathan entering and leaving. it's dragging in clean water when entering, and i bet we'll run across a streak of acid coming out from where one leaves." Nordic nodded along with her conjecture, obviously approving of its simplicity. "what's that thing?"
"A ship?" Near the edge of the horizon, a ship similar in size to their own crept along. Bones of some kind covered the hull, giving it a ghastly appearance like something a crew of skeleton or devils might use. The bone ship ran parallel to theirs but seemingly avoiding leaving the acidic water instead of avoiding entering it. Nordic shouted down to his crew, "Continuing correcting! Now!"
The crew continued changing heading until they ran north-easterly. Nordic descended to give more fine-tuned instructions to his men. Karp watched the acidic water and mysterious ship that also headed back over the horizon. As she watched, a red line jutted out across the open sea.
- - -
Nordic, Karp, Tark, and the rest of the shifters stood on the weather deck under a clear night sky. Nordic and his first mate needed to compare the night sky to astronomical charts to decide the one that most closely matched their current position. Nordic used a sextant to measure several recognizable constellations relative to the horizon and wrote equations on various maps and charts. Tark and Honet, the first mate, double-checked the figures as Nordic gathered more information.
The more measurements Nordic made, the more accurate the final estimation. He insisted on making the final assessment as precise as possible. They had deviated far off of any maps and could only place themselves somewhere along the edges of the known world. If they miscalculated the route to the Royal Port, they could end up only landing in frozen tundra or possibly require months of rerouting to reach the right area.
"I believe you're right, Scorpion." Nordic finally let out a sigh. "We appear five days more south and four days less east than we should be. The compass must have broken during the storm around the time we adjusted course. Given the circumstances, the distance is not ideal, but we survived pretty well. Though..."
The ship rumbled as an uneven, gyrating body rubbed against the hull underneath the waterline. "Now we just have to deal with that..." Nordic sighed. Every passenger, including Karp, had hoped that traveling away from the acidic water would end their troubles with the leviathan. Unfortunately, the creature simply followed them into the ocean.
"do we have a plan for dealing with that... thing?" Karp placed her hand on the handle to her whip in a subconscious display of annoyance.
Nordic circled the ship, inspecting the narwhal harpoon stations set up to protect every cardinal side. The actual harpoons measured about as long as an outstretched arm and as thick as a forearm. The worried crew watched over the bows from a safe enough distance to prevent themselves from being washed overboard in another water attack. However, they stayed close enough to counter-attack in the case of an emergency.
Each station contained enough harpoons to launch several volleys if required, but they could ultimately only hope the leviathan gave up and returned to the acidic water. The group returned to the ship's front. Around fifty yards ahead, a serpentine body breached the surface in a cresting and subsiding motion just like waves coming into the shoreline. The creature disappeared underwater far enough that every sign of it disappeared.
Several minutes later, a cry called out from portside. The shifters ran to check on the damage and only found a cowering shipmate. Over the railing and through the night's darkness, they could make out the leviathan's head popping out of the surf with unblinking, glowing red eyes. The beast stared at the ship's flank. A moment later, the head splashed down, and the monster swam toward the vessel. Karp and Tan stayed at the launcher to replace the frightened crew, and they watched while it approached.
Once the leviathan reached within firing distance, its head submerged, preventing any chance of firing upon it. A darkened blue mass occasionally rose and bumped into the vessel's underside. The whole ship's shaking felt unfamiliar compared to the rolling and pitching Karp became accustomed to over the last few weeks. "is it toying with us?" No one answered, likely because the question came out sounding more rhetorical than inquisitive.
The ship quieted, but within a few minutes, a dark shape rumbled past and occasionally bumped the hull. Karp felt the sailors' frustrations as the only weapon, the harpoons, were in short supply and completely ineffectual against an enemy they couldn't see. The crew quietly endured the occasional bump.
"Narwhal ahead!" A narwhal, which resembled a whale with a horn growing from its head, swam in the distance. Given the leviathan's scale, it became difficult for Karp to gauge its size without comparing it to the behemoth near them. Still, she thought the creature looked like a juvenile. Despite its young age, it grew to about a tenth of the size of the ship. The playful creature crested above the waves before falling back into the water in a splash.
During one of these playful romps, the Narwhal splashed back into the ocean just in time for the leviathan's head to shoot through the air and swallow it in one monstrous bite. The leviathan splashed back into the water with a lump in its throat that desperately thrashed back and forth. The sea serpent laid on its side while the moving bulge slowed. It completely stopped fighting after a few minutes and slowly snaked its way toward the monster's center. The leviathan sunk back under the waves.
"Maybe that bought us some time..."
Thank you for reading up to current, please consider purchasing the full book. Book IV has a special prologue summarizing the events of Book III from Karp's perspective and special Epilogues that shows events from the book from other people's perspective.
Maybe consider purchasing and reading the Light Novel. Then, enjoy new colored illustrations (also available in the illustrated edition!) posted online each week. You could also enjoy reading the tale from a new perspective once you know the 'whole' story.
Book IV Chapter 10 will be posted in the future, Please come back then! Follow me on social media for an update!