Shift World Chapter 7
by Christopher W Gamsby
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Shortly after daybreak the next morning, Karp, Slart, and Nort headed into the Village of the Bog Djinn. The group first checked the village’s centerpiece warehouse. Houses and businesses spread out from the warehouse, and any possible answers would most likely come from that building. The warehouse’s heavy main doors sat ajar. Smashed crates littered the work floor. A large hole had been punched through the face of a stone vault in the rear. Empty racks designed to hold weapons and armor filled the space. Disappointed at the barren remains, the group left the warehouse.
Almost every house extending from the warehouse had fire damage ranging from singed walls and roofs to burnt foundations. The local inn’s roof had burned and collapsed into the second floor, but the first floor still had several usable rooms. The general store hadn’t fared as well; the entire structure had collapsed into a heap of rotting wood and ash. No signs of life showed in the looted remnants.
˝if anyone survived, they left a long time ago.”
˝Yeah. Uh, which way do you want to go?”
˝what are the options?”
˝Well, uh, we can continue up the trade route and then head south through a little swamp, or we can just head north and cut through the big swamp.”
Something in one of the burnt-out houses reacted to the sound of their voices. A wooden beam crashed through the darkness, and Karp freed her whip. Nort dropped his riding cloak and swung the morning shield off his back.
˝get out here!”
An emaciated girl stumbled out of the building with a jerky unsteady gait. Her skin stretched over her bones like a skeleton, but her complexion was pale and not gray. Slart pushed her way forward, approached the girl, and wrapped her arms around the child.
˝What’s uh wrong, sweetie?”
The child pulled away and looked into Slart’s eyes. Slart placed her hand on the girl’s face, and the girl flinched. Eventually, she gave up resisting and buried her face into Slart’s blouse.
˝what’s your name?”
The child peeked out at Karp, who tried to force a smile. Then, the child buried her face deeper into Slart’s blouse and cried.
˝do you think she’s been here since the village was destroyed?”
˝Just look at her! I’d say that’s a safe bet.”
Slart gently rubbed the back of the child’s head.
˝how old do you think she is? she’s too tall to be a little kid, but she doesn’t act like a teenager...”
˝She’s been through a lot, that’s all...”
˝What are we going to do with her? We can’t bring her with us, and we can’t leave her here.”
˝Well...maybe I should bring her back to the uh Traitor’s Tavern Inn.”
˝don’t you need to talk to trolt?”
˝I guess you’ll have to do it. Just find out if he still plans on sending convoys through town and supplying the general store.”
The idea of talking to Trolt daunted Karp, but she thought this task would be easy enough.
˝which way should we go?”
˝Well...since I’m not going to be there, take the main route, but the main route goes all the way around the swamp, and you’re going to need to travel for two days to even get there.”
˝what exactly is the time difference?”
˝Hmmm...through the swamp about a day and a half, around the swamp about six days.”
˝i think we’ll take the swamp trail. do we need to know anything?”
˝Just take the path and uh if it forks, just head north. Eventually, you’ll see a tall stone keep. That’s your destination.”
Karp and Nort escorted Slart and the girl to the main gate at the edge of the forest so that Slart and the girl could return to the Village of the Traitor’s Tavern. They carried food but didn’t have a tent for their return to the Village of the Traitor’s Tavern. More than likely, they would spend the next night at a stranger’s farmhouse.
Karp and Nort returned to the village and searched for signs of the villagers’ fates, but the burnt-out houses yielded no clues. After a fruitless search, they spent the night in a mostly undamaged room on the first floor of the inn.
Within a few hours of traveling through the swamp, Karp and Nort were completely, helplessly lost. Slart had failed to mention that some trails forked northwest and northeast and hadn’t indicated which was a better north. Karp and Nort trudged through a quagmire. Every step sucked their boots into the mud, and their greaves released with a pop. Trudging through mud became exhausting, and Karp rested where the bog intersected another path. She surveyed the northern skyline, but there wasn’t a stone tower. Nort finally caught up, and they had a quick drink of water before continuing.
After following a dirt path for a few minutes, the pair reached an opening. A field with bushes replaced the swamp and trees. They stood under open skies for the first time in hours. Karp breathed in deep, choked, and wrinkled her nose.
˝ack...why do swamps smell this bad?”
˝I don’t know, but it’s not natural.”
Karp and Nort followed the path but stopped dead in their tracks after some shrubbery. Bodies were piled practically to the top of a twenty-five-foot-long by twelve-foot-wide trench dug just off the side of the road. Skin and flesh partially slid off decomposing corpses. The pristine bodies of skeletons and devils mixed in with the rotting people.
˝What...what are...tho...those things?”
˝the ones with greenish-gray skin pulled tight and bulged eyes are skeletons, the ones with dark skin and what looks like scales are devils.”
˝Why are they here?”
˝i don’t know. maybe they attacked that village.”
˝But then why are they HERE?”
˝that’s much harder to explain.”
Karp put her hands on Nort’s shoulders and turned him from the pit. They unsteadily walked down the path. Eventually, it thinned to a few feet and was again surrounded by trees and swamp. Something disturbed the bushes behind them.
Karp pushed Nort, and they sprinted down the path. A rustling sound followed and drew closer. A strange shrieking and whining roared from behind. After passing out of the trees, Karp and Nort dove and rolled off the path into an open field. Karp spun mid-tumble, drew her dagger, and finished the roll crouched on her feet ready to strike. A wild boar bolted from the path and crossed the field.
˝there goes dinner.”
Karp and Nort laughed. Karp’s eyes moved from the boar to the horizon. Multiple stories of dark stone lined with white trim dominated the landscape. Dark brown stones circled stories above the tree line to create a pair of guard towers. Barely visible soldiers in white stood sentry on landings. The roof’s dark blue tiles speckled with gold that glowed ominously against the orange sky.
˝that’s where we’re going. i’m guessing it’s about two or three hours from here. we’ll make camp in this field and head there at first light.”
Nort marveled at the large stone building.
˝this is the first time you’ve seen a building like that, huh?”
˝Yeah, I’ve only ever seen the vaults at the general store and The Whitecoat’s compound.”
˝they’re all over the place in the shift world.”
˝well, we only have them now after we discovered metal, and only the really rich have them. I guess since the shift world had always had metal, they just built a bunch.”
˝if there are no people there, who built everything?”
˝there must have been people there at some point, but they all disappeared a thousand years ago. i mean, in the conqueror’s time there were just monsters, so at least that long ago...”
The next morning, Karp and Nort emerged from the tree line and faced a fifty-foot chasm between them and the stone castle. Nort’s eyes darted between parapets on the wall and stone towers that rose over the main keep. Karp tapped his shoulder and pointed to a small wood and rope bridge. The pair skirted the chasm until they reached the dilapidated bridge.
Karp stepped on to the nearest wooden slab, and the bridge swayed unevenly. The boards creaked and cracked under the weight of Nort’s steps. The wind blew around the rickety suspension bridge, and Karp and Nort threw their arms around the suspension ropes. Guards on the wall’s walkways notched arrows and followed the pair’s every move. Nort’s leg broke through a rotten plank and sunk to the knee. Karp wanted to help but was afraid the bridge wouldn’t support them both in the same spot. Fortunately, though, Nort wiggled his leg free of the hole and continued advancing.
The bridge led to a tunnel filled with murder holes barely large enough to fit an arrow. People scurried behind the walls. The heavy door at the end of the hall opened as Karp and Nort arrived. A young man wearing a steel helmet addressed them.
˝Come with me.”
The guard scurried back into the castle. Karp and Nort followed, and two other guards shut the heavy door.
˝You caused quite a stir.”
˝We expected three people coming through the main gate, not two people coming through the back gate.”
˝there’s another gate?”
˝Of course! Do you think houseguests normally cross a rickety bridge over a deep chasm that only connects to a swamp? No one’s used that bridge in years! Do you have any clue how dangerous that was? The servants have a dance troupe and band too. They were waiting at the main gate for you! They’re going to be so disappointed!”
The guard led the pair to a large door. The doors swung open to a mostly empty grand hall. A withered old man was hunched over a large wooden chair at the end of the auditorium. Six guards clad in seashell armor lined with yellow steel stood sentry. The old man perked up when the visitors approached.
˝Sir! The Morning Shield and The Scorpion have arrived without Slart... They entered through the rear door.”
˝Oh, hee hee. The rear door you say? Oh, the servants are going to be so disappointed.”
Trolt dismissed the guard with a wave. Karp stood straight, met eyes with Trolt, and bowed.
˝i’m karp the scorpion, app...”
˝Ha ha ha ha oh cut it out, eh? I’m too old to waste my life with formalities. I already know who you are, and you know who I am. Why isn’t Slart with you?”
˝we were checking out the village of the bog djinn, and we found a starving girl in the wreckage. we didn’t think she could survive the trip here, and we didn’t want to leave her, so slart took her back to the traitor’s tavern.”
˝Hee hee oh, was that all? No other reasons, aye?”
˝we were attacked on the road by a group of shifters. we foiled their ambush, but one escaped. i know you might find this hard to believe, but someone found a way to bring skeletons and devils back from the shift world, so i sent her back so she wouldn’t be in the way if we fought someone or something stronger.”
˝Phhhhh...oh, come on! That’s not possible.”
˝it is. we were attacked by a devil outside the village, and we found the villagers’ bodies in the woods mixed in with skeletons and devils.”
˝Why are you so sure? Psshhhh…what do you know of skeletons anyway?”
Trolt moved around in his seat. Karp realized there was something more to his words, but Nort was still clueless.
˝They are monsters from the Shift World. They clearly destroyed whatever civilization built the ruins. Probably thousands of years ago. They are soulless killers that look vaguely human but can only destroy and kill. Shifters need to destroy these monsters to win prizes and fame.”
Trolt lacked any hint of playfulness.
˝Is that what they teach you in school, boy? They are monsters? Monsters created by shifters! They aren’t built with dirt and soil. Oh no! They are made by exposing people to shifter magic. All shifter magic radiates power, an energy that corrupts the life of everything that’s not a shifter. The more powerful and destructive the magic, the more energy that radiates. So, these ‘monsters’ are those who survived fireballs and shock waves and changed. The more power they were exposed to, the stronger the monster they became. This didn’t happen thousands of years ago or even one thousand years ago. It started five hundred years ago with the arrival of The Conqueror.”
The guards reacted to Trolt’s emotions until he raised his hand, and they returned to their posts. Trolt calmed a little.
˝The Conqueror lived in my world for many years, and then one day he destroyed the Crossroads. Poof! Blighted the whole area. Blighted the whole area! There is no record as to why he did it, but it happened. Soon more and more shifters began to appear. Those shifters became warlords, bandits, and kings. They pillaged whatever they wanted. Changed people into monsters just to set an example or used them as weapons. These creatures can’t be controlled, so as often as not, those shifters destroyed whole villages or towns, but didn’t gain a thing. The Demon Reborn tried to stop the destruction, but after one hundred years, it was too late. My world was completely ravaged.”
Nort was so amazed at the difference between Trolt’s version of history and what he had learned at school that his thoughts just slipped out.
˝Are you The Bog Djinn?”
Trolt’s mood lightened.
˝Hee hee, you mean you came here and didn’t even know that much? What DID The Whitecoat tell you?”
Nort’s directness stupefied Karp.
˝Well...nothing. We just knew the legend of The Bog Djinn and figured he must be a shifter.”
˝Oh? What is the legend these days? Hmmm? It seems to get worse every year!”
˝Uh, let’s see. The Bog Djinn is three hundred years old and grants wishes. If he grants your wish, he takes everything you love when you die.”
˝Uh, what a hoot! It’s actually not that far off, but a little bit, hmm, exaggerated. I am close to three hundred years old, but I don’t grant wishes. By the time I was a hundred, I had more wealth than I knew what to do with, so I started investing it. People kept control of their businesses, and when they died, it became all mine. I won half of the largest businesses in the world, wu ha ha ha ah.”
˝do you now own the whitecoat’s trade business?”
˝I always have, my dear. Don’t worry, Slart will take over the store, and you will take over running the warehouse.”
˝...but the whitecoat never taught me how to make cloth.”
˝Wow wow wow, you really don’t know anything. Korg couldn’t make cloth; he was just a middleman. He would bring iron and steel to the other Shift World and trade it for cloth. He would then sell the cloth here for about ten times what it cost him there. You look confused... I’m telling you, he’s an angel and he would trade for it. These shifters you’ve been facing are demons from that world. They also act as middlemen.”
˝you said demon, angel, and magic. where did you learn these terms?”
˝Hee hee, do you think The Morning Shield is the first scholar I’ve met? People show up, read their books, and seek out the three-hundred-year-old. People who come through the Shift World tend to call everything angels, demons, scholars, and magic. People who come the other way tend to say djinn, fury, planes-walker, and abilities.”
˝that’s quite a coincidence.”
˝Oh, not really. At some point someone got the idea to carry a book that explains everything, and they started convincing others to carry books and told them what to write.”
˝how would you know if someone is a scholar?”
˝It’s actually straightforward. You look for someone who randomly shows up with no memory, wearing armor that doesn’t fit.”
Trolt looked squarely at Nort.
˝You mean The Whitecoat knew all along??”
˝Sure did! Probably would have told you too, maybe, but how do you tell a kid they are something that doesn’t exist?”
There was an awkward silence as the words sank in.
˝why are the down-shifters attacking?”
˝I don’t know... We set up this trading racket to prevent this. We were hoping that if we introduced metals to the other world and taught them about powers and the genocide that comes with using powers carelessly that they wouldn’t attack. It did work for a while, oh...maybe thirty years, but then one day, the shifters disappeared and started killing, stealing, and destroying towns.”
The Bog Djinn sighed, as though the weight of the conversation had squeezed the air out of him.
˝Unfortunately, human nature probably just won out. Why live like lords when you can live like kings? Or gods?”
˝i guess we’re going to have to go to the shift world and get better gear.”
Trolt’s knuckles turned white as he grabbed the arm on his chair.
˝Did you hear nothing I said? Your people committed genocide for baubles and trinkets! You can stay for tonight, but tomorrow you must leave.”
Guards approached Karp and Nort to escort them from the room.
Trolt gestured to an attendant on the edge of the room. The attendant left and returned with a scroll. Trolt took and unrolled the scroll.
˝This is the written system of my people. Although we speak the same language, the writing systems are different. Our writing is sound-based, so if you use the scroll, you can decode what books say. If you insist on going back to the Shift World, bring back any books you might come across that look important.”
Trolt offered the scroll and Karp walked up, her riding cloak parted, as she extended her hand. Trolt read the writing on the whip’s handle.
˝Do you remember where you got that whip? It reads ‘Morgoth.’ That was a medium lord who lived around three months southeast of the provincial capital. The capital was one of the last places that still had humans. If there is anything left in the region stronger than that dragon fire knife, it will be there.”
˝thank you for that. also, thank you for the dagger, but what do you mean ‘i’ve grown’?
˝Hee hee, one slip of the tongue is all it took, aye? Well, a few years ago I got reports that a young woman had shifted and stole something. Soon, caravans reported losing money at the throwing board to a young woman who seemed to know the answer to everything. Then there were sightings of a woman who didn’t sleep but practiced in the woods at night and seemed to have access to armor. Finally, it all came together after you ended up in the Traitor’s Tavern. Now you’re getting ready to take over The Whitecoat’s business. Quite a distance you’ve traveled, I’d say.”
Karp and Nort left the Bog Djinn’s castle the next day. To have a smoother return, they decided to travel the main road instead of traversing the swamp, even though it would take several more days. The road leading around the swamp headed north to a milling town before turning east and then south. Karp and Nort departed The Bog Djinn’s castle’s main gate. Two horse-drawn carts could travel abreast on the walkway of solid stone spanning the chasm on stone pillars. Karp and Nort crossed the bridge after being sent off with a special performance by Trolt’s servants.
˝So...do you think they practiced that?”
˝Have you ever seen anything like that?”
˝I think next time we risk the back door.”
˝What do you think about what The Bog Djinn said?”
˝i knew korg was keeping something from us, but i didn’t know it was this much.”
˝Well, that much didn’t even phase me. I mean, what he said about devils and skeletons. Do you think it’s OK to kill them?”
˝i don’t think that has changed. they are mindless and will kill us if they get the chance.”
˝Do you think they can change or be fixed?”
˝i doubt it; they are probably at least two hundred fifty to three hundred years old. Even if we ‘fixed’ them, they’d be dead anyway.”
˝You said, ‘if they get the chance.’ What if we just didn’t give them a chance?”
˝what? like sneak around them?”
˝what purpose would that serve? if there is any humanity left, they must be in agony.”
˝...but how do you know that? You just kill them on sight!”
Karp and Nort walked the road, each peering off into the distance on either side. A doe walked into an open field near an old destroyed farmhouse and ate wild wheat stalks. A calf stumbled through bushes on the way to its mother. Every leap, the calf tripped, and its front legs buckled under the rest of its body. Each time it fell, the calf clumsily rose and leaped again. The calf tried and failed until it joined the doe and feasted on the succulent plants. Karp smiled and turned to Nort to show him the wild deer, but he had instinctually turned from her gaze just as she tried to get his attention.
Karp and Nort walked in silence for the next several hours, until they reached the inn at the milling village. Karp was unsure of what to say since Nort was right in that she had never tried to understand the creatures in the Shift World, but she also didn’t believe change was possible. Once they were at the inn, Karp booked two rooms, and they headed to the tavern.
Karp and Nort took the beers to a nearby table, sat down, and drank in silence. Karp spoke only after finishing a few rounds and eating a warm seasoned dinner.
˝why don’t we just go back to the village of the traitor’s tavern and live out our days there?”
˝What are you going on about?”
˝i mean, we talk about getting weapons to fight some opponent that probably doesn’t even care about us. why don’t we just go back to the traitor’s tavern? me, you, and your mom can live in peace. one day, you will meet a nice girl, and there’ll be a wedding. slart will have grandkids to chase after, and in fifty years, we’ll all die in our sleep, and your children and grandchildren will mourn our passing.”
˝How can you be drunk already?”
˝i’m not. i’m serious. you know that one barmaid likes you. especially since you...um…grew up.”
˝I doubt you could stay still that long. We’re going back to the Village of the Traitor’s Tavern anyway.”
Nort’s voice carried further than Karp’s, and those sitting at nearby tables all suddenly hushed. A man turned and spoke.
˝You haven’t heard yet?”
˝The village square has been attacked.”
˝we already know about the festival.”
˝No, a few days ago... They burned the village hall and killed any witnesses...”
˝did they destroy the general store?!”
Karp grabbed the man by the collar. Her cloak parted, and people saw her armor and whip.
˝Scorpion...I…don’t know... The news today is bleak. The Mandrake's curse is spreading around the roads, heading toward the capital. People are disappearing, dying. The Traitor’s Tavern is just one thing and not all that clear...”
Karp released the man and turned to Nort.
˝we need to go back to the tavern and check on slart. maybe we can get information from the girl.”