Shift World Prologue
by Christopher W Gamsby
˝I will tell you all that this world knows of shifters,” began Tolk the School Master.
Despite almost every student apathetically daydreaming, Tolk’s confidence that students enjoyed a little dramatic flair and embellishment with their history lessons lit up the village’s small classroom. The children were almost teens and quickly approaching the end of formal schooling. Most didn’t see how history would help them work their family’s farms or businesses, and they had long lost the curiosity typical of children starting their education. However, one excited child, Nort, hidden among the bored faces, hung on every word. Nort daydreamed of becoming a powerful shifter one day, but his spacey personality usually sabotaged his lofty ambitions.
Tolk walked to a hand-drawn map hanging on the classroom’s side. A slightly flattened circular landmass with jagged, irregular coastlines filled the map’s center. From the ocean, three mountain ranges converged at the continent’s center, creating three distinct regions. The two northern parts were approximately the same size, and the southern region used as much space as the other two combined. Arid Desert labeled the northwestern region.
“A chain of active volcanoes just off of the northwest coast cause the desert. Constant eruptions and lava flows heat a large air system known as the Ocean Breeze. The Ocean Breeze flows inland until the heat is dammed by the mountain ranges. That hot air rapidly evaporates surface water not trapped deep below the topsoil. Marauding through the desert, Nomads will rarely find plants growing in the wild, and so animals are also rare.”
Lush Forest labeled the southern region.
“The volcanoes on the west coast extend past the whole continent, but the peaks scatter further apart as the range travels south. Lava flows warm the Southern Wind, which traverses the Lush Forest’s whole length. The hot air is blown back out to sea and is not trapped inland like with the Ocean Breeze because the lower two mountain ranges are almost parallel with the wind. Woodlands cover most of the Lush Forest, but in years of heavy rain, the forests are more like swamps or marshes. Farming is a common way of life here since the soil is rich and easy to work, but many tradesmen make a living shaping and collecting wood.”
Creeping Ice labeled the northeast region.
“The mountain ranges block the Ocean Breeze from reaching the northeast. Some arable land rests in the shadow of the mountains, but snow and ice cover the area moving away from the mountains before reaching the ocean. Miniature ecosystems have formed around lakes and ponds. Seals, dogs, and smaller animals hunt fish that live in the ponds. Bears and dire wolves hunt everything.
“The three mountain ranges meet in the center of the world, but they don’t connect. A nameless village formed in this valley. People eventually called that village the Crossroads.
“The balance of power was radically different one thousand years ago. The Crossroads was little more than an outpost serving as a waypoint for travelers moving between regions.
“Cutting down a tree using stone could take days or weeks, and processing the tree for construction could take two or three times as long. So, clay bricks dug out of the desert were stacked together to form the few buildings at the Crossroads. Sticks were used to build most structures in the Lush Forest. There were as many Nomads in the Creeping Ice as there were Foresters in the Lush Forest and Clay Workers in the Arid Desert.
“However, Tord the Elder changed the world. Building three vast storehouses in the Crossroads should have taken years, but he completed them in months. On the surface, the warehouses stored hard-to-move goods like lumber and clay, but secretly Tord built large gates and guard stands. Sheer cliffs from two different mountain ranges framed a hundred-foot gap at each of the Crossroad’s entrances. One day, Tord started digging ditches in the gaps, and then overnight, he erected gates. Preparing the lumber and digging should have taken years, but once again only took months.
“Tord controlled all access to trade between the three regions, and no one could stop him. The more an area relied on trade, the more Tord exploited it. Tord gave the best terms to Foresters from the Lush Forest because they were the most independent. The Clay Workers of the Arid Desert could only survive by exchanging earthenware with neighboring regions. Therefore, they didn’t fare nearly as well.
“Traditionally, during trade, a Clay Worker headed south with two pots of equal size. A Forester with extra grain headed north, and the two met at the Crossroads. The Forester returned south with one of the containers, and the Clay Worker returned north with its twin filled with grain.
“Tord demanded that Clay Workers submit ten pots’ worth of clay for every container of grain. Tord gave the Foresters two empty pots for one pot of grain. In this way, Tord kept supply high while exploiting the Clay Workers. He also used the Foresters by harvesting all of the forests near the Crossroads. Soon, Tord had enough clay and wood to build his city in the Crossroads, and he named himself king. According to legend, he ruled there for over one hundred and fifty years.
“Over time, tensions between the Nomads and Tord grew. Unlike the Clay Workers, the Nomads could survive mostly independent of commerce. Traditionally, Nomads survived by moving from lake to lake, fishing and hunting. The Nomads burned oils and fats to heat their homes and used pelts and skins to build tents and make clothing. Artisans worked bones and claws into weapons. Inevitably, efficient hunters stockpiled extra hides or weapons and traded with Foresters for food. That food eased the need to hunt, which ensured a healthy supply of prey. Before raising the walls, a bear pelt brought four times its weight in grain, but Tord only gave the Nomads half the weight.
“At first, Nomads refused to trade with Tord. As time droned on, many communities stored a glut of furs, teeth, and weapons but still hunted food. After hunters eradicated smaller prey, predators attacked Nomads. Within a few years, Nomads begrudgingly traded again. Bears and wolves attacked hunting Nomads, and survivors transformed into wild and hard predators like the animals they now routinely fought off. The Nomads finally decided to act, but they had waited too long.
“None of the Nomads’ bone and claw weapons could damage a large gate made of logs. If they even attempted to break through, the guards along the tower could kill them before the wall sustained severe damage. Several Nomad communities gathered at the wooden gate separating the Crossroads and the Creeping Ice. Nomads threw bottles of heating oil onto the wooden gates as guards rained stone arrows on the rebels. After hundreds of bottles smashed against the barrier and dozens of men and women lay dying or dead, a single person charged the gate with a torch. One arrow punctured her left arm, and she continued toward the gate with little more than a stagger. A second arrow grazed her fur pants and ripped her thigh. After a few near misses, the woman finally reached the gate and threw the torch. Two arrows struck her chest, and she fell into a puddle of oil. Spreading flames consumed her body.
“The remaining Nomads gathered just out of arrow range and waited for the gate to collapse. There was no change in the gate for several minutes until popping burst through the roaring flames. A loud crack snapped the cold air, and the gate collapsed within the smoke. The Nomads charged forward, but Crossroad guards’ arrows cut through the smoke. Members of the charging horde hit the ground one by one, but most people were going to make it through. The people in front halted just short of the fallen logs. They stood gaping at a large stone wall. Unsure how such a thing even existed, the Nomads fled, broken and disheartened. That large stone wall became known as the Burnt Gate.
“Almost twenty percent of all Nomads fell outside the Crossroads, and this failed revolution forced the Summer of Starvation. The greatest hunters led the first charge, and most of the dead were the men and women responsible for trapping, killing, and hauling the animals essential for survival. Families with members strong enough to hunt fractured from the communities. Villages that burned all of their oil on the burnt gate froze to death within a month. Those lucky enough to stay warm starved to death.
“Individual families had a chance, but hunters in parties with few people found themselves victims to larger predators. If a family’s hunters died, all members eventually shared the same fate. More than half of all Nomads perished within three months. Eighty percent died within five years. The remaining families came together, and fortunes started reversing. Within another ten years, all of the Creeping Ice's families merged until only two communities remained.
“Some texts call the burning of the gate ‘the sun rising in the Summer of Starvation.’ If that’s the case, then Tord’s riders heralded the moon rising on the last day of summer. Fifteen years after the initial revolt, Tord sent emissaries to the new communities’ leaders. The riders brought an ultimatum, either the communities swore loyalty to Tord and submitted to rule by an appointed lord or they would be completely cut off and watch their communities die off again. The emissary promised that the communities that cooperated would receive fair compensation for any goods.
“Tord erected a trade lift on the stone wall. At first, no one brought items, but friends and family were starving to death, and so the desperate appeared at the lift. Survivors exchanged all of a deceased family’s possessions for a few days’ worth of food, and Tord shrewdly amassed massive wealth while watching his enemies wither away. Tord managed to plunder the Creeping Ice without ever leaving the Crossroads.
“When humans choose between survival or pride, pride fades. Community leaders saved the Nomads by swearing allegiance to Tord. Within fifty years of sealing off the Crossroads, Tord ruled the world. Enthralled by a complete dependency on trade, the Clay Workers begged for Tord’s rule within a decade of the Clay Gate’s construction. But the Clay Workers suffered at Tord’s hand too. Nearly half died from starvation or were murdered for what little food they possessed. The Foresters resisted having a ruler, even though Tord had given them generous trading terms for decades. Tord used the Summer of Starvation’s pillage to bribe southern leaders to convince Foresters that their prosperity stemmed from The Elder. Foresters submitted to The Elder's rule shortly after the Summer of Starvation ended.
“Tord wanted to reduce the number of Nomads near the Crossroads and reduce the chance of another rebellion. Tord’s Empire built a port on the eastern shore of the Lush Forest, with ships capable of traveling around the mountains separating the Creeping Ice. Tord was able to take advantage of one misstep by his enemies and became the first ruler of the world after fighting one battle and sustaining no casualties. Tord’s Empire lingered for another four hundred fifty years, and so did the Clay Workers’ and the Nomads’ animosity.
“The second person to change world history was Snorg the Conqueror. Five hundred years ago, he and his followers appeared at the eastern port and slaughtered the city guard, securing the sea route. Survivors described The Conqueror as a demon shroud in an evil black aura that repelled arrows and spears. He could bolt twice a normal man’s speed, and his fire cleaved his victims in two. His eyes glowed red to match a fiery crown adorning his brow. Some texts claim that The Conqueror received his power from eating special berries. Of course, we now know the ‘evil black aura’ was simply armor, the ‘fire’ was a sword, and the ‘fiery crown’ was red enamel on his helm. This was the first time that anyone ever saw metal, so the confusion is understandable. Originally The Conqueror was called The Demon King, and that made him the first person to ever receive a name based on armor. This tradition started with The Demon King because his identity was unknown, but his exploits spread and people needed to call him something. They settled on The Demon King because anyone would know the ghastly sight of a demon. The royal family still uses black steel lined with red and bears the name ‘demon.’”
Famous warriors and nobles received titles based on some characteristic of their armor. These titles had no official importance but originated as people used a set of armor’s defining characteristics to identify important people. Warriors took pride in the notoriety implied by needing a name. Nobles felt ashamed if commoners knew so little about them as to not recognize them on sight.
“Shortly after taking the Eastern Port, Nomads flooded the Lush Forest. Texts have been unclear whether The Conqueror was a Forester who used the Nomads’ hatred and fighting abilities to his advantage or a Nomad seeking a footing in the Lush Forest before bringing his comrades over to march to the Crossroads. Attacking the Crossroads through the Lush Forest was necessary because there were no strong defenses facing south. The Foresters lived easy lives, and the idea of a Forester rebellion seemed laughable to Tord’s Empire.
“In contrast, five hundred years of oppression by Tord’s Empire transformed Nomads into fierce fighters. Every day in the Creeping Ice, Nomads battled against nature. The warriors suffered through cold, exertion, starvation, and large predators. The Conqueror brought only five hundred Nomads, all experienced killers clad in different types of armor, and marched north to the Crossroads.
“Foresters lived mainly from farming and only infrequently hunted. Even when a Forester hunted, they generally killed an animal from a distance with stone arrows. The Foresters did not know close-range fighting, and stone arrows didn’t penetrate the Nomads’ armor. The Conqueror marched from stronghold to stronghold with no interference on the road. At first, strongholds stood against the Nomads, but each time they tried, metal axes tore apart wooden doors as arrows ricocheted off breastplates and helms. Nomads killed resisting lords or soldiers in plain view of the whole keep. The Conqueror released the most frightened captives and waited weeks before departing for the next stronghold. The feigned mercy ensured that all towns on the way to the Crossroads heard the tales of The Demon King and not the stories of a conquering man.
“The strongholds approaching the Wooden Gate were emptied or their lords immediately surrendered. One year after entering the port, The Conqueror marched on the Wooden Gate. Snorg stood at the entrance and demanded surrender. Only the most loyal guards remained, and they refused. The Conqueror sliced a hole in the Wooden Gate, but this time the rebels found a short and incomplete stone wall blocking the Crossroads. The Conqueror spared no noble family and took no prisoners; the Nomads killed all the guards and inhabitants. The Conqueror stood atop the Burned Gate and witnessed the Nomads’ shouts and celebration.
“To Snorg’s surprise, elders waited for him at the Clay Gate. The Clay Workers no longer supplied the Crossroads with clay or stone while The Demon King moved across the Lush Forest. Snorg now controlled the Crossroads and appointed Clay Workers and Nomads to rule the strongholds of the Lush Forest.
“Nomads rebuilt the Crossroads using stone quarried with the newly discovered metals. They replaced the Wooden Gate with a large iron gate, which subsequently was called the Iron Gate. The fledgling ruler altered the Burned Gate to allow free passage between the Creeping Ice and the Crossroads. All wealth flowed from the Crossroads and the Lush Forest into the Creeping Ice. Nomad lords lounged in stone palaces and fortresses well insulated from the harsh cold. Charcoal extracted from deep within the mountains and wood imported from the south warmed large stone halls. The Nomads hunted for leisure and no longer needed game to supply oils and hides.
“Metal axes felled trees in minutes instead of days. Metal tools broke the soil and cleared crops much faster than bone or stone. Even though the Nomad lords who ruled from strongholds in the south demanded reparations, the Foresters produced grain and wood so efficiently that they paid the high tariffs without needing for anything. After the Nomads assumed lordships, metal armor became the sign of nobility. The rarity and intricacy of armor measured a noble’s rank.
“The Elder lived on for a century after needing decades to control the world, but The Conqueror only lived for years after winning the crown. The Conqueror was crowned king in his forties but died an old codger within ten years. Snorg’s children ruled after his death. Although the lords kept faith in the royal family, they took liberties with how they treated the Foresters. The lords who starved and lost loved ones to the foul treatment of Tord’s Empire returned the favor to the Foresters, who lived easy lives. The royal family became less involved in running the empire. Lords constantly clashed in attempts to gain more land, protect oppressed neighbors, or defend against imagined slights. Within one hundred years, the empire threatened to tear itself apart until The Conqueror’s great-granddaughter, Tash the Demon Reborn, took control.
“The Ivory Bull was once known as The Iron Bull and was lord of a small hold on the easternmost inhabitable region of the Lush Forest. The Ivory Bull invaded and supplanted half a dozen lords under various dubious pretenses. He controlled the whole eastern area of the Lush Forest, and to this day, that region is known as the Pasture. As the empire appeared on the brink of collapse, Tash called the lords of strongholds to negotiate laws to govern the land. At the conference, The Ivory Bull rose and interrupted Tash as she addressed the crowd. The Ivory Bull proclaimed that he was king of the Pasture and that none would oppose him since the royal family was nothing but weak cowards. Tash came off the dais wearing the standard leather tunic of any ordinary Forester.
“Tash challenged The Ivory Bull to single combat. She proposed to not only allow him to become king of the Pasture if he won but also offered to surrender all of the world. The Ivory Bull gladly accepted her challenge and ran straight at Tash but was stopped dead in his tracks by a red sword on his neck. A woman clad in black armor with a red steel crown outlined on the brow of her helm held the sword. Dead eyes peered through a slot in the face mask. Tash had disappeared and The Demon Reborn stood before The Ivory Bull. He was so shocked that he shouted for his comrades waiting outside the hall. Warriors dressed in armor of every color flew into the chamber at his command. To his dismay, though, instead of drawing their swords, the warriors’ lifeless bodies dropped to the ground. The royal guard, dressed in matching red steel armor, stepped out of the open doors and climbed in the open windows. The royal guard became known as the Dragon Guard because of their matching dragon fire steel. The Ivory Bull started to plead for his life, but The Demon Reborn only said, in Tash’s voice, ‘one on one,’ and took his head. From then on, all of the nobility heeded the laws of the first council or faced The Demon’s Wrath. The grievances between the Nomads and Foresters eased from generation to generation. The lords began to negotiate with village elders and often held trade conferences.
“The attending Foresters noticed that as the lords negotiated, subtle changes took place in their appearance. A cleanly shaven lord could appear to have stubble or not from one moment to the next. A smudge could appear on an otherwise pristine plate of armor. People referred to these small changes as shifts. The envoys and lords known to shift were called shifters. Some suspected that this strange phenomenon was related to the power The Conqueror had used to take the world, the strength the Demons had used to control the lords, and the sudden appearance of metal. They were right, of course, but it took several decades before the truth became common knowledge.
“Around three hundred years ago, common Foresters began to appear possessing weapons and armor. Wild tales circulated of a mysterious land that on the surface seemed similar to this world, but was filled with treasure, weapons, and monsters. Snorg’s Empire feared armed uprisings and tried a new tactic that surprised everybody: the truth. The empress announced that there was, in fact, a world connected to this one, and it was filled with treasure, weapons, and monsters. Every year, people were born with the ability to travel between this world and that world on a whim. Those were the people who became known as shifters, and so the other world became known as the Shift World. While a shifter is in the Shift World, time stops in this world. Any changes that happen to a shifter in the Shift World also happen to them in this world. If they die in the Shift World, their bodies disappear from this world as well. They can also bring objects from one world to another.
“Shifters in the Shift World can destroy enemies with magic bolts and alter metals at will. The shifters pay a price, however; the longer a person stays in the Shift World, the quicker they age. His youth was the price The Conqueror paid while he was king. The war appeared to be a one-sided slaughter by a supremely outmatched opponent, but in reality, Snorg spent years of his life getting equipment and planning his strategy. The Conqueror only lived another ten years in this world because he was also living in the Shift World, securing weapons and developing tactics for the Demons and his lords so they could maintain power.
“Much of the world’s culture changed with the emergence of shifters. Shifters commonly secured safe houses in the Shift World, where they stored food, water, and valuables. Shifters went to those storehouses during negotiations to consider how best to proceed and to contemplate terms. After returning to this world, shifters then controlled the pace of the talks by quickly making offers and counteroffers. Their negotiation partners felt the need to respond rapidly and would often make short-sighted or unfavorable deals. To combat the growing paranoia that one party was actually a shifter, nobles and envoys arrived at negotiations with intricate patterns shaved into the back of their heads. If their hair grew, they could not recreate the design themselves. Since much of the Shift World is destitute, polished seashell steel became the symbol of diplomats and traders. If a shifter went to the Shift World, sand and dust tarnished polished white armor and became impossible to clean.
“Metal is now common for everyone to own. Metal axes and picks made building sturdy structures affordable. Our holidays celebrate some of the most influential shifters through history, like The Demon King and The Demon Reborn. Tournaments held every ten years find the strongest fighters. These tournaments initially determined lords but then found strong warriors capable of leading armies.
“The Shift World still holds mysteries. For example, we only recently found clothing made from a soft fabric. Although the fashion hasn’t caught on for everyday wear, most people wear some form of cloth during special events and holidays. This clothing is too delicate to replace the brown leather worn day in and day out. Fabric clothing has become a symbol of wealth among commoners.
“We are not sure why one person becomes a shifter over another. People with family who are shifters are more likely to become shifters themselves, but it’s not a guarantee like hair color or eye color. During the dawn of the new age three hundred years ago, one in every two thousand people were shifters, but today that number is closer to one in ten thousand. Just like we don’t know why people become shifters, we don’t understand why people are losing that ability either.
"There are only two known shifters in this region, Korg the Whitecoat and his protégé, Karp.”