Shift World Chapter 1
by Christopher W Gamsby
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Karp stumbled back and thrust her staff into the ground in a last-ditch effort to keep from falling. The ringing in her ears nauseated her till she dizzied. Basic armored combat with her master, Korg the Whitecoat, ended the day's training. Before training for the first time, Karp had insisted on learning to fight in full plate armor, but The Whitecoat insisted she learn armored combat in chainmail instead. Fighting in plate armor was usually a battle of attrition. The loser would tire first, and Karp was too physically weak to outlast most opponents. Karp's intelligence and keen natural desire to understand her opponents and exploit their weaknesses gave her the best chance of victory. In light armor, she could outmaneuver her opponents, surprise them, or retreat and make the best use of her cunning. It was the right decision, but every time Korg's staff connected with her minimal protection, a shockwave traveled through Karp's chainmail hauberk and thick leather under-armor. The pain bore deep into her muscles and bones, a painful reminder of every little failure.
The Whitecoat shuffled his feet while he waited for Karp to make her next move. Karp leaned on her staff, analyzing all of Korg's movements.
his right foot leaves the ground, and his left hand raises slightly and returns. then his left foot and right hand. if i attack his left side as his right foot lowers, that moment of hesitation as he switches from lowering his hand might be enough.
As Korg's right foot lowered, Karp shot out the end of her staff toward Korg's left shoulder. In one flawless motion, the right side of Korg's staff rose, swung around, and knocked away the incoming blow. The left side dropped down, shot up, and struck Karp's chest, knocking her into the air and onto the ground. If Karp's skill showed that she had been learning to fight for three years, then Korg's expertise reflected one hundred years of training.
Karp rolled onto her stomach, coughing from the dust that lined the training field. She then attempted to take The Whitecoat unaware by raising her staff for a downward strike as she rose from the ground. The staff whiffed through the air and struck the ground with enough force for the end to lodge in loose dirt. Karp hadn't even seen Korg move, but his staff connected with the back of her leg and she dropped to one knee.
˝Oh, what's wrong? You're not getting tired, are you?”
Karp loosened her grip on the staff and concentrated on the world. The sky shook, and the ground circled. Cracks formed throughout her field of vision, and the view of a room filled the cracks. Cabinets and a roof appeared through the voids. The swirling ground tore to reveal a dirt floor. The sky, forest, and field shrunk into little cracks that disappeared altogether. Karp knelt in a room with clay jars lining the walls and wooden cabinets anchored above them. She then started her ritual for when she didn't want to be discovered shifting.
right knee on ground. left heel even with knee. back straight. head looking at end of staff on ground. left hand on fourth notch from end. right hand in center. right arm fully extended. elbow over knee.
Karp repeated these thoughts while committing the feeling to her limbs. After a few minutes, Karp felt comfortable in her memory and stood. She leaned the staff on a small square table in the room's center and started toward a cabinet on the far wall, agonizing over every step. Lifting her feet took all her concentration and each step crashed to the ground. Karp placed a hand on the side of the cabinets to steady herself and used her other hand to swing open a door. She was too tired to accurately move her body around the opening door and accidentally clipped her chest. She reached into the cabinet, removed a piece of paper and chunk of charcoal, carried them back to the little desk, and drew an outline of a person. Karp looked down at her legs. After a quick examination, she drew a dark circle on the right knee. She stared down at her chest and copied a few lines on the right side of the drawing's chest. Karp cataloged the dirt, stains, and smudges from the front of her armor. She removed her chainmail, placed the pieces on the table, and recorded the armor's rear. After cataloging every ding, smudge, dust, or stain onto the parchment, Karp moved from the center table. After approaching the clay jars that lined the wall, she removed a jar's lid and withdrew a piece of bread, some fruit, and a slice of salted meat.
korg was right; i was getting tired.
Karp bit the salted meat as she walked toward a door in the front of the main room. Free of the armor's weight, her pace quickened. She grabbed the main door's handle and shook. The door rattled but stayed secured. She strolled to a small bedroom connected to the rear of the main room. After crossing the threshold into the small bedroom, she removed her leather gear. Karp finished her meal before lying on the bed and sleeping for the night.
Karp stood under a blazing desert sun wearing full practice gear. She circled an imagined Korg who matched her step for step, poised to counter any attack. Karp lifted her staff for an overhead strike and pictured The Whitecoat dodging toward her lead foot. She feinted the strike, pivoted, and brought the staff down to protect the back of her leg. Karp spent two weeks training in this manner.
She was running low on patience and was anxious to return and finish the match with Korg for real. Karp returned to her storehouse, closed the door, and sealed it shut. She brushed the sand off her chainmail with a flick of her hand and picked up the drawing lying on the table.
One of the clay jars next to the large table contained dirt, and Karp used the soil to perfectly recreate every smudge on her armor from two weeks ago. She pressed clumped dirt into her knee, and smeared dust lightly on her chest. She headed to an open area and meticulously recreated her pose, not only remembering the positions but remembering the feel of her body. When she felt everything was correct, the world cracked and swirled around her, and she shifted back to the training ground.
Karp rose and adjusted the staff in her hands for an overhead strike. She turned to face Korg, but his livid expression froze her movements.
˝I told you not to go back!”
Korg struck Karp in the stomach much harder, presumably, than he expected, and she popped off the end of his staff as he followed through his strike. Karp felt one of her ribs crack. Korg dropped his staff, rushed over to Karp, and fell to his knees to check if she was alright. Karp swung her staff as hard as she could muster, despite lying injured on the ground. She then cracked The Whitecoat across his helm, and he reeled and ended up lying a few feet away. He groaned but also laughed a little. For a few minutes, they laid quietly.
˝how did you know?”
˝I didn't know for sure at first, but you went from barely standing to rising with purpose and determination. When you turned around and I saw that smudge on your chest, I knew. There was no smudge when I was facing you, and you didn't hit your chest when I buckled your knee.”
the cabinet door. i was too tired to account for it.
˝You promised me that you wouldn't go back without my permission.”
˝i need to go back to make a purchase at the store.”
Karp watched Korg chew on his lower lip as though he contemplated throwing her out of the compound because of her audacity, but she thought he knew that without returning to the Shift World, she would be effectively cut off from everything she owned.
˝Fine. But if you disobey me again, you'll be out on the street!”
Karp approached the Traitor's Tavern wearing the light everyday leather outfit of a Forester. Her brisk steps flowed when free from the heavy training leathers and chainmail. This far south in the Lush Forest, people wore pants made of soft brown leather that hung loosely off the skin and ended just below the knees. To keep the arms and chest cool, clothing makers left leather tops without sleeves, and artisans left tops open to the collar bone. Even during the winter, Foresters only needed to wear long sleeves and full pants. Far east near the royal port and far north near the Crossroads, leather outfits covered the entire body during the summer, and multiple layers of fur insulated people from snow and sleet.
Karp reached the solid wooden doors of a famous inn known for its rich history. To impress locals, the regional lord had built the Traitor's Tavern Inn as the first large-scale wooden building in that section of the Lush Forest. Soon after The Conqueror claimed his empire, a local lord built the tavern. Sturdy logs driven deep into the ground formed the foundation, and wooden beams framed the interior. Thin wood planks dyed gray layered over the exterior to protect it from wind and rain. Curved light red clay tiles imported from the Clay Workers of the Arid Desert covered the roof.
The inn lost its status as provincial capital when the lesser lord died at the failed rebellion during the First Council four hundred years ago. When The Demon Reborn named a new regional lord, the newly appointed ruler moved the region's capital south toward the ocean and built a new stronghold made of stone. The new lord then used the original provincial capital's keep as a way station along the first leg of the trade route to the Crossroads. Traders supplied the Crossroads with lumber, salted meat, seafood, and leather. The village slowly morphed from a community dependent on serving the lordship to a town based on free trade with travelers and tradespeople. Recently, the Village of the Traitor's Tavern had become the world's center for selling cloth.
Karp winced as she pushed open the door and walked into the main hall. She gingerly crossed a floor of loose wooden beams resting on the ground. She sat at a small table near the stairs to the second floor. A serving girl brought her a mug almost as soon as she sat.
˝one good thing about living in an inn, always close to beer. i'm going to eat later.”
Karp always spoke with an even inflection, and people who didn't know her had trouble reading her intentions. Karp tried a little smile, but the serving girl left with a queer glance. Sitting in the tavern in pain made Karp reflect on the events that had propelled her to the village in the first place. She had never had an easy life. While still a child, her parents had died and left her no inheritance or land, so she lived on a nearby farm in exchange for working as a farmhand. She broke up soil in the fields, hauled hay bales, picked vegetables, and helped sell crops at market. During the winter, she chopped wood or cleaned the house. She dutifully completed any task she needed in order to earn her bed and bread for the day. The tedious, unfulfilling work dampened her spirits, but as long as she lived, she dreamed of the future. However, everything changed around Karp's fourteenth birthday. The farmer tried convincing her that he knew of “easier work” than field labor. Her childish mind couldn't comprehend his exact meaning, but her instincts screamed for her to run and she fled.
Karp journeyed town to town working fields and completing odd jobs. She survived this way until winter when all fieldwork stopped. One day, with nowhere to stay and no one to help her, she collapsed in the snow behind a nearby tavern. On the verge of death, she saw the world swirl and crack. After the sky and ground broke apart, she awoke in a desert. Sand replaced snow, and the sun warmed her face. No longer freezing to death, enough fatigue left her body for her to stagger back onto her feet. She marched toward the only visible landmark, mountains rising in the distance.
After walking toward the same peak for several hours, she discovered a rundown house. Karp examined the house, which was unlike the ones she had known in the Lush Forest. Instead of reed or wood walls, clay bricks were stacked to form the outer walls. The small house had large sections of its roof missing and looked utterly uninhabited. Straw held down with thin wooden slabs comprised the remaining parts of the roof. Karp cautiously pushed open the door and peeked around. To her relief, no one waited inside. Unfortunately for her, though, there was no food either. Likely the house was abandoned, just as she had guessed from viewing the outside. A steel dagger with a short blade rested on a kitchen counter, but no other valuables remained in the pillaged rooms.
Even though the cold was gone, Karp was exhausted since she hadn't eaten for days. She went into a bedroom that still had roofing and lay on a bed to sleep.
Scratches along the side of the wall woke Karp in the middle of the night. She instinctively rolled through the darkness and hit the floor with a thump. As the scraping sounds drew closer, she slid under the bed. She grasped the steel dagger she found in the kitchen, waited, and listened. Heavy breathing came from just outside the main door. Something shuffled toward the entrance. The door didn't swing open in a smooth flow but jerked free with a few small thuds.
Karp didn't voluntarily hold her breath, but she couldn't breathe while the creature was in the house. It shuffled about as if looking for something. After a few minutes, it stood in the small bedroom where Karp had taken refuge. Every heartbeat pounded in her head, and she felt that the creature must hear the loud thuds. The longer the creature loitered, the slower the time moved, the quicker her heartbeat, and the shallower she breathed. Karp closed her eyes, hoping to wish away the thing standing at the end of the bed. Cold spread around her exposed limbs and face, and she opened her eyes to find herself lying face down in snow, clutching the dagger. Karp had unconsciously shifted back to the Lush Forest to protect herself from the creature, just as she had shifted to the Arid Desert to prevent herself from freezing.
Karp wandered through town until she found the local inn. Before the innkeeper threw her back into the cold, Karp had negotiated a trade. The steel dagger bought a week's worth of room and board. Luck was on Karp's side, too, because the owner's daughter was in the late stages of pregnancy. The shorthanded inn employed Karp through the rest of winter, but she would leave in spring after the owner's daughter recovered from childbirth. The owner then returned Karp's steel dagger as a going-away present. At the time, Karp assumed the gift was out of gratitude for her hard work. However, as Karp grew older and shrewder, she realized the owner's motivation was probably guilt. A sharpened steel dagger could have paid for a month's room and board and still have been a bargain. The owner had tried to take advantage of a starving teen but found she genuinely liked Karp for her pride and work ethic. Now, she was sending a child back into the world unprotected and unaware of how to survive.
Karp departed the village and headed southwest. She worked on farms and in taverns to pay for food, clothing, and lodging during the frequent rainstorms that occurred during the summer months. Progress south slowed due to working almost every day to sate her needs, so when winter came again, she wasn't far enough south to avoid the cold and snow. Starving and freezing, Karp returned to the Shift World to find supplies to trade for lodging. She hadn't shifted since returning to her world with the dagger. In fact, she didn't exactly even know how to shift. Karp circled behind the local village's inn, unsheathed her blade, lay on the ground, and concentrated, but nothing happened. She willed herself to focus more and more, but still, nothing happened. She only got wet from lying in the slush outside the building. In a way, her failure relieved her. Now, she wouldn’t have to face that creature. As she relaxed her muscles, though, the world swirled and cracked, and she lay under the bed again.
She was calmer this time, though, and noticed the creature's feet were pointing away from the bed. A moment later, it shuffled off. This apathetic visitor starkly contrasted with her memory of the dangerous stalker from a year ago. All the same, she stayed under the bed clutching the dagger until well after sunrise, when she hesitantly pulled herself from under the furniture and looked around the small bedroom. Once she felt safe, she searched the main room and the other bedroom. No sign of the creature appeared in any room, and Karp felt free to breathe deeply for the first time in hours. The creature's footprints in the sand outside the main door had been blown away overnight. There were no signs of a monster ever having been there, in fact. Several more dwellings sat in the direction of the mountains, and Karp marched toward a medium-sized building.
Clay bricks formed its lower walls. Hay and wood shingles protected the roof, just like the house where Karp had spent the night. This building had several windows shut tightly with wooden covers. The door was cracked open, but the premise seemed otherwise undisturbed. Sand accumulated just inside the doorway, and Karp huffed as she shouldered open the door. The door creaked as it ground the floorboards, but the effort was a welcome sign that nothing had entered or exited the building in some time. The building's exterior was similar to the last, but the inside resembled a warehouse. The interior only consisted of one large main room and one small room on the far end. Large clay jars and cabinets lined the main room's walls. Small cabinets hung on the walls over most of the little pots and contained decaying paper, charcoal, and other secretarial tools. In some distant forgotten past, the jars probably stored a community's food and valuables, but now only a few held just sand or dirt. Karp pulled her dagger out and paced around the tables, looking for a sign of anything alive. After clearing the larger room, she headed to the smaller room.
The room's heavy door was fastened tightly. No matter how hard Karp pushed, the door wouldn’t move. She gave up and cleaned the sand on the floor. After cleaning for an hour, she found a key lying under a pile of sand. The key opened the door to the smaller room, but Karp's dreams of treasure was cut short. A large desk sat in the center of the room, a small cabinet hung on the left-hand wall, and an urn rested on the right wall. As Karp's eyes adjusted to the room's darkness, she recoiled at a person sitting at the main desk. She cautiously swiveled around the desk and approached the man. Under closer inspection, though, the person was just bones wearing cheap armor. Its leather pants and top were cracked and frayed to tatters from the dry air over the long years since this person had died. Karp could still sell the iron helm and short sword, but rusted armor sold for less than its weight in iron. Karp sheathed her dagger and opened the small cabinet. Iron leatherworking tools and small iron knives filled sacks hidden in the cabinet's darkness.
Karp retrieved the iron knives and shifted back to standing outside of the rear of the inn. Inside the tavern, Karp traded the blades for a week's lodging and the night's food and drink. The next morning, Karp went to the general market and sold the helm and sword for two weeks’ worth of fruit and meat. The village's leatherworker gladly traded a new summer outfit and enough coin to allow Karp to spend another two weeks at the inn in exchange for the leatherworking tools.
Karp returned to the market when she finished her food and inspected an apple while considering how to pay. Karp had nowhere in her world to store valuables, and so she had left everything in her storehouse in the Arid Desert. Without thinking, Karp shifted to her storehouse to check for valuables to trade. She placed the apple on a table and walked to the cabinets. There was nothing she could part with for only a few days’ worth of meals. She backed away from the wall and shifted back to her world.
The store owner watched Karp return and noticed that she had shifted back into a different position. To Karp's surprise, the owner rushed over, grabbed her arm, and shouted for the village guard. Karp panicked, broke free, and ran away. The owner's shouts followed her as she fled.
˝Help! Help! Guards! Guards! She's a shifter.”
Karp turned around and saw the owner talking to two men in studded armor. They stared at Karp as she fled town, trying to avoid any trouble. Karp didn't understand the store owner's hostility and accusations. She continued south, learning the hard lessons of shifting.
Karp set about learning to master shifting without drawing attention. In towns and villages, Karp read others as she moved from world to world. When dealing with strangers, Karp knew that people noticed if their faces read of confusion or disgust. When discovered, Karp fled town and practiced again when she arrived somewhere new.
She stopped staying at inns since the majority of her valuables was going to lodging. Instead, Karp cleared out the small office in the Shift World and dragged in a little bed from the first house. She slept in the Shift World with the main storehouse door tightly secured and the entrance to the office locked. Since Karp no longer slept in the world at night, she trained at the outskirts of town or in nearby woods. Regular exercise wasn't enjoyable, though, so Karp practiced fighting skills with her dagger. The trees she struck didn't present much of a challenge, but over time she learned the feeling of thrusts, slashes, and blocks in her skin, muscles, and bones.
Karp practiced throwing her steel dagger and could always plant it into her target, regardless of the angle she threw. On rainy nights, Karp earned enough coin for drinks and a room by betting at the throwing board. Most taverns in the Lush Forest had a large wooden board along one of the walls. The board ranged from a few feet to several yards across and, generally, reached to the ceiling. Pictures, numbers, or writing covered the wall. Opponents agreed on a condition for victory and alternated throwing knives at pictures until someone satisfied the requirement and won. Participants who were confident in their ability to throw made the proposal to hit every target of a specific type. The more confident the person, the smaller the picture they chose. Although the simplest type of match, two skilled opponents stalemated for hours before finally deciding a winner.
Bright people suggested a game where each participant offered a riddle and the first person who solved the puzzle won. Victory at the throwing board hinged on correctly assessing your opponents' strengths and weaknesses as much as, or more than, throwing skill. Giving a simple riddle with a long answer was the best strategy against an intelligent opponent skilled at throwing knives. A convoluted question with a short answer was the best strategy against someone unintelligent but experienced with a knife.
As a shifter, Karp had a definite advantage in regard to tricky riddles with short answers. While awaiting a throw, Karp traveled to the Shift World, contemplated the answer, and shifted back after solving the puzzle. When playing for coin, Karp acted the fool to entice her opponent into choosing a tricky riddle. Sometimes fights, or even murders, arose over the throwing board, but Karp never played for high stakes, and she never played for coin against the same person twice to avoid retaliation. She only gambled when she absolutely needed coin and only swindled people who looked affluent.
Karp learned to shift without being noticed well enough to steal food, but she felt guilty. Theft became the last resort for when she had no coin, no stores, and nothing valuable to trade.
During the day in the Shift World, Karp cleaned the storehouse and searched nearby buildings for valuables. The valuables paid for food supplies, and she found enough valuables to create a stockpile of goods she didn't need to sell. Small iron weapons like knives, short swords, or morning stars made up the majority of her stockpile. Karp also had small tools that she didn't recognize but held onto in case they were valuable.
Karp spent no more than a few days in any village. She departed the communities willingly to avoid suspicion regarding her strange behavior or was forced to flee after making a mistake while stealing or cheating at the throwing board. It was three years ago when Karp arrived at the Village of the Traitor's Tavern for the first time.
Karp had never seen garments made of cloth before arriving at the Village of the Traitor's Tavern. The general store at the Village of the Traitor's Tavern sold a wide range of goods, but the business was most famous for cloth. A blue top embroidered with small white flowers that started over the right breast and flowed around the shoulder fascinated her. The smooth fabric looped around her fingers. The material bunched and parted as she stroked the shirt. Karp returned the merchandise to the shelf, stepped back from the display, and shifted to her storehouse.
Karp didn't know the exact value of cloth, but she knew people saved coins for years to purchase a set of clothing. Karp couldn't trade anything in her cabinets or pots for something as expensive as a fancy outfit. She could only directly sell her steel dagger for such a thing. All of her small iron weapons may have been worth trading for the blouse, but Karp didn't want to exchange a weapon unless she owned a duplicate, and she never stole anything she didn't need. Karp's only choice was to check the last few unsearched buildings near her storehouse or give up on getting the outfit.
Mountains loomed in the distance with peaks lost in clouds. Karp approached a building in the settlement closest to the mountain chain. The medium-sized clay brick house's shutters were closed, but the door was cracked open. A fully intact roof protected the building from the desert's blistering sun. Karp gently pushed the door and stepped into the dark house. Light poured into the room, revealing several large clay jars and a small wooden table in the corner. Karp walked over to the left side of the main hall, and slid open the door. Someone inside wore old tattered leather. They slowly rose and turned toward the door in a stiff jerking motion. Karp stepped back to allow light into the bedroom. When the instant sunlight hit the stranger, she shrieked, leaped at Karp, and tackled her. Karp crashed on her back. The stranger wailed and cried while as she slashed at Karp.
The stranger had two legs, two arms, a head, a face, and looked human in the dark. In the sunlight, though, its scaly light gray skin shone. Its eyes held no soul, compassion, or understanding, only hatred and anger. It was stronger than any human, and its sharp claws cut through Karp’s leather and tore skin. Karp covered her face and took each blow with her arms, chest, and stomach.
The blows stopped long enough for Karp to move her hands and look at the creature. It raised a dagger, then drove it down, knocking Karp's hands aside and driving the blade into her left shoulder. Karp screamed, and the creature wrenched the knife from her shoulder, rendering a piece of flesh. Karp recoiled her right arm to block the next attack. A strange tingling in her fingers spread as her hand hung limply in the air. The feeling grew from her fingertips and traveled through her knuckles and into her palm.
The monster plunged the dagger toward the base of Karp's neck. A shockwave emanated from Karp's palm and tore the creature's arm from its body before continuing into the ceiling and blowing a hole. Light poured directly on the animal. It screamed and clutched its face. The creature's spine straightened as it wailed and moved away from Karp. During the creature’s momentary confusion, Karp had reached across her body and unsheathed her steel dagger. The creature continued its assault until Karp reached up and plunged the blade into its eye. Then, the creature fell limp on Karp. Karp pushed the limp carcass off with the last of her strength.
Karp felt the dirt floor on her back change to the shop's hard wooden floor. A woman in the shop shrieked at the sight of a person lying there covered in blood. People rushed toward Karp, and she felt the ground pull away.
She then woke in an unfamiliar room; bandages covered her upper body. A preteen boy sat in the room, staring out the window. He explained what had happened: how Karp was standing looking at a shirt one moment and then was lying in a pool of blood the next. The store's manager, Slart, used medical supplies from the store to stop the bleeding and dress the wounds. Slart and a few customers had carried Karp to the Traitor's Tavern Inn and brought her to an empty room. Karp was unconscious for five days before waking. The owner of the store, Korg the Whitecoat, as well as Slart and Slart's adopted son, Nort, took turns watching over Karp as she lay unconscious.
Later that evening after Karp awakened, they all gathered in the Traitor's Tavern Inn to hear what had befallen Karp.
The Whitecoat was impressed by Karp's natural ability. Usually, a person shifted for the first time in their early teens, and the shifter was then brought to a local lord or a known shifter to become an apprentice. While an apprentice, they learned the basics of shifting, the limitations of shifting, and about the Shift World in general. Karp had lived in such solitude her whole life, though, that she didn't even know she should seek out a master, yet she was still an expert at traveling between the two worlds undetected and had even survived an attack by a creature that ended up being a skeleton. The Whitecoat offered to train Karp and make her his first apprentice.
In exchange for her room in the Traitor's Tavern Inn, Karp spent her days working at The Whitecoat's trading compound outside of the village. The Whitecoat started the training by educating Karp on the Shift World and by teaching her to fight with weapons. She didn't shift for a full year after barely surviving the skeleton attack. However, she's trained and gathered supplies in the Shift World ever since.
Karp finished the last of her beer and stirred from the thoughts of her past. She stared at the steel dagger digging into the table. The dagger proved that she had survived and overcame. Karp sighed and stood but banged her hip on the table, and when it stopped shaking, she counted four empty mugs.
i guess trading this in is harder than i thought. i shouldn't put it off any longer.
Karp sheathed her steel dagger and headed toward the door to find out if the item she wanted was still at the market.
Karp entered the general store through the side entrance in the alley next to the Traitor's Tavern Inn. Customers almost always mulled around inside since no other store outside of the Crossroads or major provincial capital sold non-leather clothing. Common knowledge stated that twenty years ago, Korg the Whitecoat invented a way of creating cloth in the Shift World. Since then, clothing had become a sign of wealth for the peasant class. Cloth was too fragile for everyday use but fashionable to wear during festivals and holidays, so most people needed to buy at least one set.
Based on Karp's description, Korg and Slart guessed that Karp's storehouse sat in the southern part of the Arid Desert. The Whitecoat claimed to be established in the Lush Forest. Because monster-infested ruins sullied the destitute plane known as the Shift World, training between master and protégé was so implausible that The Whitecoat could probably never teach Karp how to make cloth. The Shift World's Crossroads teemed with monsters. Fighting through crowds of angry monsters made passing between the regions incredibly dangerous. Even if Karp fought every beast in the Crossroads and bloodied herself on the way to find Korg, time made a master and protégé meeting impossible.
Karp and Korg existed in the same point of time in Karp's world, but there was no way to know how much time separated the two in the Shift World. Cultures and civilizations disappeared in the long-forgotten past, and therefore no one tracked the year. If Karp fought through the Crossroads and waited in the ruins south of the Iron Gate, Korg may appear ten years later. If Korg arrived first, he might have to wait ten years for Karp to show. Shifters often trained indirectly by explaining the nature and limits of their powers and describing the feelings of using powers. So, one day The Whitecoat might be able to confide his secrets to his protégé, but there was no guarantee she would ever be able to make cloth based on the information alone.
Three years of training and collecting goods to trade had given Karp valuable experience, but to continue her progress, she needed better equipment. Therefore, to upgrade her dagger, Karp had brokered a deal with Slart, the general store manager. Now, Karp walked up to the counter and addressed Slart.
˝is it here yet?”
˝Ummm, yeah, it's uh in the back.”
Slart ended every sentence with a rising intonation. People who didn't know her well tended to think she was unsure of herself or easily confused. Slart and Karp had become close friends in the three years since Slart saved her life, so Karp knew better. Slart might sound unsure or even a little ditsy, but internally she exhumed confidence and intelligence. Karp liked Slart's carefree attitude and appearance because talking to her felt relaxing, almost like the danger of the Shift World was some distant person's fear and no threat to her. Despite feeling a kindred spirit in Slart, she and Karp had lived very differently.
Compared to Karp's journey, Slart had lived a mundane life. She had lived in the Village of the Traitor's Tavern her entire life and worked at the general store for as long as she could remember. The death of Slart's parents cast a shadowe on Slart because they had died during her teens, and even as she grew into her thirties, she still wouldn't discuss what had happened. Instead, she buried herself into her work and now ran the store as a general manager.
Slart placed a little rectangular box on the counter, opened the top, and spun the opening. Karp greedily eyed the water steel dagger. A light metallic blue blade shone with a gleam when held at just the right angle. The dagger handle's glossy, vibrant blue contrasted with the dagger's blade. Enamel created the handle's ornate look, but the uncoated edge was the natural color of water steel. The color of enamel created an armor's distinctive look and not the steel itself. By law, blue enamel only coated water steel, and black only coated demon steel, and only one color coating matched the corresponding type of steel. Sometimes, counterfeiters created armor out of a weak but common metal, such as iron or regular steel, and coated it in the enamel of a stronger, more expensive metal. Veteran tradesmen like Slart could recognize counterfeits, but many lords only learned after their armor was pierced.
˝how is nort?”
Slart had a history of taking in damaged people. Eight years ago, before saving Karp, Slart had found a starving, crying child wearing his father's armor and wandering the road alone. Slart took him in, but his parents never came looking. The upset Nort didn't speak for almost six months. Slart had struggled to raise the problematic child like her own son ever since.
˝Well, uh, you know, he's as spacey as ever. Just daydreams about being a shifter and uh, well, if he doesn't shift soon, he's probably not one. It'll break his little heart!”
˝the whitecoat still training him?”
˝Uh, yeah, it's not helping, though. It'll just hurt him more.”
˝he with him now?”
˝Nope, just cleaning the shelves in the vault.”
Slart pointed to the stone door at the end of the counter. The vault in the general store was the village's only room made entirely of stone. Originally the room was a secure storehouse in the old lord's stronghold. Korg the Whitecoat had built the whole store around the stone shed to safeguard valuables.
Karp stepped back from the counter and shifted to her storehouse in the Arid Desert. She turned to face the largest cabinet, which housed her accumulated wealth. She recoiled at a shadow moving in her peripheral vision. An unknown man brought his arms down as if he were just reaching toward the top of the cabinet. His noticeably too-small pants and top momentarily distracted Karp. He must have sensed her presence, though, and stepped back and faced her.
˝Have you seen my book?”
Karp shifted back to the store empty-handed, and Slart gave her a strange look.
˝i'll get it tomorrow.”
Karp didn't wait for a reply, but just turned around and left.