Shift World Book II Chapter 7
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Several months after fleeing the Village of the Wyvern's Cove, Karp wandered the Pasture at approximately four days southeast of the Royal Mines and the Royal Resort. The further west Karp had traveled, the scarcer the purchasable supplies at local stores had been. Because she couldn't stock up in one large purchase, stops to buy meager offerings became more frequent. Even though she’d shopped a week ago, the goods she had fell below the amount needed to ensure that her stores in the Shift World were sufficient for an emergency. Now Karp had arrived in a rural town hoping to find a general store.
The further west in the Lush Forest, the warmer the weather. Even in the middle of winter, the temperature just south of the mountain range was warmer than the Traitor's Tavern in the middle of summer. Karp wore leather shorts and a cropped top under a thin bleached leather travel cloak, but sweat still dribbled down her brow.
Karp entered the town which was so small there wasn't even a gate and surveyed rooftops. The tallest building projected its importance, but its face was so dull that no one would be able to tell by looking at it if the building was an inn, tavern, store, or village hall. She headed in that direction.
The doors of well-maintained houses were built of a flimsy composite. No porches, stables, sheds, or adornments of any kind decorated the homes. Karp looked through some of the windows but couldn't spot any grain pots or root cellars. The town's superficial prosperity didn't withstand even the weakest scrutiny.
Karp arrived at the tall building. A campfire and spit carved into the door frame indicated that the building served as an inn and tavern. Karp pushed open the door and strolled inside. Few patrons lingered about the tables. They acted disinterested in the entering stranger. The blasé attitude permeated the building so wholly that Karp wasn't sure they even had a shred of interest in the world in general. Karp moved to the tavern's front and tapped the counter to summon the innkeeper and bartender. A teenaged girl emerged from the back room, rubbing her eye and yawning.
"Oh, a customer, aye. Busy days, these days."
"really? this village seems a little out of the way."
"Well, I mean, we ain't full up or nothing, but a few customers every day."
"where they going?"
"Where you going?" The bartender raised her eyebrow and cocked her head.
"to that table. bring a meal and a round of tea. a room for the evening also."
"five steel? a room out here should be one steel at most."
"Five steel or ya can eat grass with da cows."
Karp slapped five steel pieces on the counter and walked to a table. Every few steps, her cloak opened, and she felt sure that the patrons would notice her stump. Their prying eyes never stopped watching. Under normal circumstances, they probably wouldn't even think twice about Karp, but reports of The Horse Thief had surfaced pretty much all over the Lush Forest. Karp sat and stared at the wall. The bartender placed a plate, key, and cup in front of her and walked back to counter.
Karp reached up, took the key, and placed it in a pouch inside her cloak. She pulled the plate toward her and picked up a spoon from a holder in the table's center. The mostly empty plate held two miniature potato halves sitting in the drizzle of no more than one ounce of cubed steak. If this meal cost five steel, then Karp wasn't looking forward to shopping at the general store. A couple of patrons caught her eye as she reached for a teacup.
The men broke eye contact and exchanged words before downing the rest of their ale and heading for the door. Karp sipped the liquid, thinking that the bartender didn’t have any right to call the slightly dirty water "tea." After polishing off the cup in a few gulps, Karp rose and walked to the front of the tavern. The bartender greeted her.
"no. no. i was wondering if there is a store..."
"'Course! We ain't that much of a bumpkin town! Leave da tavern, go straight till ya find a large cracked jar. Dat's da store."
"uh, right, thanks."
Karp hadn’t realized that the young woman would be so sensitive. She gave her a small apologetic nod as she departed. Karp walked through the tavern's main door and traveled past houses with various items hanging off posts in their front yards. The house with a leather swatch likely belonged to a leatherworker, a wooden hammer probably meant the person worked odd jobs, and a desk indicated they were a woodworker. Seeing these types of professions in a town wasn't bizarre, but running businesses out of houses instead of proper stores was unusual. Karp reached the large clay jar and entered the nearby house.
Except for large food storage jars that sat at the front, the practically empty store didn't hold anything more valuable than wooden farming tools and small pieces of leather clothing. An armed guard watched over the remaining food, which signaled the severity of the village's food shortage. Karp peered inside the first empty jar, and then the second; the third jar was half full of rice. The rice could feed Karp for several weeks, but she doubted the town could part with their entire supply so she decided to offer the storekeeper thirty times its value. That way, the villagers could at least purchase sufficient replacement food.
"i'll give you a hundred steel for this pot of..."
The guard's spear tip thrust through Karp's cloak and slashed her unprotected rib cage. Blood shot from the gash on her side, and her face twisted into shock and rage. Karp shifted into her sunshine steel armor and threw a knife into the guard's skull, and he fell limp to the floor. The store worker put her hand on her head, cried, and cowered behind one of the empty pots.
"Please, don't! Please! We need the money! If we turn in The Horse Thief, we could get off these rations. Don't kill me!"
The storekeeper shied away from Karp's gaze. A mix of pity and disgust washed over Karp, and she retrieved her knife from the guard's corpse and shuffled out of the store. Karp applied pressure to the bloody gash running down her stomach and dragged herself out of town without the supplies needed to continue her journey.
Two days after escaping from the unnamed town, Karp hobbled down the side of the road, using every bit of willpower she had. She lifted her foot an inch from the ground and dragged it forward another step. And repeated. Supplies in the Shift World were running desperately low, and recuperating at her storehouse was out of the question. In two days of travel, there had been nowhere to rest or buy supplies on the road. The whole Pasture was an expanse of short grassy fields, with only occasional wooded areas or farms. There may have been farms off the main trade route, but Karp didn't want to wander around without knowing if edibles were growing nearby with the risk of passing out in a ditch.
Partially decomposed cow pies dotted the side of the trade route, which meant that a ranch was close, but the cows might have all been killed or sold in the months since the dung had been dropped. Karp kept a vigil for guards but hadn’t seen anyone. The villagers at the unnamed town had tried to take her for ransom but obviously didn't want to report their failure to the empire.
Bright pink flesh now surrounded the slash on Karp's side. The wound throbbed but hadn't bled in more than twenty-four hours; an off-white puss occasionally seeped from the hot opening. Karp's brow dripped from the Pasture's heat and her effort to keep moving. She now concentrated on lifting her right foot, jerking forward with a huff of breath. She surveyed the surrounding fields.
A two-story structure rose in the distance. Karp couldn't tell if it was an oversized farmhouse or small inn, but it didn't matter. If the house was empty, unfriendly, or unwilling to help, Karp would die, so she pressed onward. Her left foot jerked forward now, propelling her one step closer to her fate. Small gourds and potatoes grew in ditches just off the side of the road, but Karp didn't have the energy to collect and process the food.
She reflected on her life and mission as her right foot fell forward. In her vision, Slart's face shone in the sky just past the horizon. Karp's left foot dragged forward. Nort stood among the clouds with the actual sun in the center of his shield. She had barely stepped again when Lark flew by in the form of a bird. Karp stepped for the last time and collapsed.
Her breathing shallowed, and she felt nauseous. She raised her head from the dirt, and, to her surprise, the two-story structure was within reach. The door opened, and someone appeared just inside. Karp lowered her head and rested.
Karp awoke in a room that had an iron kettle over a small fire in the corner. A tea set was laid out on a nightstand beside her. Unremarkable, tiny ceramic jars clustered around the teapot. Karp picked up one, removed the lid, and looked down at a mixture of shredded light and dark green leaves that half-filled the container. Karp sniffed; the scent resembled both lemongrass cookies and pine needles. She replaced the lid and returned it to the tray.
Various goods, from iron trawls to clay pots and leather, occupied the shelves lining the room. Expertly carved miniature horses, dolls, and warriors were mixed in with the more traditional goods, giving Karp the impression that she lay in a general store's main showroom. Large grain and rice storage pots lined the far wall, and Karp couldn't help but wonder if there was any food left inside of them. A light breeze blew across Karp's breasts, and a shiver ran down her spine. Her shirt was missing, and the inflamed skin around the spear wound felt unusual.
Around the wound, gel sloshed under a layer of paper being used as a bandage. The pain and sensitivity had eased under her caregiver's remedy. Karp was shocked that someone in an outpost in the middle of nowhere could make medicine. A pestle and mortar rested on a tray nearby, and the acrid smell of poison berries wafted from the contents.
Strange plants were stuffed in storage jars. Glossy triangular leaves with white berries at the base were affixed to a three-inch twisting twig. Karp broke one off and ground it between her fingers. The fruit popped, and its insides oozed onto her skin, numbing the area. Karp put the twig and berries back on the table. An old tome then appeared in her hand. She and Wili had collected the volume from a research institute in the Crossroads of the Shift World. The book described the Shift World's medicinal, recreational, and poisonous plants, and there was a good chance that it also described the berries in Karp's world.
Karp flipped through the pages and stopped at a picture that matched the leaves and berries. Karp clumsily read the phonetic script but understood every word nonetheless.
winterberry is a medicinal herb native to the tundras of the creeping ice. botanists have discovered that winterberry bushes can grow in almost any climate, as long as they are raised in cool, shaded areas away from the sun. winterberry is most effective when the leaves and berries are ground with a mild acid, such as lemon juice, and placed directly over wounds. this compound reduces swelling and pain and can also prevent infections and boost recovery times. extra winterberry makes a lovely tea when mixed with mint and a touch of honey.
The last part made Karp wonder just how many drugs the encyclopedia's author routinely imbibed. Karp closed the book, and it disappeared. Her left arm's stump caught her attention as she slid her legs out of bed. The giant scar that would form when her side healed would nicely match where a skeleton had once torn a chunk from her shoulder. Years of battles with shifters and of fighting monsters in the Shift World had turned her body into an uneasy mosaic of scars with her missing hand and a slew of other injuries. Those blemishes now masked the blister marks that had formed while the empire had held her captive.
The room's door opened, and a hunched graybeard entered carrying a tray. Scraggly, bushy eyebrows raised on his wrinkled face. "Hey, Ma, she's awake!"
The graybeard approached Karp's bed with a tray of oatmeal, chopped fruit, and dehydrated beef. A graymane shouted from outside of the bedroom. "That's nice, Pa."
"Blast it! Come here, woman."
The graymane laughed, and Karp heard footsteps approach the bedroom. The graybeard ambled to the boiling kettle, took a hook from the wall, and lifted the kettle off the small fire. He moved back to the bed, dumped steaming water into the oatmeal, bowl of dried meat, and teapot. He returned to the fire pit and placed the kettle on a stone away from the heat. The graymane entered and smirked at Karp, who looked down at her naked upper body and felt self-conscious.
"I did that." The woman pointed to the paper on Karp's side. "Your shirt was dirty and was rubbing against the wound. It was making the infection worse."
"is it alright if i put on a clean shirt?"
"Sure, but we don't have an extra."
Karp shifted into a cloth shirt, and the smooth silk caressed her skin without irritating the wound. The cloth had become a contradiction in the economic downturn. It was impossible to buy but wouldn't sell at any price. Karp only owned two cloth outfits but wanted to be comfortable while recovering. The graybeard perked up when he saw her shift into the shirt.
"Oh, my, a shifter?!?! I guess all those scars must tell an interesting story!"
"not really. most of the time, i was just careless."
Bits of oatmeal and grizzle fell onto the tray and straw mattress as Karp slopped up the food. The speed and ferocity in which Karp ate dumbfounded the elderly couple. Within minutes, Karp had cleaned both bowls, sighed in relief, gently picked up the teapot, and poured. A sweet-smelling liquid drained from the pot and filled her cup. She returned the teapot, cupped the teacup, raised it to her mouth, and sipped.
"what is this place?"
Ma and Pa eyed each other, and Pa raised an eyebrow. "It's our home, of course!"
"i mean, is this an inn or store or hospital?"
Ma laughed. "Well, fifty years ago or so, we moved from the Village of the Rebels' Mine. We just walked for two days along the trade route that connects the village with the rest of the Lush Forest. We found a little patch of trees near a pond and fields, and Pa built this house with those trees." The graybeard proudly nodded as the graymane continued. "Since then, we've opened our doors to any travelers in need."
"that must be a lot today with everyone looking for the horse thief."
The graybeard smirked. "It must have been quite a horse! They are quite angry."
They both laughed, paused for a moment, and Ma continued when Karp didn't reply. "We only ask people to give what they can spare. The starving and poor can only give a few iron, but the rich sustain us. Lords give extra food, herbs, metal, and maybe even an oddity or two. That and the families that live nearby help. Some people just didn't want to leave, I guess."
"you must have seen quite a lot of people in your time. seen a lot of things."
Ma nodded. "Probably thousands over the years. Most of the time they are just hungry or tired. Sometimes they need healing. Sometimes they are with the empire, sometimes criminals. I've probably helped with a dozen births. Pa even talked a young man out of hurting himself once!"
Karp felt a pang of guilt over Wili.
"how did you do it?"
The graybeard sensed something more to her question but didn't pry. "Well, a young man came here, depressed. He worked and lived in the Rebels' Mine, and even though the work didn't suit him, he was in love. The way he described her, I believed him. She was everything that he wasn't: tall, strong, kind, and straightforward, but brash. One day after a collapse, a relatively small one but deadly anyway, a visiting envoy used that chance to give a speech about how important their work was for the empire. The girl went berserk, broke through the crowd, and grabbed the envoy. The first word of protest barely escaped the young woman's mouth before the envoy's guard skewered her.
"He saw everything, including her body being tied to the village's gate. So, he departed the village and burned the gate as he left. He came here and said he was intent on heading west."
"west? how does that mean he wanted to die?"
"Nothing to the west. It turns arid because of the volcanoes. There are fissures everywhere; he would have died. I convinced him that if he traveled east, he could still do good in the world. He could save lives or find a way to be happy. He believed me. He actually stops here now and then with gifts. Last time, he brought two large pots of grain, a pot of honey, and the most fanciful tales you've ever heard."
Karp lay down and buried her head in the pillow. She rolled away from the elderly couple. If hope was the answer, then Karp didn't have any herself.
"do you mind if i rest?"
The couple left, and Karp tried to sleep.
Karp stayed with the elderly couple for a few days while recovering from the wound in her side. As long as Karp could remember, resting in bed without restlessness had been impossible, and being confined to a tower for months did not help this disposition any. So, she swept floors, moved crates, cooked, cleaned dishes, and sold merchandise to passing customers. The graymane called Karp "Spark," and the graybeard followed suit. The graybeard even concocted a backstory.
He claimed that Spark was from the Rebels' Mine and had lost her hand in a blasting powder accident. Karp just agreed with his yarns. Spark had wandered the Rebels' Mine panhandling for scraps since anyone that couldn't swing a pickax couldn't work anymore. The starving townsfolk could barely feed themselves and coldly sent Spark out of the village because the sight of her created such intense guilt that they couldn't stand themselves. After wandering from town to town, she reached Ma and Pa's inn and collapsed. The graybeard and graymane had employed her there ever since.
Karp rolled her eyes as the stories became more and more elaborate but made sure the guests never saw. Working the mines was dangerous. Cave-ins, accidents, carelessness, and fatigue constantly injured people. Even without the elaborate backstory, people saw Karp’s hard face, lean physique, scarred body, and intense eyes. Anyone would believe she was just another survivor. No one questioned her presence, and for once, The Horse Thief just blended into the background.
A haggard merchant wearing dirt-encrusted leathers with a stained white stripe down the left breast entered the house’s main door. Minor merchants frequented the inn every few days, and this was the third delivery Karp had witnessed. The merchants leaving the mines delivered coal to the Crossroads using a circuitous trade route and often stopped at the inn. Most travelers wouldn't want to miss the last vestige of people for several days. The merchant found Pa resting in a rocking chair near an open window.
"Pa, I got stuff fer da mines."
"You look terrible, Borch. Something wrong?"
"It's Da Horse Thief, they looking fer her everywhere..."
"That must have been quite a horse!"
"Yer not kidding... Who's dat?"
"That's Spark. She lost that hand in the mines, but works for us now. She doesn't know anything yet, but she's alright. Understand?"
Borch laughed. "You two always takin' useless causes, ya know?"
"You know that's true better than anyone."
Borch smiled. Karp figured they must have taken in Borch like they did her.
"I got blastin' powder fer da mines. Someone gonna come pick it up, two days, maybe."
"You know where to load it?"
A voice came from outside the house. "Spark? Come help with dishes."
Karp gave a slight head nod as she left the room and let the merchants load small crates into a trapdoor. Karp left the rear exit and met Ma at a basin of warm water a few yards away. Ma pointed to a drying rack. "I'll clean, and you place them there to dry."
Karp nodded. Ma used a coarse horsehair bristle brush to scrub dishes in the basin. The horsehair brush slid into the water and became lathered with soap. Ma’s palms wiped clean the last bit of grease from a wooden plate's face, and she handed the dish to Karp.
"before coming here, it had been a long time since i'd done such ordinary work."
Ma peered up but then returned to the task at hand. "I'd imagine most things feel quaint to a shifter."
Karp shrugged and slid the plate between wooden prongs that held it aloft to dry. "sometimes it’s better just to be...normal."
Karp assumed Ma would read more into her statement, but the elderly woman didn't seem to want to pry. Karp changed the subject on the off chance that Ma and Pa hadn't already figured out her identity.
"ma, why is it called the rebels' mine? i'd always heard them called just the coal mines or sometimes the royal mines."
"Do you remember the story of the First Council? How the families of lords were killed?"
"i lived in the traitor's tavern for years. i've heard the story."
"Well, the families of deposed lords weren't just killed. The Demon Reborn forced some of them to work in the mines. You see, people didn't want to work there, but the forest was quickly being cut down to warm the halls in the Creeping Ice. In a few years, the forests were at risk of completely disappearing. The empress needed to stop the destruction and didn't want to enslave the innocent. I guess you could say she won the round in a single throw."
"are the people there still slaves?"
"No, people work there now just because they don't know anything else. Don't tell anyone you distrust the official story, and never refer to the workers of the mine as slaves or you may end up facing The Demon's Wrath."
Ma handed Karp a mug. Karp looped the handle into a hook hanging from the top of the drying rack. Ma patted under the water's surface. After not finding any more dishes, she removed the soap and horsehair brush. After removing a stopper, the water drained through a pipe away from the house. A strange sound emanated through an open window. Karp opened the door, let Ma go through, and Karp followed behind.
Four merchants sat on the floor near Pa's rocking chair, sipping mugs of ale. Pa was playing a four-stringed instrument for the onlookers. His hands slid adeptly up and down the instrument's neck, depressing the vibrating cords at different harmonics. He created music full of life, music whose ebb and flow sang of fleeting wind and marching time, without even uttering a single word. Years of practice let him deftly change the melody and keep pace with the musical strokes despite small hand tremors. Ma passed around a bowl of dried fruit, and the weary travelers snacked and drank, hoping the performance would never end.
Karp awoke in the spare bedroom of Ma and Pa's house. The weather was so hot that she had slept on top of the bed's wolf pelts despite it being the middle of winter. Karp's feet slid off the bed as she sat up. Yawning and scratching her scalp, she brushed her hand through her flowing hair. She finished her yawn with two clicks. She rose and strolled to food jars that were as tall as her. Her hand slid to a pot and popped off its lid. Rice filled the container to the brim, and a hand-drawn red fox was on the bottom of the cover.
She picked up a soft rabbit-leather doll and ran her left forearm over the pelt, which was supposed to be its hair. Karp smiled, wondering if Ma and Pa had once had a child who had played with the doll, or if it was just merchandise. For Slart, anything sitting in the store could be sold, even if it wasn't actually merchandise. That was the difference between Slart and Ma and Pa. Slart would be rich sitting at such a critical junction as this, but maybe not as happy.
Karp put the doll back on the shelf and moved out of the spare bedroom. Ma and Pa sat in their chairs, eating mashed oatmeal for breakfast. A third bowl rested on the floor for Karp, and she sat on the ground to eat. Despite the house functioning as an inn and makeshift tavern, there wasn't a dining table. Guests ate, played games, slept, and walked on the floor. No one ever complained to Ma or Pa, but Karp found the whole situation very unusual. She finished the oatmeal within several minutes and sat back on her hand while waiting for the old couple to finish theirs.
"i'm going to leave soon. maybe tomorrow or, if not, then in two days."
Even though Ma and Pa looked up, they didn't seem surprised. Ma finished breakfast and placed the bowl on a nightstand next to her chair. "Where do you think you're going to go, dear?"
"to the mines. i don't think you want to know more..."
"OK...but if you need anything, you know where we are."
"just like that? you don't care?"
Pa laughed. "You think you are the only one with secrets?"
"Stop teasing her!" Ma slapped his arm. Pa took Ma’s hand and kissed it, and Ma giggled. "Oh, stop it."
Ma walked past Karp and signaled for her to follow. The two entered the spare bedroom where Karp spent her evenings. Ma walked to the massive food jars and put one hand on a pot of grain and one on a jar of rice. "Take them."
"these? you could probably get a sunshine steel sword for that right now."
"I know...but we won't. If this stays here, it will go bad before the travelers eat it all. You move around. You can help people, right?"
"well, yeah, but what do you get out of it?"
Pa stirred in the main living room. "Ma, they're finally here."
Ma sighed. "OK. Make sure to take that right now, and then we need your help with the powder."
Ma stared at Karp, and Karp knew that she wasn't going to take no for an answer. Karp put her hand on the first jar, and it disappeared. Then the second jar vanished. Ma didn't move and seemed to be thinking for a moment. "We need to move these two jars to the basement. Can you take them to the Shift World and then leave them when you move the powder?"
"they'll go bad in the..."
Ma glared at Karp, and Karp meekly complied. Two of the remaining jars disappeared. Ma looked satisfied and led Karp to the living room where Pa impatiently waited. Ma turned to Karp. "Could you go into the basement to help bring up the powder."
Pa lifted a trapdoor in the room's corner. Karp climbed down a ladder and carefully maneuvered into the dark until she found soft ground. The basement was surprisingly well lit. Ma poked her head through the trapdoor. "The tunnel ends on the far edge of our neighbor's farm. Stay hidden."
Ma withdrew her head, and the hatch shut.
A piece of furniture was then dragged across the trapdoor. Karp ascended the ladder, banged on the door, and pushed, but the trapdoor wouldn't budge.
"What are you doing! I can help! Let me up! I'm Karp the Scor..."
Karp froze when she heard the elderly couple respond in a calm, collected manner. Ma spoke first. "Pa, do you think she'll figure it out before it's too late?"
"I don't rightly know, Ma. It will be hard for her to believe."
Karp continued banging on the door.
"Hey, Ma, what do you think Boric will bring us next time?"
"Well, Pa, I don't think there will be a next time, do you?"
"No, Ma, I surely do not." Karp could imagine Pa stepping toward Ma, wrapping his arm around her waist, and holding her hand. Without even a knock, the front door snapped from its hinges and crashed to the floor. Karp froze.
"Stop where you are!" Karp found the voice familiar, yet it made her sick. The voice belonged to Dorac the Polar Bear, and Karp instinctively held her breath.
"You have been found guilty of conspiracy against the empire, aiding and abetting The Horse Thief, and squatting on empire land. The punishment is death. We will confiscate all goods on the premises. The punishment is to be carried out immediately!" The voice rang through the house and basement, and Karp choked with every word.
His steps boomed above as he presumably approached the cowering couple. Ma made a gagging sound, and her feet dragged on the ground before she was lifted into the air. A moment later, a light shone through the cracks in the floor, and her body was dropped to the floor. Next, Pa made a gagging sound, and he met the same fate as his wife. His body was dropped next to hers.
"Get in here!" The Polar Bear growled, and several rounds of footsteps entered.
"Our informant told us they have months of food. Take it all and find any other valuables. Then, bring our prisoner and the supplies back to the Royal Resort."
Karp was disgusted that they had killed that sweet old couple for a few jars of food. She descended the ladder and turned toward the exit. Several dozen boxes of blasting powder rested at her feet. A smile crossed her mouth, as she guessed what Ma and Pa had wanted her to do. Karp took twelve of the boxes to her storehouse in the Shift World. She lifted another box and stood it on end and punched a hole into the thin side. Karp poured its contents onto the ground leading out of the tunnel.
Karp threw the rest of the box back into the passage upon reaching a field. A torch appeared in her hand and then fell onto the line of blasting powder. The powder trail ignited. Karp ran into overgrown wheat stalks and after she had passed halfway through the field, the house, along with all its occupants, blew up into a thirty-meter crater. Karp disappeared.