Shift World Chapter 2
by Christopher W Gamsby
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In exchange for the use of a small apartment, Slart opened the general store at night for emergencies. Sometimes travelers needed medical supplies, or traveling government officials couldn’t wait for the store to open in the morning. Her entire apartment consisted of two bedrooms connected by a small hallway. Since there wasn’t even a kitchen, Nort and Slart ate most meals at the Traitor’s Tavern Inn.
This morning, like every morning, Nort stood in the middle of his bedroom trying to shift. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing. He slowly breathed in, then carefully released the breath. He imagined a field of snow drifting in a harsh wind. Then he pictured a flash of light as the sun crept from behind a cloud, but he couldn’t feel cold on his skin. He gave an exacerbated sigh as he released his last breath and opened his eyes. He still stood in the same dull room, getting ready to go to the same inane school he had attended for almost ten years.
Nort continued his breathing exercises, closed his eyes, and imagined a desert this time. He pictured a sea of sand with blistering heat, the sun beating down on his face. This time, though, he felt its warmth. Nort’s heart raced, his fingers tingled, and a shiver ran from the back of his neck down to his lower back. Nort opened his eyes and was blinded by intense sunlight. His eyes adjusted, and the familiar features of his bedroom drained away all his excitement. The sun had risen high enough that light flooded his room, and morning rays heated his face.
Disappointed at another failed attempt, Nort slunk off to the top of the stairs and sat down to slip on his leather shoes. He picked one up, crossed his leg over his knee, and paused. A thin layer of sand covered the bottom of his foot. He smirked, shook his head, wiped off the sand, and slipped on the footwear.
The general store was the area’s largest store and sold goods that were imported from all over the world. Clay pots and jars from the Arid Desert were among the most popular sellers. Foresters lacked the skills or materials to make pots, and any attempt within the southern Lush Forest failed horribly. Nort imagined his mother’s voice: ˝Every...ugh...pot comes with a free pound of Arid Desert!”
Nort and Slart had tracked sand into the apartment for as long as he could remember. He and Slart had stopped wearing shoes in their home to try and stop the sand, but Nort found sand on his feet almost every morning anyway.
Nort headed down the stairs, opened the door, and stepped into the alley between the general store and the Traitor’s Tavern Inn. The lane was only wide enough for two horse-drawn carts to travel side by side. Crossing to the Traitor’s Tavern Inn for dinner was a trivial task.
Nort took a right out his front door, passed a sign that read “Knock after hours,” and exited the alley past the length of the store. He turned right onto Village Square Road and headed west. Ten wagons fit abreast on this road, and sometimes wagons congested the way. During the busy trade season, caravans traveled east to staging areas or west to meet the main trade route. During that time of year, pedestrians avoided the road to avoid getting crushed in the traffic. The general store and inn stood on the road’s north side, and the village hall sat to the south.
Village leaders conducted meetings on the governance of the Village of the Traitor’s Tavern from a single room in the village hall. A large ceremonial field stretched from the rear of the building to the woods that lined a river. During festivals or times of crisis, village elders and leaders addressed crowds from a platform on the roof overlooking the ceremonial field. Organizers arranged most local festivals around the inn, the store, and the village hall on Village Square Road. If this road was the main artery of the town, then the Traitor’s Tavern Inn, village hall, and general store formed the heart.
Nort continued up the Village Square Road until he reached Widow’s Road. Village Square Road continued west and looped north to meet the main trade route. The northern gate sat at this meeting and marked the boundary to the Village of the Traitor’s Tavern. A large blue wooden beam supported by two almost identical logs formed the gate. Red stenciling designed to invoke the image of running blood desecrated the blue. Even though the fifteen-foot tall wooden structure was called a gate, it didn’t serve any practical purpose.
The Elder had built the Iron Gate, the Burned Gate, and the Clay Gate one thousand years ago, and villages had made gates facing the Crossroads to show respect to the new empire. Over time, the structures morphed into strictly ornamental structures, but the name “gate” stuck. A gate’s appearance reflected a village’s personality, history, or specialty. Traitor’s Tavern’s red stenciling represented the blood spilled by the old lord during the failed rebellion. The blue background depicted the watery grave of his widow, who had jumped from Widow’s Bridge when she learned of her husband’s fate.
Nort turned onto Widow’s Road and continued south toward his school. Merchants’ houses clustered around the village square, but as Nort traveled further, small farms filled the landscape. Past the farms, woods cluttered the sides of the road. After a few more minutes, the packed soil road changed into the wooden planks of an old bridge. The Widow’s Bridge spanned over fifty feet but never reached more than fifteen feet off the ground. Nort stopped crossing the bridge near the middle of the thirty-foot wide river. He stepped up to the railing, peered into the water, and reflected on the legend surrounding the Widow’s Bridge.
After the First Council, rumors had circulated that The Demon Reborn and her Dragon Guard had killed many of the lords led by The Ivory Bull. The conspiracy speculated that the empress planned on installing new lords after removing all the deposed’s relatives. One day, though, the lady of the keep donned her finest leathers, quietly ate dinner in the main hall, thanked her servants for their faithful service, and peacefully jumped into the river while on her nightly constitutional.
The water’s so still. Is it even moving? No one would die from such a short fall. Could that legend even be real? If it’s not, what else do they tell us that’s not true? Oh no, I’m going to be late!
Nort hustled toward the school building located on the bridge’s other side. The single-story schoolhouse totaled about half the size of the Traitor’s Tavern Inn. Each of the building’s five classrooms belonged to a different class of students.
The largest classroom held toddlers to five-year-old children. The students were to learn basic history and some mathematics and reading. Still, this class mostly babysat children for parents who needed to work fields or businesses. Children from five to ten years old occupied the second class. These children didn’t only learn academic courses like history, reading, and mathematics but also principles of farming and meteorology. Children of farmers and day laborers usually withdrew from the school after this class in order to work on their parents’ farm or take up their parents’ trade. Children ten to fifteen years old attended the third class. They learned advanced world history, methods of commerce, and theory behind trading, principles of diplomacy, primary world culture, advanced mathematics, reading, and literature. Children from lesser lords and merchants took these classes in order to rule over municipalities or run businesses. Young adults from fifteen to twenty years old completed their education in the fourth class. These children of powerful lords and traders learned advanced trading, diplomacy, economics, and developed world culture. The final course taught twenty- to thirty-year-old adults. Upon graduating, these students scattered around the world to become private tutors for ruling class lords or to start new schools in different areas.
Nort hurried to the school building, pushed open the door, and raced inside.
Karp pushed back her chair as she rose and left a half-eaten breakfast of eggs and shredded, boiled potatoes. She turned to the stairs that led to her inn room and hustled to the second-floor landing. The door next to hers opened, and her eccentric neighbor stepped out. Barp had arrived several months ago and spoke with a strange accent, ended almost every sentence with “ha ha” or “ho ho,” and continuously read from a tattered old journal. His name was also a little unusual. Usually, Barp was a woman’s name and Borp was a man’s name. According to Barp, he was from a small village in the Creeping Ice where names were different, but Karp had never met anyone else from the Lush Forest, Arid Desert, or Creeping Ice whose name violated the rule.
Karp entered her room and refocused on the task at hand. She pushed her furniture to the room’s edges to give herself an area spacious enough to warm up. Then, she punched the air and breathed out, holding her right arm fully extended, her left arm close to her body. When Karp finished breathing in, she thrust her left arm forward, drew her right arm in, and quietly breathed out. Karp continued until her arms loosened and she no longer felt resistance from her muscles. She lifted her knee and kicked out to an imaginary opponent’s stomach. She brought her foot back to the floor. She lifted her right leg straight above her head and swung back toward the ground. Karp twisted her hips as she followed through and returned her foot behind her. Then, her foot looped in front with enough momentum to spin her entire body to face the opposite direction. Karp planted her left foot, dropped down, and used the back of her right leg to sweep the ground behind her. She finished the spin facing her original direction and rose into a defensive stance. This practice continued until she could complete the sequence without feeling any strain in her legs or lower back. Sweat rolled down Karp’s cheeks, and her breathing was labored by the time she finished preparing to face the man who had invaded her storehouse.
After waiting a minute to catch her breath, Karp drew her steel dagger from its sheath. She slid her leg forward, raised her hand to intercept any punches, and moved the knife toward her chin. The blade faced the floor in order for her to quickly thrust it toward the man’s neck or eyes. Karp balanced on the ball of her back foot so she could withdraw the left side of her body and counterstrike with her dagger if the man attacked with a weapon. Mentally and physically, Karp finished preparing to confront the stranger. Then, she shifted to her storehouse.
Karp’s eyes darted to the cabinet where the man had been standing. She moved her stance to be able to intercept anyone coming from that direction. Surprise halted Karp, and she felt relief. No one stood near the cabinet. Karp distributed her weight evenly between the balls of both her feet and flipped the dagger from facing the floor to facing the ceiling, a defensive stance that would let her block if the man surprised her. Karp then stalked through the storehouse, searching for the stranger. She stopped, stood silently, and listened for any clue that she was not alone.
A sound came from behind. Karp rounded a work table, where a child no older than ten sobbed into the sleeve of an adult’s tunic. His other arm clutched something across his chest. Karp saw a pair of brown eyes peek out from under the forearm, and the child bawled and cried out when he saw her. Karp couldn’t find any indication of the man so she decided to get what she came for and leave.
She reached inside a cabinet and removed two sharpened long swords, a polished steel maul, two steel helms, and a small iron toolkit with a few steel tools. She grabbed everything at once and shifted back to her room in the inn.
how am i going to bring everything to the store?
Footsteps approached from beyond her door as she stood thinking. The steps began near the wall, passed her door, and stopped at her neighbor’s room. A moment later, a door opened and closed.
he must have walked past my room without me noticing. when? while i was warming up? why though?
Karp somehow managed to balance everything well enough to go down the hallway, descend the stairs, exit the Traitor’s Tavern Inn’s side door, cross the alley, and arrive at the general store. Carrying close to eighty pounds of metal, the tired Karp started losing control of what was in her arms. and the metal started slipping by the time she entered the store's side door. Slart saw her friend coming toward the counter and decided to help by cheering her on.
˝Go! Go! Go!”
Slart pumped her fist in the air just as Karp tripped on the leg of a table she couldn’t see and stumbled forward. She overcompensated by pulling her weight back. One of the helms started falling forward off the large bundle.
Karp jerked forward to prevent everything from tumbling off, and she walked faster and faster to stay under the falling goods.
˝Karp! Karp! Karp! Gooooooooooooo...”
Karp was almost at full stride when she ran out of steam and smashed into the far wall. The sudden shock of hitting solid wood caused everything crashed to the ground. A helm flew loose and cracked her shin. Slart almost died laughing as her friend hopped around the store on one foot with a dark red face, cursing up a storm. Workers charged to the storefront with weapons taken from displays. They gaped as Karp put their manager in a headlock, and Slart wiped away tears as she waved the workers off.
Karp released Slart, walked to the bundle on the ground, and picked up the weapons and armor.
˝BRING THE DAGGER!”
Karp circled her arms and stretched her sore back until Slart returned with the dagger, still giggling. Slart opened the case and handed the blade to Karp.
it’s amazing how light this is. it feels like it would just break in a fight.
Karp removed her steel dagger from its sheath and slipped in the new one. She stared at the weapon she had carried all these years and felt a pang of nostalgia when she thought about how it had saved her life once.
˝people don’t really know the value of things.”
Karp placed the dagger on the counter with everything else.
˝Well... Yeah... A water steel dagger is worth uh two, no, three times what you paid...but...uh…anyone that can afford water steel doesn’t want a dagger. They want um some big flashy weapon like a sword or maul. This dagger could uh cut any iron or steel weapon, but it could take two years to sell, and even then, it wouldn’t go for much. But um people will pay wayyyyy too much for a sharp steel sword or steel ax. Because uh well, it looks really good in armor. In three months, I can sell everything for a little less than the dagger.”
Slart fully extended one arm with three fingers raised, closed one eye, and peered through a small gap between her thumb and pointer finger with the other eye.
she’s dangerous. when I made an offer for the dagger, it only took her a few moments to calculate out precisely what she would need to sell at the same price and in only a fraction of the time.
Metal wasn’t natural to the world, but shifters had discovered the material in the Shift World. The eight types’ values varied significantly based on rarity and strength, but generally, the rarer the metal, the stronger and more valuable. Almost everyone owned at least one piece of iron. Hunters owned a few iron arrowheads, farmers owned iron picks or hoes, and city guards owned iron spearheads. Iron coins were the cheapest form of currency because iron was the most accessible metal to find and most straightforward to identify because it was the only dull metal. The soft gray never shone, even after hours of cleaning.
Steel was a lighter gray than iron and was luminous. Steel was rarer than metal but still common enough to be used in high-quality farming, mining, and with woodcutting equipment. Lords preferred steel over iron, and they owned steel pots, kettles, or other daily use goods that belonged only to the privileged. Fifty iron coins could be traded for one steel coin of the same size.
Sunshine steel was considerably rarer than ordinary steel and looked similar to regular steel but had a yellow hue when held at the right angle. A merchant could exchange a sunshine steel coin for one thousand iron coins of the same size. These valuable coins were usually only used for large-scale purchases, like transactions involving land or lordships. Sometimes a lumber baron or mining baron owned axes or picks made of sunshine steel for its increased durability. Generally, though, sunshine steel was forged into a lord’s armor and weapons.
Merchants adopted the white-hued seashell steel to represent their trade. Even though rarer than sunshine steel, many commoners had seen seashell armor, but not sunshine armor. Approaching a keep in full armor was an act of war except for merchants in seashell steel armor who used the armor to announce their presence and defend themselves from thieves on the highway.
Water steel had a blue hue and was more scarce than seashell steel, but not rare compared to sunshine steel. For every three pieces of sunshine steel, there were two pieces of seashell steel and one piece of water steel. A sharpened water steel dagger was strong enough to puncture any part of iron or steel but wasn’t guaranteed to break sunshine steel or seashell steel instantly. Water steel was more durable than seashell steel, which was more durable than sunshine steel. If two evenly matched opponents fought with one person in seashell steel and the other in water steel, the seashell steel would break first. Sunshine steel would break even faster.
Dragon fire steel was rare and made more scarce by the royal guard, who hoarded the metal. Some members of the royal guard were called the Dragon Guard because of their matching dragon fire steel. They owned thirty complete sets of armor as well as enough spare pieces to repair damage with unrecoverable slivers. Although dragon fire steel was legal to own, only a scattered handful of lords possessed the metal since the royal family would pay handsomely for any piece. When a shifter found dragon fire armor or a dragon fire weapon, they received enough land, stores, and coin to live comfortably for the rest of their life.
The purple-hued water dragon steel was so incredibly rare that there was no known complete set of water dragon armor in the whole world. High-ranking lords sometimes owned a single piece, which then became an heirloom of their lineage. That heirloom was so expensive that a trade of equal value was impossible and so it only changed hands through war, theft, or murder.
Demon’s steel had a black hue and was the rarest and most potent of all metals. There was only one complete set and two incomplete sets of demon steel armor. Demon’s steel had been a sign of the royal family since the days of Snorg the Conqueror. To secure all pieces for the royal family, The Demon Reborn declared wearing or owning demon’s steel a capital offense. The royal family would not pay for demon’s steel but spared the life and family of anyone who voluntarily relinquished the metal to the court. Tales said that no other steel could penetrate the legendary metal.
Karp finished talking to Slart and headed to the side door so that she could go to her room at the inn before departing for The Whitecoat’s compound. She couldn’t wait to try out the half-pound water steel dagger to see why it was worth more than eighty pounds of regular steel.
maybe after finishing with korg, i’ll come back to the tavern and play a game at the throwing board with slart.
Karp exited the main entrance of the Traitor’s Tavern Inn and headed east on Town Square Road toward The Whitecoat’s compound. A waypoint for caravans sat past small businesses and merchants’ houses on Town Square Road. Karp walked past the caravan staging areas. The staging areas were little more than large fields with wood barbecue pits and latrines. Guard stations flanked six staging areas. Food stalls lined the road, erected between the entrances of the staging areas. The food stalls would open based on the occupied staging areas. The village council assigned incoming caravans to a stall, and the committee was obligated to distribute the caravans evenly so that food stall merchants had equal opportunity to sell. Still, new allegations of favoritism and misconduct arose each year.
Karp passed the last caravan stall and entered a small woods that marked the edge of town. She still had roughly two miles to travel to The Whitecoat’s compound. Past the little woods, the side of the road opened into sprawling fields. A sound similar to a child crying stopped Karp. Although superficially similar to the sound of a baby, it was really a chorus of smaller whines that comprised the noise. Baby fly traps were growing in a ditch just off the side of the road.
Baby fly traps were carnivorous flowers that ate insects and were especially fond of crickets. The fly traps’ bulbs resembled closed green coin purses. Vibrations opened the bulbs, and the flower would then emanate a sweet-smelling gas between ridges of the partially opened flower, causing the slight whining. A sweet liquid inside the opened bulbs paralyzed anything that entered. The weak poison didn’t have any noticeable effect on a person, but it paralyzed and killed insects. Once the bulb closed, digestive acid broke down the prey.
After Karp examined the bulbs to her satisfaction, she continued out of the woods and into a clearing. The Whitecoat’s compound sat on a hillock in the distance. Fifteen-foot tall sunken logs encircled the compound. Even from miles away, Karp could see a break in the logs for wagons entering and exiting the compound. The gate only opened for returning carts and for supply wagons with expected deliveries. Even Slart couldn’t convince the guards to open the closed and barred gate without prior approval from The Whitecoat. A pedestrian gate offset from the main gate remained open all day, and two sentries allowed entrance to visitors and workers. During the night, though, that gate was closed. A retractable ladder led up to the eastern parapet where sentries gave access to visitors at night. Regardless, the sentries rarely granted access to unfamiliar faces.
A warehouse in the northeast corner dwarfed the wall. The building stored The Whitecoat’s merchandise before distribution to his regional stores located throughout the Lush Forest. Stables in the southeast corner supplied horses to pull wagons; these wagons lined the southern wall. Employees worked twelve hours a day for three days and then rested for three days. The majority of The Whitecoat’s workers lived with their families in the Village of the Traitor’s Tavern when not working and slept in a sixty-person barracks in the compound’s southwest corner during workdays. Fifty beds filled two large halls, and night shift and day shift alternated between the beds.
Ten employees didn’t live in the village and were instead given permanent room and board in private chambers. In exchange for staying in the barracks, on at least two of their nights off, they acted as emergency security. The chow hall sat next to the barracks and acted as a recreation center for off-duty workers. The common area resembled the Traitor’s Tavern Inn, but in order to maintain discipline, no alcohol was served.
The Pavilion of the Three Rings shone as the manor’s crowning jewel. The Whitecoat’s mansion formed the first ring. However, The Whitecoat’s estate didn’t resemble the massive keeps typical of the Lush Forest. Instead of one building, thin, long verandas connected a series of small buildings. The main building, which had the living quarters, guest rooms, and private kitchen, sat in the southeast corner of the square, just west of the front of the warehouse. The manor’s two living quarters totaled half the size of the Traitor’s Tavern Inn. A large single room sat catty-cornered across from the living quarters. The Whitecoat trained and exercised there during inclement weather. Three room-sized buildings used for private meetings and entertaining sat in the northeast corner, southwest corner, and western edge of the square.
Starry night bushes formed the second ring. In direct sunlight, the plants had green spade-shaped leaves and closed black flowers, but at night the flowers bloomed with glowing red stamen. During the day, visitors ignored the foliage, but every night, stars enshrouded revelers at the central pavilion. White stars dotted the sky, and little red stars emanated in circular patterns from the bushes.
Special sand imported from the Arid Desert formed the final ring. Shifters had created the glossy enamel coating that covered their weapons and armors with that sand. Crystalline structures infused the sand and refracted light and changed color based on the angle of the sun. Raking the sand in different directions changed its apparent hue, and patterns drawn into the sand changed colors throughout the day. Three paths led to the pavilion. The first extended from the small building along the western edge of the square, the second connected to the center of the eastern veranda, and the final stretched from behind The Whitecoat’s manor. At the side of the bushes, the regular walking path changed to a series of large-cut path stones lying in the sand.
One large carved stone formed the otherwise unremarkable pavilion. Four pillars carved into the corners supported the roof. Karp found The Whitecoat drinking tea at a rectangular sculptured stone table with matching benches.
Korg took a second cup from a tray, poured tea, and placed it on the opposite side of the table. Karp sat in front of the teacup, tested the temperature, held it with both hands, and sipped. Karp took her time explaining about the strange man and child she had seen while shifting. The Whitecoat sat, sipped his tea, and thought carefully before speaking.
˝Did you look at the book the child had?”
˝no. i didn’t know if the man was around. since i didn’t know what i was dealing with, i just got what i needed and left.”
˝What do you mean?”
˝well, time in the shift world should stop while i’m not there. when i come back, everything should be exactly the same as when i left, but this person had suddenly appeared and disappeared. it shouldn’t be possible, but it happened, and if that person has that kind of power... i shouldn’t tangle with them without learning more.”
The Whitecoat sipped the tea while contemplating a response. Karp found his hesitation out of character.
˝Well...there is still a lot we don’t understand about shifting. We don’t even really understand why it works in the first place. Whatever caused a person to appear and disappear is likely some anomaly of a fundamental principle of shifting. It’s also possible that the child you saw was just the same person from before but they had just lost their book. If I were you, I’d try not to nitpick the fine details of shifting; you will probably just spend the whole time losing the forest for the trees.”
Karp wasn’t satisfied with Korg’s cryptic answer but knew better than to argue with him when he was like that. Korg turned his head and seemed to stare into space.
˝Did you understand what I said?”
Karp couldn’t tell who he was addressing until his gaze lingered a few more seconds and a guard came up the path.
˝Yes, sir! You said not to be disturbed when meeting with Karp unless there is an emergency and...”
Korg apparently didn’t need to hear the rest to understand; he rose and headed for the building where the guard had emerged.