Shift World Chapter 3
by Christopher W Gamsby
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A panting man ran through the woods, peering into the darkness behind him, though he occasionally glanced forward to avoid hitting a tree. He knew the woods around the village where he grew up, and that knowledge kept him ahead of his tracker. The tree line broke into an open field just as a brush rustled in the distance behind him. Two steps later, the bushes to his right shook. The man stopped running and watched ahead of him. A shadowy figure shouted from the end of the clearing.
The man knew he had no choice except to fight. He hoped he had put enough distance between him and the village to prevent any more damage. He was ignorant of his opponent’s strength or fighting style and had never fought at such a disadvantage. He knew his opponent’s objective, and only that gave him any leverage. If he could beat the figure without using his best gear, he’d probably survive. Out of breath and out of road, the man shifted into a set of steel full plate armor with a steel longsword in his right hand.
The man hadn’t fought or practiced in steel armor for many years. He lumbered toward the figure. The man’s steps crashed with every step. The plate armor restricted his range of motion, and the figure danced around the man's wide, sweeping swings. The man lifted his arms and slashed a powerful overhead strike, but the figure side-stepped, and the sword lodged into the ground. The figure drew a sunshine steel short sword and struck the man’s blade near the hilt. The first strike cracked steel. The second strike splintered the sword further. The cracks spread after the third strike. The fourth strike severed the blade from the hilt, and the man stumbled back. The exhausted man eyed his broken sword. In an instant, though, the man wore a full set of seashell steel chainmail, with matching gauntlets, boots, and helm. The white armor glistened in the evening’s moonlight. He drew a seashell steel short sword and danced around the figure’s blind spots. The chainmail was considerably quieter than the plate armor, but the figure could still hear every move. The man’s movements tightened and quickened, but the figure continued to dodge the man’s predictable strikes at each last moment. Each time the figure countered, the man dodged to stay in a blind spot. They stalemated until the figure seemed to understand the man’s intentions. The figure feigned a counterattack and spun to square off with his enemy.
Surprised by abruptly losing the initiative, the man recoiled. The figure jutted out his bare hand and shot forth a shock wave. The man jumped back, but the wave traveled too close to his right hand, bursting his white gauntlet. The sword flew from his bloody hand, and he drew his wounded appendage to his body. Shattered metal scored his palm and wrist, but the bones were otherwise unbroken. The man shifted again, this time appearing in a set of full plate water steel armor.
A pressed manta ray decorated the cuirass’s blue enamel-covered backplate. The creature expanded past his shoulder blades to his lower back, and the manta ray’s tail then wrapped around his side to the front breastplate’s lower section. White piping inlay outlined the armor’s gauntlets, couter, greaves, tassets, boots, and helm. Compared to the seashell mail, the man’s range of movement was now more constricted, but his actions flashed incomparably faster than when wearing the steel plate armor. He drew a barbed dragon fire steel sword from a scabbard. A cruel weapon, the barbed tip could render flesh from its victims.
Now the figure barely dodged the incoming blows. The second slice of the dragon fire steel sword cut the figure’s sword in half. The figure released the hilt, extended his hand and shot forth another shock wave. The man rolled away as a tree exploded in the background. The figure continued his shock wave assault. Although every shot closed in on its mark, the figure’s movements slowed with each attempt. The man rolled forward and to the right. The figure shot one last bolt. The lumbering wave grazed past the man, close enough to crack and gouge the man’s left gauntlet. Fatigue had weakened the figure enough, though, that the bolt couldn’t injure the man or shatter his armor.
The man raised the dragon fire sword as he exited the roll. The figure threw himself to the side. The sword’s barb ripped clean through steel chainmail and tore the flesh underneath. The figure struggled to escape, fell backward, and surrendered. He leaned against the trunk of a nearby tree, examining his bloody chest. Realizing the life or death struggle hadn’t yet ended, he looked at the man and raised his hand, but the hand only limply dropped to his side without firing a bolt. The man rushed the figure, pressed his left forearm into the figure’s neck, and poised his sword under the figure’s ribs.
˝Don’t feel bad you lost this one... After all, this fight lasted only an hour for you; it lasted YEARS for me!”
While the man gloated his victory, the figure raked his hands across the smooth gauntlet pressing on his neck. His hands fruitlessly slipped over the blue steel until a finger caught a crack in the gauntlet. Skin touched skin, and the man screamed, glowed from under his armor, slacked, and fell backward. The figure gasped when the pressure eased on his neck.
After a few minutes, the figure stood and hobbled to the man who hadn’t moved since screaming and falling. The body lay face down, and the figure kicked it over. The helmet slid off the body to reveal the face of a withered old man.
Karp strolled through the open door of the Traitor’s Tavern Inn and waved to a serving girl. The girl barely acknowledged Karp as she darted from patron to patron. Nort and Slart sat at their usual table near the rear staircase. Karp had arrived so late that she didn’t expect the pair to still be eating. She sat, and a serving girl placed a mug of blueberry stout and plate of cubed grilled lamb with stewed coarsely chopped potatoes in front of her.
˝So uh did you get a chance to use the knife yet?”
˝Wanna try it out?”
Karp had already finished eating. She had the habit of eating like her food might get taken away at any moment, a habit she likely developed because, at one point in her life, she never knew when she might get thrown out of a tavern or house.
Karp, Nort, and Slart headed to the throwing board. Every throwing board was arranged differently, and this one was nature-themed.
˝let’s just make this simple. the first person to hit all of the bees wins.”
Karp had chosen the second smallest target on the board. Seven thumb-sized drawings of bees were scattered around the board’s five-foot by ten-foot surface. Thirteen cats’ eyes, the tiniest images on the board, each measured about the size of a thumbnail.
˝Starting off easy, hmmm?”
Slart removed one of five small knives she kept in individual pouches along her waist. She stood at the throwing line and disinterestedly flicked her wrist. The knife drifted toward the board, the blade arced down, and the sharpened front edge perfectly bisected a bee. Slart strolled over to the board, removed the knife, and returned it to its pouch with a quick spin.
˝now you’re just showing off.”
Karp always seemed calm on the surface but struggled to control a fiercely competitive side. Slart had figured that out a long time ago, though, and enjoyed riling her up.
Karp stepped to the throwing line and unsheathed her water steel dagger. The dagger was roughly the same length and width as her old steel dagger, but much lighter. The blade felt so light that Karp felt in her bones that the weapon must be fragile despite constant assurances from Slart and Korg that water steel was durable and sharp. The handle was relatively heavy compared to the blade and made the dagger slightly off-balanced. Karp would have to fix the enamel next time she was in the Shift World.
Karp felt satisfied. She understood how to throw the dagger to achieve the proper arc and angle to hit the same bee as Slart. She threw the knife, but the blade flew faster and straighter than she had anticipated. The dagger hit the board three inches above the bee. The blade slid through the throwing board and into the wall behind. The dagger’s handle smashed into the board, and the weapon stopped with a thud. Karp’s face turned bright red, and Slart snickered.
Karp stomped to the throwing board to grab her dagger. The weapon didn’t pop free as she expected. Karp tugged, but it wouldn’t budge. Soon, sweating, she cursed under her breath, with both feet on the throwing board as she tried to pry the dagger free. The blade popped suddenly free of the beam behind the throwing board, and Karp crashed to the ground. The entire tavern broke out laughing as Karp hit the ground.
Slart turned to Nort and said, ˝Oh, honey, why don’t you try?”
Nort walked up to the throwing line, and Slart handed him a little knife. Nort palmed the blade, moving it around until it felt comfortable and balanced. All of the eyes in the tavern pierced him, and he clearly wanted to impress everyone. He hurled the knife full force. The perfect throw hit the board with the sharpened front edge, but the blade ricocheted to a nearby table and stuck in the floorboards. The tavern filled with laughter again, and Nort’s face also turned beet red.
˝I - I - I uh have to go study for an exam tomorrow!”
Nort stormed off. Slart pulled the knife out of the floorboard.
˝He must have been desperate to get away if he’s really going to go study...”
Slart forced a little giggle as she spoke. Just as Slart had learned to read Karp’s cool affect, Karp had learned that Slart appeared to wear her emotions on her sleeve but usually thought and felt something more deep-rooted. That is to say, Slart didn’t want to burden others with her problems and tried to act lighthearted and ditsy, even when something bothered her. Karp had the feeling that this was one of those times.
˝is everything ok with nort?”
˝Well...um...it’s this whole shifter thing. I found him the other day in the vault, well, staring at just uh boxes. I put my hand on his shoulder, and he turned and said ‘it worked.’”
Slart pantomimed putting her hand on a shoulder.
˝Well...no? I asked him why he thought that! He said...he just knew... He was cleaning and felt a little different... I tried, you know, to tell him he would be in a different place. A different time. It wouldn’t be a feeling; there would be no question. He’s been insisting more and more, but when he tries, he fails. Little failures like with the knife make him really, really upset. Ah! I don’t know what to do. What if it gets worse?”
Slart grasped Karp’s left forearm with both hands and stared wide-eyed into Karp’s eyes, as if pleading.
˝should i talk to him?”
˝Can you talk to Korg, maybe, instead? I think Nort just takes that uh...training too too seriously.”
Slart gripped Karp’s forearm tighter. The thought of asking such a big favor from her master combined with the pain of Slart’s grip made Karp wince. Slart slacked and took her hand off of Karp. Karp remembered what had happened while she was at The Whitecoat’s compound.
˝he’s probably on his way to the village of the bog djinn by now.”
˝What happened there?”
Changing the uncomfortable subject of Nort’s impending disappointment came as a relief to Karp.
˝while i was talking to korg earlier, a convoy returned to his compound with news from the waypoint at the village. they stopped to get traffic and stores reports for the whitecoat and found the village destroyed. most of the buildings either burned down or had fire damage. the stone vault was blown apart and all the weapons were gone. the strangest part is that all the people were missing except for one old man they found dead and stripped naked outside the village.”
˝That’s a cursed place!”
Slart then spoke in a low, raspy voice, but was clearly half-serious. She spoke of how local legends described a djinn who lived in a swamp north of the village. The three-hundred-year-old djinn granted wishes to the desperate. The desperate then lived out the rest of their lives while the djinn then took everything they ever loved after death. The djinn had supposedly built the school Nort attended, so every child in the area grew up hearing the legend.
˝i wonder if this has anything to do with the person i saw when i shifted.”
˝Uh...how could that be?”
˝well... time in the shift world is strange. sometimes you shift for a month and age one month, sometimes it’s three months, sometimes six months. what if that old man was a young man caught in a time anomaly and became old and died? could that anomaly have affected the town, though?”
Slart just shrugged.
˝i think korg knows more about this than he lets on.”
˝Oh?” Slart raised an eyebrow and puckered her lips at the genuinely juicy piece of news.
˝well, a few months ago, he told me not to go back to the shift world. he said i wasn’t ready to fight stronger monsters, but then why did he almost break my ribs when he saw i went back? he also seemed to know more about those people i saw that he didn’t tell me. something is going on...”
Karp approached the counter at the general store to pick up another order. This order, however, didn’t contain anything as extravagant as the water steel dagger. Since Karp had promised The Whitecoat she wouldn’t return to the Shift World, she had lost access to months of supplies in her storehouse. So, Karp had ordered a few weeks’ worth of dry goods to store in her inn room for the days she didn’t have time for a proper meal at the tavern. Unlike the dagger that cost nearly one hundred pounds of steel, Karp could pay for this whole order with a single small steel coin.
Karp snapped the coin on the counter. As the coin rang out, Karp had a vision of the man from her storeroom standing under a collapsing wall. The man wasn’t in a defensive position with his hands raised, nor was he cowering under the falling debris. He calmly stood with his feet together and his arms down in front with palms facing out. His face showed no sign of distress. Karp shot back to the general store and staggered as though she had just been struck on the side of the head. She steadied herself on the counter and tried to make sense of what had just happened.
was he trying to commit suicide? if i didn’t shift, how did i end up there?
The visions quickened, and Karp then saw the man in the Shift World for longer than she saw the store. Every image of the Shift World flashed in her mind. Karp dizzied and backed away from the counter to stop herself from hitting it if she fell. Karp witnessed Slart's reaction in slow motion, and Slart shouted for her.
The visions appeared so quickly that time seemed to stop in the Shift World, and Karp’s world dragged her through time at a quarter of regular speed. Karp felt her mind tearing. The strain of being pulled between worlds so quickly was too much for her to handle. The man standing under the falling wall opened his eyes, even as rocks floated, suspended in midair. The man’s eyes read of fear, confusion, and an intensity that scared Karp, and then Karp collapsed from the pain. The flux of sand changing to wood and wood turning to sand battered her body. Karp convulsed on the floor of the general store.
Slart shouted with completely uncharacteristic desperation and sincerity. From the ground, Karp saw a book suspended in the air near the stranger’s feet. The stranger turned toward her, and she forced her gaze up toward his face. He completely turned in her direction, lifted his arm, and took a step. Karp’s convulsions stopped. A dazed Karp looked up at the ceiling of the general store.
Nort shoved his way through the vault’s stone door. Slart was on her knees, sitting back on her heels with her hands on the ground, shoulders hunched; she was bawling. Relieved of the mental strain from whatever had just happened, Karp’s energy slowly returned. Karp was sitting up by the time Nort reached her on the floor. Slart latched onto Karp and continued sobbing. Nort’s face showed a mixture of relief and confusion over what he had missed while in the vault. After a few minutes, Karp rose to her feet.
˝Don’t pretend like uh nothing just happened! Nort, you go with Karp. Take her supplies, and YOU rest until I come to see you later.”
With a look into Slart’s eyes, both Karp and Nort knew better than to argue with her. Nort lifted a knee-high jar holding the supplies that Karp originally came for, and escorted her out the side door. As they crossed the alley, Karp noticed her neighbor Barp heading west onto Village Square Road. Karp and Nort entered the Traitor’s Tavern Inn, crossed the dining hall, and ascended the stairs. They reached Karp’s room and entered. Nort emptied the jar’s contents into several smaller pots set up under Karp’s bed. Karp could only think of revenge while she lay on the floor of the general store, and even now, that’s all she could think of as she watched Nort empty the jar.
Nort waved goodbye when he was finished, and Karp saw him to the door. As soon as she shut the door behind him, Karp drew her dagger, took a defensive stance, and shifted. She looked around the storehouse, and there the man stood near a table. The intensity in his eyes had softened, and now he just looked tired.
˝who are you?”
˝My name is Wili.”
˝why did you try to kill me?”
˝What?! I’m not trying to kill you! I need your help!”
˝my help? after what just happened!?”
Wili desperately pleaded his case.
˝I really only remember the last few days. I was in the desert with one pervasive thought: ‘Read the book quickly.’ There was some kind of journal in my hand, so I opened the cover, and three things were written:
1: Your name is Wili.
2: You are a scholar.
3: Find a safe place to continue reading.
“I looked around and saw a towering stone spire, so I headed off toward it. The tower was connected to a building with diamond-shaped windows. I was walking around the outside looking for an entrance when I heard a creaking sound. I looked up to see the tower wall collapsing. I put my hands up, and next thing I know I’m in here. I didn’t have my book, but you were standing there. I asked you about the book, but then I was under the falling tower again! Everything was frozen, and you were there on the ground. Then we were here, talking, right now.”
Karp’s resolve softened at the sincerity of his response, even though none of it made any sense.
˝why is this book so important?”
˝I don’t know, but I feel like it can explain what’s going on. So will you help?”
i don’t know who this guy is, and he did almost kill me.
Karp sighed and sheathed her dagger.
˝look, i believe that you didn’t mean to hurt me. i also believe that you don’t know what’s going on. frankly, i think it would be too dangerous to help you, and besides, i wouldn’t get anything out of it. if you can figure out how, please just leave.”
Karp shifted away without waiting to hear any objections, complaints, or counteroffers.