Shift World Chapter 4
by Christopher W Gamsby
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The sunset gave workers erecting stalls in the village square a last bit of sunlight to complete preparations for the Founder's Day Festival. Only the word “festival” was accurate, though, since it lasted three days, not one day. Additionally, the festival's days didn't correspond to any significant event related to the founding of The Conqueror's Empire. Initially, the festival had celebrated the start of the convoy season. Mostly local residents and workers from the season's first convoy attended the small-scale event. However, the festival steadily grew and was pushed back to the week before the first convoy. Eventually, it grew large enough to draw the Crossroads' attention, and it was co-opted to become another celebration of the empire.
The festival became the largest in the southern Lush Forest. Merchants, lords, and peasants wealthy enough to travel came from all over the southern and western regions. Minor lords and traders rented every room in the Traitor's Tavern Inn. Two convoy staging areas housed four warehouse-sized tents where peasants slept on the ground for a nominal fee. The other four convoy staging areas became sprawling tent cities for major lords and traders who brought throngs of servants and employees to see the festivities.
Karp and The Whitecoat supervised the final preparations from a veranda on the Traitor's Tavern Inn.
˝do you think a lot of people are going to come this year?”
˝I don't know. A lot of people are scared.”
Indeed, tensions hung heavy over preparations this year. The strange aging sickness first discovered at the Village of the Bog Djinn had spread. Famous shifters in areas surrounding the swamp had been found as dried husks lying stripped of all valuables.
˝Do you still think that man is involved?”
˝i don't know, but i'm sure shifting is involved, and the disease has been spreading.”
˝Why does it have to be shifting, though?”
˝well, they were all found naked, right? that means they were robbed after death. no one just walks around in their armor; shifters will leave their armor in the shift world if they are safe and shift into armor for a fight. something must have scared them enough to think they needed protection.”
The Whitecoat searched for a serving girl, made eye contact, and raised two fingers. The young woman scurried away, and The Whitecoat brought his attention back to Karp.
˝How long has it been? Since you saw that guy.”
˝about sixteen months. i've only been back a few times, but haven't seen him since.”
˝I think you might be right about them shifting and putting on armor before they died, but I'm also pretty sure you're wrong about this Wili guy.”
A serving girl brought another round of drinks to Karp and The Whitecoat as they “supervised” the final preparations. The serving girl handed The Whitecoat a tankard and winked. He blushed and turned toward the workers, now leaving the square. Karp smirked before sipping from her mug.
˝Let's go inside. And Karp... Keep your ideas to yourself, or you might scare off more people.”
Karp nodded. They entered the tavern and moved to the table that Karp, Nort, and Slart usually shared. The inn was typically full of local merchants, farmers, and workers from The Whitecoat's compound. During the festival, though, Karp couldn't find anyone she recognized. She heard the familiar thud of the throwing board and glanced to watch the competitors. Two men wearing unblemished tailored leather threw medium-sized steel daggers at pictures of apples. Those two would have been the perfect marks in the days before Karp lived in the Village of the Traitor's Tavern. They clearly wouldn't miss a few iron coins. Chances were they had never even worked a day in their lives. The one on the right was competitive and boisterous but also unskilled. He'd likely never accept that a clumsy, ditzy young woman could beat him.
˝i was just thinking of the good old days.”
˝'Good old days?' You mean the days where you were starving, running from village to village? The days that ultimately led to your bleeding to death on the floor of my store? Those 'good old days?’”
"it had its good parts too. if i wasn't bleeding to death on your floor, then i never would have met nort or slart. ah, or you either.”
The Whitecoat wasn't most impressed by Karp's adaptability, fighting prowess, or intelligence. He loved the simplicity of how she lived and wanted to live. Every month, The Whitecoat rejected shifters of all ages who showed up at his door requesting to become his apprentice, with dreams of becoming the next merchant baron. Karp just wanted to learn and spend her time with those she loved. Korg felt a pang of guilt, knowing the world was a cruel place and that one day, Karp’s dream might be shattered.
˝How is Nort?”
˝he's good. really calmed down since the incident.”
˝After that happened, Slart came pleading to me, asking if I could stop training Nort.”
˝i remember that.”
˝Yeah, the way Slart tells it, you almost died.”
˝it wasn't that bad...”
˝Must have been bad enough. I think the whole thing really opened his eyes. Not just seeing you there...again, but also his mom's reaction. As strange as it sounds, I think he felt a little guilty afterward.”
˝He's always been a...sensitive boy, and I don't think he fully understood the emotional impact that his being a shifter would have on his mom. I think seeing her crying made him understand why she objected. He felt guilty for pushing the issue so much.”
˝it might be too late for him anyway. he may have another year at the most, but if he doesn't shift soon, he's not a shifter.”
Most of the year, Town Square Road was lightly traveled. Local merchants, farmers, and workers traversed the road to buy supplies, sell goods, and conduct business at The Whitecoat's compound or stop at the Traitor's Tavern Inn for a pint. During the convoy season, however, massive horse-drawn wagons carried lumber, hides, leather, salted meats, salted fish, textiles, and a variety of marine goods into the convoy staging areas. A few times a month, a large convoy left the village and headed toward the main supply route for the Crossroads. Town Square Road became a mudslide, workers in brown leather, guards in leather armor with iron or steel-tipped pikes and spears, wooden wagons, and horses all poured down the street. The Founder's Day Festival was the only time of the year when the road transformed into a field of flowers blowing in the wind: vibrant, flowing, and alive, with changing colors in a sea of green.
Green cloth with light embroidered floral patterns was the most popular style in the Lush Forest. At the festival, almost every adult and child from wealthy families wore cloth. Children of peasant families wore leathers, though, because cloth was an expensive luxury and was only worn a few times a year. Peasant children customarily didn't receive a cloth outfit until they turned fifteen.
Lesser lords wore unnamed iron or steel armor, which was often too large or small because they couldn't employ a shifter to alter the armor to fit correctly. Greater lords, merchants, and shifters wore named armor made of colored steel. Around thirty great lords and merchants were attending the festival, which was similar to previous years. Only ten shifters in named armor were attending, which was one quarter of the number of past years. A large part of the festivities centered around shifters demonstrating their skills and talents. With so few shifters attending, odds were against the festival lasting three days.
The morning of the first day centered around The Whitecoat's exhibition. Korg had held a staff fighting contest every year for the last decade. Any challenger who landed a clean hit received a wooden staff with steel supports. Anyone who defeated him won his quad-helix staff. A seashell steel outer cover encased an intertwined quadruple-helix inner support. In the contest's history, Korg has only awarded a dozen wooden staves, and no one has ever come close to winning.
Karp stepped off the crowded front porch of the Traitor's Tavern Inn. She couldn't drink from her mug without someone in the dense crowds knocking into her elbow. Karp normally didn't wear armor unless she was training, and that also made drinking awkward. She wore a steel hauberk and greaves over training leathers. In the Lush Forest, business associates meeting for the first time customarily removed their helms and right gauntlets. The Whitecoat planned on introducing Karp to his associates, so she had decided not to wear gauntlets and also wore an open-faced steel helmet instead of needing to repeatedly remove a closed-face helm.
Once off the porch, Karp walked to a nearby cart that carried a large wooden cask and withdrew a few iron coins, handing them to one of the serving girls standing nearby. A tavern's serving girl wearing white cloth embroidered with red stenciling of flowers and decorative blue lines returned the mug to Karp. A small crowd gathered near the inn to watch a pair of fire jugglers.
The performers wore matching red tights and red wooden masks with blue circles around the eye holes, blue horns protruding from their foreheads. The masks covered the top half of their faces, and the rest of their faces were painted red except for painted blue lips. The jugglers held two torches and suspended two more in the air. One torch was launched in the air just before the thrower caught another. The jugglers threw faster and faster until rings of fire connected the two performers. Then, they slowly separated from each other; one foot calmly crossed behind the other until the jugglers were five yards apart.
The jugglers caught the airborne torches, turned toward each other, and threw two more torches. They grabbed torches behind their backs, between their legs, and over their heads. The thrown implements moved so quickly that they appeared ringed in fire. The flames flew high and far. The jugglers did backwards somersaults, and each caught a torch during the apex of their turns. Each turn, while their hands were in the air and their feet were planted on the ground, they juggled again. Within four tumbles, the jugglers stopped, faced the crowd, lifted three torches over their heads, and caught the final ones in their mouths.
The performers bowed, and spectators cheered at the perfect synchrony. Lesser lords dressed in armor threw small coin purses, and peasants threw individual coins. Children wearing pointed red hats gathered the coins piled at the performers' feet. They deposited the metal in clay jars sitting on the jugglers' supply cart.
Karp finished the last of her drink, gave the empty mug to a serving girl, and headed for the general store. Slart stood in front of the store with a group of guards armed with steel-tipped spears. Four of the guards paired off, and each couple carried a large chest. Slart finished directing the guards, who lifted the ends of their spears, smashed the butts into the dirt, and headed toward The Whitecoat's compound. Slart's white tunic and pants had wide steel strips with smaller seashell steel strips down all the seams; it was an outfit typical of a high-ranking merchant's employee.
˝Ohhhh... Looky at you all dressed up!”
˝this is just what i normally wear training, except i normally have gauntlets.”
˝I hear it's a big day for you!”
Slart pretended to remove a glove, straightened her back, presented her hand, and spoke in a voice much lower and more gruff than usual.
˝Slart of the Traitor's Tavern. Empress of the general store. Mother of Nort the hero. Bastion of all that is fair and just!”
Karp extended her hand, gripped Slart's wrist, straightened her back, looked into Slart's eyes, then looked down and bowed slightly.
˝karp, the whitecoat's apprentice.”
˝Uh... You learned the greeting, OK...but your introduction stinks!”
˝you closing up shop already?”
˝No...” Slart pouted. ˝We've already sold all the steel and iron goods, and not very many people are buying cloth by now, so I ah sent the profits to The Whitecoat's compound. We'll stay open for the rest of today, and tomorrow we'll keep the rear open for merchants but will close the front. I'll get to see the festival tomorrow, but hmmm this year, there won't be much goin' on.”
˝that reminds me, the whitecoat is probably almost done with challengers.”
Slart giggled and put her hand up to her mouth. ˝I still can't believe you did that last year!”
˝i just exploited my enemy's weakness, and now i have a wood and steel staff in my storehouse.”
Slart put her hands on her hips and shook her head like a disapproving matron. Karp shrugged. Slart waved farewell and returned to the store. Karp turned toward the village hall and moved down the west side to the rear field. She stopped at a food stall that sold a light, slightly sweet sticky bun with either spiced meat or red bean paste. Karp removed a dozen small iron coins and handed them to the woman working the food stall. She took a spiced beef bun, a red bean paste bun, and asked the worker to take a second bean paste bun to Slart at the general store. The woman obliged, and Karp headed toward the village hall with the other buns. The buns were expensive, but Karp and Nort both loved them, and they were only available during the festival.
Hundreds of spectators surrounded the ring where The Whitecoat took on all challengers. Karp pushed through, people naturally parting for someone dressed in armor passing within the crowd. One of the guards restraining the audience also allowed Karp through, and Karp then walked to Nort at the side of the ring. She handed him the red bean bun and bit into the spiced beef one. Nort wore leathers this year, but next year he would wear cloth. Slart planned on giving him a white cloth outfit with thin iron strips down the seams after he graduated from the third class at school. Slart then wanted Nort to spend the next five years working with her in the store and taking advanced trading and economics classes from the fourth class. After Nort turned twenty, Slart hoped to give him a new outfit with steel strips down the seams.
Five wood and steel staves hung on iron hooks by the side of the ring. Since all five staves remained, it was clear that no one had landed a clean blow on Korg again this year. Korg had only lost one staff in five years. Last year Karp won a staff by enlisting the aid of a couple of serving girls from the tavern. The girls helped Karp distract The Whitecoat just long enough for her to land a blow while he was preoccupied. After picking himself off the ground, he was no longer amused, and Karp didn't get close to landing a second blow. She now smirked as she noticed a new sign that read “NO LEWD DISPLAYS.”
Karp looked over to the queue of remaining fighters. Each year dozens challenged The Whitecoat, and each year the majority were drunken oafs that only participated because of the dares of less drunken oafs. The Whitecoat usually showed a few challengers the courtesy of effort, and he always showed boisterous showmanship when facing the drunks.
Korg the Whitecoat stood in the center of the ring wearing a seashell steel cuirass, hauberk, open-faced helmet, and chainmail leggings. For the festival, he wore white cloth under his chainmail instead of thick leathers in order to maintain a uniform white appearance. Seashell steel plates on fingertip-less gloves covered in white fabric protected the back of his hands and upper fingers from glancing blows. White cloth covered his boot leather, and seashell steel reinforced the ankles, heels, and toes. His namesake came from his long white woolen coat crisscrossed with thin strips of seashell steel that were thin enough to allow it to flow like a regular coat. The garment was mostly ornamental but could also distract, blind, or disorient The Whitecoat's enemies and conceal his movements. The white blur affected an enemy's aim so that they were less likely to hit a vital spot. If someone managed to land a blow, though, the coat offered little protection.
A large, drunken man wildly stumbled, erratically swinging his staff. The Whitecoat blocked with slow, sweeping motions, always dodging at the last moment. Korg raised his staff and struck downward. The drunk man stopped, and the weapon missed his upper body. He looked smug until The Whitecoat's staff smashed his foot. The man dropped his staff, grabbed his foot, and howled. The crowd roared with laughter as The Whitecoat played it up. The angered man rushed The Whitecoat, but he forgot that his staff lay at his feet, and he slid on the piece of wood. He crashed face-first into the ground. The audience laughed harder. He looked up, and The Whitecoat rested his staff on the man's forehead. The man chuckled nervously and raised his hands in defeat. The crowd cheered.
Korg defeated the last two challengers with similar dramatic flair. After the final match, Korg ran ringside and took his quad-helix staff from Nort. He returned to the center and held it aloft. The crowd cheered the champion one final time before dispersing. After the crowd had turned away, Korg walked to Karp and Nort.
˝No one even hit me again this year!”
The Whitecoat looked at Karp as though he were still sore at her for breaking his five-year streak. ˝There's someone I want you to meet.”
˝Uh. I have to go help at the store.”
Nort ran off after sensing impending boredom.
Karp and Korg crossed the field and met a man near the rear entrance of the village hall.
˝You put on another great show this year. It's always the highlight of the first day!” the man said.
The man wore a complete set of sunshine steel armor under a leather riding cloak with a green cloth lining. The cloak was turned inside out, so the green cloth showed clearly. Karp had heard of this man from The Whitecoat. His name was Jorn the Sunflower, a lesser lord from the coastline south of the Village of the Traitor's Tavern. When The Sunflower was younger, only his helm was made of sunshine steel, with everything else iron. Others mockingly referred to him as The Sunflower because of the sunflower top on a stem of iron. As he grew in prominence and bought a complete set of sunshine steel, he had the riding cloak made to remind those who had dubbed him The Sunflower that he hadn't forgotten.
˝I have someone for you to meet.”
The Sunflower understood The Whitecoat's meaning and removed his glove.
˝I'm Jorn the Sunflower, Lord of the Bamboo Coast, Educator of Children, Bringer of Riches, and Champion of the Emperor’s Tournament.”
Karp straightened her back, met eyes with Jorn, then lowered her eyes and bowed. Onlookers entering and exiting the village hall gawked at the little ceremony.
˝i'm karp, apprentice of korg the whitecoat.”
The Sunflower extended his hand, and Karp stood fully erect and clasped his wrist. A moment passed before they released grips, and then Karp returned to standing normally. Jorn slid on his gauntlet and inspected Karp.
˝You're the one that, uh, hit The Whitecoat last year, aren't you?”
˝That was really clever and certainly surprised him, but watching that match, I didn't think you needed trickery.”
˝then you don't know the whitecoat.”
˝He is inhuman...when it comes to fighting.”
˝Karp. The Sunflower and I need to discuss business in the village hall. Why don't you join Nort and Slart in the general store, and I'll come to find you when I'm done.”
Karp didn't understand the dismissal but was glad just the same that she didn't have to endure a business meeting.
A man's hand reached for a water steel gauntlet with white piping in the enamel and slid it on. He donned the other gauntlet and balled his fist. Although his hands moved with ease, something felt off. He removed the gauntlets and cupped one between his glowing hands. Metal from the gauntlet's palm liquefied and trickled up to redistribute around the rest of the gauntlet. More metal melted away from the fingertips. He slid on the gauntlet, and his hands flexed with an even flowing motion. He rose from the chair and walked over to the bed at the edge of the room. He grasped a nearby bedpost and smiled as he felt the post on his palm and fingertips. The man then walked back to the desk and similarly reworked the second gauntlet and slid in his hand.
He picked up a helm and examined the distinctive piping. He slid his hand over the enamel, and the piping disappeared. He donned the helm, rose, and walked toward the door. He reached for a long leather riding coat hanging on a hook and paused when he heard a familiar voice.
˝Oh, me! What a festival hee hee.”
˝Is this your first year?”
˝Oh, yes. I've always been out of town. Ha ha.”
˝Did you see The Whitecoat fight?”
The mention of The Whitecoat distracted the figure. He cracked open the door and peeked out. Right away, he recognized the older man with the strange speech pattern as an associate of The Whitecoat but didn't remember the boy who was with him. He knew something must be special about that child if the strange man was taking an interest in him. The figure closed the door and waited for the voices to stop. When the hallway cleared, the figure slipped out of his room, crossed the tavern, and exited the side door that led to the alley adjoining the general store. The figure stepped out of the lane and looked around. Whispers sprung up around him.
˝Isn't he dead?”
˝I thought he disappeared.”
˝I guess the rumors were lies.”
The figure took a few more steps into the road toward the village hall. All eyes lingered on him, and he felt panicked. He stopped and turned around. The onlookers saw The Manta emblem on his back, and the whispering increased. The figure hesitated but then turned to face the crowd. A woman wearing a white cuirass over a white cloth outfit approached. Four warriors in steel full plate armor guarded her flanks; they bore long swords, and two also carried long steel polearms.
A black and red stripe rolled down the left breast of the lead woman's cuirass. Black and red on white symbolized that she was a Royal Envoy. Royal Envoys represented the empire in civil and judicial matters. Envoys spoke with all the authority of the royal court; interfering with the envoys’ work constituted treason. An envoy's influence was so sweeping that most people had never seen a member of the royal family, since they were not needed to enact laws. The emperor acted as the head of state, and only his decree could overrule an envoy's authority. Most great lords had met the emperor to appeal a tariff or law, but his progeny were kept a secret in order to protect the realm from extortion by kidnapping the prince or princess.
The figure approached the woman in the white cuirass and extended his arm. Reflexively, the woman grabbed his wrist. Their eyes had already met before she realized the oddity of the situation.
˝Hey, you're not...”
The guards lowered their polearms to separate the figure and their mistress. The envoy flashed, and a dried husk fell to the ground. The onlookers frenzied.
˝She's not a shifter!?”
Many onlookers came to the festival believing they were immune to the shifter's sickness. As the truth sunk in, though, the crowds stampeded, trampling each other in an attempt to escape. The guards swung their polearms at the figure, but he caught one of the polearms' shafts during the heavy steel's slow downswing. With a flash of light from his hands, the polearm's head snapped and toppled off. The guards jumped back and drew swords. The figure drew his dragon fire sword. A guard rushed the figure, but the dragon fire sword cleaved the guard's incoming blade and continued through the guard's collar and took the head in one motion. A second guard rushed forward, and the figure's sword turned toward this guard's heart. The steel armor parted for the dragon fire steel, almost as if it were melting through the metal. The blade slid out as the guard's body fell. The two remaining guards fled in opposite directions. The figure chased the guard running west, grabbed her forearm, and with a small flash, her gauntlet shattered. Her body flashed under the armor with a second touch, and she fell limp to the ground. The figure turned, but the last guard disappeared into the crowd, fleeing east.
The figure's eyes searched east but were drawn to a teenage boy exiting the main entrance of the Traitor's Tavern Inn. He recognized the child as the one who had been conversing with the strange man. The figure sprinted toward the boy, clutching his dragon fire sword, and his stare froze the boy in place. The figure crossed the alley linking the general store and tavern. The gap separating him and the boy almost completely vanished. The figure drew back his sword arm just before reaching the child.
A seashell staff smashed the figure's hand, knocking away his sword. The Whitecoat dropped to a knee and followed through with his staff in order to take out the figure's leg. The figure tumbled head over heels, smashing into the ground, and lay out sprawled. Nort snapped out of his stupor, and the frightened boy ran past the alleyway and stopped in front of the general store.
Karp rushed out of the general store carrying a guard's spear. She looked over at The Whitecoat, who was standing near someone wearing water armor. She ran in his direction until The Whitecoat shouted, ˝PROTECT NORT!”
Karp turned and saw Nort cowering near the store's entrance. She ran to him, put a hand on his shoulder, and turned to face the combatants. The figure returned to his feet and darted for the dragon fire sword lying near the alley entrance. The Whitecoat smashed the back of his helm, and the figure grabbed his head and staggered. The Whitecoat knocked the sword further into the alley.
The figure gave up on the sword and faced The Whitecoat. Korg kept the figure at a distance by attacking at unpredictable angles. The figure grabbed for the staff coming toward his helm, but it dropped below his grip and speared his neck. The figure jerked forward, and incomprehensible words mashed and bubbled from his mouth as he gasped for air through his collapsed windpipe. The Whitecoat aimed for the figure's legs, tripping him and slowing his progress. Korg spun and took out his opponent's knee, knocking him off his feet. Korg then shed his coat, and it landed over the figure. Korg's quad-helix staff smashed into the figure while he was blind to the incoming blows. Disoriented from pain, confusion, and blindness, the figure couldn't defend himself, and his water steel armor creaked, cracked, and splintered from the repeated blows of Korg's reinforced staff.
During the excitement, The Sunflower had left the village hall and now was approaching Korg. Korg thrust the staff downward and knocked off the figure's helm. He turned at the sound of footsteps and saw his friend.
˝Stay out of his reach!”
Korg turned back to the figure to deliver a final blow. He hesitated when something dropped behind him. The Whitecoat's quad-helix staff fell toward the figure's head and stopped with a jerk. A bare hand clutched Korg's neck. He looked over to see his friend The Sunflower staring in his eyes. Korg's coat then slipped off the figure, and Korg saw his exposed face. Korg gasped and then shouted.
The words trailed in a moment's hesitation. A dim light shone from Korg's armor. The Whitecoat slackened, and The Sunflower dropped Korg's limp body. Karp stared at the figure's face, but she didn't know him and didn't understand The Whitecoat's message.
don't run? if i run, they will catch up and kill me and nort.
don't fight? if i fight, they will probably kill me.
don't give in? that would be a waste of last words.
don't let them have nort? why do they even want him? it's out of the question anyway. there's only one thing i can do.
The figure retrieved his sword. The Sunflower and the figure headed toward Karp and Nort. Karp shifted to her storehouse.