Shift World Chapter 5
by Christopher W Gamsby
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Karp and Wili spent another week clearing the settlement and training. A few skeletons hiding among ruins were quickly dispatched. Creatures in the area had mostly been cleared out by a long-forgotten shifter who had also stripped away any valuables from the ruins. Then, Karp and Wili spent two weeks traveling from guard post to guard post until they arrived at the next settlement. The pair didn’t find any signs of the tall stone tower with diamond windows.
They trained every morning and evening for as long as time permitted, and both felt confident entering the next keep. Sand had blasted the two-story keep for centuries, stripping away its former glory, and only white paint flakes remained of the colored coating. A single tower extended four floors. The image of a small kettle over a campfire was pressed into the rock of the main door’s archway.
Karp pushed open the door and entered the main hall. Without waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dark, she stepped off a stoop, but she misjudged the stoop’s height, and her foot hit on the ground hard. An echoing clank resulted, stirring the monsters lining the hall. Six skeletons rose, three near the rear staircase, two near the stoop, and one in the middle of the right wall.
Wili engaged the enemies near the entrance, and Karp bolted to the rear. A skeleton swung a short sword at Karp as she arrived, but she dodged the blow with a momentary stutter. She broke the skeleton’s hand with her staff, and its short sword fell to the floor. Karp then thrust her staff into the skeleton’s chest, as it recoiled from the hand pain and dropped to its knees. Karp reached down, picked up the short sword, and cut off the skeleton’s head with a rising slash. Karp then threw the short sword and dispatched a second skeleton before the first skeleton’s corpse even hit the ground.
Wili impaled a skeleton with his spear, spun, and hurled the corpse and spear onto another skeleton. He strolled to the pinned, thrashing creature, picked up an iron short sword, and stabbed it down into its head. Wili looked across the hall and ran toward Karp.
Karp dodged left, parried right, and blocked the skeleton’s attempt to grab her. When she was satisfied that her enemy wasn’t going to land a blow, she unsheathed her dagger and stabbed the weak creature through the eye. The motion of its body dropping freed her blade. She resheathed her knife and turned toward the sound of Wili running. A skeleton tackled her to the ground and sat astride her, its arms raised to strike. Karp lifted her hand and released a shockwave that blew the skeleton apart, continued to the ceiling, and struck with an explosion that cracked the floor above. When Karp released the shockwave, the palm of her gauntlet burst, sending shrapnel into her hand. At the same time, a snarling devil rushed down the stairs. Karp sat up and then bounded to her feet, drew her dagger, and hurled it at the devil. Because of the blood and pain, though, her aim was off and slow. The devil feinted right, and the blade hit its left shoulder, immobilizing its arm. Karp rolled to the devil’s limp side, picked up her staff, and smashed its leg. The devil fell to one knee. Then, Wili leaped and drove his sword into the devil’s chest so hard that Wili slid five feet. Karp removed her damaged gauntlet and pulled her dagger from the devil.
˝i got careless.”
˝Why does it matter? You can always use your powers to save yourself.”
˝here i can. if this happened in the other world, though, i’d be dead. if that was a devil and not a skeleton, i’d be dead.”
Karp winced as she cut into her hand and removed a small piece of metal caught in her palm. Her eyes watered because of the pain, so she used that moment to let a few tears flow. After only a moment, though, she stopped herself from crying and become stoic once more.
˝let’s clear the rest of the dungeon.”
˝Dungeon? You mean keep?”
˝keeps are where people live. dungeons are for the dead. it only seems right.”
Karp and Wili scoured the ruins for treasure or monsters. They cleared the rest of the dungeon without fighting any monsters besides the skeletons ambling in the main room and a devil that was drawn to the shockwave’s explosion. They did find a small chest on the tower’s second floor.
The small chest contained a medium sunshine steel shield and a steel short sword. Karp passed her hand along an edge of the shield and removed a strip of metal. Then, she curved and molded the main section of sunshine steel into a buckler. She ran her hands along its right edge and created four small, evenly spaced indentations. She fashioned four identical small knives with the remaining piece and slid each one into an indentation. She donned the new armor piece on her left forearm and adjusted the short handles so that the buckler no longer slipped. She pushed herself off the ground and assumed an offensive stance.
Karp glided her finger over a divot, removed a knife, and threw it at a nearby beam. The knife landed four inches higher and two inches left of her target. She repeated the motion three more times, and every shot flew wide of the mark, with the last throw even missing the beam altogether.
˝a little practice, and that will do nicely.”
˝You’re not very good with those. Why did you decide to do that?”
˝i have a friend that carries around little knives like these. she could kill a fly at twenty yards. i figure that would be a big advantage in fighting at a distance.”
Karp handed Wili the sword.
˝you should learn how to use this.”
˝spears have a nasty way of getting caught in things. we’ll gather up the rest of the valuables in the dungeon and spend a week or so clearing out the ruins. we’ll follow the mountains after that, but I don’t know what’s there.”
˝I thought you knew this area.”
˝i wasn’t able to explore too far before the shifter sickness started. once shifters started dying, my master forbid me from returning. so i’ve only been back a few times since then.”
˝This master must have been quite a person if you mostly listened to them.”
˝he and two others saved my life.”
Karp and Wili searched ruins and cleared dungeons along the main highway for six months, resupplying at Karp’s storehouse every one and a half to two months. Despite all the traveling, though, they still had no clues as to the location of the tall tower. Every day Karp practiced throwing knives and sparred with Wili. Although he had only used a short sword for several months, he wielded it like he’d been fighting with one for a decade.
Generally, the higher the level of the monsters, the more likely Karp and Wili were to find high-quality gear. The farther northwest they traveled, the more devils they faced. After two months, Karp wore sunshine steel hauberk, leggings, and helm, steel gauntlets and greaves, a seashell steel buckler with yellow throwing knives, and had a water steel dagger on her hip. Wili wore a sunshine steel buckler and steel helm, leggings, boots, hauberk, and gauntlets.
Karp and Wili stood in front of a sprawling three-story stone dungeon with two towers that extended another two stories. A sun-shaped window adorned the eastern tower, and a crescent moon-shaped window was cut into the western tower. Wili drew their location on a map with perfect scale, direction, and landmarks. Wili had begun cartography to chronicle the lands they traveled after they had left the area familiar to Karp.
˝that’s amazing. i remember the first map you drew; it was rough lines in the wrong place, and dungeons were bigger than mountains.”
˝I’m a fast learner, that’s all.”
Karp smiled a little.
˝you remind me of my friend’s adopted son. he learns things at an amazing rate, but he doesn’t really apply himself. he also sometimes learns quick, but then fails, like with knife throwing. he throws a knife with perfect technique, but his knives always just bounce off... thinking about it, he looks a lot like you, but much younger... hey, do you think you could be his father?”
Wili turned red and fervently shook his head. Karp decided to change the subject and save Wili the embarrassment.
˝it’s been six months, and you still can’t use any powers...”
˝I don’t know. I try to feel things the way you say, but nothing.”
Karp shook her head. She motioned toward the main door, walked over, and carefully pushed it open. Karp and Wili stepped inside and waited for their eyes to adjust to the darkness. Karp silently stepped off the stoop and stalked over to a skeleton, stabbed it in the side of the head with her water dagger, caught it, and gently lowered its body. When Karp continued into the hall, one of three skeletons lingering in the center of the room turned toward the entrance. Karp fingered her buckler and threw three knives in quick succession. The first knife killed the skeleton facing her before it could alert the others. The remaining blades hit their marks, and the corpses dropped. Karp skulked over to the downed monsters, retrieved her knives, and replaced them in the slits in her buckler.
A final skeleton stood in the corner of the room, facing the wall. Step for step, Karp and Wili snuck behind the monster. Karp quietly drew her dagger but was so focused on the kill that she missed the clay goblet lying in the darkness. Karp was still ten feet from the creature when she shattered the cup. The creature turned, but it was not a skeleton. The banshee’s piercing screech knocked Karp off her feet, and she writhed in pain as the shouts battered her body. Wili threw his spear and impaled the banshee on a beam.
Karp rebounded to her feet. A stampede of seven devils poured down the stairs, followed by a smaller group of five skeletons. Karp let loose five knives, and three struck devils, one missed her target, and one devil’s iron broadsword deflected a blade, striking down a skeleton instead. Momentum carried all four dead bodies to the bottom of the stairs. Wili took the head of the first arriving devil as he drew his blade. Karp tripped the second devil and followed through her attack by hitting another in the face with her staff.
Wili stabbed the tripped devil through the back of its head and bent down to retrieve an iron sword. Karp continued her flurry of blows. She hit the stunned devil in the hand, forcing it to drop its greatsword. Another shot connected with its ribs, and a final took out the back of its knee. As the devil lay out on the floor, Karp unsheathed her dagger, planted it in the devil’s neck, removed the knife, and resheathed in one fluid motion. The devil’s eyes rolled, and it slumped.
The last devil and four skeletons arrived together. The devil attacked Karp, and the four skeletons attacked Wili. The devil dodged or blocked every strike and countered Karp’s blows with its short sword, but Karp stayed out of its reach thanks to her staff. Dust sprinkled from the ceiling as crashes boomed from the landing on the second floor. The booming closed in but then stopped abruptly. The devil froze with both arms extended overhead for a downward strike. It lowered its arms while looking up the stairs out of the corner of its eye. A blade shot from its chest. The devil’s arms gently lowered, and its sword rang out when it struck the ground. The devil collapsed.
Karp looked to the other side of the staircase where Wili fought four skeletons. Dual-wielding short swords, Wili blocked the incoming attacks but was too busy to counter. Karp recovered a dropped short sword and flung it at the closest skeleton. The sword met its mark, and the body flew to the ground. Wili then cut down a monster that was distracted by the flying sword. Following that, Wili blocked an incoming strike, stabbed the attacker through the chest with an iron sword, spun, and decapitated the last skeleton with his steel sword.
Karp looked over the corpses at the bottom of the stairs for one of her throwing knives. She surveyed the dark staircase. A trail of fire led from the top to the blade protruding from the devil’s corpse. The blade slid free and jerked up the stairs. Karp found a knife in a corpse and pushed it into her buckler. She then lay down and mixed in with the bodies near the bottom of the stairs on the right side. She motioned for Wili to copy her, and he lay down near the left side of the stairs. The blade reached the top of the stairs, and the booming steps continued.
A jet black, seven-foot-tall, two-legged, winged monster broached the darkness. The monster’s wings were draped with translucent, veiny skin pulled over thin bones much like a bat. A thick layer of hardened muscle armored the beast, and it gripped a bladed whip. Every step down the stairs ended in a booming thud. Karp counted the time between the monster lifting its foot and descending to the next level. She slowly withdrew a throwing knife and waited. The beast raised its foot and hovered over the next step, and Karp gently lobbed the knife. The blade arced upside down in time for the clawed foot to come crashing down upon it. The creature howled, tumbled down the last few steps, and sprawled out on its stomach facing Wili. Wili bounded up and rushed the creature, sword in hand.
The asaghi peered up and shot fire from its mouth. Wili stopped in his tracks. Karp desperately sprinted to the asaghi, drew her water dagger, and chopped at its neck. She screamed and slashed, but it continued to blast fire even as she damaged its robust neck muscles. Smoke engulfed Wili from the bodies burning at his feet. Karp hacked again, and the head fell limp. With a third scream, the head severed. Dead yellow eyes stared up at Karp. She looked toward Wili in disbelief.
˝I guess your master was wrong about its fire breath. It’s just for show.”
The corpses at Wili’s feet were burnt to cinders, and the inferno had melted away the iron and steel weapons lodged in the bodies. Despite being engulfed by the flames, though, Wili wasn’t even singed.
˝no… you should be dead...but aren’t.”
The floor behind him wasn’t burnt either, as though his body had shielded the ground from the flames.
˝maybe you used a force shield...as an uh reflex...kind of like what I did before, but way more powerful.”
Karp turned to the asaghi and picked up its whip’s handle. Sunshine steel reinforcements ran from the handle’s top to a blade affixed at the tip. The loose handle felt as though it was meant to turn, but how it would do that initially remained unclear. Strange lettering on the back of the handle acted as a grip. Depressing the loose center letter and turning the handle clockwise made the end of the whip slide across the floor, and turning the handle counter-clockwise made the blade slide the opposite direction.
Karp tried the whip. Initially, the blade moved slowly through the air but accelerated as the whip straightened. The edge moved incredibly fast at the whip’s apex. Karp spun the whip overhead and adjusted the angle to watch the blade ascend and descend. She tried recoiling the whip but missed catching it and almost hit Wili. She reeled in the end, picked up the knife, threw it behind her, and then swung it forward with full force. As the whip moved forward, Karp twisted the handle, and the blade shot downward and lodged in a corpse. Karp pulled out the blade, removed it from the whip, and replaced it with her water dagger. She reforged the sunshine blade into a dagger and sheathed it.
Karp rolled the whip and carried it by hand as she and Wili cleared the first floor. Karp found a little case with an iron latch in one of the bedrooms of the second floor living quarters. She used her dagger to cut slices from the leather in order to create a makeshift holster. Next, she removed a strip from bottom to top. Finally, she put two small cuts in the side and lifted her belt and fed it through the slits so that the case rested on her right hip. Karp replaced the belt, opened the case, and inserted the rolled part of her whip. The blade hung through the slit in the bottom, and the handle protruded from the hole in the top. Karp hit the latch, pulled the handle, and the blade fell to the ground. She rolled the whip, returned it to the case, and went to walk, but the edge of the blade hit her thigh as she stepped. Finally, she fashioned a sheath for the whip’s knife from an extra piece of leather and attached it to her leg.
After clearing the rest of the dungeon, Karp and Wili returned to a large chest in one of the towers. They opened it and found a sunshine steel short sword, small shield, and gauntlets. Karp took the gauntlets, put them at her feet, removed her old gauntlets, stopped, and thought. She removed her seashell buckler.
˝here, take this.”
Wili seemed confused.
˝You sure? I mean, you’ve never given me anything better than what you have.”
Karp was a little embarrassed by her selfishness and the realization that Wili hadn’t said anything until then.
˝well...i need the better gear to fight some people when i go back. i figured you need the buckler more than me because you fight close up and need more protection.”
Wili removed his buckler and gave it to Karp. She removed the knives from her old buckler and placed them in her new one.
˝Actually...could you make me a shield?”
˝it’s going to be kind of small.”
˝Can you combine these two?”
Karp put her hands around the sunshine steel shield and seashell steel buckler. The buckler melted and swirled around the small kite shield. After seashell steel surrounded sunshine steel, Karp streaked the yellow steel into the white steel.
˝i don’t think this has been done before, but here. i put those streaks in just in case the metals don’t combine perfectly. hopefully, the shield doesn’t fall apart.”
The shield resembled a sun on a white background. Wili took the morning shield and slung it across his back.
After a full year of traveling between ruins, looking for better equipment, and training, Karp and Wili returned to Karp’s storehouse for the last time. In the six months since killing the asaghi, the only valuable Karp found was a pair of sunshine greaves.
˝it’s been a year, and we still don’t have any idea where that tower is, our training has plateaued, and we’re almost out of supplies.”
Karp and Wili hadn’t faced any opponents stronger than a devil since killing the asaghi. Within a few months, Karp had learned the whip well enough to clear a room full of skeletons without taking a step. In fact, at the last dungeon, she had killed a dozen devils rushing downstairs without Wili even doing anything. There were only a few weeks of food left, though, which wasn’t even enough to reach an area they hadn’t explored.
˝That’s why you took off the last few days...”
˝yeah, you had to figure this day was coming soon.”
˝I did, but I’m just worried that if you leave, I go back to getting crushed.”
˝i don’t know what will happen to you, but if you survive, as you did with the asaghi, be careful with that shield.”
Karp knew her words didn’t comfort Wili, but he chuckled, thinking back to all the grief she had given him over that shield. He had mastered using it right away. Within weeks, he fought like he had used a shield for years, maybe decades. He was proficient, and not only in defensively blocking with honed instincts, but also with incorporating offensive shield strikes. Despite all his skill, he always damaged the shield for some reason. The outer seashell ring should have been practically impervious to iron and steel, but the edges splintered and the shield’s face was gouged after every dungeon. Karp fixed the damage but also always complained about it.
Karp inventoried her large cabinet one last time. She didn’t need to know its contents so much as the task gave her an excuse not to face Wili. Karp didn’t have a particular affinity for him. Still, after a year of training together, she felt guilty leaving him, not knowing if he would be alright. Karp knew what she had to do though.
˝i’m sorry. i want to save everyone, but i just can’t.”