Shift World Chapter 11
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Karp and Nort shifted back to the storeroom in The Whitecoat's compound. Nort reached for more supplies, but Karp put her hand on his and lowered it. Slart wanted to be near her friend when she returned to the world.
˝i'm back... for good.”
Slart sensed something different about that announcement.
˝You, uh, mean for now?”
˝for good, probably. well, i'll go back, just not like i have been. no more long trips.”
The declaration dazed Karp even as she said it, but she was also a little happy.
˝Why? Did, umm, something happen?”
˝kind of. wili doesn't want to do it anymore, and it's probably too dangerous to go by myself.”
Slart gently placed her hand on Karp's arm.
˝well, he was finally crushed by the weight of the world.”
Slart genuinely had no idea what Karp meant.
˝wili finally gave into despair. he only eats the food i bring him. he doesn't do anything but train and fight, and worst of all, he will never be free from the violence and death. every day he relives the danger, fear, and anxiety, but there's no hope that tomorrow will be better. he can't leave the fight and just has given up.”
Slart had never met Wili but felt the loss nonetheless. Nort couldn't understand because he still had the mentality of a child enamored with the idea of adventuring in the Shift World, even though he had never experienced that life.
˝Was it worth the trip, at least?”
Karp had mixed feelings about the answer.
˝well, these cloaks will be useful, and so will the darts. i'm not sure about this mirror powder; it might work, but i'll have to figure it out.”
˝Will this really be enough to, uh, change anything?”
˝i don't know, but it's better than nothing.”
˝What...uh...are you going to do then?”
˝first, we'll try to get the timing down for the mirror powder. it might work, it might not, but it will give us time, time enough to learn something new i hope.”
Clank Clank Clank
Nort walked the road in a set of full plate armor. Walking silently in chainmail armor was easy as long as he didn't stomp his feet, but individual plates in a complete set of plate armor clapped together almost every time Nort moved. Karp had insisted he learn to walk and fight in full plate because the equipment would be almost impenetrable to slashing and stabbing weapons. Nort was confused by the sudden insistence since he'd never had a problem wearing light armor. Still, he knew better than to argue with Karp.
Nort escorted Malis, a barmaid from the Traitor’s Tavern Inn, to her house on his way to training at the Whitecoat’s Compound.
Clank Clank Clank
˝Are you going to train with The Scorpion?”
˝Yeah, she’s got some idea for how to learn the mirror powder.”
Clank Clank Clank
Nort adjusted his balance and stiffened his upper body to stop the armor from making noise.
˝Some new weapon. She said it heats the air and causes a mirror. I don’t know why it would work, but she says it could.”
˝Where does she get these ideas?”
˝The Shift World.”
Clank Clank Clank
A squirrel darted from bushes on the side of the road and startled Malis. She yelped, and laughs echoed under Nort's armor. Malis recovered from the surprise but was angry at Nort. Her shoulders tensed, and she drew her arms to her sides and made as if to storm off but turned and hit Nort’s arm instead. Malis withdrew her hand and started laughing.
Her exaggerated display of rancor had backfired, and now she shook the pain from her palm. Nort continued laughing but stopped when Malis tensed.
˝Is your mom alright?”
˝Yeah, mostly. She got sick in the field a couple days ago. She fainted, but she’s doing better now.”
Nort stared at the ground as he walked, thinking and watching his steps.
˝Are you going to stay in the Traitor's Tavern? For good?”
˝Probably after this is all over I'll work with Mom at the store.”
Malis was relieved. They arrived at her house, and she faced Nort.
˝Well, if you decided to leave, you wouldn’t have to go alone...”
Nort blushed under his armor, but Malis couldn’t tell because of his faceplate. She ran up the covered path to her house before he could reply.
Clank Clank Clank
Nort continued up the road, thinking about a future outside of the Traitor’s Tavern.
I’d work for some great lordship, probably a royal envoy, maybe even the royal family. The capital would be on the side of a great lake where I’d have a large villa. No, a large stone villa. My chef would make steamed buns whenever I wanted. I’d walk along the beach with Malis, eating steamed buns and drinking mugs of pumpkin-spiced ale. I’d go and fight in all of the regional championships. I’d be a victor of the Lush Forest, Arid Desert, Creeping Ice, and even a victor of the royal tournament. Everywhere I’d go, people would say, “There goes The Morning Shield, savior of the empire, champion of the people, hero!”
Clank Clank Clank
A light raven flew from the trees and circled Nort. The bird's feathers glowed a dull yellow, and Nort's eyes followed its flight. Light shot from under the light raven's wings and blinded Nort. It had disappeared by the time he recovered.
Nort was focused on sneaking when he saw The Whitecoat's. He had almost reached the gate when the guard spotted him. In light armor, he could have reached the gate undetected, but he already felt his improvement in heavy armor. Nort raised his faceplate to identify himself and proceeded inside.
He arrived at a training field between the Pavilion of the Three Rings and the central warehouse. Karp waited near a giant vat of flour and a large vat of salt and handed him a set of leathers as soon as he arrived. Nort waited, but he still wore the armor.
˝go change in that pavilion.”
A week later, Karp, Slart, and Nort sat in the Traitor's Tavern Inn, sipping a bitter brown ale and eating day-old bread, cheeses, and fruit for lunch. Karp and Nort wore plain brown leathers, which had turned white from the flour and salt that covered them from head to toe. Every time Karp reached for a morsel to eat, powder ground into her skin and she grimaced.
The inn's main door creaked open, and a tall woman clad head to toe in sunshine steel armor strode in and peered around. The full plate armor bore sharp, jagged angles, which made the sunshine steel glow from certain directions. Small scrapes in the enamel meant the gear was more than just ornamental. Still, the luminescent coating must have been recoated recently. Since the armor was both well maintained and well worn, Karp deduced the woman to be a vassal of a high lord. A flash of disappointment and worry crossed her face as she approached Karp and Nort. Nort didn't register her presence until she stood directly behind the table.
˝Excuse me, bakers, where is The Scorpion?”
All three at the table chortled, and the woman's face wore a tinge of embarrassment, disdain, and confusion.
˝what do you want?”
˝I want to converse with The Scorpion. Tell me her location or you've likely baked your last loaf of bread.”
The woman drew her sword. She took a posture of desperation and frustration and not the menacing stance of a person intent on killing. Karp, Nort, and Slart fell quiet just the same. Karp rose from her seat and stepped away from the dining hall table. In a flash, Karp was clad in seashell steel, and the blade of her whip snapped the woman's sword at the hilt. Instead of fear or anger, the woman's face read relief. She bent down, picked up the blade, and instantly stood erect. She calmly sheathed a whole sword.
˝An extremely confused Wili says hello.”
Karp felt that the woman had more questions, but she didn’t ask them.
˝Karp the Scorpion, apprentice to Korg the Whitecoat, Avenger of the Betrayed, Slayer of Dragons, I'm Tark the Silverfish, first steward to The Grand, Victor of the Lush Forest's Tournament.”
Tark placed her right hand on her breast, straightened her back, and then bowed. Karp chuckled as she realized just how foolish she had been for worrying about these formalities. Karp struggled back and forth, deciding if she should return the salute, but eventually she just moved on.
˝so what is it you want?”
˝My lord is worried. Scared, really.”
Karp and Slart were both surprised by her directness; Nort picked up on their reaction but had no clue of the implications.
˝What is he afraid of?”
˝He believes The Mandrake is coming for him. The keeps from the Dragon's Roost to the Crossroads have been ransacked. Our keep is the final way station and warehouse before the Crossroads. We've dispatched workers and guards to defend lesser lords, but they have disappeared alongside the people they were sent to protect. My lord fears his keep will be emptied next.”
˝Why is...uh...he so sure they didn't just leave?”
˝Some of those lords were malcontents and might have been plotting or scheming, but other lords would die before betraying the empire. My lord is one, and that is why I need your assistance.”
˝if your lord is who you say, then why does he need my help?”
˝Don't play coy. You are the sole warrior to have dispatched a dragon. You struck down The Sunflower, and no other has survived an encounter with the followers of The Mandrake. Even if the rumors are exaggerated, your presence might entice The Mandrake to pass over the keep.”
“it would take us three months to walk out there. if what you say is true, we probably won't make it in time to help.”
˝We have made arrangements to arrive at the Grand's Meadow in approximately three weeks. It should be possible to avert disaster, but we need to depart soon. Tomorrow morning if possible.”
˝This might be the only chance we have.”
Karp reluctantly agreed.
The next morning, Karp, Nort, and Tark approached the stables near the convoy staging area. Nort was excited.
˝This is my first time on a horse.”
Karp smirked. Nort's childish mannerisms off-put Tark. Three thin black horses whinnied as stable hands fastened leather saddles. Nort reached toward the sturdiest horse. It snapped at him, and he withdrew his hand. Karp's smirk turned to a smile, and she motioned for Tark to join her.
˝get on him, nort.”
Nort slid his foot into a hanging leather strap, swung his leg above the horse, and sat squarely in the saddle. A stable hand led the horse out of the barn door, and Karp's eyes widened in anticipation. Karp nudged Tark.
˝start going forward.”
Nort tapped the horse's flanks, and the horse slowly walked forward and stopped. Karp looked disappointed.
Nort kicked the horse's side, and it broke into a full gallop. The animal ran to the edge of the convoy staging area and reared and kicked before calming. Nort turned the horse toward Karp and Tark and waved. Karp sighed.
Karp and Tark mounted the other two horses and trotted out to meet Nort.
˝where did you learn to ride a horse?”
˝I don't know.”
The three brought their horses to a full trot and maintained pace. Riding horses was unusual for Karp and Nort. Although The Whitecoat taught Karp equestrianism, she and Nort avoided riding because horses were too conspicuous. Walking required more effort and took longer, but most people didn't think twice about cloaked figures walking the road. Everyone noticed people on horseback. However, between the high stakes and quick travel of this journey, Karp wasn't worried about being spotted traveling.
They rode until nightfall. The group slowed at dusk when it was too dark to safely travel at full pace, and they stopped altogether at midnight. Karp and Tark rested in the Shift World, but Nort was forced to sleep in the main world. Tark wasn't bothered since the horses rested anyway. At sunrise, Tark raised Nort with a kick to his side. The group roused the horses, reattached saddles, and rode again.
On the evening of the third day, they arrived at the mill town. They put their horses in the stables and walked into the tavern. Karp ordered three rounds of spit-fire garlic mutton, potatoes, and star-berry mead. Out of habit, Karp and Nort walked toward the throwing board, and Tark just sort of followed.
˝those horses aren't going to last.”
˝We will provision new horses in every town we rest.”
˝Are we going to stay at the inns?”
Tark felt a little annoyed that she had to change her plans in order to accommodate Nort, but she also felt a pang of guilt. Karp and Tark could rest in the Shift World when tired, but Nort was forced to endure.
˝you'll be glad he's here... if you're right.”
The barkeep arrived with Karp's order and eyed her when he noticed the tension at the table. She gave him a dismissing nod, and he left the food and drinks. Karp felt a soft wad under her plate when she moved the dish closer. She tensed. Tark looked toward the throwing board, and Karp shifted to remove the small leather parchment that was attached to the rim of her plate.
˝tell me about your lord, torp.”
Karp sipped the star-berry mead and swooshed the liquid around her mouth. The star-berry fruit didn't add much taste to the mead but added a bitter aroma that reminded her of the pavilion in The Whitecoat's compound.
˝Torp the Grand administers the last hub of the caravan trail. He warehouses goods from all around the Lush Forest that are destined for the Crossroads. He also warehouses goods from the Arid Desert and the Creeping Ice. Those goods are, of course, distributed through the Lush Forest.”
˝the grand? i've heard a different name.”
Karp smirked, and Tark scowled.
˝His stature matches a man of immense importance. I'd refer to him as The Grand if you wish to live long enough to catch The Mandrake.”
˝why is he so sure someone is targeting him? the crossroads have been closed for the last month. shouldn't the warehouse be empty?”
Tark squirmed a little.
˝Sometimes merchandise accumulates more than it should. There are more than enough goods for thieves to target our keep.”
Karp finished her drink in silence. She turned to order another but saw Nort sleeping at the table. She roused him and motioned toward the guest rooms. Nort rose but stayed slightly hunched as he shuffled toward the bedrooms, Karp following him. Tark waved to them.
˝I'll fetch you at first light, and we'll depart after breakfast.”
Karp opened the door to Nort's room and slipped in after him.
˝i'm going to sleep in the shift world and watch over you here.”
Nort was still too tired to understand her meaning. Karp handed Nort the letter from under her plate.
-Be careful; your real enemies are in the Crossroads.
-The Bog Djinn
Karp followed the sounds of footsteps until they stopped outside of Nort's room. A pounding on the door woke Nort so violently that he almost fell out of bed. Karp walked to the door and opened it to a surprised Tark.
˝Breakfast is ready.”
Karp nodded and shut the door. Nort donned his armor, and the two headed for breakfast. They ate grilled duck with mixed fruit. After the meal, the three rode out northeast toward The Grand's Meadow on fresh horses. For two weeks, they rode horses to exhaustion and replaced old horses with new ones every three to four days. Even though the horses stayed full of energy, the journey took a toll on Nort.
They stopped at a small village about one week south of the Grand's Meadow. This village was different, though. All the towns they had stopped at previously were somber due to the rumors circulating about an upcoming war or crisis, but this town was deserted. They passed a small barracks surrounded by a log post wall. The barracks' main gate was red with black stripes. Karp waved to Tark to get her attention and then motioned to the strange building.
˝It's a training post for the Royal Guard.”
˝shouldn't they be with the royal family in the crossroads?”
˝They do more for the royal family than ensure well-being, and they need bases of operation.”
˝what could they need elite guards for that they can't just send in regular troops?”
Tark adjusted herself in her saddle. She looked around uncomfortably and moved her horse closer to Karp.
˝They work to seek revenge, sometimes against a lord or lady who’s becoming powerful but won't yield to the empire. Sometimes they are even used for petty grievances or slights, just to demonstrate the empire's power to local lords.”
Karp looked up to an open window in the barracks, and a red shadow moved from view.
˝well, they are still here. so where is everyone else?”
Normally people peeked out windows to check on strangers entering the town, but here each house was empty on the way to the inn.
˝do you think they have been trained to ignore everyone that passes through?”
As Karp turned forward, a slight red blur moved between houses.
˝i guess we aren't completely unwelcome.”
They arrived at the inn and dismounted. Tark led everyone into the stables and tied the horses to a post. A boy no older than twelve years old stepped out from an empty stall.
˝House these horses and prepare the three left by The Grand. We'll return at first light tomorrow.”
The boy nodded. He looked as though he wanted to speak, but something stopped him. Karp, Nort, and Tark then entered the inn and paced while waiting for an employee to show up.
A man quietly stepped from a back room and waited behind a counter. Karp approached the man, and Tark the Silverfish went to speak, but the man interrupted; The Silverfish puckered her lips.
˝We heard of your coming, Silverfish. Is this The Scorpion and The Morning Shield?”
˝Yes, she is Karp the Scorpion, and he is The Morning Shield.”
˝How sure are you that they are who they say?”
Tark hesitated and thought of an answer.
˝why is this town shut-up, and why are we being followed?”
The man smirked.
˝The royal guard asked me to relay a message. The keeps north of here have been cleared, and they are unsure of the location of the missing lords. They don't know your real identity or your intentions, but if you are guests of The Silverfish and she represents The Grand, you will not be disturbed if you remain in the inn until tomorrow morning and immediately depart town after that.”
˝what happens if we leave the inn?”
˝You are surrounded by the royal guard; likely, you won't leave town at all.”
˝i see they are everywhere.”
The man smirked again and waved over a young woman.
˝I'll be taking stock and preparing the inn's ledgers. This is Nald; she will procure everything you need during your stay.”
Karp, Nort, and Tark rode from the inn. An eerie silence fell between each hoofbeat, and Karp peeked into the little alleyways between houses, but only caught glimpses of red flashes vanishing as they passed. The horses slowly trotted. All three riders wanted to sprint down the road but feared their pursuers would lash out in response.
The horse's hooves clopped on a bridge over a small stream in the middle of town. Every step rung out as shapes jumped around the spaces between shops. Despite the occasional blurs in the shops' windows, there were no signs that commerce even flowed through the town.
When Karp was leaving the inn, the innkeeper paid her one last visit. He gave her specific instructions on the route through town, and Tark had no objections. Karp was now mortified that their trail would cross the main town square. In this case, the square was actually a circle ringed by different stores and stables. Karp didn't want to be surrounded but was unsure if her fears were justified. If she left the path, the nearby guards might attack. If her instincts were right, though, the three of them might have to defend themselves from all sides.
˝are you sure you can trust them?”
˝Of course! No one would cross...an envoy of The Grand.”
The Silverfish glistened at her pronouncement, but Karp had doubts.
˝either these are the royal guard and take orders from the emperor, or they are mass murderers intent on who-knows-what. either way, i doubt they fear the grand.”
˝I think I see how you've survived your encounters and also why so many fear you.”
Karp was slightly insulted. She was also unsure if Tark knew more than she let on or if her master could really protect the group. As usual, Nort didn't have a care in the world. Karp sighed and continued down the road. They entered the town square. Glints of steel moved along the shadows.
˝there is about fifty yards to the left and thirty to the right. nort, you stay to the right.”
The trio reached the square's center. The movement behind the stores increased. A crack rang out from behind the goods store. Someone else stirred behind the leatherworker. For the first time, Tark worried. Nort picked up on the others' emotions. As Nort, Karp, and Tark all became more worried, the people in the square became more agitated. Noises stirred from almost every building. They had nearly left the square when Tark put her heels into her horse and sprinted for the edge of town. Karp dug in her heels and followed. In a few minutes, the three stopped. They circled and looked up the road, but no one had followed. One of the training garrison's watchtowers loomed above the trees. Someone clad all in red was barely visible atop the tower. He waved.
˝Well, it seems they just wanted to drive us off.”
˝Yes, but I don't understand why the guard felt the need to be so dramatic.”
˝i think they wanted to test themselves and us. see how far they could push before we broke.”
˝You think we passed or failed?”
Tark tried a smile to lighten the mood.
˝I always fail.”
Nort seemed legitimately sad. They headed off toward The Grand's keep, which was still a week's ride away. They rode faster now to create distance from the training camp and to make it to The Grand's keep on time. In this bleak area, centuries of logging to feed the Empire's need for wood had deforested most of the region. Despite the lack of trees, the grass was green and overgrown. Various bushes and saplings grew between rotting stumps.
The empire had successfully planted saplings outside the Crossroads to make the scenery more pleasant. Returning the forests to their natural state of habitation had become so popular that every year the line of seedlings moved further south. In a few days' ride, natural woods and forests were already flourishing.
The Grand's keep was still four days northeast, but the line of abandoned keeps was only one day north. The trio arrived in a small town with no gate, no local lord, and nothing else of note. They brought their horses to the inn's stables and left them with a stable boy. The town itself was dead, just like the town with the training camp had been, but this unnamed village seemed afraid, not threatening. Karp entered the tavern, and everyone fell silent.
Karp's footsteps were inaudible on the wooden plank floor, but Tark's footsteps rang out. The patrons were mostly farmers and caravan workers, but three people at one table wore white stripes on their leathers, indicating they were poor merchants. Karp walked to the gray-mane at the counter. Once again, The Grand had arranged everything for them to continue their journey. Karp ordered dinner for the three and headed to a nearby table.
Karp eyed the throwing board. It was nothing fancy. Various shapes of different sizes dotted the board's face. After playing against Slart for years, most people didn't present a challenge, and so there was no real point in looking for a game anyway.
˝they are being irrational.”
˝the people of the town.”
˝They are afraid.”
˝that's why it's irrational.”
˝We are one day south of a decamped keep. The inhabitants are missing. There could be an army amassed nearby or monsters or The Mandrake. So far, the empire has failed to stop the crisis. It seems like having no fear would be irrational.”
˝look at what we know. someone, something is going to lords' keeps, making everything disappear. there is nothing like that here. they have nothing to fear.”
Tark raised an eyebrow.
˝What about the festival? Or the attack on the Grain Fort? The Village of the Bog Djinn? All those places were full of innocent people that were massacred.”
˝the attack on the grain fort was a long time ago. everything has been contained to keeps since then.”
˝It's only been a few months. You also have to remember that they are unaware of what we know. It all just appears like random violence to them, and they don't yet know who their saviors will be.”
˝what do you know about these attacks?”
˝I know what you know. Someone or something is clearing out keeps, stealing the weapons and food, and using everything else to purchase more food and weapons. They are supplying an army.”
˝do you know who the army is fighting?”
˝There is only one enemy that requires that type of force to combat. You've seen their retribution.”
Tark adjusted her posture since she found the direction of the conversation distasteful.
˝have you fought this enemy before? they don't need a standing army to take down the empire. it only took three people to destroy the grain fort.”
˝How many enemies are there?”
˝i don't know.”
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