Shift World Chapter 11
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Four days later, Karp, Nort, and Tark rode through a gate outside a sprawling wooden fort. The gate was three stories tall, made of ancient lumber, and painted a luminescent gold that shined and glistened in the sun. Small green people reaching toward the sky were painted near the base.
This compound took two or three times the amount of land as The Whitecoat's. A winding labyrinth of warehouses and storerooms crowded the fort's entrance. Some warehouses were designed as singular thirty-foot lofts. Ramps circled several stories on others. During peaceful times, workers buzzed through the warehouse, but an eerie silence fell in the compound as Tark, Nort, and Karp rode through the maze.
A keep made of quarried stone, with a straw roof held down by wooden planks, loomed over the warehouses in the northeast corner. Each corner had a spire that rose two floors above the central section's three-story structure. Tark led them to the main entrance, and no one waited either outside or inside the door.
˝another warm welcome.”
˝The Grand will be on the third floor in his main hall.”
˝are you sure?”
˝Yes, I'll escort you throughout the keep's remainder after introductions to The Grand have been completed.”
Karp followed Tark through a small hallway into the southeastern spire.
˝All the stairs ascend in spires. The soldier's barracks reside on the fourth and fifth floor of this spire, and the other three spires house the keep's servants.”
They exited the stairs on the third floor and exited the spire. They walked past intersecting hallways, and Tark stopped before a large, ornate door halfway across the length of the main keep.
˝There are courtesies you should observe before entering. Firstly, make eye contact, but don't stare. Secondly, speak concisely and on topic. Thirdly, please don't be rude. You'll understand.”
Tark pushed open the door, and Nort peeked inside. A bed in the far corner was twice the size of the most enormous bed Nort had ever seen. A scene of flowers and fields covered the fabric spreads. Curtains held back by metal hooks hung by windows. An ornate square table large enough for twenty people sat on a rug. Images of dancing flames accented with ruby studs decorated a candelabra.
A large man sat on a spruce throne at the end of the room. The man was so obese that he likely could do little more than be escorted from his bed to his throne and from his throne to his table. The bed's width accommodated his girth and wasn't strictly for the sake of opulence. Several times a day, the table held extravagant meals. Karp tried to look at him but not stare, per Tark's instructions. Nort stood agape, staring at the large man. The man's jowls shook and wobbled as he spoke.
˝Shhilver fishhhh ishhh that the Shhhhhhhcorpion?”
Karp now fought the urge to gape, and Nort turned beet red from trying not to laugh.
˝Yes, my lord, this is The Scorpion and that...uh, that is The Morning Shield.”
˝Morning Shhhhield? I've never heard of him.”
˝Yes, my lord, he accompanies The Scorpion on her adventures.”
˝i'm sorry, the grand, but why have you called us here?”
Tark was stern.
˝Lord the Grand?”
˝My lord, the Grand?”
The Grand let out a laugh that shook his whole body.
˝I shheee why shhheeee keepsh him around.”
Tark breathed a sigh of relief that the fickle lord was in a good mood.
˝We will probably shhhooon be under shhhiege, you have ekshhhhperienshh fighting thossse thingsh?”
˝why, my lord?”
˝My lord the Grand, no one was near the warehouses. There has been no traffic from the Crossroads for months, so why would thieves target you now?”
˝wow, that was really well said.”
The Grand raised his hand to silence Tark, who now looked furious.
˝Not everything hash shtopped, and there ish inventory shaved up, there ish lesh people for shecurity.”
˝what could they be after?”
˝We have weaponsh, jusht like every other keep, plush sshome of the royal family'sh extra shtoresh. I can't shay more.”
Tark was beet red and glared at The Grand.
˝i'll see what I can do, but i'm not sure anyone will come.”
˝Thank you, Shkorpion. Pleash show them to the barracksh, Shilverfishh.”
Tark nodded and escorted Nort and Karp to the fifth floor of the southeastern tower.
Karp expected to only have a single bed and to be sharing a room full of the keep’s soldiers. Instead, though, she slept alone in what Tark called a stateroom. Visiting officers and dignitaries occupied that room on the fifth floor of the southeast spire. Wolf pelt blankets separated the sleeper from an itchy bed of straw on a sizeable stained oak bed in the corner. Karp smiled as she ran her hand over the soft, smooth, and silky pelts. Pelts were common in the Lush Forest compared to The Grand's cloth sheets, but Karp couldn't imagine that cloth would feel better.
A fireplace adorned the far wall. In winter, the fire created a refuge for many weary travelers who needed protection from the harsh northern cold. Today, there was only soot lining the ember pit. A large iron kettle sat outside the fireplace. This kettle heated water that filled a large stone bathing tub in the corner nearest the hearth. In a more modest home, the pot would have cooked soup or broth as well. Only the wall opposite the room's door connected to the outside. Three small windows with wooden shutters let natural light flood the room.
Hours before, Tark had escorted Nort and Karp to their rooms and gave them time to settle in, but Karp was now getting bored. She sat at a plain wooden desk near the foot of the bed, reading scrolls that described techniques and tools obtained in the Shift World. Some of the manuscripts diagrammed perfected weapons like the mirror powder or pop-gourd, but others contained ideas that Karp couldn’t perfect. Nort had probably unpacked and napped, but Karp stored everything in the Shift World, so she had nothing to remove and was already well rested.
Karp gathered the papers, and they disappeared. She pushed back her chair and rose. She picked up her riding cloak and started to don it but returned the garment to the Shift World instead. She decided that there was no point in hiding her appearance since everyone in the keep knew her identity anyway. She opened the stateroom door, crossed the hallway, and pounded on Nort's door. A loud crash rang from inside, followed by the sound of stumbling and muttering. The door flew open, and a shirtless Nort stood wearing soft brown leather pants, raising his shield.
˝let's look around.”
The request momentarily confused the freshly roused Nort, but curiosity had tempted him at every step since coming into the strange building.
Nort shut the door, and a minute later, he re-emerged in full steel plate with the morning shield slung on his back. Karp and Nort descended the stairs and were met with surprised expressions.
The off-duty soldiers had been informed of her arrival and had probably been ordered to be polite. Their eyes drifted between her left arm and whip but then darted back to her face. Karp ignored them.
˝what do you think we should look for?”
˝true, but i know his face, and everyone knows we're here, so he would leave.”
Karp and Nort exited the spire and walked into the main hallway on the first floor. The furniture was intact, people walked the halls, and everything was clean.
˝it's weird; normally, these keeps are empty.”
Dungeons in the Shift World only held death, and she and Nort only visited the ransacked remains of fled keeps in their world.
˝we have to figure out how they are going to break in.”
˝Is that why we are on the first floor?”
Karp nodded. They inspected the windows and walls in the main hallway, but there was nothing unusual. They arrived at a kitchen in the northeastern spire. One corner had an oven where bakers made rolls for that night's dinner. One baker was a short woman only slightly taller than the counter she worked on. The other baker was a man about a foot taller than her. They chatted as they worked. The woman laughed occasionally, and their two bodies swayed back and forth, sometimes touching.
On another table, chefs and sous chefs cut vegetables and prepared meats for the keep's workers. Karp and Nort began to look around the floor for any signs of a trap door or cellar, but there were none. The windows and walls were intact, and there were no signs of anything broken. There were no outside doors, and no one could crawl through the small windows.
One of the chefs had noticed Karp and Nort after stopping work for a moment to pick up a different knife. Everyone fell silent and stared at The Scorpion. The bakers turned from their rolls and looked especially surprised. Karp nodded. Everyone returned to their tasks. Karp and Nort finished inspecting the kitchen and moved through the western hallway on their search.
˝They seemed surprised.”
˝i think we are so used to being silent that we appear like ghosts.”
Nort's attention drifted from Karp as it usually did.
˝Dinner smelled good.”
˝i'm not sure if we’re going to find anything searching, but we'll look through the first floor and then talk to the silverfish at dinner.”
˝I apologize for The Grand's absence, but he has been unwell recently.”
Tark, Karp, and Nort supped in a small dining room in the center of the second floor. The hall could house fifteen people and felt empty with only three eating.
˝it's alright; we need to talk about security anyway.”
They ate beef and potato stew in a creamy milk sauce. The rolls perfectly balanced salt and garlic, and the flavors popped when dipped in the stew. In all her travels around the Lush Forest, Karp had never eaten that type of bread.
˝Those bakers really are excellent. Wouldn't you agree? They mastered baking bread and cakes from exotic lands. This will probably be your only chance to dine on such elegant fare.”
˝You eat these all the time?”
˝I've only had the pleasure for two months. They were recommended by friends from the Crossroads.”
˝do you have a lot of friends in the crossroads?”
˝We are the largest trading hub near the Crossroads. We trade with most noteworthy people.”
˝Do you know the royal family?”
Tark was a little surprised by the question but also pretty amused. She waved over a serving girl.
˝Bring three stouts.”
˝Yes, my lady.”
˝I do not. The Grand may know the royal family, but I certainly do not.”
The conversation veered off-topic, and Karp wanted to steer it back before going too deep in her cups and not caring anymore.
˝we've searched the first floor, but I don't see any security problems.”
˝i guess. are there drainage pipes? under the keep?”
˝Nothing larger than a human head. Why?”
˝that is how they infiltrated the grain fort.”
The serving girl returned with three stouts and handed the glasses to Tark, Karp, and then Nort.
˝Yes, my lady.”
A crease lined The Silverfish's mouth.
˝Why does she call you 'my lady'?”
Tark picked up her glass of stout and gulped a few mouthfuls. She took a roll, dipped it in her stew, bit it, chewed, and savored the flavor.
˝I'm a cousin of the Grand. Third or fourth removed, or something similar. Some of the older families refer to me as 'my lady.'”
The wayward conversation was annoying Karp.
˝are there any secret routes or passages?”
˝No. This keep was constructed long after the previous war. There was no need.”
˝tomorrow, show us the perimeter. we need to see if it can be infiltrated.”
˝As you wish. How did they infiltrate the other places? Besides the Grain Fort?”
˝i don't know; we've only seen them after they were emptied, and they have become much better at hiding their tracks.”
Karp, Nort, and Tark ate in the second-floor dining hall at night because they spent all day searching warehouses.
˝In three days, we've found nothing.”
˝If we can't ascertain how they've entered, how can we stop them?”
˝why are you so sure they've already broken in? or that they will even try?”
˝You saw the armory on the first floor; someone could use those armaments to outfit a garrison.”
˝yeah, but most of the storehouses are empty, and the ones that aren't are full of worthless junk. if they wanted to clear out the stores here, they should have done it right away, not after the crossroads were shut down.”
˝Maybe there is something else they’re after?”
Tark fingered the handle of her mug, took another drink, and placed it down again.
˝Well, we are near the Crossroads, so maybe there is someone important here.”
It never occurred to Karp that all the trouble might be to protect someone. Tark didn't say anything, and the room fell into an awkward silence.
˝well? is there something we should know?”
Tark moved her hand away from her plate. Suddenly Nort knocked over his mug, and it spilled onto The Silverfish's gauntlet. She calmly wiped the drink from her glove with a square of soft leather.
˝The Grand is immensely important. He is a distant relation to the royal family. Most people are unaware of that, except for some of the lords who disappeared. That is one of the reasons I'm sure they will attack, to attack the royal family.”
Karp heard a faint scream.
˝did you hear that?”
Karp rose from the table, hurried to the door, and wrenched it open. Guards rushed through the halls.
One of the guards stopped.
˝There was an accident in the kitchen.”
Karp, Nort, and Tark followed the guards to the kitchen. A body lay on the ground, thin and charred. Skin melted around bones and took on a moist texture. The woman baker wept near the corpse.
The baker turned toward Karp and started raising herself from her hands and knees, shaking. Nort caught the stumbling woman. Her hands felt around his armor. Her face twisted in surprise, and she fainted. Nort carried her to the spire's fourth floor and placed her on an empty bed.
˝stay with her. let us know when she wakes.”
The guard nodded. Karp, Nort, and Tark rushed to The Grand's chambers to report the situation. The travelers' sudden appearance confused The Grand. Tark read his reaction.
“It seems an accident occurred in the kitchen.”
˝Shoo, what happened?”
˝We don't know. It appears that the bakers worked late, and the husband fell into the oven. The spouse extracted him, but he was beyond rescue. She was hysterical when we found her, but she's resting now.”
˝What do you think, Shhkorpion?”
˝i think we should search the keep. something is off here.”
˝Why do you say that?”
˝one, there is no reason to cook this late. and two, the baker would probably have been soiled and burned if she pulled someone out of an oven. i think she came across the body.”
Tark ran her fingers through her hair as she listened.
˝I agree; what are you thinking?”
˝take a small squad of soldiers that you trust and watch the grand. nort and i will search for the enemies.”
Someone banged on the door. Karp drew her water steel dagger and approached. Nort joined her with his shield drawn and positioned himself near the entrance as the door crept open. The guard went to enter but balked at the sight of weapons. Tark circled around Nort and peered over his shoulder.
Karp and Nort eased, and the guard slipped in.
˝Born was found dead near the armory. He was gaunt and lifeless.”
˝was born's skin tight over his bones? did he look like he'd been dead for years?”
˝then, it's started.”
˝Retrieve Baln, Rong, Boric, and Tan. Also, disseminate to all guards that they are to follow The Scorpion's orders as if they are mine.”
The guard saluted Tark and fled the room. A few minutes later, another bang shook the door.
˝who is it?”
˝It's Baln; I'm with The Turtle, The Wyvern, and The Fox.”
Karp gave Tark a confused look, and Tark nodded. Karp opened the door, and four soldiers clad head to toe in sunshine steel armor filed into the room.
˝I'm Rong the Turtle.”
Rong was well over six feet tall and clad in full sunshine steel plate. An extra ring of steel was looped around his neck, which gave him the look of a turtle.
˝I'm Tan the Wyvern.”
The Wyvern wore all sunshine steel chainmail. A scabbard adorned by a yellow wyvern with a long circling tail held her sunshine steel sword.
˝I'm Boric the Fox.”
The Fox also wore sunshine steel chainmail. He was only slightly larger than a child but had a wily look.
˝I'm Baln the Coral Snake.”
Baln mostly wore leather with large sunshine steel plates on her biceps, forearms, and thighs. She also wore a cuirass. Likely her name came from the two daggers she wore on her hips.
˝karp the scorpion.”
˝Nort the Morning Shield.”
A new bang came from the entrance, and everyone inside stirred. Nort moved his shield from his back to his left arm and answered the door. A guard stood dumbfounded at the seven warriors standing inside, staring at him.
˝There...there was another murder on the first floor.”
˝show the morning shield where you found the body. i'm going to check the body near the armory. you five protect the grand. don't open the door for anyone. if they defy you, kill them without hesitation.”
Nort and the guard walked to the body in the western hallway of the first floor. The body was gaunt and dried, just like those killed by The Mandrake. There were no signs of a struggle, so the murderer must have surprised his victim. According to the guard, the woman had worked as a maid. They left the body and searched nearby rooms. One near the northwestern spire was filled with crates containing furniture, clay pots, and other goods held in reserve for seasonal needs.
Nort examined some of the pots lining the wall, and someone grabbed his arm. As Nort turned, he surprised the guard, who recoiled and stumbled back.
˝Ummm...there is something over here.”
Three bodies identical to the maid in the hallway were stacked in the corner.
˝Make your way to the other guards, and be careful.”
The guard headed south through the hall and turned east toward the main barracks. Nort shadowed him silently from a distance, but no one came. When they reached the spire, Nort slipped past the guards and headed up the hallway to find Karp outside of the armory.
˝There were three more bodies in a storeroom. All killed by The Mandrake. Did you find anything here?”
˝they melted an outside lock, but the door is still bolted on the inside. someone is in there, but they said they will only open the door for the silverfish.”
˝What do we do now?”
˝let's see how they got in.”
Karp and Nort exited the main door on the first floor and walked along the keep's perimeter, but there were no signs of forced entry. They were rounding the southeastern corner when Karp thought she saw lightning. It flashed again, but it came from the northeastern tower and not the sky. Karp and Nort ran back inside, down the long halls, and into the kitchen where they heard a noise and stopped. Karp picked up a dish and threw it to the ground. The sound drew something from the stairwell, which entered the room in a blur and leaped at Karp, who was cleaning up the dish.
The person flew through the image of Karp and rolled. They rose, and a whip's blade pierced their back straight into their heart. They dropped to their knees and fell forward, dead. Nort walked over, dislodged Karp's knife, and flipped over the body.
˝It's the baker.”
Nort rose and had soot from mirror powder on his knees. Karp walked to the burnt corpse that still lay on the kitchen floor.
˝bring her body here.”
Nort picked up the corpse and laid it down next to her husband. Something was off; even though the husband's body was just a burnt-out shell, he was still at least two feet taller than his wife.
˝this isn't right. that isn't the other baker. then, where is he? take me to the bodies you found.”
In a few minutes, Karp and Nort entered the storage room with three bodies. The top body was that of a steward wearing an embroidered leather tunic. Karp pulled that body off the stack. The second body was a guard wearing studded hard leather common to the rest of the garrison. Karp and Nort dragged that body off the pile too. The third body was naked, except for a pair of heavy studded boots.
Karp silently ran to the makeshift headquarters for the remaining garrison soldiers in the southeastern spire. She shouted to the sentry on duty, and he jumped.
˝HEY! get everyone in the garrison lined up in this hallway.”
The sentry rushed into the spire, and one by one, the garrison lined up against the wall. After ten minutes, the initial sentry joined the line too. Karp and Nort walked the length of the soldiers, inspecting their boots. Nort walked between Karp and the soldiers. Everyone matched. All fifty soldiers eased one by one after The Scorpion passed, and now they only seemed confused. Karp reached the first sentry.
˝who are your best fighters?”
˝Tark and her four guards.”
˝out of the people here.”
He hesitated, and Karp became impatient.
˝The fire squad.”
˝call them forward and have everyone else fall back to the spire. they are to hold up there, and don't let anyone leave or enter.”
The guard straightened and barked his orders.
˝Fire hold here. Body and Talons, set a perimeter in the barracks; no one enters, no one leaves.”
Everyone except for ten people and the original sentry departed.
˝perfect. you five with me, you five with the morning shield. nort's team is going to sweep the west part of the first floor; stay behind him. you are going to tell the grand that we are sweeping the first floor and the spires for someone in a guard’s uniform with baker’s shoes.”
The guard momentarily broke military bearing, and a small smile twisted the corner of his lips.
˝don’t enter the door, or they’ll kill you.”
The guard didn’t seem moved by the declaration. He saluted and headed through the southeast spire. Karp headed north through the hall, and Nort headed west. She broke the guards into a group of three and two but didn’t trust them enough to let them linger nearby. She and the guards checked each of the rooms but didn’t find any signs of life. They continued until they reached the northwest spire. The female baker’s body was missing from the kitchen.
˝you three, check this floor. you two, check the second floor. i'll check the third floor.”
Karp removed her whip from its holder, and the soldiers' moods changed. They became sanguine and focused, and they readied their weapons. Karp ascended the stairs. As soon as she passed the entrance of the third floor, a guard raised a glowing hand. Karp dodged back into the stairwell and ran upstairs just in time for a fireball to crash into the spire's outer wall. The shock blew Karp into the fourth floor's doorway. She came to rest under a barracks bunk.
The explosion blew debris from the wall and stairs, falling to the ground outside. The baker walked into the stairwell and sidestepped the hole in the stairs. The baker looked up to the fifth floor and then into the fourth floor and decided to enter the fourth. A small pair of legs stuck out from under an overturned bunk. Tears formed in his eyes as he reached down to move the bed.
˝Why? Why did you kill my wife? She didn't want any of this! I didn't want any of this! You don't care; you kill us all the same.”
He moved the overturned bed and found his wife's body clutching a strange object. He was bending back down for a better look when a small yellow dagger struck the gourd. A bright flash burst forth. He shot up but couldn't see. The man fished for something to lean on. He decided to flee until he could see his enemy again. He stumbled and tripped to the wall of the stairwell. Karp lashed his leg. To her surprise, he fell through the doorway, down the stairs, and out the large hole in the wall.
Karp rushed down the stairs and peered out the hole. The baker lay with his upper body on a large section of the fallen wall, his legs dangling off the edge. Sounds of a struggle on the second floor echoed up the stairwell. Karp hurried to meet the trouble. She entered just in time to see The Turtle crush a devil with his war hammer. Five dead devils lay at his feet. The Fox and The Coral Snake accompanied him. The Fox picked up a small red crystal from one of the corpses.
˝What is this?”
Karp shrugged. Nort climbed the stairs and saw the slain devils and went next to Karp.
˝how is the rest of the keep?”
˝Fine. We heard the explosion, and I ran here. The others disappeared, though.”
Karp sent The Fox, The Turtle, and The Coral Snake to look for more devils. Karp and Nort went to inspect the baker's body since he had died in the fall. Karp searched his belt and pockets and found a pouch with five red crystals. She placed the bag in one of her belt's containers. Karp and Nort returned to The Grand's chambers, where everyone else had already regrouped.
There were no more devils, murders, or clues for the rest of the night.