Shift World Chapter 12
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Two days later, Karp, Nort, and Tark ate breakfast in the second-floor dining room. There hadn't been any signs of an attack since the bakers died.
˝Did you ascertain their intentions?”
˝not really. they obviously thought there was something valuable, or they wouldn't have attacked.”
˝What about the crystals?”
Karp was visibly annoyed by Nort mentioning the crystals and showed one to Tark.
˝i doubt these were the main goal. they come from new devils and husks, but why get them from a keep full of guards? wouldn't a town be easier?”
˝These are a bonus? Maybe a consolation prize?”
˝They were already here and said, 'why not?’”
Tark gave a little shrug. A bell rung three times from atop the northeast spire. Tark waved over a steward, whispered in his ear, and he hurried out of the room.
˝Three rings means a courier approaches. Since they hail from that direction, they probably departed from the Crossroads.”
Karp pushed back her chair and was half-standing when Tark put her hand up.
˝We'll just wait. When the guard verifies the courier’s identity, they will send him up.”
Karp returned to her seat and finished her pheasant eggs. Fifteen minutes later, a knock came from the door. A serving girl answered, and a courier entered. Mud and dirt spattered his riding cloak, but his boots, gloves, and greaves were unblemished. Karp slowly lowered her hands under the table and removed and palmed a throwing knife. The rider addressed The Silverfish.
˝I have a dispatch from the Crossroads.”
The courier handed Tark a sealed envelope. She broke the seal, read the message, and placed the letter on the table.
˝The Crossroads is under siege.”
Even though Tark had stoically revealed the information, shock struck both Karp and Nort.
˝An unknown enemy seized the citadel at the imperial palace. Can you assist me one more time?”
Karp looked at Nort, and he nodded. Tark quietly rose and left the room. A few minutes later, she returned with a sealed envelope. Karp couldn't tell if the seal showed a large gate with people rising out of flames or if perhaps it was just a clumsy drawing of people standing at the base of a shining gate.
˝Remit this to the Crossroads guards; they will grant you access. I will follow, but I need to settle my affairs here first.”
Karp took the envelope.
Three days later, Karp and Nort arrived at the Iron Gate on horseback. Karp imagined that the metal structure removed from the Clay Gate in the Shift World looked like this gate. In this world, however the gate's pillars were made with cleanly cut and neatly laid square stones. In the Shift World, mortared together boulders formed the Clay Gate's pillars
Crossing iron bars formed the Iron Gate's main metal structure. Infiltrators could climb this gate, but guards could shoot at such trespassers from a small secondary guard post thirty yards away. Right now, two armed guards stood behind a second lower entrance similar in design to the main gate but only high enough for a person or horse to walk through.
Karp dismounted and approached the guards.
˝we need to enter the crossroads.”
˝No one enters the Crossroads until further notice.”
˝we are representatives of the grand, here to help...”
˝NO ONE enters.”
Karp held out the envelope from Tark. The guard snatched it and went to tear it to pieces but stopped. He examined the seal and the rest of the parcel and then ran to the secondary guard post. A few minutes later, the guard returned with a soldier wearing a studded hard leather tunic and open-faced dragon fire steel helm. A black and red stripe rolled down the length of his left arm.
˝Open the gate. Leave the horses with the guard. We'll walk from here.”
Nort and Karp dismounted. Two lesser guards pushed open the small gate. One of the guards left, collected the horses, and returned. The massive gate screeched closed with a crash as Karp, Nort, and the guards' officer walked into the city.
˝I'm Long, third captain of the Crossroad’s guards. I’m taking you directly to the royal family’s citadel. What do you know about the situation?”
˝just that someone attacked a citadel.”
The trio passed houses made of carved stone with straw-thatched roofs. Unlike in the Shift World, there were relatively few towers or large buildings with spires here. Most buildings were only two stories tall. Long pointed to one of the few visible towers.
˝That's the citadel.”
The all-stone citadel rose four stories, with each floor narrower than the level below it.
˝what is it?”
˝It's a meeting place and storage facility.”
˝does it hold anything we should know about?”
Long became visibly uncomfortable, and he moved a little closer to Karp and whispered.
˝It has the royal armor. Likely at least one person is going to be unstoppable.”
˝where is the royal family?”
˝The emperor saw this coming and took an extended vacation to the Creeping Ice. The prince and princess also left the Crossroads. The family is not in danger.”
˝have you tried to stop them?”
˝Yes, but each time we tried, they killed or captured the soldiers. We'd probably have no problems if the Dragon Guard were here, but they left with the royal family. I've sent them requests for help.”
The three of them arrived at the guards' barricade outside of the citadel. A few dozen men wearing studded leather armor hid behind overturned carts and makeshift walls built with small wooden fences. Bags hung dark under the harried men's eyes, and many looked as though they were crying. A stone wall encircled the citadel. The wall was high enough to stop intruders from trespassing but was missing spikes or other reinforcements designed for prolonged sieges.
The citadel's second floor visibly towered over the wall. Small stone gargoyles lining the first floor's roof peered down into an open courtyard. The third and fourth floors' spiked peaks gave the building an overall menacing look. A small straw roof was barely visible to the right of the main structure.
˝how many are there?”
A guard looked up at Karp. Excitement turned to disappointment at the sight of only two people.
˝At least four. There is someone in the building, two in the courtyard, and one waiting near the entrance.”
Karp had noticed the man near the entrance but had confused him for a remnant of the royal guard. He wore a dragon fire steel cuirass, greaves, and chainmail hauberk but didn't wear gauntlets, which for Karp should have been a giveaway.
˝Were any of them wearing water steel with white piping and a manta ray on the back?”
˝The Mandrake? No. No one like that. One wore merchant's armor, and we didn't see the other three until after they were in the royal guard's armor.”
Nort and Karp shared a glance but then turned back to the guard.
˝you sure that there is no one else?”
˝No. We didn't even know they were here until the citadel was lost. There might be more.”
˝alright, the morning shield and i are going to clear out the followers of the mandrake; you need to back up further.”
The guard captain nodded.
˝You've heard The Scorpion; back off, but be ready.”
Karp and Nort approached the man waiting at the entrance. He stepped out and drew his sword. Karp moved to flank him right, and Nort moved left. The man’s eyes followed Nort but shot back when Karp returned directly in front of him. The man rushed Karp and swung his sword. Karp turned into Nort, who instinctively lifted his arms to block. The attacker's sword passed through Nort. There was no blood, though, and Nort disappeared. The man looked closer at where Nort had just been and saw himself. He placed his hand through the image, and it rippled like a reflection in a pond.
Then, a sharp pain shot through the left side of his neck. He winced, and then there was a second bite. He turned toward Karp, and a third dart breezed by. Two darts stuck in his throat between the links in his chainmail. He dropped to his knees, and the world circled.
˝just give up.”
˝No, there is something we need...”
Nort bashed him in the face with his shield, and he dropped unconscious to the ground. Karp and Nort ran through the break, but to Karp’s dismay, the inner guards were waiting. Karp hoped to ambush her enemies, but she would need to fight. One guard wore full plate armor and carried a great battle hammer. There were no defining characteristics of the armor, which was strange for dragon fire steel. The other guard wore a dragon fire cuirass with chainmail and greaves. The guard's dragon fire spear gave her a significant advantage over Karp.
Karp moved to engage the warrior in full plate, and Nort moved to battle the spear-woman. Karp quickly predicted his slow, lumbering moves and unleashed her whip. The water dragon dagger on the end of her weapon scored his armor, but likely would take several minutes to scratch through and do actual damage.
Nort fought the spear-woman and held his own, but it was only a matter of time before the spear-woman grew bored of the stalemate, and the enemies then double-teamed Karp.
The man charged and swung the mighty war hammer. Karp dodged and rolled but found herself backed against the citadel's wall. She had nowhere to run, and the warrior charged. Karp froze as he gained speed. When the man committed to swinging, she threw a pop-gourd at his helm. Karp dodged as the gourd exploded on his helm. He blindly swung his war hammer. The first swing found air, and the second swing smashed the ground. Karp picked up a clump of dirt and threw it at the citadel wall. The man swung at the sound and connected. The force of the blow shook the wall and lodged the hammer's head in stone. A gargoyle swayed from the impact. Karp threw her whip around its neck and pulled the loose statue until it wobbled and fell from the ledge. The warrior didn't even look up as the chiseled stone fell on him and crushed his armor into his body.
During Karp's fight, the spear-woman tried skewering Nort by stabbing through his shield and armor with the superior dragon fire spear. After failing to leave more than a scratch, though, she stopped attempting to stab Nort and violently smashed his guard with her spear. She knocked the shield from his hand but fractured the spear's shaft in two. She stood over Nort, and a dart bounced off the side of her helmet. She reached down, picked it up, and slashed at Nort. The dart's tip slid off of his armor, so she slashed at his exposed neck under the helmet. He reached toward the ground, found his shield, brought it up, and crushed her hand as she stabbed downward. Her hand bones broke as the dart splintered. Her gauntlet shattered and cut her skin, which then let the dart's poison seep into her wounds.
The dart left a small scratch on Nort's neck, and he slouched from the poison's effects. The spear-woman stumbled back. Her eyes bulged red, and tears rolled down her cheeks. She slipped off her other gauntlet and raised her palm toward Nort. It swayed back and forth as she aimed. A fireball shot from her hand but missed Nort and sailed out of the opening in the outer wall. Two more shot out as Nort rose, but they sailed wide of their target. The spear-woman turned to Karp as she ran to join them and shot a fireball. Nort jumped between Karp and the spear-woman. The ball exploded, but Nort shielded Karp. The spear-woman staggered toward a small wooden structure next to the citadel.
˝It's true; I can't believe it's true. Please just go already!”
Succumbing to the poison, the raving woman staggered to the entrance of a small stable next to the citadel. Something stirred inside. The spear-woman gasped and stumbled from the door. A dragon's head flew out of the stable and clasped around her neck. Her eyes died, and she slacked. A dragon emerged. It flung its prey to the ground. The dragon's talons peeled back her armor, and its head rooted around inside, eating the soft flesh underneath. When it looked up from its meal, Karp's water dragon steel dagger penetrated its skull, and it sprawled out dead. Karp slid her blade from the dragon's head.
˝i'm beginning to hate horses.”
Karp and Nort walked to the citadel's main entrance. Explosions and crashes roared inside. Karp looked away from the door to speak to Nort but stopped before the first sounds came out. Devils charged the citadel from the city guard's ruined barricades. Some devils wore studded leather armor like the city guard, and others wore cloth outfits. Karp and Nort pushed the door, slid inside, and closed it again. They barred the door with a nearby board. A few moments later, devils crashed into the outer doors.
The citadel's first floor was an open space with scattered benches. Windows encircled the room. A large fire pit sat in the center, and a well was in the far corner. Karp balked at the sight of two bodies hanging off a cross beam over the fire pit. One body was a husk, and the other was a man with a gash in his chest.
A figure in black armor walked away from the well, stepping over the bodies of slain devils. He wore angular, jagged plate armor with the palms of his gauntlets removed. A crown of red steel lined the brow of his helm. The figure adjusted his demon steel sword.
˝You see what they think of us, so why do you help them? Why do you get in our way?”
The figure didn't wait for a response but leaped toward Karp swinging his sword. Karp gracefully dodged, but the onslaught continued. Karp couldn't counter-attack with the figure so close, so Nort jumped as the figure turned toward Karp, and he deflected the figure's blows with his shield. Karp leaped back and let her whip fly. Her water dragon steel slid off the angular demon steel without a scratch. The whip's blade continued striking, but there was no damage.
Nort continued taking the figure's blows. The figure broke the stalemate by unleashing fireballs. Instead of a quick-moving firebolt like the other shifters threw, these bolts lumbered. Karp easily dodged them, but they hit the outer walls with such force that the entire citadel shook. By the third bolt, Nort retreated to intercept the shots. The shots struck his shield, and the energy harmlessly dissipated around him.
The figure growled lowly and reached for a small pouch on his side. He removed a small crystal, just like the ones dropped by devils. He lifted his visor and threw it in his mouth. His eyes glowed red under his helm. In a blink, the figure appeared next to Nort and followed through with a punch to his face. Nort fell to the ground and rolled away. Karp whipped toward the figure, but he cut off the whip's blade. The figure then bolted forward, and Karp lifted her left arm on instinct. The figure's sword hit Karp's buckler dead center, and the demon steel cleaved her dragon fire steel in half, and the blade continued through her arm.
Blood shot from her forearm and stained her seashell armor bright red. Karp dropped to her knees at the shock of losing her left hand. The figure grabbed her by the back of the neck and whispered, ˝You should have quit after the Founder's Day Festival.”
Karp waited for the killing blow, but instead, the figure dragged her toward the well. He stopped and looked back to find Nort. As he turned, Nort reached him at full speed and dug his shield into the figure's stomach. The shield shattered the demon steel armor, but the impact cracked the shield's center. The figure used Nort's momentum to throw him into the well. Nort had picked up Karp's broken whip as he ran and looped it over the figure's helm as he fell, so Nort almost dragged the figure into the well but was able to stop himself on the well's outer wall. The whip caught on the back of the figure's head and pinned him. The figure unhooked his helm, and it flew off. The strap fluttered into the well, and the figure turned away.
His awkward smile twisted when Karp's water steel dagger plunged through the hole in his armor and into his ribs. The blade snapped, and the figure dropped to the ground.
˝At least it's finally over. I can be with my wife and son again.”
Karp looked at the dying man. She had fought the person who ambushed her, Slart, and Nort outside of the box canyon and not The Mandrake. She ignored him and looked into the well but couldn't see the bottom.
˝NORT! NORT! ARE YOU THERE?!”
˝I'm sorry it came to this.”
Karp ignored the merchant until he grabbed her leg, and then she froze. He let go.
˝If I wanted to kill you, I would have. I actually didn't want to kill anyone, none of us did, but we had to. We were all merchants who worked with The Whitecoat. We worked in the Village of the Bog Djinn here and a trading post in the Crossroads in our world. The way The Whitecoat puts it, having so many people working together in both worlds was a miracle. He was a strange one, always talking about the Shift World and how shifters destroyed it, turned people into monsters. That all seemed so impossible, but in my world, heavy wood and iron were miracles. So, we ignored his eccentricity. Clothing is easy; it comes from plants, sheep, and even bugs. So, when he said he wanted to trade, of course, we agreed. We were happy, food became easy to make, and people stopped starving. We could build houses, and people stopped freezing. It was a paradise until THEY came.”
˝why are you telling me this?”
˝I need you to understand, please...”
Banging on the outer door intensified. Karp's head swam from blood loss. She looked around for a source of light.
˝We were working, and these savages attacked. They looked human, but they weren’t; they were furies. They came to the Crossroads and started murdering everyone. They barely spoke and used weapons made of bone and teeth. They wore furs instead of cloth. They...they ate the dead. They used abilities without care. Eventually, they made skeletons and devils for fun. All the shifters ended up here. I came here with my wife and two sons...you've met them all.
“My eldest son, the one you call The Mandrake, went to The Manta and begged for help. The Manta refused. He didn't care that our people were being massacred. In the heat of arguing, he accidentally used a shock wave, and The Manta fled. My son followed, trying to apologize, but The Manta just lashed out instead. My son had to use more powers to defend himself. Eventually, he defeated the Manta and took his armor. I mean, one way or the other, all armor comes from dead people, so what's it matter? Unfortunately, when Ti...The Mandrake returned to the village, it was overrun with devils. It was on fire, and all the villagers were dead. He had to clear out the devils. He didn't eat for a week after that, and he still doesn't really talk about it.
“We decided after that to never use our powers like that again, and we tried, but...at first, we just targeted shifters. We tried to get their stores or at least their best gear. Triled was in the Creeping Ice to see his betrothed when the savages attacked. He would bring the equipment to a resistance, but it wasn't enough. People could fight, but the powers gave the savages too much of an advantage. We had heard the legends of the conqueror and his glowing eyes and blade. We thought the crystals might be the berries in the story, so I tried one. I went berserk and destroyed a house. We also vowed never to use them.”
Karp started making a torch from spare parts, but it was difficult with only one hand.
˝if you speak so highly of korg, why did you kill him?”
˝It was an accident. We came in numbers to the festival to steal more armor. The Mandrake was distracted when he left the inn and forgot his cloak, and everyone saw his armor. That envoy went to talk to him, and he thought about the Village of the Bog Djinn. He could only see the devils dancing around, and everyone's eyes stared like they were corpses. That pain caused him to accidentally kill her. Then he had to defend himself from her guards.
“He saw the boy and wanted to explain what happened. He knew he was an associate of The Whitecoat, but when Korg saw the bodies, he attacked The Mandrake. The Sunflower wanted…more aggressive action; he thought that Korg was too powerful to keep alive, and he used that misunderstanding. The Sunflower was a great warrior, and we are just traders. We couldn't have stopped him, but luckily you could. My son fled and told us what happened.”
˝if it's all one big misunderstanding, why did you try and kill me?”
The merchant teared up as he recalled the story.
˝M-m-my wife was a very kind and loving person. She thought we could explain to you what happened, so we watched you leave the Village of the Traitor's Tavern. We watched, and you seemed OK. I didn't want her to, but she could be...persistent, and she approached you, and you stabbed her. You made her go back to the slaughter, and the savages killed her, but she shifted back here just as she died. I can't imagine the fear and pain she felt watching two deaths at once. My son tried to stop you, and your friend killed him.”
˝she didn't mean to, but... people can be surprisingly fragile.”
˝Then you can understand a little.”
˝what about the grain fort then?”
˝We left people there to see how others reacted to keeps clearing out, and people just kept showing up. It was fine until you came intent on exploring, so they tried to get there before you, but it was too late. You were inside... Well, you saw what happened.”
˝why did you change and start clearing out keeps?”
The merchant was becoming weaker with each answer. Karp didn't know how much longer she could last, either.
˝Because we kept losing every fight, every battle. We collected gear, but it wasn't enough. We got desperate again and harvested the Grain Fort for crystals. It seems petty now, but we said, 'they prospered on the death of the Shift World, so it's OK if their lives save our world.' We won our first battle because of that. We made sure their ends were quick, painless, but we never really felt right about it. That is why we hid the bodies; seeing them made us sick.”
˝did you win the war?”
The merchant scoffed.
˝No. More shifters came. We started harvesting more, but the savages just became more ruthless. Right now, there is an unbeatable army, so we needed a special weapon.”
˝is that why you wanted the demon steel?”
˝I'm sorry, Scorpion, I know you've given so much for a war you had no stake in. I hated you when you killed my son and wife, but eventually, from the things I've done to survive, I understood. We were a threat, and you protected them. I hope that one day you forgive my people and me for taking Korg and also...”
Karp's heart raced, and she was becoming dizzy.
˝We learned his secret and had to make sure you found us... I know you'll never forgive us but...”
Her head pounded worse, and the world began to swirl. Karp finished her torch and dropped it into the well. It landed, but there was no water. It was empty except for footprints and a series of spears sticking up in the mud.
“WHERE IS THE MANDRAKE? WHERE IS HE NOW?”
Karp fell to the ground, unable to stand. The merchant was rambling.
˝One day, we might need your help. We don't know how to fight, but you do. I wanted to save everyone, but I couldn't. Only a few had to die, and then we'd have peace. If they come to you, please remember how we tried.”
Karp forgot about the devils pounding on the main door, but now the board holding the door closed splintered and broke. Two dozen devils raided the room. Karp prepared to die, but the devils stopped. A demon shrouded by flames entered the room. She was tall and slender. All the pieces of her armor were jagged and glistened with an onyx luster. A halo of fire surrounded her crown. The devils rushed her, but the flames danced. The flames to her left sent devils flying into the wall. The flames to her right shot out and cut devils in half. The flames in front of her danced in circles, and the devils fell to their knees before the demon. The demon pointed toward Karp, and the flames shot toward her, and she remembered something out of place for what was happening:
˝Demons came to avenge one of their own.”
Drums beat in the distance. Bells rang, and people cheered. Karp stirred in an unfamiliar bed lined with cloth sheets. She went to scratch behind her left ear but kept missing her head. She looked at the stump on her left arm. She could still feel her hand, but it was gone. Karp started to remember what had happened in the citadel. She went to stand and noticed that her armor had been replaced with a light green cloth embroidered with red flowers stitched into the breast.
As she rose, she banged her hip on a nightstand. She placed her hand on the table to steady both it and herself. She used her right hand to move along her bed and to the window. A sea of green waved back and forth in the streets. It was almost impossible to make out individuals, but everyone's movements made the sea ebb and flow between various stalls and buildings. Two black banners hung in the distance under a tall tower. It was too far away to recognize the symbols embroidered on the cloth or see those standing under it, but clearly, that was the main set of the whole festival.
A latch unbolted outside the door, and a man entered wearing full dragon fire plate armor. He removed his helm, and Karp recognized him as the innkeeper from the small training village.
˝Good to see you awake again, Scorpion.”
Karp moved back to the bed and lay down.
˝where am i?”
˝You're in a tower of one of the Royal Guards.”
˝how did i get here?”
˝The princess and her guards rescued you from the citadel.”
˝how long have i been here?”
˝Three days. You've just slept and mumbled about The Morning Shield.”
Karp sat up at hearing Nort's name. The guard put up his hand.
˝We've been looking for him; he's gone. We've searched all of the Crossroads. He's not here.”
˝why is there a festival?”
The man felt awkward at the question and began to answer tentatively.
˝Well...they are celebrating the death of The Mandrake and the people who brought him to justice.”
˝the mandrake isn't dead.”
˝get my armor; i need to find nort.”
˝I can't do that.”
The guard pulled out a sheathed knife and approached Karp.
˝Your armor is being repaired and cleaned. You have to stay until at least then.”
The guard handed her the dagger.
˝You were clutching this in the citadel, so I guess it must be important to you. You should think before trying to leave.”
The guard left, and the door bolted behind him. Karp unsheathed her water steel dagger. To remember what she lived for, she had written four names into the blade. When the blade snapped, the lower two names broke off, and now all that was left near the dagger's handle were the words “Karp Slart.”
Four days ago, Karp had been sure that she was the hero of her story, the one who was going to defeat The Mandrake and then finally return to her little family. Three days ago, her confidence was shaken. The merchant and The Mandrake believed her to be a villain hunting them even though she had nothing to gain by their deaths. Now she had found out that she was just a pawn waiting to be moved off the board.
now i have to tell slart her son's gone. And my left hand is gone. i killed so many for nothing. i wanted to save my family but ended up just hunting innocent people. i found the enemy, defeated them, saved the world, but i...should have just stayed in the traitor's tavern...
Thank you for reading up to the end of Book 1, please consider purchasing the full book. Now that you know the 'whole' story, you might find the events different than you remember.