Shift World Book II Chapter 2
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Karp escaped the Crossroads the same night she fled the Royal Guard. She snuck from the tower and headed straight for the Iron Gate. She easily avoided detection in the nighttime streets, but at the Crossroad's entrance, there was a sentry lackadaisically leaning against a post watching the inbound road. The sentry raised her hand to her mouth to stifle a yawn but couldn't stop herself. Karp threw a set of knockout darts at the easy target, who was so busy watching for external threats that she never expected the ambush. The guard clutched her arm and slowly lowered from the post to the ground. Karp fished a steel key from the woman's breast pocket and unlocked the pedestrian gate.
After that, Karp ran from unnamed village to unnamed village, eating fruits and vegetables she found on the side of the road and in unwatched gardens. She checked for any pursuing Royal Guard members, but only a single rider heading south crossed her path.
Four days later, Karp sat in a pile of hay in the corner of an unoccupied horse stall, polishing off carrots, peppers, cucumbers, and cabbage she had stolen from a small garden near the village's inn. Her thoughts bounced between saving Nort and seeing Slart, but sometimes the princess also encroached on her daydreams. When she did, Karp balled up on the stall's divide and just stared into the room's center. An image of Slart could repel the princess's encroaching darkness, helping Karp relax.
All at once, though, rustling broke the stable's silence, and voices drifted into the stall. Karp held her breath, drew a steel dagger, and firmly pressed her back against the stable's wall. A young man and woman giggled as they ducked into the building.
"Come on, we have at least a little time."
"Hehe, I don't think so. We're just too busy!"
"The garden will still be there in thirty minutes. There aren't any horses coming today. Why can't we just have a little fun? We earned it..."
"Well, maybe a little bit."
SPIES, pretending to be lovers. the minute they show their real faces, i'll make sure they pay. they won't fool me...
"Stop, hold on. Stop."
"Doesn't any of this bother you? With everything that's going on? How can you even concentrate?"
"What are you talking about?"
"The attack on the Crossroads, of course!"
"What does that have to do with us?"
"Well, I mean...this is the first time there has ever been a crisis like this, right? The empire's actually struggling to bring The Horse Thief to justice. Are we even safe?"
"I'm sure we're going to be fine! The empire can handle anything! They always have, and they always will."
Karp spun her dagger, in position to strike the intruders if she needed to defend herself.
why are they even bothering to keep up the act? they are clearly agents of the empire. one wrong step and they'll find me...
The young woman looked at the young man.
"You really do worry, don't you?"
"Why shouldn't I?"
"Well, the princess has a whole garrison at The Grand's Meadow. They are there to catch The Horse Thief! It's the safest place to be!"
Karp perked up.
THE PRINCESS. these stupid spies just made a fatal mistake! i'll just stop at the garrison, kill THE PRINCESS, and i'll be FREE.
A voice called from outside the stables.
"Nan, Mon, are you here? Come to the garden! Quick! Something got in the vegetables!"
The young woman sighed.
"Well, I guess it's too late now. Let's go."
The pair left the stables, and Karp sat grinning and staring at the dirt.
Karp arrived outside The Grand's compound in The Grand's Meadow and was weaving between hardwood-framed houses. Wooden slats covering the houses' exteriors blocked her view of guards buzzing between tents. She crept toward the main road, but a Royal Guard member stirred just out of sight, so she retreated behind a nearby home. Karp breathed in and waited for the faint sound to pass. Once the passerby left, Karp snuck closer to a tent city perched outside of The Grand's compound's main gate.
Despite the guards zipping in and out of tents as they circled the main gate, no one left the caravan entrance or the pedestrian gate. None of the guards even attempted to approach the facility. Instead, they waited at the rear of their encampment, looking in for signs of others joining them from The Grand's compound. The day dragged on, and night was about to fall. Karp didn't like feeling exposed, but she couldn't spend the night at the inn or tavern. Troops occupied every room, and soldiers filled the bar as the garrison's de facto chow hall. Karp tore free a loose shutter on a nearby building.
She looped her right arm into the opening and dragged her upper body inside. Her legs fell in over her as she tumbled into the small house. Karp unfolded herself and rolled onto her stomach. She pushed herself onto her feet and examined the house, which had three bedrooms attached to a central living area. Karp crept to the closest bedroom and peeked inside. A single straw mattress sat in the corner accompanied by a short wooden nightstand. Children's leathers hung on the far wall over a dresser. A student's desk sat just inside the door and was covered in parchments. A child's scribbles decorated the paper. The room lacked any personal elements or keepsakes that demonstrated the occupant's personality.
Karp strolled to a second room and peeked inside. An empty space replaced where a desk would go. A patchwork scrap fur blanket covered the room's double-sized bed. Fur scraps that had been trimmed away while making large-scale items had then been stitched together to create a serviceable quilt for the middle of winter. The patchwork scrap fur blanket would have kept the couple who owned the house warm, but blankets made from just one or two continuous pieces retained heat more efficiently. Patchwork blankets showed that the homeowners were wealthy enough to afford expensive home goods but too poor to afford high-end items. Karp strolled from the side room and inspected the main living space.
A dining table and light chairs were scattered across the room. The chair at the head of the table's right leg was snapped in half, and dried blood was streaked around the wood fragments. A light layer of dust coated the tabletop. Dishes with half-eaten, and rotten food was strewn about the table. Spiders had built webs spanning the edges of the wooden plates to the tabletop. Scratches defaced the door frame, which was pulling out of the doorway. The kitchen lacked metal pots and pans. Empty cutlery and utensil drawers were hidden away in kitchen cabinets that were devoid of any preserved food and drinks. Karp walked to a window facing the tent garrison.
She cracked open a shutter and peeked into the camp through the dying light. Soldiers and guards calmed as night fell, and instead of buzzing around open tents, they lingered and conversed. The night brought a relaxing air through the encampment. Obviously they didn’t think their perceived threat was likely to manifest itself during the night. The men and women were lounging until a soldier dressed head to toe in dragon fire steel marched over to their position. Suddenly, the guards leaped erect, waved a salute, and scampered into their tents. On closer inspection, Karp recognized The Narwhal strutting around and barking orders to the cowering soldiers.
Another guard clad in light brown leather armor with dragon fire steel plates approached The Narwhal. They conversed, and the guard lifted his hands in a defensive posture. Despite not knowing for sure because of his generic armor, Karp suspected he was The Wolf. Karp continued to watch the pair interact but didn't come any closer to figuring out what they were discussing. As she strained to hear their distant words, watching them intently, she lost connection to the rest of the world. She didn't notice the door creak open or hear the boot steps of someone entering.
"Are you the entertainment for tonight?"
Karp sprung back from the window, eyed the intruder, and pounced at the man. She plunged a dagger into his throat. Blood bubbled from the corners of his mouth and dribbled over his chin. His eyes widened as he pawed at the wound. He tried verbalizing disbelief, but only gurgles emanated. The man stumbled and passed out.
He wore the studded leathers of a member of the Royal Guard, with a thick black and red stripe down his left breast. He only lacked the Royal Guard's typical dragon fire helm, but sometimes ranking officers didn't wear the cumbersome headgear. Karp reached down and struggled to remove his studded leather armor. She then devised a plan for infiltrating the camp, despite not knowing the exact details. The lust for the princess's blood was driving her to reckless action.
The dead officer's uniform hung limply over Karp's emaciated body, and she couldn't adjust a leather uniform in the Shift World. Usually, Karp could move to the Shift World and use powers to alter metal, but leather, wood, stone, or any other material couldn't be changed the same way. Karp cleaned the top's collar and chest, but an acrid, metallic blood smell still lingered. In the early morning, Karp strolled between tents, and occasionally, she saw Royal Guard members stumbling through the darkness. With a stern glance, Karp dared them to challenge her authority. The down-beaten soldiers shirked away, too afraid to confront the unfamiliar officer. At first, Karp brazenly marched outside the main tent, but she switched to sneaking while trying to find the main entrance. Karp skulked around the tent's long end and had almost turned the corner when a pair of voices stopped her.
"You know what to do!"
Karp recognized the voice and confirmed the identity of the speaking woman's companion with a quick peek. The Narwhal chastised The Wolf just outside of the tent's main entrance.
"It's just not right, with Long dead..." The Wolf gingerly rubbed his head as he spoke.
"Remember, The Horse Thief killed Long." The Narwhal poked at Troled's chest to intimidate him into submission.
Long was the Crossroads guard that had summoned Tark from The Grand's Meadow and who had showed Karp to the Citadel when she fought the followers of The Mandrake.
"Why should we tell people that?" The Wolf pleaded for The Narwhal to listen.
The Narwhal rolled her eyes. "Remember to say that she's dead now, especially if The Horse Thief asks."
"That's just cruel!"
"You're weak, and trusting you is a mistake! The Demon's Wrath shouldn't believe in you!"
The Narwhal grunted and stormed off into the tent village, and The Wolf tentatively entered the main tent. Karp had to quickly decide who to follow. She brushed aside the tent's main flap and entered. The Wolf faced her.
"What do you want..."
Karp tackled The Wolf and dragged him to the ground. She pressed her dagger to his throat with enough pressure to cause him to hold his breath but not enough to cut him. She pinned his trachea with her left forearm. The Wolf's eyes widened in fear and confusion. He thrashed, knocking scrolls and maps from the top of the room's center table. He stopped moving, and Karp increased the pressure.
"where is the princess? don't tell me she died! i know that's a lie! i need to kill her to be FREE!"
"It's not Tark; it's Slart... She was attacked..."
Karp eased off his neck, and he gasped for air. Without thinking, Karp ran from the tent, bolting out of the encampment and away from The Grand's compound. As Karp ran from sight, The Narwhal walked into the tent and viewed the scattered papers, overturned chairs, and the panting Wolf.
"What went wrong?"