Shift World Book II Chapter 4
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Karp approached the Milling Town Inn's door. She camouflaged her armor under a light brown travel cloak but couldn't wear a helmet. Karp was trying to travel inconspicuously, and showing metal would draw attention to her. Karp didn't know very many local villagers, but she could tell who didn't belong to the Milling Town.
An individual who belongs to the Milling Town strolls complacently about with an air of indifference. As Karp tried to emulate that image, her mental effort made the fake villagers’ inconsistencies more apparent. The men and women walking the road inspected every face and looked down every alley. Their gazes darted about buildings. They were probably looking for someone, possibly her, but as long as Karp covered her left hand and armor, she'd be safe from suspicion.
Karp pushed on the door, and her hand slid across a parchment tacked on the front. Inside the tavern, people were enjoying drinks. Most customers watched her as she entered and immediately returned to their conversations, but the ones who didn't belong to the town let their stares linger. She moved to the bartender, some she knew well.
"i need a room, if there’s still one available with all these strangers around." Karp hoped that he would notice that she wanted to know the identity of the people wandering around the village.
The bartender reached under the counter and retrieved a dusty, tattered ledger. He opened to a marker near the end and moved his finger around the pages.
"Well, there's only one room left, so it will cost extra."
Karp tried not to smile or laugh, but that same uninspired fraud he used always amused her. Karp wasn't sure if he didn't understand her implicit question, but she guessed he must have been afraid to answer directly.
"do you know what that sign on the door's about?"
Since enough of the world's population was unable to read, the bartender, Sodil, likely answered this question several times a day.
"The Horse Thief followed The Demon Scorpion while she fought the followers of The Mandrake. She created mischief the whole time, and now the empire is looking for her."
"why is she called 'the horse thief'?"
"Because she stole a horse from the Grain Fort and was sentenced to death when she took one from the stables at the Citadel. They took the Village of the Traitor's Tavern looking for her, and there are search parties everywhere."
A dragon would have razed the Village at the Grain Fort, and a different dragon and shifters would have terrorized the Crossroads if Karp hadn’t stopped them. Now, the empire was twisting those events to claim that she stole the horses that were transformed into dragons. She fought a scowl.
"all that for a horse?"
"Must have been one horse."
Karp smiled, and Sodil handed her a key.
"Don't worry, your far neighbors are quiet."
Lush Forest inns traditionally used coded symbols. The key's tag read □ΔO, and the series of shapes represented the floor, hall, and room. The square meant the first floor, the circle meant the second hall, and the triangle meant the seventh room. Since Karp knew the inn already, she traveled to the far hallway and made her way to the last door. Karp opened the door and stepped inside.
The room looked utterly unremarkable on the surface. A straw mattress bed with wolf pelts sat along the far wall. Travelers could store their goods in the small, unembellished dresser resting against an interior wall, and merchants could do some work at the nightstand pressed against an exterior wall.
Karp approached a window and peered into the field behind the Mill Town's tavern. A rickety shack sat thirty meters behind the inn. Tree-dotted fields and forests decorated the horizon. If Karp pressed herself against the right side of the window, she could see a two-story log cabin.
Karp moved from the window to the bed and examined it for anything unusual. The wood frame was planted securely on the floorboards. None of its beams were hollow or had hidden compartments. She checked the straw mattress for tucked-away notes or items. Karp moved to the dresser and opened every drawer. The drawers were empty, and the dresser's exterior showed no signs of hidden compartments or secret panels.
Karp moved to the nightstand. Just as her foot struck the ground, the stand rocked. Karp put pressure on her foot, and it moved again. She stopped shaking, and the nightstand halted. Karp dragged the piece of furniture aside, exposing a trap door underneath. She opened it and jumped inside, landing five feet below onto loose damp soil. She reached for the small leather strap dangling from the door and pulled it closed with a bang.
The passageway was tall enough that Karp didn't need to crawl but too short for her to stand comfortably. Karp edged down the darkness with her head cocked and hand on a nearby wall. After several minutes of traveling the dark labyrinth, she arrived in a room lit by sunshine coming through a mesh ceiling. Slart and Lark sat on a bed in the chamber's twilight.
Lark's head was buried in Slart's shoulder, her cheek still wet from a recent bout of crying. Slart patted the girl's scalp with one hand and clasped her hands with the other, all while humming her song about the death of The Whitecoat. Slart stopped when she heard the intruder approach, and Lark moved her head off Slart's shoulder. Slart released Lark's hands and pulled a dagger from beside her on the bed.
Slart rose from the bed and palmed the weapon, primed to throw it if the need arose. Karp stumbled from the shadows, and Slart rushed her. She immediately threw her arms around Karp, smiled, cried, and laughed as she grabbed Karp's right hand. Lark's frown turned to a smile, and she unsurely rose to her feet. Karp wondered if this was the first time in months that Slart not only wasn’t crying but was, in fact, showing joy. Slart’s smile drained away, though, as she stared into the tunnel's abyss, her face changing from pleasure to sanguine to worried.
"Where's, uh, Nort?"
Karp's subtle smile turned into a shameful frown.
"i think he's in the upper world."
Slart and Lark's eyes widened. Lark sat on the bed, and Slart covered her mouth. Given their level of shock, Karp guessed they needed an explanation.
"we were set up by tark, who’s really the princess. we stopped the followers of the mandrake at the grand’s meadow. they fled to the crossroads and attacked the citadel. tark asked us to help again, and we agreed, but it was a trap. we killed some of the shifters, and then the merchant from the rocky valley threw nort into a dry well, where he disappeared."
"But how...uh...do you know he isn't stuck in the Shift World?"
"well, the merchant apologized for taking the morning shield, plus spikes were stuck up in the well, and there were footprints in the bottom, which means someone had been there. the mandrake is also missing. i think the merchant set this up so they could force nort to shift to the upper world and take the mandrake with him."
"Why do you believe the princess set this up?"
"someone must have told them about scholars, and she knew he was one. they stopped fighting with only two shifters dead at the grand's meadow, and she kidnapped and tortured me after stopping the followers of the mandrake. she's to blame! it's all her fault!" Karp's eyes blazed with an unnatural ferocity that scared Slart and Lark. When she noticed their discomfort, Karp tried to calm herself.
Lark stepped forward. "Did you really take their horses for some reason?"
"no, that's just a fabrication to discredit me. the princess is retaliating against me for escaping her torture at the hands of the demon's wrath. i wouldn't give them credit for saving the empire, so they are making sure no one will ever believe me. the princess is finding an excuse to take my freedom."
Slart and Lark appeared disconcerted again, and Karp tried to calm herself.
"ho...ho...how did you end up here?"
"Well...uh...the Traitor's Tavern was occupied by the Royal Guard, and Cont attacked me. He would have killed me, but someone from the garrison accidentally hit him with this dagger."
Slart handed Karp her dagger. Karp took the blade to the Shift World since she couldn't see it well in the dark basement. A snake's head with bared fangs pressed into the handle of the dragon fire steel. Tark's seal of a demon rising from a fire before a gate was engraved into the blade. Karp returned to the basement.
"this belongs to baln the coral snake. he's a part of tark's royal guard."
"Well, if not for her, I'd be dead now. It doesn't really matter, though. Cont won. He'll get his palace and provincial lordship, or at least, umm, try and probably destroy the Traitor's Tavern. All that matters now is Nort, and we need to find a shifter that can go to the upper world to do that."
"if not for her? if not for her!! SHE's probably the one who promised cont his lordship and palace! do you think that coward would have acted on his own? NO! the princess used cont to kill you to get to me! to steal my FREEDOM! can i have this?"
Karp held up The Coral Snake's dagger.
"this dagger. can i have it? i'm going to take it and drive it through tark's heart. it's only fitting to use the knife she was going to kill you with. if i end her life, i can be FREE."
Slart reached for Karp, but she pulled away.
"STOP? i won't stop! i won't stop until she's dead and we're FREE! can't you see that's the only way?"
"What about...uh...Nort? That's what's important! How can you think about revenge before rescuing him?!"
"how can i think about nort until i'm free? i can't do anything until i'm free! i shouldn't have come to you first. doing so just put you in danger. she must go, and then when i'm free, we'll all be FREE. why can't you see that?"
Slart was aghast. Karp's time in captivity must have been worse than she had imagined. There was nothing Slart could have said to change her mind, but Karp knew Slart would try to say something to keep her from fleeing.
"Come with me to The Bog Djinn's, and I'll let you have the dagger."
Karp stared at the netted ceiling with her mouth agape. She started laughing. The laughter calmed her racing heart a little. Now that she had confirmed that Slart was alright, all Karp could think about was killing Tark.
"He will probably know how to locate Tark."
Karp rolled her neck toward Slart. She stared into Slart's eyes, and a sadistic grin drew across Karp's face, and she nodded. Karp walked to the corner and sat, resting her chin on her knees and staring into the chamber's center.
The sun shone through the shed's windows early the next morning. Karp climbed a hook ladder from the basement. She looped her forearm around a rung and pushed at the netting sitting atop the ceiling. She rose from the secret chamber and emerged onto the shed's dirt floor. Slart followed. Karp took Slart's hand and pulled her from the darkness. Then Lark followed, and Karp pulled her from the dark too. Slart and Lark re-covered the hole's surface, and Karp looked out a nearby window.
No guards wandered around the open field between the shed and the small forests. Karp pushed open the shed door and slipped outside, with Slart and Lark on her heels. They stayed low and slunk to the woods at the far end of the field. Karp hoped that their luck would hold as they approached tall grass just before the forest. The trio entered the woods and disappeared. Karp froze at the sound of a rustling bush behind them and pulled a throwing knife from her buckler. They watched the swaying foliage, and the movement increased as it approached them. Then, a squirrel broke through the grass and made a beeline for the trees. Relief washed over Karp.
The trio left the grass and entered a grove of ancient oaks. Delicate moss sometimes disturbed the tree's soft gray and brown bark. They turned right at a river raging briefly in the woods and followed its muddy bank. Every step sucked their boots into the wet earth, but they trudged forward. Only locals knew of this messy, tiring path, which meant they were safe from imperial interlopers. Karp glared the flowing water as she walked.
The river rumbled down a ten-foot-wide bed. Occasionally, water smashed into boulders, shooting mist into the air. Fish leaped to advance upstream but were then sucked downstream after landing. Karp found it hard to believe that this was the same river that ran under the Widow's Bridge in the Village of the Traitor's Tavern. That river was calm and smooth, unblemished by a single rock or flying fish.
Even though the local river looked dangerous compared to that of the Traitor's Tavern, every year several people drowned at the Traitor's Tavern. Yet no one had drowned in this section for decades. Paradoxically, the raging water looked so dangerous that people stayed away. There were hardly ever accidents, which, in a sense, made it safer. On warm summer nights in the Traitor's Tavern, visitors often drank a few rounds at the tavern and then cooled off in the summer air. They'd arrive at the Widow's Bridge and take a refreshing dip but get sucked underwater and surface days later. The bigger irony was that the river at the milling town wasn't that dangerous unless someone fell and broke their leg or hit their head. This felt just like Karp's current situation; she was in the Traitor's Tavern's river when she went to The Grand's Meadow, but now she could see the river's real danger.
Karp, Slart, and Lark followed the bank as it wound north by east and intercepted the trade route. After ensuring that guards weren't patrolling the road, they left the woods' safety and started down the trade route. The trio crossed a full wooden bridge. Every step rang out, just like crossing the Widow's Bridge at the Traitor's Tavern. Karp looked around for Nort, but Lark stood in his place. Footsteps called out on the bridge's far end, and Karp remembered herself.
Two guards in studded leathers with dragon fire helms approached; Karp and Slart pretended to notice them but be disinterested, and Lark stared out at the river. The group was safe because the guards were looking for a woman and a teenager or a single woman creeping in the shadows or riding a horse. Since the guards couldn't yet know that the three of them had met up, they were safer traveling together than alone. The guards passed without paying much attention to them.
Karp, Slart, and Lark continued up the road for ten minutes before turning at an intersection with the offshoot road to The Bog Djinn's castle. Another pair of guards lingered inside a shed at the corner of this intersection. One watched out of a window. Slart raised her hand and showed a white sleeve with a sunshine steel strip, the sign of an envoy for a high merchant. Then the three of them turned up the offshoot road. The guards watched the trio but never attempted to follow or even show a minutia of interest.
Guards had swarmed the Traitor’s Tavern and had begun migrating to set a new colony at the milling town. Guards hovered in and around the village, but their influence didn't extend this far into The Bog Djinn's territory. Karp, Lark, and Slart traveled for an hour more without incident and without seeing any more Royal Guard. Then they arrived at a manned roadblock. The guards there wore steel armor with a yellow strip down the right breastplate. They motioned for the travelers to stop. Slart stepped forward and lowered her hood.
"We are here to see The Bog Djinn."
The guards exchanged glances and then checked over Karp and Lark, who each lowered their hoods in turn. The guards snickered.
"Not going to climb the rickety bridge spanning the chasm this time? No stroll in the swamp?"
The guards laughed, and Karp rolled her eyes. She couldn't believe that they still remembered the time she and Nort traveled through the swamp and tried entering through the rear gate. The bridge had wavered and cracked under their weight, but it hadn’t been that dangerous. The guards waved the trio past.
Karp looked at Slart, and she giggled and turned up the road. Within a few hours, the castle loomed in the distance. Karp realized they were near where she had seen a baby deer when she and Nort were fighting. She had wanted to show him the deer, but he had been so mad that he wouldn't even look at her. Karp noticed a destroyed farmhouse in the field.
The follower of The Mandrake, who Karp only knew as a merchant, had told her about how he had destroyed a house while berserk. Karp was saddened by the thought that someone as hideous as The Mandrake could be responsible for that bittersweet memory of Nort. She sprinted to the house's foundation, Slart shouting after her, but she couldn't hear what Slart was saying. Karp arrived and looked for signs of explosions or inhuman cleaves in wood or stone of the destroyed farmhouse. Smashed pots were scattered around the ashes in the house's ruins. The remaining wood scraps were singed and blackened but didn't show signs of explosions or metal. Karp crawled through the ashes to the house's main support beam. She used her left forearm and right hand to dig around the pillar for an answer. The airborne ashes burned her eyes, and she teared up but kept digging to the base. The exposed beam confirmed that the main shaft had burned and that the house collapsed when the foundational beam had shattered.
Karp looked up through tears. Red veins stenciled her pink eye whites, and she stared at a point beyond Slart.
"it's nothing. i thought something was here, but it's just a burnt down house."
Karp felt so sure that the house must have been related to her pain, but there was nothing, and that fantasy drifted only in her mind. Slart put her arm around Karp and led her back to the road. Lark stared at Karp, who was now covered head to toe in ash and dirt. Within an hour, the trio had nearly arrived at The Bog Djinn's castle. Karp looked south, and small pillars of smoke wafted in the distance. The smoke wasn't thick or wide enough to be from a burning building or severe wildfire. Instead, it indicated that a camp sat outside the castle, but Karp didn't know who stood guard nearby.
Karp, Lark, and Slart stood before Trolt the Bog Djinn. Trolt's nearly three-hundred-year-old weathered body sat hunched on a padded, wooden throne in a large hall lined with his guard in seashell steel with yellow stripes. The Bog Djinn was an up-shifter and likely the last living person from the Shift World. Trolt had originally lived in the far eastern region of the Arid Desert at the last known vestige of humanity.
In three hundred years, The Bog Djinn had built a trade empire that controlled every primary industry from the world's logging in the Lush Forest to the clay produced in the Arid Desert. The Creeping Ice produced minimal manufactured goods, but the empire's wealth flowed there, and The Bog Djinn was their primary supplier. The Bog Djinn had become detached from the world as he aged and was now content to watch events unfold just as one would watch actors on a stage.
Karp and Slart knew The Bog Djinn through Karp's master, Korg the Whitecoat. The Whitecoat had distributed cloth through the world until The Sunflower killed him at the Last Festival. Karp had taken charge of running his warehouse, and Slart had taken charge of cloth distribution. The followers of The Mandrake imported cloth, though, so there was nothing left to manage. The loss likely upset Trolt, but he still had other captains to rely on. Drom the Troupe Leader was in charge of convoys. Trak the Elder manufactured clay goods. Borg the Woodpecker felled trees and processed lumber. Goln the Seahorse fished and collected maritime products. Brak the Yeti received oils. Polk the Craftsman imported enamel sand. The list went on, with too many other confederates secretly working for Trolt to mention them each individually.
Karp stepped forward and gently rubbed her left forearm as she spoke.
"why are there guards on the road?"
The Bog Djinn sat up slightly straighter, something he tended to do when he was amused.
"Oh? Hehe. The empire’s amazingly fragile, you know. I have the guards because I don’t know what will happen. Do you? Hmmmmm? Yes, they are there to keep the Royal Guard back from my keep and to stop any would-be thieves."
"is that why you have an army in the fields, too? to fight the empire?"
The Bog Djinn laughed and moved a little in his seat.
"Fight the empire!? Hehe, oh my, no. I don't think you understand the empire, my dear. The empire is not just the Demons. Well, it was back when The Conqueror founded it. Back then, the emperor's decrees were absolute, and there was no one else that could make laws or run the government. As the empire rebounded from the revolution, though, the administration for each area became too much for one group. Believe me, it's tiring ha ha ha... The empire formed the envoys to take care of normal functions, but within a few years, they grew too big for their britches, hmm. A leader came forth and rebelled; you may have heard of him, The Ivory Bull. He took over envoys and demanded council with Tash, who was acting empress.
"They tried to ambush her, but her Dragon Guard cut them all down. That's where Troch the Willow Weeper, the old lord of the Traitor's Tavern, was killed. Anyway, the empire installed new envoys, and over time they became more and more independent. This time, the empire just let them rule under a few conditions...very generous ones too. The Demons have the ultimate authority to veto any laws they make, and the envoys pay taxes. The Envoys and their citizens praise the empire for all good fortune and recognize the royal family as being responsible.
"For a while, the envoys ruled with the empire looking over their shoulders, vetoing anything they didn't like. Hmmm, as time went on, though, the descendants got fat and lazy and stopped paying that close attention and stopped using their vetoes. Now you actually have to go in person to request a veto. Psh, kids these days, don't do anything unless they are prodded."
As usual, Slart hung on every word of Trolt's with a doe-eyed appreciation for both his explicit and implied meanings. Karp, however, was getting bored and missed Nort, since he'd stand with her in the solidarity of boredom.
"Well, eventually, I came along, and, oh my-my, did I kick the hornets' nest on accident. At first, neither the empire nor the Royal Envoys paid me much mind. I was just some cocky young punk who was trying to be a trader. Every twenty years or so I'd retire, and my son, who looked just like me, would take over. Within a hundred years, I had control of dozens of businesses. Oh boy, you better believe they noticed me then. A member of the Demons came and made the same deal as the envoys had. I could run my business as I saw fit, independent of the envoys as long as I paid taxes and didn't take credit for improving people's lives. Oh, it wasn't a big deal who gets the accolades, so I said sure, but, wow, did those envoys get mad! I was afraid they'd attack for a while, but they calmed, and it was back to business as usual. There were a few lords that wanted to take me over across the years, but all I do is cut off their supplies, and they come back begging forgiveness…hehe hee."
Slart smiled and nodded. Karp scratched her head.
"so what? i don't understand the history lesson."
The Bog Djinn looked to Slart, who puckered her lips, and then back to Karp. His features relaxed as though a realization had flashed in his mind.
"You see, those factions still exist today! There is a delicate balance...hmm... The Demons are protected by wealth and their legitimacy to power, envoys are protected by their rule of law and widespread armies, and I'm protected by the economy. If the Demons attacked the envoys or me, the envoys could swamp the family in-laws, or subtly subvert their authority, and I could hurt their wealth. If the envoys attacked the Demons or me, the royal family could easily kill or replace the lords without much question. Or I could financially ruin a whole area…hehe…haha. If I attacked them, they could seize my goods or workers in retaliation.
"Despite the balance, there are still people who want to destroy me or the envoys or the Demons and make their faction dominant. Between the Last Festival and the followers of The Mandrake, though, the world's balance has been threatened. No one knows the strength of their rivals anymore. People have lost a lot of faith in the royal family, and they also lost quite a few important lords and vassals. The envoys have lost many lords as well, just trying to protect their keeps. The economy has been destabilized.
"Those that want to destroy the Demons spent the last few years trying to find out exactly how much power and influence they have left. Those that want to reinstate The Conqueror's family want to use the specter of The Mandrake to create martial law. Those who want to destroy the empire are looking for ways to choke the factions and watch the facade break apart."
Karp's brow furled as she exchanged glances with Slart.
"is that what happened to me?"
Trolt sighed deeply.
"What happened to you was...hmm...complicated. Getting you to claim the empire was responsible for your work would have been something the Royal Guard could hold over the Demons. Then you embarrassed the empire again when you escaped. Whoever catches you will certainly get a boon...hey...don't look at me like that. Hehe, don't worry, I won't turn you in, but that must have been quite one horse to go through all this trouble..."
"so ALL this happened because of embarrassment?"
"Hehe...you mean 'The Horse Thief'? Well, I did say that catching you would be a feather in someone's cap...and that's true, but The Horse Thief is more of a...hmm...excuse to test each enemy's strengths and weaknesses. If they catch you, it will be good for them, but they aren't really even looking."
Karp couldn't hide her anger anymore.
"WHERE IS THE PRINCESS? this won't end until I KILL HER. SHE attacked the traitor's tavern to get ME, kidnapped ME for HER pride, and tortured ME for HER embarrassment! it's the only way I can be FREE...KILL the PRINCESS, and I'LL be FREE..."
Slart balled."We need to save Nort first! How can you think about revenge?"
The discord between Slart and Karp startled Trolt.
"So it's true, you've been tamed..."
"how can you possibly defend the princess? After SHE took Nort! after SHE kidnapped and tortured ME! attacked Slart! attacked the Traitor's Tavern...twice! I need to be FREE! I know you can't FREE me. I must KILL TARK, and then I can be FREE..."
Karp's face resembled a mongrel dog more than a proud warrior. The Bog Djinn gripped his chair's arm so tightly that his knuckles whitened, and he spoke through his teeth.
"I see nothing I say will get through to you. You might be able to both locate Nort and kill Tark. Search for a down-shifter from the upper world or an up-shifter from this world. It's been four years since we lost track of the followers of The Mandrake. There are probably one or two new shifters that have come since then. If they have arrived, you should check centers of cross-world trade. The most likely places they'd go are either here or the Bamboo Coast.
"If you want the princess, you should find the Royal Guard first. It so happens that they set up a contingent around The Bamboo Coast. I ’don't know where exactly the Demons are, but that is the best lead I know."
Karp stormed off, and Slart followed on her heels. The Bog Djinn waved over an attendant.
"I need to send a letter...hmmm.. Yes. Immediately."