Shift World Book II Chapter 5
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Karp stood before the Bamboo Gate outside of the Village at the Bamboo Coast. She steeled herself to face the Royal Guard and tried to push Slart and Lark from her mind. Slart had stayed with The Bog Djinn to wait for shifters that might seek him out for answers. She had pleaded for Karp to rest and heal, but Karp felt fine. Karp was glad that Slart hadn’t come, though, since facing the Royal Guard was not for the faint of heart. The squeamish would flee even at sight of the Bamboo Gate.
Intertwined, dried bamboo driven into clay soil formed the gate's pillars and a crossbeam. Two bodies hung suspended by a pair of leather ropes fed between the crossbeam's shoots. Leather riding coats acted as sails on the dried husks, and they gently swayed in the breeze. Hoods covered the corpses' heads, cloaking their faces until they spun directly toward Karp. The sight of their bulging eyes sent Karp's heart racing.
The Demon's Wrath had likely hung the corpses in retribution for the Last Festival. It made sense to Karp that the Demons had stopped at the Bamboo Coast to murder the village elders before moving on to sack the Traitor's Tavern. That explained why they had taken so long to seek retribution, even though it wound up being fortuitous for Slart and Karp, who'd both be dead if the Royal Guard had attacked right away. Slart would have been killed while they robbed the store, and Karp couldn't possibly have defeated an entire garrison. She didn't know why the villagers had left the gruesome display but figured that since the elders died and the shifters disappeared, people must have been afraid to haul the bodies down. Karp pushed the corpses out of her way as she passed through the gate and officially entered the village.
The Bamboo Coast borrowed its name from luminescent jade bamboo shoots lining the roadside. Slender leaves shot from the knots between tall and thin stalks. Karp could stroll by an individual shoot and hack it down in a single slash, but when the stalks were standing together, the bamboo was impenetrable. The bamboo wall made the village impossible to see. Karp couldn't walk between the shafts no matter how badly she wanted to, and hacking them down could take days.
A faint rustling sounded under the stalks, and a rabbit rebounded off the bamboo, ping-ponging from tree to tree and landing at Karp's feet. The rabbit scrunched its nose and stared at her. Karp chuckled.
"i guess that's one way through."
The rabbit cocked its head, sniffed, and bolted off to the other side of the road. Karp smiled as she walked down the road's loose dirt. As she remembered her purpose, though, her smile drained. She snuck to the edge of the trees and peered off behind the bamboo.
Raised dirt paths crisscrossed a series of flooded fields at perpendicular intersections. The ten-by-ten-meter cells that were created by these intersections were called paddies. Overgrown and unharvested rice plants overflowed on the paddies' sides. Most maintenance tasks could be accomplished by walking along the raised paths and adjusting rice plants with a five-meter-long pole. Some such poles stuck out of the water through a nearby paddy's overgrowth. Karp moved to a pole, grabbed it, and shook, but it didn't move. She shook harder, and a hawk flew from the foliage.
The bird circled and cried a defensive shriek. The bird's nest must have been in the brush, so Karp backed away before she damaged its eggs or had to kill the mother in self-defense. The hawk landed on a small boulder sitting in the rice paddy's water. Karp's movement appeased the animal, and it raised its wings and shrieked again. Karp backed away further.
A crack formed through the boulder's center, and thin, jagged teeth raised around the strutting bird. The bird’s demeanor changed from arrogance to terror, and it shrieked in desperation. The teeth closed into the hawk with a splash of blood. The bird fell silent as it was dragged underground. Water bubbled and thrashed. A few seconds later, the boulder returned to the flooded paddy's surface in the form of a grotesque fish. The sight of the creature stunned Karp, and she stood aghast. A wide, flat nose with drooping sunken eyes blemished its face. One eye drooped, which gave the thing an unpalatable abhorrence. The whites of the eyes shone with a green and red tint. Karp was sure its crimson eyes looked at her before its eyelids closed. The face then relaxed and returned to resembling a boulder.
A shiver ran down Karp's spine, and bile gathered at the back of her throat. She spun onto the balls of her feet and continued to sneak up the road toward town. Within a few minutes, Karp arrived in the village proper. The houses at the Bamboo Coast weren't made of shaped wooden slats on sturdy frames with tiled roofs like the houses at the Traitor's Tavern. Instead, bamboo shoots intertwined to form the walls, and broad palm leaves covered the roof to protect from rain and sunlight. During a sunny day, the huts stayed cool and breezy, and the weather at the Bamboo Coast never cooled enough to need fire or insulation for warmth. The cabins were the perfect balance of protection and openness. Karp peeped through the bamboo shoots.
Nothing inside surprised her. Tables, jars, and beds were scattered throughout the open space. A whole family lived in a single area since there was only one room. It's not that Karp was shy or embarrassed to have others' eyes on her, but the idea of always having people nearby in that way made Karp uneasy. Based on the furnishings, people of the Bamboo Coast must have spent most of their time outside of their homes.
Low-profile houses made the downtown feel spacious and open. A breeze traveled freely between the round huts. Usually, people walking around the streets would make the wind unnoticeable, but the dead village only accentuated the weak breeze. Someone had drawn large game boards in the village square's dirt. Children probably played games in the clearings between buildings, when there were still children there to play. Karp's stomach sank at the realization that villages in the Shift World must have resembled the Bamboo Coast after people from her world had come and killed entire populations. No known down-shifters remained in the world, but history was repeating itself, even if it was being carried out by weapons instead of powers now.
Karp continued south until she came across an out-of-place two-story building. Light green wooden planks sealed out wind and rain. Painted brown bamboo shoots decorated the light green planks on the base of the first floor, and light yellow tiles protected the roof. The paint evoked the image of sunflowers, likely in homage to the area's previous lord, Jorn the Sunflower. At the Last Festival, when Karp met The Sunflower, he had addressed himself as "teacher of children," which meant that she was probably standing before a school or even his residence. Since most lords in the Lush Forest lived in a compound outside of town, Karp bet that this was the school.
Sounds emanating from open windows drew Karp's curiosity. She crept to a window and looked inside. Long, thin tables lined the room, with chestnut brown stools placed periodically underneath. A Creeping Ice map topped a stack of hand-drawn maps hanging on the far side. A small cabinet full of teaching and learning supplies provisioned the classroom. Including those who had lived just out of town, over a thousand people used to live in the area. Now, though, only five distracted children watched a haggard teacher fret as he taught an arithmetic lesson.
A pair of armed guards stationed at the classroom's entrance distracted the children and frightened the teacher. The guards wore studded leather armor and dragon fire steel helms typical of Royal Guards. Karp slunk away and continued downtown. Within a few minutes, she turned up a road flanked by sunflowers.
Each sunflower's six-foot green stalk ended in a fan of brilliant yellow petals surrounding jet black seeds. Individual plants melted into a sea of green, yellow, and black. The wind blew through the field, and the plants swayed. Karp saw no clear sign of where the meadow ended on either side. She thought about the village's strange layout.
it's like they set up this village to defend a war. a lot of good that did them. the bamboo and rice fields funnel people through a bottleneck. no sign of a struggle. the empire came right in and killed the village elders. the sunflowers stroke jorn's ego, but if warriors attacked his compound, the hordes would be slowed as they trudged through the fields. i guess these plants are a substitution for a compound wall.
Karp arrived at the end of the sunflower fields and viewed The Sunflower's compound. No gate, wall, or fence blocked access to the warehouses, which Karp felt proved her theory, but a guard post overlooked the entrance. Karp tensed and snuck through the shack's blind spots until she reached the windows and peeked inside. Karp eased at the empty building and moved on to the compound's warehouses.
The empty warehouses were otherwise unremarkable compared to others in the Lush Forest. As Karp weaved in and out small alleys, she stopped at the burned down wreckage. So far, the likely warehouse's ruins were the only other sign of strife, besides the bodies hanging from the village gate. Scorched crates and jars lay in the rubble, indicating that workers had burned the contents to prevent intruders from confiscating the goods.
The Sunflower's mansion sat in the heart of the compound; Karp spied it from the window of the closest empty warehouse. The Sunflower's mansion's colors matched the school with its green outer bamboo walls and a yellow tile roof. The walls rolled up and were locked suspended over a lanai that encircled the entire mansion. The Narwhal stepped out of the hall carrying a five-foot-long striped lance and wearing all red armor. The Narwhal looked back in a window and shouted inside. Karp couldn't hear her words, but the tone indicated someone losing patience. The thought of confronting The Narwhal sickened Karp, and she fled to escape the feeling.
Karp weaved in and out of warehouses as she withdrew from the compound. She didn't slow until she was passing the guard post. Karp panted and wheezed while walking up the road between the sunflower fields. Within a few minutes, her breathing normalized. She heard other people walking up the path, so Karp jumped into the sunflower field and disappeared between flowers. A pair of guards and The Narwhal walked past.
Karp slipped out of the flowers and trailed the guard from a comfortable distance. The Narwhal and her companions followed a path back into the village and headed south through bamboo houses. The picturesque village's illusory beauty burned as ash piles and shattered bamboo hovels in the south replaced the pristine dwellings in the north. The central storehouse stood as the last intact building on the town's southern edge.
An impaled skeleton was pinned to the storehouse wall as a morbid ornament. The victim's gaunt face was cocked to the left, and it hung precariously on a dried-out neck. The face was twisted in fright and pain from a spear that had struck hard enough to obliterate the chest cavity and suspend the corpse in a concave semicircle on the wall. The corpse's unnatural hue and scaly quality resembled that of a skeleton from the Shift World and not a decomposed skeleton from this world.
After The Narwhal had moved out of sight, Karp drifted away from the storehouse and into an open road. Nothing covered her approach as she traveled from the village edge into the outskirts, but her deft steps and smooth movements were enough to keep people from noticing. Rose bushes with pink buds and palm trees formed a small woods at the end of the village outskirts. Karp hid behind a palm tree to spy on a small encampment.
Five leather tents flanked open fire pits, and Karp estimated there were twenty people in each tent and a hundred people staying in the encampment. The Royal Guard mulled about the tents, unconcerned with danger and devoid of any sense of duty. They lacked the dedication and restraint of Tark's Dragon Guard whom Karp had met at The Grand's Meadow. Karp decided then that Tark wasn't with the Royal Guard contingent, and she wondered where to infiltrate to find answers.
A delicate hand tapped Karp's shoulder. Karp leaped forward and spun, landing on her backside. Her travel cloak fell open, showing her sunshine steel hauberk and breastplate. Karp pointed a knife at her assailant, stunned by their ability to sneak up and humiliate her so completely.
A young woman, still likely in her teens, stood before Karp motioning for her to stay silent. She wasn't an armored soldier or merchant in white cloth. She only wore the short leather pants and open top of a southern forester. The young woman turned and motioned for Karp to follow. Every step landed so softly that the soil beneath her sole remained undisturbed. The woman's leather outfit didn't rub or squeak as she stepped, and she controlled her breathing so expertly that she sometimes didn't appear to be breathing at all. She managed to achieve absolute zero sound as she walked. Such masterful movement amazed Karp, and she instinctively followed.
Karp snuck behind the unknown woman as she passed burned-out bamboo houses, but she stopped before reaching a nearby rice paddy, and her guide sensed her follower's reluctance.
"We need to keep moving; it's not safe here." The woman surveyed the path to the village with anxious impatience.
"who are you and where are you leading me?"
"Why don't you trust me? If I meant you harm, I could have killed you before you knew what even happened." The woman rolled her eyes when Karp didn't relent. "I'm Ban of the Village of the Wyvern's Coast. I'm taking you there."
"Why? I don't know if you've noticed, but the Royal Guard has leveled half the town. Most of the people fled during the attack, but they captured some, and I've been rescuing them. It's good that I found you before the guard members did..."
Karp still didn't budge. Ban's shoulders slumped, and she let an exacerbated sigh escape. "Look, I'll tell you everything I know, but later. The longer we stay here, the more danger we'll be in!"
Karp reluctantly followed Ban onto a raised dirt path that crisscrossed a rice field. Every step pushed into the dirt, and Karp's boot would stick in the mud and pop free with an ugly sucking sound. Ban's foot, on the other hand, hit the ground so softly that she barely even left a heel print. Karp guessed that a lifetime of walking around the paddies had trained her to sneak. Once they were no longer in view of the village roads, Ban spoke.
"It all started after the attacks on the Village of the Traitor's Tavern during the Last Festival. We began hearing rumors about how The Sunflower had murdered The Whitecoat after his apprentice killed a royal envoy. More and more stories came about shifters taking out all sorts of lords at the festival. Some worried about what the royal family would do about the dead envoy, but nothing happened for a few days. Some thought maybe nothing was ever going to happen, but then, in the middle of the day, the Royal Guard showed up.
"They say that the village elders met with the detachment's leader, a man wearing a cloth scarf over the lower half of his face and carrying a polearm with a hawk etched on the blade. He talked to the graymanes, but after a few minutes, some of his cackling minions dragged them from the hall. They threw ropes on the gate and hung 'em. Then, they attacked The Sunflower's compound and killed every worker, but all the warehouses were empty except one that was full of trash, so the mob burned it.
"They headed north in a frenzy. Well, I guess they weren't sated from the lack of pillage. After that, the villagers just drifted away. They had actually started leaving after The Sunflower died, and the empire stopped sending goods to the village, but now, most people fled. They fled to places like the Wyvern’s Coast, but, sometimes, people get homesick. They go back to their old house for some keepsake they couldn't take before or they visit the cemetery.
"People started disappearing over the last few months. After a little while, I came to check and found the survivors impressed into serving the Royal Guard. Some were even shackled like slaves readied to be transported. I freed the ones I could and brought them home. You saw the school, didn't you? Sometimes the guard took children that wandered to their old homes and then enslaved the parents who came looking for them."
Karp surrendered the feeling of needing to flee and now more willingly followed Ban. If the rescued prisoners had overheard information on the princess's location, then interviewing them was a much better plan than fighting her way through waves of Royal Guard members. She doubted it would be easy to find a soldier that would have survived the encounter and who might also know the princess's location and was willing to talk.
Overgrown foliage sprung from the paddies that flanked the path. The foliage blocked sight of the pair from the road, which lay far past the rice field's edge.
"We're safe here. The Royal Guard doesn't come through the rice paddies because of the ugly biters."
Karp didn't need an explanation to know what those were. Ban waved to stop Karp from walking. Ban slid a throwing knife from a pouch on her hip and threw it at a frog resting on the walking path. The frog lazily hopped away until it landed on a patch of recently disturbed dirt, and an ugly biter lurched from the ground and swallowed the amphibian whole. The ugly biter twisted free of the path, splashed into the rice paddy, and swam away.
"Ugly biters are just a type of mud-skipper that live in these man-made marshes where we grow rice. They moved in from the northern swampland years ago when we irrigated the field. They were a real danger at first, but we figured out how to avoid getting bit. Hmmm...no, they don't seriously injure you. If they bite your leg, there'll be a lot of pain and blood, but it usually won't kill you unless it gets infected.
"I guess you would want to avoid the biters anyway, you know, since that would hurt and all. There are three ways to tell that one's near. First, if you see some disturbed dirt, whatever you do, don't step on it or over it. Sometimes, they leap up if people are nearby and so just walking over them can be a terrible idea. I guess steel or better will stop them from biting you."
"Ha, haha. Anyway, if you see bubbles in the water near the edge of the path, try to do something to scare it away before you move past. You might also see strange boulders, but those are actually ugly biters. Really, you have to find what looks like two sunken pits on the boulder's face. Well, if you're not sure, just assume the boulder will bite you if you touch it."
After thirty minutes, the rice paddies ended, and the pair entered a series of woods. Karp and Ban had easy travel through the bushes and trees along the side of the highway. Still, they sometimes needed to hide from the prying eyes of the Royal Guard patrolling the road. After two hours, the pair arrived at the Gate of the Wyvern's Cove.
Moss painted two large bark-covered sunken logs an uneasy dark green. Green plants dangled from a crossbeam above the head of any travelers entering the coastal village. A wyvern carved from the crossbeam's girth and painted a glistening red with armor enamel spread its wings and peered down into the road. The wyvern's mouth was opened in a war cry, with bared teeth threatening all passersby. Zigzag scales were carved into the wyvern's sides and limbs ascended to the crest of its back. Its eyes could follow a traveler from the far ends of the path. Its tail coiled down the right pillar, ending with a flat triangular flap facing the outside of the village.
Karp uneasily passed through the gate and entered the town behind Ban. Bamboo huts were mixed in with traditional wooden structures. These bamboo houses differed from the homes at the Bamboo Coast. Leaves fastened bamboo shafts into six-feet-tall triangles barely wide enough for a family to lay side by side. The slip-shod structures were meant to provide temporary relief but, at some point, became the refugees' permanent residences. The traditional houses towered over the shanties.
There was no visible gap in between the houses’ wooden panels, and Karp felt like she'd be at home in one of them, as compared to the breezy open architecture of The Bamboo Coast. Some of the houses’ straw-thatched roofs rose several feet higher than the others, which showed that although none of them was more than one story tall, some had raised lofts. Farmers who needed storage for tools and seasonal gear but couldn't afford a dedicated barn used lofts. The number of houses thinned as Karp and Ban moved to the village center.
In safer times, the square would have been an open center of commerce, but now bamboo huts clogged the space. The shanty town's residents could have drudged about in misery, but the area remained vibrant. Adults darted between homes talking, laughing, and greeting friends. Karp watched as a group of children ran circles to avoid one small girl who kept reaching to touch someone's back or arm. She reached toward a slower boy, and he twisted his upper body to dodge her touch, but she hit his back. The other children who had previously avoided her came back to her side and reveled in the running from the new pariah.
Karp stopped and saw another group of children loitering around a series of circles drawn on the ground. The arena stretched on for forty meters. Massive, close-together circles became further apart and shrunk as they rolled away. A light-haired child wearing soiled leathers threw a stone that landed in a circle near the center of the play area. The rock didn't stay where the girl had hoped, and she gave an audible “nooo.” The rock bounced three times and slid through the dirt, resting in a smaller circle twenty meters away. Her demeanor changed when the stone stopped.
"Ha, Ha! I did it!"
A dark-haired child in a set of clean leathers stepped into the closest circle and surveyed the ground for a path. For ten meters, she stepped from circle to circle toward the stone until the rings grew too far apart for her to step from one to the next. From there, the girl rocked and hopped. She landed squarely in the circle and jumped again and again. She comfortably leaped until she was two circles from the resting stone. Sweat beaded down her brow, and she huffed from the effort. She swung her arms and bent her knees. Her knees straightened as her arms shot forward, and she sprung toward the circle but couldn't nail the landing; she slipped and fell face-down in the dirt. Now her soiled leathers matched her friend's.
Karp laughed. Ban's eyes shot to her, motioning for her to stop.
"Shhhh...quiet...you don't laugh at..."
Ban wasn't quick enough. The group of children suddenly faced the two women. A swarm of young ones came over and dragged them to the starting circles.
"You have to go!"
"’Let's see how you do!"
Ban now laughed and shook her head. "Well, it looks like we have to go."
"i don't really know how..."
"I throw a rock, and you go from circle to circle and get it without touching the ground outside." Ban picked up a rock and threw it down the game field. The rock landed and slid into a circle twenty-seven meters down the path. Karp walked the circles slightly further than the girl had and, at about twelve meters, needed to plan a jumping route. Karp hopped to the circle to the right and then to the left and then to one straight ahead. She had traveled fifteen meters.
"halfway there, ban."
Ban rolled her eyes.
Karp had never needed to jump between points like this before and had no idea what she was doing, so she tried to emulate the little girl. Karp swung her arms and bent her knees and leaped. The ground was slicker and looser than Karp had pictured, though, and her feet slid upon landing. She abandoned staying in the circle, but her feet moved too fast to regain her balance; she fell flat on her stomach. She hit hard enough to knock the wind out of herself. All the children laughed.
Karp pushed herself off the ground. The dirt and humble pie dried her mouth, and she didn't like the taste. Karp walked back to the starting line, with the children still laughing. Ban smiled as she approached. "Yep, you made it about halfway there. Your turn to throw."
Karp pouted. A pile of rocks sat at Ban's feet, and Karp looked for the perfect throwing rock. She chose a pointed, spade-shaped stone, stepped forward, and hurled it. Ban and the children followed the projectile into the air but lost sight in the sky. They fell quiet at first, but then discord erupted.
The children hurled insults but quieted after a few moments. They watched the sky slack-jawed, and their heads followed a line downward. The stone spun on its horizontal-axis and fell, the tip lodging in the dirt within the furthest circle, over 40 meters away. The children eyed Karp, eyed the ring, eyed Ban, and then moved back to Karp, silent for the first time. The children playing tag ran over to see the source of the fuss. Every child in the courtyard now watched the match with intense curiosity.
Ban silently entered the closest circle. She stepped from circle to circle, gaining speed. Her strides bounced after fourteen meters, and then she jumped. After twenty meters, Ban used her momentum to leap. After thirty meters, Ban added tumbles. She stopped in the circle closest to the stone three meters away and stared. She contemplated for only an instant before leaping again. She looked as though she would clear the distance without issue until her mid-air momentum slowed. She turned her upper body and moved her head over her heels, which gave her just enough time to land in the circle with her hand, grab the stone, and win the game. Ban walked on her hands to face the crowd and then fell to the ground.
The children cheered and ran. Karp kicked the dirt and followed.
"just wait. we'll play a game at the throwing board and see who wins."
A few days later, Karp sat on a beach, killing time while Ban scouted local fields. Karp had offered to accompany Ban, but she adamantly refused. Karp tried asking around the slums by herself, but despite the refugees' outward friendliness, they harbored a deep mistrust of strangers. Polite dismissals stifled every attempt to discover more about the Bamboo Coast. So, Karp now found herself relaxing in the sand and admiring the scenery.
Karp rested on a beach called the Wyvern's Cove. The Village of the Wyvern's Cove sat high above sea level on a flattened hill whose slope from the north, east, and west was too shallow to notice. From the south, though, a sharp, winding path cut into the side of a cliff. Light gray jagged rocks draped with hanging vines encircled the cove. Green and yellow bulbs called wyvern's eggs dotted the vines. Every spring, the bulbs would open for three days, and delicate orange petals sprung out with red pistils.
The beach's sand differed from the sand of the Arid Desert. The desert's sand more resembled fine dust than the beach's large, grainy sediment. Water lapped in from a cove. The cove's shape protected the inner sanctum from turbulent waves traversing the ocean surface. Despite the violence just outside, the cove's calm waters felt peaceful, and Karp relaxed.
Female divers swam in the bay catching the fish that Karp and the local villagers were going to eat for dinner. Villagers usually wore leather pants that fell halfway down their thighs, and sleeveless, open blouses, but since swimming in leathers was dangerous, all the fishers swam naked. The divers speared fish with steel-tipped wooden tridents and loaded the catches into woven grass nets. They were probably catching bass, and Karp looked forward to eating the fresh food. That would be a nice change from the dried fruits and vegetables other taverns sold during difficult times.
Despite enjoying the momentary respite, Karp felt hopelessly lost in her search for new down-shifters.
what signs could i look for to find a new shifter? could those swimmers be shifters? they aren't that old, thirty-five? maybe forty? that's too old to have just become a teenager in the last few years. if the merchant was telling the truth, they couldn't spend too much time in the upper world. could i just ask people questions about the world, and if they are wrong, decide they must be shifters? but how little did i know until a few years ago myself?
Karp sighed and buried her head into her knees, feeling the ocean's fresh breeze flow over her neck. For that second, her mind switched from her search for the princess and shifters and returned to the Traitor's Tavern to when she met Slart and Nort. They would enjoy a blueberry mead, eat spiced lamb, and throw a game at the board. They laughed and smiled and could be happy. She saw all this in her mind's eye, but a dark shadow encroached upon her dream world. The tavern darkened. Nort disappeared, and Slart bawled. The door slammed shut, and The Demon's Wrath stood at the archway leering at Karp.
Karp snapped out of her daydream and lifted her head off her knees. She was in the real world again and suffocating. Her chest tightened, and her breathing slowed. Her breathing became a little more normal when she thought of killing the princess. She calmed herself by indulging in fantasy. Eventually, she felt well enough to let her mind drift back to the present.
Karp looked out to the horizon. A pod of narwhal swam near the limit of Karp's sight. A horned male leaped from the water and splashed back in the waves. A narwhal's blue body bulged like a plump whale, and a long, slender horn protruded from their foreheads. If a shark attacked a narwhal's side, its body's girth and the horn's length made defense useless. Narwhals survived by sacrificing the weaker members. Once the shark started eating the weakling, another narwhal could spear the feasting beast, making the pod stronger.
is that what i should do? find the princess by killing the royal guard until she has to stop me? could i find a shifter that way? ravage the town until they showed themselves? this would probably be the place to do it. what would slart say? of course, i won't. what kind of monster could just use people like that...
Karp sat in the local tavern drinking water with Ban and four survivors of the Bamboo Coast. The inn at the Wyvern's Coast had a throwing board, plank floor, liquor casks lining the sidewalls, and tables and chairs just like any other tavern in the Lush Forest. The tavern's striking difference was that the bar's floor surrounding the barkeep was left completely clear. A raised platform had been built to the bar's left where a small band performed songs in the evening. Minstrels played sea turtle shell lutes, hollowed log drums, and gourd maracas. A singer belted out songs to adoring groups of dancing townsfolk.
The maritime-themed throwing board in the tavern's rear displayed pictures of banal fish, seaweed, turtles, and sharks over most of its surface. Legendary creatures, like mermaids, were hidden in the larger images. A leviathan circled the board's outer edges and commanded a viewer's attention. A flap of undulating skin with coral crisscrossing veins connected its dragonesque head to a serpentine body. Blue and white scales protruded from the leviathan's sleek serpentine body. The leviathan's mouth shot a stream of water instead of fire, as Karp would have expected of a dragon.
Ban had told Karp the legend of the leviathan while they played a game at the throwing board. The leviathan was a wurm large enough to swallow a great white shark or narwhal in one bite. In autumn, it traveled off the southern coast of the Lush Forest. Its water breath destroyed entire villages to clear land for laying eggs. Legend said that when the leviathan first came to the Bamboo Coast, the waves turned crimson from the sea life the leviathan ate. Ignorant villagers stayed in their homes, and a few days later, a tsunami destroyed the houses and decimated the village's population.
The leviathan laid eggs in the village's crater. After incubating for four months, the eggs hatched, and baby leviathan squirmed into the waves and disappeared. Over the next several years, the villagers rebuilt, but in a decade, the sea had turned red again. This time, the villagers fled before the tsunami destroyed their homes. They lost their possessions, but the people survived. The leviathan laid eggs and left, and over time, its young returned to the surf.
A father, son, and grandson all tried to stop the leviathan over the next thirty years. Bon was the most capable fighter from the village. The whole empire knew of his prowess. Each year, he won the emperor's tournament, commanded armies, and served as the Royal Guard's enforcer, which Karp interpreted to mean The Demon's Wrath. The next time the leviathan returned to lay eggs, Bon waited in the decimated village and challenged the monster. The leviathan crushed Bon because even the most capable human was no match for such a massive creature.
Bon's son, Brok, formed a plan for the next time the leviathan came to the Bamboo Coast. Brok hid while the leviathan crashed onto land. Once the leviathan was busying itself laying eggs, Brok leaped from his hiding place and slashed at the beast with his father's dragon fire ax. The ax scratched the leviathan's scales enough to draw a smear of blood, but the leviathan thrashed and killed Brok.
Brok's son, Bron, picked up his father's ax and swore vengeance but was neither powerful like his grandfather nor cunning like his father. When the leviathan returned, Bron fled with the villagers and waited for the leviathan to leave. Then Bron crept back to the village and smashed the eggs. When the spawn didn't hatch and find its mother in the open sea, the leviathan returned. It thrashed at the sight of dead babies and washed away the area again as it departed.
Ten years later, the leviathan returned. Once again, Bron and the villagers fled and waited for the leviathan to depart. Bron snuck back as before, ravaged the remaining eggs, and then fled. Every ten years, the villagers rebuilt, and the leviathan destroyed their homes again. Therefore, the Bamboo Coast's distinctive bamboo houses had evolved for easy construction in order to help the villagers quickly repair after each assault. After seventy years, Bron met the Leviathan as a graybeard. This time, the creature was also nearing the end of its life, and with no surviving spawn, it instinctively didn't care about living anymore. Bron buried his ax into the creature, and its frail scales gave way, and the blow killed the beast. The leviathan heaved its lifeless body on Bron as one last petty act of revenge.
Karp didn't know the legend's source, but some semblance of truth usually permeated local legends, so she assumed that the leviathan represented something else. Karp wondered if leviathan existed in a different world, much like hydra or manticore, but without Nort and his journal, there was no way for her to know for sure. Karp was just glad that not every mystery mattered or needed to be solved, and she focused on her talks with the survivors of the Bamboo Coast.
Balt, Toln, and Kanp were farmers, and Tolf was a fisher; they had all lived in the Bamboo Coast since childhood, even after the empire attacked the village in retribution for the Last Festival.
"do you remember when the sunflower came to the bamboo coast?"
All four nodded. Balt leaned forward. "Yes, of course. It's not the type of thing you could forget, especially after what happened at the Last Festival. He moved in seventeen...eighteen...nineteen? Around twenty years ago. Back then, the Bamboo Coast was just a small farming village, and he came as a young man and built that palace of his. He had all that metal and didn't seem to actually work. So we thought he was some noble's kid. Most of the village treated him like he thought he was better than us.
"When I think back, I can't think of anything, in particular, he did to make us dislike him, so it might have been our own jealousy."
Tolf scoffed. "Didn't do nothing? He looked down on each and every one. He thought we was dumb. Why do you think he built them schools?!"
Kanp giggled. "Well, you do sound dumb. He built those schools ‘cause he thought that might make us like him. He acted tough, but he was desperate for our approval."
Tolf scowled. "What do you know, woman?!"
Ban put her hand across Karp's shoulder to stop her from lunging across the table at Tolf.
"did you ever like him?"
Balt shrugged. "With prosperity comes respect, and I guess that's the closest we ever came."
Karp was confused.
Balt continued with her explanation. "Well, he built those warehouses near his mansion, and soon The Whitecoat and The Manta stopped at our village while journeying to the capital. Their caravans sold wood and metal for extra food and a place to stay. More and more people moved to the village, and eventually, every caravan in the area stopped by. Everyone thought The Whitecoat was responsible, and that really miffed Jorn."
Tolf interrupted. "Aye, it was The Whitecoat, and it didn‘t 'miff' Jorn, it angered 'm. The good for nothing was jealous of The Whitecoat; he coveted everything The Whitecoat had, especially that apprentice of his."
That last part surprised Karp. Toln smirked. "Jorn had this apprentice, a sweet kid, super strong and really fast, but completely incompetent. That boy flailed about when swinging a sword, couldn't block or counter for his life. Korg's apprentice, though, was on her way to becoming a champion fighter, until..."
Karp wondered what The Sunflower would think if he had lived to see her framed for everything that had happened over the last few years. Would he marvel at her rise in popularity and prestige and then laugh at her disgrace?
Toln continued. "...she became The Horse Thief. At least that's what the Royal Guard said when they came back to the Bamboo Coast. They said that she was an accomplice of The Mandrake and that she attacked the Last Festival, burned the Grain Fort, ransacked lords’ keeps, and even attacked the Royal Citadel. They also said that she was responsible for attacking the Bamboo Coast the first time and just blamed the empire.”
Tolf smacked the table with his fist. “That must have been quite a horse, I’d say! And do you actually believe a single word of that?!? A single word?”
Toln stammered and frantically looked around the tavern. “You’re not kidding...well...uh...I mean...yes, of course, I do.”
“who came to the village this time?”
Balt placed her mug on the table. “A throng of Royal Guard with two named shifters. One was The Narwhal, and I’m not sure about the other one. The armor was pretty plain, so it was hard to tell.”
“was it a woman?”
“No, a man. Why?”
"i'm looking for the demon scorpion. i need to talk with her. i have important information about the horse thief.
Everyone at the table looked incredulously at Karp, but if they found her reason suspicious, they kept silent.
Kanp spoke first. "They were holding me in the camp near the schoolhouse. I heard them talking about returning to the Pasture once they finished. They said The Demon Scorpion was near the Royal Mines preparing for something."
"you were near the schoolhouse? who are those children? why are they there?"
"I don't know. I just know they are there to keep someone in line, but we really don't know who. They aren't from the village."
Music started at the front of the hall. String instruments alerted the tavern patrons that the nightly revelry was about to commence. Farmers, merchants, and fishermen left their seats and sauntered to the dance floor. Twangs of turtle lutes quickened, and a deep wooden bass joined in to keep the rhythm. A woman's tenor voice rang over the music, singing of love by the ocean. Dancers' stomping matched and supplemented the music's rhythms. The hall grew too loud to converse, which was okay with Karp because their conversation had become dangerously direct. If the wrong person overheard, it could be disastrous.
Ban and the survivors joined the party in the room's front. To Karp's surprise, Ban grabbed her arms and dragged her along. Ban swung her hips along with the music and even sped up and slowed down with the song's changes. She kept her feet light on the floor, which let her spin and twirl with her arms raised. She changed partners as she flitted across the floor. Several equally agile women brought in and energized the patrons who weren't dancing along.
Ban enticed Karp to dance. Karp tried moving like Ban, but her feet remained planted firmly on the tavern's floor. Her janky, rigid hip motions shot back and forth, wholly asynchronous to the music. She laughed just the same, and a smile crept across her face. Somehow, being terrible at something so trivial made it more fun. The other social dancers made special rounds to see her unique style, and for the first time in months, Karp spent most of the night not thinking about Nort or Tark.