Shift World Book II Chapter 6
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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It had been a few days since Karp had talked with the survivors of the Bamboo Coast and danced to the tavern music. Making a fool of herself in a crowded room of strangers had done wonders for her reputation. Just a short time ago, the villagers of the Wyvern's Cove wouldn't utter a word to her, but now she couldn't walk down the street without running into an admirer or friend. One such woman greeted her today.
"Karp, are you coming to the tavern tonight?"
The young woman giggled and waved. While continuing southeast toward the general store, Karp passed an overflowing school building, and Tolf intercepted her there.
"I want a rematch! Give me a chance to win my two iron back! I just had too much ale, that’s all!”
Karp was tempted to take every piece of iron he owned.
“ok, eep! i don’t know if i’ll win this time! i barely beat you last time, and ugh, if you're even better this time...there's just no way!"
Tolf smiled, content with his chances of winning. "True, true, you're right. So no point in letting good ale go to waste while I wait to play."
Tolf walked off with a goofy grin, and Karp rolled her eyes once he was out of sight. A shadow passed between the huts and followed her every step. The pursuer’s shadow continued stalking Karp until the end of the row of houses. Once Karp passed an alley, the shadow clumsily ran across the street.
The mysterious person peeked out from behind a store's corner but couldn't find the prey. Karp put her head over the girl's right shoulder. "shouldn't you be at school?"
The little girl jumped back, unable to understand how Karp had snuck up from behind so easily. Karp had met the ten-year-old while canvassing the shantytown over the last couple of days. The girl reminded Karp of her younger self. The restless child couldn't concentrate while teachers drawled on about topics that would never help in real life. She would rather stalk a potentially dangerous stranger than study.
"You're really good at that! Ban is better though."
"i've never seen someone that can move like her. i think all the games you play here and working in the rice paddies probably help."
"She said The Paladin taught her."
The girl giggled. "No-body, no-body. Do you really think The Demon Scorpion will help you find your friend?"
In the way the girl avoided questions, Karp saw even more of herself.
"i don't think so, but hopefully tark knows someone that might."
"What? She's so great, how can she not help? The Scorpion beat The Sunflower and killed a dragon! A real dragon! How could she not help?"
"i...i...don't know. not everything can be solved with violence."
At the mention of violence, Karp's grudge toward Tark flared. She felt anger twist her face as she struggled to suppress the feeling. Karp's change in demeanor confused and worried the girl, but Karp's rage broke and turned to shame when she looked into the little girl's eyes, a mirror of herself from a more innocent time. They arrived at the general store, and the girl's interest waned around the mundane.
"I really do hope you find your friend, Karp." The girl waved, and Karp returned the gesture. The child walked away, and Karp entered the store. Most of the townsfolk were now friendly, but still not wholly candid, much like the way the girl had avoided talking about The Paladin. The last few days had taught Karp much about the locals but unfortunately, very little about the Royal Guard or shifters. Her best lead was still traveling to the Royal Mines. To that end, Karp went to the general store to secure supplies for her journey.
Woven grass nets, steel-tipped wooden tridents, and farming implements adorned fixtures lining the walls. These goods had little appeal to travelers like Karp, but locals needed the gear to harvest food. Two small desks sat in the middle of the sales floor. Judging by a thick layer of dust coating the beam connecting the back legs, the desks had been in the store for years. The locals from the Bamboo Coast and the Wyvern's Cove were open and friendly but mostly uneducated and uninterested in reading or any other scholarly pursuits carried out on student desks.
Wooden cases designed to hold the Bamboo Coast's short summer leathers and medium-length winter leathers didn't contain a scrap of material. Cloth outfits were unquestionably too expensive, and besides the steel trident heads, there didn't appear to be metal in the store. Karp greeted Hart at the sales counter. Two nights ago, Hart had challenged her at the tavern's throwing board and had lost badly.
"Hey! So, you finally made it. What do you think?"
"it's very...quaint compared to the trai...my hometown."
Hart pouted but didn't seem surprised. "Yeah, since The Sunflower died and those lords started going missing, convoys to the Ivory Coast haven't been through. Well, I mean, it has, but very little, and they don't have any extra to trade. Then again, I only have bits to sell anyway.”
Dried rice, salt, preserved fish, and seaweed only half-filled miniature food jars under the counter. The entire supply could last a week without rationing and possibly three weeks in a dire situation. Empty jars meant for imported vegetables, fruits, and grain remained a stark reminder of the Lush Forest's weak economy.
"how much for everything?"
Aghast, Karp contemplated the goods’ value. Before The Whitecoat's murder and the empire's instability, forty steel could have bought months’ worth of food. At the Traitor's Tavern, a single steel piece could have purchased this much food, or, since the rice and fish weren't grown locally, it may have cost two.
"how about this?"
Karp pulled a sharpened steel dagger from under her travel cloak and gave it to Hart.
"This isn't forty steel. It couldn't weigh more than twenty!"
"yes, but a sharpened steel blade could sell for thirty. probably more, now that sharpened steel is in high demand."
The store owner thought over Karp's proposition.
"OK. Fine, but when trade starts out of the Traitor's Tavern again, just remember me."
"uh...umm…what? i mean, sure."
Karp and Hart dragged the jars to Karp's hotel room.
Karp took the food jars to her storehouse in the Shift World shortly after Hart left the hotel room. Hart had guessed her hometown was the Traitor's Tavern; Karp hadn’t realized how much Hart knew and didn't want to accidentally say too much. Karp dragged the rice jar to an empty container nestled between similar ones on the far wall. She struggled to lift it high enough to kiss the container's side and slowly dump its contents, but was able to tip the jar further as it lightened. After finishing, she placed the empty pot back on the floor. It then disappeared and was replaced by the jar of dried and salted fish.
Karp shoveled the fish into a jar which usually held beef jerky. The beef had run out, and there wasn't a jar in the storehouse designated to store fish. Once this jar was emptied, she shifted the last pot of harvested seaweed into her storehouse. After returning the cleared jar to her hotel room, she stayed at her storehouse. Her home in the Shift World had stayed in disrepair for too long.
The air stunk of body odor and the tepid water that had flooded her cell in the Crossroads. Her heart raced from the smell, and her mouth felt dry, but it focused her mind on finding the princess. She dragged her body out of her stupor. She sniffed and stepped, trying to find the smell's source. The smell seemed to diminish near the door. After doubling back, she passed the food jars and large cabinets full of armor and weapons and eventually found her way into the back room. The air there reeked of an overwhelming putrescence that could make anyone gag.
Karp held her breath and approached her straw bed. Lack of oxygen forced her to breathe, and the stench again overwhelmed her senses. The wolf pelts covering her straw mattress reeked from months of misuse and degradation. Karp could have cleaned them before now, but she had always felt sickened and angered merely upon entering the storehouse. Karp shifted the pelts to her world and washed them in the inn room's wooden tub.
Karp left the pelts at the inn in her world and walked unencumbered to the main storehouse room's windows. She opened the first window. A hide appeared in her hand, and she hung it over the open window sill. Karp opened two more windows and placed different pelts on the empty sills. The smell of her storehouse lessened with the hides clean and drying in the windows. Karp unbarred the warehouse door and slid it open; human refuse covered the ground outside.
Near the end of Karp's imprisonment, moving far away from the storehouse had become impossible, so she would relieve herself outside after not being able to move any further. Now Karp picked up a shovel and a gallon-sized clay bucket to fill with the night soil. Once full, Karp carried it to a house on the town's outskirts, dug a hole, and dropped in the waste. Karp repeated this procedure until her storehouse was clean of the disgusting mess.
Next, Karp moved to the cabinet that held her practice armor and pulled open the door. She removed a thick set of training leathers. Karp disrobed and picked up the leather pants. The tricky part came after sliding on one of the pant legs. Her right hand pulled up the pants' left side, and she pinned the waist to her thigh with her stump. She lifted the pants' right side and pulled on the whole thing. The leather top draped over her head and simply fell over her body. Dressing in leathers no longer took a long time, but it still felt awkward. Donning armor could wipe her out for hours.
Karp removed a sunshine steel chainmail hauberk and leggings, placed the hauberk on a nearby table, and dropped the leggings in a pile on the ground. She circled the armor while considering the best approach to dressing. After slipping into the chainmail and rotating her leg, one foot popped out of the bottom, and she repeated the process for her other leg. Pulling on the leggings just like the training leathers didn't work. The armor didn't stay still as she pinned it with her left arm, and Karp crashed to the ground. She sighed, wiggling on the leggings while she lay on the ground.
Karp rose and walked back to the hauberk. Her right hand and left arm spread out the armor while her upper body thrust itself inside; she shook her hips until the hauberk slid on. A sunshine steel cuirass from the armor cabinet easily slid on. She had lost so much weight while captive that wearing a piece of armor sized from before her imprisonment gave her plenty of room. Three identical sunshine steel bucklers sat in her armor cabinet. Karp picked up the left buckler, inserted her arm, and clasped it in place. She removed a sunshine steel whip with a dragon fire steel blade.
Karp went outside to practice. The tip flew behind her and then shot forward. The whip shook unsteadily as it moved forward, but Karp regained control and recoiled the weapon, catching the blade on the rebound. She directly threw the whip forward, but after five feet, it slowed as the whip's weight dragged behind instead of propelling it forward. Karp pulled back on the whip's body, and the tip recoiled into her hand. No matter how much more effort she expended, it always lost all momentum after five feet.
Karp again threw the whip behind her and launched the bladed tip forward, and this time, it gained speed as it moved further away. Karp pressed the loose center letter in the whip's handle, and the knife jerked left. She pulled back and lashed it forward again, twisting the handle in the opposite direction, and the blade twisted left in mid-flight. Karp continued practicing until her skill at manipulating the whip became acceptable, and then she returned it to the armor cabinet.
When first imprisoned in the Crossroads, Karp had spent a lot of time in her storehouse. While there, she had developed new weapons based on Shift World technology. For example, she incorporated a throwing dart spring into different forms of useful items. Now, Karp raised her left shoulder, drew her elbow into her body, and flexed her forearm and bicep. Seashell steel shot from the buckler and snapped into place seven inches from an almost-invisible slit in the buckler's face. Karp slashed and stabbed with her left arm, and the blade stayed firmly in place. Karp placed the tip against a wooden post, pressed an invisible button, and pushed into the post. The weapon withdrew and locked under the buckler's face. Karp practiced drawing and retracting the hidden equipment.
After finishing, she returned the buckler to the armor cabinet, setting it down next to its twins. Four seashell throwing knives had been fitted in slots around the outer ring of her old sunshine steel buckler, and Karp wanted to test her skill throwing. She faced a small wooden board hanging off a pillar. Karp aimed for the center of the second circle of three blue hand-drawn circles and threw a knife. Her left arm dropped further than expected, and she fumbled to draw the second knife. The third throw flew more smoothly, and the fourth knife showed drastic improvement.
Each knife landed in the center circle, but not the dead center. With practice, Karp could regain her skill, but she still felt awkward in everything. She retrieved the knives and returned them to the buckler. Satisfied with the training session, Karp returned to the cabinets to remove her armor. She was sure shifting every day to practice, eat, or sleep was the right path for her, and she felt a little foolish for having taken so long to face her past.
Several days later, Karp sat in the tavern, drinking tea and eating seared fish with radishes. Hunched over and picking at her fish dinner, Ban wasn't very engaging company. Dark bags hung low under her eyes, and every motion Ban made clumsily crept across the table, quite unlike her usual quick, precise movements. Ban reached for her mug. Ale shot from the side as she barely managed to stop it from tipping over.
"are you alright?"
"No, not really. I've been up at night trying to infiltrate the royal garrison. Every time I get close, I almost get caught and flee. They are up to something, but I can't tell what. Every move is so erratic."
"what do you mean?"
"They act like they are looking for something, but they are so blasé. I keep trying to find the second shifter that's with The Narwhal, but it's like he's a prisoner. That's why it's so hard to infiltrate. Guards are patrolling all the entrances and exits. I can't get close, but I keep watching for a chance."
"why does that second shifter matter so much to you?"
"Because I need to find out if he is someone important to me."
"important? how so?"
Ban blushed at the question since it was taking a personal turn.
"My fiancé is missing. He's from the Creeping Ice, and one day, he came back here, and something happened. I saw him, and he was miserable and wouldn't answer my questions. That's when I decided to come back to find answers. A few days later, the Royal Guard appeared in the Village of the Wyvern's Coast. I've been stalking the guard looking for clues but haven't found any."
"you think that second shifter will know what happened?"
Ban bit her lip. "Not exactly. It really isn't that simple..."
"is it the paladin?"
Ban choked on a sip of ale. "You know about The Paladin?"
"he's the one who taught you to sneak, right?"
"Well yes...but he's more than that... You don't seem to know. He was an apprentice of The Whitecoat."
"Yeah. His famous apprentice was Karp of the Traitor's Tavern, but he actually had three."
"Yes, The Scorpion, The Water Drake, and The Paladin. The Scorpion is well known here in the Lush Forest. The Water Drake and The Paladin are famous...elsewhere."
"how do you know so much?"
"I've lived in places outside of here in the Lush Forest, but little information travels between these regions and worlds."
The tavern's main doors flung open, and a bloodied woman stumbled inside and crashed upon the dance floor. Ban jumped from her seat and ran to the sprawled-out woman.
Karp joined Ban to hear the response.
"Stabbed! Twitching, mumbling Royal Guard scout, trying to look into the tavern. I asked what they were doing, they panicked, got a better look. I think Tron from Bamboo Coast, but he disappeared years ago."
Without a sound, Karp snuck from the tavern and crept to her room at the adjacent inn. She donned her travel cloak and returned her possessions to the Shift World. She placed a handful of iron and steel coins on a table as payment for the lodging. She exited the inn and walked past the tavern, intending to flee town before the guard member ransacked the village. Ban shouted from inside. "Get her out of here! Get the town clear! Now!"
The townsfolk scattered without question or hesitation. Ban darted out the front door, and Karp secretly followed her; the pair ran past shanties and standard houses to the edge of town. The Narwhal and a small contingent of soldiers had entered the outskirts, so Karp and Ban hid among shacks between buildings. The Narwhal stepped forward with her lance in hand. Ban finally noticed Karp and whispered, "What are you doing?"
"i'm fleeing town. if i don't, something terrible will happen."
Ban looked incredulously at her. "I think it's too late for that."
The Narwhal stepped forward. "The Village of the Wyvern's Coast has been found guilty of treason for the crime of aiding and abetting Karp the Horse Thief. By royal decree, your lives and possessions are forfeit!"
Karp looked to Ban, but she stared up the street past the Royal Guard. Karp followed her eyes and saw a red blur moving toward the rice paddies outside of town. Ban stepped into the street and shifted from her leathers into a set of hardened leather armor with seashell plates embedded in the chest, shoulders, biceps, forearms, and thighs. Water steel ringed the seashell plates. A water steel dagger hung on Ban's hip with what looked like a blue wingless wyvern on the scabbard. The wyvern's tail wrapped down and around the dagger's sheath with a style similar to the gate at the Wyvern's Cove. Ban stepped from behind her cover.
Before Karp could process what had happened, Ban was sprinting in pursuit of the second shifter deployed with The Narwhal. Ban ran past The Narwhal, but The Narwhal didn't seem to care about her. Half a dozen of The Narwhal's guards broke off in pursuit.
a shifter? what was that thing on the dagger's sheath? is ban the water drake? a down-shifter from the other world, maybe?
The Narwhal spoke to her cackling minions. "Take the valuables in town and kill everyone you see."
The rabble broke away and headed toward the shanties and houses that dotted the village's outer ring.
do i hunt ban and see if she can take me to nort, or do i fight the narwhal and make her take me to tark?
The Royal Guard reached the first shanty and hacked through the outer wall with their axes and blades. Screams emanated from inside. The guards swung and laughed with a maniacal cadence that was familiar to Karp but scared her as well. The wall cracked and collapsed. A small child joined the chorus of screams. The Royal Guard picked up bamboo shards and threw them to the side in order to find the people hiding under the rubble.
the guard won't just give up tark, and ban is a long shot. i could hurt tark, though... but i don't know... what about hart? what about sari? the villagers that have been so nice to me? ah! but.what.about.tark!?
A decision was made.
A spear had landed at Karp's feet while she was spaced out with indecision. Karp sighed and shifted into her sunshine steel armor with a sunshine whip on her side. Karp faced The Narwhal and her cronies.
"stop! you found me! i'm the horse thief! leave the townsfolk alone; they didn't know who i was!"
The Royal Guard, who were ransacking the collapsed shack, stopped and walked closer to where Karp made her stand. The pronouncement seemed to have shocked The Narwhal but she regained herself. "Ummm...yes...uh...good...we found you..."
The Royal Guards from the outer shanties converged on Karp. The guard closest to Karp barked out a warning. "We'll not let you get in the way of our freedom!"
Another guard joined his comrade. "We'll be free before you! You're in the way!"
Both Karp and The Narwhal ignored the chanting, screaming, and laughing guard members.
"where is the princess?"
Danil turned her nose up at the question. "I have no idea..." Danil hesitated for a moment. "I can take you to meet her if you want..."
"that's not going to happen."
Six guards remained with The Narwhal after another six had fled in pursuit of Ban when she bounded for the rice paddies. The guards wore hardened studded leathers covering their necklines to the ends of their fingers, and to the tips of their toes. Dragon fire helms protected their heads and gave them the distinctive look of the Royal Guard. Two of the guards carried bastard swords, which were longer than a typical short sword but far more wieldy than a long sword. Several spears were strapped onto the back of one guard. She had already thrown one at Karp and missed, which meant her skill was more that of a rookie than a veteran. A large man wielded a war hammer that could kill a fully armored warrior in one solid strike. Another man carried an ax, and the final guard carried a dull mace and small round shield.
Dragon fire steel chainmail covered The Narwhal from head to toe. Dragon fire gauntlets and boots protected her hands and feet while a dragon fire cuirass covered her shoulders, chest, back, and stomach. A whale covered the entire front of the cuirass breastplate. A dragon fire steel helm protected The Narwhal's head but didn't cover her face or neck. A six-foot-long lance made of intertwined seashell steel shafts appeared in The Narwhal's hand. She swung the lance, and it clumsily landed on her shoulder.
Karp assessed The Narwhal's weaknesses. Her neck and face were exposed, but her lance was large enough to cover the area while fighting. The rest of her body would be vulnerable, but Karp couldn't penetrate dragon fire steel cleanly, and her whip would only chip away at the armor.
The spear woman stepped toward Karp and reached for another spear strapped to her back. Karp tossed a throwing knife from her buckler at the woman's neck. Blood bubbled from her mouth, and she crashed to the ground. The remaining guard tightened their grips around their weapons. Karp threw a pop gourd at a boulder sitting just in front of the warriors. The regular Royal Guard looked away in unison, and The Narwhal moved her lance in front of her face and neck. Karp sprung forward as the gourd drifted.
Karp stopped ten feet before the large hammer wielder, threw her whip behind her, shot it forward, and closed her eyes just in time for the gourd to smash the rock and detonate. As the residual from the blast disappeared, Karp's bladed whip pierced the tall warrior's chest and withdrew in a mist of blood that slickened the leather. Karp shifted, and the coiled whip returned to the holder on her right, and throwing darts lined the left part of her belt. The hammer bearer fell to the dirt next to his weapon, and Karp fled. During her retreat, a dart flew from across her body at the mace wielder.
The dart's tip barely breached his thick leathers, and he knocked the devices free from his left arm. He stepped forward and staggered because even though the dart didn't penetrate the whole length of the needle, it had pierced his skin. Karp threw all the remaining darts at her target, and one penetrated his thigh, chest, and right arm. Each of his attempts to block or deflect an incoming dart was hopeless. The mace wielder staggered, crossing one foot over the other. His steps quickened as his upper body lowered, and then his momentum brought him down to the dirt, and he stopped moving.
Karp shifted to replenish her darts. The two sword bearers separated and moved to flank Karp, who threw a volley of darts at the fighter to her right. Unlike the mace wielder, the swordsman easily deflected the incoming darts. Karp retreated to avoid being attacked from both sides. She ran to hide between houses at the edge of town. The swordsmen cautiously approached the dilapidated structures. The first guard walked between the shanties, and a knife penetrated his chest just inside the maze of homes, and he dropped dead.
The second guard lifted her sword to her chest and stalked around the structures. She arrived at a collapsed shanty where a woman and child lay trapped. The guard saw Karp bending with her back, trying to lift the piled bamboo, to push it off the ground so that the people could escape. The guard lunged and stabbed through Karp and into the wall. Karp's image wavered with the sword protruding from her chest. No blood ran from what should have been a gaping wound since it was only an image of Karp. Karp drew a seashell steel dagger and lunged for the warrior.
The swordswoman spun and caught Karp's inbound arm and flung her against the side of bamboo. The seashell dagger fell from Karp's hand, and the guard threw her to the ground. The guard stepped on Karp's hand, which not only prevented her from shifting but prevented her from drawing a weapon. The swordswoman picked up Karp's seashell dagger and bent over to gloat.
"Now that I have you, I'll turn you in, hehe, and then I'll be free, ha ha ha."
Karp's left arm flailed, but the swordswoman paid the arm no mind since Karp couldn't hold a weapon. Karp drew her left arm into her body, flexed her bicep, and rolled her shoulder. A seashell steel blade slid from her buckler and snapped into place. Karp plunged the dagger into the fighter's neck, and blood choked the laughter. The pressure eased off of Karp's neck, and the woman dropped on top of her. Karp pushed her off and kicked the body. She shifted, and the buckler appeared as an ordinary shield again.
Karp walked to the collapsed hut, pulled out the water steel short sword, and it disappeared. A weak voice emanated from the shanty. "Help us...please."
"i'm going to push the bamboo off the ground, and when i do, crawl out, ok?"
Karp put her back under the pile of bamboo and pushed. She strained and grunted, and the stack lifted two feet off the ground. First, a little boy was pushed through the opening, and he staggered a few feet, crying. Next, a woman dragged herself from the rubble. Her upper body breached the ruin Karp held up, and Karp weakened. The woman pulled harder while dragging a limp, broken leg. The woodpile moved and then collapsed, just missing the woman. Her uninjured leg held up the bulk of her weight, and the boy helped steady his mother. Karp picked up two pieces of bamboo, returned them to the Shift World, and brought back a pair of makeshift crutches. Karp handed them to the injured woman.
"Thank you for staying to help us."
"just get out of here."
The woman and boy hobbled away, and Karp inspected the swordswoman's body. The leathers were surprisingly shabby for the Royal Guard. Studded leather should prevent severe damage from steel for a little while, but Karp's darts had easily penetrated the material. The steel studs were spaced too far apart. Without metal interlaced in the leather, the armor’ gave way as quickly as regular leather. Karp picked up the guard's helmet and was surprised at the weight. The helmet should have been much lighter than Karp's but felt about the same as her sunshine steel. The helm disappeared from Karp's hand.
Karp walked to the other fallen guard who had died just inside the shantytown and picked up his dropped seashell steel sword. It disappeared. Although his leathers were better maintained than the female warrior’s, the quality was still far below Tark's Dragon Guard in The Grand’s Meadow. Karp’s knife popped free with a wet crunch when pulled from his chest. She removed his helm, which was much heavier than her own. Karp returned the helmet to her storehouse in the Shift World, and it also disappeared.
Karp walked back toward the clearing where three corpses and The Narwhal were. Explosions rang from rice paddies, and both Karp and The Narwhal faced the fields for a moment and then returned to each other. Karp walked toward the mace wielder’s body.
"who’s the down-shifter with you?"
Karp patted the body, partially looking for darts and partially assessing the armor. It was as weak and in disrepair as the swordsmen’s was from the alley. The first dart disappeared.
"I don’t know what you’re talking about."
Karp looked for the second dart with exaggerated arm movements with her left arm. She patted the ground to find the mace and shifted it back to her storehouse. Her left forearm tapped a dart, and her right hand came across to grab it and return it to her storehouse.
"don’t play dumb. those explosions were from powers. that shifter you were with is from the upper world, aren’t they?”
Karp found the last dart and returned it to the Shift World. She got up and walked between the body and The Narwhal. Karp discreetly took the helmet and shifted it back to the Shift World while The Narwhal couldn’t see.
"Is that what you meant? Yes, there was a shifter with me that could use powers."
Karp walked to the spear woman to find her throwing knife. The Narwhal strafed away from the body and raised her lance in a defensive stance.
"thank you for sending them one at a time. that made surviving a lot easier.”
Karp pulled her knife from the corpse’s neck, and her spare spears disappeared when Karp shifted the dagger back to her storehouse.
"For some reason, The Demon’s Wrath wants you to live. It takes longer for you to fight one at a time, and I was buying time for everyone else to arrive."
The Narwhal motioned up the street where two columns of Royal Guard soldiers were passing under the Wyvern’s Gate.
“I even let you loot the bodies to bide more time. Now just come quietly.”
Karp threw a dart at The Narwhal’s face, and she flinched, but it bounced off her lance. “i’m not done yet!”
Karp rushed to the fallen war hammer wielder, and she picked up his water steel weapon and red helm, and they disappeared. Karp ran further into town to avoid the mass of guards that now had reached The Narwhal.
Karp hid with her back against one of the traditional houses. The Narwhal shouted from the town’s outskirts. “We’ll find you even if we have to search every house!”
Guards entered houses and ransacked them. None of them remained outside because it would never occur to them that someone would do anything other than cower. Karp followed a pair into a house. The guards rifled through drawers before knocking over cabinets. They grabbed leathers hanging from hooks and threw them on the floor. They scoured walls for hidden panels. Karp whistled, and the two guards cautiously turned.
Karp drew a throwing knife from her buckler and impaled the first guard, downing him instantly. The second knife dispatched the remaining guard in the same manner. Karp took the first guard’s seashell steel sword and the second guard’s sunshine daggers and returned the weapons to her storehouse. She shifted their helms back to the Shift World, too. Another guard burst into the house and startled Karp. A spring-loaded buckler with its weapon drawn shifted onto her arm. Karp leaped and dug the newly forged water steel blade through the guard's heart.
Karp looted the body and shifted away the gear. Karp’s surprise from the guard had blinded her to him shutting the door on the way in. She moved to the exit and grabbed the handle, but an unseen obstacle was barricading it shut. Karp put her ear to the door and heard a slight whistle. Her eyes widened, and she dove just in time for The Narwhal’s lance to puncture the sidewall and collapse half of the house. Karp reached the far end of the bungalow and jumped through the open shutters just before the rest of the house collapsed.
Guards waited outside and attacked as Karp approached. She ran through a gap between two of the guards, and they buzzed and bumped together as they followed her. Reaching the path near the town’s entrance, where The Narwhal had ambushed her the first time, Karp saw that thirty guards now waited instead of five. The pursuing guards arrived, circled, laughed, and slashed as Karp dodged in the center, looking for a way to break free. The Narwhal spoke from the rear.
"The princess’s orders: you’re going back to your tower, and you’ll stay there till you die, but you won’t be alone. Slart will be nearby. She’ll be so close that you can shout to each other, and both of you will shout and shout…until you can't."
Karp swung her water steel dagger wildly at the blades and spears that danced around her. She had no hope of fending off the onslaught indefinitely. Attack any one person, and the ring would collapse, capturing her. Thinking of the tower and the princess so enraged Karp that thinking about escape became impossible. She could only think of being free.
if i find the princess and kill her, i'll be free. the demon's wrath will free me. the demon's wrath is the only one that can, and he will as long as i do what he wants.
Karp felt her face tighten as a grin spread and she tried to stifle a laugh; a low rumbling emanated from the fields, and Karp snapped out of her daze. Just outside of Karp's view, a pair of tunnels lurched in from the direction of the explosions that Karp had heard while facing off with The Narwhal. She stood straight, calmed herself, and slowly breathed. The guards continued to swipe near her, but none of them even tried to land a blow. Some of the guards slacked and looked confusedly at The Narwhal when their farce was no longer eliciting a response from Karp.
The rumbling reached the ring of guards, and a dirt mound collided with the back of a guard's knee. The guard stumbled and peered down at the three-foot-tall dirt mound. A mouth of jagged, snarled teeth popped out and closed around the guard's upper body. The teeth bit straight through the weak leather armor and broke the guard in half. A few moments later, the mutated ugly biter leaped from the ground and swallowed the lower half.
The guards abandoned their ring around Karp and formed a buffer between The Narwhal and the mutated fish. These ugly biters were much larger than the ones Karp had seen in the rice paddies. Luminescent green pustules glowed and oozed over their bodies. The creatures were typically gross, but the ones changed by shifter magic were downright nauseating. Cherry red glowing eyes disappeared as a body jerked back below the soil's surface. These biters were more aggressive compared to the regular biters who waited in the shallows for food to stumble past. The biter continued to the group, jumped, and bit another guard in half.
Karp used the opportunity to flee into the rice paddies, as the ugly biters dismembered and ate the crazed soldiers. The guards tried to fend off the monsters, but a biter jumped forward and bit another one. The guard died screaming as the biter thrashed loose a piece of flesh. At that moment, The Narwhal impaled one. The lance picked up the mutant, continued another twenty yards, and struck the side of a building hard enough to collapse the whole frame. The Narwhal faced the guards.
"Follow her! Make her remember to hate the princess!"
Karp ran along the raised dirt paths that separated the rice paddies northwest of the town. The Royal Guard followed close behind. Some guards ran along the elevated tracks, and others splashed through the muddy rice fields. Occasionally, guards running through the marsh bumped into regular ugly biters, and the fish lurched up and bit their leggings. The fish's teeth drew blood, but the dried, cracked studded leather prevented lethal damage.
Two three-foot-tall mounds rose before Karp, passed her, and approached the running horde splashing through the water. The first ugly biter reached an unsuspecting guard and burst through the groundwater, taking his legs. His upper body screamed in pain until a second swallowed it. The Royal Guard members continued to pursue Karp, but they hurried onto the paths to avoid the monsters obscured in water. The unseen menaces harassed the guards, undaunted by their higher ground. Some guards broke off pursuit to fight, but Karp's money was on the mutated creatures outlasting the harried, sadistic guards.
Karp continued up the path toward the shifter's explosions' origin. A field poxed by deep, wide divots told the story of a great struggle of powers. The shifter had thrown bolts or fireballs that raked the ground, but there were no corpses, dead ugly biters, or any other signs of a struggle. Karp looked for clues as to the shifter's fate. Encroaching fighters drew closer, but she didn't want to leave without finding a lead.
A foot-tall frog splashed into the bog near Karp. The frog was ten times larger than usual, and its dull green had changed to a camouflaged pattern of red, brown, green, and orange. The frog lashed Karp's buckler with its barbed tongue. A streak of acrid smelling slime smeared across the piece of armor. Karp scrunched her nose in disgust. The frog jumped away, and Karp sliced the bouncing mutant out of the air with her whip. Then she decided to leave the field before the guards caught up and overtook her.
Several frogs splashed into the water, watching Karp sprint toward the woods on the side of the rice paddy. Karp was almost at the edge when a frog's tongue clipped just under the sunshine steel plate on the back of her hand and ripped through her glove, scratching her skin. The cut flesh burned.
Karp reached the edge of the woods feeling sick and dizzy. Everything in view glowed neon shades of their natural hues, even though the dull moonlight should have painted the landscape an uninspired gray. Tree bark flashed and pulsed between green and brown, and the edges appeared in glowing shades of orange and purple. Karp placed a hand on a tree and felt an unusual sharpness. The bark undulated between coarse sandpaper and sharpened thorns. Karp pulled her hand away from the pricks, but her glove was still on, unblemished, and the tree had not cut her hand. The trees laughed and bent over to look at Karp. The branches swayed, and Karp returned the wave. A smile crept across her warm face where skin stretched across her cheekbones and around her lips. Karp pushed her way through bushes that giggled. The bushes' thin branches rubbed against Karp's side, and she laughed alongside the foliage.
Karp emerged into a quaint field with flickering blue reeds swaying in the night's light breeze. The plants danced just like the patrons at the Village of the Wyvern's Cove's tavern. Karp might have enjoyed the warm, pleasant feeling if she weren't at risk of being discovered and killed. A realization hit her of how far her mind was from sane, rational, and focused.
Karp stumbled from the forest and landed on the main trade route. She shifted to her storehouse and waited for the poison to complete its course and then, returned to her world. It took several days for the toxin to run its course. The poison made her so hyperactive that her storehouse had fallen into disrepair, and she would need to spend ages cleaning the mess. Still, her focused mind now understood the surrounding danger.
She needed to flee town. The Narwhal and her Royal Guard knew her location. Losing the element of surprise meant that there was nothing more to gain from staying. Karp decided to travel to the Pasture since The Narwhal and her shifter friend came from that area, which meant either the princess or possibly the shifter would be headed back there. Karp would bring the fight to their home turf.
Karp looked back into the forest before heading down the trade route. As she had suspected would happen, the weakened Royal Guard now groped trees or danced in the reeds. Some even sat on the ground staring into space. She laughed, thinking about the guards' pleasant, terrifying, and likely messy next couple of days. Karp shifted into a travel cloak to conceal her appearance and moved up the road.