Shift World I Book II Chapter 8
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Karp stood in the road before the Village of the Rebels' Mine, pondering the state of the village's gate. Pa and Ma's friend had burned the gate years ago when he departed, and all that remained were the bases of two charred pillars. The crumbling pillar tops had splintered in the dry air. Even though villagers had cleared the bulk of debris from the road, they hadn’t replaced the fractured landmark.
i bet the empire made up a story about the gate, just like they did with the founder's day festival. the royal family probably tells people “the burned-out gate represents the embers of infidelity that were extinguished at the first council” or some other nonsense.
Karp strolled through the wrecked gate and headed for the town center. She had always viewed the world through the lens of her personal circumstances. Karp had imagined that her past had included the worst of life, but the search for the princess was teaching her that the main trade route had been the empire's best. The Village of the Traitor's Tavern, the Grain Fort, the Milling Town, and the villages that dotted the main trade route were affluent compared to the rest of the Lush Forest. Those villagers lived in sturdy wooden houses, ate ample food, and enjoyed amenities that required wealth to purchase. In contrast, most of the Pasture lived like the refugees in the Wyvern's Cove.
Except for the tall roofs near the Rebels' Mine's center, all of the residences were single-room wooden shanties. Thin wooden slats covered the rooftops instead of straw or tile. The slats didn't insulate or protect from the wind but only blocked the sun. Wooden walls blocked the shacks’ insides from prying eyes, but Karp could punch through the exterior with her bare hand if she wanted. Coal dust colored the walls light gray.
Coal dust also covered the houses, tools, water barrels, and outhouses sitting along the street. It covered the villagers themselves, too. Gaunt villagers with tinted gray skin strolled down the road. Karp shuddered at their resemblance to skeletons but smiled at an irreverent thought.
there can't be an open flame in this whole village. with all this dust, if one thing caught, everything would burn.
Karp arrived at the town center. The tavern, inn, and general store were the only decent buildings in the village. Thick wooden panels covered the multistory exteriors. Karp moved to the bar and pushed her way inside. Coal-dust-covered workers quietly ate corn and bread at wobbling tables. Except for large wine casks near the front and a throwing board in the corner, Karp would have guessed the building was actually a meeting hall and not a place people traveled to in order to enjoy themselves.
The throwing board was fire-themed; coal-related pictures, fire monsters, and miners covered its four-meter-high surface. An intricately embellished hearth in the shape of an asaghi's face with the hearth's flame resting in its mouth dominated the board's center. Stone wings spread from the hearth's corners to the board's edges. Coal miners carrying picks and pails cowered from the hearth's imposing visage in the lower half of the board. Smoke rose from the hearth's plume and danced into images of a dragon, asaghi, and devil.
Karp skulked to the bartender, who was restocking empty mugs in front of wine casks.
"do you know if there are empty rooms at the inn?"
Karp's presence startled the bartender, but he calmed after assessing she was no threat. "There are a few."
"are there many visitors these days?"
"There are a few."
is this how the whole conversation is going to go?
"is there any news on the horse thief?"
The bartender looked Karp up and down. "That must have been quite a horse, for all this trouble. I don't understand the big deal."
i really hope that the rest of the miners share his nonchalance.
"i've heard that the royal family has a place near here. is that true?"
"In a sense. There is the Royal Resort; you get there by heading west until the grass ends. Once it does, head south along the lightning stone, and you'll find it."
Karp had already pressed her luck and didn't want to draw more attention. "i'll take a meal and a mug of wine."
"That'll be five... Wait a minute, you're that...Spark, aren't you? The one who works for Ma and Pa?"
"One steel is fine. Tell them I said hello."
Karp swallowed her surprise and placed a steel piece on the counter. "of course."
Karp walked to an empty seat against the wall on the tavern's floor so that she could see the other patrons. A few minutes later, the bartender brought lamb stew with corn and potatoes. The wine, weak in both flavor and alcohol, showed signs of having been watered down. Between each bite and sip, Karp inspected the other patrons, but most people seemed unaffected by her presence. Upon finishing the soup, Karp pushed up from the table, walked to the door, and exited.
Karp wanted to rest, but memories of the last town propelled her past the inn and deeper into the village. She continued toward the mountains and moved beyond the shanties that marked the town proper. Karp hid behind a small shack when rows of miners passed by as they were returning from work. Karp shifted a tan riding cloak into her hands and rubbed the garment against the shack's side. Coal dust and soot clung to the leather, and Karp threw it on to better blend in, or at least obscure her identity.
Another row of workers exited the mine before Karp returned to the road. She hid again after seeing a soot-covered behemoth strolling down the street. He carried a thirty-kg steel hammer with as much effort as Karp used when walking with a staff. Despite not wearing armor, Karp recognized Rong the Turtle flanked by miners and debated about following him; in the end, she decided to check the mines instead. After Rong and the miners passed, Karp stepped into the road. Within a few minutes, she stood with her back to the wall just outside of the entrance, listening to the emanating sounds.
Hammers smashed stone, and the strikes cried through caverns. The mine's mouth spewed a cacophony of crashes and sang a language Karp couldn't understand. She peeked inside. The mine's workers were out of sight down a winding path. She stepped into the opening and gingerly walked to crates lining the cave's wall. Picks, hammers, or possibly blasting powder would not have been surprising, but steel weapons and studded leather armor filled the containers instead. The goods in isolation were inexplicable, but The Turtle's presence made the out-of-place gear make more sense. But Karp still couldn't comprehend why one of Tark's Dragon Guard were playing at being miners.
Karp headed west along the mountains. The grass at the Village of the Rebels' Mine wasn't lush or well-formed, but after an hour, patches of dying brown were all that covered the destitute ground. Karp tried picking up several blades of grass, but the dried foliage only disintegrated. Ten minutes later, the soil changed from lightly packed dirt into a glassy mix of compact clay that wasn't entirely sand or stone. A cracked, inhospitable wasteland stretched to the skyline. Smoke plumes from active volcanoes rose above the horizon, and Karp gagged from the acrid sulfur stench. The volcanoes themselves loomed out of sight but caused the Pasture's heat, the Arid Desert's dryness, and the Lush Forest's temperate weather.
Continuing west toward the volcanoes meant suicide, so Karp turned south and skirted the line between glassy rock and dirt. No edible plants or animals lived that far west, and more importantly, no trees or structures could supply shade. Sweat dripped from her brow as she walked. Karp returned her leather riding coat to the Shift World and frequently shifted to her storehouse to drink and rest in the shade during the two-hour trip south.
A compound loomed in the distance, and Karp lowered herself as she surveyed the area. A yeti-skin riding cloak shifted onto Karp because the light tan leather blended well with the dried dirt before the glassy rock. Karp lay prone with her lower body flat and her elbows on the ground. In this position, she pulled herself arm over arm until the compound's layout was close enough to make out.
A wooden stake fence ringed the facility. Ten-foot-by-three-foot stakes resembled panels used for building a lord's manor, and Karp guessed they were several inches thick. Guard towers loomed over the walls facing the main road. The guards stood at their posts in leathers with red helmets and surveyed the expanse of smooth ground that stretched from the glassy rock's edge into the rest of the Lush Forest. The guards never turned to watch the volcanoes, which meant that Karp could infiltrate from the west.
Karp lay in the dirt, waiting for the sunset to allow her to approach obscured by darkness. During the tedious hours Karp lay in the dust, the guards never abandoned their posts or had a break without relief. Their impressive level of diligence meant that she faced a much higher caliber of guard than the fighters at the Wyvern’s Cove. Shortly before sunset, a caravan approached. The caravanners all wore studded leather and the red helms of the Royal Guard except for one woman at the head who wore a dragon fire breastplate and chainmail.
The caravan's leader approached the gate and shouted, but the guards didn't balk from their post. The leader became impatient at their hesitation, and her body language changed from indifferent to menacing. The woman held a massive seashell steel lance aloft. The Guard shouted an inaudible command, and the gates creaked open. The caravan entered pulling horse-drawn wagons of food pots, clay water jugs as large as the shanties from the Rebels' Mine, and knee-high chests. The main gate shut after the last of the Royal Guard entered.
Karp intensely watched the tower guards until sunset. Lightning flashed over Karp's right shoulder, and a bolt struck the ground inside the glassy rock. The bolt's impact area glowed with a heat that melted sand into a slick puddle. Another bolt struck the expanse before the glass solidified. The bolts continued through sunset with no sign of slowing.
An hour after dark, the guards disappeared off their posts, and Karp snuck to the Royal Resort. She ran, hoping to reach the outer wall before the guards returned. Her steps fell with increasing desperation, but she didn't make a sound. The closer to the compound, the more the tension eased. Karp made it to the wall without incident, but her concern about being discovered if the guards would return still lingered. She hugged the wall and crept to the western edge.
Karp stepped a few feet from the wall and surveyed the barrier. She shifted into her sunshine steel armor with a whip in hand. The whip's blade spun, flying over the wall with a flick of her wrist. The whip's thin end sunk between vertical slats and stopped on a crossbeam. Karp pulled, but it held fast. She ascended, but a strange noise halted her movement. The planks creaked and snapped. Karp pushed off the wall, swung away and released her whip, flying and tumbling just in time to dodge the seashell lance that soon obliterated the planks. The wall's lower section collapsed, and The Narwhal and her minions stepped through the wreckage.
Karp abandoned her whip and fled into the wasteland. She shifted to her storehouse and rested when her sprinting began to slow. Within ten minutes, only The Narwhal was still within sight, but she was slowly gaining on Karp. Lightning flashed, blinding the pair. On the next blast, Karp threw a gourd with white paint on the top. The Narwhal recovered from the lightning blast and lifted her arms to block at the last second. The pop gourd cracked open, and a flash of bright white light spewed forth.
The light didn't blind The Narwhal, but her flinch gave Karp a chance to increase the span between them by a few steps. Within a few minutes, though, The Narwhal had closed the gap again, and Karp threw another gourd with a white painted top. The Narwhal flinched but wasn't blinded, and Karp only received a short reprieve. Karp threw another white-topped gourd, and this time The Narwhal closed her eyes and sprinted through the gourd, so Karp hadn’t bought herself any time. Karp stopped running and drew the blade from her buckler. After twenty minutes of this game, none of the Royal Guards even lagged nearby.
"i guess we need to end this."
Lightning crashed around the warriors. The Narwhal's seashell steel lance appeared in her hands. Deafening bolts clambered around the ground, arcing from strike to strike, and Karp eyed the pattern.
"how did you know i was coming?"
The Narwhal laughed. "Those guards look at the same empty expanse every day and have for years. They noticed when a lump appeared today. That's why they gave me a hard time when I came back. They thought I might have been with you."
"i thought they would come for me if they noticed, and it would be easy to run away."
"That's why we waited”.."
Lightning arced around the sky. Karp watched to understand its pattern. The Narwhal had a condescending smirk. "Don't think the lightning is going to save you. It chooses its own path."
"i just needed to separate you from your pod."
Karp threw a gourd with a painted red top toward The Narwhal, who lifted her lance to protect her neck and face.
"You never learn..."
"yes, i do."
The Narwhal closed her eyes as the gourd hit her chest. The blast gourd tore open and rang out with a booming explosion as the blasting powder-filled gourd ignited. The shock wave wrenched The Narwhal's arm from her body and collapsed her breastplate into her chest cavity. Blood rushed from The Narwhal's ears, and she dropped to the ground. The Narwhal's remaining arm clutched at her body, twitching. Her eyes rolled into her skull. The explosion had liquefied her brain, and her body only needed to realize it had already died.
Karp dropped to her knees beside her foe, and tears ran down the sides of her cheeks. There was an inexplicable sadness in killing a follower of The Demon's Wrath, and guilt filled her heart. She thought the passing would have been instant and painless. No one deserved such a protracted death, even someone as terrible as The Narwhal. Karp stuck her dagger in a hole that was ripped into the breastplate and pushed until the blade destroyed The Narwhal's heart and her body went limp. Karp solemnly rose and retrieved the bloody lance.
The lance disappeared, and Karp's armor changed from sunshine steel into seashell steel. The whole set, except for her buckler and dragon fire steel dagger, was identical to what she had worn before her fight with the merchant and her abduction by The Demon's Wrath. Her buckler had re-formed in seashell steel instead of dragon fire steel, which meant the weaker metal couldn't protect her as well, but the new uses for it might be enough to keep her safe. Karp couldn't stand looking at The Narwhal's corpse and didn't have time to salvage her dragon fire armor. She ran back toward the compound, never wanting to see something that cruel again.
Karp doubled back to the breached wall after finishing with The Narwhal. She grabbed her whip's handle and threw the end over the wall where it still hung. The blade popped free and fell just inside the compound. Karp crept through the breach and retrieved her weapon. Caution was required because she didn't know if the whole garrison had chased her through the glassy rock. The warriors that did chase her wouldn't be back for at least an hour since The Narwhal's body was an hour's run from the compound for non-shifters.
Karp checked the horizon just as a lightning bolt illuminated the wall's face, showing an idyllic landscape. Wheat fields stretched before a blue background dotted with light gray clouds. The image faded into the obscurity of darkness until another bolt lit up the sky, and then the image returned. People stood in the wheat field, collecting the harvest with wide smiles. Larger-than-life people looked on intently from the wall's corners.
a lot of effort went into decorating a wall that the royal family would only see a few times in their lives.
Karp skulked along by large warehouses that lined the compound's main road. Windows so small a person could barely stick out their forearm sat every ten feet. Karp imagined that with so many windows, the area's intense sunlight could completely light the interior during the daytime. One of the warehouses had a barred entrance. Karp crept to the door and inspected the intersecting steel crossbeams. A heavy iron lock hung from the crossbars. Security for the building was predicated on an intruder creating enough noise to alert local guards. However, since they were likely still chasing Karp in the fields, she wasn't worried.
Karp released her buckler's water steel blade and sliced the iron lock in half; it dropped to the dirt. After watching for approaching guards that never showed, Karp entered. Individual rooms barely large enough for a bed honeycombed the warehouse. Round holes one inch in diameter lined the walls, ceilings, and ground just outside the out-coves. Karp removed her glove and slid a finger inside. A metal shard pricked her, and she jerked her hand away.
Karp entered a two-by-five-meter cell. A knee-high nightstand sat next to a single-person straw mattress on a light wooden frame. A leather teddy bear with a single stone eye watched over the room. Karp picked up the bear, and paper slid around inside it. She felt the toy's seams and found a gap in the stitching, inserted two fingers, and fished for scrolls. Her fingers grasped the papers' edges, yanking them out of the seams, and then she rolled out the hidden documents on a nightstand.
The pages chronicled a captive's tortured mind. On the top scroll, water stains streaked an image of a little girl drawn in coal dust. Karp pushed aside that paper; the next one depicted a small farmhouse with a family standing at the door. Next, the house burned as soldiers watched. Karp flipped to the next. In that one, skeletons lay in the wreckage as soldiers dragged away a man. The last few showed nonsensical shapes, skulls, and crying ghosts. The artist's mind seemed cracked, fragmented, and twisted, ultimately resembling something unholy.
Each cell held trinkets or baubles but nothing as personal or disturbing as the drawings. Based on the number of occupied cells, Karp knew that a force of at least fifty people had followed her through the lightning field. Karp exited the barracks and returned to the Royal Resort's main route. One other building had a locked and barred door; Karp cut into the facility.
The warehouse was a singular open room with no cells, side rooms, or unique adornments. The convoy that The Narwhal had delivered at sunset sat packed on horse-drawn carriages. Karp inspected food pots with wheat, barley, corn, and rice. One by one, they disappeared from Karp's world and appeared in her storehouse in the Shift World. The clay water trucks were too large to shift to the Shift World, so she smashed the bottom of one, and water leaked onto the warehouse floor. When every empty jug in her storehouse was filled, she punched holes in the remaining containers here. If Karp couldn't use the water, the garrison wouldn't either. Crates of assorted metal household goods were pillaged next.
Finally, Karp inspected the knee-high chests on the last few wagons. Unlike the iron and steel weapons in the mine, these contained high-grade steel, sunshine steel, and seashell steel. There were even some water steel knives and short swords mixed in with the rest. Karp took the crates to the Shift World and departed the warehouse.
whatever they were doing here, they are done now.
Karp reached the main square before the Resort's manor. A flat iron and steel gate sat dead center, flanked by training dummies, targets, and practice rings. The flattened metal looked like the strips of razors ready to cut whomever touched them. Black stripes flanked the fire steel enamel-colored center metal strip. Stockades built into the red and black supports could restrain people by their hands and necks. The supports' black stenciling accentuated the captives and highlighted the demon's flames. Dried blood covered the stocks and pillars, which meant the gate at one point had been for more than show. Karp continued to the royal manor and entered a red doorway decorated with painted black shackles.
Karp approached the heart of the manor along a soft red carpet. The halls housed intricately embroidered furniture with images of demons and flames carved into the table legs and cabinet drawers. Framed drawings more impressive than any throwing board lined the walls. Karp stopped at a painting that reminded her of the farming town where she had grown up. Fields overgrown with rye, peppers, and blueberry bushes sprawled in the distance from a quaint farmhouse. A woman and child approached a man clad head to toe in dragon fire steel. The painting's name was “The Lord's Return.” Karp felt a tinge of nostalgia imagining a similar scene from her childhood. Still, her parents died decades ago, and they hadn’t been lords. She regained her focus and continued down the hallway.
Karp entered a grand hall resting at the end of the main hallway and surveyed the dining area. Despite the art covering the ceiling and chiseled marble pillars supporting the manor's second floor, the inner furniture was inexpensive, unembellished tables and chairs. Fresh ashes lined a fire pit. The manor's celebratory hall was apparently now a chow hall for the fort's soldiers.
Karp left the chow hall to search the manor's main living quarters. She ascended to the second floor and navigated southerly until arriving at an ornate blue door. Karp steeled herself to face the princess before entering. She stepped inside and surveyed the room; there wasn't any sign of a living person. Rows of red, black, green, orange, and blue cloth clothing lined the far wall. Karp approached with a drawn knife and pushed the garments away, but no one was hiding in the corners.
Karp sighed and shifted the clothing to her storehouse in the Arid Desert. She stalked the manor’s main room, searching the surprisingly few areas for someone to hide, but she didn't find anyone. She sheathed her dagger and felt a pang of despondency at failing to find the princess. Part of her knew that when it came to fighting Tark, it would be an open confrontation and not a game of hide and seek. She searched the room for clues to the princess's location.
A carved statue of a narwhal rested on a nightstand near the bed. Karp lifted it to look for any hidden compartments, but there were none. A journal sat on the nightstand, begging to be flipped through. The writing was similar to the writing system Karp knew, but the dialect created extensive undecipherable sections. She didn't have time to read the entire book but would flip through the pages later.
since the narwhal was in this room, the princess probably never came here. this was a complete waste. i'm out of time and don't want to fight the entire garrison.
She snuck from the manor, out of the compound, and headed back to the Rebels' Mine.
Karp arrived at the Village of the Rebels' Mine just after daybreak and passed through the remains of the burned-down gate. She shifted from seashell armor into the Pasture's leather outfits. Karp nonchalantly strolled but was covered in scrapes, dirt, and bruises. Any pedestrian could have seen straight through her charade to identify her. In a few minutes, she entered the inn's main door and proceeded to the innkeeper, a graybeard hunched over a ledger.
"i need a room."
"I have a room for you."
"How much what? Rooms?"
"one room. how many steel pieces?"
Karp laid a steel piece on the counter.
"Two steel pieces."
Karp puckered and laid a second steel piece on the tabletop. The graybeard lightly laughed and took the two steel pieces. "I'm just joshing you. Here is the room key."
Karp followed the hall marked with a circle to the last room, unlocked the door, and entered. She barred the door and headed for a window to watch outside. Royal Guard members buzzed around the road looking for the intruder who had fled the Royal Resort. Karp was confident no one had detected her on the way to town, but the fear of discovery lingered; still, nothing seemed out of place on the road.
After having collected the supplies from Ma and Pa and the Royal Resort, Karp had years’ worth of dried goods and food. She planned on staying in this room and eating and drinking in the Shift World. Karp paced to kill time before sunset, which would be the best time to sneak out of the village and return to The Bog Djinn's castle. The Narwhal's journal appeared in her hand, and Karp flipped through the pages.
Most of the nuance in the first pages was incomprehensible due to the sections written in a dialect unfamiliar to Karp. She could understand that The Narwhal grew up desperately poor in a farming village in the southern Lush Forest. Every week, bears, wolves, and worse attacked and destroyed weak reed huts. There were dozens of names of the missing, and strange words were also scribbled in the book's margin. Karp flipped ahead and paused at a familiar name.
The Whitecoat had arrived to defend the village from animals. He killed the wild beasts and taught the locals to build up defenses with which to protect them from future incursions. Then The Whitecoat left. Karp flipped through the book to see if The Whitecoat appeared again, but she stopped at a different familiar name, The Demon's Wrath.
The Narwhal had met The Demon's Wrath just outside the Sunshine Vineyard in the southeastern Lush Forest. Lost and scared, The Narwhal was in trouble for murdering a local that had tried to stop her from stealing. A shop owner had caught a hungry Danil eating a piece of fruit. The owner grabbed Danil's hand and screamed for the guard. The Narwhal pushed the owner away but didn't know her own strength and ended up breaking the elderly woman's neck. The Demon's Wrath took her to the Crossroads, where she was waited upon like a princess.
The handwriting in the next section became erratic. Smooth lines transformed into jagged bolts scratched through the sheets. The pages spoke of enemies controlling the empire and using those enemies to fight. The book described them as something below human, but Karp couldn't understand the references. Those tamed enemies were going to fight as shields and spears for The Narwhal and The Demon's Wrath. Most of the remaining pages rambled on with variations of that theme, and Karp finally shut the book and returned it to her storehouse.
She continued to watch outside to ensure that the guard wasn't searching for her in town. Her room's window provided advance knowledge of an invasion from the Royal Guard, and it additionally gave her somewhere from which to flee. Karp planned on jumping out and fighting her way through town if needed.
At sunset, Karp left the inn and snuck toward the village outskirts, staying off the main road and preferring to dart between rundown shanties and shacks instead. Karp hadn’t seen a Royal Guard member her entire stay at the inn and hoped her luck pressed forward. Hiding throughout the village, she arrived at the outskirts but froze and watched fighting that raged just outside the burned down gate.
Rong the Turtle wore his full dragon fire steel plate armor and carried a massive dragon fire war hammer. He danced around the Dragon Guard, which flanked him. He swung, and dust and filth spewed into the air, but darkness obscured Karp's view. Royal Guard members went flying. Others rebounded to The Turtle to protect his flanks from an unseeable enemy. A few of the guards next to The Turtle dropped dead. Enraged, he swung his hammer more ferociously, but the enemy remained hidden. Other Royal Guard members flew through the air and sprawled out dead on the ground.
Warriors in studded leather armor and red helms frenzied around the makeshift battlefield. Despite the Royal Guard dropping left and right, Karp couldn't see the enemies. In a moment of confusion, one Dragon Guard member stabbed a Royal Guard, and he dropped dead. The murderer was stunned in place until The Turtle grabbed her shoulder. She looked at his mask and rejoined the fray. Karp used the confusion to sneak past.
A horde of cackling warriors poured in from the grassy outskirts of town. The Narwhal's forces flew into the maelstrom. Their crazed swings and shouts made them stick out despite visually matching The Turtle's soldiers. The fray grew as the crazed soldiers haphazardly met The Turtle's forces, and more soldiers lay dead by the moment. The crazed Narwhal soldiers dropped at a rate far faster than The Turtle's. The lack of a clear enemy sickened Karp. There were no bandits, monsters, or wild animals, so the continued fighting was inexplicable. Since Karp didn't know who the Royal Guard and Dragon Guard were fighting, she didn't want to stay. Either the guards would win and come for her, or they would lose, and an unbeatable enemy would hunt her down.
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