Shift World I Book II Chapter 10
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Karp sat in a tavern, eating a meager dinner with Slart and Lark. The Bog Djinn had sent the pair to a small inn on a deserted highway offshoot approximately two weeks west of the Grain Fort. Traffic to The Bog Djinn's castle had increased as merchants came to beg for supplies, and Trolt didn't want visitors to discover the two women and use them as leverage. The offshoot was traveled enough to warrant opening an inn but isolated enough that one hadn’t already been built. No one would be suspicious of an enterprising merchant opening a small inn. Slart had helped run the Traitor's Tavern Inn several times, so she knew the basics.
Slart had even built a throwing board in the main dining area of this small inn. Slart and Lark both lacked artistic talent, so only basic shapes and streaks of color decorated the surface. In some ways, such a simple design didn't present much challenge, as it limited the number of choices. In other ways, though, the board was incredibly tricky. Karp needed to think long and hard on any riddle that might distract or confuse Slart. Slart faced the same challenge.
During dinner, Karp recalled the effect of frog venom from the Wyvern's Cove.
"after i was hit by those tongues, i started seeing things, strange things dancing around. i thought i was fine, but if i actually had been, i would have more quickly realized how messed up i actually was, though i guess i did, eventually. i went to my storehouse until i felt better. while i was there, i was inspired to create the most beautiful painting i ever imagined. i made a white enamel paint and wondered at my art's absolute grace while i drew. i even stared at the picture the entire next day, mesmerized. two days later, when the venom wore off, i looked at the smears and blotches covering the wall. i have no idea what it was even supposed to be. kind of reminds me of the throwing board here."
Karp and Lark both laughed, but Slart only gave a fleeting, awkward smile. Karp had noticed Slart's withdrawn attitude when she first arrived. Slart tried showing a brave face, but the illusion would crack after any flicker of happiness. A pang of guilt stung Karp because she had impotently failed to find any way to save or avenge Nort, and she suspected Slart knew that.
"Have you found anything to save my baby?"
Karp had dreaded the question, but she knew it was only a matter of time before Slart's patience ran out.
"i haven't found the princess, and i haven't been able to avenge nort."
Slart openly bawled at Karp's response, increasing Karp's guilt.
"i may have a lead on a down-shifter though. her name is ban the water drake. she shifted into armor and ran toward a member of the royal guard and then there were explosions and monsters. that means the shifter is also possibly one of the royal guard. i haven't seen the water drake since the wyvern's cove, but either way, there is at least some hope..."
Karp's words felt hollow, and Slart bawled. The tavern's patrons turned their eyes toward the table.
it's my fault he's missing. my fault any of this happened.
Drom the Troupe Leader and his workers delivered goods to the small inn on their way to more prestigious keeps and villages. The man, well into his sixties, had a youthful air since his travels kept him active and as healthy as a man in his early fifties. He and Karp talked during dinner.
"So, did Slart tell you the trade we made?"
"yes. just let me know when you want the metal and food."
"I'm even afraid to ask where everything came from, but people are desperate, and these supplies will help."
"slart manages to think of everything. we'll get what we need in future favors, and since you're here when we have food, no one will be suspicious."
"Haha, yes, she is very much like Korg in that way. It's no surprise Slart was like a daughter to him."
"how well did you know him? the whitecoat."
"I knew him since he was a teenager, standing in front of The Bog Djinn, trying to make his wish. That was thirty-five, maybe forty years ago."
Karp had known for a long time that Korg was an up-shifter, but she had never stopped to do the math.
if korg spent about the same amount of time in the upper world as he did in this world and he was a shifter for thirty-five years before dying, that means he was really...eighty-five?? ninety-five??
"what was he like? back then?"
"He was a surprisingly plucky youth, excited about everything he came across and extremely sarcastic. He shot off his mouth about becoming a trader and working hard. The only time he paused was when The Bog Djinn asked what he was hiding. Then, Korg stumbled and stammered. He said, 'I'm sure you don't believe this' and 'I know this is impossible' and talked about shifting to another world not full of monsters. The Bog Djinn just laughed as he does and told Korg about being an..."
"Up-shifters are rare compared to you other shifters. I'm not sure Trolt has known another one besides Korg, and he's lived almost three hundred years. Trolt liked him right away; he felt a kinship that he couldn't feel with anyone else. That's why Trolt made Korg the face of cloth. Once he started importing it, that is."
"that's where the mandrake comes in? as his trade partner?"
"It's more complicated than that, Sco...Karp. Over the years, Korg and Trolt would talk about what happened in the Shift World. Tales of The Conqueror blighting the Crossroads and all the subsequent shifters taking apart the Shift World piece by piece terrified Korg. Most of the time, shifters destroyed a village or ruined a region because of apathy. They didn't actually hate the people or even want to steal from them. This world needed metal, and the shifters just used their powers without concern for what would happen.
"That's why Korg began to trade metal for clothing. He could have probably sold hardwood for more clothing than he received for metal and become a king, but he didn't want that. He fairly traded with people in that world. In the upper world, people thought of Korg as a saint delivering them from the harshness of life. He taught them about shifting. At first, no one believed him, but they didn't care. His lessons became common knowledge, and shifters knew about powers when they came here, which was much sooner than anyone expected.
"Korg didn't think any shifters were going to show up until after he died, sometime in the distant future, but they actually showed up fifteen years ago. Once shifters came to this world, more cloth flowed between worlds fast enough to draw the empire's attention. The Whitecoat and The Bog Djinn tried to wrangle up any shifters they found, but it was too late, and one day, an ambassador to the royal family arrived at The Bog Djinn's castle. They came with three simple demands. One, the empire receives a percentage of final profits. Two, The Whitecoat and shifters keep the source of cloth a secret. And three, Korg and Trolt disclose the identity of all known shifters."
Karp stared in deep reflection, and Drom gave her time.
anyone that the bog djinn knows, the royal family would know as well. if a down-shifter worked with the empire, then shouldn't trolt know about it? could there be people that the bog djinn doesn't know? what if the demons searched out down-shifters in secret before they could meet the whitecoat or trolt? the woman who called the guard on me back then... what if that's why people were asked to look for shifters? not to recruit them from our world, but to find shifters from theirs...
Drom continued when Karp showed no sign of responding. She tried to pay attention, but only half-listened to his story.
"As the years went by, Korg helped build the other Shift World. The metal and wood he brought built sturdy homes, helped hunt dangerous animals, and protected villages against the elements. For the first time, people thrived, and everyone thanked The Whitecoat. Once people came to this world, they gladly sought him out, and one by one, everyone made their way to the Village of the Bog Djinn. Korg, for his part, saw Jorn, Birn and Jara, Pilman, and Darac as his children. Timore, the one you call The Mandrake, and Biporn, his brother, were like his grandchildren."
"birn and jara? is that the merchant and his wife?"
"Jara died at the Rocky Valley, and Birn died in the Citadel. Timore and Biporn are their sons, and Biporn also died at the Rocky Valley."
"if they loved him so much, why did they kill him?"
"The Sunflower was always jealous of Korg. The Whitecoat was loved in two worlds. Everyone wanted to be his apprentice; they thought of him as this prolific merchant who invented cloth and ruled a cartel. No matter how hard Jorn worked, he was always in The Whitecoat's shadow. Korg saw him as a disobedient child acting out but was confident Jorn would outgrow that phase. That's why Korg hesitated when he saw Timore's face because killing The Sunflower or The Mandrake would be like killing his son.
"I guess that's why the other shifters had such a hard time killing you. If Korg was like their father, then you'd be like their sister. Once Korg and Jorn were dead, they wanted to reach out to you, a reconciliation of sorts, I think. Then, they wanted to avoid you, but it didn't work out that way."
"it's amazing how korg could live a double life this whole time and we had no idea. i guess that's the nature of shifting, though; we all have double lives. he was just more extreme."
Karp and Lark were weeding a living garden behind the tavern and inn. They sweated as they worked beneath the summer sun. Chronic food shortages of the last several months had made small gardens familiar at almost every house, business, and tavern. These gardens were called living gardens because the food supplemented the occupants' diets. Living gardens only contained fruits and vegetables that didn't need further processing. Slart's living garden grew tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, beans, radishes, and dreamberries. A pair of dragonfruit trees were being cultivated behind the garden, but they wouldn’t bear fruit for a few more years.
About ten times the needed amount of shock gourds grew in order to supply Karp with pop gourds and blast gourds. Most people wouldn't suspect anything unusual about so many being planted in a single garden. Most would guess that inexperienced gardeners had just planted too many for warding off pests. Karp reached down, grabbed a fistful of weeds, pulled them from the dirt, and flung them to a wooden wheelbarrow. Lark examined the vegetables and fruit still ripening on the vine.
"don't you wish the food grew as fast as the weeds?"
"how has slart been? while i was gone?"
Lark became serious before answering; she concentrated on her work.
"She's in pain all the time."
Karp flinched. The answer wasn't unexpected, but it hurt her just the same.
"The world's falling apart like in her nightmares from back when we lived in the Traitor's Tavern, and then there's Nort. She's a little better when you're here, but some days she can't even get out of bed."
"how's life for you?"
"Sometimes it can be a bit...overwhelming, but some days are easier than others. This inn feels just like the Village of the Bog Djinn, where I use to help Mom and Dad work. It's all about routine. Some days I'd tend the garden before making breakfast or cleaning the rooms, but I’d always do all three, every day.
"When I helped Mom clean the rooms, we'd make a game of the little things. We'd say a riddle, and the other had to solve it as quick as possible like you do at the throwing board. She'd cheat! I couldn't possibly know the riddles' answers! Who was the lord of the Stained Peaks? How do I clean his dish?"
"was there a bowl in the room?"
"I don't know! I guess you do. She knows...knew a lot of random facts. Dad wasn't smart like Mom, and he'd always let me win. Mom would say he just wasn't good and that I was clever, but I think that was just a lie."
"later, do you think you could teach me one of those games?"
Lark perked up, but tears pooled around the corners of her eyes.
"Sure, but we're gonna need about thirty pebbles and a board full of squares. We could draw the board in the dirt if you can't carve one out."
"i think i can make one..." Karp forgot that in all the time she spent thinking about Nort and Slart, Lark was managing her own pain too. Karp looked into the distance. The area surrounding the Grain Fort was the empire’s breadbasket, and wheat covered the terrain from just outside the inn to past the horizon.
"when looking at the fields, it’s hard to believe that there could be a food shortage. the mandrake and his followers must have destroyed too many stores when they cleared out keeps.”
Two weeks later, Karp, Slart, and Lark quietly ate dinner in the tavern’s main dining room. They began eating quietly in order to eavesdrop on nearby tables and hopefully find out information about shifters or the location of Tark’s Guard. Karp sipped a light barley soup and ate diced fruit as she listened to a pair of travelers in leathers with white merchant’s stripes down their left sides.
“Where are we going now?”
"To the Nightingale’s Nest to trade for feathers and straw. It’s a shame that the Grain Fort turned out to be a bust."
"You'll never guess what I saw while I was waiting to use the throwing board. A couple of real heavy hitters walked in. One was as big as a house and all dressed in red. He was with a much smaller woman with red plates and two knives."
"The big guy's The Turtle and the woman is The Coral Snake."
"How do you know that?"
"I saw them a little while ago with The Demon Scorpion."
"You saw them? Really? I don't believe you."
"I did! At The Grand's Meadow, after The Horse Thief assassinated The Grand. Oh no, don't tell anyone I said that! It's supposed to be a secret."
Karp almost choked at hearing that she had killed The Grand. The men started whispering, but people who weren't used to secrecy weren't skilled at controlling their volume, and Karp still heard every word.
"The people at the board, though, were making no sense. They talked about someone named The Paladin. They said that he had found the enemy. Aren't they looking for The Horse Thief?"
"I guess this means The Horse Thief is in a world of trouble."
Both men laughed. Slart quietly excused herself and walked to the tavern's back room with a slow, jerky gait. Karp followed after Slart failed to return. Karp pushed open the door and found her sitting on the storeroom floor, crying. Slart looked up, and Karp walked in, shut the door, and sat beside her friend. Karp put her arm around Slart, and Slart buried her tearful eyes into Karp's shoulder.
"You're going...going to go. Aren't you? To find Tark..."
Karp's chest tightened at the princess's name, and her feeling of inadequacy swelled. Karp's shortcomings were what caused this pain, and she was powerless to help.
"she might know a down-shifter. someone that can retrieve nort..."
"But you also want revenge, don't you? For what they did to you after you killed the merchant?"
Karp honestly didn't know which was a stronger motivation. She desperately wanted to find Nort for Slart's sake, but a more visceral, animal part of her wished for revenge. Karp hated the conflict and wished that she could just want to save Nort and ease Slart's pain. Selfishness wore away at Karp's self-worth. But it seemed she couldn’t help it.
Slart cried more profoundly and gave a soft reproachful moan.
once everything is done, i'll leave your life if that's what you want. it's the least of what i deserve.
A man sat in the corner of an unlit cell, staring into the darkness's void. A bolt slid, and the door gingerly creaked open. The Demon's Wrath entered, and the man's eyes strained under the influx of light. The Demon's Wrath's boots echoed on the stone floor. He approached the man who looked up but didn't make any motion to raise or meet his captor.
"I see you're acclimating to this side of the door very well. Enjoying your stay?"
The man maintained eye contact but didn't reply. The Demon's Wrath reached out his arm and held an object aloft.
"I'm thankful for your continued cooperation."
The Demon's Wrath dropped the object onto the cell floor, and it rang out as it hit the ground. The man scrambled and clutched the item to his breast.
"She made it to the Royal Resort, you know. Don't look at me like that; it wasn't my idea to send her. You know I'm just following orders. You know the one I'm working for has a massive network. If you escape, he'll use that network to send a message, and she'll die. No matter how fast you can run in this world, you won't reach her in time. As long as he lives, you two will never be free. Just do what I want, though, and you'll be free..."