Shift World I Book II Chapter 11
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Karp traveled west on an offshoot road toward the defunct Grain Fort. Rumors had spread that Tark and some of her Dragon Guard were encamped in the main keep's wrecked courtyard. After a tense journey, Karp left the road and cut through an open field. Clouds covered the nighttime sky. She slinked through the area, and between the darkness and the growing plants, even travelers a few dozen meters away wouldn't be able to make out her presence. Five minutes later, she saw shadows approaching up the road, and she lowered to the ground, drawing a seashell steel dagger.
Out of sight in the surrounding darkness, horses galloped. Hoofs approached in a symphony of regular beats. The noise lacked the disorganized chaos of a stampede, so Karp wasn't afraid. She stood and eased her breathing. The horses finally reached her but separated as they passed by, not even touching her. Brown and white splotches painted the horses' bodies. Flowing black manes accentuated their beauty.
Karp waited for the animals to pass and then continued toward the Grain Fort. After a few moments, Karp entered the village outskirts for the first time since she and Nort had killed a dragon there, saving the region. However, the official account stated that Karp, Nort, and a fictitious band of degenerates had attacked the village, so Karp needed to proceed cautiously.
Karp headed for the road leading to the inn. Just before reaching the street, she ducked behind a sturdy wooden house with a recently rebuilt roof. Two guards dressed in plain leathers strolled down the main road. Karp hugged the building until they passed.
as long as i stay off the road, i should be fine.
Karp crept away from the convoy road. After passing three houses, she hopped a short log-post fence and tiptoed between the crops in a resident's living garden. She meticulously placed each step so as to avoid the ice-leaf cabbage, lightning gourds, starfire bushes, and other subsistence crops. Karp reached a house and put her back against the outer wall, just under a window, and listened to voices emanating from inside.
"Do you think they'll ever go?"
"Hush, they might hear you."
"Oh, no one's listening. Don't be so worried. What do you think?"
"I think I'm tired of being in the middle of someone else's pissing contest."
"I hear The Horse Thief was seen near town. What do you think she wants?"
"I hate 'The Horse Thief,' you know that. Everything that's happened is just so wrong."
Bushes two houses over rustled. Karp guessed that guards were canvasing the back yard but didn't know what they wanted. She only knew that she needed to flee.
"They're back. We really should stop talking." The couple quieted, and the woman closed the shutters. Karp walked from the house, searching for a route with which to avoid the rustling that grew in every yard. Karp knew she couldn't explain away casually trespassing on a stranger's property, so she stopped moving toward the town center and broke for the outskirts. Guards patrolled side roads to the north, south, and west, which forced Karp further east. She moved easterly until motion along another yard balked her progress. People stirred to the north, east, and west.
Karp ran south, but within minutes, guards stalled her progress again, and she stopped to assess her next move. Guards searched the yards and roads in every direction. Karp couldn't decide if she should fight her way out, escape into the center of town to kill The Silverfish, and die in the process, or if she should find a way to sneak out. Karp rested her hand on her whip's handle and thought. She stepped before a nearby house's front door, and it opened. A woman, man, and twelve-year-old boy stood in the entranceway.
"Psst, Scorpion, come in here." The whispered invitation alarmed Karp, but she didn't have a better option, so she joined the small family. The father shut the door and went to speak, but Karp held up a hand to quiet him. She pressed her ear against the door and listened for guards milling between the houses. They converged just outside the door and briefly spoke before breaking away. Karp looked to the family.
"Don't worry about those guards, Scorpion. They are just doing the nightly sweep for spies and vandals."
"it's been a long time since someone called me that. aren't you afraid of being caught up with the horse thief?"
"That must have been quite a horse!"
Karp rolled her eyes. The woman put her hands on the boy's shoulders and smiled. "We know everything they say is a lie, even if we have to pretend otherwise."
The man straightened before speaking. "We could never repay you after you saved our son."
At first, Karp had no idea what he meant. She looked at the boy but didn't recognize his face. Then, a realization flashed in Karp's mind. She saw a woman, man, and boy fleeing from a rampaging dragon, but the dragon noticed and leered at the trio. Fire rained onto the street, and Nort jumped in and neutralized the flames, saving the hapless family from roasting. They scampered off, and Karp and Nort killed the beast.
"how did these rumors start? the ones that said me and nort attacked the grain fort?"
The family was slightly taken aback by the sharp change in conversation. The father rubbed the mother's shoulders before speaking. "I'm not exactly sure. It happened around two years ago, after all these stories came from the Crossroads about how Karp the Scorpion and The Morning Shield killed the followers of The Mandrake. Everyone was relieved, but then new rumors started coming that it wasn't Karp the Scorpion, it was Tark the Demon Scorpion. Needless to say, we were all amazed. We thought that meant you were actually a princess.
"Several months later, the stories became more erratic, and a contingent of Royal Guard showed up. They demanded we stopped spreading false rumors and told us exactly what really happened. They said there was no dragon. All the damage, including the destroyed fort, was caused by Karp the Horse Thief of the Traitor's Tavern. They said The Demon Scorpion had stopped the siege at the Grain Fort by killing three powerful members of the gang. The Demon Scorpion chased you, but you burned the village as you fled, and she had to stop the pursuit to put out the fires. The group's leader said we had to start telling the truth or The Horse Thief would come and destroy the village. We didn't have much choice."
"who was it that threatened you? what was their name?"
"She was an archer named Krath the Sea Urchin."
"is she still here?"
"No. She departed a long time ago and only left a small group of guards to spy on us and make sure we said their lies. A different group of guards came a few months ago, and the old ones just sort of disappeared. The new guards set up a camp in the collapsed Grain Fort, and they routinely patrol the area. Workers began to show up in droves. I don't know who or what exactly they are looking for, but you came across one of the search parties."
Karp didn't know what an ordinary local family could know about the empire and their plans, so the conversation lulled. She surveyed the family and house. The boy sat on the edge of a plain table. He held a block with the beginnings of a carved animal whittled into the wooden canvas. The boy struggled to slice a sliver with a slender iron carving knife. A flake of wood fell to the counter. He cut into the block again and another chip dropped after much effort.
"what are you trying to do?"
"I'm carving a horse, of course!"
"oh? where did you learn to carve?"
"Pa taught me."
"is he a woodworker? is that what you are going to be?"
"What? No! He's a leatherworker, and I'm learning how to be a leatherworker as well! Once I graduate from the third class at school, I'm gonna work with him at the shop!" The boy wore an air of pride that grew with each declaration.
"you want to make leather outfits?"
"Well, no... I want to make saddles for the horses..."
The boy's mother giggled. "Yes, he spends all day watching the mares at the horse ranch. I think, for him, he's settling to become a leatherworker."
The boy blushed. "Well, I don't know. I want to do both! Why not?!"
Karp recognized that form of stubborn compromise. Whenever The Whitecoat knew he was wrong, he'd meet Karp halfway instead of admitting his mistake.
"I'm just lucky that there are so many wonderful animals so close and that I get to see them all the time! Most people only see a horse once or twice a year!"
Karp didn't have the heart to correct the boy's exaggeration. "can i see that knife of yours?"
The confused child handed Karp the knife by a flimsy wooden handle. Karp placed the tool on the table and pinned the handle down so that the knife's blade stuck up in the air. She slid a finger across the edge. The whole family watched incredulously, curious about the meaning behind Karp's actions. She let the knife fall over and then picked it up. Two steel knives identical to the iron carving knife appeared in her hand. She had replaced the cheap wooden handle by reforging the blades from a single piece of metal. The two steel knives were placed next to the iron knife on the counter.
"the blade was dull, and the handle was loose. that's why you were struggling so much. these knives should last you a long time."
The wide-eyed boy stared at the steel knives, which were now the most expensive items the family owned besides the father's leatherworking tools. The father spoke up out of embarrassment. "Thank you, Scorpion. It's difficult and expensive to get something sharpened even by a non-shifter right now. Everything goes towards the garrison, so no one has time to fix a child's toy..."
Karp flinched and pursed her lips. The woman spoke up. "But these guards seem much different than the old ones. They aren't mistreating us or anything. They don't even seem to care what people say and don't bother policing our speech. Kact accidentally said ‘The Scorpion’ in front of one, and they acted nonchalantly. The old guards would have locked her up! We don't want to push the limits, but they just seem uninterested in perpetuating 'The Horse Thief' story."
The man chimed in. "Even with the princess nearby, they aren't too aggressive."
"they must be planning something pretty large if they are willing to abandon their whole strategy. i'm going to have to figure out what exactly..."
The man and woman looked relieved by her response. Karp watched the boy examine the knives lying on the table. For the first time since she had lost Nort at the Citadel, Karp felt like maybe some good had come from confronting the followers of The Mandrake.
Karp spent the day hiding in the small family's house. Then, three hours after nightfall, she snuck to the fort's outskirts. Sentries guarded the main gate. Karp watched for an opening, but they stood unblinking. Karp was sure she couldn't sneak by unnoticed and decided to round the perimeter instead of continuing the one-sided staring contest. Sharpened spikes adorned the top of the wall's pile-driven logs. Karp continued along the wall's edge, but couldn't find a chink in the design that would grant her access.
Karp broke away from the wall and ran for a nearby stream that was blocked from view by a small woods. Karp turned north once her boot sloshed in the creek's outer bank. A few minutes later, Karp arrived at a drainage pipe. The Mandrake and his followers had used that pipe to infiltrate the Grain Fort when they sacked the stronghold, and Karp and Nort had used the tunnel to escape the collapsing keep. A newly fortified steel grate with a lock now replaced the pipe's snarled, twisted iron.
Karp was relieved at the sight of the new obstacle since that meant someone had likely cleared the drainage entry. A gourd with a painted red top appeared in Karp's hand. The flask was a modified storage gourd, unlike the blast gourd that Karp had used for fighting The Narwhal. She uncorked the container and poured black powder into the lock's keyhole. Once the mechanism overflowed, the flask disappeared, and a lit twig appeared in her hand. Karp threw the stick into the lock's keyhole, and the powder ignited, blowing apart the lock. The explosion was much louder than Karp had expected. She tensed at the thought of interlopers finding her but tried to calm herself.
it's ok. it's ok. it was loud here, but at the fort, they probably just thought a tree branch snapped in the woods. i'm fine as long as i don't make any more noise.
Karp threw away the shattered lock and swung open the grate. She stepped over a mound of accumulated filth and entered the passageway. Wooden boards framed the tunnel before transitioning to stone under the keep's outer wall. Karp stepped carefully to ensure each that footfall landed without splashing through the muck. She arrived at a second grate that opened into the night's air. At some point, workers had cleared away the destroyed keep, and the Grain Fort remained an open field with silos. Karp listened for anyone nearby and then opened the unsecured grate in the absence of any evidence that someone lingered nearby. She pulled herself from the hole and moved to a nearby tent. Sidestepping crates piled at the entrance, she pushed open a leather flap and entered.
A map of the world covered a massive table that filled most of the tent. Scrolls were stacked on the table's edges, and books filled shelves that circled the command center. Karp stepped on a woven rug near the table's end. She hunched over the map and examined the world. Strange markings used as code by the Dragon Guard polka-dotted the map's surface, but Karp didn't understand their meaning. A thick black ring encircled the Creeping Ice. A red line surrounded the Crossroads, and a black line made an outline around the red. A red circle with a black X covered The Grand's Meadow. A series of red and black circles ran up the main train route, and six were crossed off with green X’s. The Royal Guard's training garrison, where Karp had first met The Demon's Wrath, was marked with a black circle.
A white circle surrounded the Lumber Depot with another at the milling town. A snaking white line looped around The Bog Djinn's swamp. A smaller white shape with a single green slash showed the Traitor's Tavern. A black slash rested next to the green one, and black surrounded the whole area. A white oval with a black X covered the Bamboo Coast. A red circle with a single black slash engulfed the Wyvern's Cove. A black slash joined a red slash just outside. A red X lay in the Pasture's northwest corner.
Two small red circles sat at the Rebels' Mine and the old couple's house, and a black circle covered the Royal Resort. The ring at Ma and Pa's house was crossed out by a black X. Just south of that was a black crown with a white slash. A red X covered the Royal Resort, and another small black crown with a white slash was drawn just inside the Glassy Sand. Both a red slash and a black slash rested outside the Royal Mines. A red slash next to a black slash dotted the entire Lush Forest and parts of the Crossroads but were completely absent from the Creeping Ice and Arid Desert.
Karp turned from the map and picked up a scroll sitting on the side of the table; it read:
1. Grand's Meadow Destroyed, all residents killed. Demon's Wrath claims work of The Horse Thief, who is seeking to kill The Demon Scorpion. No motivation given. She thinks I'm responsible for imprisoning and torturing her.
2. Attack on Wyvern's Cove unsuccessful. No civilians lost due to interference from The Horse Thief, The Water Drake, and a traitor. Demon's Wrath forces lost: 15 unnamed Royal Guards.
3. Safehouse destroyed in Pasture. Casualties: Ma and Pa. Residence demolished by party unknown; rumors suggest The Horse Thief, who was seen in the area. Demon's Wrath casualties: Dorac the Polar Bear and unnamed Royal Guards. Hostage recovered at scene.
4. Barracks at Royal Resort raided. Unknown intruder breached rear of complex. Forced guards into glass field. Killed battalion leader, Danil the Narwhal, through dismemberment. Disappeared like a ghost. All supplies were taken during the confusion. Remaining forces attacked Rebels' Mine. Rong the Turtle and Dragon's Guard involved in the incident. Casualties: 5 Dragon Guard. Demon's Wrath casualties: 20 unnamed guards, Danil the Narwhal, and remaining forces scattered.
5. Next month royal tournament will be announced for six months from now. “Horse Thief” will attempt assassination.
6. Report on unknown quantity codenamed “The Paladin.”
-Has killed five shifters. Identities unknown.
-Key player in other rebellion.
-Allied with at least five shifters. Identities unknown.
-Possibly includes traitor responsible for Wyvern's Cove, Water Drake, and The Mandrake.
-Recent Activity: Discovered Enemy's hidden location and is preparing a counterattack.
Karp swallowed her breath and looked at the Grain Fort on the map. The fort itself was surrounded by a black shape with a green X covering the building. A red circle outlined the whole area. A small distance to the west, a white form sat approximately on top of Slart's tavern. Karp moved to run from the tent, but a strange letter caught her eye. She lifted the scroll and examined the writing. The language from the Shift World covered the document. A small book next to the manuscript contained attempts to translate the writing system scribbled in the margins, but nothing was close to accurate. Karp figured that someone was using that language as a secret code. The letter was addressed to The Demon's Wrath.
"The rebellion is difficult to quell. We keep attacking the rebels, and they scatter but form again. We've learned they identify themselves with a peculiar sign and countersign."
Karp finished the letter but couldn't believe the words written on the page. She dropped the scroll and charged outside the tent. Boric the Fox and Rong the Turtle were walking toward the command center, so Karp hid behind crates next to the entrance. Boric and Rong had almost arrived when a familiar voice stopped them. They waited, and the father from the small family approached.
"I have information on The Horse Thief."
"That must have been quite a horse for us to go through all this trouble."
"You're not kidding! I've just got done seeing our mutual friend."
"Really? Well, she better hurry, because the word is that they found the stable."
Karp thought back to Slart's tavern and the intelligence scrolls. She grew impatient and bounded from behind the crates. The three men watched her run but didn't make any motion to stop her.
Karp sprinted out of the Village of the Grain Fort and reached the horse pasture. She wrangled a mare and stole a horse for the first time in her life. After riding to exhaustion for four days, she reached Slart’s inn. Karp arrived outside of a nearby farm and released the mare, who tiredly wandered off. Karp snuck toward Slart’s inn, balking at the sight of glowing red coming from the horizon.
She shifted into her seashell steel armor and ran toward smoke rising just beyond the wheat fields. She snaked between wheat stalks to stop them from moving and drawing attention. At the end of the wheat field, Karp surveyed the burning inn. Dragon Guard members skulked around the premises inspecting bodies of fallen Royal Guard. A dozen guards surveyed two dozen corpses. Karp held her breath.
She stalked through the field to the road across from the inn and crept into the bushes. Baln the Coral Snake appeared from just outside of the inn’s entrance and approached a guard standing near some bodies. Karp couldn’t make out who was speaking.
“Are they dead?”
Karp’s heart sunk. She had arrived too late to save them, but she wasn’t too late for revenge. A blast gourd appeared in her hand as she mentally prepared to kill Baln and her guard. Karp stepped from the bush, and a whisper caught her attention. “Karp...stop...Karp...”
Karp watched Baln. The gourd vanished, and Karp retreated back into the bushes.