Shift World I Book II Chapter 12
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Karp, Slart, and Lark fled to the Lumber Depot after the Royal Guard destroyed Slart’s inn. Upon arriving, the trio was surprised by the town’s entrance. Artisans had carved the depot’s gate to resemble piles of planks stacked up to a generic brown log crossbeam; they had tried to emulate two-story-tall stacks of lumber scattered around town.
Despite the seemingly ample supply of processed wood, lords had already purchased most of it, and little extra was available for sale. However, locals still had enough surplus to peddle their wares. On the side of the road, artisans had shaped planks, tabletops, cups, plates, poles, and household items. Hawkers roamed the street calling to passersby, trying to entice them to purchase the handcrafted wares. When running errands, Karp, Lark, and Slart shied away from the hawkers. After several days of being ignored, the salesmen stopped addressing the hostile customers. A soldier dressed as a Royal Guard walked the road, walking the direction of the trio. Hawkers swarmed, relentlessly shoving plates or mugs into the soldier's face, but the hawkers dispersed shortly after passing Karp, Slart, and Lark.
After traveling past stalls for leather workers, food, medicine, metal goods, and all the other services expected in a major town, the trio arrived at the inn and tavern. Given the area’s ample supply of shaped wood, the tavern’s owners had built the structure to be four stories tall. Oil-based varnish coated the outer walls to preserve the wood’s natural color and texture, and wooden slats tiled the roof instead of clay in order to maintain the wood texture associated with the village.
Karp and her company entered the tavern. The room’s throwing board was, predictably, wood-themed. Trees, ax-men, saws, and other minor wood-related items dotted the bulk of the board’s face. A replica of the Milling Town’s sawmill was featured in the board’s center. The drawn depiction was more elegant than the real-life correlates. Arches, embellishments, and delicate embroidery decorated the drawing’s main structure. In Karp’s world, though, the sawmill was little more than a warehouse with a steel saw powered by a paddle system in the river.
The group reached their room and entered. Slart and Karp slept on two full-sized straw mattresses, and Lark slept on a removable cot pushed in between the beds. The innkeeper worked for The Bog Djinn and knew Karp and Slart. He offered them three free rooms instead of one, but the women felt safer staying together. They spent two months in that little room, often doing little more in a day than buying food from the local stalls or tavern and retreating to their sanctuary. The relaxing atmosphere and relief from Slart and Lark having escaped the ambush made the first few weeks fly by.
Gradually, though, both Karp and Slart became anxious if they weren’t busy. As time marched on, the trio expended all conversation topics, making conversing less enjoyable. So now, Slart lay on the bed, quietly staring at the wall, while Lark watched out a window. Karp pored over scrolls at the room’s desk and let out an exacerbated sigh. Slart rolled over and looked at Karp, but Lark continued to stare out the window.
“nothing. Well, it’s just that these scrolls and ledgers I took from the princess are all about the demon's wrath. i don't think they’re going to be any help in finding her."
Slart's face drained of color.
"what? do you know anything?"
"I'm...so sorry, Karp."
Karp felt a pang of guilt over her failure to find Nort, realizing that she had spent the last several weeks only looking for clues about Tark. Karp threw the scroll on the table.
"you're right. i should be looking for nort. it's my fault he's gone, so that should be my priority, not the princess. i just have no clue where to even begin."
Slart perked up but began crying at the same time. The juxtaposition confused Karp.
"I'm, ugh, sorry, Karp, because this is all my fault. I knew Tark the Silverfish was really the, umm, princess. I just didn't say anything and look what happened..."
"Well... The, uhh, Grand's steward was named Born. I once heard from The Bog Djinn that the princess was a tall and, hmm, serious woman who wore jagged armor and spoke with an obvious royal education."
"why didn't you say anything?"
"It feels, ugh, dumb now, but you're bad at keeping a secret. If Nort knew? Well, he'd tell everyone at the first stop. I th-thought I was protecting you!"
Karp frowned. "i could handle myself, but nort..."
"No! You're wrong! You came back sick! B-but, it's like the frog venom, you just couldn't tell..."
"what? no! THAT'S NOT TRUE!"
"We should...should go back to The Bog Djinn's castle. He has information on Tark..."
"YES! we should face the princess, and then maybe we'll be FREE..."
Slart rolled over, stared at the wall, and frowned.
Karp, Slart, and Lark stood in The Bog Djinn's spacious hall. Soldiers in white armor with a yellow stripe down their left breasts encircled the room. The Bog Djinn moved around in his seat and looked Karp over. She wore seashell steel armor under a yeti-skin cloak.
"Oh my...hehe, you look much better than the last time I saw you."
"yes...well, i was very tired from traveling last time you saw me."
The Bog Djinn rolled his eyes, and Karp disregarded the act as just another eccentricity.
"what can you tell me about the paladin or the water drake? have you met them before?"
The Bog Djinn shrugged and leaned back in his seat. "I met The Water Drake once, a few years ago. Her whereabouts were a mystery after The Mandrake appeared, but she came back until just after the bombing at Ma and Pa's, and then disappeared again. Maybe it's for the better; maybe it's not, I don't know, hahaha. Rumor says she was searching for someone. Who? Maybe, I wonder, if it could be a lover? A friend? Family? Probably one of those, but I don't really know, hehe, people really love their quests.
"I'd never heard of that umm Paladin until rumors started circulating about him leading some rebellion and killing shifters. Strange, yes? But...I haven't received a single word on what shifters have been killed! How could a dozen shifters have died but none of them have been famous? Not a single known person, and there isn't word on what rebellion they are talking about, either. Hmmm...no, I think it's all just fancy."
"i heard that they are apprentices of the whitecoat. is that true?"
"Hmm... I don't know, hahaha. Korg was very secretive about his life in the upper-world. Sure, he'd talk about the big things. He'd save a village, rescue a family from a wild bear, kill a clan of bandits, set up a store, blah blah blah, but he'd never talk about the people he knew or his relationships. It wouldn't surprise me if he didn't tell the people in the Shift World about you."
"didn't you care about them? they could have become competitors or something."
"Ha ha ha, you think so? What threat could a couple of people in a different world possibly pose to me? I'm too busy to worry about the likes of them... I have all this throne-sitting I need to do, ha ha ha."
"do you take anything seriously!"
"Some things I take very seriously."
The stern rebuke shocked Karp into remembering her manners. "i'm sorry, but do you have any information on tark, at least?"
"Ha ha, no, I'm sorry, I don't. She might, though..."
The Bog Djinn pointed toward the rear of the hall. Baln the Coral Snake walked in from a servants' entrance, and Karp instinctively reacted. She reached for her whip but froze at The Bog Djinn’s shout. "STAY YOUR HAND!"
Slart grabbed Karp's wrist, and they made eye contact. "Just wait to hear what she says...please."
Baln walked in with both hands raised, palms facing Karp. "Just at least try to hear me out."
"hear you out? hmph, i would have killed you on the spot if not for them!”
“You won't listen even if it means saving Nort?"
"what could you possibly know about nort?"
"I've come to offer you an...opportunity. A chance to either save Nort or kill the princess. You can only do one, however."
"you'd betray your mistress that easily?"
A man sat in a puddle, stirring in the room's darkness. He couldn't see the floor but imagined waves traveling through tepid water as he rocked back and forth. His erratic breathing hastened and slowed as his thoughts shot between violent and submissive. He clutched the symbol of his loved one as he stewed. He mumbled as a means of having a friend with which to converse.
"Listen to The Demon's Wrath, and I'll be free. Listen to The Demon's Wrath, and she'll be free."
The main door creaked open, and light flooded the chamber. The man covered his eyes, occasionally peeking out to let his vision adjust. He hadn't been outside his cell for days, weeks, or months; he wasn't sure. He listened for splashing and expected small waves to crest on his sides and legs, but nothing.
The man crawled, hand over fist until he reached the exit. He stuck his head into the hall. No guards patrolled, and no maids were cleaning nearby fixtures or doors. The man stopped breathing to listen for anybody or anything, but he couldn't hear a single person's boots echoing through the halls. The man placed his hand on the floor outside of the chamber but recoiled the moment his palm touched stone.
He scrambled back through the water. Rancid smelling liquid sloshed and crested so violently that water shot out of the open door. The man propelled himself into the room's corner so recklessly that he hit the wall and only stopped struggling when he couldn't move any further. The man rocked back and forth, muttering to himself and staring at the exit.
"I must listen to The Demon's Wrath, and I'll be FREE. If I don't, The Bog Djinn will kill her..."
A crier for the empire stood in front of the keep of Mard the Pup, provincial governor at the Ivory Coast, a hamlet situated a short distance from the Wyvern's Cove. The crier was dressed in a black and red cloth outfit, which was extremely rare in the southern Lush Forest. A black stripe flanked by two smaller red ones rolled down the center of a leather travel cloak. Black and red were colors reserved for the royal family. The man walked toward the provincial capital's main keep.
The keep rose four stories, dwarfing nearby buildings. Builders had made the walls from pitch black sea stones dredged from the ocean and quarried from nearby cliffs. Initially, the designers concocted a light coral paint to help the building remain cool over blistering summers. No matter how many coats they added, though, the color remained darker than intended. So, the keep's outer walls maintained a color closer to a burnt rose. Ivory tiles covered the roof on every level.
Guards at the main doors opened the entrance, and the crier strolled inside and headed for the main halls. Inside, a woman sat on an oversized oak throne. An intricate pattern designed to evoke the ocean floor with mounds of coral and swaying seaweed were shaved into her hair. Mard the Pup was the daughter of Barj the Sea Lion, who was the Royal Envoy killed by The Mandrake at the Last Festival. Barj's remaining guards lined the hall and watched the crier as he entered. The guards had been on edge since their mistress's murder and their colleagues' failures. The crier rummaged around his cloak, and the guards readied their weapons, positioning themselves between him and their lord.
The crier removed a scroll, and the guard eased.
"Hear-ye! Hear-ye! By decree of Tark, heiress to the empire, a royal tournament will commence in three months’ time. Each lord and lady is requested to submit a list of participants and may invite up to ten citizens to attend the festivities. Let every brave warrior in the empire show their mettle!"
The guards chattered in surprised excitement, and Mard smirked in bemusement. Mard called an attendant, who hurried to his mistress. Mard whispered her instructions.
"Give The Demon's Wrath a list of ten guards who will...participate in the festivities."
Royal criers delivered the decree throughout the entire empire. At the same time that the crier was giving his message to Mard the Pup, another crier stood in the great halls of Noy the Deer, Lord of the Pasture. Noy sat in anticipation while the crier delivered the message, and his guards and servants became just as excited as Mard's had. Noy called an attendant.
"Let the princess know we will send two shifters to compete and ten guards to participate in everything else."
Within two weeks, every grand keep in the Lush Forest, Arid Desert, and Creeping Ice had a similar scene. The commencing of the royal tournament kick-started a cycle of training, arming, and provisioning, all under the pretense of preparing to find a champion.
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