Shift World I Book II Chapter 14
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Karp reached her buckler to Tark’s exposed neck, and her blade danced around the jugular. The crowd silenced and stared at the unscripted spectacle. The carnival barker ran into the rink, waving his hands in the air toward the audience. “The match is over! The Horse Thief wins! Back away from the princess! What are you doing just standing there!”
The guards snapped from their daze and hurried into the rink, but Karp shot them a glance that said she was not to be trifled with, and they froze again. Bron the Hawk Tamer’s voice rang out from the dais.
“Now take your revenge! She imprisoned you, tortured you! End this, and you’ll be FREE!”
Karp froze as she listened to Bron’s voice, and the words dragged her from consciousness to back inside her darkened cell in the Aviary. Karp straightened and stepped away from her bound and tied enemy. The Horse Thief shifted into her seashell steel armor with a dragon fire whip affixed to her right side. Her buckler’s dragon fire steel blade extended to a deadly point.
The Horse Thief bent back over the princess and reached the blade past her enemy’s exposed neck. She fought the lonely feeling and tore herself back into the arena. The Scorpion cut the whip, and Tark’s arms shot forward, free of the restraint. Karp walked in front of the dais while the princess unwrapped her feet.
“shouldn’t you try and protect your mistress? demon’s wrath?”
Bron grinned a wry smirk under his veil, reached up, and removed the red cloth from his face.
“Once I heard you murdered The Polar Bear, I knew I should have killed you in that tower.”
Karp threw a knife at The Demon’s Wrath’s face, but an arrow knocked the blade out of the air and to the arena floor. The Sea Urchin stood on the top row of the highest seats with a bow; he notched another arrow. The Demon’s Wrath sighed and gripped the railing that sat between him and the fighting rink.
“Karp, you waited years for that moment. Just one small flick and you’d be free.”
Tark shifted into her demon steel armor with a dragon fire sword. The princess walked to Karp and surveyed the audience. The carnival barker marveled at the spectacle unfolding on the other side of the rink and struggled to find the courage to speak. He spoke to the guards. “G-go. G-go and pro-protect the princess!”
The guards ran to meet Karp and Tark, but The Sea Urchin rained arrows onto the attendants, and one by one, they died. The barker shrieked and fled to the tunnel exit. He beat the door when he couldn’t remove the bar alone. “Help! Help! Let me out! Let me out! I...”
Pounding echoed from the other side of the door, in the hallway leading to the combatants' waiting area., The barker fell back in surprise and scrambled away. Meanwhile, The Demon’s Wrath motioned, and an entire column of cloaked spectators rose from their seats and slipped off their leather cloaks. Each wore studded leather armor with a black stripe. They donned red steel helms and pulled weapons from their cloaks’ linings. The Royal Guard poured over the side rail and onto the arena floor, filing toward Karp and Tark and encircling the pair. The Scorpion and the princess fought back to back to protect themselves from the oncoming guards.
On the other side of the arena, the outer door splintered and cracked as a hidden hulk smashed into the barricade. Back in the center of the rink, individual guards lunged toward Tark, but her sword sliced through both their steel weapons and bodies. Karp kept the guards from approaching by using her whip’s unpredictable trajectory. The guards protected themselves by keeping a distance from The Scorpion’s sting. The Sea Urchin shot volleys at the princess, but her sunshine steel arrows exploded on contact with the demon steel armor. Krath stood forty meters from Tark, and even with her considerable skill, couldn’t find a chink in the impenetrable armor. The Sea Urchin’s next arrow sailed two feet wide of Tark’s helm, and the princess knocked it out of the air with the flat of her sword. Karp and Tark circled until Karp faced The Sea Urchin.
Karp lashed her dragon fire whip past the guards who were still close, and four dropped dead. The rest of the pack scurried backward. The Sea Urchin shot an arrow for The Scorpion, and she dove out of the way. The arrow soared past and skipped along the arena’s floor. The Sea Urchin notched another and aimed, but The Scorpion scurried close to the arena floor and threw two powders in the air. The powders sparked, and Karp disappeared behind an image of guards. Krath watched for any sign of Karp, but only scattered knives flying through the mirage gave any hint of Karp’s location. Each projectile struck a guard’s leather armor, and that guard collapsed to the arena’s floor. The guards backed further away from Karp and Tark.
The beam securing the arena’s main door splintered. The Demon’s Wrath watched the troops in exacerbation and lost his cool. “Everyone rush in and take the princess and The Horse Thief!”
The guards glanced at The Demon’s Wrath and looked back to Karp and Tark, but no one wanted to volunteer to be the first to die. Bron looked up to Krath and nodded. The Sea Urchin notched an arrow and shot behind the guards circling the warriors. The crowd didn’t move, so Krath shot the next arrow into a warrior near the back, and the rear guard pushed the inner guard forward. The arena’s main door shattered as The Turtle plowed through the entrance.
Rong the Turtle, Baln the Coral Snake, Nordic the Shark, Boric the Fox, and Tan the Wyvern all burst in wearing their distinctive armors and carrying dragon fire steel. A legion of Dragon Guard followed Tark’s personal guard. The Dragon Guard was dressed identically to The Demon’s Wrath’s Royal Guard, with the only difference being that the Dragon Guard identified themselves with a yellow sun embedded in a white shield adorning the right breast.
The Demon’s Wrath fled the arena at the fighters’ emergence. The Sea Urchin rained arrows into the incoming soldiers, and some fell bloody. The guards fighting Karp and Tark broke their circle and re-formed facing oncoming soldiers. A single line of soldiers faced the rear to protect the back flank. Tark hacked through the soldiers, not bothering to block blades or spears since the weapons merely shattered against her demon steel armor. The Scorpion struck down any warrior who approached Tark carrying a maul, hammer, or other blunt instrument.
The Dragon Guard that carried shields broke from the incoming column and climbed into the stands. The Sea Urchin shot at the incoming warriors, but this time, shields protected their vital areas. She required several shots to bring low a single person, and then the group advanced. The Sea Urchin backed up to the arena’s railing and continued her assault. A red streak bounded between the seats as Krath shot at the incoming guard. The archer hesitated but couldn’t get a beat on the blur, which was no larger than a child. Krath loosed an arrow at the seats but only hit wood. Whoever had jetted within the stands was invisible, so Krath turned back to the shield bearers. Krath drew the string, and a blade crossed the back of her heel; she screamed and fell to the wood floor. Boric the Fox brought a small shield across her face and knocked her out cold.
The rest of Tark’s Dragon Guard reached the column of Royal Guard members in the center of the rink. Rong burst into the warriors, breaking apart the front lines. Every hammer swing sent guards flying away and separated them from the rest of the column. Baln finished any warrior that strayed from the main troops. Nordic the Shark and Tan the Wyvern led two squads to the rightmost flank. The guard fractured and panicked, surrounded by enemies on three sides with half their number already dead. The Royal Guard scattered through the open flank, and the number of casualties increased as the Dragon Guard harassed the fleeing fighters.
Several dozen cloaked spectators remained in the stands near the Royal Guard’s destination. The spectators shed their leather cloaks. Warriors dressed in seashell steel armor with yellow stripes leaped into the rink accompanied by Drom the Troupe Leader and his troupe. The Bog Djinn’s forces intercepted the column’s main body. Ban silently danced between the warriors, and they dropped dead without even registering that someone was near them. She seamlessly disappeared in the chaos. Drom’s troupe flowed with perfect synchrony as he commanded strikes, blocks, and movements behind an impenetrable two-row formation. The outer fighters blocked the Royal Guard’s incoming blows, and the inner ones struck at vulnerabilities.
By the time the central column reached the outer wall, only one-quarter of the original number remained alive, but they were surrounded and hopelessly outmatched. The remaining troops threw down their weapons, cowered on their knees, and raised their hands. The guards threw themselves on the demon’s mercy, and Tark's guard stopped the slaughter. Tark sheathed her sword and looked toward Karp.
“We must capture Bron before he flees to the Creeping Ice! Tan, Rong, Baln, and Talon Squad, come with me! Boric, take the remaining troops and secure the captives.”
Karp looked around for The Water Drake but couldn’t spot her in the mix of The Bog Djinn’s forces.
“drom and his troupe, come with me. the rest, assist boric in securing the enemy.”
Karp, Tark, and the appointed warriors moved for the exit.
The motley crew traversed the main road between medium-sized stone houses, heading toward the Crossroad’s center. A squad of six Royal Guards lurched from an alley between houses and targeted Tark. The crazed group ignored everyone except the princess. Tan slashed one, but he ran, despite the pain. Blood rushed from his body, and he passed out after just a few steps. Four other guards died similarly, but a fifth reached Tark and stabbed toward her heart. Tark didn’t move as the blade closed in, but Karp pushed her out of the way just before the edge struck her armor. Rong the Turtle smashed his hammer down on the crazed assassin.
The final guard laughed and fled the group. Drom and his troupe pursued the man but were intercepted by a contingent of City Guards before they reached the fleeing enemy. The troupe fell back to defend themselves, and the city guards poised to strike. Tark picked herself off the ground and shouted, “Cease this foolishness!”
The City Guard halted, and a woman with two red stripes down her left sleeve stepped forward. “Princess, are they with you? Bron said you were kidnapped...”
“Lieutenant, Bron has betrayed the empire and must be stopped. Stand down and let the troupe pursue that assassin!”
The lieutenant waved, and the city guard broke rank. Drom and his troupe ran up the road, and Tark turned her attention to Karp. “This armor is impenetrable, so why did you shove me!?”
Karp reached down and picked up the assassin’s blade. The evening’s waning light struck the dagger, and it flashed a black streak. “this might have worked.”
Tark’s eyes widened under her face mask. Scattered people picked up the other assassins’ weapons and checked the blades.
“only this one is made of demon steel. killing you must have been the plan all along. here, this is yours, right? by law...”
Tark shook her head. “No. Keep it as payment for your services up until now.”
The blade disappeared, and Karp affixed it to the tip of her whip. The whip’s old dragon fire blade was sheathed on her side. The group ran up the main road to find Drom and his troupe, but they got turned around near the market and couldn’t decipher which way the assassin ran. Leather shops, general stores, fletchers, cobblers, inns, taverns, and all manner of stores encircled the center.
“where could he have gone?”
Tark pretended as though she were surveying the landscape as she thought of an answer. “I surmise The Demon’s Wrath will destroy intelligence that can foil this coup before fleeing to the Creeping Ice. Thus, he would go to the Citadel, the Aviary, and nearby secret intelligence sites. We are not near the Citadel or Aviary, so there must be some secret installation nearby. I infer we will not need to guess further...”
A smokestack rose from behind buildings several blocks to the east. The group rushed toward the smoke. Drom and his troupe fought Royal Guard members outside of an inconspicuous two-story warehouse. Smoke billowed from the second-floor windows. The troupe finished off the last of the Guard as the group approached. The factory’s main entrance was barred from inside, and the first arrivals couldn’t push open the door. Rong the Turtle and two of Drom’s hammer-wielding strongmen broke apart the wooden face until it fell from the hinges. The influx of air intensified the flames burning inside the building.
The Royal Guard member who had fled the failed assassination attempt now stood inside the burning warehouse, surrounded by immolated scrolls and ledgers. Fresh blood covered his leathers head to toe. He laughed at the corpses stacked at his feet, draped over the tables, and ambushed in chairs.
“Ha, ha, I’m free! We’re all free now! Can’t you see? The Demon’s Wrath has set us FREE!”
The flames leaped from the scrolls and ledgers. The guard wheezed, and his voice became hoarse and low.
The burning roof collapsed on top of the crazed man, and the whole structure caved in within a few moments.
Tall, fortified walls surrounded the Royal Citadel. The main structure rose four stories and loomed over the Crossroad’s two-story houses. Each floor of the stone tower was thinner than the previous one. Several pronged, bladed steel peaks penetrated the exposed roofs, giving the building a menacing visage. Stone gargoyles sat on the exposed ridge of the first floor, staring into an open courtyard. A gap caused by a missing sculpture blemished the building’s nearest side.
Karp, Tark, and Rong arrived alone at the Royal Citadel’s outer wall while the remaining guards made haste for the Brunt Gate in order to cut off The Demon’s Wrath’s retreat. The trio stalked the Citadel in hopes of finding evidence of Bron’s schemes, plans for escaping the Crossroads, or possibly to find the man himself. Tark and Karp stood with their backs to the entrance’s left side, and Rong stood to the right side. Karp peeked around the wall’s edge and surveyed the inner court.
Three bored Royal Guard members lounged against a recently repaired main double door. No other signs of guards were evident. The leftmost guard perked up when he noticed Karp, and he alerted the other two. Karp ducked into the courtyard and threw a set of darts into the guards’ exposed leather. The leftmost guard slumped to the dirt, the rightmost guard fell back, and the center guard spoke a few slurred words before passing out. The guards lay unmoving as Karp approached, and she retrieved her darts and checked the guards’ vitals. Tark and Rong strolled up.
“they’re alive. they’ll wake in a few hours, and they might have information we can use.”
Karp pushed, but the heavy oak didn’t budge until The Turtle placed a hand on the wood above Karp’s head and helped. Then, the door lurched forward, scraping across the Citadel’s floor.
“they must have had three guards just to open the door.”
A bellowing laugh echoed under The Turtle’s helm. The Citadel’s interior had changed radically since Karp had fought the merchant and Nort had disappeared into the well in the main room’s far corner. Long wooden benches now filled the room’s previously empty center. A six-by-six-meter series of maps hung over a dais built next to the small well. Karp hurried to the well and peered inside, but there wasn’t an empty plunge as she had expected. Rocks of every size filled the shaft up to the well’s top. Karp turned to speak to Tark, but hanging bodies stole her attention.
Korg the Whitecoat and Jorn the Sunflower’s bodies remained attached to the far rafters. Additionally, the merchant’s corpse hung nearest the dais next to Long, the previous captain of the Crossroad’s City Guard. He had summoned help from Tark and her guard when Karp and Nort were inspecting The Grand’s Meadow. Finally, The Grand’s severed head sat on a beam in the corner. Tark broke the silence. “This is what they think of us all.”
“what happened here?”
“The Demon’s Wrath quietly captured the Crossroads while my guard and I hunted the followers of The Mandrake. When The Mandrake captured the Citadel, Long sent me the notification instead of The Demon’s Wrath. It was probably because he knew my location and I was nearby, but Bron didn’t care; he saw that slight as losing control. That’s why he made Long suffer. The Mandrake both created Bron’s opportunity and revealed his schemes before victory was certain. He killed The Grand because he was loyal to the royal family. The Horse Thief was an excuse he used to remove an obstacle.”
"how…how did i end up in that tower?"
"We arrived to halt the shifters, but you had dispatched them all. After that man attacked the Citadel and transformed the devils and skeletons, the Crossroads fell into chaos. Some attacked the Citadel, but most of the monsters dispersed throughout the city. We dealt with the interlopers, rescued you, and escorted you to a guard station near the Iron Gate. The Demon's Wrath infiltrated the city while we hunted the remaining monsters, and he kidnapped you and Long during the confusion. By the time we had quelled the disturbance, you were missing. For weeks we believed you had voluntarily left, but later, we learned he had whisked you to the Aviary."
"why didn't you help me then? after you learned?"
"It wasn't that simple. We held a festival right after we cleared out the rest of the monsters. We claimed the royal family and the Dragon Guard had defeated The Mandrake and his legions of followers. People believed, mostly. If a person hears a truth they believe impossible or a banal lie, they trust the lie. Anyway, I had thought we had reconquered the Crossroads, but The Demon's Wrath ambushed my personal guard whilst returning from the festival. I was kidnapped, but the scoundrel's plan was flawed. He thought I'd be quickly subdued without Rong, Boric, Tan, Nordic, or Baln by my side, but days later, they staged a rescue.
“We fled the Crossroads to the Grand's Meadow. His ‘tamed’ chased us with a couple of his special guards and regular soldiers. They surrounded the compound and, after months of isolation, demolished the weakened main keep and killed The Grand. We were outnumbered and unprepared, so we fled, and his troops lost track of us. The tamed are cruel and suicidally loyal, but they can't think for themselves. That's one of the reasons he decided to try to tame you. He wanted an arrow that had a chance to kill me. I guess he thought since you blamed me for imprisoning you, that once he had you under control, I'd become your sole focus.
"Anyway, we moved from safe house to safe house through the Lush Forest. We skirmished with The Demon's Wrath's forces. They hoped to dispatch me and blame you for the murder. That would have ended the conflict. My puppet of a brother would have become the heir of the empire, and the envoys would seize control. By the next generation, the royal family would disappear.
"We survived every ambush until we arrived at The Bog Djinn's castle. We were desperate, but Trolt wouldn't help. He wanted to remain neutral because he believed the identity of the standing regent didn't matter for his business."
"did he change his mind?"
"He did…after he saw what The Demon's Wrath did to you."
"did to me?"
"Yes, he tried to tame you. Trolt said that someone who'd torture an envoy of The Bog Djinn couldn't be trusted in contract or business, but I think he was actually bothered on a more personal level."
"personal level? what are you talking about?"
"I, of course, know a great deal about influential people in the world, and everyone who's anyone knows that Slart of the Traitor's Tavern is like a granddaughter to The Bog Djinn. Korg the Whitecoat was like a son. You were like a daughter to Korg and family to Slart. You came to The Bog Djinn wholly broken, and Slart was distraught. The Demon's Wrath had disgraced the memory of The Bog Djinn's son and granddaughters, so Trolt had no choice but to seek vengeance. He started sending us aid after you spoke with him.
"He also informed us of your intentions to ensure that you never found me, at least while you pined for my demise. I'm not sure exactly how it happened, but eventually, you came to your senses and no longer wished me deceased."
"that's not entirely true. i still wanted you dead, but i just wanted nort more and wanted peace more than freedom. at least what the demon's wrath was trying to sell as freedom."
Karp sighed and thought about the journey, but they still needed to stop The Demon's Wrath. Karp, Tark, and Rong found a flight of steps hidden behind a closed panel and ascended to the second floor. The second floor consisted of rooms ringing around the first floor's raised ceiling. Each link in the ring served some function typical of a great lord's private chambers. Cloth and leather outfits and metal armor filled the first room. A polished steel mirror reflected Karp's image while pillaging the room. She picked up some of the valuable metal armor and returned them to the Shift World. The Turtle picked up several dragon fire steel weapons, and they also disappeared. To Karp's surprise, most of the armor was worthless steel and iron in various states of disrepair. The princess was uninterested in taking anything from The Demon's Wrath's personal equipment.
"does the demon's wrath work as a spy?"
"That is an integral part of his role for the Royal Envoy. He infiltrates the empire undetected, and who is more forgettable than the poor?"
The trio continued through the long halls and scattered rooms. They passed an unadorned bedroom that held little more than a straw bed and nightstand. Lastly, a study held a table covered in scrolls, parchments, maps, and ledgers. Tark picked up a nearby scroll and eyed the strange writing. She sighed and threw it back on the table. "We've constantly failed to decrypt this code. We're not even sure how this type of cipher works."
Karp retrieved the scroll and read the writing. "have you asked the bog djinn?"
"No! And relay what exactly? We have no idea by what method the enemy communicates, but don't worry, I'm sure we'll understand eventually."
"you'll be sorry you didn't. this is the writing of the shift world. it's not like our writing. it's all sound-based. that scroll you just threw is about the deaths of the narwhal and the polar bear."
Karp picked up another scroll and skimmed the page. "this scroll is about slart staying at her inn, and your position at the grain fort. it's signed by a merchant named galt. this scroll says there is a disruption in the trade route near the broken hollow..."
Tark nodded. "Tan brought forth a squad of guards and intercepted shipments of food and weapons in transit from ransacked keeps to the Crossroads. Does any of this intelligence help find The Hawk Tamer before he escapes to the Creeping Ice?"
Karp was picking up a new handful of papers every few seconds, and each time, those papers disappeared. She read each handful in her storehouse in the Shift World. Once the scrolls ran out, Karp returned ledgers sitting on the table.
“none of these scrolls give us an idea of how the hawk tamer could escape, but he had hundreds of spies scattered throughout the lush forest and arid desert. his plans are nothing short of becoming the next emperor! we need to stop him from escaping! the hawk tamer has some special kind of shifter in the aviary. that might be nort! our only choice right now is to go to the aviary and find the shifter, make a guard talk, or get lucky."
Tark sighed in resignation.
Karp hadn't spent time looking at the Aviary's exterior when she fled for her life after her prolonged captivity. Now that she looked it over, though, she saw that the tower lacked fanciful adornments or embellishments and would be utterly forgettable if not for its extreme height compared to the nearby buildings. Unlike the Royal Citadel, each of the Aviary's five floors had an even diameter, stacking neatly into a pillar. Memories of captivity stole her breath in pulsing waves of anxiety. Karp, Rong, and Tark arrived to find Ban the Water Drake and a squad of four fighters hiding behind a nearby house. Tark addressed the unfamiliar soldiers.
"Why are you not with The Troupe Leader defending the Burnt Gate?"
"Well, I…I mean, they didn't need me… We saw this tower in the distance and thought we could use it to spot anyone sneaking around, but it's locked up tight. Is that the Aviary?"
"It is. Do tell. What have you discovered?"
"This is the only entrance, no other way in or out, and no one's entered in some time."
"we need into that place..."
Five guards stood behind a barricade securing the tower's main door. Wooden planks, sheets, and spare furniture blocked the view of the guards at any given moment, but that also stifled their view of the courtyard. Ban had been watching the guards' movements with intense interest for several minutes before the others arrived.
"I could try to stop them before they raise the alarm. We might be able to catch them unaware."
Tark contemplated Ban’s words. "Proceed."
Ban nodded and disappeared behind the nearest row of houses. Minutes later, she looped around the tower's edge and slipped behind the barricade. The guard on the furthest left was watching an open field. He reached for his throat, wearing a shocked and crazed expression, as Ban quietly lowered him to the ground. The next guard was walking from one vista to the next but slacked before reaching his destination. The Water Drake stalked to the next guard and stabbed her through the heart in a lunging thrust. Ban dispatched the next guard with a silent slash, but his helm wasn't secured and crashed to the ground when he collapsed. The noise alerted the final guard, but The Water Drake hurled her weapon at the man, and he died without warning the tower.
The rest of the group skulked to the entrance.
The Water Drake cleaned off her long dagger and nodded. Tark eyed the main door and turned to Rong. "What do you think?"
The Turtle placed his hand on the wood and slid it around, occasionally pushing. "Two hits."
Tark sighed. "We’ll lose the element of surprise, though, and the remaining guard will converge on our location. Karp and I shall search for The Demon's Wrath. Everyone else engages the enemy."
Rong nodded, but Ban's brow furled in a worried expression, and The Bog Djinn's forces turned to her for orders. "No matter what happens, do as Tark says."
The guards nodded. A massive war hammer appeared in Rong's hands. "Move back."
The warriors scurried away. The Turtle thrust his hammer back, stopped for a moment, and then threw it forward with a snap of his hips. The head struck close to the hinges, and they stretched and twisted. Rong swung again, and the door peeled open, cracked in half, and flew into the tower. The fighters piled inside and assessed the area. Hallways wrapped around the outer wall to both the left and right, and a third hallway stretched forward. No sounds came from any direction. The princess turned to Karp. "Scorpion, what do you remember of this place?"
"i'm not sure. it's all a blur, and i didn't spend much time outside of my cell. i don't know what's on this floor, but if you go straight through the center hall and up the stairs, my cell was on the third floor."
The Water Drake sprinted through the center hallway. Karp and Tark followed. Soldiers filed in from the left and right just after they departed. The Turtle and The Bog Djinn's soldiers circled the hall and fought off the encroaching guards. Ban reached the stairs several meters before Karp and Tark and ascended early enough that none of the arriving guards knew Karp and Tark had even entered. Karp arrived on the third floor to find Ban pinning a servant to the wall with a knife pressed into the servant’s stomach.
"The third room! Please don't kill me!" Ban released the woman with a disgusted grunt and turned to locate the third room. The servant reached into her sleeve and pulled out a steel dagger. Karp walked behind the woman, punched her, and the blow propelled her head into the wall. She passed out, sliding to the cobblestone. Ban pushed her dagger's handle, and it snapped back into the scabbard with a click.
Screams rang out from a nearby room at the sound of the commotion. "Help! Help! Let me out!"
Karp grabbed a lever and pulled. The door's main bar scraped across the jamb, and the door opened. An emaciated man cautiously stepped from the room, eyeing Karp and Tark. Karp looked inside. Only a bare straw bed furnished the area. Light entered through uncovered windows, and a pot sat in the corner.
"who are you?"
The man shrunk from the words. "I'm Broch of the Emperor's Forest."
"are you a shifter?"
"No, there's nothing special about me! I'm just a cook in The Golden Beaver's kitchen. I-I don't know why the empire took me."
"you're safe now. we're clearing out the tower, so stay hidden until the royal guard is subdued."
"Let me fight! I'll do whatever you want to make them pay." The man reached out a shaking hand.
"you're in no shape to fight. there's a dining hall near the stairs. go stay there until we come to find you."
A flash of shame crossed his face, and he slinked away.
"what exactly is this place?"
"The Demon's Wrath drugs and tortures prisoners until their psyches splinter. Once they've broken, the deranged mess will murder, steal, or even light themselves on fire for The Demon's Wrath."
"he doesn't seem that broken..."
"No, but it’s early in the process. I wonder if they've changed the procedure since you escaped."
"what? what are you talking about?"
"Well, see how that guy thought the empire was responsible for his imprisonment. He was willing to do whatever we wanted. The Demon's Wrath adapted, and, I think, he is now trying to force people to be loyal and competent by having them blame the empire. I presume that failed for you, so maybe he was attempting to change his methods..."
Tark shrugged. Ban hit a lock until it cracked in half and fell to the ground. She pushed open the door and stepped inside, but she exited a moment later, exacerbated. "Empty! Just a handful of weapons..."
Karp pushed open the second room and peered inside. A man stomped around in foul-smelling, tepid water covering the darkened floor. The man grunted and moaned as the light hit his face. "No! Get out! Get out! He'll kill her!"
The man fell to his knees and splashed the water that pooled around his legs. Karp stepped into the room.
"you need to calm down..."
He pulled a knife from under the water and slashed at Karp, just like a cornered animal clawing at an incoming predator. The water's smell sent Karp's heart racing, and she fought the urge to collapse in the liquid.
"Stay away! They'll kill her! Stay away!" Karp backed away as the man hacked at the air. Ban ran into the room and silently slid through the water. She side-stepped behind him, reached for his dagger, slid it from his hand, and dropped it to the floor. The man sat impotently, staring at Karp. Ban slid one hand around the man's torso, reached her dagger across his neck, and continued until her forearm held his head in place.
"I'm here. I'm safe. Come back to me…come back," The Water Drake whispered.
"I thought…he had you…he had your dagger..." Troled the Wolf's body slacked then, and his thrashing calmed. Tears fell down his cheeks and dripped into the putrid pool.
"He was lying, baby, but you're safe now. Everything is going to be fine…" Ban's words had almost no effect on his state even though he must have known she was telling the truth. Karp thought back to her time at the Bog Djinn's and felt guilty about how Slart must have felt when Karp herself was in such a state.
"troled, you worked here for the demon's wrath. we need to know how he is going to flee to the creeping ice.”
Troled turned doe-eyed and mumbled an answer, clearly lost to the world around him. "Tunnels connect...everything from the Aviary…to the Citadel to the Burnt Gate…"
"Where is the tunnel? How do we enter?"
"She's safe…that's wonderful…she's FREE..." The Wolf fell asleep in The Water Drake's arms then, and Tark furrowed her brow.
"we need to find a dry well on the first floor."
The Demon's Wrath ran through ankle-deep water on the tunnel's floor. He wasn't accustomed to moving silently or quickly, and every footfall splashed. His torchlight illuminated the walls and ground around him, but darkness obscured further down the tunnel. Splashing noises came from the Aviary's direction. Bron ran, but footsteps approached faster than he could flee.
"I let you go too early, Scorpion."
The pursuing footsteps halted momentarily before continuing more quickly.
"That's right. I let you go!"
The approaching footsteps stopped again as his pursuer listened to his declarations. "Those 'guards' were my pets."
The steps stopped, but The Demon's Wrath heard water dripping in the tunnel and found the noise disconcerting.
"You were supposed to kill them! They died because of you!"
The Demon's Wrath cleared a turn and saw a grate at the tunnel's end. The Burnt Gate stood a hundred meters past the grate's end.
"They were criminals. I promised them freedom if they only worked your cell. I was going to free them by throwing them off the Aviary! I was going to free you the same way!"
The Demon's Wrath abandoned his torch and drew his polearm from his back. Bron swung the weapon behind him, but no one was following. The Demon's Wrath turned toward the exit again and ran for his freedom. Shadows danced on the tunnel's walls, but he couldn't spot Karp or his pursuers. The Demon's Wrath approached an intersection and swiped the polearm as he passed the offshoot, but no one was waiting. The Demon's Wrath ditched his polearm twenty meters from the exit gate and sprinted unencumbered. A voice whispered in Bron's ear.
Bron twisted to face Karp, and she stabbed his neck with a knockout dart. The Demon's Wrath stumbled and smashed his chest into the grate's bars. Royal Guards stationed just outside of the tunnels in front of the lift leading up the Burnt Gate, unlatched a hoist. As The Demon's Wrath fought to get their attention as his consciousness faded, but Karp's hand wrapped around his head and pulled. The gate pulled away and disappeared behind the darkness.