Shift World I Book II Chapter 15
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Karp, Drom, and Tark walked toward the Clay Gate to meet with a representative of the Clay Workers. The small alliance hoped to gain allies in the fight against the royal envoys. Karp and Drom spoke while the group passed merchants' houses lining the main road to the heart of the Crossroads.
"why didn't the bog djinn say anything?"
"You were too far gone, crazed over revenge on the princess."
"but he didn't even try..."
"Of course he didn't! What would that have served? You wouldn't have shrugged it off or believed Trolt. You would have thought he was colluding with the empire to kill you and, at very least, distrusted him. At worst, you might have killed him on the spot. He sent you on your mission and wrote Tark.
"They met in secret and made a pact. The Bog Djinn would supply her forces with extra food and weapons while they prepared to overthrow the royal envoys. Trolt warned the princess as to when you were going to be close, and she would flee in advance of your arrival."
"that's quite a horse!"
"Ha, ha! Trolt thought his little joke was inconspicuous enough to make a countersign for the insurgency. Any time someone mentions The Horse Thief for the first time, anyone fighting the envoys says 'that must have been quite a horse,' and they reply 'you're not joking.' If they don't, they aren't one of us."
"did slart know about all this?"
"We didn’t tell her until recently. She was too broken up about Nort and you to know the truth. Knowing we were on the brink of open war and that you were tortured with thoughts of assassinating the princess, that would have taken her down a rabbit hole from which she might never recover. Slart's a smart girl, though. If I had to bet, I'd say she probably figured most of this out at some point. Anyone would probably have known you were tortured right away, but it would be difficult to figure out why. Right away, she probably knew we were stockpiling weapons and food. Even if suspicions arose, I doubt she knew for sure it wasn't to resell later."
"what happens now? am i going to stay 'the horse thief' forever?"
Tark perked up at the question and dropped back to join the conversation.
"I have come to a most agreeable decision, an elegant solution that returns your life to normal and also justifies the occurrences at the Crossroads over the last few days. I'll release a royal decree stating that the circulating pronouncement contained certain minor errors. First, it was not intended to say 'The Demon Scorpion.' The correct phrasing was 'The Demon's Scorpion, Karp of the Traitor's Tavern.' Second, we'll state that 'The Horse Thief' was meant to read 'The Hawk Tamer.' Bron the Hawk Tamer attacked The Grand's Meadow, the Grain Fort, the Traitor's Tavern, the Royal Mines, the Bamboo Coast, and a slew of lesser lords. Thirdly, this commotion at the Crossroads was the result of the Royal Guard capturing the traitor Bron the Hawk Tamer."
"i don't plan on joining the dragon guard, so these are just more lies."
"You needn't join the Guard. That's merely the official account in order to ease the masses. Isn't a little misdirection better than fighting every time you meet a city guard? Plus, no one will question your dragon fire steel...or arrest you for carrying demon steel. One parchment and you transform from Karp the Horse Thief, fugitive marked for death, into Karp the Scorpion, Heir to The Whitecoat, Protector of the Empire, Champion of the Royal Tournament."
"will anyone believe that lie? especially since the empire tried so hard to turn me into a criminal..."
"Most people will believe whatever we tell them, or at least apathy will carry the day. Some may even fancy the wonderful story in the new decree. Anyone pressured too intensely to follow the lies knew the truth already."
Karp, Tark, and Drom walked in silence while Karp contemplated becoming a puppet of the empire one more time. The idea turned her stomach, but life would become much more manageable.
Ten minutes later, the group arrived at the Clay Gate. The gate's metal bar frame was anchored into irregular stones mortared together with a primitive lye concrete. The gate's intersecting bars had been molded to appear like desert roses with twisting, barbed stems. Climbing the Clay Gate would cut bare hands to the bone, and even scaling in iron or steel gloves would disfigure a climber's hands.
Guards turned a pry bar, which dropped a barricading sliding block. They pushed the bar free from the clamps, and the gate jutted back into the Crossroads and slid open. Drom, Tark, and Karp passed into the Arid Desert and were met by an elderly woman and a young man. The shirtless old woman wore a leather skirt that covered down to her mid-thigh. The young man wore a similar outfit, except a dagger adorned his skirt's belt. The elderly woman greeted the travelers.
"I'm Dan, representative of all the free peoples of the Arid Desert. This is Bont, my grandson and the heir of our family."
"I'm Tark, princess and heir to The Conqueror's Empire."
"I'm Drom the Troupe Leader, Victor of the Lush Forest, Mercenary, and Chief of the Transporters Guild."
The woman eyed Karp but didn’t ask about the stray warrior. "What do you want with us?"
Tark stepped forward to address the noblewoman.
"A great leader such as yourself surely knows the perilous dangers faced by the empire. Usurpers in the Creeping Ice threaten to destroy the peace we've mercilessly fought to maintain. We'd ask the noble warriors of the Arid Desert to lend us your strength to help the empire last another five hundred years!"
"No. We have a great love for The Bog Djinn, who has many important industries in our lands and has ensured a fair trade of food and goods." The elderly woman nodded to Drom, and then she turned back to Tark. "But we have no love for the empire. The empire stood by while our people starved! The empire stole the sweat on our brow, and without fair consideration! You come with the fancy talk you learned in the royal schools and make it sound as though we should want to help some great power we've never liked! What do we care if our taxes go to your family or the royal envoys? It doesn't matter. We shall remain neutral, as we have since the days of Tord the Elder."
Tark took the news as though she had just heard about the death of her father, but she rebounded within a moment.
“You’re right. For its history, The Conqueror’s Empire has not kept good faith with The Clay Workers. Your people have suffered since the days of The Elder. I want to fix the inequality of the last two regimes, bring The Conqueror's Empire to an end, and restore the world to as it was before the days of Tord the Elder. The Crossroads will open again, and will be neutral land. The gates will be torn down, and The Clay Workers will trade directly with Forester and Nomad. Once the royal envoys are dispatched, I will only govern those who wish my rule. Everyone else is free to live as they want. All peoples will prosper!"
"Could you give up being The Demon Scorpion? Just like that?"
"I cannot because I was never The Demon Scorpion. This is Karp the Scorpion, and every accomplishment feigned to me was hers."
The old woman furled an eyebrow. "Whatever the name, are you really fine with being the last demon?"
"Yes, I'll proudly wear the mantle of Tark the Last Demon."
Dan watched Tark, turned to her grandson, who gawked in anxious excitement, and glanced at Karp's stoic facade.
"We are free men and women in the Arid Desert. I will not send any to their deaths if they do not wish it. However, anyone who wants to fight and die for your cause will be free to do so."
Tark beamed at the concession. Drom smirked with an impressed air. Bont tapped his dagger's handle.
Karp, Tark, and Drom watched the Burnt Gate from a safe distance. The Burnt Gate didn't have a metal entrance, unlike the Iron Gate and the Clay Gate. This gate rose as a solid mass of impenetrable blackened stone. Siege towers rose above the facade with guards patrolling on scaffolds, surveying the empty road that approached the Creeping Ice.
"how do you get through that?"
Tark pointed to a folded wooden ladder on the side of the scaffold and then to a series of wooden pulleys.
"Anyone healthy enough to climb ascends the ladder, and the pulleys are for importing goods. Workers spend all day transferring a single wagon of merchandise. Bulky goods and people too infirm to travel ride a vessel from the Royal Port into the Creeping Ice."
"What do the forces look like on the other side of the wall," Drom asked as he watched guards inspecting the stretch leading up to the gate.
"Approximately fifty-fold of what we fought in the Crossroads, but that's not the problem."
"we just need to punch a hole through the wall?"
"That's the problem. The moment we attack, archers, trebuchets, and catapults will launch containers of flaming oil, arrows, blasting powder, and bolts over the Burnt Gate. Half of the Crossroads will immolate before we even crack that stone. Once the pandemonium in the Crossroads has settled, we will devise a plan, but for now, we hold."
Most of The Demon's Wrath's forces heralded from the Creeping Ice or scattered keeps in the Lush Forest. That meant that there was not ample berthing or housing available for the influx of The Bog Djinn and Tark's soldiers. Tark and her guard, and Drom and his troupe, including Karp, stayed in private rooms in the Aviary. Karp, Tark, and her personal guard sat in the Aviary's dining hall, eating dinner. Three days had passed since taking down The Demon's Wrath at the royal tournament.
"boric, are you the one ma and pa talked about? the one who'd bring them supplies?"
"Why, yes! Were you the one who stood by and watched them die?"
Karp winced and realized her question was in poor taste.
"sorry… they nursed me back to health after i was slashed by some guard. they saved me again when enemies showed up to their compound by locking me in a tunnel before i knew what was happening. they gave me the means for revenge. i used their blasting powder to blow him up."
Boric's head sunk, and he sighed. "That sounds like something they'd have done. What monster could kill those two?"
"he was a lackey of the demon's wrath, named dorac the polar bear."
Boric cocked his head and pursed his lips in a silent reproach at her for answering a rhetorical question.
"what was it that made you turn east? instead of turning west, as you intended."
"Revenge. I was intent on destroying the empire, and I wasn't going to die until the whole enterprise crumbled into ruin."
"but you joined the empire instead..."
"No. I joined Tark, not the empire. Besides, the empire IS almost destroyed."
so either hope or revenge could save wili in the shift world, but what can you do when there is no point to life? how can i help him?
Karp sat awkwardly in silence for several moments and then noticed that people were watching her. She turned to the princess.
"why would you let him join?"
Boric interrupted. "Psshhh... You killed two shifters, I captured one, and the other Dragon Guard didn't kill or capture any! You should ask Tark why they were allowed to join since they didn't do anything!"
The rest of the table laughed at the absurd turn in the conversation. Karp wondered about her future after saving Nort from the upper world when a darker thought about how to save Wili who was suffering in the Shift World hit her.
if i can find a purpose for wili to live, what next? am i back at square one?
"what are you going to do? after all this is done?"
"Hmmm, move back to the Rebels' Mine, find someone else to love, and maybe reopen Ma and Pa's rest stop. Live there for the rest of my days."
The answer was surprisingly quaint. Karp turned to Tan the Wyvern. "what about you?"
"I never got the chance to thank you, Scorpion, for saving the villagers at the Wyvern's Cove. Thanks to you, they waited out the leviathan, and now they can finally rebuild. To answer your question, though, I'll move back to the Wyvern's Cove and fish again. I'll dive for clams and maybe in time help Ban and Troled raise their kids, whenever they get around to having them."
Karp looked to Baln.
"I don't plan on surviving this."
Everyone at the table laughed as Karp frowned. The princess explained.
"She proclaims that during every mission. Once, I inquired about her plans after dinner. Her answer? 'I don't plan on surviving this.' "
Karp looked to Rong. He said, "I'll stay and protect my lady until death separates me from the demons."
The princess answered next. "I'll pick up the empire's pieces. Govern those who wish it and protect those who do not. And you, Scorpion?"
The question shocked Karp. There never felt like an end, just more to be accomplished. There was saving Nort, and then helping Wili to find a reason to live, and reconciling with Slart; the war felt like the least of everything.
"me? the war might already be finished for me. i need to find nort, i might not be able to see the battles through. i'd like to live with slart, nort, and lark again, but right now slart can't look at me without crying. i'm sure she secretly blames me for his disappearance, and she’s right—it's my fault."
Tan moved around in her seat. She wiped her mouth with a leather napkin.
"I think you should talk with Ban and Troled. They might have some advice."
Karp carried a tray with a bowl of beef and vegetable stew, rice, water, and chocolate strawberry cake. A pair of armed guards flanked a barred cell door, and they opened the door to a room brightly illuminated by unshuttered windows. A full set of furniture, including a fur-lined bed and a table covered in scrolls and books, furnished the apartment. Karp stepped into the cell, and her foot struck stone. She walked to the table and placed the meal among scrolls containing poetry and short stories.
The Demon's Wrath turned from looking out the window. "Do you want revenge? For all I've done to you?"
"no, not really. revenge won't undo what you've done. it won't save nort or bring justice to the fallen. the worst fate i can leave a schemer like you is to stay in prison and make you watch the world move despite your will."
"I just have to wait, and then I'll be free again."
"do you think the royal envoy is going to save you?"
"No. You are going to free me. I have something you want, and no one else can give it to you. I can wait a very, very long time, but you will come to me, and I'll be free."
"i pity you, bron. the emotion's hard to explain; it's not born out of love, like with slart, who's sad for the loss of nort. it's not the same as i feel for wili, whose life is lonely, but that's not his fault. this pity is born out of disgust. i pity you because you are so putrid, toxic, and utterly despicable that i can't even hate you."
Karp turned and left the room without allowing The Demon's Wrath a chance for rebuttal.
Karp walked to an open door with a tray containing enough food for two. She tapped the open door with the steel plate of her boot’s toe, and three sharp snaps rang out. A woman's voice called. "Come in."
Karp rounded the doorway and entered. The Wolf sat in the corner, despite furniture filling the room. The Water Drake stood up from next to him, walked to Karp, and received the tray.
Karp stood in the room, contemplating what to say to troled and how to say it, but her tact lost and the question slipped from her mouth. "what happened to you?"
"I guess you have the right to know. I was wandering in the tunnels beneath the Crossroads. The Demon's Wrath and his guard jumped me, and next thing I knew, I was a prisoner in the Aviary. Bron offered me an ultimatum. He said that if I worked for him, he'd supply weapons and food, or I could spend the rest of my life in that cell.
"He started me off easy, like feeding you. Eventually, he gave me more difficult, unsavory tasks like attacking villages. I hated that type of work, but he kept his word and gave me all types of steel gear. Food in this world was becoming scarce, so I was allowed to have what I took from our targets, but that usually wasn't much. I was accompanying The Narwhal when Ban found me."
"That's right. We were in the Shift World, and one day, Troled fell ill. He became gaunt and started to smell like sewage. He refused to say what was wrong; he'd just stare at me and cry. I decided to come back to this world and find him."
"you mean you wanted to prevent it?"
Ban looked to Troled and back to Karp. "What? No, it doesn't work that way."
"well, if you knew he was going to get sick, couldn't you have stopped it before he fell ill?"
"That's impossible. Once you've seen something, in either world, you've seen the past. There is no way to prevent it, none. Any way you try to avoid it will become the cause. You can only wait to try to make a cure. So, I came back to this world and sought him out.
"I tracked him with that awful Narwhal near the Bamboo Coast. They were ransacking villages loyal to Tark. The Demon's Wrath kept the best gear, but most of the volume went to Troled. He saw me at the Wyvern's Cove, and we met in the nearby rice paddies. I told him everything that had happened in the Shift World, and we ran away together. We fled north by west and hid in the forests. He informed me about The Demon’s Wrath and the fighting and the coming civil war, and we ran. I think that even though we knew better, we still hoped to prevent the illness.
"We didn't stay safe for long. Krath and The Demon's Wrath found us and took us both prisoner. They kept us separated. They brought me west and brought Troled east to the Aviary. On the way west, The Polar Bear was blown up in a house, and the Dragon Guard pulled me from a transport. Once I knew what was happening to Troled, I returned to his world and begged for him to stay there with me. He wouldn't believe me. He would just mumble, 'they have you.'" Ban placed her hand on Troled's shoulder, and he smiled weakly.
"I was imprisoned in the Aviary, and The Demon's Wrath just moved from step to step, and within a month, there was no light, little food, and I just lay in putrid water all day. I was hungry and rabid, and I attacked a guard. They subdued me, and the next day they brought in her dagger and said they had her imprisoned in the Royal Resort. They said the next time I acted out or tried to leave, they'd kill her, and I just gave up. I lay in place for almost two months straight. I was petrified that if I moved from that spot, they were going to send a messenger or pigeon, and she'd be dead. I think you know the part about how we were reunited."
"I used the tournament and the attack on The Demon's Wrath to infiltrate the Aviary, to find him, and show him I was alright before he died, or was changed forever."
"I know we have no right to ask any more from you, but we need your help. We need you to teach us how to make the tools you use, like the mirror powder and the pop gourds. We're at the limit of what The Paladin can teach us, and we need a bigger advantage if we are going to defeat the Furies."
Karp found a tinge of strangeness in Troled saying the word “fury.” Karp thought back to the merchant's dying declaration and his plea that she'd one day help shifters from his world.
"That's right, you know my name. Troled is just an adaptation I use for this world. Please help us. If you do, we can defeat the furies! If we defeat the furies, we can bring back The Paladin. Isn't that worth it for you?"
"who's the paladin? why would i care about them?"
Triled and Ban quietly watched Karp. They looked at each other, and a flash of understanding crossed Triled's face.
"Right. In this world, you call him The Morning Shield."
Thank you for reading book II, please consider purchasing the full book at your favorite retailer. Book II has a special prologue summarizing the events of Book I from Karp's perspective and a special Epilogue showing Book II's story from many points of view.