Shift World I Book IV Chapter 3
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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"It's finally over..." Ban spoke with an exhaustion that implied the fighting just ended.
"i guess you won?" Karp's calm demeanor probably made Ban think that she didn't care, but her heart raced, and her breathing sped up.
"Yes. Complete victory. Few casualties." Ban awkwardly plopped down on the floor with her knees cockeyed. Triled walked over to hug her.
"bring him back." Karp narrowed her eyes and stared through Ban and Triled, hoping her emotions came through. Ban gulped and exchanged glances with Triled.
"Of course, one moment." Ban looked at Triled with a worried expression, but a moment later, she shifted to her world sitting and came back to Karp's world erect. Another moment passed, and Triled stood holding Nort's morning shield. Someone stood behind the pair wearing strange clothing.
"you two, get out!" Karp almost growled at Ban and Triled, and they scurried from the room. Karp reached out for Nort's shield, and Triled handed it to her on his way out. Karp ambled to Nort, who stared at her with a confused expression. His eyes darted between her thinner, older face and the stump that ended her left arm.
"What happened to..." Karp reached up, wrapped her arms around Nort's neck, and hugged him so forcefully that she pulled his head into her seashell steel cuirass hard enough to hurt. Affirming he really came back, the barely-holding-it-together Karp started bawling.
"i t-thought you w-were gone f-forever..." Karp stuttered between sobbing breaths. Unlike her time as The Horse Thief where she frequently broke down in unprovoked outbursts, Karp actually felt emotions stirring in her. The fear that Nort had died and the associated loss eased and flowed out with her tears replaced with the warmth of knowing that Slart's pain will reduce that much as well. A whole world of possibilities now opened up for her little family. Although it made her feel a bit selfish, she was overwhelmingly glad that The Demon's Wrath couldn't steal her ability to love what she wanted. She could still feel happy or sad as a result of life's ups and downs.
"Owe. Was I gone a long time?" Those that knew Karp well have seen the subtle signs of her happiness or sadness. During the time after The Whitecoat died, and again when Wili said he didn't want to live anymore, Karp had occasionally cried in secret. She suspected that Nort had seen her looking crestfallen with wet eyes multiple times. She couldn't help but give a little chuckle on the inside when thinking about how shocking this must be for him.
"i'm not really sure." Since Karp shifted between worlds, she didn't have a firm conception of time. Trying to figure out how many days she spent in one world versus the other was almost always unnecessary in daily life and burdensome for her to accomplish. She didn't have the aptitude for it or much practice. "it's been a long time in this world and years for me."
"I'm sorry..." Nort probably had an inclination that he returned after an extended trip, but hearing years must have been jarring. "I thought if I destroyed that man's armor, that you could have landed a blow, but I guess that didn't happen."
"it happened. i stabbed him while you struggled with the whip around his neck." Karp let go of Nort, feeling a lot better between the hug and cry. She would only allow herself to experience only so many emotions at once and had to separate from him.
"That's good. I was losing my grip and saw The Mandrake standing in the well..." Nort rubbed the back of his head, trying to figure out a way to explain what happened without sounding reckless. "I figured that I could either return to the Shift World as Wili or go to The Mandrake's world and kill him there. So, I shifted to his world with the thought, 'kill The Mandrake.' I guess it worked."
Karp wanted to hide the dubious look on her face, but Nort frowned almost instantly.
"I hope you didn't spend too long looking for me in the Shift World."
Karp's face turned beet red. "look for you?"
"Yeah. Didn't you guess that I shifted into Wili when I was at the bottom of the well? I just mean I hope you didn't go all the way from your storehouse to the Crossroads and end up disappointed."
"ah... well... i wasn't really in a very good place after killing the merchant. it should have been obvious to look there but..."
"Oh. Ok. That's good at least. What do you mean by 'wasn't in a very good place?'"
Karp explained The Demon's Wrath imprisoning, torturing, and brainwashing her in the tower known as the Aviary. She also touched on some of the events of her time as The Horse Thief, but she avoided the painful memories because she wanted a happy reunion. Nort listened uncharacteristically stoically until the end of her explanation.
"Those two were also followers of The Mandrake? Why aren't they dead or arrested?"
"ban mostly spent her time living in her village without attacking keeps. as for Triled, i'm not sure there's a good reason. he'll be an asset to the empire, is probably the cleanest way to explain it."
"Did I at least kill The Mandrake?"
"no." Karp awkwardly shook her head. "he actually died trying to save your life to fulfill a promise to help repair the relationship between our two worlds. at least that's what ban claimed."
"So it didn't even matter in the end?"
"i've come to look at all this as being very muddled." Nort nodded. "the way ban and triled talk, their world would have been lost if you didn't go there. in some other shift world where we stay in the traitor's tavern, the surviving shifters might have taken over our doppelgangers world after theirs was destroyed. Or that karp and jara talk it out in the rocky valley, and all this pain was avoided. who knows..."
Nort's face twisted in surprise at Karp's unexpected philosophical side. Then it bent further when his gambeson split down the stomach. "I guess I can't really wear this thing here..."
"yeah..." Karp reached out and pulled on the rip. "this feels like grass. i wonder if that's because you're touching it." The gambeson's material frayed at the ends like it was made of poorly woven together grass started coming apart. Karp picked up the morning shield from the floor by her feet and shifted to her storehouse.
"hi wili." Wili didn't make any attempt to look over to Karp or register her appearance. He focused on the strange cloth armor ripping across his body.
"I guess you need something from me?" Wili finally turned his attention to Karp, and his face went blank. "What on earth happened to you?"
"it's been a rough couple of years." The emotionally draining session she just shared with Nort tired Karp, so she kept her answer short.
"I know you promised not to bring me here unless absolutely necessary, but..."
"of course it wasn't that simple! nort went missing..."
"I see... I'm glad you got him back. I guess that was a while ago?"
"umm, no. that was right before i came back here," Karp spoke halfheartedly while fishing through one of her cabinets for Nort's spare armor. After assembling a complete set, she also removed leather servant clothing.
"i actually prepared a bunch of cloth clothing for you, but i'm afraid it'll break now. is this fine?"
"You can just give me whatever you want Nort to wear."
"i made a bunch of changes to the safehouse while you were away. i just wanted to show you around... maybe spend some time here." Karp felt like she spoke a little coyly, even though Wili probably wouldn't notice. To her, this was a matter of life and death, and she hoped he'd humor her. "change over there."
Karp pointed to a series of partitions that cut out approximately one-third of the warehouse. She handed Wili the stack of leathers, and he jerkily walked behind the divider.
"Is that a bed covered in cloth? That must have been worth a lot. Though it feels kind of out of place with all this other stuff..."
"yeah, i figured you should be comfortable while working out of here." Karp made a mental note to clear out the cleaning supplies she left in that area. She wanted easy access to the brooms and pails while fixing up her safehouse, but now, she could just leave it all in one of the nearby empty houses.
"So, why is this bed here?"
"that whole area is your bedroom for when we come back here." Karp bet the thoughtful gesture surprised him since, in the past, he'd either sleep on a cot or have to go to another house to sleep on a dingy bed. However, Wili came back out of the divider with a strange look on his face instead.
"These clothes are weird. Nothing like what I normally wear." Wili stroked his hand over the supple leather that hung loosely on him.
"oh? i guess so. you normally wear training leathers for protection, but these are servant's leathers which are made to be easily moved in." Karp made another mental note to get other types of leather clothing. She motioned for Wili to follow her to the door, and they looked around the side of the building after going outside. "it's a living garden!'
"a living garden. so you can grow food. i figured since you're going to be here, you can make your own food." As Wili had become more depressed when he and Karp traveled through the Crossroads, he confided in her that he didn't like that he only ate the food she brought. Creating a garden at her storehouse felt like the perfect solution. He could grow any fruit or vegetables he wanted with the irrigation system she made.
Earlier in Karp's life, she worked at a farm, and every spring, they dug irrigation channels. Experience from that awkward part of her life finally paid off.
"one last thing to show you." Karp waved for Wili to follow, and he trailed behind her to the safehouse's other side. The home would heat up to an unbearable level if they cooked inside, so she set up an iron oven several feet from the outside walls. Wili eyed the stove incredulously. Karp hoped he liked her attempt to connect with him and spoke with an awkward smile. "you can cook here."
Wili glared at Karp, and the sudden hostility jolted her. "what?"
"Why are you doing this?"
"just to show you what i think of you." Wili's question was innocuous, but his delivery sounded borderline angry, and Karp let her answer slip out without thinking it through.
"So you just think of me as some kind of servant?" Wili fumed.
"You tell me that for years you thought I might be dead, and you'll never see me again. Yet when we finally met, you acted like you didn't even care I was alive! Said it like you were talking to a neighbor's butler. What's your plan? Have me sleep with the cleaning supplies and work in this uniform. I'm also supposed to grow food for you and cook it here? Why? Because I'm a scholar, you assume I can cook?"
"HUH?! i think you misunderstand! i thought this would make you happy?!"
"I told you just a few days ago, I didn't want to live in this world if I'm only going to be your servant! How would this make me happy?!"
Karp watched Wili storm off and wondered how she could have failed so miserably at getting her intentions across.
Karp shifted back to her world with Nort standing next to her, wearing a copy of the partial plate armor and chainmail he used before donning full plate armor. He wore gauntlets, sabatons, greaves, and an open face helmet but only had steel chainmail on his chest and thighs. Although the steel wouldn't protect Nort any better than iron, Karp liked the look better and had far more spare steel laying around her storehouse. Karp wondered if wasting a relatively expensive metal just because she didn't keep the cheaper metal around in bulk was a sign of her growing affluence.
"Did something happen?" Nort broke the silence with a surprising question, and he continued on as if reading the growing questions in her mind. "When something happens in the Shift World, and we come back here, I get a fleeting glimpse of Wili's emotions. I was really mad for just a second, but it's gone now. What did you do, Karp?"
"why do you assume i did anything?" Karp put on an indignant display but quickly ended the farce. "i tried to do something nice, but my intentions didn't go through. if anything, he took it the opposite of what i meant."
"What did you do?"
"i made him his own room in the warehouse and planted a garden so he could cook his own food on a stove i bought." Nort looked at her with an ambivalent face. He didn't seem either angry or like he would praise her either. "what do you think?"
"It's true that I don't see why he got mad, but I'm not sure you really thought your plan through." Karp cocked her head, and Nort continued. "Wili only exists in that world when you need to go to it, right? It might take the rest of your life to see the fruits and vegetables grow. Until then, gardening would just be a chore. Unless you're willing to spend long stretches in the Shift World doing nothing or leave him at the storehouse while you explored, not much would have changed."
"what are you saying? i'd have to abandon him in the shift world for him to have his own life?"
Nort nodded. The thought of leaving Wili in the Shift World to live a happy life didn't bother Karp that much, but she couldn't escape the reality that it meant abandoning Nort. She couldn't even contemplate trading one person for another.
A few days later, Karp and Nort stood in a meeting with Tark and her Dragon Guard, Drom and his Troupe, Nordic with the crew of Sea Breeze, and a few unaffiliated shifters like Ban and Triled. Other than Royal Envoys, the enemy of their little coalition, and The Bog Djinn, who couldn't attend due to his old age, the world's most influential people and groups all gathered together. Tark the Last Demon presided over the meetings as the crowned princess of the empire. Drom the Troupe Leader, Trolt the Bog Djinn's right-hand man, coordinated most of the world's supply logistics. Nordic the Shark lorded over the Royal Ports in the Lush Forest and the Creeping Ice. Ban and Triled represented the last vestige of inter-world trade with the upper-world.
Karp felt more than a little inadequate. She attended the meeting because she was good at stabbing things. That didn't make her feel on par with the people around her. Tark stood at the front, pointing to a map.
"Our straight-forward objective shall be easier to explain than initiate. Seize the siege weapons positioned at the Burnt Gate and halt the enemy's machinations!" The room's atmosphere read of unenthusiastic agreement. "Firstly, we shall make landing at the Royal Port."
Tark started by pointing at the Burnt Gate, situated around the mid-point of the map. Her finger traced a nearly straight line down the length of the Creeping Ice, starting at the final destination and stopping at the bottom-most point, the ship's dock at the Royal Port in the Creeping Ice. "We shall liberate the encumbered village with an elite force drawn from our best tacticians and most skilled fighters. The posting on this board documents the chosen fighters." Tark pointed to a hand-written parchment with larger names written at the top and columns detailed below.
"Upon completion of that objective, Nordic shall return with a flotilla of three vessels and secure the remaining troops. They shall forthwith journey to the Royal Port with these battalions." Tark pointed to the smaller columns. "Nordic, do you have guidance on this matter?"
"Aye, M'lady. Thank you. Each voyage should take approximately two weeks. That means six weeks in total from the first departure to final arrival at the Royal Port. Please consider that in your plans."
"Yes. Very well. We have factored in the extended voyage times. Although not ideal, our final foray should launch within the expected time-frame."
"I understand. Let's hope for fair winds and following seas. Though, it never really works out that way."
Tark frowned. Karp knew that effective leaders prepared for such contingencies, but even the most prodigious generals often had no choice but to hope no serious problems emerged.
"After traversing the length of the main highway, we shall swarm the artillery batteries threatening the Crossroads. At the commencement of the battle, Boric the Fox shall demolish the Burnt Gate and flood the Creeping Ice with an alliance of Foresters and Clay Workers.
"Due to the pressing nature of our departure, the advanced group shall depart within three days. The finer details of everyone's roles are immaterial to this meeting and will be discussed individually. Any questions?" Most of the attendees seemed to accept the overall plan. Still, Karp doubted they'd move forward without petty squabbles over the fine details slowing progress.
"i'd like nort and triled removed from the advanced team. they shouldn't be going at all." Karp's simple declaration sent shockwaves around the room.
"They are two of our strongest weapons, are you kidding?" Someone complained from within the group's anonymity.
Karp didn't recognize the voice and just rolled her eyes. "the sea passage would be extremely dangerous for nort. if one of the shifters onboard carelessly went to another world and came back without realizing he's nearby he could end up in the ocean. maybe stuck in another world again. nort has just returned after going missing for years. he needs to go see his mother! last time i saw her, she barely held it together. if you need a reason for yourself, want to see this alliance fall apart? if slart loses nort again to a hasty, greedy, easily avoidable accident, she'll be forever devastated. if you think the bog djinn would stand for that, you must not know him."
The entire room changed from incredulously snickering to anxiously murmuring. The Troupe Leader wore an impressed air before speaking up. "I can attest to what she says. If Slart fell irreconcilable due to such carelessness, he'd certainly withdraw his support. All those loyal to him would follow his lead..."
Karp wondered if she could have approached the discussion without the veiled threat, but it seemed to have worked, and Tark relented. "Fine, but why not have The Wolf come as well?"
"it would be too dangerous. do you remember when he lost control of his powers on the convoy road? if i hadn't stopped him, he'd have blown apart the wagon. he also could have blighted the area. you want to be in the open ocean knowing you're one nightmare away from having the side of the ship blown up or the crew turned to monsters?"
"uh... well... What would you do then?" Tark's flustered response surprised Karp, who always saw her as unmovable.
"have them bring a report to the bog djinn. you were going to do that anyway, right? this way you have a pair that'd be almost impossible for an average group to take down. plus, if nort's around, he can stop triled's powers from activating. they can join the fight at the crossroads after the gate's destroyed. they'd be more useful then anyway."
Karp held up her seashell steel chainmail and searched its surface for any signs of broken or close to breaking rings. Those kinds of preparations were usually best suited for long travels, so she anticipated doing them on the ship. However, when she explained her plan to Nordic the Shark, the ship's captain, immediately shot her down. Apparently, continually moving between her world and the Shift World would make the journey much harder somehow. She didn't understand but decided to yield to the captain since she had never ridden on a ship before.
"You won the royal tournament, right? Does that mean you are 'Champion of the Royal Tournament' or something?" Nort asked with doe-eyed excitement.
"sure, i guess. no one calls me that, though. those things aren't exactly staged... but they aren't realistic either." Nort didn't seem to care about her minimization.
"One day, I hope to fight in tournaments like that. I'd like to try going on a ship too..." Nort pouted.
"the answer's still no. it'd be a dangerous trip for you, and you have to go see slart. i'll hear no objections." Karp often teased Nort and sometimes objected to his ideas, but her easy-going personality made it so she rarely put her foot down.
"You keep saying that I've been away, but it doesn't feel like it..."
"you were away, though –taken by the mandrake to his world to fight shifters there. you barely even made it back." Karp inspected her helmet and didn't find any blemishes. The gear remained in immaculate shape since she only fought during the sniper's ambush between the Crossroads and Royal Port.
"Barely made it back? You weren't even there, I bet it was fine."
"oh, please. their plan was so poorly thought out that when you shifted the mandrake to his world, you ended up in the middle of the tundra. you could have died because they didn't even know where you'd end up when you shifted for the first time. if they didn't beg for help at the end, it would have been a disaster."
"So, Wili gets to fight monsters, and the me from the other world is a hero, and I get to travel down roads? That's so not fair."
"it's hard for me to hear that. wili's miserable because of the fighting. the mandrake's whole family died because of the furies. so did korg. you also see what happened to me and triled because of this. how can you still be so in love with the idea of adventuring?" An exasperated Karp stared at Nort for what felt like the tenth time since the meeting ended.
"It's in my nature, I guess." Nort scratched his head as he gave Karp a sideways glance.
"i think it might just be in your nature to not be happy with whatever you have. wili just wants a peaceful life but can't. you just want adventure but can't. on your trip with triled, ask him what the you from up there wants but can't have. i bet he'll have an answer." Karp thought her scolding ended the conversation, but Nort thought up a response instead.
"About that... I'm not complaining, I swear! Am I going to have to carry a lot of goods? Since you won't be there..."
"triled will store the majority of his goods in his world. when you need something, he'll retrieve it. make sure to communicate well, though. according to ban, any armor you wear to his world will be destroyed, and any cloth armor here will be destroyed. plus, i don't want them taking you again."
"Is there anything I should know before we travel?"
"be careful of the horse thief." Karp judged by his expression he didn't grasp her meaning, so she stopped speaking in riddles. "one of the demon's wrath's main goals in my torture was to create someone they could blame for the followers of the mandrake. they used that excuse to do pretty much whatever they wanted. be careful that you don't run into royal envoy out there looking to do whatever they want under that guise."
"Do you think it's likely I'll find something like that?" Nort teemed with excitement, which made Karp frown.
"if you do see something like that, run. you have an important mission getting back to the bog djinn and preparing to take the creeping ice. i also want you to promise to avoid the traitor's tavern."
"What's happening at the Traitor's Tavern?" Karp's frown deepened as Nort talked.
"nothing good, i'm afraid. from what i understand, it's pretty run down there, but things are stable. i don't really know the details, but don't interfere. making the town off-kilter would probably be worse than doing nothing... understand?"
"Sure..." A part of Karp hoped he would keep his word, but she had doubts.
The next day, Triled and Nort sat on a pair of horses, trotting at a rate that let Karp comfortably walk beside them. Karp headed to the Royal Port to board Sea Breeze, and Triled and Nort rode south to catch up to the main trade route. The group decided it would be safer and quicker to travel to the Village of the Bog Djinn by heading west and north instead of heading north to the Crossroads and then west and south. They arrived at the gate of the Village of the Royal Port after a few hours.
Two large wooden anchors painted with glossy yellow enamel leaned toward each other, with the rings resting on a steel-plated crossbeam. Chains carved into the anchor started at the rings and fowled down the sides almost to the crown. This made the shanks effectively the gate's supports, and Karp wondered what kind of hidden engineering kept the crossbeam suspended. Triled and Nort broke off in a gallop as Karp crossed under the gate.
The port town resembled the Wyvern's Cove if The Whitecoat's compound sat nearby. At least with the breezy open architecture, that's how Karp imagined the Wyvern's Cove before refugees flooded the town square and set up shanties along the main road. A double masted ship towered above the town. Conveniently, that was her destination, and she picked up the pace in case others waited for her.
A mosaic of boards cut nearly to the length of trees and coated in black pitch pieced together to create the ship's hull. Karp imagined raising massive crimson sails to match the royal family's predictable aesthetic. Any town or camp that saw that behemoth approach must have shaken in fear, especially in the time before large-scale wooden structures were common. Nordic the Shark approached Karp as she arrived.
"Well, you're not exactly late. But, you're not early either." The Shark looked over a clipboard. "Are you familiar with the way inns number their rooms? Good. Then this should come naturally to you. Your room's ^&*. The first symbol indicates the floor you're on –the third. That's the first deck above the waterline. The second symbol's the number of rooms away from the center line. Square-ish shapes are starboard–right, roundish shapes are port–left. The final symbol's the number of rooms back or front your room is. It the symbol's high, then it's front. If low, then it's back."
When Karp acknowledge she understood, he continued without giving her a chance to talk. "Bring this to your storehouse." Nordic pointed at a mountain of crates and jars. "Since this strike team's almost all the shifters we got, we're taking the bulk of supplies now. Future ships are going to be more laden with people, but just enough supplies to make it. So, don't go falling in the ocean. When you're done here, head up to your cabin and we'll met again before setting sail."
The Shark swam away to the next person approaching the vessel, and Karp looked at the pile in a daze. She shifted into work leathers from her armor and began loading.