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Catless

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I

Here we have the world of Kenshi. It is a brutal place and its inhabitants give and except little quarter.

But few calls it by the name of Kenshi, if they even know it carries that name. For even the Holy Nation or the United Cities, for all their blustering, cannot control all the land between Leviathan Coast and the dark Ashlands. No peasant born in those lands will ever see a tenth of the surface of that ravaged moon, will never set foot on the Fishman Islands or Greenbeach. So why talk of the world when all you know and all you will know can be seen from the walls of the town you were born in?

For this story we turn to the oasis-desert known as Shem. It sits comfortably on the border of the United Cities, fed by waters from the Swamp and the superheated air that billows from Venge and Stobe’s Gamble. Myths claim that the many oasis of Shem were created by the same Ancient Empire technology that rains fire down on Shem’s neighbours. But today’s story is not about myth. Well, not in that sense at least.

Here in Shem, the land is dry and arid. Few choose to settle here, for the land grows scant few crops, though the land is rich in resources less digestible. We see a collection of stone buildings, surrounded by a low fence made of stacked stones. As we zoom closer to the ground, we see figures running to and fro, focused on the work of the day, be it minding the nets in the lakes that bring them their food or the massive, angry presses that force raw iron into more useful shapes. The outpost is known as Erengrad, and while it is yet small and finding its own place on this harsh moon, fortune willing it will one day rival the likes of Catun in size and renown. The founder claims he found the name in a book from the Ancient Empire. Ah, here he is now.

 

Ereck lifted the clump of iron with a grunt and put it on the belt, taking care to check that all their weapons are still where they left them by the side of the iron bin. The attack by the Black Dragon ninjas is still fresh in his memory, as is the crate of dried fish they escaped with.

“Okay Kang, proceed!” Ereck shouts down the line. The Shek warrior nods and flips the safety off, then works the lever that controls the roller. The iron ore jolts as it begins to roll down the belt towards the press. Behind Ereck is a cacophony of noise as a new load of iron ore is deposited, Claw nodding at him as she picks up the backpack and treks back towards the border of the compound and the iron mine. The aroma of frying fish drifts over from the front of the central building, and Ereck’s stomach grumbles a little. But breakfast has passed already, and it is hours yet to lunch.

At his side Marrow raises his head and whines. The bonedog’s floppy ears twitch and turn slightly.

“What is it, boy?” Ereck asks. In truth they have given it no training, but the canine’s instincts are still helpful, such as two nights ago when Marrow had alerted the sentries to two adult skin spiders crawling up behind them. A potential disaster had resulted in a couple of severe bite injuries. Dud and Krusty had both survived and remained the sentries regardless.

Marrow rises and jogs around the house without a sound. Almost as soon as he is out of sight, the sounds of barking can be heard.

“Can you two see anything? What’s he found?” Ereck shouts up at the sentries. Dud looks back at him, then turns towards the barks.

“My blade senses no trouble.” Dud shouts down.

“I’m not asking your blade, what do you see?” Ereck replies, then mumbles. “Bloody sheks.”

There is a moment of silence before Dud replies. “Something’s kicking up dust and coming towards us. From the southeast. It will be here within the hour.”

“Sound the bell when you can see what it is. Regardless of what it is!” Ereck said.

The shek sentry saluted briefly, and Ereck went back to his work.

 

II

The bell was sounded as ordered, and the compound gathered. The few non-combatants went to the roof and sat to wait. The crossbows that worked were handed out to the ones that knew how to use them and likewise put on the roof of the central building where they would have a view of the proceedings, should things turn bloody. The rest gather in the front, weapons of various types and makes strapped to backs and belts.

Dud the shek sentry stands to Ereck’s right, making sure his sabre doesn’t catch on the scabbard.

“Tell me again what you saw.” Ereck says.

“I saw two skeletons and a garru. Not a weapon on them.” Dud replies and puts the sheathed sabre away.

“A trade caravan maybe?”

“The Black Desert City is quite a distance to the northeast, and I know of no skeletons working in the Border Zone. The Holy Nation publicly denounces their existence.” Kang says. The tall shek has his sabre drawn, holding it like a cane in front of him.

“And the Shek Kingdom rarely sees any skeletons.” Krusty says.

“Stone Golem not a fan?” Ereck asks.

“We just don’t see any reason to go there.” Sack says. Sack is the sole skeleton living, or rather existing, in the compound. For all their talk and blustering, Ereck was pleased when the skeleton joined and the sheks did not complain or oppose the decision. The hivers were thrilled, though Ereck forbade examining Sack when he rested, or whatever he did when not working the nets.

“Stay here, I’ll be right back.” Ereck says and ducks back through his fellow villagers. Most are sheks, dissatisfied or outcast from the Shek Kingdoms, so he disappears easily in the crowd and through the front door. He hurries through the cramped building and up onto the roof.

“Hey, Beep.” He says, walking up next to the excitable Hiver. Beep raises the strap-glasses he wears and looks back at Ereck.

“Beep.”

“Right. I don’t know what this is yet but if these are just a diversion and a second group show up, alert me and be ready to fire.” Ereck says.

“Beep.”

“Good. Make sure to tell the others too.”

“Beep.”

Erecks claps the Hiver on the shoulder and hurries back down the stairs. As he arrives back at the front of the crowd, the dust cloud has gotten close enough that they can see the cause themselves without the need for Dud’s telescope.

As the shek had said, it was a pair of skeletons, dragging a garru between them. Each is unarmed but powerfully built, easily some of the biggest skeletons Ereck has seen in his life. The garru is adult, leaning towards an elder, with a massive tarp-covered object tied to its back. Each skeleton also carries a large backpack but neither show any signs of strain. One skeleton wears a set of leather styled like the Trader’s Guild, only this one is painted white, though the paintjob is patchy and aging. The other skeleton wears a matching set except in black.

The white-clothed skeleton raises an arm and waves. “A fine day it is today!” It shouts across the way. Ereck supposed it was right; the wind was down, so the dust-storms were quiet, and the sky was blue. It was also swelteringly hot, but so it was every day.

“It is. What brings a pair of skeletons all the way south?” Ereck shouts back. He steps forward a pace or two, ears listening for a warning from Beep.

“Legends and stories bring us forth, so they do.” The white skeleton says.

“Uh huh.” Ereck mumbles.

“Say, do you have some spare power? We have our own if need be, but such is a finite supply.” White asks and waves towards the tarp-covered object.

“For what?” Ereck asks, then glances back towards the two windmills at the back of the compound. They’re turning, but only lazily.

“The game, of course.” White says and waves at the black-clothed skeleton, who then rips the tarp back. The object tied to the garru’s back is a massive slab, the back of it covered in wires. The front, such as they can see, has coloured plates that go almost from end to end. It looks to Ereck like one of the billboards that light up in the evenings in Flats Lagoon. Something the Tech Hunters would dig up.

“The game?”

“The game.” White says and nods to Black. The black-clothed skeleton reaches behind the tech-billboard and puts a metal box on the ground. A battery. Ereck recognises it from their own power plant, though their batteries are magnitudes bigger. The battery, which the reader might recognise as a car battery, is hooked up to the underside of the billboard and with a press of a button on its side, the billboard lights up, a row of light-blue rectangles rushing up and down the length of it, a red number flashing between 00-10 at the top. Gasps can be heard throughout the crowd.

“A game to entertain. If you’ll give us a few hours of your time, we’ll give you an afternoon you won’t soon forget.” White says and nods towards Black again. Black presses the button again and the lights go out. Ereck hears a sigh somewhere behind him.

“In return for what?” Ereck says. Something for free is like stepping in a trap. Hard to get out of.

“As I said,” White begins, “A few hours of your time, and also some power. As you see we carry a battery but we prefer to avoid its use.”

Both the skeletons bow, a gesture rarely used in the world in these times. White continues.

“My name is Dere and my associate here is Lict, and we tour the lands bringing our game to all that are interested.” Dere says, as White’s name really is.

 

III

Dere and Lict are taken to the power plant, and their special billboard is hooked up. A couple consent to staying on the roof as sentries in case this is still a diversion, or something else shows up, but the rest duly sit down in a semicircle around Dere and Lict. Lict pulls out a notebook and some switchboard, which is also hooked up, and sits down by the side of the billboard. Dere remains on his feet, facing out towards the crowd. It seems to Ereck that his facial plate is designed with a smile.

“Good day to you all.” Dere says to the crowd, the volume of its voice amplified. To Dere’s right, the billboard light flies up and down, the number ramping between the lowest to the highest.

“My associate and I bring you a game, a pastime, reportedly played even in the First Empire. We toured the civilised world, and also the Shek Kingdom,” Scattered laughter, even smiles from some of the assembled shek, “And we asked ten people to name as many things in some categories as they were able. Today, we ask you to guess at their answers.”

Dere held up a small notebook, much like the one Lict was leafing through. “Your guesses must still be correct, and then you will gain points equal to how many of our interviewees said the same.”

The crowd perked up, some leaning forward, some leaning back and looking into the sky. A light cloud-cover had drifted in, blocking off the worst of the heat of the day.

“However,” Dere said, the volume boosted an inch further, “The goal of the game is to achieve the lowest possible score. In other words, you must find the correct answer that none of our interviewees brought up.”

Murmurs erupted amongst the crowd, some in confusion, some in excitement. Usually games were played to see who would amass the most points in the method directed by the game’s rules, but this was different.

“We call it ‘Catless’, and I believe the ancients of the First Empire called it,” the words that followed were in the ancient tongue, one that has not been spoken on this moon for millennia, and the letters and speech of today is ill-equipped to convey how it sounded. To Ereck, who has some light knowledge of the tongue, it sounds like ‘Useless’, or perhaps ‘Pointless’?

“I will delay it no longer, so let us begin!” Dere shouts and taps roughly on the billboard. The gauge and the number displayed both plummet to 00.

“For the first question, we went to the United Cities and asked 10 passersby in the street to name,” The crowd leaned forward as one, each wanting to hear it before everyone else, heedless of the actual physics and speeds of soundwaves, “books by the author Gail ‘Meatwrap’ Witno. I see on your faces that some of you are familiar, good, good.“

I myself find that, when I am down, reading,” Dere holds up a hand, “Ah, but no hints. I give you 5 minutes to deliberate. Speak as loudly as you wish, but be aware your neighbour might well listen in.”

For 5 minutes the crowd was silent, each ransacking their brain for the names of literature, such as it is in this world.

“And so, the time is up!” Dere shouts and steps forward, having waited by the side of the dim billboard while the crowd deliberated.

“Raise your arms if you wish to guess.”

A long moment of silence follows, shyness and uncertainty weighing down their arms.

“Come on now, no need to be shy.” Dere continues.

The first arm goes up. Ereck recognises those scarred forearms.

“Ah, grand. Stand up, please.” Dere says to the arm.

The old man called Crumblejon stands up. According to his own words, a veteran warrior and married man. Ereck has seen little proof of either, but few people live to the ripe old age that Crumblejob has reached, so there must be something.

Catless at Day, Loveless at Night.” Crumblejon says.

“We have our first guess,” Dere says and turns to Lict, still sitting to the side of the billboard, ”but is it a correct one?”

Lict doesn’t answer at first, instead the skeleton fiddles with the switchboard that is linked to the billboard. “It’s a correct one!” Dere shouts as the light at the bottom flicks on, followed by 7 of the following lights.

”8 points for that answer. Great start, mister Crumblejon.” Dere says. The number 08 blinks at the top of the billboard for a moment before winking out alongside the gauge.

Catless and Day, Loveless at Night is thought to be Meatwrap’s second book and concerns a lonely Shinobi Thief in the city of Catun. According to Gail’s own words, the story is inspired by his own experiences after spending all the cats he earned following the release of his previous book.” Lict says, leafing through the notebook. Crumblejon sits back down with a satisfied grin and pats on the back from fellow villagers.

 Following the old man’s lead, two other hands shoot up. One is the calloused hand of a Greenlander labourer, and the other is the unmistakable skeletal hand of Sack. Ereck finds he is interested in what Sack’s answer will be. He hadn’t known that their skeleton had any hobbies or ways to spend time that wasn’t labour or self-maintenance.

The Greenlander goes first. “Name’s Tengu,” she says, then grins, “and my answer is Host of the Venge.”

This time, Lict speaks before Dere. “Ah, Host of the Venge. Personal fan of that one, it’s a horrifying journey through the wastelands and skyfire of Venge with twists and turns, including a final one that many say ruins the entire story.”

Dere continues. “But, Lict, is it a correct answer?”

Lict reaches for the switchboard, and after a moment, a red cross blinks angrily at the top of the billboard.

“Sadly, it is not,” Dere starts, and Tengu’s grin drops, “Host is generally thought to be Meatwrap’s last book, but it is actually written by his apprentice, Gule. Gule is one to watch and might well surpass her mentor’s reputation as the finest writer in the United Cities.”

Tengu sits down in defeat, getting pats on her shoulder and back, though these are more of a reassuring nature than a congratulatory one.

Sack’s hand remains, and the skeleton stands up. “I am called Sack, and I say Kenshi, Kenshoal.

Dere nods in silence and turns towards Lict. A flick on the switchboard, and the billboard lights up, but the points-counter stays on 00 and the gauge remains empty. After a second, rows of lamps around the edge of the billboard begin blinking.

“And we have our first Catless answer, ladies, gentlemen and skeletons! Kenshi, Kenshoal is the true second book written by Gail, and concerns a plethora of high-minded topics, told through a lone man’s journey around the world. It is a correct answer, mentioned by none of the people we asked, and so it garners no points. A perfect answer for this game.” Dere says, something like excitement in its skeleton-voice.

Sack sits back down with the slightest creek of metallic joints. There are no pats on the back, but everyone feels more at ease around the skeleton they knew so little about just minutes prior.

“And that concludes our first question,” Dere says and turns the first page of its book, “And so we turn to the next one. Less cultural, more historical.”

“For our second question of the day, we asked 10 citizens of the Shek Kingdom to name ruling royalty from their glorious history.”

The eyes of the crowd turn towards the shek that live among them. The common perception is sheks is hardly one of scholarship, but surely; they would know their own history.

Dud skips the raising of the arm and raises his whole body instead. “King Shager the Third.” Dud says with some amount of reverence.

Dere claps on the side of the billboard. “For once I won’t wait till we light up to say that it is a correct answer. But how many points will it garner, huh, Lict?”

“King Shager the Third was the king before the Stone Golem rose to power,” Lict says as the skeleton fiddles with the switchboard, “And many say that the line of kings ended with him.”

The billboard gauge lit and shot all the way to the top, the number 10 visible at the top of the gauge.

“10 points, the maximum. Every shek we asked on the street could name the late King Shager the Third, some more happily than others. It is a correct answer,” Dere says with the closest Ereck had ever seen to a grin on a skeleton’s face, “But I am afraid it gets you a lot of points.”

“Dud, you’re supposed to get as few points as you can, not as many as you can.” Ereck says as Dud sits down, confusion plain on his features. Given the explanation, the shek takes on a thoughtful expression.

An arm is raised and Crumblejon stands up again. “I call the name of King Brugal the First.” Crumblejon says, then coughs and sits down before Dere can speak.

“King Brugal the First. What say we, Lict?” Dere says.

Lict looks at the notebook then works the switchboard. The gauge climbs slowly up the switchboard, owing to the windmills turning slower than before, then stops at the halfway point, the number 05 lighting the top.

“Brugal the First, sometimes called the Missing King or Kral’s Squire. He led his army not the Ashlands, claiming visions from Kral himself. Once he passed the Royal Valley, he was never seen or heard from again. He was King Shager’s grandfather. A good answer.” Lict says.

Dud stands up again to speak. “Prince Lell of the Peak of Flames.”

Here you might think, the question was for ruling royalty, and princes do not rule. But let us see what Lict has to say.

Dere says nothing, instead the skeleton simply waves towards Lict.

Lict keeps silence too and fiddles with the switchboard. The billboard lights up, the gauge lifts then drops, all the way to the bottom, the number 00 blinking at the top.

“The name is misleading, for Prince Lell was the ruling monarch of the Shek Kingdom,” Lict says, pausing for dramatic effect, “But the poor prince did not hold his position for long. His father, King Quell, decided on an expedition to the region we know as Venge today. Needless to say, it went poorly. Struck by several instances of skyfire, the King lost, they holed up in one of the metallic towers that dot those devastated plains.”

Dud nodded and continued Lict’s explanation. “To bolster the soldiers, they crowned Prince Lell there, but the King can only be truly crowned in Admag, so he retained the title of Prince. Attacked by the skeleton-thralls that make Venge their home, the expedition was nearly destroyed. Only the Prince’s closest retainers survived to return to the Kingdom and tell the story.”

Dud finished and Lict nodded.

“A Catless answer, well done. Even I didn’t know that one.” Dere says and claps with its metallic hands.

“Any others? Don’t be shy now.” Dere says and looks out over the crowd, but no arms, nor impetuous sheks, rise up.

No further answers were given and thus Dere and Lict continue into the next question. On the game goes for a few hours until the sun begins nearing the far horizon, signalling the end of the workday. A less productive one than the one before, but far more memorable.