The Sixth ██████████

Table of Contents

Part 1: Cat’s Eyes

“That all you got, pussycat?” Spat the burly man looming over a beaten Kheshiir. “Why don’t you go back with the other kittens and pick weeds, where you belong?”

The crumpled Kheshiir turned his green cat’s eyes up to his ginger-furred companion, who offered him a subtle nod.

“You know,” said the Kheshiir, wiping blood from his soot-gray coat and clambering to his feet, “I think it is time we head back.” Without warning, he unleashed a flurry of blows as quick as lightning to the man’s stomach, doubling him over. An elegant leap brought knee to nose, causing the Kheshiir’s opponent to drop like a stone. 

Two of the onlookers stepped forward to intervene: One took a swing at the Kheshiir, who simply leaned out of the way, grabbed the man’s wrist and, leaning into the flow of his momentum, sent him tumbling into the other interferer.

“Tsk, tsk,” chided the Kheshiir, “Fair’s fair. There’s no shame in losing to ‘Khanjir the Great’. Don’t be sour, it’s only iron…or did you bet gold?” He flashed a cheeky grin, revealing his sharp feline teeth. 

The defeated man stood gingerly, his nose dripping blood onto his bushy beard. “Back off, boys. He’s right. Keep your coin, pussycat. I might think twice next time I challenge one of your ilk.”

Khanjir’s chest puffed as he let out a proud purr. 

“Say…why don’t you come with me tomorrow?” The man offered. “Things have been a bit…rough around here since our leader fell. There’s this Demon who’s been helping run things – bet she’d love an extra sword arm for her excursions.”

“What’s the pay?”Khanjir replied, stroking his whiskers.

“More than you’ll make brawling tired guards on their day off.” The man bantered, tipping his head back to prevent his nose dripping any further. 

“Alright, I’ll see you here tomorrow morning mister…?”

“Don’t matter. You’ll be packed up and gone in a week and I ain’t here to make friends with you, just lighten the load of our people.”

“And if I stay?”

“You’ll be the first Kheshiir I’ve ever known to stay put longer than a phase of the moon.” chuckled the man. “It’s John, if you must know. Don’t get attached, pussycat.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” replied Khanjir smugly. “Let’s go back to camp, Danjush.”

Danjush, Khanjir’s longtime friend, nodded as they left John and his companions to nurse their wounds, and the pair of Kheshiir headed back to the outskirts of town to lick their own.

Part 2: Close as Cats Can

“Is that them, Uncle Ephrush?” Asked a young female Kheshiir with an ash-colored coat, seated with others of her ilk around a fire sheltered by a semi-circle of wagons.

“Who else would it be, child?” Answered Ephrush in his usual unforgiving tone. “Foolhardy boys. Well don’t just sit there, get the needle and thread, even these old eyes can see he’s hurt again.”

The girl ran off, eager to obey.

“When will you boys learn to just stay put and stick to the Kheshiir trade?” Ephrush scolded, wagging a dull claw at the two approaching youngsters.

“Yeah, yeah, old man. Danjush, give the camp its slice.” Khanjir replied defiantly.

Danjush pulled out a small notebook from his bag, and made several notes in it. Then he sat cross-legged, setting up scales and weighing out measures of gold and iron against small pebbles with weights etched into them.

“Silly child, just eyeball it. Weights are demons’ work.” Ephrush argued.

“Accuracy is the responsibility of those that carry the truth.” Danjush recited in retort. 

“You’re starting to sound like my father, Danjush,” said the girl as she returned carrying a small wooden box, “Just a split eyebrow this time, Khanjir? Your hide must be thickening.”

“It certainly beats the pittance you and mother make, Chanjir. At small cost to me, to boot. I was never that pretty to begin with.” Khanjir remarked as he allowed himself to be stitched up. 

“Don’t let your mother hear that, boy.” Ephrush scolded. 

“Hear what?” Intoned a male voice from inside a caravan.

“I…I didn’t know you were even there, father.” Khanjir answered, grimacing at the pain of the needle as it threaded through his brow.

“Never forget who taught you to skulk, Khanjir.” The Kheshiir stepped from a wagon as he spoke, his appearance almost identical to Khanjir, although bearing the signs of his many years. “Will you be able to perform tonight?”

“You’re doing a show?” Khanjir asked. 

“We’re doing a show, yes,” his father replied in a stern tone, “I don’t care how sore you are. Kheshiir own their responsibilities. And it is up to us to remember and spread news, stories, and history among all people of Mortegard.”

“So you say every single day. What if we aspire to something more, though?”

“And go against your nature? Against your history? Against your people?”

“Well, take Danjush here! He wants to be a great investor!”

“Then he can do that within the context of the camp.”

“That has always been my goal, Rhulush, sir.” Danjush interjected, separating the last of the iron into a third pile. “Even if I go away for a bit, I just want to learn things that our people don’t know and further the knowledge of the Kheshiir.”

Khanjir suddenly had an idea: “And what if I work to find a story our people don’t know?”

Rhulush laughed. “That would be too easy. I wouldn’t let you run off for the sake of just any old story.”

“A story…nobody knows, then! Like…like from the wilderlands! We can make our own stories – true ones, like with the Crooked!” Khanjir interjected.

“You’ll sooner find me in a well of souls than watch me allow my last living son to head to the wilderland or fight another Crooked…” Rhulush said, suddenly serious. “But, you don’t speak nonsense. For once. If you can find and recover stories nobody knows, I will indeed give you more liberty with your actions.”

“We should be making our own stories, not telling the exploits of others!” Khanjir fumed. 

“That is not our place, son. Without Kheshiir, much history would be forgotten.”

“Father, you’re talking to the Kheshiir who slayed a Crooked!”

“Fine, we can compromise,” Rhulush conceded tiredly. “We’ll share your story tonight at the performance. Maybe that way people will think twice before brawling with my son for coin.”

“Oh, I don’t think they will,” Danjush chortled. “Here Uncle Eph, down to the gram.”

“This math will be the death of you boy. Demon’s work.” Ephrush replied with a sneer, crinkling the dorsum of his pink nose. “But you did right by us, boy. I’ll add it to the camp’s lockbox.” he added, relaxing his face.

“And yours Khanjir.” Danjush continued, his passion making him immune to insult.

“Very good,” Khanjir nodded. “These people seem rich compared to some of the other lesser rulers.”

“They have done very well for themselves,” Rhulush remarked, “but let’s not forget they are without a leader, and seem to be facing pressure on all borders.” He continued, cracking his knuckles, “Now get yourself cleaned up and ready for the show, let’s try to lift some spirits tonight.”

Part 3: Smoke and Mirrors

The crowd sat in silence as the shadows on the Kheshiir’s makeshift stage doppled under the light of rune candles – rare, sun-channeling artifacts, and a display of the hidden wealth of the traveling people.

Danjush worked his way through the rear of the crowd, reminding people of the armed Kheshiir keeping watch over the stage – a subtle hint that any unpaying observers would learn of the hidden fury of the cat-people of Mortegard.

The curtains opened revealing Ephrush in a resplendent coat, shimmering under the intense light of the rune candles.

“Dear people of the land, I present to you tonight, a tale of a time not long passed. A story! Of daring, of sorrow, and of victory.”

Rhulush stepped out in a large, smooth, gray, costume, prowling on all fours.

“While what we show you is a cruel mockery of what was seen, the events are true! Every word spoken. Indeed, we numbered many more before the events in this story. But thanks to one young Khanjir here – a hero!” Ephrush continued, and Khanjir stepped from behind the curtain, “Not just among our caravan, not just among the Kheshiir, but for all Mortegardians of every race.”

The crowd fell silent as Ephrush began to recount his tale:

“We had been on the road for weeks. Our supplies were low, and we were traveling in the desolate desert wastelands along the edge of Bolochtar – indeed not terribly far…from here. While it had been many years since the Crooked were pushed back, our whiskers remained on alert…”

“We kept traveling to avoid the danger of setting camp. Dropbears, well they were the least of our problems. There were rumors of something else prowling the lands.”

“Phooey!” heckled somebody from the crowd.

“Oh, indeed you may doubt, but even people in this kingdom have gone missing…no? Perhaps in a gold scar? Yes, we have seen the scar not far from here, my friends.”

“You ever wonder what lurks down there? Why no gold-hunters venture alone in the dark? Well, imagine a Kheshiir caravan laden with the tithes of many shows out in Sha’haiya’s villages. Traveling quickly and alone, eager to get to a city to store what we can in one of the counting houses of The Merchant’s guild…”

“It was in this condition we found ourselves, exhausted and hungry. Perhaps we made an error in estimating how long our journey would take us, or perhaps it was through some misgiving of Lorne herself, but we swiftly found our hunger outgrowing our rations.”

“And it was then that we SAW IT!” Ephrush concluded with a yelp. 

Rhulush made a sudden movement and began to climb the curtains, which concealed a rope ladder in their folds.

“Among the dead forest at our edge, perched like a gargoyle in a twisted and cracked tree, two eyes watched us.”

“MORE!” Rhulush screeched as he leapt down from the curtain in front of the stage with immaculate grace. The guards formerly tasked to prevent freeloaders rushed at him, and with a feigned strike, Rhulush in his costume sent them scattering.

The crowd gasped, now fully enthralled by Ephrush’s pacing and tone.

“It was…A CROOKED!”

“MORE!” Rhulush cried with a guttural roar.

Scrolls adorned with paintings of caravans and tents were pulled up by hidden strings and pulleys, and Rhulush, leaping back on stage, tore them from their hooks.

“We watched it beat us, we watched it break us, we watched our guards snapped in two.” Ephrush intoned. “And then, Khanjir stepped forward. Wearing the armor we denied him, and the runetched sword he was forbidden to own, he charged the Crooked.” 

Khanjir charged from behind the curtain where he was hidden.

Now wearing his glorious armor and wielding a wooden sword, he struck gracefully at Rhulush.

“Fool, I thought. Him who knows not enough of battle, not enough of war. We spent the entirety of the Great War hiding, and for what? To be destroyed by a mere straggler, a remnant of our great fear.”

“BUT!” Ephrush bellowed as Rhulush threw Khanjir to the floor of the stage. “I was wrong.”

Khanjir began an onslaught of choreographed strikes, forcing Rhulush to back-pedal.

“There is much overlap of talent between a Kheshiir acrobat, performer and orator. But they all require one thing:”

There was a terrible silence as Khanjir held his sword suspended above Rhulush, who writhed on the stage in a pantomime of agony. The crowd leaned in, waiting for the climax.

“Accuracy!” Khanjir shouted. And he swept his blade at the head of the costume, knocking it clean off its attachment to the shoulders.

The head went flying. The crowd’s eyes followed it, rapt, as it arced through the air and fell into Ephrush’s hand.

The crowd erupted into cheers as Ephrush took a bow, stepping back as the curtains closed.

Not leaving the opportunity, Danjush began making his way through the crowd. Playing off their excitement to see an encore, he had great luck in encouraging them to part with their coin. Before long, the night was through, and it was time for all good Kheshiir to go to sleep. And those that weren’t were set to keep watch…

Part 4: Fast Friends

Arising before anybody else in the camp could object, Khanjir made his way back to where he had brawled with John the night earlier.

“So here’s our little pussy cat,” John prodded. “Quite the show last night. What do you take from performing a little lie like that?”

Khanjir frowned. “You clearly have not known many of the traveling Kheshiir. We vow on our honor that we spread only tales of truth, preserving the history of Mortgard through oration.”

John stroked his beard. “Indeed. Though, it must have somewhat been embellished.”

Khanjir nodded. “Somewhat…we only lost one person, not most of our caravan…and we weren’t quite as rich as Ephrush would let on, indeed it was him that had us headed in the wrong direction.”

John chuckled. “Well, if the part about you lopping off a Crooked’s head is true, you must have had something a Lorne-sight stronger than a wooden blade.”

Khanjir smiled as he unsheathed his sword, revealing a black blade laden with runetchings, the delicate markings protected by a glass-like laquer.

“Well I’ll be a servant of Nergu.” John swore. “Is that a self-folding blade?”

Khanjir nodded. “With a propulsion etching too,” he added, swinging it through the air with improbable speed. “A little unwieldy until your hand gets used to it.”

“May I?” John asked.

Khanjir shook his head. “This here costs more than the governing castle. One day I too will be a lord, Lorne permitting.” 

“Fair enough.” John replied. “I think Fre’ja might be able to make use of you.”

Part 5: Alchemy and Alembria

“What is it, John-boy? I’m busy, you know I’m busy.” Fre’ja chided, without turning from her array of countless alchemical devices. “Can’t you just do your usual patrol today?”

“Ma’am.” John began. “You told me to report if anything interesting came up. I would normally bring something like this up to The Ban-”

“Don’t remind me of his name,” Fre’ja interrupted. “I miss him so.” 

“Aye, we all do Ma’am, but we can’t avoid his name.”

“Well, better to ask for forgiveness than beg for permission,” she said with a sigh. “What is it?”

“I quite like that…” Khanjir chipped in. “And I’d have to agree, too.” He puffed up his chest and  introduced himself: “Khanjir, sellsword. At your service ma’am.” 

“A Kheshiir in our little kingdom? Why don’t you go and pester one of the Encumbered Eagles for work, or go and pick turnips in the field with the rest of your band?” Fre’ja said, turning around and wiping a gelatinous glue on her apron.

“I’m not like other Kheshiir, ma’am,” he began, “I’m – Wait, you…you wouldn’t happen to be THE woman with her face on posters all over Sha’haiya…would you?”

“The very same. And if you speak a word more of it, I’ll burn out your eyes and all those of your caravan with but a whisper,” Fre’ja said with a smile. “Now my time is precious, little pussycat. John-boy, what is it you wanted with me?”

“Well yesterday this Kheshiir bested me in a brawl.”

“Comforting… A circus performer can best the captain of the guard hand to hand. John, I could best you unarmed with a few strides between us…What is it you really want?”

John cleared his throat. “Well, first I thought he might be able to head into the paralands, on account of how nimble he is, and investigate that cult we can’t seem to push up on.”

“But then? Get to the point, John.”

“Well, then at the performance last night, the Kheshiir claimed this one slayed a stray Crooked.”

Fre’ja raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

Khanjir nodded. “Yes, but it w-”

“Don’t be humble now…Don’t be so humble. I take back my rudeness. Welcome to the Ban-uhh, the Kingdom of the Slain Ruler!”

John smirked.

“We have a job for a tomcat such as yourself Khejir.” Fre’ja said smoothly. “Indeed we do…John, get your boys. Khanjir and I will talk…price.”

John swiftly left the room.

“So what do you charge? I see your sword there, that’s enough to buy the castle we stand in the charge of…what price is enough for a cat with the sharpest claws?” Fre’ja asked.

“Well Ma’am,” Khanjir began, “Is it true, what I hear…that you are the woman that ventured to the wilderlands? Who returned with new knowledge, but lost herself?”

“So it’s a story you want…what, daddy will loosen your leash if you bring him something new?”

“How did you know?”

“I’m a few hundred years old, you’re not the first Kheshiir I’ve met. And yes I know I’m in impeccable shape for a demon of such proclivities…” she said, gesturing around at her equipment.

“I don’t follow.”

She walked up to a glass device laced with countless golden writings. Opening a spigot, she drained a small amount of the dark fluid into a small teacup.

“A concoction of mine, take a sip.” She said, offering the cup to Khanjir.

Khanjir reluctantly sampled the fluid. “Coffee?”

She nodded. “Osvaran. That’s about fifty gold you just sipped. In a cup worth nearly five thousand – it will keep the liquid hot all day!”

Khanjir quickly, and carefully, set the cup on a nearby table. 

“But, you see, we do have a problem. These people here keep asking me to magic up gold. It’s an expensive and time consuming practice. Sure, I can automate and systemize it somewhat…but you know what’s easier? Getting somebody else to do it. My time…is better spent elsewhere. Any alchemist worth their salt can make gold.” She said, sighing once before a sudden fire lit her eyes: “I need to invent things!”

“So do it, you seem to have all the wealth and power necessary.” Khanjir demurred. 

“Our leader was struck down, and now these people look to me for guidance. We used to have a dwarf here, Tundric Mudcloak.”

“Lorne’s word – THE Tundric Mudcloak?”

“None other, but he’s not here with us anymore, and Bandy-” Fre’ja seemed to wince at the passing of the word before continuing, “Well, he and I were working close together, and well, it’s my fault he is no longer with us, and now people look at me for all the answers.”

“Then why aren’t you in a castle?” Khanjir quered. 

Fre’ja frowned. “I’m no leader. I leave that to the Encumbered Eagles, what they want from me is production! The economy must prosper! I’ve made a few trappings and wardings, but they need gold, and all our gold is going to supplies and equipment. Not to mention we’re helping the Bolochtarians make Thul’tulaks! Just look at this place! I’m exhausted.”

“Where are you going with this?” Khanjir asked, bouncing from foot to foot with impatience. 

“Yes, yes. There’s a gold scar nearby, and the gold output from that would be more than this entire kingdom, if we could just get to it. Everybody we’ve sent down there doesn’t come back out.”

“They’re dangerous places.”

“Aye but not usually this dangerous,” Fre’ja responded. “That’s where you come in. I’ll send you down with some boys, you find this thing, lop its head off with your whacker there, and we’re square.”

“And you’ll tell me a story nobody else knows – from the wilderland.”

“Tomcat, I’ll give you a story so ancient the gods themselves don’t know it.” Fre’ja chuckled, with an almost menacing glint in her eyes.

“Ma’am,” Khanjir said with a purr, “you can consider the beast headless already.”

Part 6: Down the Rabbit Hole

“You sure you have this, pussycat?” John asked as they walked around the edge of the gold scar. “No shame in tucking your tail between your legs and heading back to camp.”

“I will keep my word.” Khanjir replied.

As they approached the lift shaft, John signaled to one of his men to head over to the waterwheel-controlled mechanism. As he turned it, the lift began groaning up the rails, reverberating the darksteel frame with a gentle hum – interjected with the occasional clang as it hit a join.

“Alright there pussycat, here,” John said as he handed the Kheshiir a strap with a rune candle lamp on the front. “Tie this around your head, the candle will run off your body heat and give you a light. Don’t lose it though, they’re fragile things, and if you get lost down there there’s little hope of coming out.”

“You speak as if you’re not coming with me.” Khanjir replied as he donned the lamp.

“We aren’t, I don’t care how much Fre’ja wants the gold here. Fact of the matter is she could sell her gadgets and feed us all for years, and doesn’t.”

“You don’t all contribute to camp?”

“We give our lives, and pay our taxes for the good of our people. Fre’ja sends every tax collector running. She does give her bit though, not really fair of me to suggest she sell her things to feed us. It’s just…well, I don’t fancy dying today so she can go back to making gizmos.”

“Fair…but who’s going to back me up? Or at least provide a distraction while I do the beheading.” Khanjir asked, with a hint of desperation in his tone.

“A cat with a claw like that shouldn’t need backing up!” John rebutted. “Still not too late to turn tail. And speaking of selling off gadgets – where did you get that blade anyway? There’s enough wealth in that sword alone to buy a small kingdom…”

“It doesn’t matter, and it’s not our way…well, not their way. After this, I will be free to do as I please, and become a ruler of legend. I may even buy the castle your town is under.” Khanjir chuckled. “Then who’ll be calling who the pussycat?”

“Big talk, but I’ve heard of Kheshiir rulers. Information brokers of sorts, might do us some good. Better than being at the mercy of Fre’ja and a bunch of reformed gangsters.” John said as the lift clanged up its railings, ever closer. “Oh I miss The Bandit King,” he continued, “Lorne bless his name.” After a moment, John laughed awkwardly. “I’ll tell you what, if you become our ruler, I’ll be your butler, how about that, eh? A cat and his servant.”

The elevator shuddered to a stop next to them, and the rest of the guards fell silent.

“Here’s my ride,” Khanjir said with a gulp. “Wish me luck gentlemen.” There was no reply from the solemn faces as he pushed the lever to descend into the blackness below.

“Well boys,” John began, “Today’s the day we find out if cats really do have nine lives. Who here wants to place a bet?”

Part 7: Nine Lives

Despite its lack of use, the elevator descended smoothly down into the blackness, shuddering only when its rollers contacted the subtle joins in the darksteel rails.

“This may be the time your tongue got the better of you.” Khanjir thought to himself, watching the light from his rune candle headband grow more obvious as the blackness enveloped him. “I should have just sold this sword when I found it…or after it took off that Crooked’s head.”

After what seemed like an eternal descent into the darkness, the elevator finally clanged to a stop.

“Now’s not the time for self doubt.” Khanjir chided himself. He knelt down and clasped his hands together, reciting a litany: “Lorne, may you forever guide the lost, I beg of you to keep my hand and my heart steady. If I do not make it through this, please guide my soul to my final rest. Forever your servant, Khanjir.”

Khanjir felt his heart steady somewhat, allowing him to absorb the silence. He gently stepped off the platform and padded along the brink of the gold scar, looking for the entrance to the areas the workers scoured for gold deposits.

He hadn’t searched long when he found an opening, less than an arms-breadth across. Before he could investigate further, he heard a scuttling from inside.

A fear seized his heart, rebutted only by his prayer to Lorne, and he drew his black blade, the golden etching catching the light of his rune candle.

As he entered the chasm, two globes lit suddenly in the distance, traveling closer with an unmatchable speed. Fighting his urge to run, Khanjir was frozen solid. The grey blur of a creature lunged toward him, its bulk clinging to each of the walls and forming an impenetrable barrier of sulken gray flesh. 

Reflexively, Khanjir recalled a stage play wherein a stout Lantern Lighter fights a Dropbear by dropping to the ground and thrusting his swords out – 

By pure chance, or perhaps some guiding hand from Lorne herself, Khanjir’s movement was perfect to a hair. The Crooked’s claw caught and tore Khanjir’s armor as if it were a sheet of parchment, but Khanjir’s sudden upthrust of the sword had skewered the Crooked’s shoulder.

The propulsion etching of the magnificent blade glided through the creature’s thick hide, and the razor of its edge, by the Crooked’s own momentum, nearly severed the monstrous arm. 

Khanjir quickly pounced to his feet and spun, just in time to see the Crooked tear its own dangling arm off. It hissed a guttural scream at Khanjir, rattling his bones and nearly knocking him off his feet. 

With no further warning the Crooked charged once more. FIlled with confidence from the ground gained, Khanjir recovered his wit, and charged in turn. 

Leaping with immense force he threw himself against the wall into the gap newly created by the Crooked’s missing arm, and slashed at the beast’s neck with all his might.

The Crooked turned its head at the last second, forcing the blade to glance off and wedge firm in its shoulder. As the blade sank deep in grey flesh, the creature steamed in panic. 

Khanjir tried to free the blade but only managed to slice further down into the wound. He quickly dropped below the Crooked and dashed angular to its body and back up the other side of the wall, using his momentum to wrench the blade across its neck. 

The Crooked gargled out a cry as it stumbled back, but Khanjir was not finished yet. Ever more confident, he strode up to face the flailing creature, slicing its outstretched hand into ribbons. 

Without pity and without remorse, Khanjir swung cleanly. The Crooked’s head toppled, its neck split soundlessly by the Kheshiir’s black blade. 

Part 8: Ask for Forgiveness

“And he’s all like ‘Keep ya arms to yourselves ladeez,’” John jovially recalled, “There wasn’t a lady in the room! Man went on and on about women and how big his bone was, but it was a real sausage fest back in those days!” He chuckled.

The rest of the men’s laughter was cut short as the lift began to hum to life.

They all watched in silence as first a scarred feline face rose into view, then his body, foot triumphantly on top of the detached head of the Crooked.

“I…I thought you were gone for good there pussycat.” John muttered, unable to manage anything else. 

“Somebody take this, I’m done here.” Khanjir said as he stumbled proudly off the lift, his exhaustion now overcoming his adrenaline. 

“Of-of course, boys pull the wagon up, somebody get our friend here a drink!” John commanded, “Incredible…I never thought I’d see the day.”

The wagon rumbed to a stop outside of Fre’ja’s workshop. Fre’ja emerged, roused by the ruckus, and irritated as ever at having been disturbed.

“Well, you’re back and look worse for it, what happened to your chestplate? Get too hot for your nervous sweats?” She teased.

John’s men threw the Crooked’s leering head at Fre’ja’s feet.

“Unreal – so…so the stories were true? It wasn’t just men turning tail or defecting? Bit of a shame, bit of a shame. I honestly I thought you’d come back empty handed, tell some bold lie, and I’d just give you some little fairy tale about some insect prince or some such…This is…well…” Fre’ja trailed off as she began to jot down notes, carefully examining the Crooked’s remains. 

“Give the boy his share Fre’ja, this will do wonders for the Bandit Kingdom.” John said.

Fre’ja stiffened. “I told you not to speak his name.”

“Sorry ma’am, sorry. It’s just, look at the kid, he’s tired, let him go home to his people.”

“Oh go on then, go in there, shelf on the left.” She said, making a strange gesture. A foriegn symbol began to glow in the air above her fingertips. “There, I’ve muted the wards for a few minutes, be quick, they’ll turn you into a roasted cat when they come back on.” She tilted her head toward the door. “But Tomcat – do not grab any of the scrolls on the right.”

Khanjir nodded and headed inside. The shelves were littered with scrolls rolled into perfect circles, their ends sticking outward, causing the shelf to look like a poorly arranged marchbread hornet nest. Those on the left and those in the small compartment on the right looked no different.

“What is it she’s hiding? The juicy stuff I bet.” He said, looking at the scrolls on the right.

He picked one from the left at random, causing the rolled scrolls above it to tumble down to fill the gaps.

“Better to ask for forgiveness, than beg for permission,” he mumbled to himself and took the top scroll from the right and replaced it with one from the left.

He made his way back to the door, breathing deeply before leaving.

“Everything ok there Tomcat?” Fre’ja asked. 

“Sure – yes, I’m just glad it’s over. This will do me a great service. Who knows, maybe I’ll buy the local castle and you can work under me.” Khanjir joked.

“Darling, if you sit on that throne and let me continue my work in Athos blessed peace I will marry you – figuratively speaking that is. Those Encumbered Eagles are just too regimented. Wouldn’t you agree John-boy?”

“Bunch of ‘reformed’ gangsters, they are. Run us like one of their operations. Things were better when we were run by one who had ‘criminal’ in his name!” John replied.

“Well, maybe I will, maybe I won’t, this sword hasn’t grown too heavy for me yet.” Khanjir sighed. “Indeed, it even feels a bit lighter today.”

Fre’ja removed a set of pliers from her belt and ripped a tooth from the jaw of the Crooked. With a deft movement, she knotted it to a string and handed it to Khanjir.

“A souvenir? Much appreciated.” Khanjir said, tying the trophy around his neck.

“I’ve seen others who have killed a Crooked do the same, it’s a nice badge of honor and may get you out of a scrape. Anyway, shoo you, go back to your caravan. Enjoy the story, maybe mention me in your next play!” Fre’ja instantly dismissed him, and walked back into her workshop, pausing only to bark instructions at John and his men.

“You ain’t walking back, let us take you in the wagon. You’ve earned it.” John said as he held the door open.

Part 9: A Clip Around the Ear

“Where have you been, boy!” Ephrush scolded as Khanjir approached the camp. “You’ve had your mother worried sick, she’s out in the town asking after you.”

“This boy’s a hero!” John called from the caravan, “Just look at his trophy!” With that he nodded to Khanjir and shut the door. 

As the caravan rumbled away, all Kheshiir eyes fell on the tooth decorating the young warrior’s chest. 

“Is that-?” Chanjir started. 

Khanjir nodded with pride. “Killed it myself!” he purred.

“You STUPID boy!” Rhulush yelled as he smacked Khanjir on the back of the head. “You went looking for a Crooked? Our story is embellished and you know it. It was riddled with arrows, burned all over, and missing a hand and we STILL barely survived. You got lucky that time. Got the jump on it while it tore up your brother.”

“And so what, father? So we can go on recounting stories? I want more than that. We Kheshiir deserve to be among the rest of the races, making stories of our own! My story turns heads, has captivated hundreds, and now I have done it again. And what’s more – the demon who helps run things here has given me a story even the gods have forgotten!”

“Son…son. I…you did all this for a story?”

“So what if I did.”

“You are more Kheshiir than you would ever care to admit.” Rhulush sighed, shaking his head. “I’m…we are all just glad you are safe. Now come, sit by the fire, and tell us your tale.”

Khanjir recounted the story in its entirety. His mother joined them halfway through, relieved to see her boy but knowing better than to interrupt a good story. Even she forgot her worries by the end. The entire camp cheered upon Khanjir’s description of his heroic beheading. 

“…and that brings me…to this!” Khanjir exclaimed, revealing the scroll with a flourish. “A story so old even the gods have forgotten it, or so Fre’ja claimed.”

“Well go on then, open it!” Chanjir urged. 

Khanjir cracked the seal with a claw and unrolled the scroll. “It…doesn’t have a title. It’s hard to read, but I think I can make it out.” 

“Well, read it then boy!” Ephrush demanded.

Khanjir cleared his throat as several members of the caravan leaned in to listen.

Once with water,
Twice with ice,
They are not nice,
They are not nice

Once with fire,
Twice with light,
You cannot fight,
You cannot fight

A deeper sense,
Impending doom,
The night doth loom,
The night doth loom

Once with soil,
Twice with earth,
You have no worth,
You have no worth

Once with moonlight
Twice with star,
They are not far, 
They are not far

The sound of silence,
All noise deprived,
They have arrived,
They have arrived

Once with rockface,
Twice with stone,
You’re all alone,
You’re all alone

Once with plain sight,
Twice with clear,
They’re drawing near,
They’re drawing near

The unknown servants,
Of a forgotten god,

All the Kheshiir stood silent, a deep feeling of dread creeping over them.

“What in the good name of Lorne was that?” Ephrush finally barked, breaking everybody from their stupor.

“A story even the gods forgot…” Kheshiir said, unable to shake the lump he felt in his throat as tears welled up in his eyes. He had never felt such dread, even when facing the Crooked in the tunnel of the gold scar.

“Maybe they didn’t want anybody to know…” Danjush trailed off.

“Right, that does it,” Rhujush interjected. “Everybody in bed early tonight, we’ll head off extra early on the morrow. Let’s just put this behind us. Khanjir, get some rest tonight, you’ve had quite the day. Everybody else knows what to do. We’ll see what we can make of this on the road in the morning.” Rhujush shuddered and mumbled to himself as he headed to his lodgings. “██████████. Even the thought sends a shiver down my tail.”

Without objection, the camp stood and went about their duties, although still unable to fight the sense of dread that hung over them.

Part 10: Only Memories

Khanjir lay awake in his tent, repeating the story over and over again in his head. Unable to shake the feeling something was incredibly wrong, he fingered the tooth at his neck. “Nothing can defeat a Crooked-slayer…what am I worried about?”

Then suddenly it hit him. The dead silence. Not a sound could be heard, not a whisper of Julkir and Shelush, the young lovers in the tent next door, not the hoot of an owl, not the crackle of fire, nor the creak of a wheel. There was a chill in the air, and Khanjir was filled with a sudden urge to get up. He snatched his sword and silently crept out of the tent.

A thick blackness surrounded the camp, so dense that he could not see more than a few feet ahead. The air hung in thick, smoky clumps as he inhaled, and the atmosphere seemed to cling at him as he moved. 

Not far ahead, he spied what could only be described as a small tear in the darkness. Khanjir felt his way to the tent next to him only to find it destroyed, two lifeless figures drenched in dark fluid tangled in its ruins. 

“What? How?” Khanjir barked, unsheathing his sword and looking around. As he approached the tear in the dark shroud, the blackness suddenly lifted: Khanjir was faced with the sight of the camp in ruin. The heat of the blazing caravans struck his face like hot iron. The still, lifeless bodies of guards laying atop the corpses of children burned into his vision. His mentor, Ephrush was pinned by a sword through his mouth to his caravan, lifelessly waiting for the blaze to consume him.

Khanjir began shaking with fear. “Impossible. Somebody wake me from this nightmare!” He roared in denial.

“‘Tis no nightmare, friend.” Said a voice from the edge of camp.

Khanjir whipped around to face the voice.

A blurred, humanoid figure appeared to stand there, but Khanjir’s eyes slipped away every time he tried to focus on it.

The form began to clap a rhythm.

“Once with rock, twice with stone, you’re all alone, you’re all alone.” Said the voice with a snake-like hiss.

Khanjir tried to run but found his body frozen in place.

Another voice, clear and musical, spoke over the rhythm and chaos: “There there, pussycat. You’ve been looking for the wrong sorts of stories. You should have just kept your paws clean.”

“Let’s just let the leashed ones have at it and be done with this.” The blurred form remarked.

“Step aside Gnoctar, no need to mess with the poor child any more,” the second voice lilted. “I know what I am doing.”

The form referred to as Gnoctar stepped aside, revealing the source of the dialogue: A well-built demon in a lavish cloak, owner of the musical voice; A hulking humanoid, his immense bulk dwarfing the two leashed Crooked by his side; A slight man wearing a blindfold and a jewel in his forehead, surrounded by pink scar tissue, the crisp, golden tattoos covering his face catching the light. 

With a flash, the demon stood in front of Khanjir. 

“Pussycat, pussycat. What do we have here?” He chimed, grasping the tooth at Khanjir’s neck. “Julius, is this the teller of our story?”

“Yes, Furious.” The blindfolded man replied, almost too quickly.

“And how did you come by such a fresh tooth, pussycat?” Furious asked.

“F-from the Crooked I slayed.” Kheshir managed to stutter out. “A-and I’ll do the same to all of you, for what you’ve done here.” He added, clenching his teeth.

Furious chuckled. “With this toothpick?” he asked, gesturing at Khanjir’s runesword. “Pray tell, where did you find this thing?

“I…I’m not sure. I can’t seem to recall.”

Furious chuckled. “‘Tis but a toy from a vast arsenal. Do you realize who we are?”

“██████████.” Khanjir replied with sudden realization.

“Indeed, and our name should remain forgotten. We hear things, you know. Wild fairy tales are better left unsaid.”

The leashed Crooked gnashed their teeth and strained at their confinement while the hulking man held them back, unfazed.

“So, slayed a Crooked, did you?” Furious asked.

“Indeed, he did.” Interjected the blindfolded man, his golden tattoos pulsating with light.

“Interesting. Hmm. Yes, interesting.” With a blink, Furious stood aside the large man.

“Way I see it, pussycat, we can use a soul like you, yes, we can” Furious began with a smile. “Ferocious…me-yow. ”

Suddenly released by a million invisible hands, Khanjir stumbled forward. He readied his sword. “And why would I ever help you? You killed all my people…my family!”

“And we can undo it all, if you do not delay us too long. Or, I can have Destridius here let his beloved pets clean up the mess, then sweep it all away – poof! After all it’s just like the Kheshiir to pack up and leave in a hurry. I guess they’ve stolen all they can from the pockets of honest folk…” Furious taunted.

“Undo, how?”

“We need strong souls to join us, to help ensure nobody is able to find us – to help keep the balance, with…minimal damage. See, you Kheshiir are a sneaky lot, and the four of us, well we can undo what has been done, or make it look like an accident if nobody will miss the victims. But subtlety isn’t our strong suit. Is it, boys?”

The three other ██████████ chuckled ominously.

“And a Kheshiir that has slain a Crooked–” Furious started.

“Two Crooked, actually.” Julius interrupted, his golden tattoos pulsing once more.

“Two, now is that right? Well yours are the sort of claws we’d like on our side. So much potential for one so young! As for undoing the damage: A simple prayer from me and the world will forget, time, she will…forgive…if you will allow it.” Furious reasoned, his voice a bell in the deep silence. 

“What? Lies! Just kill me and be done with it.” Khanjir screamed defiantly. “I won’t go down without a fight.” 

“I grow tired of this, stop toying with the boy and get it done or do away with him, Furious. ‘Tis cruel, even by my standards.” Gnoctar remarked.

Furious swiped his hand through the air and Khanjir suddenly heard the voice of Ephrush behind him:

“Lorne please Lorne no!” Ephrush yelled, holding his hands up for mercy to a figure that wasn’t there. “Huh? Where? Oh Lorne, the camp, the camp, no…” he trailed off as he broke into tears.

“Ephrush!” Khanjir exclaimed in delight, running to his elderly friend. “Uncle Ephrush, it’s me, you’re alive but…Lorne I’m so so sor-” his voice cut off as Furious suddenly appeared behind Ephrush, placing a manicured hand gently on his head. 

A thin line formed around Ephrush’s neck and below it, his body collapsed. His head remained suspended in Furious’ hand. 

“Our power is great, pussycat. And we can undo all of this.” He made a gesture, still holding the severed head. “Apologies,” he added. Ephrush suddenly returned to life, paralyzed in place with a pleading look in his eyes.

Khanjir gritted his teeth. “You leave me with no choice.” He growled.

“Wonderful! I knew you’d come around! There is one catch though…” Furious said. “Our god, he requires a sacrifice. No, no, not blood. Take it easy there young whelp. The only way we can do such a big task cleanly is if we sacrifice some…memories. I’ve already given one of mine for that little display. But such a large job requires a bigger sacrifice, and well, it’s no bother to me if we leave things as they are.” He paused and glanced at the trembling Ephrush. “Well, almost as they are. So, I ask you to offer memories of your own. Trust me, you won’t feel a thing – but you must be willing.”

“You’re all monsters.” Khanjir hissed.

“You may be right, but you will understand soon enough.” Furious said sympathetically, guiding Khanjir back toward Gnoctar.

Gnoctar placed a blurred hand on Khanjir’s shoulder. “It will get easier, once you understand. We will take you to the temple in the Wilderland, and all will be made clear there.” He continued. “Furious found each of us, many, many, centuries ago, and I miss nothing of my former life.”

“Indeed!” Furious remarked proudly. “I only select those in which I see the potential to join the ██████████ – and we are a very small lot tasked with a very large mission! You should feel honored, oh dual-slayer of Crooked. Stick with us and you’ll have millenia ahead of you. We can make time itself forget to age you, giving you countless years to do as you like – within the context of our goals, of course. That is how the four of us are so…capable.”

“And what are your goals?” Khanjiir questioned meekly.

“Pussycat, pussycat. So hasty! You have centuries to figure that out, if you come with us.”

“And you’ll bring my family back, and let them live?” Khanjir asked, glaring at Julius and shuffling away from Destridius’ leashed Crooked.

“Like it never happened.” Furious said with a gentle smile, unbefitting his recent violence.

“Very well, then do what you must.” Khanjir agreed, his shoulders dropping in resignation.

Almost immediately the camp began to reassemble itself. Tents began to repitch, guards stood back up, and fires repaired wood in place of devouring it.

“When can I see them again?” Khanjir asked.

“See who, my boy?” Furious asked.

“I…I don’t…I’m not sure.” Khanjir stammered, and the bubble closed around them and sent them away to distant land.

Part 11: A Sense of Loss

Chanjir stretched as she awoke, a strange sense of loss overwhelming her.

“Morning Chanjir, dear,” said her mother. “Care to join me for another day of picking turnips?”

“Yes mother. Say, mother…didn’t you, or I lose something? Chanjir asked, stepping down from the caravan. “I seem to recall…maybe it was a dream.”

Ephrush stepped forward, a mug of broth in his hands. “That’s odd youngin’, I feel it too. Like somebody was here…but everybody is with us. I just did a head count.”

“It’s probably because the show didn’t go over so well last night,” interjected Rhulush. “Or was it the night before? Can’t seem to recall – but either way, a man on a stage telling a fabricated story with me dancing around in a suit is just a bit much. We should stick to the histories. It’s the duty of every traveling band of Kheshiir, after all.” 

“Hmm p’raps you’re right there Rhulush, p’raps. Though how did that show go? I can’t seem to recall exactly.” Ephrush countered.

“I…hmm, now that you say it, I’m not sure.” Rhulush answered, tugging his whiskers.

“It must be the work of that demon witch who runs this kingdom!” Chanjir hissed. “The Bandit Lands indeed, the water’s all poisoned or something. I say we move on. Demons and their trickery spell trouble.”

“Oh aye, you may be right. Things certainly haven’t felt right in my recollection since…well I’m not sure when.” Rhulush agreed. “Let’s pack it up and move tomorrow. Plenty of ground to cover in this realm yet!”

“Let’s head over to Danjotopia,” he continued, “their ruler, Sir Danjo, is quite the character I’ve been told. And from the locals’ talk, Danjotopia is well known for its musical instruments and performing arts! It would serve you well to learn one, Chanjir, and no place better to choose!”

“Yes, father.” Chanjir said obediently.

“And Danjush, you need to put those silly math textbooks away and learn to orate! Math is demons’ work, and we are Kheshiir, the harbingers of truth!” Rhulush chided, swiftly forgetting the sense of unease he had woken with. 

Part 12: A Strange Memory

Fre’ja stood, staring at her shelves.

“Again…AGAIN!” She yelled to herself. “Crooked head, missing scroll. Crooked head, missing scroll.” 

She reached up onto the shelf, grasping the top scroll from the right compartment. “By the name of Athos, please let me be right about this.”

She broke the seal and opened it. “This doesn’t belong here. Which means somebody has been looking for the wrong sort of stories.” She sighed. “Well whoever they were, they’re gone now. Fascinating. At least they solved the gold scar problem, so thank you, whoever you were.”

Without a further thought, she returned to her work, awaiting the day when she would again push her luck too far and get another visit from the ██████████.


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