Khamet was suddenly blinded by daylight. There was a glow as he reached the edge of the Tulgey Wood and when he exited, burst into the sudden bright sunshine. It was shocking. Behind them the forest was still pitch black and covered in a veil of perpetual night, but it was midday and the light illuminated the brilliant colors of everything to the fullest. Khamet checked his brother as he ran across the almost fluorescent green grass towards the house, he was barely conscious.
“Hello,” he cried out reaching the door.
His brother moaned in pain.
“Hello is anyone home? I need help. Please is anyone here?” He tried the handle. It was locked. He stepped back and saw smoke drifting out of the chimney. The curtains were drawn in all of the windows. “Hello?” Khamet called again. “We’ve been attacked.”
Khamet set his brother on the porch and moved around the house looking for a way in. The front window was a large pane of solid glass with thin curtains and he stood holding the sill trying to stare into the house. “Hello?” he called again.
Suddenly the curtains moved to reveal a wide face with great bug eyes and a mouth that reminded Khamet of a frog. The large eyes regarded him a moment then the curtains shut again. Khamet could hear whispering and suddenly the face appeared again. “Greetings,” the bug eyed creature said through the glass. “How may I be of service to you today?” The bug eyed creature wore spectacles that sat on his face beneath his eyes, but what use they were Khamet could not tell.
“My brother has been injured. We were attacked by the caterwaul.”
At the mention of the caterwaul the eyes bugged out even more if that were possible.
“We need some help! He’s hur…”
The face was gone again before he could finish. There was whispering then the face returned. “I am so sorry,” the bug eyed frog face said politely. “But we have decided to not be receiving today.” At that one might think that the curtains would be shut, but the frog face remained waiting to hear Khamet’s reply.
“Please sir, I don’t mean to intrude, but we have no other place to go.”
The face went away again. When it returned it had a sly look of interest. “Do you play games?”
Khamet made a questioning face that crinkled on his forehead between his eyes.
“Well if you don’t play games… are you willing to play games?” At this he smiled and nodded his head slowly.
“Okay.” Khamet said unsure what this had to do with anything.
The frog face perked up instantly, his forehead crinkled like a little pack of sausages. Come to the door the man said and the curtain was closed.
Khamet ran around to the front door where he waited for nearly a minute as several clanks, thunks and chinks sounded on the other side of the door. There was then a rumbling like something large being slid across the floor then a single loud metal clang. Finally the door creaked open slowly. The frog faced man was standing beside a woman of the same short stature, though she was taller than the man by a few inches. The woman also had a wide frogish face, with great bug eyes. The man had an enormous round belly for being one so short and the woman had a bosom so large it rivaled a great fat man’s stomach.
“Welcome,” the frog faced man said. “Well…” he saw Khamet’s brother and stopped. “Oh my. A towel mother.”
The woman was off. She returned a moment later with a large towel the color of blood.
The frog faced man seemed to approve of this choice, “Well done mother.”
The woman smiled with genuine pride as if she had just won something.
“Now have you ever played chess my new friend? It is a glorious game and we shall…”
“He needs help!” Khamet exclaimed.
“Well,” the man looked to the living room distracted and a bit irritated. He let out a sigh. “Mother,” he said. The woman had already moved to the other side of the living room and seated herself in a large fluffy chair with a thick book.
The living room was large and had a nursery of numerous plants of various colors and sizes. It was a warm day outside, but with the fireplace going, the room was about as hot as a green house. Khamet could see several different types of mushrooms and cookeys as well as what looked like a small bed of Payasograss. Everything else was completely foreign to him.
The man moved over to the woman and they conversed in whispers a moment until the man shouted, “Please!”
The woman slammed her book and stood with a huff. The man returned, “Okay now we shall play chess and she shall fix up your brother.”
The woman scooped up the towel along with Khamet’s brother cradling him in her ample bosom and carried him to a large plant in the corner of the living room. The plant suddenly came alive with the sound of sniffing. Several large flowers were sniffing him. The buds were sniffing as well and the smaller leaves touching him all over. An enormous leaf unfolded and she set him on it. The leaf seemed to conform to the cat’s body and the tentacles went to work. Finally one of the plants buds drew itself up and the woman leaned in to listen. She smiled and gave Khamet a wink.
“There everything will be fine now. Please come, sit,” the frog faced man said.
A large table stood at the far end of the room, away from the woman’s large chair. There were two chairs and the table top was carved into a black and white grid of squares. Both sides of the grid had pieces on the first two rows.
“Do you wish to be the Red King or the Black King?”
“I don’t know,” Khamet stood at the table looking at the board, then turned to the woman, then over to his brother.
“Okay look here. I am first going to show you how the pieces move. They are all different and the strategy comes from figuring out how to move them to successfully capture my king and queen.”
Khamet was paying little attention and watched as the woman went to several plants, whispering to each as she took a leaf from one, a bud from another, a seed from another and so on. She moved to a shelf and took down an empty pot full of dirt. She poked her finger into the soil creating a good sized hole in the center, then placed all of the ingredients into the hole along with a large piece of mushroom. She picked up a small watering can and left the room. When she returned she poured the water into the small pot, and placed the pot on a table in the corner that Khamet had just noticed. A skylight in the roof allowed the sun to shine directly on the table and illuminate the pot. The woman left the room.
The man was explaining something about a thing called a Rook and something about using the King to make a castle. In less than a minute the dirt began to stir. A green stem extended and a plant rose out. The plant grew quickly to a large bud that opened its petals and yawned like a baby waking from a nap.
When the flower was complete the woman cradled it in her hand and softly whispered to it. Khamet saw the flower open to the woman and slowly droop and nod as the woman began to cry. Then she pulled the entire thing out by the roots, walked over to the counter and pulled out a long butcher’s knife. She continued to sob and whisper to the flower. Her body blocked the scene, but Khamet’s ears flattened as he understood. The woman brought the knife around and chopped once. There was a tiny squeal then repeated slicing. She placed everything into a large mortar bowl, and then used a pestle to crush it down.
A whistling began in the other room and she left. The whistling stopped and the woman returned with a teapot. She poured hot water into the mortar then brought the bowl to Khamet’s brother.
He was weak, but he lapped it up slowly then lay back as the woman took the bowl and left the room. She returned and gave a slight ‘humph,’ to the frog faced man, dabbing her still wet eyes with a small handkerchief then took her position back in the chair. By the time she settled and her book was open, Khamet’s brother was waking up.
Khamet interrupted the man explaining about the direction a Bishop can move, to go over to his brother, “How are you feeling?”
“That’s a kick in the head,” he said and nodded his thanks to the woman.
The woman nodded back.
“What about the game!?” the man complained.
“What game? Khamet’s brother asked.
“Chess,” the man said irritated.
“Oh I play chess,” said his brother.
“Good,” Khamet said. “Because I don’t understand it at all.”
“You play? Then step up my boy, step up.” The man’s demeanor was excited.
Khamet watched as his brother stood and stretched shaking out his back and each of his legs. Then he moved to the empty chair across from the man and sat. A minute later the two were lost. The entire room sat in the heat and fell into a dead silence as if nothing over the past few minutes had happened.
The woman was back in the big fluffy chair with her book propped up on her bosom.
“Thank you for my brother,” Khamet said moving to the big fluffy chair.
The woman turned and smiled and went back to her book. It seemed difficult for her to see past her large bosom, but she made do.
Khamet looked at the book. There was a grid with several numbers and symbols placed in them. “What game is that?”
The woman looked up, but the old man began speaking for her. “She doesn’t play chess. She likes her own games. Solitaire and Sudoku. Games with no meaning at all.”
The woman stared at the man and waited for him to finish.
“She doesn’t like to play games with me because I always win and she can’t compete,” the man said.
“Your games are boring for one and I don’t like them because I don’t like you.”
The woman’s voice was obviously choked and forced as if she didn’t have much air to breathe. Still Khamet smiled at the comment. “Are you too um…” he didn’t know what to say. There had been no introduction and other than the plants there was nothing in the living room to identify them. No pictures to tell anything about them.
Khamet’s brother stared at them. “You two play games all day to solve the mysteries of the world, right?”
The woman looked shocked and the man excited. “You have heard of us?” The woman said.
“Certainly we do, for there is nothing, but the mystery of the world,” the man said staring at the board.
“I would like to know what you have learned.” Khamet said.
“Well… we…” The man began, staring at the board.
“I will explain.” The woman interrupted. “Rublick knows you don’t want to be pulled away from your precious game.”
The man scowled.
“It is difficult for him to do two things at once.” The woman wrote a number in a box then set the book down. “Besides it’s time for tea.”
“Check.” Khamet’s brother said.
The man scowled down at the board, “Yes, yes, you do the tea before I am beaten. Then well be in a fix.”
The woman stood up. “You are cats yes?” the woman said in a confirming tone.
“Yes,” Khamet said following her.
“Payasograss, orange root, and eucalyptus mint I think would be good for our guests.”
“Earl Gray for me dear,” the man said not looking up.
“No you shall have what we are all having.”
He grumbled and looked the board over again, he had been checked. “Do you boys know of the war?”
“Yes I am quite aware of what the kings are doing to this land, all over a woman.” Khamet’s brother said. “The Spades are ruthless and deserve whatever they get.”
“I tell you, between us I never trusted the black cards my boy.”
“What are you talking about?” Khamet asked.
“The war son. The war raging for… How long has it been now? Three years I believe. No one is certain when it began, but it seems the Royal Ball was the ‘terminus a quo’.”
“What?” Khamet asked.
“The starting point.”
“The ball at the Suicide King’s Palace.” Khamet confirmed.
Khamet’s brother looked up from the board and stared. “How did you know about that?”
“I was there. I tried to find you, but….”
“You were there,” the frog faced man said. “When those black bastards stole the Princess of Hearts?”
“Yes, but that’s not what happened.” Khamet said.
“How were you there? His brother asked.
“I,” he moved his paw across his neck. “I couldn’t find you.”
“Aha!” the man screamed in triumph and made a move. “Take that son.”
Khamet’s brother looked the board over and casually moved a piece, “Check.”
“He isn’t very good,” the woman said returning with a tray.
Khamet moved to the couch, “Pardon me, but who are we addressing.”
The man’s frog face turned bright red and he leaned in closer to the board.
“You’re kidding!” the woman exclaimed throwing him a sharp glance. “Your game is no excuse for forgetting manners. You will now complete that and stop playing while we have tea.”
“Nooo?” he stretched his neck and pleaded as his head tipped to the side, begging.
She set the tray on the table and made a gesture with her hand. “Reset!” she said. The buds on the wall near the chess board fell on the board each snatching a piece.
“Nooo!” the man said as the whole board was reset in a flash.
Khamet’s brother hopped down and moved to the coffee table.
“How are you?” Khamet asked looking again at the thick stripe of strange matted fur on his back. Now that he was normal size the small splotches on the rest of his body were barely noticeable with his stripes.
“Fine,” he said.
“So,” the man started. “You two were attacked by the caterwaul?” He took his cup and allowed the woman to pour milk and honey before he sat back.
“He was,” Khamet’s brother was distant and seemed put off.
“So were you.” Khamet countered.
“How did you get away?” The woman said excited.
Khamet turned to his brother.
“I keep a supply of mushrooms for emergencies. I grew big and attacked them.”
The man stared, “Really? And that worked?”
“Well I was several times bigger than them, and… well they couldn’t really attack me, I hurt my paws stepping on their spikes.”
“How did you learn to do that?” The man asked.
“What do you mean?” Khamet’s brother said.
“I mean how did you reason that out?” The man said.
“Just logic and strategy. It made sense.”
The man glanced at the woman and back to the chess table for a moment. “I see. Have you always been good at strategy?”
“It’s difficult to survive Heere without it,” he said over his cup of tea while glancing at Khamet.
“And you my dear,” the woman addressed Khamet. “You’re cats, but I have never seen one so, so…” she struggled.
“Alive.” the man finished.
“Yes.” She smiled.
Khamet looked at them both then at his brother.
“I told you one option is the caterwaul. They are the cats that arrive in Heere. No animal arrives more prevalently than cats and usually they arrive in groups. Depending on the litter, they change and become like that… A mutation.”
“Exactly,” the woman said. “Cats don’t last long before they become caterwaul. They reside in the Tulgey Wood and terrorize everyone and everything. The mome wraths seem to be the only ones they tolerate for any length of time, probably because they are inedible.”
“So what does that make us?” Khamet asked.
“Well I don’t know. That is why I asked.” The woman said.
Khamet looked at his brother who sat brooding. He shrugged. “Are you kidding? I’ve been wondering that for… well I’ve lost count on the years.”
“You said that I was the only one you saw alive.” Khamet said.
“Oh well all the other’s… um die.”
“Or fall victim to predators.” His brother said.
“Yes, it is unfortunate, but it is rare to see any at all, the process must happen quickly. But to more important things, how did you come by being at the palace when all of this began?”
“Yes brother, how did that occur?”
“I met the Princess in the large field behind the castle.” Khamet said.
“Ah the Field of Love and Betrayal,” the woman said.
“No one calls it that,” the man said.
“Apples and tomatoes.” Khamet said.
“And roses. Yes the Field of Love and Betrayal. Tomatoes are called love apples and apples are…well we needn’t get into that.”
“The ball?” Khamet’s brother cut in impatiently.
“She invited me,” Khamet said. “That’s all. I waited for you there and…”
“I couldn’t find you!” he was obviously upset.
“Anyway the Spades didn’t start it.” Khamet said. “It was the Suicide King.”
The man stopped sipping his tea and the tension in the room went up several degrees adding to the heat. “How do you know that?” he began as if this was a common argument. Then stopped realizing something and he stared hard at Khamet.
The woman put her hand on his thigh to calm him and leaned in, “Were you really there dear?”
“Yes. The Suicide King murdered the King of Spades with his…”
“No!” the man screamed and dropped his cup and left the room.
“What did I say?”
The woman motioned them forward and the two cats leaned in. Her enormous bosom blocked them from getting too close. “The story is that the black king tried to kill the King of Hearts and failed, and took his daughter instead. Everyone has claimed this, but a few have denied it. What you have just said is the rumor, and in retaliation the Ace of Spades took the Princess of Hearts in revenge, that is what started the war.”
“What has Popularopinion said?” Khamet’s brother asked.
“That has been interesting. No one really knows. It said that the King of Hearts has taken Popularopinion into asylum. He says it is for his safety, which is quite unorthodox. The Princess of Hearts has remained prisoner of the Ace of Spades since the war began and the King of Hearts seems to be making no headway in getting her back.”
“And what of the Jack of all Trades?” Khamet said.
“You know of the Jack…” She seemed to flutter at this. Her face and décolletage flushed red. “Have you met him?” she smiled, anxious with something akin to hunger.
“Oh,” she took a breath. “And is he the rogue they say he is?”
“What happened to him?”
“Well he’s been trying to rescue the Princes… all these long… The King of Hearts tried at first to blame him for the coup, but Popularopinion wasn’t standing for that. Several witnesses who were at the ball were killed or removed. The rest claim not to have seen or they agree with the Suicide King. Once Popularopinion was taken into “asylum” the Jack fled the Kingdom of Hearts for his life. They say he fought his way out like a great rogue,” she exhaled and leaned back with a smile. After a moment she stood, and moved to the door. “There is no excuse for rudeness. You are ignoring our guests.”