Chapter 1: The Naked Cat

On the road once more, a crowded truck thumped along the road, passing by the ruins of houses and crossing over giant branches and fallen trees. Other than the driver and his assistant in the passengers seat, there were 4 passengers, all of which were lounging in the back. One of them, a Byakko(1) wearing a gas mask and light, sleeveless traveling gear, a type of clothing meant less for protection and more for moving easily for long periods. Judging by his bare gray skin and lack of fur, he was a Sphynx, rare in these parts. Another man, a grinning Wukong(2), a chimpanzee, wearing what looked like factory worker's clothes. He gave off a strong sense of self imposed superiority over the others. The third, a Red Deer Dahu(3), his horns cut short and clad in nice clothes that must've been dirtied from being on the road for just a few hours. His expression was one of discomfort and nervousness. The last of them was the strangest of them all. A Garuda(4), while difficult to tell what breed he was from the armor he was wearing. Surrounded by technology and he was dress head to toe in armor straight out of a medieval story. Even a stylized helmet to accommodate his beak. The Byakko stared him down… If he had to guess what species he was from a glance, he'd say Forest Hawk. But regardless of affiliations, outfits, and personalities, they all had their own destinations, having never met each other before in their life.

Long journeys such as these were commonplace. People with the equipment and skill to drive through the tree covered ruins of the old world were sought after; often they were paid handsomely for their troubles. Others chose to live their lives on the road like this, day in and day out. If you weren't a traveler, you were behind the walls of one of the many havens or makeshift towns. As long as one had the Life's Blood to stave off infection and the strength or companionship to fight off the monsters that roamed the waste, it was entirely possible to live such a life. Yet, the only two who looked to have such qualities, were the Byakko and the Garuda.

With the long periods of silence wearing on all of them, except the Garuda who looked to be asleep, one of them spoke up. The Wukong, who was staring at the button on the Dahu's lapel. A golden heptagon made out of 7 triangles, with a small dot in each triangle. A symbol that everyone was all too familiar with, whether for hate or reverence. "So… Imperial(5)? What's that life like?" The Wukong asked, his voice not one of curiousity, but rather one of, strangely, slight annoyance. "I'm Ekko by the way."

In response, the Dahu, taken aback by the sudden conversation and a nervous man to begin with, flicked his ears, before speaking up with a stutter. "Me? Ah, I don't know what it's like actually, to tell the truth. See, I just recently gained citizenship. That's why I'm going East to Blue Iron City. Also it's Denz, by the way." He introduced himself as well, just to be polite. He looked at the other two who were remaining silent, "Well, actually, I'm not just going there for my sake. I'm going to be reuniting with my daughter. She lives there with her husband and… Well I'm going to be a grandfather in a few months so I'd hate to miss that."

To his life's story, Ekko srugged, "Frankly, I don't care, but hope you're happy with that." Suddenly, he showed the back of his hand, flashing the symbol on his glove. An S with a circle in each empty space of the letter, almost resembling a Yin Yang. A lesser known symbol but one that was still recognized by those involved in the inner conflict of the world. The emblem of the Sleepless Sky Coalition(6). "Sure, you're gonna be having the comfy life in the Empire's cities, but I wouldn't trade my freedom for that comfort. That's why it's the Coalition for me. That's where I'm heading for the record, back home."

"Doesn't their base travel?" Denz asked, but quickly set the question away, realizing that it was off topic. "I mean, that aside, I feel like your views on the Empire are skewed by your life in the Coalition. It isn't all oppressiveness like you think. They mean the beast for your Citizens just like the Coalition cares for theirs-"

"But our leaders rule as equals, we don't put all our power into one group of old coots." Ekko said, his voice raised, a sense of hostility building in the small space that was the back of the truck, which was now passing through what was once an urban sprawl, now turned into a root covered group of buildings. This sense of hostility was not lost upon the Byakko, who had been eavesdropping this whole time. Taking it upon himself to defuse the situation in the most straight forward manner possible, he struck his seat with a metal object at his hip, making a loud clanging noise, loud enough to get the attention of both Denz and Ekko. Upon inspection, the object used to make the noise was a revolver, a large gold and black gun, which looked giant in the Byakko's scrawny hands. Meanwhile, the Garuda was still asleep, still sitting there with his arms crossed, storing softly.

Being the man with the gun, the Sphynx had control over the conversation. Then, after much pause and discomfort from the arguing beastmen, the Byakko spoke up, his voice slightly distorted by his gasmask. He looked to the armored Garuda. "I think he's asleep or dead." He said, tilting his head curiously. "Don't die on us alright, whatever your name is."

It didn't exactly acknowledge the argument, yes, but the interruption did ease the rising tension of the room. Working in its own roundabout way and not just because there was a guy with a large gun in the car; so far the driver was completely unaware of how heated things have become. "Let's just agree to disagree, alright? I came out all this way to see my daughter after all." Denz said, sighing.

"And to be there for your grandkid's birth." Ekko said, with a nod, not wanting to give up but knowing it was for the best. The car continued through the sprawl, passing by a giant white tree, that uplifted and overturned a house now lying in ruin. A large flow of purple sap oozing from its size, yet to be harvested by those with the equipment.

It appeared as though things were reverting to a neutral state, everyone calming down, when suddenly the truck dipped sharply down, jerking to a halt, coupled by the audible sound of crumbling rock. The sudden chaos caused the trucks occupants to be tossed to the side violently, the Dahu letting out an effeminate yelp. With three people nearly falling and lying on top of him, the Garuda jerked away, looking around. But, despite the violent awakening, he only gave a groggy, "Mm…? So this is where…?" His voice was incredibly deep.

"Hey, what happened?" Ekko called out, climbing out of the truck and stepping outside. He was soon followed by the other three, with the Garuda being the last to come out. As they got out, the three quickly realized the issue; a small but deep sinkhole in the middle of the road had trapped the truck. Deep enough to swallow the front wheels and engine, but at least wide enough to allow room for the front doors to be opened. Judging from the sound from earlier and the freshly crumbled ground, the sinkhole had been there for a while, just waiting to collapse when someone drove over it.

"Valu(7) be damned!" The driver could be heard shouting, flinging open her door and hopping out, soon followed by her assistant. She was a Rat Ratatoskr(8) and a Bison Minos(9) respectively, both women. Their body types and personalities being complete opposites. With the rat being the small and loud one and the bison rarely walking and being built like a weight lifter. Scratching her head, the assistant silently inspected the trapped car with a frown. Meanwhile the driver was on the verge of throwing a childish tantrum, before taking a deep breath and lighting up a cigarette, looking to her partner. "Gloria, get the hunk of junk out of there! We're paid by distance, not time." With her smoking hand, she pointed to the giant Jinmenju Tree overlooking the group. "This fuckass tree is probably home to a pack of Amalgamates and I don't plan on dying way out here."

The Minos, Gloria, chuckled, clearly amused by the Ratatoskr's temper. "Okay, hun."

"Aira." Ekko spoke up, addressing the driver by her name. Going to the front of the group, he asked a single question. "This won't take long, will it?" He looked to the bison, who was working on physically lifting and pulling the car out of the hole; while she didn't want to perpetuate the stereotype that her kind were often used for manual labor and heavy lifting, she did agree that their strength was a boon in situations like these.

Aira looked unamused, cigarette hanging loosely from her mouth, then looked to the car. "Well, once Gloria gets it out of the hole, I'm going to have to check for any damages. The fall could've fucked up the wheels or front axle. The engine most likely isn't damaged but I can't be too sure. If it is super bad, one of you will have to run to get replacement parts." Taking a drag on her cigarette and blowing the smoke in the chimp's direction, she shrugged. "The short answer is: Shut the fuck up or you can walk the rest of the way, leave your payment of Shells(10) in the front seat." Then, she offered her pack of smokes to Ekko without a further word.

The Wukong looked completely destroyed by words, so he dismissively waved the pack away, not wanting to further anger the rat; she actually reminded him of someone back home. Meanwhile, the Byakko took one of the cigarettes, little hesitation, removing the mask from his face and letting it hang from his neck by the straps. Without his mask, it was apparent that he wasn't completely gray skinned, there was a stripe of white running down the middle of his face.

The cat lit the cigarette in a flash of purple light from his fingers and went to a nearby trash can, covered in purple leaves, taking some time to himself. The Garuda too kept to himself, staring off into the distance, looking radiant in his polished armor. All the while, Ekko and Denz talked amongst themselves, hopefully having settled their political differences. A brief calmness was found as the workers attempted to get the car back up and running. A calmness that didn't last too long, when the Garuda looked to the smoking Sphynx. "Casper." He said in his deep, gravelly voice, suddenly addressing the man by his name. "Do you sense it too?"

There were a lot of dangers to be had out in no man's land. Which is why one needs to have the proper physical and mental skills in order to make a living as a scavenger. But the most dangerous of threats out in the wastes wasn't the terrain, wasn't Arborpathy, and wasn't the occasional highway man. That status went to the beings known as Amalgamates. Former flesh and blood beings, warped by the Life's Blood that saturates the earth. The strongest of them being wholly unique, preventing even the most skilled Scavengers from properly preparing for them. They could only hope and pray to Valu that one didn't show up.

This was not one of those days.

Luckily it was heard first. Rolling towards the group, in a fashion similar to a pillbug or armadilla; the creature, a ball of chitinous armor, shredded and tore up the ground as it rolled as frightening speed towards the 6 Beastmen. Not small either, roughly the size of the car that they used to get here. Already were the beastmen preparing, the Garuda drawing his sword, Casper reaching for the gun at his hip, and even Ekko was at the ready with a pair of knives at his hip; Denz however backed towards the car, clearly not being a man suited for combat.

Then, once it was a stone's throw away, the silver plated ball bounded into the air and unfolded, revealing its whole body. Several legs, two giant clawed forelimbs, a single eye in the center of its face, and two incredibly long whiskers terminating from its head, both of them tipped with bladed scythes. A cycloptic, angry pill bug… With whiskers that could kill you. As it landed, its weight was realized, as it left a small crater in the ground, following up the landing with a slash from its feelings, one aimed at the Garuda and the other aimed at Casper.

Neither of them were ready to die, not to an Amalgamate. The Garuda blocked the incoming attack with his sword, the blade bouncing off, while Casper tumbled to the side, the blade grazing over him.

"Fuckin' hell!" Aira was heard shouting, "Just what we need!" Kill that thing so we can get moving! It's just going to chase us if we run away!" Tossing her smoke to the ground, she stomped on it. "Don't let it damage the truck either!"

"Amalgamates?" Ekko said, knives at the ready, dashing in front of the group, a devilish grin on his face. The first one to be on the offense with the creature, clearly not the first time he's fought one.

When it came to fighting Amalgamates, there were 3 unspoken rules that one needed to keep in mind. Lesson Number One: They are mindless. Considered truly not sentient, they only attack what is before them. In a borderline autonomous fashion, they are just about as sentient than a machine. So one must not hesitate and treat them like they are an animal or a being with emotion, thought, or reason. The Wukong nimbly dodged got in past the creature's main source of attack, its feelers, and took a slice at its side.

The beast might've been fast when rolling forward, but when it came to dodging, it was sorely lacking. The blade cut deep and the Amalgamate skittered backwards, taking a parting slice at the chimp, who again dodged the attack. "Sit back and watch you guys! You're gonna see what a fighter of the Sleepless Sky Coalition can do!"

He was confident, raring to go, and his confidence entirely wasn't misplaced so far. From the way he nimbly dodged the Amalgamates blades and used knives to wound it once more.

Lesson Number Two: Know yourself more than your enemy. To play to your strengths and know what you can, will, and should do in any given situation. Exploit the Amalgamate's weakness and make sure it can't exploit yours. A ranged fighter will have no problem against an opponent who exclusively uses melee. A heavily armored target might be able to defend against light blows, no matter how many are thrown at them, but a single, piercing strike can break through their defenses and puncture their vitals.

These were all things that had to be considered in a fight against two powerful beings like an Ascendant and an Amalgamate.

Ascendants. Those who were infected with Arborpathy and subsequently "cured" via the consumption of Life's Blood, the purple sap of the Jinmenju. With this mysterious substance, they are able to cast what would appear as Magic, a skill that became known as "Versus." Not only that, but they also gained superior physical abilities, such as greater strength, sharper reflexes, and the lucky Ascendant just may gain powers exclusive to them. All this at the cost of needing to continue to consume Life's Blood in order to keep their infection on hold.

Ekko, the knightly Garuda, and Casper were all such Ascendants. Denz's status however, was left unknown as of now.

As the Amalgamate and Ekko continued their fight, it was apparent who was the one of superior skill. The chimp's speed easily outmatched the beetle's bladed tentacles, each strike either being dodged or deflected out of the way. Not once had the Amalgamate even grazed him. A fight like this was one worth to sit back and watch. Then, in a quick swipe, Ekko slashed at one of the tentacles, as easy as a pair of scissors through paper, the tentacle was severed and the monster let out of pained groaning sound; it was best to not think about if it could actually feel pain. Then, Ekko closed in, ready to land the finishing blow, to strike the Amalgamate in its single eye.

Lesson Number Three: Overconfidence kills. Whether you are a novice, fresh out of training, or the most experienced fighter in all of Qest. If you are overconfident, you can and will be punished for your hubris. The Amalgamates are the ones who always laugh last.

In a flash of purple and white light, a focused beam of energy was fired from the Amalgamate's eye. An attack that it had waited on using up to this point. They might not be sentient, but they were certainly not strangers to strategy in a fight. The shot pierced through Ekko's chest, the bright flash of light blinding the onlookers. Then, as the light cleared and their eyes adjusted, they came to witness a six inch wide cauterized hole left in the Wukong's chest.

"…What…?" Ekko said, gasping, his body going limp. His expression was just as shocked as everyone else, the other expressions being ones of fear and anger. Denz was frozen in fear, likely the first time he's seen someone die, Aira was trying to not yell and curse that no one prevented this. Ekko was dead before he even hit the ground, his knives clanging on the asphalt, the sound resonating with the surrounding silence. Then, the silence was broken, by Casper.

"Fucking hell!" Casper shouted, hastily putting his mask back on and spitting his cigarette to the ground. Not quite in the same mindset as Aira, he did however admit there were several things that could've been done to prevent this; such as not standing around and gawking like an idiot. Even though Ekko was a cocky moron and had to learn the hard way. Drawing his revolver, he took aim at the monster's head.

Versus weren't the only tools at an Ascendant's disposal. There were also the options of LB-Weapons. Weapons and tools powered by their wielder's energy, using it as the ammunition it needed to function. Be them swords, guns, shields, or explosives. Often providing more power and simplicity as opposed to the utility of regular Versus, at the price that they had to be carried around. Casper's revolver, a giant gun that looked as big as his head, its size even more pronouced in his tiny, scrawny hand. A black revolver, decorated with gold highlights, and the bold words emblazoned on the side: LOVE OVER GOLD.

The monster turned to face him, the glow from its eye acting as a warning sign that it was about to fire another beam, ready to burn a hole through Casper as well; the knight was ready to strike to save Casper's life. But, in a different beam of light, Casper fired first. An attack similar to the Amalgamate's own attack, the beam shot through its eye and head, a stream of pink fluid poured from the wound. The Amalgamate stumbled, but it remained standing and alive, although reasonably disoriented. Even with its head blown clean off. But, what mattered now was that it was vulnerable for further attacks, Casper shouted to the armored man, whose sword was clutched in both hands. "Old Path(11)! Kill it!" The Sphynx continued to fire his gun at the monster's side, each shot taking off a small chunk of the Amalgamate's armored size. It was what he could do to keep it staggered and inactive, as the Garuda, ready on the opposite side of it, went to finish it off.

"Ai!" The Garuda stepped forward, going for a powerful two handed swing, he sliced into the monster's flank. The attack split it wide open, the sword cutting through the Amalgamate's silver chitin with incredible ease; if Casper had to give the Old Path something, it was that they knew how to make weapons that did their job well. A deluge of pink blood spilled to the ground at the Garuda's talons and in a way that mirrored Ekko's own death, the Amalgamate stumbled to the side, away from the swordsman, without a noise, and fell down. Dead before it hit the ground. Lesson Number One.

They had only met each other a few hours ago. They hadn't even had a full conversation. Yet, together, they demonstrated to the three onlookers, just what a duo of Ascendants can achieve; with honorable mention going to the deceased Wukong. Deep down, both Aira and Gloria had to admit that the two were the last people they expected to hold their own in a fight; the cat who looked like a breeze could blow him over, holding a gun that looked like it could break his hand when fired, and the other guy looking like a time traveler who got lost.

For what seemed like hours, the area was mostly silent. Just heavy breathing from the Garuda, and a very faint sizzling sound coming from the Amalgamate's corpse. The Sphynx closed his eyes, removing his mask once more, looking at the freshly deceased Wukong. A look of shock and confusion still on his face. He likely didn't even process what had happened until it was too late. Casper got down on one knee, then without a word, began to go through the deceased man's pocket. An action that prompted Denz, who had been staying silent up to this point, to protest. Meanwhile, the two women stood by the truck; the vehicle looked like it was ready to hit the road again.

"Hey! Wait, stop!" The deer shouted, a tone of disdain in his voice. "He's dead, show some respect!" He punctuated his anger by roughly nudging Casper's back with his hoof.

Yet, Casper continued to go thorugh the Wukong's coat, until he retrieved a single object from the inside of his coat. A small booklet, sporting the Sleepless Sky's logo. "Hm, he said he was going back home to the Coalition, right? I assume he meant Terminus(12)" Looking at the journal, he didn't quite look at the contents just yet, despite the temptation. Casper stood up, "They're going to be waiting for someone that is never coming back. Get what I mean?" He tapped the booklet in his hands, staring at Denz. The look on the deer's face read that he was still not too happy with the Sphynx's thievery, no matter his intentions. Casper's tone sounded confident and full of himself, showing his true colors as soon as he started talking. "I already planned to go to the Coalition sometime this year anyways. Returning this journal to gives me a reason…"

Not quite happy with the vagueness, Denz furrowed his brow, wanting a proper answer. "…So… You're doing this for a man you don't even know? Why?" He'd stop Casper, but he didn't have a weapon.

"I have my reasons." Casper answered, putting the journal in his belt, with no pockets large enough to put it in. This time, his voice sounded annoyed, towards the Dahu's constant whining over this trip.

Another period of silence, the Garuda was still leaning against the corpse of the Amalgamate, breathing heavily. Aira approached Casper, looking tired and fed up with all three of them. "Look. I don't care about your reasons. You're the guy who just hopped on my truck and said to take you anywehre. You might not have a destination, but if you plan to get off here, do so now… I don't want to hear more drama. Just give the payment you owe."

She had a point. As he reached into his pocket and pulled out a few leaflets of Shells, handing them over to the woman, he gave the plain and simple response of "So be it." If anything, it gave him more freedom, to not be bound to the path of a simple truck.

"I'll bury his body." The Garuda interjected, getting off the Amalgamate, "It's the least I can do." The armored man looked down at the corpse of Ekko, silently wishing he could've done more. With a shrug, he looked to Aira and her companion. "I prefer to travel on foot anyways, not a big fan of machines, as you can tell."

"Right" Aira said, rubbing her snout, just ready to get back on the road. Gloria was already in the passenger's seat. "Denz? You coming or what? Our next stop is where you're going. Blue Iron City."

The deer stood there for a moment, his eyes on the two men who choose to stay behind. Truly, he wasn't suit for this life style. Going through the ruined cities on foot, staying in the ruins of houses for shelter, risking life and limb every day. Before today, he was living in a ramshackle town, struggling to survive outside of imperial law. He immediately took the chance to live in their cities. Yes, imperial life sounds good to me, he thought to himself. With a nod and no further words for either of the two men, he went back, just hoping that there would be no more problems along the way. With everything settled, the truck began to drive off, making sure to avoid the pothole, and driving carefully just in case there were more.

Once it was gone, the two men went off on their own. The Garuda, who Casper still didn't know the name of, was busy looking for a spot to make a grave for the dead man. But, one thing was bothering Casper, something that he didn't acknowledge until now.

How do you know my name? He thought to himself, keeping an eye on him, before heading off on his own, further into the ruined neighborhood. A Coalition protected area would be nearby surely. People with ties to the group, their connections running far and wide across the country. Honestly? He just wanted to get out of that car with a bunch of people he didn't even like.

Then after that: Terminus.

1. A race of humanoid cats. They come in several different breeds, similar to our own breeds of cats, both wild and domestic. A Sphynx Byakko would be an anthropomorphic Sphynx for instance.

2. A race of monkey people. Similar to the above, Wukong come in several different breeds. Unlike normal monkeys they are of humanoid proportions and walk upright.

3. A race of humanoid sheep, deer, and other similar species. Often confused with other species such as Minos.

4. A race of humanoid bird people. Aren't able to fly, as their bodies are too heavy. They are however able to glide with the feathers along their arms.

5. The New World Empire. The rulers of the world. Imperial cities are located around the world, behind metal walls.

6. A coalition of several independent groups wishing to live outside of the Empire's influence.

7. The monotheistic god worshipped by many Qestians. A parallel to the real world Christian God, albeit with several differences, such as them being female and the lack of a Jesus figure.

8. A race of humanoid rodent people. Usually very small in stature. Also includes animals that aren't considered rodents but similar to them, such as Possums.

9. A race of humanoid bovine people and other similar large herbivorous beasts. Cows, bison, buffalo, and oxen for example.

10. Imperial Shells. The primary currency of Qest. Not literal shells. Come in both paper and coin form. 100 Shells = 0.9 USD

11. A faction of people who reject the technology of modern day and choose to instead live a life in a mostly medieval fashion. Due to their rejection of technology, they rely more on Versus to get by day by day.

12. The mobile homebase of the SSC.