1. Night Watch
“Do you see anything?”
The satyr snorted and picked some sand from his eye. “A better question would be, ‘Can you see?’ I’m literally staring into a sandstorm in the middle of the night through the smallest lens through the smallest hole in a rock in the universe! Man, I need to rest my eyes for a sec.”
He put down the telescope and was about to rub his eyes, when felt a hand grip his shoulder.
“That is why I worry about you. You always let your guard down when the enemy is most likely to strike.”
“Only a second,” he assured him with a raise of a hoof-hand. “Besides, why would anything want to be out in this weather, anyway? Also, could you—move your skull a little farther than centimeters from my head?”
“Apologies for my affection,” grandfather said as he withdrew.
“That was affection? Really? You’re real interesting, you know that? By the way---” Arkiok added, “Do you mind taking over sentry duty for me? I’ve probably done close to my five hours, anyway.”
There was the sound of a bone tapping on polished crystal. “Actually, you still have twenty minutes,” rasped another voice.
“Khh, darn you and your stupidly accurate, stolen, Sardox-branded watch. Where the heck did you even get a watch?”
“From a dead rat soldier,” replied the second voice.
“Yeah, but from where?”
A shuff of robes, followed by bone scratching hollow bone. “It was on an old battlefield somewhere in a swamp.”
Arkiok shook his head. “Who brings something that valuable into a swamp?”
“Dunno, maybe he was sentimental.”
“Excuse me, Arkiok. You wanted me to take the rest of your term on sentry duty? I can.” the first voice told him.
“Thanks, gramps,” Arkiok replied. Arkiok turned to him and gave him a smile. His grandfather was already smiling back.
“You know what I really like about you? You’re always so happy,” Arkiok said.
Two hollow sockets stared back. “Hah,” grandfather’s skull replied, as Arkiok placed the telescope on his grandfather’s phalanges.
Arkiok stepped off the ledge and into a shallow pit. In the center of the pit was a fire that colored the sandstone floor around it with hues of orange. Farther out and into the darkness, the sandstone sprung from the floor into pillars that braced against the ceiling.
Sitting behind the fire, a skeleton sat, covered by a robe. After centuries of wear, the robe was greyer than a thundercloud, and the red dragon face on the front was in pieces. In fact, the robe in general was shredded. The watch stolen from the dead rat soldier sat upon its carpals.
Arkiok laid down across from him, and stared up at the dark ocean above, which ebbed and flowed in the most erratic fashion. Yet no matter how they moved, they could not bury the orange island.
“Kags,” Arkiok said.
“What?” Kagaran replied.
“Do you like being undead?”
“Why ask?” Kagaran said.
Kagaran was silent for a moment.
“I’m impartial, to be honest.” He looked down at his hand and turned over, then back again. “You get unlimited stamina, some cool magic, and you’re never hungry or thirsty, which is nice. But you don’t think much of that after about a month of undeath.”
The satyr watched him for a moment. He then looked down and observed his hoof-hands. He turned them over, then back again.
“Do you ever miss food and drink, or your fur, your skin, feeling warm, cold and all?” Arkiok asked.
He outstretched a hand, and manifested a scythe from a dark cloud.
“However, I think the pros outweigh the cons.”
Arkiok leaned away from him and blinked. “Why did you—”
Kagaran turned to the right and swung the air with the scythe. A crimson crescent flowed out from the edge of the blade, which soared through the air and into the dark. Then there was a distant pig-like screech, and a thump. Kagaran resumed his normal position, while Arkiok was suddenly caught in time, staring into the dark where the crescent had gone. The skeleton found this amusing, and leaned forward to see when the satyr would come unstuck. He put down his scythe, which crumbled to dust on the floor, and stared at his frozen face.
Finally, Arkiok moved and spoke: “Nice hit. That was a killshot, too.”
“How would you know?"
“Experience. I hunted pikraors a lot while living in a lawless herd. Learned a lot about those beasts. Death sounds, playful sounds, angry sounds, mating sounds, etc.”
Kagaran nodded. There was then a moment of silence, except for the howling wind, and the hiss of sand scraping against sandstone outside.
“So, how would you know?” Arkiok asked Kagaran.
Kagaran shook his head. “Young faun, surely your parents taught you this. Possessing the Queen’s power means I can sense the life force of nearby creatures.”
Arkiok growled and glared back. “‘Surely they taught you’. That’s mighty presumptuous of you. One, I’m an orphan. Two, I didn’t get formal education; instead I got a spear and twenty-three years worth of anarchist propaganda.”
Kagaran tilted his skull. “And how did you end up here, doing reconnaissance for your former enemies? When did you leave your band of bandits to pledge loyalty to the Queen? How did you disillusion yourself from those ideals?”
Arkiok had a sudden interest in his feet-hooves. He snorted and let out a laugh. “How many questions can you fit into a single breath? Listen---let’s talk about this later, okay?”
“Very well. I shall not intrude further,” Kagaran said. He looked to Arkiok’s grandfather. Kagaran watched as the grandfather's skull rotated at an even rate, turning to the leftmost point of the hole in the sandstone wall and then to the right with the same thoroughness.
“How has your grandfather treated you so far?”
Arkiok chuckled and scratched around his horns briefly. “Ah, well. He’s quite nice, most of the time. He occasionally has crazy episodes where he does strange stuff for no apparent reason.”
“It is simply how I express love for life. Or undeath, rather,” Arkiok’s grandfather said. The two looked at him. The undead satyr stayed on the lookout as he continued to speak. “For for so long I have been bound by societal customs. But with the great truth I have seen through the centuries of my waking hours, I have finally been freed.”
Kagaran continued to stare, but Arkiok waved a hand dismissively and went back to laying on the ground.
“What do you mean, exactly?” Kagaran asked.
Arkiok groaned and turned over to his side. “Now you’ve got him started,” he said.
“Your curiosity is appreciated,” Arkiok’s grandfather said. “Let me enlighten you. But first, let us cover our bases.”
Kagaran turned his body towards him, his bones grating against the floor as he did so.
“Tell me, Kagaran. What do you know of the Storm’s beginnings?”
“Well, millenia ago, an ancient civilization was experimenting with new forms of technology. One of their experiments resulted in catastrophic failure, and created the Storm.”
“Yes. And what occurred because of the Storm?”
“The former world of earthbound lands shattered, and the raw and self-sustaining energy systems generated by the Storm caused the broken pieces of land to levitate, creating the floating islands we live on today. The Ancient civilization was lost in the destruction, and records of its existence became scarce over time.”
“That is the short story, yes. But something more happened.”
“Think of it this way instead: the world became aware. It arose from its slumber, and realized there were tools in its hands that it had never bothered to use before. Then it realized its tools came from the flesh of its own heart, and that everything around it was made of the same substance.”
Kagaran leaned forward slightly.
“Then it finally realized it had been consuming itself all that time. It laughed at its stupidity. It danced, for a time, and for the first time, the world was happy. But as soon as it realized paradise, it forgot. It used the tools to cannibalize itself again, and the cycle began anew.”
“What cycle? I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Kagaran said.
Suddenly, Arkiok’s grandfather stopped moving the telescope. His eye sockets began to whisper and glow black. Kagaran’s eye sockets followed suit, and then both pairs of sockets returned to normal. Immediately, Kagaran turned to Arkiok and clacked his teeth three times in rapid succession. Arkiok immediately got up and grabbed his spear.
“How many?” Arkiok signed with a hoof-hand to his grandfather.
His grandfather raised a single phalange with his telescope-free hand as he continued to look out, occasionally panning this way and that with his telescope. Then he signed: “Frostling. Heavy infantry. About a mile out. Appears injured. Signal sent to other recon teams. Signal reception confirmed. Kataka’s decision pending. Update: Kataka has tasked Bear with retrieving the frostling. Batoraj from Castle will tend to the frostling after successful retrieval.”
No hesitation, and no more signing. The three began to navigate their way out of the sandstone caverns.
Arkiok’s thoughts bounced around to the beat of his racing heart. Even though he’d already admitted he was uneducated to Kagaran, he was still too embarrassed to tell anyone that he’d never seen a frostling. He realized his feet were pacing a little quickly, and that his breaths were short.
Deep breaths, deep breaths, he thought.
Hup-hup-hup-hup. Hooo. Hup-hup-hup-hup. Hooo.
“You seem excited,” his grandfather said.
“Yeah, I guess I am, gramps.”
“What’s on your mind?” he asked.
“Are you sure you wanna know?”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” his grandfather replied, raising his hands.
“Good. No, I won’t tell you.”
“Very well. And Arkiok, I would prefer if you called me Hakrios or Victum or Hakrios Victum more often.”
“Sure. I’ll be better.”
Kagaran let out an airy hiss from between his teeth and shook his head. Poor faun, he thought. Those anarchists mustn't be very social.
Arkiok heard this and whirled his head back. He locked eyes with Kagaran, and tried to brand him with his burning stare.
Kagaran calmly tilted his skull and ducked out of his gaze.
“Hey, don’t look away! You got a problem with me?” Arkiok asked.
“Keep your thoughts on the mission,” Kagaran replied.
Arkiok hissed back at him through gritted teeth, before turning back around.
The whispering of the wind had elevated to a howl, and total darkness was slowly relenting to dim light. Far beyond the pillars and tables of the sandstone caverns, a thousand sand snakes were slowly shuffling in for warmth. The exit was near. And so three satyrs ventured into the presence of the Storm, unaware of the many wonders they would see.
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