2. Friendly Interrogation
Arkiok felt like he was about to be blown off the face of the earth. Within his eardrums was a rainstorm and an eternally lit fuse. An infinite train of sand flung into his body, burrowing into every crevice it could find. Fortunately, the satyr’s robes were specially adapted for this weather, so most of the sand was kept out of Arkiok’s fur.
Out of his peripherals, Arkiok saw two silhouettes treading through the sand. Kagaran and Victum were a bit ahead, but kept a relatively even pace with Arkiok.
Victum turned back and gave Arkiok a thumbs-up. Arkiok was too busy ducking his head to notice. So Victum turned back and began to chant to himself:
“The death eye knows, and crawls into eternity.
Life seeks illusion, and fades at once.
But sun seeks refuge, and finds its place
Among blessed sands, trawling in the wind.”
Arkiok heard this, and wrinkled his forehead.
“‘Blessed sands’,” he thought. “‘Blessed’ how? It’s just coarse and irritating! And it’s everywhere! Man, I hate sand!”
He tried to rub the sand from his eyelashes, but more particles replaced them.
“Just relax and think about your favorite place, kid.”
He looked behind him, and saw a satyr fully clad in blue robes. Around his face was a black bandana.
“Plain and simple. Remember that.”
Arkiok stared at him with heavy eyes. He wanted to scream at him, but knew he wasn’t real. One blink, and the satyr was gone.
“Hey, Arkiok! What are you standing there for? You see something?”
Kagaran noticed that Arkiok had stopped.
“Do not trouble him. Keep moving. He will come eventually,” Victum assured him with a pat on the clavicle.
Sure enough, Arkiok began to move again. He seemed to be moving at a more brisk pace, and surprised Kagaran by catching up to him.
“I see you aren’t ducking your head anymore, Arkiok,” Kagaran said. “Very good. You’re more aware of your surroundings that way.”
“Don’t patronize me,” Arkiok replied.
“I---didn’t mean to?”
“Listen, Arkiok. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but---”
“No, Kagaran. Listen to me. Talk to me like that again, and I---”
“We are close, young fauns,” Victum interrupted.
The nearby winds had begun to take on a most unusual rhythm. Instead of a constant stream in a single direction, it was pushing and pulling in opposite directions like the tide of the sea. It changed directions at an unchanging tempo: the tempo of a heartbeat.
Victum pointed to a cyan glow that was about a thousand feet off. It hovered above the ground, and took on the rough shape of a kite.
While Victum and Kagaran maintained their pace, Arkiok slowed down considerably.
Kagaran was about to turn around and tell him to hurry up, but Victum tapped his shoulder lightly and silently motioned for him to keep moving.
“So that’s a frostling,” Arkiok thought. To him, the glow was unlike anything he’d ever seen.
“It’s ethereal. It’s… I don’t know how else to describe it. I---I gotta get a closer look.”
A million more thoughts coursed through his mind for what seemed to be an eternity, before finally intersecting at a single point of resolution. And at that moment, he didn’t care about the mission anymore.
“This is for me. I have to see.”
He dropped his spear and dashed forward. The sand sloshed at his feet, and he fell.
Immediately, he got up and ran again.
“Arkiok! What are you doing!” Kagaran yelled as the satyr bolted past him. Arkiok couldn’t hear him.
Another fall. He got up and ran again. Shuff, shuff, shuff.
“Hah, hah! This kid’s got a restless mind, I’ll say!”
Arkiok barely noticed the satyr with a single horn in his peripheral vision.
Another fall. Again on his feet. Running, running, running. Shuff, shuff, shuff.
“You’ve got quite the mind of your own. Pretty rare, these days.”
He saw the satyr in blue robes again. Then he heard the shuffling of sand behind him and Kagaran’s shouts for him to stop. The frostling was a few feet in front of Arkiok.
“Arkiok, that’s the enemy! Be careful!” Kagaran yelled.
“Wow…” was all Arkiok said. His eyes pored over the details of the frostling. He could assume with some confidence that it was a male. His body hovered unsteadily about three inches above the sand. He had a humanoid frame, with a head and two muscular arms and claw-like hands. However, below the torso, there were no legs, but a kite-shaped abdomen, roughly akin to an ant’s. His cyan, faceted skin shone like a crystal. His clothes were an azure tunic, with a brown “V” which ran along the collar. On his hands he wore black gloves, each with a single white stripe that ran over the wrist. He wore a winged helmet that covered his head, and on the helmet’s face was engraved the expression of a humanoid skull. Through its circular eye holes, Arkiok could see that its eyelids were half open, revealing two half-moons behind.
Arkiok noticed the frostling’s eyebrows begin to turn up, as if in relief. Then his eyes closed, and he dropped face-first into the sand. His skin lost most of its glow, and only pulsed with light every few seconds.
That caused Arkiok to refocus on the mission. He bent down to check for injuries. He couldn’t see any visible marks on the frostling’s body, however.
“Hey, Victum, help me out! I’ll grab the head, you grab the other side!” Arkiok said.
“Sure,” responded Victum as he arrived. The two took their positions and began carrying the frostling.
Kagaran marched towards Arkiok.
“What were you thinking?!” Kagaran yelled.
“Well, the frostling looked like it was about to fall over, so I went to help him!” Arkiok lied.
“So? You violated the two most important rules of the Queen’s army!”
“Screw the rules! Listen, if you wanna argue with me more, we can do that back in the caves, alright?”
Kagaran looked down and shook his skull, hissing. “You must obey, Arkiok. Every scale must serve the body of the dragon.”
Around them, the tide-flow of the wind began to struggle against its previous pattern.
Every few seconds, the wind around them would synchronize again with the sandstorm, before quickly drawing back into the tide pattern.
“Is that a good sign?” Arkiok asked.
“Not for the frostling. It is dying. We should hurry,” Kagaran said. He turned to Victum.
“Victum? Why aren’t you hurrying up?”
“His will is strong. He will live, even without our help.”
“You don’t know that! If you’re not going to hurry up, let me help carry him instead!”
“Very well,” said Victum. He passed the frostling’s head to Kagaran.
“Arkiok, come on!” Kagaran told him.
“Yeah, yeah. Lead the way, boss.” Arkiok replied.
“Thanks. Uh, Victum.”
Kagaran really didn’t care whether the frostling lived or not. But the implications of Kataka’s instructions were clear. If the frostling is going to be ‘tended to’, then we need him alive, Kagaran thought. That was the order, and he had to obey. But the question of why still lingered. Interrogation seemed an obvious reason, but it rarely occurred with frostlings. Trackers of the Swarm could find the information faster than a soldier of the Winter Pact would break.
Especially a soldier such as this one, he thought. He’d seen a Dawnsparker being interrogated before, and was astounded by how fiercely he endured psychological and physical torture.
No, we’re not interrogating him, Kagaran concluded. That would be insane. But if not that, then what?
They were back in the sandstone caves. Victum had separated from the other two to talk with Kataka.
“We’re going to interrogate him?!” Kagaran exclaimed.
“Just trust Kataka. He’s got a plan,” the female satyr responded. “Get him on the sheet.”
Kagaran and Arkiok did so with care.
“Help me get his clothes off to check for injuries.”
The two obeyed. As they did so, they discovered a tiny scab on the frostling’s neck.
“You seen anything like this before, Batoraj?”
“Yeah, plenty of times,” she responded. “Poison-tipped dart. He seems to be okay. His mana core was probably able to neutralize most of the effects.”
“Hm,” Arkiok replied.
Batoraj put two fingers to the frostling’s carotid, while simultaneously checking his forehead. She narrowed her eyes. She grabbed a glove from her pack lying on the floor nearby and put it on her right hand. With that hand, she grabbed a flask.
“Kagaran, can you extract a sample of the poison?”
“I’ll do my best.”
Kagaran opened his jaw to the max. The light from the fire nearby began to dim, and whispers began to fill the cave. Arkiok turned to Kagaran, and observed a black ball of fog beginning to expand within Kagaran’s mouth. When it had finally filled the space of his mouth, two black tendrils curled out from the ball. They slithered into the frostling’s nostrils.
“Ready,” Kagaran said.
Batoraj pressed her bare hand to the frostling’s chest, and held the flask close to the frostling’s nostrils. She spoke two words in Zephyr: “Auma ractun.”
The frostling’s blood vessels bulged and began to glow green. The frostling’s eyes shot open, causing Arkiok to almost fall backward in surprise.
“Ten seconds, and I’m ending the spell,” Batoraj said.
“Alright,” Kagaran replied.
After ten seconds, the frostling’s eyes closed again, and his veins returned to normal.
The tendrils retracted and deposited a mass of cerulean blood into the flask. Looking more closely, the three could see hints of a colorless substance as well.
“Is… that what I think it is?” Kagaran asked Batoraj.
“Yep. That’s batrachotoxin,” Batoraj replied. She corked the flask. “This guy should be dead fifty times over right now,” she said. “And yet…”
She checked the frostling’s pulse again. “It seems to be almost completely fine.”
“But it was dying,” Kagaran said. “I saw the wind patterns outside. How could he recover so quickly?”
Batoraj shrugged. “Maybe once he wakes up, we can get some---”
“Hi,” the frostling said.
Arkiok’s heart nearly leapt into his throat.
The frostling looked at the three of them awkwardly, then down at his naked body.
“Mind giving me my clothes back?” he asked. “Uh---uh, here,” Arkiok replied, still reeling in shock from the frostling’s sudden awakening.
“Thanks. My name’s Ziarus. Water, anyone?” he said as he began redressing. He seemed perfectly healthy, as if there was no poison in his body to begin with.
“Hey, hey---hey! Arkiok! Don’t just hand him stuff! He’s the enemy, remember?” Kagaran said, pushing his hand back.
“Well, what harm can he do with a canteen of water?” Arkiok asked, moving his canteen back towards Ziarus.
“He could freeze it!” Kagaran said, pushing it back again.
“And then?” Arkiok asked, moving it forward yet again.
“He could kill us with ice, basically,” Batoraj said. “But I don’t think he’s stupid enough to try something like that. Then Kagaran would send an alert, and he’d be dead, too.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ziarus said, throwing up his hands. He was now fully clothed again, and stood a few feet away from them. “I’m not gonna kill anyone, I promise.”
Batoraj and Arkiok gave him a sideways smile. Kagaran summoned his scythe and put it in his lap, before giving Ziarus his only type of stare.
“Fine. Give him the water. But know this, frostling: do anything suspicious, and your head will be off before you realize what’s happening.”
“Okay,” replied the frostling. Arkiok handed the canteen to Ziarus, and watched in awe as he proceeded to chug all the water in seconds.
Footsteps approached. The four of them turned to see a satyr skeleton walking towards them. His robe was a dark yellow, with patterns hidden away by time. The top right quarter of his skull had been blown off long ago, leaving him with a single eye socket.
“Kataka,” Kagaran stood up and stamped his right foot, then his left.
“Kagaran. I heard that the mission was successful. I have also been made aware of Arkiok’s violations of the Swarm code,” Kataka rasped.
“Yes. I ap---”
“There is no need to apologize for the actions of another. Arkiok’s choices are his own.
May I speak with the frostling?”
“With all due respect, sir, the code explicitly states that any violation of the Swarm code---”
“This matter is more urgent than that.”
Kagaran stiffened, then reluctantly bowed, making way for Kataka.
“Now, frostling---” Kataka began.
“Pleasure to meet you, Kataka. My name’s Ziarus.”
No sooner had Kataka begun walking again, the frostling had already walked to him and offered him a handshake.
Kataka did not appear surprised, but would’ve widened his gaze if he could. He took Ziarus’s hand and gave it one shake. Ziarus gave Kataka’s hand several more which were received with slight resistance.
“So, what’s up?” said Ziarus.
“I have some questions to ask of you. I encourage you to answer as truthfully as you can.”
Ziarus smiled as Kataka went silent for a while, before continuing.
“Where is the rest of your unit?”
“They thought I was gonna die no matter what they did, so they left me behind. So I don’t know where they are.”
“Where did they leave you?”
“East bank of Parsok River, about twenty miles from Tangeral.”
“Was your unit headed there?”
“What was their purpose?”
Ziarus grinned. “To serve as bodyguard to the shipment of a new invention that could potentially save thousands of lives.”
Everyone except Ziarus looked at each other, then at him.
“What is this invention?” Kataka asked.
“Makahest. It’s what saved me.”
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