3. More Visitors
Ziarus took out a crystal from his pocket and held it up. It was seed-shaped, and gleamed like a star in the firelight of the cave. Kataka leaned forward.
“Do you mind?” Kataka asked, reaching for the crystal.
“Yeah, go ahead. Pass it around,” Ziarus replied.
Kataka took it and cradled it in his hands. It felt alive and warm, a living creature, almost. Was that his own fur he felt, after so long? No, he thought. His bones were still bare. And yet, he felt as if his joints had never been more flexible in centuries.
Kagaran looked over Kataka’s shoulder at the crystal. He cocked his skull sideways and tapped Kataka’s clavicle with a phalange.
“I’d like to hold it now,” he said.
Kagaran pinched the crystal with two fingers and slowly rotated it. Each facet was a perfect diamond. He passed it to Arkiok.
“Can I lick it?” Arkiok asked Ziarus.
“Uh, no. Please don’t. Why?” he replied.
“I wanna know how it tastes.”
Everyone looked at him. Arkiok looked back at them with a widened eye.
“What? Ya’ll don’t want to know how everything tastes?” he asked.
Batoraj and Ziarus wrinkled their noses and turned away. Kagaran and Kataka stared at him.
“It’s a good habit. Anyways, Batoraj, here ya go. It feels nice. Like a mini-pillow. If pillows were really hard.”
Batoraj took it, and scooted close to the fire. She held the crystal over the flames, watching streaks of orange manifest within the facets. It seemed that even the sandstorm had stopped outside to observe it.
“When did you first hear of this invention?” asked Kataka.
Ziarus looked up for a moment and squinted.
“About a week ago,” he said. “By the inventor himself. He’s a good friend of mine. And to no one else. Didn’t say why.”
“To no one else?” Kataka repeated.
“Yeah. But we’ve been friends long enough that I trust whatever he does.”
Kataka looked down and put a hand over his mandible. “How does this invention work?”
“You crush it with your hands. It does some magic stuff and heals you.”
“So, you crush it. Does the crystal regenerate?”
“That means you had two of this makahest invention with you. Why?”
“He gave them to me. Didn’t say why. He also confirmed it wasn’t because we were friends,”
Ziarus replied. “Once again---” he spread his hands, and Kataka nodded.
There were no more questions; only silence, besides the fire.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” Kataka said finally. He stood up and left. Batoraj finished observing the makahest shard, and gave it back to Ziarus, who pocketed the crystal. Then she left to regroup with Castle. Arkiok, Kagaran, and Ziarus remained in the cave. Without anything better to do, they sat by the fire and observed the embers dancing in the smoke.
Arkiok let out a snort. Then he began to chuckle. Ziarus turned to Kagaran for answers, but he just shrugged.
“Are you okay?” Ziarus asked.
Arkiok could not reply; he had burst into hysterics. The way Ziarus sat with his body looking like a folded sleeping bag was absolutely absurd to him. He drummed his knees with his palms, cackling.
“Alright, Arkiok, tell us what’s up,” Kagaran said. Arkiok pounded his chest a couple times, coughed, and attempted deep breaths through the laughter. He cleared his throat and wiped away some tears.
“I…I---man, I can’t begin to describe---that one time…” his voice trailed off.
“Well?” Ziarus said.
“You wouldn’t get it. Inside joke,” Arkiok said.
“Oh,” Ziarus said.
Arkiok laid down on his side and raked the sandstone floor with his fingers.
Kagaran saw this, and recalled when Arkiok called Victum eccentric. “Arkiok, you are quite the interesting character, you know that?” he thought. Then he heard Ziarus clear his throat.
“Hey, what’s your name?” Ziarus asked Kagaran.
Kagaran told him.
“Kagaran, could you move your scythe so the blade isn’t that close to my belly?”
Kagaran was silent for a moment. Then he began to pull the scythe back very slowly, looking at Ziarus while doing so. Ziarus raised his eyebrows a bit in reply.
Arkiok took notice, and attempted to break the tension.
“So, uh, Ziarus. You’re not a frostling, but a… Dawnsparker, right?” Arkiok asked.
Ziarus squinted in confusion, while Kagaran facepalmed and sighed.
“Uh, frostling is my species. Dawnsparkers are the nickname of the Galzorian Guard,” Ziarus said.
Kagaran remembered Arkiok’s strange behavior when he first saw the frostling. “Was that why you ran? Because you didn’t know what a frostling was, and you were pissing yourself trying to get a closer look?”
Arkiok reddened and muttered at Kagaran to shut up. The skeleton hissed and shook his head.
“There’s no shame in being dumb,” Arkiok heard Victum say. “I’d rather be stupid than blind.”
Victum strutted out of the dark and squatted down centimeters from the fire. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.
Arkiok began to reach forward to pull Victum away from the fire.
Victum gently took his wrist and set it down.
“That’s your grandpa?” Ziarus asked Arkiok. He cocked his head towards Victum.
“And who might you be?” Victum asked Ziarus. The two exchanged names. Then Victum gave Ziarus a hug. The frostling looked over Victum’s shoulder at Arkiok for answers, but the satyr just shrugged. Just as the hug was about to get uncomfortably long, Victum let go, and went back to squatting near the fire.
“Well, that was certainly interesting,” Kagaran said.
“You’ll get used to it,” Arkiok said.
“Yeah.” Kagaran thought.
Kagaran put his head in his hands. Here he was, amongst new and strange comrades. “How can Kataka expect me to be a leader?” he thought. “I’ve already failed working with soldiers far better than this! And now there’s a frostling here that no one is bothering to keep watch over. I suppose that’s my responsibility too, then, huh? This sucks so much. This sucks so much!”
No one could tell he was in pain, because he had no face. “No one can understand. They all must hate me,” he thought. Kagaran wanted to shatter his skull against the floor. He wanted to---
He felt a pulse in his head. Then his vision went black.
“At least fifty enemy units approaching. Three miles east.” The voice sounded exactly like a
satyr’s, but Kagaran knew that the satyr who spoke it had lost all flesh long ago.
Kagaran’s vision returned. “Snap out of it, faun,” he thought. “This is no time to break down. This is urgent. Tell them now.” He signed to the others besides Victum, who had already heard.
“So… mind telling me what y’all are signing?” Ziarus asked.
Arkiok turned, and Ziarus saw that his eyes were still. He knew that gaze too well; it was the stare of a soldier before combat.
“We’ve got company, don’t we?” Ziarus said.
“Yes. And it’s none of your business,” Kagaran said. Kagaran then signed to Arkiok: “Stay with him and make sure he doesn’t move from this spot. Otherwise---” he reached into a bag concealed by his robes, and pulled out a horn “---blow this, and I’ll send some soldiers to deal with him.”
Arkiok looked over at Ziarus, then back at the horn. Hesitantly, he took the horn and nodded at Kagaran. Kagaran patted him on the shoulder, before tapping his scythe twice against the ground. Arkiok replied likewise with his spear. Then Kagaran waved over Victum, and the two undead satyrs left.
Arkiok waited until he was sure they were out of earshot. Then he put the horn in his backpack.
“So, where ya from?” Arkiok asked as he sat down near Ziarus.
“Say what now?”
“Eum-verkast. A combination of the word ‘eumaaz’, meaning ‘the wise’ in Zephyr, and ‘avaerkast’, meaning “invincible” in Dwarvish, I think. They’re two defining character traits of the frostling and dwarf species, respectively.”
“Cool. What’s it like living there?” Arkiok asked.
“A little chilly, without much variation. Nice friends all around.”
Arkiok brought out two batons from his backpack that he’d been ordered to confiscate from Ziarus’s belt while he was unconscious. “Are these magic weapons? ‘Cause otherwise they just seem like metal sticks.”
“Yeah. They’re enchanted to help me focus the energy from my manacore better while I’m fighting.”
Arkiok tapped them together, and perked up his ears at the sound they made. Ting! they sang. A vibration followed, not unlike a pair of tuning forks. He then offered them to Ziarus.
“Thanks,” Ziarus replied, clipping them to his belt. “I have a question for you,” Ziarus said.
Arkiok held up a hand. “Hold on, can I ask you this one more question first?”
“Go on,” Ziarus said.
“How quickly does the makahest do its thing?”
“It worked almost instantly,” Ziarus said.
“Then how come you waited until we found you to use it?”
Ziarus sucked in with his teeth. “Uh… I forgot I had them until right when I was drifting in and out of consciousness and y’all were carrying me back,” Ziarus said. He sighed and scratched his neck. “That was pretty stupid of me, huh?”
“Well, we’re all idiots sometimes,” Arkiok said. “And hey, at least you haven’t screwed up as much as I have yet.”
Arkiok chuckled and nodded. “Yeah. Really.” He cleared his throat and clapped his hands together. He then pointed his joined hands at Ziarus. “So… uh, you got a girlfriend?”
Ziarus stared at him. Arkiok stared back, and saw Ziarus’s eyebrows slant angrily for a moment.
Ziarus then closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and resumed his neutral expression.
“You kept your secret, so I’ll keep mine. Fair?” Ziarus said. He pointed at Arkiok, then himself as he spoke.
“Uh… okay,” Arkiok said. “I guess it’s complicated,” he thought.
“Good,” Ziarus said.
Arkiok laid back onto the floor. “Your inventor friend really doesn’t make sense, you know?” he said.
“Yeah, I get you. But we’ve been friends for over a century, and he’s always justified his actions in his own due time,” Ziarus said.
“Well, I’m interested in seeing how he justifies all this weirdness with the makahest and whatnot.”
“Honestly, me too. This is really quite strange behavior, even for him,” Ziarus said.
“Ziarus, what does a Dawnsparker do? Any special tasks or anything?”
“You’re really jumping around in this conversation,” Ziarus laughed. “Mainly being the vanguard for army forces. Also some bodyguarding for VIPs, and occasionally sentry duty.”
“Kataka---Mr. Three-Quarters-of-a-Skull, you know?---said you were different from all the other Dawnsparkers. Do you think you know what he meant?” Arkiok asked.
“Oh, I know what he meant. Most of us in the unit are super loyal. We’re willing to die for our country and its leaders. I was like that for about the first forty or so years of service, and then afterwards became gradually disillusioned with all the hyper-patriotism,” Ziarus said.
“Is it alright if I asked what happened?” Arkiok asked.
Ziarus stared at the embers from the fire, and sighed. “My inventor friend got me interested in learning about inventions from the four kingdoms. As I read more books, things sort of branched out.”
“Lemme name the kingdoms. I gotta test my knowledge. Uh…”
“I---thought that was obvious knowledge?” Ziarus asked.
“Listen, buddy, I missed out on a lot growing up in a secluded society that doesn’t care about teaching what borders and cultures are, aight? I need to catch up on the stuff I’ve missed. Now let me think… uh, Democratic States of Rogaria,” Arkiok said, putting up his pointer.
“Yes, the DSR, or the Union,” Ziarus said.
“Eum-verkast,” Arkiok said, putting up another finger.
“Most foreigners typically call it the Alliance, short for the First Alliance.”
“Oh, okay. What else… well, our country, Kimarion,” Arkiok said, up to three fingers.
“Uh… shoot. I forgot the last one. The… one with the toads and ravens. Hmm…”
There was the sound of an object hurtling towards them from outside the sandstone walls.
Ziarus and Arkiok looked towards the opening Arkiok had used for sentry duty. “Duck!” Ziarus yelled, pushing Arkiok’s head and his own body onto the floor. The object revealed itself as it passed throught the opening and clanged against the floor.
“Thanks,” Arkiok said, his voice muffled against the ground. He then looked up at the object. It was a tomahawk with a handle made of hardened vines.
“That’s a Shadowfen weapon. What are they doing here?” Ziarus said.
“Hey, way to spoil the answer,” Arkiok said. He got up and dusted himself off.
The two began to hear sounds of blades clanging outside. Arkiok was still for a moment. Then he gritted his teeth and hissed. “Screw Kagaran. This is just dumb. I’m gonna go out and knock some heads.” He took up his spear and began to move to exit the caves.
“And what about me? You’re gonna leave me to escape?” Ziarus asked, smiling.
Arkiok looked up for a moment, and then turned to face Ziarus. “I have an idea. I think you and I can tell Kagaran doesn’t trust you. If you help us repel the attackers, then surely he’ll change his perspective of you at least somewhat. What do you think?”
Ziarus got up. He passed by Arkiok and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Let’s go,” Ziarus said.
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