The Fate of Dust and Fire: Part Three
"Jazan, at least you are still alive," Hathim said calmingly to the Kyrii. Jazan lifted his head and turned, an enduring smile on a face saturated with tears.
"You, however, are not. Well, you are not... really. And I don't even know what he rest of the people are like," he whispered. Hathim's wings flapped, rustling like the dry desert grass.
"I'll get used to it, if that's what I have to do," the Uni said bravely. "As for the people, I won't believe it until I see it. Don't despair! We can't despair, not now!"
Despite the tears, Jazan was cheered a little by his friend's resilient optimism. Hathim had always needed so little to be happy, even when he lived on the streets. Even in a new life, one he had been living for two years, the Uni still kept many of his old qualities as though they were carved into him.
As the Kyrii put his hand on the Uni's wing to climb up onto his back, particles of the bandages became dust under his fingers. Jazan snatched his hand away as if burnt. He looked at Hathim, fear gathering in his eyes. Hathim only flapped his wings again enthusiastically, smiling as best as he could.
"You can still ride me like you did before all this," Hathim said, his voice staying as cheerful as he could manage. Cautiously, despite his friend's words, Jazan climbed on. Dust and sand crumbled away from the old bandages, but Hathim's general shape did not suffer. The prince could feel his friend's old strength in his mummified body.
The Uni started off fairly slowly across the ruins, a child taking his first steps. They passed places that earlier had been full of people and covered with the awnings that hung from buildings. Scraps of cloth fluttered out of the ground like trapped Scarabugs. All the while, muffled echoes scratched away beneath the surface. Neither Hathim nor Jazan were sure if those sounds were even real.
An elderly voice flew over the dunes, hitting their ears with full force. Needing no guidance, Hathim turned around and ran as fast as he dared across the unstable sands towards the source.
An Acara buried up to his chest was the one calling out. His face burst into a mask of joy as he saw the pair approaching. Just like Hathim, he was mummified.
"Thank goodness you survived, your Highness! You have to help us!" he shouted out to them with all his might. Jazan leapt off as soon as they approached, scrabbling away at the sand beneath the old Acara. Hathim dug his hooves in too, shifting as much as he could away.
"Are there any more?" the Kyrii asked, never taking his eyes off the old one. The Acara nodded.
"Beneath me," he said calmly. Jazan's pace grew faster. Hathim put his muzzle close to the sand and hummed a joyful tune, trying to calm those under the sand. The old man flinched.
"You... best not do that, lad. It won't do any of us much good," he whispered. Hathim trotted back a few steps, not even trying to mask his shock. While some people had complained about his song, nobody was ever pained by it, at least not by a happy tune.
"Hathim, don't worry about that. Just help me!" Jazan cried out to his friend. Hathim nodded reluctantly and started digging again. Yet as he struggled to help the Acara, his mind wandered. What had happened to his Song? If he focused, it could be soothing too. He was sure he was doing the right thing. So why did the old Acara flinch?
Other Qasalans who had freed themselves from the grip of the desert converged on this place and began helping Jazan dig the old man out. Every single one of them was wrapped in bandages just like Hathim. However, despite their apparent limitations, they were relentless. The dust which would have irritated them before was not a problem now and they did not appear to tire. With them on the scene, the Acara was soon free. He sat on the sands for a few moments and joined the rescue operations. Jazan however, was too exhausted and too deep in thought to continue. He sat down on one of the ruins nearby, scratching at the sand in his fur.
"Hathim," he called to the Uni. The Uni came close to his friend but did not sit down. He did not feel the need to.
"Why do you think I am not like you? Why am I the only one in this city who is not afflicted with this curse?" he asked, wrapping his hands around his knees. Hathim looked down, staying silent for a long time. Jazan waited for an answer, any answer.
"Perhaps it is because you were chosen for something, Prince Jazan," the old Acara said to him. Jazan looked at him, pondering this suggestion. He was a Qasalan prince, one who was used to being above all the other inhabitants of the city, whether he wanted to or not. Yet being chosen also meant you had to carry the burden that it entailed. That included the less than stellar opinions of other people. He had already caught several unfriendly glances from the undead citizens.
"We haven't just changed physically, Jazan," Hathim said calmingly. "I can't make people happier with song anymore."
"Like us, you've changed within, in the depths of your soul, your Highness," the old Acara finished for the Uni.
Jazan looked up, past the mummified Qasalans, past the ruins, past the remains of the city and into the horizon. Trawling his thoughts, he tried to find anything that could shed light on what had happened to them all. Information flowed through his mind like water in a stream, offering only glimpses of fear, desperation and guilt. There was nothing that could have offered a clue to help unravel the situation. All the prince could do was to resist the despair brought on by his helplessness.
The Kyrii drifted back into the real world to find the Qasalans gathering in front of him. Each one looked at him, waiting. He thought about his father. He would have expected a prince to be able to take charge and control his feelings. Putting on a mask of strength as befitting a Qasalan noble, Jazan stood up. Hathim took his place beside him. Secretly, the Kyrii was glad to have him as an unwavering pillar of support. The Acara stood behind him, hiding from the crowd.
"My people," Jazan addressed them in a clear voice, "I must admit before you that I do not know what has happened to us or if it can be reversed at all. But I trust that you know that we cannot put blame on each other because right now, we are all we have left. All we can is carry on the best we can, to set things right. "
The assembled Qasalans nodded a little, looking at each other to see if they agreed with the Jazan. They were not fully satisfied with what the prince said but for now it had to be enough. However, once they had heard those words, they had no reason to look to him. One by one they dispersed like dust in the wind, each one looking for their former homes or their own precious possessions that might lie underground.
Jazan turned to the old Acara and looked at him with the steely determination of somebody who had accepted a large responsibility. The Acara flinched a little but managed to meet his gaze.
"You seem to know more about this than any of us," Jazan said. The Acara opened his mouth, his eyes full of fear.
"Your Highness, I-"
"I will not ask how. We need your insight right now. Anything that you think can give us a clue about what has happened to us would be helpful."
The Acara looked up at the Kyrii with a serene smile on his face. Hathim repressed a small shiver as he looked at it. Such a smile was out of place here in the ruins.
"I do not know much beyond what I have told you, your Highness. However, all the knowledge that I have of such things I have gained in the city of Sakhmet. There are many libraries and scholars there, I am sure you will find what you're looking for."
Jazan hesitated and looked at all the people scrambling over the ruins, all of them so fragile in their new bodies. The prince looked away, as though what was in front of him would not exist if he did not see it. He wanted to go to Sakhmet badly and help his people but if he left them leaderless at a time like this, there was no telling what chaos would ensue. Without him to guide them, they would be alone. To his great distaste, they would have to bide their time. His people needed him right here and right now, helping them to pick up their lives and not galloping off for a solution which might not even exist. It was the bitter price of being a good noble: he had to ignore his wishes for the sake of others.
Hathim looked up at his friend, seeing the conflict murkily reflected in his face. The more he looked, the more he felt Jazan's pain and indecision. He desperately wished he could be more help to him, to do anything that might ease his friend's mind. But there was nothing the Uni could do except smile to the prince.
"Don't you despair, Jazan. We'll go to Sakhmet and find the solution to this eventually," he said cheerily, infecting Jazan with his optimism. As if conspiring with Hathim, the mist began to clear. Once again, the blue sky and golden sand of the Lost Desert surrounded them. However, even without speaking, all the residents of Qasala knew they were not where they were before the sandstorm. It was as if they had shifted from the real world, existing separately from it. All around them was the desert but it was not the desert they knew.
More elements to an already mysterious curse.
However, they had to make the most of what they had. Jazan looked at Hathim's red eyes that still shone so bright despite his withered appearance. A smile slowly curled on his face, trying to reflect the unendingly cheerful look of the Uni. They did not have time to grieve for their city or go on a wild hunt through Sakhmet for a way to help. The city was in ruins. It was their duty to make sure their people did not become the same.
A young mummified Gelert boy ran up to them, clutching something beautiful in his tiny paw. He stopped and tried to regain his breath as soon as he reached the pair. Once he had recovered from his run, he held out the object. Jazan's eyes widened as he let out a gasp: it was his father's crown, the royal Cobrall of Qasala. Its ruby eyes glared at him accusingly as he stretched out his arm to take it. The boy let go of it as quickly as he could and stood in place with his sunken eyes studying the sand. Jazan sighed and met the crown's glare.
"Where did you get this?" he asked the Gelert.
"I found it. It was lying on top of the sands," the boy replied nervously. "The king was nowhere to be found but if the royal Cobrall has been lost, then..."
The Kyrii looked more intensely at the crown and bit his lip. As much as he hated his father and his insane obsession with the old Empire, he knew he would have needed him now. Even he would not have ignored his own kingdom in such a crisis. He might have known what to do. He always said he knew and right now, Jazan wanted to believe it. As such, the responsibility of managing Qasala fell to an inexperienced and unsure Kyrii.
He took a deep breath and put the crown on his head. The Cobrall now gazed over the ruined city with him, as an ally and not as a judge. There were no long speeches by officials or fanfare. The only ones watching him were the boy, the old Acara and Hathim. King Jazan came to power quietly and humbly.
Hathim nudged his shoulder, a faint look of congratulation on his face. Jazan nodded solemnly to him and looked over the city once more.
"I have a lot of work to do," he said. The boy grinned happily but the Acara showed no emotions. Hathim walked up to him, still wearing that eternal smile.
"And I'll be with you," the Uni said gently. Jazan looked back at him. It was impossible to stay sad around Hathim.
They began to prepare for their long absence.
Both Hathim and Jazan toiled to bring some order to the ruins of Qasala and to prepare for their eventual departure. For the newly-crowned king, the onset of the curse was a test of his strength. He felt the need to take charge of everything, from rescue to rudimentary rebuilding. Every day the Uni looked into his friend's face and saw his eyes dim with the weight of responsibility. Jazan refused to back away from any of the problems, trying to give the impression that he was oblivious to exhaustion. Hathim knew better. Neither of them dared to speak of it as they worked, as if one word would shatter the illusion. Yet the Uni kept close to Jazan, silently reassuring him and hoping that he was giving the prince some strength.
To look after the city during his travels, Jazan set up a council consisting of some of the most trustworthy dignitaries. Some of them suggested to him that he send somebody else to hunt for the answer to this curse but the Kyrii refused without ever giving them a proper answer as to why. Many grumbled but they would not dare disobey their new king, fearing him to be as wrathful as the old one. Secretly, some of them were glad to still keep their power after such a great upheaval.
At last things were finally settled down enough for Hathim and Jazan to leave for Sakhmet. Despite the council's wish to send them off with a ceremony, the Kyrii declined. He chose instead to leave quietly so that he did not have to make any promises to the people that he might not be able to keep.
The night that they left was full of stars that lingered in the sky like undying embers. Hathim, with Jazan upon his back, walked through the sand towards what was once the main gate. It was shimmering a little and guiding them to the open desert and the real, living world. Occasionally Hathim's hoof hit stone with a clunk which caused Jazan to sit up in the saddle. No matter how much he did it though, his eyes never lost their glazed look. He was thinking about the future.
"King Jazan! Hathim!" a voice broke through the stillness of the city as they reached the gate. Both the Uni's and Jazan's head whipped around to the source. It was the young boy who found the Qasalan crown. He was running towards them but this time, he seemed much lighter on his feet. There was a glint of metal in his paw.
"What are you doing here?" Jazan asked. Though he did not show it, he was glad that this strange young Gelert was here. The boy had a way of calming things down without really doing anything.
"I heard you going through the street and well, I...I wanted to give you something... for the journey," the boy said quietly, as if he was afraid that he had done something wrong. He held out his paw from which dangled a small amulet in the shape of a flame. A faintly glowing ruby was nestled within the gold. The warmth it emitted seemed to dispel the cold night air.
"Nuria's amulet? How come you have that?" Jazan asked.
"It doesn't matter. Please, just take it... to protect and help you on your journey," the Gelert said, managing to sound both timid and insistent at the same time.
"Don't worry about us. We'll only be travelling as far as Sakhmet, no?" Hathim whispered reassuringly. The Gelert boy bit his lip and only looked at the Uni with saddened eyes. But he kept holding out the amulet, silently urging them to take it.
"Like Hathim said, don't worry. We'll get through all this," Jazan said with a small smile on his face. He reached out towards the boy and lifted the amulet up, tying it around his neck and tucking it into his robe. The Gelert put his paws behind his back and smiled gratefully. Without any further hesitation, Hathim sped through the main gate and out into the mountainous dunes. The boy kept watching them even as they were hidden by the blackness of the night.
"You don't know what you're up against."
To be continued...