The Fate of Dust and Fire: Part Five
All the farms that lined the river banks near Sakhmet thinned out until there were only a few dusty smallholdings scattered on the ground. Yet the river snaked into the distance, indifferent to the change in the land. Hathim ran alongside it, following the shimmering path upstream. Both he and Jazan looked for the slightest trace of a bulge to indicate the lake in which the Earth Guardian had said they would find the Water Guardian. The river however had taken it upon itself to frustrate them; always appearing as though a sculptor had used just one tool to carve it into the desert. When they left Sakhmet, Jazan was sitting up high on his friend's back. Now he was slumped in the saddle, watching the path ahead with increasingly glazed eyes.
"Jazan-" Hathim began, slowing down a little. The Kyrii looked up.
"I'm so sorry, Hathim. It's just that... I'm starting to suspect that Zafara lied to us about the whole thing, to get us out of the city," he said, unmistakably dispirited.
"At least she got you food and clothes for travelling through the desert," Hathim remarked, trying to sound cheerful for the sake of his friend. Jazan shrugged. The Uni's face fell into seriousness.
"Please, let's look a little further. Perhaps it isn't far off. The river is long and I doubt we've travelled a very long stretch."
"I suppose," Jazan replied dejectedly. Hathim resumed his canter along the water's edge, hoping for his friend's sake that the Earth Guardian didn't lie.
A wide sliver of water entered their vision. The Uni looked deep into it but somehow, he didn't think this was a mirage. Jazan saw it too, sitting up in the saddle and patting Hathim, urging him to go faster. He needed no excuse. The Uni's hooves drummed on the desert sands as if yearning to imitate a heartbeat. The water jumped closer and closer.
Hathim finally stopped on the edge of a great lake that interrupted the river's flow, finding himself somehow missing the breathlessness he felt when he ran, back before the curse. Jazan slid off his back and stared into the water, trying to pierce the sun's glare with his eyes. He looked down, crouched and put a hand in the water, closing his eyes. The Uni stood back in silence as he felt the tingle of magic around his friend. As he waited for it to subside, Hathim looked at the water as its surface shifted gently in the wind. He could not tear himself away from it and only kept watching as it constantly became something different, never repeating a pattern.
Hathim felt Jazan shaking his shoulder and reluctantly looked away. Jazan had a little smirk on his face.
"She didn't lie; there is something down there and I'm willing to bet that's either the Water Guardian or the Water Guardian's temple!" he cried out excitedly. The Uni smiled. It was wonderful seeing the Prince so full of hope but they still had to look at what was ahead of them.
"How do we get down there, though, Jazan?" he asked shyly, hoping that this wasn't going to spoil his mood. The Kyrii looked at him, still keeping that smirk. He put his hands into the water again and paused for a moment before looking down at it. Light spread through the water and began goading it into rising up. Jazan moved his hands through the growing bulge, looking as though he was pushing it. All Hathim could do was stare and admire his friend's power. Sometimes he forgot just what kind of magician the Prince was.
The wave reared up over Jazan like a striking Kougra leaping at his prey. With a small flick of his hand he stopped it in place, seemingly as easily and naturally as breathing. He looked back at Hathim, clearly waiting for him.
The Uni reluctantly walked forward. Although he did trust his friend and his magic, he could not help but be afraid of the vast expanse of water. He did not know how to react if something went wrong. Even if he could swim, he doubted his mummified form would withstand being drenched in the lake.
As Hathim stepped on the water beneath the wave, he began to panic. However, the water supported his weight and did not give under him. Even so, the Uni's subsequent steps were fearful and tiny. Eventually, he made his way to up beside Jazan and huddled close to his friend.
"Don't be scared, just trust me," the Kyrii said softly, reading his friend's hesitation. The Uni nodded woodenly, his eyes dashing around as if looking for a threat.
The Prince released the wave, creating a closed sphere. Hathim's instincts screamed at him to bolt, overriding all his senses. Jazan, seeing his friend's distress, grabbed his body and began stroking his mane, guiding him back into serenity. Slowly, the Uni came to his senses and stood rock still, closing his eyes and pretending that he was somewhere else. Satisfied that Hathim would be alright, Jazan spread his arms and they began to sink under the water.
"Hathim, open your eyes," Jazan whispered after a while. "You'll want to see this."
The Uni opened his eyes. He gasped at the sight of the underbelly of the lake, its beauty drowning out the fear that gripped him before. Everything was engaged in a dance. Plants swayed with the fish darting among them while sunlight performed complicated steps around them both. The water, unlike most of the desert above, was swarming with life. He had never imagined a scene like this, much less seen it before.
Jazan was enjoying it too. However, while his eyes were enraptured with the scene too, he did not allow himself to forget why he came here. He scanned the lake bottom for anything that might suggest that something other than the normal lake fauna lived here. Soon, he saw it. There was a building anchored to the weeds at the bottom of the lake. This was undoubtedly the temple.
"Hathim, we've found it," he whispered gently to his friend, seeing how enchanted he was with the scene. Reluctantly, the Uni began walking down towards the depths but always sneaking a small peak at the scenery, like a child stealing sweets he was forbidden to.
As they approached the temple, Jazan let the bubble pick up speed. Hathim panicked as he felt the fear return, trying desperately not to let his instincts take over. He flapped his wings desperately and looked at Jazan but seeing how his friend was standing calmly, he tried to follow his lead. Slowly, his mind settled, although it took all of his self control to keep it that way.
Finally they came to the house. It was made out of thin walls of rock suspended in the water. Bits of blue glass were embedded into every nook and cranny, creating a shimmering effect and blurring the boundaries between the background lake and the house. There was no door, only a rushing curtain of water that obscured the inside of the building. It also indicated the presence of air.
Jazan manoeuvred their bubble until it connected with the main entrance of the house. Hathim watched gladly as the water gave way to air, which to his surprise was as clean as the waters surrounding it, without a trace of staleness.
He gasped as they entered and a thousand Hathims gasped silently back. Every nook and cranny of the walls was covered with mirrors, creating a disconcerting army of clones, both of him and of Jazan. Every single reflection mimicked their moves without losing a beat. A complex dance arose from every tiny movement. The more he looked, the dizzier Hathim became. He forced his head under Jazan's arm and immediately felt his friend grip his mane, obviously feeling the same. They both would have to support each other, as always.
"Who comes into my temple uninvited?" a voice slipped through the hall, gentle and soothing as water flowing over your palm. The pair whipped their heads around towards the source.
An air faerie stood next to a pillar, resting one hand on the mirrors. She wore a necklace with a pendant shaped like the tail of a fish with a light blue gem embedded in it. Jazan bowed respectfully to her and took out the Nuria's amulet, displaying it prominently.
"Greetings, madam. I assume that you are the Water Guardian. Please, you can see by this amulet that we mean you no harm. All we ask is that you tell us-"
"Nuria's amulet only means I won't kill you; it gives you no right to ask me questions," the faerie interrupted him. She slowly walked closer. With every step, her body oozed out of the disguise of a faerie and into Maraquan Draik which slithered across the floor towards them. The only thing that remained of her previous form was the pendant. Hathim felt Jazan's grip on his mane tighten. He shivered, watching the shape shifter come nearer.
"Then... then what are you going to do?" Jazan spat out, trying desperately not to let fear enter into his voice. The Draik smiled and morphed into an exact replica of Jazan. The prince was shaking now. This, along with the thousand mirrors, was clearly terrifying for him. Hathim lowered his horn and got ready to charge, even though his fear urged him to stay rooted to the spot. If she moved towards Jazan, he would attack.
"I'm not going to do anything. I'll just... speak," the shape shifter said softly, her feminine voice dissonant in Jazan's form.
"You're lying!" Hathim cried out, lining up the point of his horn against the shape shifter's heart. But she only smiled and smoothly flowed into the form of a Baby Peophin.
"What makes you think that I'm lying, mister?" she asked, the voice trying to adopt a childish and innocent demeanor. Hathim was about to open his mouth to protest but a part of his mind whispered to him that such an action would not be wise.
Don't be afraid of her; she is no threat, it said quietly but persistently, like waves lapping against sore feet. It felt so kind and so gentle that he could not imagine that it would cause any harm. He wanted to find the source but could not bring himself to look and risk removing such beauty. Jazan's fingers were also loosening up. He was relaxing.
The Guardian had now become a Starry Uni with a beautiful smile. She was walking around them, her tail occasionally brushing against them. Hathim felt his eyes growing heavier than pure gold. Jazan was actively leaning on him now, seeming utterly exhausted. But from his expression, you could easily think he was in a child being tucked in by his parents. Unusual, considering that he himself stated that he never known such a feeling.
That's it, just rest, the voice began repeating, giving Hathim the sensation of being stroked and comforted. He had desired that feeling for so long now without even realizing it. Now, all the Uni wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep, bathing in the contentment that he had missed so much.
Hathim lay down, unaware of the Guardian- now a Royal Usul- walking in a tight circle around them. Jazan lay next to him, already falling asleep. The Uni put down his head and sighed loudly, feeling the great load he always carried slip off of him. He felt so overjoyed. A thought entered in his head to sing so he did.
Immediately the voice stopped and Hathim felt the touch of sadness that had been washed off him return. Jazan seemed to wake up too, whipping his head around. The Guardian had become a mutant Pteri, her expression a mixture of pain and horror. She stopped circling them and backed away like a servant that was caught in the act of betraying their master.
The pair felt their old feelings return to replace this false happiness which had clouded their minds. The Uni sang louder and his eyes became alert again. Jazan leapt up, glaring at the Pteri with hatred and revulsion. Hathim stood up slower than his friend. The Song stopped. He too looked at the Guardian but his expression, while not happy, was gentle. No matter how artificial that peace he felt was, it was still a beautiful feeling.
"You tried to hypnotize us!" Jazan cried out, his hands already filling with magic. The Pteri now become a red Ixi, bowing to him submissively.
"I did what I had to do," she replied quietly. Jazan's rage would not quiet.
"What were you going to do once we were asleep, huh?!" he yelled. Hathim gritted his teeth, torn between loyalty and fear.
"What I have to do to keep my temple safe. But it seems I'm not the one who has the strength to bring you down," she said mournfully and looked up at the pair, her eyes open and sad. They stayed constant, even as she changed shape into a Grey Faerie.
Jazan stared at her for a few tense moments until he lowered his hands, the magic dying away. Hathim sighed for relief, foregoing his need to breathe.
"I don't think we should get angry at her, Jazan. She was only doing her job," he said to the prince. Jazan frowned. As much as he hated what she did, he understood the concept of duty.
"I know, Hathim. But I felt so happy while under her spell. Happiness which I was always denied. To have it taken away from me after dangling it in front of me..." he trailed off, feeling his anger rising again.
"At least we are one step closer now. We've passed this test of hers, we can go on!" Hathim exclaimed, trying to sound excited for his friend. Jazan looked at him with a slight smile.
"I guess so. You're right, Hathim, as always," the Kyrii said, cheering up just a little. There was a polite cough.
"I know this may seem rude of me but I'm not going to let you pass. Not until you, Uni, have done something for me," the Guardian said, looking at them now but not making eye contact. Jazan's face twisted into a barely controlled snarl. Hathim felt his ears droop but nevertheless, he looked once again at the Guardian.
"What is it?"
"I am a shape shifter. For centuries now, I have averted death by rearranging myself into a new form. However, I have changed so much and so completely that I cannot remember what I started with. Your singing stirred things within me: faint memories of my true form. Could ...could you... use that same song to let me remember what I was?" she asked him, her voice barely rising above a whisper. Hathim lowered his head and walked forward. Jazan looked at her, processing her story. Despite his lingering anger, he could not help but pity her.
The Uni approached her and lowered his head until it was level with hers. He could feel the Guardian's rapid, terrified breathing. He hesitated. She looked up at him and nodded with determination.
"This will hurt a lot, I'm sorry," Hathim said, trying to sound as apologetic as possible, even though apologizing seemed like an empty gesture.
"It will be worth it. Please, no matter what I do, don't stop," the Guardian whispered. The Uni closed his eyes and breathed in. Before he could stop to think about what he was doing, he opened his mouth and began singing.
Jazan watched them both carefully. The Guardian's head lifted up in a silent scream as she began surging through a thousand forms at once. Each one flashed by too quickly for the eye to see. Hathim kept singing, focusing on the notes and words of the song, trying to create a picture of it in his mind to distract him away from the torment that he was inflicting on this being.
Suddenly he began seeing images flashing by, accompanied by a chorus of quickly whispered words. He could barely pick them out as they flew by rapidly.
A white Hissi from a nomad tribe coming near the water of the lake. An old water faerie greeting her. The faerie telling her something in the same lake palace that they were now in. The girl changing into a Maraquan Lupe. The faerie passing away. The girl staying in the palace, shape shifting from boredom and aging. Years passing by with few visitors. And the word 'immortality' echoing throughout these memories over and over.
Hathim reared up and stopped singing, coming down on the ground with a clatter. Jazan ran over and held his hands out, ready to help in any way he could. The Uni looked at him and began trying to breathe out of habit. His expression fell once he realized what he was doing. His friend lowered his eyes, guilt beginning to creep in.
"I'm fine," he said quietly and looked at the Guardian. She was looking down at the ground, her eyes blank. Hathim's eyes widened. He was about to go to her when she looked up. A joyful smile crept across her face.
She morphed into the same Hissi as in his visions and looked at Hathim, still keeping that same smile.
"Thank you," she spoke politely but unable to mask the cheer in her voice. Once or twice she flapped her wings and circled around her temple for what must have been joy. Hathim and Jazan both smiled at the sight of such euphoria.
The Hissi finally landed and shape shifted into a blue Krawk, still keeping that smile.
"I shouldn't stop, otherwise I will grow rusty. My continuing life depends on my shape shifting," she replied before sitting down on the ground. "Now, you wanted to ask me a question."
"Yes," Jazan said. "Where is the next Guardian?"
"In the southern desert. That whole area is his temple. Look for a great swarm of Scarabugs and there you'll find the Air Guardian," she uttered with great solemnity. Jazan gritted his teeth.
"The southern desert? The Unmoving Sands?! Is that all you can tell us?! It's enormous! How can we find him there? You're a liar!" the prince cried out angrily. The Water Guardian glared at him and morphed into Nuria. The blue gem of the pendant was dissonant against the ochre reds. She stretched out to her full height, looking down on the prince.
"I am a Guardian of one of the temples that protect Nuria! I have sworn not to lie about the location of another Guardian! She always hated dishonesty and we have to live by her code! It's not up to me or her where a Guardian makes their temple! He chose the desert and so we tell you to go to the desert," her voice echoed throughout the mirrored hall. Jazan's teeth were still gritted and Hathim could easily tell that he was not satisfied. Sometimes his friend could be very difficult. Even so, he could tell that the prince did not want to argue any more with her.
"We'll look for the Air Guardian in the south and see for ourselves whether what you told us is the truth," the Uni said to her, looking defiantly into the flashing eyes of her form. He was not happy about the location either but she was their only lead. They had to trust her.
"Once the sand stops flying off the tops of the dunes, look for him. He should be looking for you," the Guardian stated, trying to be kind. "We have a way of communicating so I'll tell him you're coming."
Jazan regained his composure and smiled, giving the Guardian a curt bow.
"It was... well... meeting you is something I will not forget soon, madam." He spoke as he was trained, with royal courtesy. The Guardian laughed, a clear laugh which appropriately made Hathim think of a stream pouring from the rock.
"You have manners," she said with a grin, turning back into a white Hissi. "But I am very grateful, especially to you, Uni. No matter how much pain that Song causes, it has good uses. Pain allows us to see things clearer."
"I never thought so. The way I always knew, pain just made people go blind," Hathim said, the misery reflecting on his voice. Jazan laid a comforting hand on his neck, looking with obvious concern at his friend. The Uni looked back at him and instead gave his customary smile. Jazan's face eased, but only a little. He did not lift his hand.
They emerged out of the lake and into the blistering desert ahead. Jazan winced as the familiar scorching air slapped him again. Slowly, he got on Hathim's back and looked at the sand dunes in front of them, the wind blowing the topmost sands away. Somewhere south of here was their next target: the Air Guardian. Once they were in his temple; all they had to do was find him.
"We can accomplish this, Jazan. Together, we're strong," Hathim said cheerfully. Jazan smiled and nodded, so glad of his friend's enthusiasm in the face of such an undertaking. He certainly wished he felt even a little of that.
"You're right, Hathim. No use despairing when we've such a huge task before us," Jazan said gently, putting the thoughts of failure to the back of his mind. Together, the pair turned towards the early afternoon sun and set off towards the Unmoving Sands.
To be continued...