The sunset over Qasala was a sight to behold, with the light dancing off the sun, but only one neopet watched it today. The Nightsteed enjoyed seeing the sky burst into flame, as if trying to mimic his flaming hooves. Previously, the setting of the sun meant a change in him, but now he was able to change at will. It was a relief to no longer be bound by the sun and to enjoy the sunset instead of dread it. Clouds passed across the burning sky like smoke, never stopping even to listen to the whispering of the wind. The sun itself, a great eye of gold, slowly fell into the sea of dunes. The Nightsteed smiled. This was the first sunset he had enjoyed in two hundred years. He had almost forgotten how magical they could be.
The Nightsteed sighed as he tried to remember what life was like for him before the curse. He had been a blue Uni, of this he was certain, and he wasn’t strong or fast at all. In fact, his only talent was music and he remembered that he was really good at it. The only music left in him now was the Song, and the Song was deadly, all warped with the curse. Those who heard it suffered greatly.
He never sang now, instead choosing to remain as silent as the sand dunes. The Song had changed him; it had turned him into an agent of death, capable of overwhelming anybody with their memories, good and bad. The sudden flood of memory would torture anybody’s mind with its power. Whoever heard it literally drowned in the vastness of their own thoughts.
Wearily, he watched the sun disappear and started walking back to the palace, taking a route that seemed so familiar yet so unknown to him. The streets were bustling again, the calls of the inhabitants sounding like birds’ shrieks. Nobody paid him a lot of attention for they knew very well who he was. In his current, cursed form, the Nightsteed felt like an outsider, and this knowledge forever preyed on his mind, waiting for a moment like this one to strike. It was as if the Song sat between him and the rest of Neopia. Deep in his heart, he never belonged. He had always been a stranger without a name.
Faint memories stirred of the time before the curse, how he was a simple plain Uni without any knowledge of the power and burden of the song. He relied on the panpipes that he bought from the curious magician who used to come to Qasala all those years ago.
The stranger who sold him the pipes, who was he? The Nightsteed tried to think of his face but all he could remember were the cryptic words that he heard as he took the pipes. He suspected that the stranger was talking about the Song and while it was true that it was a great magical power, it was also more devastating than a sandstorm. Nevertheless, it had changed his life, for better or for worse. But now he felt that the time had come to try and learn who the stranger was, out of gratitude if nothing else.
The Nightsteed finally arrived at the market square outside the palace. It seemed so familiar, yet he couldn’t recall why. Happiness and sadness were clashing like fire and ice inside him, lingering in his mind every time his hooves touched the sand in this place. Today, however, those emotions were swept away by sudden fear: the market square was as empty and silent as a tomb.
The memories stirred, bringing with them a cold grasp, as if icy fingers had somehow gotten under his bandages. The silence was so intense that he felt as if the whole city was taking a breath before plunging into the void. Fear squeezed the Nightsteed’s throat as the memory of the last time this had happened came rushing into his mind.
Fortunately, the memories did not last. The Nightsteed sighed with relief as a lone blue Ixi skipped out of one of the houses and headed for the Qasalan gate. His keen ears picked up faint shouts coming from that direction. Why would pets be gathering at the gate? It made no sense. Carefully, he morphed into his blue Uni form and walked over to the Ixi.
“Excuse me, but what is happening?” the Nightsteed asked, keeping his voice quiet to conceal its resonance.
The Ixi turned around. He had a wide smile on his face, but there was fear in his eyes. Everyone knew Jazan’s steed, whichever form he took. Even in the blue Uni avatar, the unmistakable roughness of his coat, caused by the hot air flows coming off the invisible fires on his hooves, was noticeable even to the visitors of the city. The Ixi, who was obviously a local Qasalan, could hardly conceal his anxiety as his eyes took in these details.
“The gypsies have come to Qasala and everyone wants to see what they are selling,” the Ixi said, his voice muffled by fear. After this was said, he ran off without another word.
The Nightsteed looked down and slowly became the bandaged figure he had been for the last two hundred years. He saw no reason for this unprovoked hostility, this alienation from all the other city dwellers. However, it didn’t matter for now: he still wished to see the gypsies. Maybe they had information about the stranger who had come here so long ago. Smiling a little at the thought, the Nightsteed followed tracks in the sand leading towards the gates.
The entrance to Qasala, while normally only frequented by travellers and tourists, was bustling like the marketplaces of Neopia Central and right at the heart of the crowd there were three gypsies and their wagon. The Nightsteed morphed once again but was still careful not to attract too much attention to himself as he joined the other citizens and waited his turn. The artefacts that the gypsies were selling buzzed with magic, some of it good and others not quite so.
His gaze swept over all the objects, drinking in their look and their magic. He then wandered around, looking for a way to get to the gypsies and talk to them, but there were no gaps in the crowd. He stood at the back and waited, gazing at some of the goods.
Suddenly something on the edge of the table caught his eye. He carefully walked over to it, turning into a blue Uni so that he wouldn’t burn the wooden stall. His eyes were full of a reverence he didn’t understand as they came to rest on a simple pair of panpipes lying amongst all the magical objects. He couldn't feel any magic tingling around them, just a lonely air which longed to be awash with music. The Nightsteed carefully picked them up with both of his front hooves and let his eyes take in every single pattern in the reeds and twine. It escaped him why such a simple object should make him feel this way.
“Do you like them?” a kind voice asked him, making the Uni look up.
A pink Aisha, obviously one of the gypsies by the look of her clothing, stood there smiling at him. He simply nodded, choosing not to say anything for fear that the gypsy might hear the Song. She was undaunted by his silence.
“Could you play them for us?” she asked.
He shook his head. By now the other gypsies, a red Wocky and a blue Usul had come to hear what this was about. The Nightsteed felt panic spreading through him: very little music had escaped his lips for the past two hundred years. What if he had forgotten how to play? If indeed he could play them at all. What if the Song made itself felt in the tune?
“Don’t be afraid, you can do it.” The Wocky grinned at him, sweeping a lock of hair out of her eyes. The Nightsteed took a deep breath and put the pipes to his lips.
The panpipes came to life as if they were as magical as the other objects around them. There was no trace of the Song in it, only the true beauty that came with practice. The tune he played made everyone around stop and stare until gradually, all conversations stilled and only the watery clarity of the notes rolled across the desert landscape.
The Nightsteed cast one glance around them before becoming fully absorbed in the music. He was no longer anxious of the crowd. The melody made him think of the infinite stars that were always seen in the desert at night, bright like tiny shards of the sun, but pleasantly cool. The melody created the vision of a traveller who saw those stars and gazed up at them, wondering if they were the embodiment of beauty itself.
As each note escaped the pipes, yet another memory resurfaced in the Nightsteed’s mind. He remembered his last pair of panpipes and how he had played them, how he revered them, how they were cruelly broken, and the first time he had used the Song, against his attackers. His first meeting with Jazan made itself present in his mind, as well as the circumstances that had lead to it. With every memory, the tune shifted to reflect how he felt at the time. Faces, scenes, smells, sounds, tastes and feelings came flowing back to him, while his tune was climbing to its climax. As the final note sounded, the Nightsteed remembered his true name. Hathim.
The music died away and Hathim Nightsteed once again looked upon his enthralled audience. Every single eye in the crowd had been trained on him, but now that the music had stopped, they were slowly returning to their normal business. The gypsies, however, were already deep in conversation. Hathim tried to listen to what they were saying, but no words reached his ears, just excited mutters. He stood there, the sand swirling around his feet as if trying to dance to the tune that had just ended. It got under his fur and itched, but he did nothing to remove it, straining his hearing and trying to catch at least a word of what the gypsies said. It was all in vain, though, so he had to wait for the gypsies to finish talking, so that he could ask them if they knew anything about the stranger.
Finally the gypsies’ mutters faded to nothing and the Usul came up him, boldly looking straight into his ruby-red eyes.
“Yes,” she said, “you are the one he was looking for.”
“Who was looking for me?”
“A stranger,” the gypsy said. “I cannot say any more.” She nodded a good-bye to him and walked back towards the others.
Hathim sighed, his breath mingling with the desert wind moaning across the sand. He hung the pipes around his neck and walked back towards Qasala. What was the use of having memories if they didn’t help you find what you were looking for?
Suddenly Hathim felt a tap on the shoulder and he spun around, wondering who it was that disturbed him. A Desert Usul jumped back a little to avoid being hit by his horn and smiled weakly.
“Are you the one who just created that beautiful music?” he asked calmly. All hostility fell away from Hathim as he simply nodded at the question. The Usul looked relieved and smiled again.
“Please come with me,” he said. “It is important.” The Usul began walking towards the city, and a moment later, he turned back to look at the Uni, his eyes pleading for Hathim to follow.
Hathim sighed, unsure of what to do. The Usul seemed desperate enough; after all, nobody would approach the Prince Jazan’s steed unless their need was dire. Hathim nodded, and, without any further hesitation, he followed the Usul.
They walked through most of Qasala, towards the dustier part of the city. The Usul led the way, always looking over his shoulder to check that Hathim was following. Sometimes the Uni lost the Usul as the twists and turns of the city got the better of him but always his guide always found him if he lost his track. They finally came to a stop at a house, just as the moon was coming out.
The Usul knocked on the door with his staff. A feeble mumble came from behind the door, and the Usul took that as a signal to come in. Hathim turned into a blue Uni to suppress his flaming hooves and followed suit. Inside the house, a few oil lamps provided motes of light but shadows still lingered. The place was sparsely furnished, with only a table, a few chairs, shelves and a bed. On one of the chairs sat an old shadow Mynci, his eyes dulled by extreme age and his head weary with the experience of many years. The only acknowledgement he gave his visitors was a brief glance. Hathim’s heart gave a lurch as he thought he recognised the host.
“Father, I found a Uni who has amazing skill with the pipes. Perhaps, he is the one to whom you sold the panpipes to so long ago.” The Usul smiled warmly.
Just a hint of a smile played at the Mynci’s lips but he didn’t move. Hathim fought back the tears of joy. This was the very same pet who had sold him the pipes that had changed his life.
“Good. Deetrasii. Please leave us now,” the old one told the Usul, who promptly went out without saying another word. The Mynci turned his head to Hathim, looking at the Uni wearily.
“Please sing for me, Hathim Nightsteed,” he asked the Uni.
Hathim’s heart stopped. He did not wish to cause this old pet any harm. The Song was evil, he knew that it could only wound. How could he do this to somebody to whom they owed so much? Shaking his head to get the words out, Hathim stayed as silent as the deep desert night.
“You are afraid,” the old Mynci said, rasping softly, “but I promise you that no harm will come to me from your singing. I know its power and I also know mine.”
Hathim hesitated, but the Mynci was right about his power. After all, he was the one who had helped him unlock his gift. He hoped the old wizard knew exactly what he was asking. Taking a deep breath, the Uni began to Sing.
Never had there been such a wondrous song before. It was as if the stars themselves were singing their joy. In the middle of it all was Hathim and the Mynci, who seemed to glow as the song unfolded. The two were blind to everything but the Song: At first it was hesitant, but soon the whole room was basking in its beauty.
Each note embodied freedom and joy for both of them. Hathim’s hooves remained on the ground, but he truly felt as if he were flying over the deep desert in the night sky, alone and free. Time seemed to stand still.
At last, the final echo of the Song died away and Hathim opened his eyes. The shadow Mynci seemed many years younger, his eyes now brighter and his fur no longer silvered with age. The Song had not caused harm, it had only healed. Hathim’s elation was overwhelming.
“We are even now, don’t you think, my friend?” The Mynci spoke without any trace of age in his voice.
He stood up from his chair, calling Deetrasii back in. The Usul smiled broadly when he saw his father, back in his prime again. Both seemed so overjoyed that Hathim began walking out of the door: he felt as if he was intruding. However, the Mynci called him back inside.
“Thank you for using your song; it has helped me remember what youth is like; it has allowed me to make myself young again. Do not fear your gift, Hathim, for it can be used for good, too,” the Mynci said warmly.
Hathim sighed, but this sigh was full of relief. His Song was not a curse if he used it right. “Thank you. I no longer fear the Song,” Hathim said, taking pleasure, for the first time, in the resonance in his voice. Truly the Song was not the curse he thought it was; instead, if he used it right, it could be a blessing. Hathim bowed in thanks to the Mynci and headed to the exit.
As he stepped into the still air of the desert night, a shooting star passed across the sky. Hathim followed it with his eyes, the flames on his hooves burning like torches. For the first time in two hundred years he felt an emotion that bloomed inside him, and was rushing like a Shenkuu highland river, from his flaming core to the very ends of his frayed wings.