The Fate of Dust and Fire: Part Six
The sun was high above them by the time Hathim and Jazan reached the edge of the Unmoving Sands. Great dunes stood in their way; they rose out of nowhere and loomed above them, daring the pair to venture into their folds. Both of them shivered as they looked up at the crests of the dunes, which showed no signs of being ruffled by the wind. To those who lived in the Lost Desert their whole lives, sands which did not move seemed unnatural. However, the two had to advance. They had come too far to turn back now just because the land was creepy. Gritting their teeth, the prince and his friend walked into the pass between two dunes and into the Unmoving Sands.
Hathim's hooves made deep imprints as he ran. However, as soon as he lifted his foot, the sand rushed in to cover up their tracks, losing them in this maze. The Uni always felt uneasy every time he observed it. He tried to ignore it as best as he could and only focus on the road ahead.
Jazan sat upright on his friend's back, keeping a lookout for any sign of life that might indicate the presence of a Guardian. Often, he thought he saw something and shouted to his friend to stop. Hathim, while disliking stopping so much, couldn't help but feel a pang of hope every time that his friend asked him to. Time after time though they were both disappointed and let the remains of their shattered hope flow into the sands.
The Unmoving Sands were only a small part of the larger desert but they were nevertheless vast. With each day that passed, they took more and more of a toll on the prince and his friend. Hathim felt his saddlebags getting lighter and watched in pain as Jazan's rations of food and water got smaller. Jazan was slouched in the saddle now and with it each passing day he got worse. He seemed to focus more on Hathim's mane than the surroundings. Whenever the Uni tried to speak to the prince, he received no reply. He could barely stand his friend suffering like this. Hathim always forced himself to go faster so that the Sands would end quicker. It did not even appear that they had moved at all. The dunes looked identical to each other. Despair swept through both of them, wailing like the wind. The desert desiccated everyone, no matter how strong they are in heart and mind. Slowly, it drained the spirit and the body until there was nothing left. They knew that better than anyone and felt that their time here was running out.
Time had withered away in the sands, so there was no telling how many days had passed. Each one simply shifted into the other. Neither Hathim nor Jazan could find the strength in them to give up and go home so they kept wandering in a way which to an outsider would have seemed aimless.
"Hathim." Jazan spoke weakly but in the hot stillness of the day, the Uni heard him.
"What is it?" he said, unable to hide the worry in his voice. He immediately imagined the worst.
"We were sent out here to die," the Kyrii said, hatefully spitting out the first part. Hathim looked at him wide-eyed, shocked at such a statement. In the distance, a shadow flickered.
"But... why would she?" he asked, although he felt like he knew the answer.
"It's probably another challenge, one which we've failed," Jazan said despairingly. Hathim stopped and looked down. He tried to come up with words but there was nothing he could say. Jazan looked longingly into space, praying that he was looking in the direction of Qasala.
"Forgive me, I wasn't able to save you," he whispered to the cursed citizens of his city. Hathim gently nuzzled him.
"We'll get out of here and we'll find out the real location. Don't give up hope!" he tried to say cheerfully, burying the stinging sensation of despair.
"Hope? What hope can there be? We are in the middle of the desert and our supplies are running out, Hathim," Jazan said quietly, the edge in his voice barely registering.
"I'm going to die here, Hathim! I never wanted to die," Jazan seemed to cry out, even though his voice never rose above a whisper. "And you know what is worse? The fact that you will live." Hathim flinched.
"I never wanted to be like this, Jazan."
The prince paused and looked away from his friend.
"No, you did not. Of course. I'm sorry. It was the curse..." he trailed off and stared into the distance. "I should have prevented it."
"I could have prevented it, Hathim! I could have stopped that accursed storm dead in its tracks! I am a powerful sorcerer, I have been taught the ways of magic. If I just tried hard enough!" Jazan said, his voice growing quieter with each word while his hand folded into a fist.
"Perhaps Father was right. Maybe I cannot be a good ruler, ever. I ran around worrying about small stuff instead of focusing on the bigger picture. Father would have stopped the storm first."
"Listen to me..."
"Or if he did not, he would have turned everyone back to normal instead of running around the desert pointlessly looking for somebody to do it for him. He would have known a spell to do that. By now Qasala would have been restored if father was still on the throne."
"You of all people should know well what kind of creature your father was. Don't you for a minute believe that what he said to put you down was true," the Uni said, unable to listen to his friend's pain any longer.
"Hathim, what if he was right? What if-"
"You've done what you could, Jazan! It does not matter what your father would have done because he does not rule Qasala anymore! It's time you moved on from him because he can't do anything to you now!" Hathim shouted, infusing his voice with Song to make the prince listen.
His words echoed off the dunes. Jazan stopped dead in his tracks. If Hathim still had breath, he would have been holding it. The silence was thicker than wet sand. At last, the prince sighed.
"You're right. For better or for worse, I cannot live in my father's shadow."
Hathim smiled widely, feeling the pain ease off a little but he could still see the worries in Jazan's eyes. The crown certainly weighed heavily on his head.
"We'll save Qasala, just you wait. Even if the Guardians turn out to be a dead end, the citizens have eternity to search for a cure," he said calmly, trying to soothe his friend's soul. "And Jazan? Let go of the past. You're king now. Whether you become a good king or not is up to you, not up to your father."
"You're right. You're always right," Jazan answered, beginning to reflect the smile that Hathim was giving. "You sounded quite furious there, my friend. Never thought I'd see the day."
"When my friends say dumb things, it's only natural for me to get furious," the Uni laughed. The prince's face broke into an easy grin in response. However, that grin soon faded as a thought entered his head.
"Hathim, why do you think I wasn't cursed?"
"Don't know. Maybe because you're royalty?" Hathim replied. The prince shook his head.
"That explanation does not sit well with me," he muttered.
"Well, if it doesn't then I guess we'll find out the truth eventually. Let's keep moving, Jazan," the Uni said, spreading his wings to make it easier for the prince to get on his back.
"No, you can stay where you are," a new, multi-layered voice rang out. Hathim and Jazan looked up but before they could move a great swarm of insects surrounded them, whirling around them like a sandstorm. Their buzzing occupied the senses and each dash of blue, white, green or red that indicated a Scarabug taking their place in the swarm was just one little bit of the kaleidoscope of colours around them. The swarm circled around them and then, clearly satisfied that they had made a grand enough impression, gathered together in a ball. A thousand pairs of eyes focused on Hathim and Jazan.
Hathim could do nothing but stare at the sight, unsure of whether he should be shaking or amazed. Jazan, however, climbed off Hathim's back and prepared himself for an attack. The familiar tingle of magic filled his hand but the swarm still didn't react. They were waiting.
"What are you?" Jazan hissed, edging closer to Hathim. The swarm dipped slightly and resumed its hovering, as if it had just bowed.
"I'm the one you have been looking for; the Air Guardian," the Scarabugs answered. Jazan lowered his hand, although he did not disarm the magic. Hathim beamed.
"We found him! See, searching the Unmoving Sands wasn't a hopeless cause!" he cried out happily but the angry look in his friend's face silenced him. Jazan glared as best as he could at the eyes of the swarm.
"How long were you watching us?" he growled. A wave ran through the swarm for a few seconds before it recomposed itself again.
"A few days now," the Guardian said and while the voice he 'spoke' with contained the same buzz, Hathim could hear a slight trace of shame. Jazan clenched his fists, sparks of magic flying out like hot oil from a pan. The Scarabugs did not move. They were daring him.
Jazan felt a gentle but insistent pressure on his hand. Hathim was looking straight at him, holding one hoof to Jazan's clenched fist. The prince glared at his friend. The Uni glared right back, although his eyes were wavering; such an action was not pleasant for him. They held the stare a while, each one trying to silently convince the other.
Closing his eyes in shame, Jazan let the magic in his fist fizzle away and put his hand on Hathim's mane, gently stroking it. His friend's harsh scowl dissolved into a faint smile.
"Dear friend, sometimes I envy your kindness," the prince said gently. Hathim's face faded a little but it was obvious he did his best to keep smiling back.
"Now that we have that out of the way, let me explain myself," the Guardian buzzed, the Scarabugs in perfect synch with each other. "I-"
"This was another test?" Jazan spoke up. They stopped buzzing and bunched together into the rough shape of a Shoyru's head, which nodded.
"Yes. For endurance and patience. I knew you were coming and where you were heading from Water. We Guardians maintain constant communication. But I'm a physical creature. I have to travel to look for resources,"
"Resources?" the pair asked almost simultaneously.
"Yes. There is a lot more in the desert than many think. I've seen it and its barely untapped potential."
Hathim and Jazan thought about this statement and shivered a little. Something about the way he said it sounded like an ominous warning. Out of sight of everyone, the darkness seemed to nod contentedly.
"So... how come there is such a complex system of Guardians in place?" Hathim asked. The Air Guardian emitted a crackling noise. The swarm was laughing, although it was not a mocking laugh.
"Nuria wanted it to be that way. She's not a powerful fighter and she likes over-preparing. So she has us guard her against any threat. At least one of us can defend her in a crisis."
"And this system has been around for a while, huh?"
"Indeed. Don't know how long. Doubt any of us know."
"Pretty inefficient, considering Guardians die. How did you get replacements?" Jazan muttered, hoping that the swarm didn't hear him. To his dismay, nothing escaped their thousands of ears.
"With great difficulty. We're trying to overcome the problem. Some of them, like the ones you have already met, succeeded," it said with a strange lilt in its voice, as if it was hiding something.
"The Water Guardian's memories mentioned immortality. Is that it?" Hathim asked, trying to probe deeper. Each of the Scarabugs flinched.
"You're keen to know things that aren't necessarily your business, aren't you?" they buzzed angrily. Hathim trotted back a few steps, lowering his head close to the ground submissively. Jazan moved closer to him, his eyes flitting from insect to insect.
"So in this form you're immortal?" he asked tensely, listening carefully for the answer.
"Yes, I am. The swarm doesn't die, only individuals die and they are replaced. Under my leadership, the swarm survives," they said. Jazan looked around at the swarm sceptically.
"How is that possible for so many of you to be one Guardian?" he asked them, retaining an air of snappishness about him.
In response, the swarm buzzed and divided itself, leaving a single Scarabug flying in the gap. It flew towards them, settling into a hover just in front of the two friends, as if waiting for something. Behind them, the rest of the swarm milled about, seeming lost.
"I control them through a mind link given to me by my air powers for the duration of this body's life. When it dies, my soul transfers into a new one," it spoke with a deep male voice. Hathim stared at the Scarabug in wonder. It was clearly different from the others, with a blue stripe around its neck and a feather pattern which was exposed every time it- no, he, beat his wings. The Air Guardian noticed his fascinated gaze and landed in the sand in front of him, clearly showing off the feather.
"The Air Faerie Token within my body, binding my soul to it and keeping me an air guardian. I'm sure you realised by now that it signifies guardianship. A guardian could take it into his or her body if they so choose, although it is only recommended in dire circumstances for living creatures. Fortunately, these bugs have simple enough bodies to cope," he stated quite plainly, as if it was normal to have a Scarabug speaking to you about patterns on its back. Hathim could do nothing but nod in fascination. The Guardian continued: "It's also why this place is called the Unmoving Sands. Among its many powers, it can maintain an area as large as this and keep it from changing, very handy if you plan on living forever."
"Why are you telling us this? I thought this was none of our business," Jazan said with a slight impatience. The Scarabug turned to him, flying up to rejoin the swarm. They quickly gathered together into a tight ball as soon as their leader had mixed back in with them.
"Because you will need to know this," they said cryptically, "And as for the fire Guardian, he isn't far. Follow the sun westwards out of the Unmoving Sands until you come to a red cliff. Go into that cliff and there you shall find him. But be prepared."
"For what?" Hathim called out but the Scarabugs had already begun moving on, leaving the pair in the dust. Jazan sighed and closed his eyes, gulping in the scorching desert air in relief. Hathim nudged him, smiling a little.
"Well, we met the Air Guardian!" he uttered, trying to sound happy. Jazan's face suddenly broke out into a smile.
"Yes, we did. And we know where to go," he said with unmasked excitement. The Uni looked at this friend, glad that he was alright now. He squinted up at the sun which was beginning to lean towards the west. Whatever they encountered inside the Fire Guardian's red cliff, they were ready for it. Hathim said this to himself over and over until he ended up believing his own words.
To be continued...