The Fate of Dust and Fire: Part Seven
The great cliff towered above them, basking in the evening glow of the setting sun. Carved into it by the wind and sand was a story in a language that nobody could ever read. Despite its scars it stood tall and proud, unwilling to surrender to the sands. Hathim and Jazan, who had just come out of the featureless desert, could only stare up at it in awe, humbled by the great rock. All of the resolve that Hathim has been building up disappeared in its presence. A guardian who made their home in something such as this was bound to be tough.
Compared to the size and grandeur of the rock, the little cave that marked the entrance to the Fire Guardian's temple was bland and unobtrusive, like a tiny child overshadowed by an enormous parent. It was dark compared to the brilliant red of the stone formation and despite its size it still gave off an ominous feeling. Hathim shivered and looked at his friend for reassurance. Jazan, however, was staring right at the entrance with a steely expression. Hathim turned away quickly, in case the prince noticed. If Jazan wasn't worried, why should he worry? He tried to keep that thought at the top of his mind, drowning out the voices of doubt that called out from below.
"Anything that we could find in there can't be worse than what we've already seen," Jazan said, giving Hathim a glance of encouragement. Hathim nodded even though he wasn't convinced.
"Don't worry, alright?" Jazan smiled, stroking Hathim's mane. The Uni smiled back at him, wishing that he could share this confidence. He had a feeling that something terrible was going to happen to them there. In the face of such a feeling, all optimism crumbled.
They stepped into the cave together, feeling the darkness wrap around them and swallow the sound of their footsteps. The air here was strangely wet, and to throats which had spent so much time in the desert it was an alien sensation. Jazan's breaths echoed in the narrow passage and Hathim, in his undead form, felt shame at the lack of his own breath struggling along with his friend's.
The passage wound deeper into the rock, sometimes narrowing to such an extent that the Kyrii and Uni had to walk in single file. Jazan created a small light which offset the gloom of the place but even then, both of them jumped at the occasional drips which punctuated the damp atmosphere.
Suddenly, the passage burst into an enormous high ceiling cavern which made the grand hall of the Qasalan palace look like a pauper's hut. Much of it was occupied by a great lake which must have stretched for miles underground. It was deep but so clear so that you could make out every column of bubbles floating to the top and every single fault on its bottom. From the roof poured multiple beams of sunlight that highlighted the steam which was constantly being skimmed off the surface. The air here was so thick with water that it felt like you were drowning.
Hathim and Jazan could only stare in wonder at the cave, humbled by the scale and grandeur that it embodied.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" a tired voice spoke, rousing them from their daydream. The pair turned instantly towards the owner of the voice, a Peophin lying half-submerged at the edge of the lake. He looked like there was fire inside him, only barely covered by a black coat of what looked like rock.
"Very," Jazan remarked, giving the Peophin a curt bow. Hathim stared at the Peophin, noting the dim glow of his mane, hooves and faceplate. He had never seen a magma pet before
"Jazan, what is he?" he whispered. The prince thought for a moment.
"I think... he's a magma Peophin. I never believed that such pets existed though. I've only ever read about them and all the books say they are a legend. They are supposed to shine much brighter though," he replied, casting the Peophin curious glances every now and then. Hathim turned back towards the pet and, once he picked up the courage, slowly trotted towards him.
"Are you alright?" the Uni asked, concern prominent in his voice. The Peophin wearily raised his head.
"I'm old, lad. I barely have the strength to swim anymore," he said in a husky voice, "but it makes me happy to see you here."
"Are you the Fire Guardian?" Jazan asked, coming closer to where the Peophin lay.
"Yes, although I doubt I'll remain one for long," he replied, looking up to face Hathim and Jazan.
"So, what is the ch-"
"There will be none. In the past, I would have given you one but I'm too old and too weak to challenge you fairly. You're most likely the last ones to see me alive. I have no choice," the Guardian said before taking a breath. "So, which one of you wishes to become the new Fire Guardian?"
"What if we refuse?"
"Then I die and take the secret of the Darkness Guardian's location, something I know you want, with me."
"And if we are evil and mean you harm? I'm sure you can feel the curse around us."
"Doesn't matter to me. There are no inherent powers given by guardianship, only what you bring with you. Darkness is an able girl, she can look after herself. She'd pick a new Guardian if you turn out to be inadequate. So please, choose. It would save everyone a lot of trouble."
"But if we accept then would we have to stay here, in the temple?" Hathim asked shyly.
"You can choose... your own temple," the Guardian whispered wearily before resting his head on the rocky shore, unable to answer any more questions for now.
Hathim began to think. Becoming a Guardian would be a burden for either of them but they were trapped between accepting this weight and giving up on their quest to find Nuria's temple. Jazan had both the strength and power to take on the position, but those attributes he had to give to Qasala. The Uni looked at his friend, who was contemplating the Guardian's words. The golden Cobrall crown wrapped around his head was heavy on his forehead, casting shadows which made him look slightly older. Hathim knew he could not imagine the burdens of being a leader. All he could do was keep the prince from suffering more than he had to, to help him if he could. Jazan did not have to take on this task while his friend, the one who owed him everything, stood by and just watched.
"I'll become the Fire Guardian," Hathim said, afraid but convinced this was the right thing to do.
"Hathim..." Jazan trailed off, staring at wide eyed at his friend. The Uni turned around, trying to smile a little.
"I must do this. You have Qasala to take care of; you don't need this extra burden. Besides, I owe you this much."
"You don't owe me anything, Hathim."
"But it's still better this way," the Uni uttered, unable to hide the melancholy tone. Jazan put a hand on his shoulder and nodded as if to say thanks.
"Thank you, young one. Your sacrifice is very noble," the Fire Guardian said as he lifted his head. Hathim bowed respectfully out of instinct and walked forward towards where the Guardian lay. The Peophin slowly stood up on his front hooves, his face contorting with the effort of doing so. He looked over the Uni critically.
"I figure this place isn't as... suited for you... as it is for me. Where do you wish... your temple to be, young one?" he asked, trying to raise his voice above a whisper. Every time he paused for breath, self-consciousness filled his eyes.
Hathim stopped in his tracks, searching his mind for any familiar places which could function as a temple. The Qasalan palace, the cliffs overlooking the city, the many alleyways that led everywhere, All of them floated into his mind but there was nothing about any of them that stood out of him. He certainly could not imagine living in any of them for the rest of his life.
"Can a guardian leave his temple?" he asked, fearing the answer. The Peophin sighed, closing his eyes wistfully.
"No. We must be with it at all times," he replied, looking down the length of the lake longingly. "That is why the temples are usually so vast: it's so we do not go insane staying cooped up in one place."
Hathim backed away a little, his mind racing. He knew he wouldn't be able to stand being in one place, trapped like a Horus in a tiny cage. The Uni looked at Jazan for reassurance. A horrible thought entered his head: if he was a Guardian tired to one temple, he would be unable to travel with Jazan. There would be no way he could to help the prince. Plus, both of them would be alone, just as they were before they met.
Hathim flinched at the thought. No, he had to find another way. By instinct, he tried to take a breath to calm himself. However, instead of fullness in his lungs, he felt wet air rushing through his body and condensing on his cold bones.
His bones. He was a soul inside a dead shell.
The Uni looked up at the Guardian, an idea forming in his head.
"I want my body to be my temple," he said clearly. Jazan's eyes widened and his mouth opened to protest. The Guardian only nodded, nothing indicating that he felt anything about this decision.
"I suppose, if you really are an undead creature, it would be possible. Come closer," he whispered. Hathim boldly strode closer, proud of himself for working out a solution to that problem.
As he approached the Peophin though, the Guardian's dull eyes suddenly lit up fearfully, the dying fire of his mane growing higher as it standing up on end. Hathim stopped suddenly, not daring to come closer to the alarmed Fire Guardian.
"This is not your original form!" he cried out, the water around him frothing as it boiled from the awakened heat of his body. Hathim only nodded, confused as to why it would elicit such a reaction when the Guardian already said that he didn't care if they were evil.
"Is... is that a... problem?" he asked tentatively. The Peophin nodded solemnly.
"Young Uni, I can think of few reasons why you would go to Nuria's temple and one of them is to restore yourselves to your original form. It makes sense. But if you become a temple, that will become impossible. She made the temples to resist decay and wearing of the elements, clearly hoping that we'd be able to live forever. That meant freezing the temple in the same state that it was in at the beginning of a Guardian's reign until the temple was no longer in use. It was because of this rule that, even though we all sought immortality, we could not make our own living bodies temples as a living body has to change in order to survive. But you, you are dead so in theory, you can do it. It's just that..."
"What?!" Hathim screamed, unable to contain himself. The old Guardian looked him straight in the eye, using up the last of his strength.
"The price is that you will never go back to your original form," he said in his crackly voice and lay down on the shore, panting from the effort of speaking.
Jazan's reaction was instant. He gripped Hathim's shoulder protectively, pulling the Uni towards him.
"Don't do it, Hathim, please!" he cried out desperately, hanging onto his friend as though his life was depending on it. Hathim turned away from him, the Guardian's words echoing in his mind.
Never being able to go back. Stuck in this form forever, unable to feel, his Song being a vile instrument of pain. With a single word, he could reject this completely or at least choose another temple. The Uni looked at his friend, his eyes begging for help.
"Jazan, could you manage without me?"
Jazan shook his head slowly, memories of his lonely years in the palace rising to the surface of his mind. Hathim sighed, closing his eyes and blocking everything out of his view.
Was this a sacrifice he was prepared to make? He had already made up his mind about being a Guardian but would being stuck in this body forever be worth travelling with Jazan and helping him wherever their fate took them?
Hathim remembered their search for the Air Guardian, how he ran through it without tiring and without needing any food or water. It was because of this body that he was so useful to the prince. He was a tireless steed who was not nearly as troublesome as a regular Uni. Perhaps the sacrifice would be worth it.
"Fire Guardian, I'm still willing to go ahead with it," he uttered. Jazan's eyes filled with tears as he hugged Hathim, trying to hold onto him as though this was the last time they were seeing each other.
"Remember why we're on this quest?! It's so that Qasala can go back to what it was! Every single person in it, including you. Please, let me become immortal instead of you. I, at least, have my body as it was before the curse," he cried out, holding back tears.
"Jazan," Hathim said, closing his eyes tightly so he wouldn't have to look at his friend's misery, "Do you think an immortal ruler would be a good thing?"
Jazan paused for a while before replying.
"No," he whispered slowly, pushing out of the word as if it hurt him. Hathim nodded but it was not the nod you would expect from somebody who had won a clear victory.
"Exactly. Power corrupts. You know this better than anybody."
"I'm not like my father! I would never stoop to his level."
"But would you still hold that conviction after a thousand years?"
It was a while before Jazan spoke again.
"Hathim, you'll never be able to go back! Don't you want to return to being alive?!"
"I do but... I'll be more useful to you in this form. I'll be able to travel and help you. Besides, I think... I probably can get used to being like this." Hathim spoke quietly, unsure of himself.
"I don't care if you're useful to me, you're my friend! You'll be miserable, Hathim. I could never live with myself if I knew there was something I could have done," Jazan said, looking his friend in the eyes. The Uni tried to smile.
"I'd be even more miserable if I couldn't help you because I had to stay with my temple or if you had to suffer because of a Guardian's duties piled on top of your duties as king. Please, Jazan," Hathim said to his friend, gently wriggling to make the Kyrii loosen his grip on him.
Jazan let the Uni go, although his fingers still seemed to want to catch on his rotten bandages. Hathim walked towards the Fire Guardian, who had been watching with slight amusement.
"You're so loyal, young Hathim," he said with some admiration.
"Thank you, sir," the Uni said reverently as he bowed. The Guardian smiled and pulled himself up out of the water, exposing his neck. Hanging from it on a golden chain was a Fire Faerie token, its jewel glowing like the last ember in a fireplace. Flames sculpted from gold flickered without moving an inch. Little flares of fire occasionally burst into life on its surface, their lifespan as short as a single breath. Hathim gazed at it, taking in every single detail of the ever-changing amulet.
"Take it and put it on, it's yours now," the Guardian said, his voice crackling slightly. Hathim obediently nodded and took the string from which the token hung in his mouth, careful not to touch the fragile Peophin's neck. He slowly lifted the token off until it was free of the old Guardian's body. Before he could try to put it on himself, Jazan took it from his mouth and put the string of the token over his head. It slipped down until it hung off his neck as if it had always been there.
"Now think of where you want your temple to be. I'll transfer my guardianship to you," the Fire Guardian said. Hathim closed his eyes and tried to envision his rotten body as he saw it in the river and in the Water Guardian's lake. The bandages, some of them fresh and some of them rotting, formed in his mind. Every single drooping feather of his ruined wings came into his mind, followed closely by his cracked horn and hooves. The cold of his dead form and the feeling of the wind blowing through his bones. Finally, eyes which were as red as blood and a blue mane, dark as night, added themselves to the image. Unconsciously, the Uni shivered. He looked terrifying.
Yet he was prepared to spend the rest of his life like this. As long as nobody else but me had to suffer from this decision, it's the best one. I can get used to my situation.
He felt the token slip through his bandages, sending a blaze of fire through his whole body. Flames crackled. Hathim opened his eyes in a panic but his body was not ablaze as he feared. He looked down.
His hooves were on fire.
Hathim reared up instinctively, trying to stamp out the flames but they would not die. Jazan was by his side in an instant, trying to desperately put the fire out.
"Don't worry, I don't think they'll hurt you. They're just a... manifestation of your Guardianship. Sometimes it happens that the token binds to the owner and with your choice of temple, I'm not... surprised," the former Guardian said, his voice suddenly becoming weak. He fell down with a splash into the lake.
"What's wrong?" Hathim asked, directing his attention towards the Peophin. Jazan looked too but his eyes were less kind.
"The transfer let me get... a look at your inner workings. Your soul is bound to your body depending on the amount of decay. But now, your body... will never decay due to it being your temple. And thus, the soul won't leave your body, ever. You've... .effectively completed what the Guardians have been trying.... to achieve for so long," the old Guardian wheezed out, gulping breaths.
"What do you mean by that?" Jazan asked, turning towards him.
"You are immortal, Hathim. You'll never die," the Peophin said, trying and failing to raise his voice for a dramatic effect. The Uni stared at him, unable to comprehend what he had just heard. Immortal? He was going to live forever? Like this?
"How dare you?! Why didn't you tell us before?" Jazan cried out, the air around his hand buzzing with magic. The Peophin looked up, his dim eye meeting the angry Kyrii's.
"I'm an old man with so little of my life left," he said, pausing to take a few breaths, "It's amazing that I remembered to tell you what I did."
Jazan's anger fizzled out instantly.
"I'm sorry," Jazan whispered, looking away from the Peophin in shame. The former Guardian smiled gently.
"Don't be. I understand the reason for your anger," he replied and turned to Hathim. "You'll know where the Darkness Guardian is, Fire Guardian. Go there. Please, leave me here so I can die in peace. I don't want... you both to see me go."
Hathim nodded, bowing once again. Jazan bowed even deeper, putting one hand on his heart. The old Peophin nodded to them and lay down on the bank, his body slowly dimming. There was a small smile on his face.
Hathim and Jazan departed solemnly with the Uni's hooves serving a light in the dark tunnel. As they came out into the dry desert air, the prince smiled at his friend.
"I do appreciate your sacrifice. It was so much to give, just so little old me wouldn't have to suffer," he said, putting one hand on Hathim's mane. The Uni grinned.
"I think it'll be alright. I'm a former street urchin, I can adapt to anything," he replied. The tingle of magic spread across his body. The Uni looked down at himself. He was in his old form, just as he was before. There was no fire on his hooves and his fur shone a beautiful, clean blue, just like it did when they visited Sakhmet. Jazan removed his hand, still smiling.
"Consider it a gift. This one is permanent. You can keep or drop this illusion on your own. It relies on sunlight so it will only work during the day though," he replied, admiring his work. Hathim smiled widely, thinking he could feel tears in his eyes even though there could be none.
"A beauty by day and a monster by night, huh?" he replied, unsure of what else to say. Jazan's smile weakened a little.
"I guess so. But you know one thing, Hathim?"
"You're warm again."
To be continued...