The Fate of Dust and Fire: Part Eight
"So where is the Darkness Guardian?" Jazan broke the silence that ensued after they had exited the former Fire Guardian's temple. Hathim paused, sorting through the wealth of information that had been provided to him when he had assumed Guardianship. Yet no matter how desperately he trawled through it, there was a large gap.
"Jazan... I don't think I know," he whispered after a long silence. The prince looked at him in shock.
"What do you mean?! You're the Fire Guardian, isn't that the most important thing you should know?" he exclaimed, fear forming in his eyes. The Uni looked down at the sand, anything to avoid the terrified look on his friend's face.
"I'd have thought so too but I just don't know. And it's not a riddle or anything, it's just not there," Hathim replied, the flames of his hooves dying down a little as he scraped them on the sand.
Jazan's hands clenched into fists and sparks of magic exploded out of the air around them. He looked back into the dark entrance of the cave for a brief moment before turning around.
"I'm going to go inside and ask him. He might still be able to tell us!" Jazan spoke harshly. Hathim whinnied uncomfortably but the prince still turned around.
Suddenly, the Kyrii swayed a little, grabbing the rock face to stop himself falling over.
"Jazan, what's wrong?" Hathim cried out, running towards him.
"I... I... d- " Jazan broke off as his knees buckled under him. Hathim tried to catch him but he was not quick enough. The prince fell down onto the sand, sending up a small cloud of dust upon impact. The Uni rapidly nudged the unconscious prince, his eyes wild and fearful. Hathim was suddenly aware of the vastness of the desert as the dunes took on the forms of beasts that had been waiting for him to be alone. He did not want to be alone. He hated being alone!
"Just as I predicted," said a female voice.
Hathim's head jerked up, searching for a source of the mysterious voice. There was nobody around. He shivered even though he could not feel cold.
"Who's there?" he called out to the desert. There was no direction from which the voice was coming from. It seemed to be everywhere, like an echo that was left behind.
"It's just me, Fire Guardian," the voice spoke again. Hathim stood protectively over Jazan, spreading his wings and trying to show nothing which would betray his true emotions.
"How do you know what I am?" he asked, his ears desperately trying to pinpoint a location.
"You told me. I'm practically immersed in everything I need to know about you, Hathim," the voice said, never changing beyond the gentle, chilling tone. The Uni's eyes widened. He sang a few notes, wincing at pain he couldn't possibly feel. Sure enough, within his mind, there was something- no, someone- there
"Get out of my mind, please!" he cried out, shaking his head despite knowing it won't do any good.
"I can't, I'm sorry. This is how I exist, flowing from consciousness to consciousness," the voice replied, although her apology sounded hollow. Hathim shifted about restlessly. Now that he was aware of the presence, he was unable to ignore it.
"It's ok, you'll get used to it," the voice spoke again. The Uni stood still but his muscles were still tense. He was unable to trust his mysterious person. How could you trust somebody who had invaded your mind without your knowledge or permission?
"May I repeat my question; who are you?" Hathim asked, trying to keep track of the dark shape inside his head. It rippled for a few seconds before it was still.
"I'm many things. The straightforward answer is that I'm the Darkness Guardian, but-" she said, her voice disturbingly flat as always. Despite himself, the Uni grinned.
"There was no clue? You'd just come to us?!" he cried out, so happy that the former Fire Guardian had not missed anything out. Yet his grin soon faded as another thought came into his mind.
"My temple is in your mind and at the same time, in everybody's mind. There's no clue because the Fire Guardian would just tell me visitors are coming. I would then appear inside their heads," the Darkness Guardian purred, her voice changing just slightly. Hathim shook his head in confusion.
"How do you do that?"
"Tell me, Hathim Nightsteed, do you have any mind-reading ability?"
"No... at least, none that I know of."
"Shame. If you did, you'd know how telepaths pick up other's thoughts by burrowing with their own mind into the thoughts of others. If they wish, they can dive in with their whole being, only leaving their body behind. I do that, although I have no body to go back to, therefore I just mind-surf. Got that?"
The Uni nodded, although he did not fully grasp her explanation.
"I don't urge you to try it out but if you need to, you can communicate with the other Guardians through me. Tell me what you need to say, and to whom, and I'll be your messenger girl," she said, any humbleness in her voice insincere, although Hathim got the feeling it was not because she was covering up excessive pride. "Just thought you should know."
"A- alright," Hathim responded, unsure of what else to say. There was a pained cry at his feet. Jazan was stirring in his sleep, as if seeing a nightmare.
"Is this your work?" the Uni asked the Guardian, his wings flaring up threateningly from anger and just a hint of fear.
"Yes, but you shouldn't be afraid. I'm just speaking with him, like I'm doing with you. Normally I use dreams but you don't sleep. I had to find another method," she answered him very calmly, not reacting to any show that he was putting on. Hathim dug his hooves into the ground, focusing solely on her, ignoring the primal scream in his mind to run.
"So many interesting things in your minds, so much pain and fear," the Darkness Guardian continued speaking. Hathim's eyes widened.
"What... what do you mean?" he whispered. The shadow in his mind twisted and turned for a few moments, as if it was a snake trying to tie itself into a knot. In front of Hathim's eyes, a beautiful Faerie Kougra materialised as though in a dream. Her fur and features, while darker than normal for her colour, were sleek and shiny. Her dark eyes glittered with friendliness and good intentions yet the Uni's deepest instincts could tell that something was out of place about them, as though they were masking something.
"Don't worry, it's just so difficult to show any sympathy while a being a disembodied presence and you'll need it. An illusion is better than nothing," the Kougra said very gently, bowing to him before sitting down on the sand, her wings folded closely next to her body. Hathim nodded, not knowing what else to say.
"About your question, I meant exactly what I said. You've suffered so much. Poor, lonely thing," she purred, her eyes soft and understanding but on an almost undetectable level, false. Hathim slowly shook his head.
"I was alone but I'm not anymore. I have Jazan," he replied, smiling a little. Hearing this, the Kougra sighed and lowered her eyes as if she was looking for a cue from the sands.
"I'm sorry but... I'm inside his mind. What I see says otherwise," she whispered to him. Hathim's eyes widened. The Darkness Guardian stood up and paced around him. The Uni noticed with some wonder that her heavy paws made no marks in the sand. He knew he should not expect anything less, considering the fact that the Kougra he saw was a mere hallucination she had made him see but on a baser level, he could not help but be disturbed. It was like looking at a face with distorted features.
"He has a mind with so many ambitions, so many ways to please his people, so many ways to make himself a great ruler to be feared and remembered. That's your prince. He has no space left for friendship or kindness. There's only ambition," the Kougra purred, her eyes still lowered as if she was about to cry. Hathim's winged flared up as he dug his hooves into the sand.
"That's a lie! Why would he take me in, why would he take care of me?" he shouted at her. The Guardian smiled bitterly and walked up to Jazan, sweeping a single primary feather across his cheek. The prince stirred. Despite himself, Hathim tensed as he watched this gesture, trying to resist the temptation to push her away.
"Easy. He wants power. He can't get power unless the people are behind him. The people can be manipulated if he shows that he cares for them. So why not pick out the lowest of the low, a street urchin and elevate him to his side. If he would care for you, he'd care for them. It's useful propaganda. And let's not forget that, as a Uni, you provide a useful service for him as his steed. He's exploiting you," she said, her voice remaining calm and steady. Hathim bit his lip but tried to look at her straight; even if he wanted to, he could not cry. It was one of the perks and the disadvantages of being stuck in this form.
"That's not true! If it was, why would be try to stop me from becoming immortal?! There was genuine concern in his eyes, his voice, his body, everything! How could that have been faked?" he screamed, desperate to rip holes in the Darkness Guardian's argument. She flapped her wings once, seeming disgruntled.
"You don't get it do you?" she asked and sighed, "Didn't he ask to take your place? He tried to discourage you for many reasons. First and foremost, if you came back damaged the people might not be happy that the prince, who so heroically took a street child in, had let him come to harm. It might look bad. Secondly, he could have wanted that immortality for himself. Judging from your memories, you were stubborn. He could not have objected without betraying his true motives."
"I'm his friend!"
"Think about it. Jazan is a prince. He could have any number of friends he wants. Why should he befriend you, a lowly street urchin?"
Hathim began shaking, something which the Darkness Guardian watched with interest. In his mind he was going over all the memories he had of Jazan over the last two years with the fine toothed comb of paranoia. There were always little details, details which seemed innocuous but took on a sinister tone, like a door once you know of the monster behind it. How Jazan always seemed protective of him, despite him knowing that Hathim could defend himself, how Jazan tried to discourage him from taking risks, the illusion he gave the Uni the ability to cast so it would conceal his unchanging body, how he and Jazan always rode around Qasala together, presumably to be seen by the people to let them know that their ruler is the one who could be trusted. A ruler who people trust can lead them into the deepest dunes without question.
Was he simply a tool to gain the love of Jazan's subjects? Was the only friendship he had ever known, false? Hathim shook his head and stamped down on the sand as if trying to shake the dark thought from his head but it had already taken root and spread.
"No, no, no, no - no!" he cried out. Disjointed sobs invaded his speech and took over, leaving the Uni shaking with tears he could never cry.
"You're wishing I never told you now, aren't you?" the Darkness Guardian purred."But isn't it better to know the truth than live a lie?"
Hathim closed his eyes and lowered his head. Yes, it was, but an entire life of suffering wasn't a life at all. He thought that at least he would have some form of happiness with Jazan as his friend.
A thought hit him like a slap. He had become the Fire Guardian because he wanted to help the prince, to remain with him as his friend and to save him from the fate of becoming an immortal. But if there was no friendship, he had made his sacrifice for somebody who did not care for him. It was all for nothing.
"I'm so sorry, Hathim," the Darkness Guardian said as she walked up to him, lowering her head until they looked eye to eye. The Uni looked away from her.
His mind felt like a churning soup. Little things popped up to the surface but before he could look at them closely they disappeared again, leaving him with only what was staring him the face. And the constant shadow of the Darkness Guardian's presence always at the core of it all, reaching out and pulling the strings inside him. Always bringing up the same thoughts.
"Hathim!" Jazan cried out. The Uni looked up. He hadn't even noticed how far from Jazan he had walked or even that he walked at all. The Darkness Guardian purred and retreated to the side, away from them.
Jazan leapt up and ran towards his friend, putting his arms around him and clinging on as though to a rock in a strong wind. It's all just fake, all fake, whispered the darkness in his mind.
"I'm so glad you're here. I had a terrible nightmare, one where Father was right and I was..." Jazan said, his voice gradually fading. Hathim gritted his teeth.
"I'm sorry, Prince Jazan. There is nothing I can do for you, now that I know."
The Kyrii backed away and stared at him, startled.
"The Darkness Guardian, she... she told me about you. How you have no friendship for me."
"Don't believe her. Don't.... she's lying to you, trying to get us to turn against each other," the prince said with desperation in his voice.
"But your Highness, why else would you befriend a poor boy from the streets?" Hathim asked, trying to keep his voice gentle, "I try to be useful to you, so that I could give back all you've given me but it never feels like enough. I'm not worthy."
Jazan stepped away from Hathim, his face shifting between anger and sadness.
"Don't you dare say that again. I value you as a friend, as a true friend. I told you before that you have no debt to me and I stand by that now. I've always felt like the one indebted to you and I'll repay that to you now," he cried out and stood in front of his friend with his arms spread out and his head bowed.
The Uni looked at the prince with a quizzical look on his face, blinking a little as he tried to absorb the full meaning of Jazan's words.
"What are you going to do?"
"Not him, you, Hathim Nightsteed," the Darkness Guardian interjected. "He wants you to use the Song."
"Examine the memories we share, examine them from my point of view. Look at them until you are satisfied that what she told you is a lie," the Kyrii said through gritted teeth, his breathing rapid and terrified.
"That... it... you'll be in so much pain! You could die!" Hathim cried out. It would be worth it. What were these thoughts? They could not be his!
"I know," Jazan replied, trying to mask a sob, "but if it takes that to make you happy, then I'll go through with it and all the consequences that follow."
Hathim took a breath and focused on Jazan in front of him. Even though the Song had not begun, the Uni could easily detect his friend's fear. The prince who he had always looked up to, the one who he thought was always above him was reduced to a terrified figure in the sand in front of him, at his mercy. Never had Jazan looked more vulnerable, more scared and more alone than he did now, helpless as a leaf in a storm.
All this for him.
The Uni exhaled, letting the air he had accumulated around his vocal cords go. Jazan looked up in surprise but his face quickly turned into a cautious smile. Hathim's smile however was much broader.
"You're a brave person, Jazan, but even you wouldn't face the pain of the Song just to hold up something fake," the Uni said, his voice slightly jubilant. Jazan's face broke out into a beaming smile. He got up to his feet and threw his arms around Hathim, who could only grin joyfully. Both of them soon began laughing as their hearts and minds delighted in the restored friendship.
"How could I have doubted you?" the Uni asked.
A slow clap echoed through their minds. He instantly knew why.
"Well done, you two. Well done. As usual, the magic of friendship prevails," the Darkness Guardian remarked dryly, sitting in the sand close to the pair.
Both Hathim and Jazan turned around to face her, glaring at the Kougra. She however, only flicked her tail from side to side.
"I suppose you're really angry at me now for manipulating you and want to ask me why I did it or just swear revenge. Go ahead, I'm sure it won't surprise me. I've seen everything in all my long years," she said, looking them in the eye. The pair stared at her, unable to bring themselves to speak. The Darkness Guardian did not avert her gaze, waiting patiently for them to say something. The air became tenser than a string on an instrument, shaking with unsaid emotions.
"I wish I could be angry at you. I really, really do. But the other guardians have tested us in a similar way and now, I have to do the same to anybody who approaches me," Hathim spoke very quietly to her. "But while this understanding prevents me from getting angry at you, it doesn't mean I forgive you. I don't like it when my mind is played with."
The Kougra just blinked at him, utterly indifferent.
"And what will your friend, Prince Jazan, do? I can already tell that he wishes terrible things upon me."
"I do but I'll resist," he replied, not disguising his hatred for her.
"Fair enough. Nobody can ever forgive me if I touch something so personal," the Guardian stated with a very matter-of-fact attitude without a trace of sympathy in her voice. "I suppose you want to get down to the business of the Light Guardian?"
"Before that, I have a question for you; you knew Hathim was the Fire Guardian. Why did you still attack us?" Jazan asked her, baring his teeth slightly.
"The former Fire Guardian gave him the guardianship because he had no choice. I had to see if you... wouldn't abuse it," she said. Hathim nodded to confirm that, remembering the Fire Guardian's desperation to hand over his Guardianship. He didn't even care if the pair meant harm or not.
"All fair and good, but you didn't have to go so far. What you did, well, it was like hitting an exposed nerve. Is that what you always do?" Jazan snapped at her with a scowl. The Kougra nodded.
"Of course. I'm technically the most powerful Guardian; I must have a powerful attack so it's up to me to weed out undesirable elements."
"And you can tear people open just like that? How- how do you live with yourself?!" he spat at her. The Guardian looked at him impassively.
"In this business, it helps to forget that you were ever mortal. It means giving up everything, including emotion. No rage, no sympathy, no pity. I can fake it but I don't feel it. You live long enough, you do that. Helps you do the job."
"What a disgusting existence," Jazan spat. Hathim however shivered.
"What do you mean by 'live long enough'?" he asked. His voice was unable to disguise his worry.
"Exactly what I said. But you'll be surprised what you can get used to, little Guardian. I gave up my body to become immortal and serve Nuria. The others didn't want to make that sacrifice. It was a wise choice. But I suppose desperation makes everyone forget and now, they can't go back. One by one, they'll all become like me," she said with a shrug, flapping her wings a little.
"I won't," Hathim replied in a quiet, clear voice. The Darkness Guardian shook her head.
"Keep thinking that, little Fire Guardian. I'll see if ten thousand years would temper you."
Hathim did nothing but look at her stubbornly. Jazan scowled at her and stepped between the two, breaking the spell.
"I'm sick of listening to all this. Where is the Light Guardian?" he asked her firmly. The Kougra blinked once and faded from view, although the pair could still feel her in their minds.
"I could tell you. Or I could show you. The Light Guardian is not an easy character to deal with."
"Are you suggesting you will come with us? After all you've done?!" Jazan almost screamed at her. The thought of this dark shadow in their minds through the whole journey, spying on them all the time, processing their thoughts, was a disgusting one. Even if she plotted nothing, her presence would be like a rotten fruit in a basket.
"I'll try not to be too intrusive. Believe me, you'll be grateful for it when you meet him."
"Why?" Hathim asked.
"He was the only one of us who was gifted immortality by Fyora. That, his confinement in his temple and the loss of all feelings made him... unstable. Surely, you want to make it to Nuria's Temple in one piece," she said in a way that seemed for a brief second angry. Such a display of emotion from a creature who had admitted she felt nothing set the pair's fur on end. It was like hearing a distant thunderclap.
"However," the Darkness Guardian said in a softer tone, "young Hathim, I suppose this incident has cleared up a few of your fears, hasn't it? At least, it might help you rest easier."
The Uni smiled.
"Yes, I suppose it will."
Satisfied, the Guardian then turned to Jazan.
"Your fears, however, won't be quelled so easily. You'll have to face your father and your kingdom on a much grander scale," she whispered.
"How can I face my father? He's dead!" Jazan asked in confusion.
The Guardian became quiet. The presence in their minds became as small as it possibly could. It seemed to curl in on itself, resembling a kitten trying to get cosy. Jazan got on Hathim's back and Hathim, his mind still buzzing with what happened, started to walk. After the jubilation had worn off, neither of them had the strength to say anything.
A thought came into Hathim's mind, one which was obviously from the Darkness Guardian who was now resting somewhere between his thoughts. It was quiet, as if she felt awkward speaking to him. The Uni turned towards the distant mountains.
A thin shadow slunk after them.
To be continued...