The Fate of Dust and Fire: Part Nine
Snow crackled beneath Hathim's feet, filling in the void of sound left by the flame burning around his hooves. Thankfully it was not hot enough to melt the snow beneath their feet and put them all in danger. The mountains around them were harsh and unforgiving, standing like palace guards in white robes. Unlike the fragile desert dunes, they seemed like they would outlive anything.
Thunder roared in the distance, even though there was not a cloud in the sky. The Uni froze when he heard the noise, trying to figure out what made it.
"Don't worry; it's just something called an avalanche. It's far from us, I think," Jazan said quietly, hugging the thick blanket around him and warming himself against his friend, trapping every precious bit of heat given off by the Fire Faerie token inside Hathim. Even though Jazan had cast spells to amplify and preserve that heat, the Uni could still feel his friend shivering. Growing up in the Lost Desert, far from the river and the ocean, the prince wasn't used to these temperatures. They always had to focus on getting rid of heat and keeping in the cold, not the other way around. A few days in the mountains wasn't going to change that.
How much further are we supposed to go? Hathim asked the Darkness Guardian in his mind.
Not far now.
The prince hoped that she wasn't lying to them. Driving them up here, after all she had put them through, would be adding insult to injury. But he doubted she would do that. None of the Guardians had lied to them so far and the Darkness Guardian especially seemed to only have her duty left. She did not take any delight in inflicting pain. If it wasn't for her saying she felt nothing, Hathim could almost swear that she was seeking forgiveness.
Jazan suddenly sat up and looked to the left of the pass. There, tucked away in the snow was a building, but it was unlike anything found in Qasala or Sakhmet. The corners of the dark grey roofs pointed up a little as if they were hands receiving an object. It was held up by small thin columns, all standing around a two storey building made out of red stone. There were several similar towers which faced the four directions on the compass just a little bit away from the main house. A high wall surrounded the whole complex, with writing over the entrance that neither Hathim nor Jazan could recognise.
The Darkness Guardian appeared next to them in her Kougra form. Jazan shot her a glare but otherwise did nothing to show what he was thinking.
"This is it. The old Shenkuuese outpost," she said as if to herself.
"Shenkuuese?" Hathim asked quizzically.
"The old empire? The one that once covered the whole western half of this continent? I didn't think anything would be left of them here after all this time," Jazan said to her, remembering the old texts he studied with his tutor back when the city was still intact.
"Yes and you'd be right to think that. This one has only been preserved because Light uses it as his temple. He took a shine to it, so he moved in, a long time ago. Nuria liked him," she replied, her tail flicking back and forth as she mentioned the Guardian.
Jazan nodded and urged Hathim forward. He took a couple of steps forward before the Kougra was in front them, blocking their path.
"You have to listen to me very, very carefully. This Guardian's power is to create illusions and then to make them real. He has no qualms about using that power for his own amusement and frankly, his sense of humour is disgusting. Whatever you do, you must always watch his tail. If it is still, you're fine. If it starts waving to the left, he's casting an illusion and while you should be on your guard, you'll still be safe. But if his tail flicks to the right, that illusion has become real and it is a good idea to move or hide behind something," she spoke to them in hushed, almost worried tones.
The pair stood still for a few moments before Jazan nodded. Hathim did the same. The Guardian moved out of their way.
"Oh, and Prince Jazan, I suggest you dismount and get behind your friend," she added. Jazan gritted his teeth as he looked her right in the eye.
"Are you suggesting I let my friend go into danger first? I use him as a shield?!"
"I'm suggesting that Hathim, who, unlike you, is immortal and can heal in an instant, is in the best possible position to protect you from the Light Guardian," the Kougra replied very dryly.
"Please, Jazan, I agree with her. Do as she says," Hathim said. Jazan visibly deflated as he climbed off the Uni's back and huddled close to his friend. The beginnings of magic crackled in his hands.
Together, they walked through the entrance of the Light Guardian's temple. Their footsteps echoed off the icy stones as they approached the house. Hathim nudged the door. It was unlocked. He stepped through it.
A katana wedged itself in his body.
Jazan's eyes widened as he restrained a cry but Hathim stood perfectly still and looked down calmly, not feeling anything but the unfamiliar sensation of the blade. Flames curled where it had pierced through his bandaged, dry skin. The sword slid out and clattered to the floor. Fire burned inside the gap for a brief moment as it closed itself. A hail of laughter sounded out of nowhere.
"So it is true, our new Fire Guardian is immortal. Seems like Nuria's little master plan is complete," came a mocking, sly voice. A wall disappeared to reveal a serpent-like Electric Draik with his wings held tightly to his sides and whiskers, which instead of being short and stubby like a normal Draik would have, were long and thin. They moved gracefully, like bits of thread caught in the wind.
Next to Hathim, the Darkness Guardian growled.
"That was not necessary," she said, a definite edge to her voice. The Draik looked at her with a parody of a hurt face.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart. I just wanted to see for myself that he was immortal. He couldn't have been hurt. No harm in that, right?"
"It's not that you did it to him, it's the fact that you do that whether somebody is immortal or not," the Darkness Guardian hissed.
"I have to have fun somehow, sweetie," he replied, his voice getting higher at the last part. The Kougra bared her teeth at him as her fur stood on end. The Light Guardian giggled and turned to face Hathim.
"Who's your friend, Fire?" he asked, shooting a sideways glance at Jazan. Jazan glared at him but nevertheless gave him a curt bow.
"Prince Jazan of Qasala," he said, trying not to sound annoyed. The Light Guardian grinned in a way that made the pair uncomfortable.
"Ooh, a prince? Brilliant. And of Qasala, too. Now I know why you want to reach Nuria's temple," he smiled. Jazan stiffened.
"How do you know?"
"You're so adorable, thinking that news didn't travel fast. Thanks to lovely Darkness, we all knew. It's just that the others were too polite to mention it," he purred, layers of honey smothering his words. Jazan's face twisted into a vicious smile.
"Well... that should make it quicker. Tell us where Nuria's temple is."
"And deprive me of my fun?! How selfish of you!"
The Draik's tail slowly began moving to the left, the streaks of blue on his skin making it look like crackling lightning. Both Hathim and Jazan became tense, looking for something which was out of place or behaving in a strange way. The Light Guardian smirked at them.
"How about we play a game? The prize is the location of Nuria's temple. It will be harmless, I promise. I've always liked a game of Tag. And the rules are simple; catch me and only one body per mind. I mean you, Darkness dearest," he said, oozing sincerity and sweetness. The Darkness Guardian hissed at him but he only laughed. Her illusory form flickered for a brief moment, and Hathim felt her presence lift from his mind and slither out towards the Draik. Yet his laughter returned.
"Oh you, trying to get inside my mind again? Sweetheart, we both know that it won't work. You can get in but I know how much you cannot stand being in there," he sneered mockingly. She flicked her tail and stood to her full height, wings outstretched, glaring him right in the eye.
"Don't you dare hurt either of them. If you do, you know what could happen to you," the Darkness Guardian said to him with a growl. The Light Guardian tossed his head to the side, making his long whiskers crack the air like whips.
"As you wish, my dear. My Guardianship is at stake here," he replied to her threat but not dropping the humour in his voice.
His tail swerved to the right. The Light Guardian split into two.
"Catch me if you can!" the two Draiks said simultaneously and ran down two separate hallways. Hathim and Jazan looked at each other for a brief instant. Jazan went after one and Hathim ran after the other.
Hathim galloped through the long narrow hallway as fast as he could, but there was no sign of the Guardian. The temple was vast, much bigger than it looked on the outside. There was no telling where it would end. The lights were also dimmer with each turn he took.
A paper lamp crashed down from the ceiling but Hathim jumped over it without even breaking stride. It disappeared behind him as soon as he had cleared it.
"Come on, come get me," the Light Guardian's voice called out to him and the Uni ran in its direction, further along the corridors. There were barely any windows now, only the occasional lantern providing light, which cast dancing shadows onto the walls opposite. He turned as sharply as he could as a wall approached him. He managed to avoid it but not without grazing his side. Scraps of bandage floated down on the stone floor.
The corridor ahead of him was completely dark. Hathim shivered as he looked into it, trying to see anything. His hooves provided some light but the flames licking the wooden floors still incited a nervous reaction from him. But he could feel the Light Guardian there, in the pitch black. He stepped into it but not at full gallop but a cautious trot.
Something fell from the ceiling and slammed into him, knocking the Uni to the ground. He looked up to see the blazing blue form of the Light Guardian, the lightning streaks on his scales animated and lively. Little sparks jumped from him like blue fireflies and disappeared within a few seconds. Hathim felt his bandages tear under the pressure from the Draik's claws but the flames immediately healed them up again, only to be torn by the same pressure. Even though he felt no pain, Hathim was unnerved by the grin on the Guardian's face. It was maniacal, almost evil. The Uni hummed a few notes but that grin only grew wider.
"Sorry, Fire. Beings like me which delight in what your Song brings out in our minds won't be affected, even if we still have things like emotions. You need to get stronger," he hissed, brining his face close to Hathim.
"Even so, get off me. I'm a Guardian, just like you," the Uni replied, struggling under the Draik's weight. He has to be the real thing. No illusion could be this heavy.
"But your friend isn't. He's not immortal, he's not devoid of most of his senses and he is now completely alone. While you'd provide a laugh, he'd be absolutely hilarious. Don't worry, I'll still let you both walk away from here. Sweetie made me promise and I don't want to get on her bad side," the Light Guardian told him in that same mocking tone he always used. But Hathim returned his grin.
"Jazan won't be scared of your illusion. Even if you can make illusions real, you can't clone yourself completely," he replied. But the Draik only burst out in laughter, his claws clenching convulsively but digging further into the bandages, after which the pressure eased off. The Guardian become translucent.
"Of course I can. The only person I can ever have a decent conversation with is myself, after all," he sneered as his body dissolved into thin air. Hathim however, did not waste time by listening. He pushed himself up to his feet, discarding the illusion of the Light Guardian like a sack of rotten fruit and ran down the hallways where he came from, hoping he could remember the way back.
"Good luck!" shouted the illusion after him before it disappeared.
Jazan ran out into an enormous room with a high ceiling held up by columns of stone as grey as a sky before a storm. White polished tiles covered the floor, growing duller the further from the room's centre they were. The walls were made up of rock, just like the columns. Carvings of strange petpets and pets wrapped in Shenkuuese robes dominated the ceiling, contrasting with the plainness of the room below. There was the distinct lack of any scent that should have permeated through an artificial stone cavern like this one, as if it all was drained out by some unseen force. The cold that oozed off the walls got under the skin and numbed the senses like smoke covering the sun. No matter how you looked at it, it was a place which was hostile towards any visitors.
The Light Guardian stood at the opposite end of the chamber, his tail twitching spasmodically to the left. Jazan's eyes scanned the room but he could see nothing out of the ordinary. Even so, he took no chances. His muscles tensed and his mind ran over all the spells he could use in the situation.
"Well, I've chased after you and found you. It's over. Now, I want the answers you owe me," he said facing the Draik, using the voice of authority he had been taught to hone in preparation for becoming king. But the Guardian just laughed at him, the grating mockery in his voice the same as ever.
"What, do you think a mere chase would be fun for me? No, this is just the beginning. What do you say, shall we play a game? If I'm sufficiently entertained, you get to ask me a question," the Draik purred, tossing his head back and forth arrogantly.
Jazan gritted his teeth but he nodded carefully, realising he had no choice. The Guardian grinned, in the same way a predator would grin at prey.
"Excellent. Now," he said and flicked his tail to the left once and then to the right, "Entertain me. Otherwise you're useless,"
Jazan saw the columns on either side of him dislodge themselves from their roots and come towards him, trying to crush him between them. He glared at the Light Guardian.
"I'm. Not. Useless," the prince hissed. Instantly, reluctantly thanking his father for his rigorous training, he spread his arms and spun in a circle, creating a wall of swirling air around him that held the great slabs of stone in place. He spun even quicker and the wall began expanding, pushing the two columns back to their original place. Dizzy with effort, he slotted them back into place. The Draik smirked and tossed his head, unimpressed.
"Not bad, little prince. You have just won a question," he said. Jazan lowered his arms but did not relax. He didn't believe the Draik would be this generous.
"Where is Nuria's temple?" the prince asked him, stressing the first word. The Guardian raised his eyebrows in amusement.
"Straight to the point, aren't we? I thought you were curious about how the Guardian network works or why I'm doing this," he replied and shrugged, "More entertainment for me then. You're going to have to perform some more for me."
His tail swept to the right, leisurely as if batting aside a fly. Jazan flung himself to the side as a sword pierced the floor below him. Another scratched his hand before he snatched it away, just in time to see the sword fly towards the ceiling. The prince bolted from the space he was in as yet another blade tried to get him. The Guardian was making them appear without even creating an illusion first.
Jazan looked at the Draik, who looked right back at him. His tail, which had been shaking as if whipped around by the wind, was still. But the Kyrii noticed a gleam in the Guardian's eye; malicious and indicating that he wasn't done yet. His instincts told him to move while reason told him it was safe. The Guardian wasn't casting an illusion.
He chose not to listen to reason and scrambled out of the way, just as a knife came through the floor. Jazan stared at it and then back at the Guardian.
"How did you... your tail didn't..." he stammered. The Draik laughed viciously.
"So now you ask me questions? Very well, you earned it. The tail is just a warning system I devised and let Darkness know about so she'd give me more room to have fun. In reality I can do anything without shaking it around," he stated, a sense of triumph in his voice.
"I should have known," Jazan hissed. The Guardian smiled at him.
"But you didn't, didn't you, wise prince? Anyway, now that I've told you my trade secret, you're going to have to dance a little bit more for me,"
Jazan cursed loudly as he heard that, making the Guardian laugh. The Kyrii's hands clenched into fists, which filled to the brim with magic.
"I'm not going to play your games and entertain you as if I'm some court jester," he announced to the Draik. However, he only threw his head back and laughed.
"But you have to. It's a trade. What kind of king would you be if you attack instead of negotiate?" he asked mockingly.
"This isn't diplomacy, this is appeasement. And appeasement only works if you have the upper hand!" Jazan shouted as he ran towards the Guardian.
"Stubborn, aren't you? I like that," he stated and waved his tail again, but Jazan leapt off the ground and sealed himself in the centre of a force field. Several arrows thudded into it but the spell held strong. He slowly began moving towards the Draik
A sword's point scratched the outside of his shield. He stopped. It was looking for weaknesses. Jazan frantically began sealing up any gaps he could feel but the sword only pressed harder, trying to make a weak point.
The pushing of the blade strengthened. Several more joined it. Cracks of light began radiating from them. The prince gritted his teeth as he tried to keep the spell steady but the Light Guardian kept pushing in harder, like a bird trying to break through a shell to get to the tasty mollusc inside it. The force field broke. The swords flew forward, and Jazan dropped to the ground, but one of them still wounded his shoulder.
"Nice. Now, dance for me," the Draik said. Jazan looked up at him in confusion.
"I said, dance. Don't worry, I'll lead."
A jet of fire suddenly erupted next to Jazan and he leapt to the side with a second to spare. Another flame ignited beneath his foot and as soon as he set it down, the flame reappeared beneath his other foot. He yelped, forgetting his dignity for a moment as the heat seared beneath his sandal.
"You need to be a bit quicker," the Guardian taunted. Jazan scowled and ducked as another flame appeared over his head. It was much quicker. The Draik had made them go faster.
He wouldn't be able to survive this. For a moment he wondered about Hathim and what would happen to him. The prince hoped that he wouldn't take revenge on this monster. Two immortals fighting. It would not be something he'd like to witness.
Jazan caught a glimpse of the Guardian among the flames, his face contorted with glee. Anger twisted within him. There was no way he'd entertain this disgusting beast.
The prince shoved his hand into the next flame and felt the heat curl around his paw like a snake, preventing him from being burnt. He gripped it in his hand like a staff and yanked it out of the ground, throwing it right at the Guardian. It burst upon contact and disappeared. The fires around Jazan died.
The Draik stared at him, unharmed but his smile was gone to be replaced with something a lot more murderous.
"Why'd you do that?" he asked in an upset tone which only served to underscore his anger. Jazan shivered. He knew he had triggered something in the Guardian.
"I'm sick of playing your games," he replied, trying to look the Draik right in the eye but even seeing a flash of them was unbearable.
"You know, I promised the utterly lovely Darkness that I wouldn't hurt you or your friend. I'm going to keep that promise because she's a fairly scary lady when she gets mad. But, your friend is immortal and can heal. So how will she know?" the Guardian purred. Jazan's breathing quickened.
"Leave him out of this! Don't you dare hurt my friend! If you have to fight anyone, it will be me," he screamed at the Draik, who flashed him a triumphant grin.
"You are so very adorable, putting your emotions in front of reason. He can't feel pain too, remember?" he said with a patronising voice. Jazan felt cold as he realised what he had doomed himself to. "You offered yourself, Prince Jazan. I can't refuse."
The Light Guardian spun around and lashed Jazan with his tail, sending the prince crashing to the floor. Spikes pierced through his clothing and turned into hooks, trapping him and leaving him at the Guardian's mercy. He grinned viciously as he stood over Jazan and scraped his claw across the Kyrii's skin.
Suddenly, the Draik's eyes widened and his smile fell away as though torn off. He scrambled away fearfully and closed his eyes, like a child which had just seen something terrible it couldn't possibly understand. The hooks holding Jazan down disappeared. He sat up, shaking, and watched the Guardian closely, thinking it was some sort of trap. Nevertheless he got the feeling that something wasn't quite right. The fear he saw did not seem fake.
Finally, after a long while, the Draik looked up at him. He was smiling once again but it wasn't a smile of a predator. It was the smile of a vary man.
"I didn't see that coming," he said quietly. Jazan got up and slowly approached him, watching the Guardian for any suspicious movement but he did not try to stop the prince.
"I was close to being scared. How long has it been since I was last scared, I wonder?" he replied quietly. Jazan looked at the Draik in confusion and slight amusement.
"I scared you?! How?"
"Someone is watching over you. It's not a nice someone but they want you alive for one reason or another. They told me that directly when I touched you. They were... insistent."
"What is it?!"
"Evil. It knows what you've been doing and it's been counting on it. My guess is that it wants dear ol' Nuria's temple."
"But surely the other Guardians would have felt it!"
"It's kept itself well hidden, away from you. They can't feel something that's not there. It only came out because I was a threat to you."
"And what happens if it gets the temple?"
"It can use and abuse all that the Lost Desert has to offer."
"So... will you let me pass?"
The Draik looked him right in the eye and his amused grin returned. Jazan slowly stepped away.
"I really shouldn't. If I didn't, I'd be right. But whoever is controlling you from the shadows didn't plan on one thing."
Jazan spun around at the sound of hooves and saw Hathim standing in the doorway, his eyes wide and terrified.
"Jazan!" the Uni shouted and bolted towards his friend, almost knocking the Kyrii off his feet. He threw his arms around Hathim and smiled as he savoured the joy of their reunion.
"Excellent timing, little Fire," the Light Guardian remarked. Hathim looked up at him, his eyes turning cold while the flames on his hooves flickered and burned a little brighter.
"He didn't hurt me, Hathim," Jazan said and put his hand on the Uni's mane, hiding his bruises and scrapes in the depths of his robe. Hathim relaxed a little but he still remained tense and watchful.
"Rather, he hurt me," the Draik smiled bitterly, "Prince Jazan, the thing that wants you alive didn't plan on the little one here becoming a Guardian. So I'll let you pass because after all, it would be fun to see what happens."
Both Jazan and Hathim smiled as their hearts rejoiced at the thought of their quest coming to an end. They would soon know how to lift the curse, how to save Qasala and how to save themselves.
"So, where is Nuria's temple?" Hathim blurted out excitedly.
"You know. Or rather, you know it by its other name: the Temple of a Thousand Tombs."
Jazan covered his eyes with his hand and laughed bitterly.
"So we came all this way, faced so much and the answer was on our doorstep the whole time."
"Ironic, isn't it?" the Light Guardian laughed heartily.
"I suppose we'll have to navigate the labyrinth it's notorious for."
"No, prince. Just ask Fire to touch the front entrance below the riddle with his token. It will bypass the maze and lead you to the true temple. Normally Darkness would have done it but tell her to stay away from it while you're there. She'll only cause problems," the Light Guardian stated plainly and slunk away into the depths of his own temple.
The Darkness Guardian appeared by their side, her wings lowered slightly as if ashamed.
"Fat lot of good I was to you," she hissed. Hathim shook his head.
"It all turned out well in the end."
"I suppose you better be going. You have a long journey to the temple and as I understand, I won't be going with you."
"No. But in a way, I wish you would. This seems too big for us. If the Light Guardian looked scared, I can't imagine what is waiting for us," Hathim replied to her, seeming to shiver a little. Jazan smiled faintly and stroked his head.
"We'll manage, Hathim. We have to," he sighed. Hathim nodded.
"Whatever it is, we'll face it together."
"As always," Jazan replied, his smile growing broader as they headed back towards the entrance of the temple. Despite the fear of the unknown, he was glad to be going back to Qasala. And the prince knew without a doubt that he'd face whatever was waiting for them there. It would be his duty and his pleasure.
A shadowy figure smiled and disappeared from the temple, reappearing beneath Sakhmet.
"Razul, I might not be needing you after all. Let's see how this plays out..."
To be continued...