The Fate of Dust and Fire: Part Two
The guards on the walls of the city saw it first; a great mass of desert sand swirling in the sky and blocking out the bright white sun. It moved towards Qasala with the speed and rage of a waterfall, driven by the relentless burning wind. The desert city was prepared for sandstorms, but this was larger than anything they had experienced before. Murmurs spread among the citizens, turned to panicked cries and before long, they became screams. As the first wall of sand hit the city it infected the eyes of the populace, rubbing against their skin and sticking to their fur, all while howling its tuneless, angry music.
It was among this chaos that Hathim ran, carrying Prince Jazan on his back. The prince was gripping the Uni's bridle and their mouths were covered with cloths against the sand. King Razul was gone from the palace and nobody could find him, no matter how hard they looked. It fell to Jazan, in the absence of his father, to restore order in the city, be it war or storm that threatened them.
"Seek shelter!" he cried, trying to drown the storm out. "Seek shelter wherever you can! We can get through this!"
Those he met obeyed him, but although there was joy in their eyes, it could not hide the panic. However, the few they found in the streets were merely fragments of a much larger population. The storm had struck in the middle of the day, unusual for such a violent phenomenon. But it had caught many people outside, especially today, on market day. The prince and his steed looked at each other and nodded. The Uni turned towards the market square.
When they reached it, Hathim's eyes widened at the destruction he saw. What was this morning a bustling centre of trade was now like a graveyard of ships, with cloth fluttering in the wind like a flag and wood being torn from the stalls as if it were rotten. People tried to leave the square, but there were so many scrambling for narrow exits that the crowd was not moving, it was only absorbing the lashings of the storm.
"Listen!" Hathim shouted out, lacing his voice with the Song to make him heard over the voice of the storm. Everyone suddenly froze. The panicked screams were suddenly silenced. Even in a crisis, no person could fight against his voice and the memories it dug up.
"Tell them to stay calm and go to their houses one at a time, not pushing or trying to get in first. We need to work together if we are to reduce the casualties," Jazan shouted to him even though the Uni was right next to him. Hathim repeated Jazan's words to the frightened population, making sure to lace every important word with the Song.
Sparked by the Song, everyone did as they were told, as quickly as possible. Hathim and Jazan hurriedly herded them into houses, picking up stragglers or those who were injured in the scrambles and helping them along. They themselves could feel their instincts flaring up, telling them to get away. However, neither of them turned around and ran, feeling the pressure of duty on their backs. Together they would prevail against the storm.
Eventually, everyone who had been out in the square was in a shelter, but Qasala was much more than just a town square. There were other citizens which they had to help. Hathim turned, fighting against the wind and wincing as the sand scratched his skin. He ran as quickly as he possibly could into an alleyway and into the street.
Both Hathim and Jazan heard a child crying. The Uni swivelled his ears and tried to pick up the source of the noise. The prince called out and created a light in his hand, trying to make a beacon for the lost child. The crying stopped, and slowly a Chia figure slowly emerged from the sands. In one swift movement, the Uni picked her up in his mouth and swung her towards Jazan. He in turn grabbed the girl and seated her in between Hathim's wings. She hid her face in his mane, shielding her eyes from the angry sands.
They heard another voice, a woman's this time. She was calling out to somebody. Jazan looked down at the little Chia girl. That must be her mother. Hathim needed no encouragement from his friend. He ran in the direction of the voice and it was not long before they saw the source of the voice, a Kau who was looking around terrified. The Chia looked up and cried out happily. The Kau turned and a broad smile spread across her face. Hathim halted as the girl slid off his back and ran towards her mother.
The Kau hugged her child tightly and looked up at the pair. As soon as she saw Jazan, she bowed deeply and ran back into the curtain of sand that covered their vision. Jazan sighed and met the eyes of his friend. Those were the only eyes that knew no fear when they saw him. However, the moment only lasted briefly. The prince nudged his friend forward, both of them motivated by the shouts that managed to escape the howling of the sands.
All the while, the storm was getting stronger. Hathim's movement became more and more laboured. Sand began slipping past their protective cloths and into their throats. Almost collapsing from tiredness, Hathim and Jazan took shelter beneath an overturned stall.
"What do you think?" Jazan asked. Hathim turned to him.
"Something's wrong. Can you feel it?" the Uni replied, his voice hoarse.
Jazan nodded and opened his mouth to speak but his eyes were caught by a small shred of blue sky in which the tower of the Palace was silhouetted. Where was his father this time? Even he should be helping his people in this crisis. Nobody could be this ignorant of his kingdom. Nobody except King Razul that is. His heart clenched as a faint, familiar sense of betrayal and anger swept through it. The image only lasted a few seconds before fresh sand obscured it.
There was a screech. Stone suddenly came crumbling down onto their shelter as the building near them collapsed into rubble. Faint screams were drowned out by the power of the wind. Jazan shouted in a rage. Hathim tried to grab him but Jazan ran out of their shelter into the street. The Uni followed him, feeling a desperate need to protect his friend in the middle of the chaos.
The Kyrii plunged his hands into the rubble, his cries to anybody beneath it dissolved by the sands. Hathim too began digging, using his horn and hooves to laboriously sift through the ruins. Another sound, this time a loud, inhuman groan. Another house could not withstand the wind and the sand that collapsed with screams that could have belonged to the inhabitants. Jazan stood up, his eyes misted over with despair. His people were dying and there was nothing he could do. He was going to be king someday. A king had to know what to do in such a crisis, yet here he was, powerless and weak.
Hathim scrambled up to Jazan, nudging him on the shoulder. The Kyrii turned around, trying desperately to hide the beginnings of tears in his eyes.
"Let's get out of here. We can at least try to save others," the Uni shouted to him. Jazan got on, his face not changing even as Hathim sped off into the streets, avoiding the debris scattered by the storm.
Yet running anywhere was futile. Those they saw outside were soon lost in the sands before the pair could reach them, no doubt blind and confused. All around, houses were being torn apart and the fate of their inhabitants sealed. Qasala was being torn to pieces; those who lived in it were only part of the rubble. Hathim tried to keep his instincts under control and keep Jazan safe. He focused on whatever he could see of the road ahead.
The sand in front of him began taking on a form of a smiling dark faerie. Hathim stopped and Jazan did not object as they looked at her, the threads of their terrified thoughts tangling within as both struggled to comprehend this sight. But the illusion of the faerie just smiled and ripped off the cloth that was protecting them from the sand. She dissolved back into the storm with it, a diabolical grin on her face without explanation.
Sand flooded into Hathim's eyes, scratching them like a bird. He did not dare to run while his eyes were closed or open them and not be able to see where he was going. Jazan, however, was not fazed. He quickly dismounted and ripped part of his robe, wrapping the cloth enough around Hathim's eyes and mouth to protect him from the worst of the sand before doing the same to himself.
The Uni looked back at Jazan, smiling at him but looking for signs of the same shock that he was feeling. The prince though did not meet his gaze and simply climbed back on, urging him to go. The Uni, trusting his friend, did not try to find out more. Jazan knew what he was doing. He was sure of it.
He did not know how much he had run but only how much chaos and ruin they had seen. Buildings which stood proud yesterday were reduced to rubble with their inhabitants entombed underneath. Neither Hathim nor Jazan wanted to imagine what it must be like for them right now. To do so would be too painful.
Their blind travels brought them out into the square where they had started not so long ago. Buildings lay like wounded men all around them, their stones blending gradually with the storm. Jazan covered his eyes, feeling the sting of tears on them. How could the kingdom recover from this? How could the people recover from this?
A disembodied scream came from every single grain of sand in the air, each particle thick with rage. The storm congealed in front of the pair, blocking off any view of the building like a wave in a storm hides a lighthouse. Hathim moved on his own, instinct filling his mind and forcing him backwards. Jazan's grip tightened as he did his best to stay with somebody familiar. The storm's anger, however, did not quieten. It dove into the desert beneath them and rose up again, tendrils emerging from the main wave and lashing at them with all their might. Jazan clung to Hathim like a sailor to driftwood, trying to open his mouth and be heard through the screaming and biting of the storm.
Finally, the patience of whatever force created this unnatural phenomenon ran out. The sands wrapped around the pair, separating them from each other. Their cries were lost in the anger of the sandstorm and as the waves of sand came down around them, Hathim and Jazan joined their city under the sands, forgotten and decaying, alone.
Jazan awoke. He tried to blink but might as well have been trapped inside the city wall. Sand scraped his fur, digging under his skin like a swarm of insects. The Kyrii tried to breathe, but his lungs only filled with the bitterness of the desert.
Digging desperately in a random direction, Jazan struggled against time to find a way out. His lungs screamed out for air instead of sand but he could not answer them until he found the surface. Each desperate path his arm swept through the sand was soon covered. The need for air blinded every one of his senses. Kicking with his legs, he pushed up through the sands. A breeze stroked his face. The Kyrii took a joyful breath. As if a button had been pressed, he was wracked by a coughing fit as the sand in his lungs reunited with the sands of the desert. When he had finally recovered, he stood up and looked around. This strange world was dusty grey and peppered with ruins.
As he stood there, the Kyrii flashed back to what had happened. He could barely recognise the city square but the only things left of the buildings were just geometric clusters, a sorry imitation of Qasala. The storm that had consumed the city had only left behind a faint mist of dirt and dust. Jazan could only look around at the same colourless landscape of ruins that was once a thriving city.
There was somebody in the distance, partially obscured by the nebulous mist. They were on four legs and their long hair blew in the wind, hitting their wings. Jazan's heart leapt at the thought that it was Hathim, a small comfort amidst the destruction. His mind's whisper about it being a mirage was suppressed by sheer hope.
As he began to draw closer, fear filled the Kyrii. It was definitely a Uni's shape but it was not the Uni he knew. Tendrils unwound from its body and flapped in the wind and faint patches of light appeared where they should not be. Yet this was the only living thing that was here, Jazan could not afford to run away.
The dust cleared away from the Uni, showing it in all the details. Jazan stopped in his tracks. The Uni was swathed in rotted bandages and its mane, although showing highlights of Hathim's familiar dark blue, was black. What terrified him the most though was the blood-red eyes of a savage that looked right through him, taking the Kyrii apart particle by particle. He had a black harness on, similar to Hathim's but while that one was brand new, this one looked as though it had been torn at by a pack of rabid beasts.
The horrific Uni turned to him but there was no malice in anything he did, only the promise of tears and confusion. As it came closer, Jazan did not run. Aside from the Uni's outward appearance, there was nothing to fear. He seemed just as lost as the Kyrii was. Jazan allowed him to come closer, listening to whatever he had to say.
What he heard was a faint, unsure voice which despite the Uni's shrivelled looks was melodic, distinct and beautiful.
"Jazan, what's happened to all of us?" Hathim whispered. Jazan's own eyes welled up even though he couldn't cry. Wordlessly he put his arms around Hathim's neck, trying to isolate himself from this cursed world in the cold darkness of his mane.
To be continued...