The Fate of Dust and Fire: Part Four
Hathim ran across the crests of the towering desert landscape, his hooves creating a broken trail across the dunes. Even though the sun beat on them like a merciless giant, the Uni did not stop. In his ragged form he did not need what a mortal creature would require for such a journey. There was nothing around them for miles, only golden sand contrasting with the clear blue sky like a rainbow bleached of all colours, save two. It seemed like such a hopeless and barren landscape but between his hoof beats he could see small creatures slipping out of view as the pair approached. Even the air itself was alive, shimmering like water in the heat.
They stopped during the hottest part of the day for Jazan's sake. Hathim stood guard while the prince slept in the shadow of one of the many dunes. The Uni was almost grateful for his current form as it allowed them to travel quickly towards Sakhmet. Sometimes Hathim would ask if Jazan needed more rest, but the latter always declined with a strained smile. The Uni knew it was best not to press the point.
As they came closer to water, the land around them suddenly came to life. Plants bloomed and fat animals grazed on the lushness of the land. There was very little sand around, only mud which was black as a void. When they finally reached the snaking river, Jazan sank down on his knees and plunged his hands into it, savouring the cool, sweet stroking of the water. Hathim stood to the side, watching his friend and suppressing the feeling of envy. His implacability came at a price.
The Kyrii finally got up from the river's edge and put his hands on Hathim, whispering a few words. Hathim felt the tingle of magic around him and watched as he transformed into his old blue colour. His wings grew back the feathers which he had lost to the sands and bandages drew in only to be replaced with velvety fur. It was an illusion, although it was one that would fool anybody as they crossed the river, but at the same time, the Uni felt a twinge of longing in his heart as he admired himself in the water. He was beginning to understand what the curse had really taken.
They crossed the river on the next ferry without any incident. The small gaggle of merchants that were their fellow passengers paid no attention to the mysterious pair beyond trying to sell them some goods which they both politely declined. Wild birds weaved and sang in among the reeds on the other bank, engaged in a dance with the creatures beneath the water. To Hathim it was a mesmerising view, so different from the dusty streets of Qasala. Jazan paid them no attention, although it was unclear whether this was due to him seeing it all before or his thoughts being elsewhere.
From the river it was not long until the pair saw the domes rising above the walls of Sakhmet. Hathim kept walking on but out of the corner of his eye he absorbed their majesty. The green of the river-soaked earth had once again faded into the brown sand but the city seemed like a reflection of the desert itself, sandstone crowned with gold orbs. It was a truly beautiful place.
However, Hathim did not let himself to be distracted for too long by the city. Together, he and Jazan went through the great archway that was the main gate, along with all other visitors. Jazan clutched Hathim's harness for comfort and eyed the crowd around them. Thankfully, neither those visitors nor the guards by the gate paid much attention to them, to the Kyrii's great relief. They had arrived. With luck, the solution to the curse was here.
Up close, the city looked much less clean than from the distance. Colourful cloths hung off houses or obscured windows. Vendors thronged the passages, trying to sell their goods to anybody who passed by. Performers crowded the street corners, either doing tricks or playing music for tips. Dust, chatter and life were everywhere and yet, it felt like a mask. Broken boxes, wood splinters and burn marks all over the buildings indicated that not too long ago, this place was a warzone. Hathim felt himself shiver. What had happened here?
However, as they turned towards the Sakhmet library, Jazan suddenly felt a tug at his purse. A tiny snap heralded the thief's victory as a brown Zafara ran into an alley. Hathim chased after her, spurred on by anger at the thought that she would even dream of stealing from them. Jazan cried out after him but the Uni did not hear.
She was quick and clearly knew the city, turning down alleyways that lead Hathim further into the maze that was Sakhmet. Yet much to his amazement, it was impossible for him to lose sight of her. There was always a flick of a tail as she turned into an alley or a quick glimpse of the cloth of her dark green trousers. It was as if the skinny Zafara was leading him somewhere.
Their chase ended in a dead end. Unlike the bustle of the main street, this place contained only silence. The pickpocket turned around and looked right at him. Hathim gasped. Her eyes were completely frosted over with dull silver. The Uni never thought eyes like these could exist. He had seen many blind elderly in Qasala but none of their eyes ever looked like that.
"Looking for me?" the Zafara asked. Despite her blindness, her gaze was vicious, almost hostile. Hathim, however, refused to be scared of a common thief.
"Yes, I am. Give the money back, it belongs to my friend!" he shouted at her, trying to keep all traces of Song out of his voice. The Uni was not keen on harming a blind Zafara, no matter what she did to them.
"Money? You think I'm doing this for something so silly? This was bait to get you both away from the crowds. You think I haven't seen through your disguise?" she laughed at him, Hathim's stomach flipped over in terror but he controlled himself.
"D-disguise?" he asked tentatively. The Zafara's fur bristled like dry grass in the wind.
"Do you take me for a fool? I can feel the evil you bring into my temple, the same kind of evil that I fought not so long ago. But I defeated it then and I shall defeat you now!" she cried. The Uni looked at her as if she was mad. Evil? Temple? He wanted to explain that they had nothing to do with that but she was in no mood for words.
The Zafara ran at him and leapt up, intending to land on him and deliver a blow from above. Hathim ran out of the way, narrowly dodging her strike. She was clearly well-versed in the dirty art of street fighting. He needed to survive.
Undeterred, the Zafara continued to fight. Crouching low, she charged at him like an unstoppable flow of lava. Hathim lowered his horn to anticipate her attack but she was relying on it. Like an acrobat, the Zafara leapt up and grabbed hold of it, landing on Hathim's back in the process. Such a precise move could never be performed by one who was as blind as she appeared. Vicious punches were thrown at his back and although he felt no pain, the Uni flinched instinctively with each blow. He flailed and slapped at her with his wings, ramming her into one of the walls in an attempt to get her off.
The Zafara jumped off before he could throw her off and spun around, aiming the powerful kick at Hathim's neck. However, she missed and instead hit his leg with enough force to send a man crying in pain. In that instant, like broken glass, Jazan's spell of disguise fell away to unmask the Uni's true form. He looked at it in momentary shock. A smile formed on the Zafara's face.
"I doubt you can explain that away, Uni. It's ok, though, I'll defeat you too quickly for you to need an explanation," she said gloatingly. Hathim gritted his teeth.
"Just what are you anyway? Why are you attacking me without even letting me say a word? Yes I look different but that's because of a-"
"You know the answer to those questions or else you wouldn't be here. I'm the Earth Guardian and you are trying to gain control of my temple to get into Nuria's temple, just as that creature was not too long ago! Or are you too brainwashed by your master to realise that?" she screamed and resumed her attack, hitting him with her leg and her tail. The Uni weaved his way away from both strikes but the Zafara was persistent. Other blows rained down on Hathim like hot sand in a storm. He could no longer endure restraint or try to avoid fighting her. The Uni stood up on his hind legs and brought his front down upon her, sending her sprawling on the ground.
The Zafara got up, a look of surprise briefly snaking across her face. It was soon replaced by a scowl. She was not even dazed by the blow. Her kick up was barely dodged by Hathim. However, as she threw a punch at him, the Uni saw his chance to strike. Her fist went just above his head. The Uni thrust his horn up. Brown fur landed on his muzzle as he struck.
The Zafara looked at her arm. She burst out laughing, each spasm as menacing as the rumble of an earthquake. She turned to the bemused Hathim and held her arm up. He gasped. Beneath the coat of brown fur there was the unmistakeable glint of silver.
"That was very silly," the Zafara said, menace dripping from her words. The brown fur began to rush back across her body, disappearing like mud from a buried treasure to reveal her silver frame. She flexed her fingers and folded them into a fist, an insane smile growing on her face. Hathim tasted fear. He had no other option left.
Opening his mouth, the Uni sang. The sound rushed from his mouth and spiralled around her, enveloping the Zafara in a cocoon of noise. She only stood there, grinning. Hathim sang louder until it felt as though the world was full of the Song but the Zafara remained unaffected.
"Fool. To destroy a soul, you must make sure there is a soul in the first place," she said triumphantly and leapt at him. Hathim reared away from her but she kicked out at his legs, sending the Uni crashing towards the ground. He scrambled up just in time to avoid another blow.
He landed a kick but the Zafara absorbed it easily. She did not even move or try to block it. Every blow that Hathim dealt she either dodged or did not feel. The silver bore dents from the hardest hits but it did not faze her. He stopped his attack briefly. Instantly, she lashed out at him. He tried to duck but she was obviously expecting it and landed a powerful kick on Hathim's body. The Uni had awoken an unstoppable force.
He did not feel tired but it was clear that she did not either. But his bones and bandages was nowhere near as sturdy as the metal golem attacking him. Hathim knew he could only hold off the inevitable defeat.
With each blow that hit him, the Zafara's triumphant grin grew wider. Hathim found himself defending from her relentless attacks. With every moment, she became more and more bloodthirsty. She tore off his bandages, exposing the bones beneath. The Uni's morale drained away in the face of this merciless attacker.
She kicked his legs with full force. The Uni swayed, unable to keep his balance. Instantly, the Zafara knew she had delivered the critical blow. Hathim fell over on the ground, unable to move. She stood over him, savouring triumph. The Earth Guardian raised her hand to take him out.
Fire blasted all along the top of the alley, missing Hathim but catching the Zafara. She tore herself away from the Uni and looked up. Jazan was standing at the entrance of the narrow passage, flickers of flame in his hand.
"Step away from him," he said, anger shining in his eyes. The Zafara smiled slyly.
"Well, well, thank you for saving me the trouble of looking for you," she said, her voice taking on a dangerously silky texture. Turning around, she flicked her tail a few times. Jazan didn't move.
Hathim, despite lying on the ground, attempted one final attack, kicking at her feet trying to send the Zafara off-balance. He slammed into her, creating several dents in her silver form but she did not topple.
"You are very stubborn, aren't you?" she asked. Her foot connected with Hathim's side, the force of the blow sending him down. He lay there, unable to get up. He could tell just by looking that she had damaged him quite badly.
Lightning exploded from Jazan's hands, surging all around the Zafara. It entered through her head, her fingers, her eyes and her legs. It travelled through unhindered into the trampled ground. Her actions became slower as her face contorted with an unfamiliar sensation. Yet she kept moving towards Jazan as unstoppably as a fissure in the ground cracking during an earthquake.
He applied more power to the spell, channelling his anger into the electricity. Parts of the Earth Guardian glowed red hot from the exposure to heat but she was implacable. She kept coming closer to Jazan, never giving up.
He took one step back for every step she walked towards him. Yet soon, the Kyrii's back ended up against the wall of the house opposite the alley. The Zafara closed in, anger mixing in with her pain. Jazan ran around her, applying more power to the lightning.
Suddenly, as if drained of everything, the Guardian collapsed on the ground, whimpering weakly. She was so much like a child. Jazan stopped the flow of lightning, unable to watch the sad display that she was putting on.
The Kyrii went over to Hathim to see the extent of the damage. Yet as he went back into the alley, footsteps sounded behind him. Jazan only had time to turn around before he was flung onto the ground. Any breath that he had was knocked out of him in an instant. The Earth Guardian had pinned him down, holding his arms apart so he could not cast any spells.
"I never thought you'd fall for that. Guess I was wrong," she said gloatingly. Hathim flailed and struggled to get to Jazan but his body did not respond.
"Jazan!" he screamed helplessly as the Earth Guardian raised her fist.
She suddenly stopped, her eyes widening. The Zafara's shifted aside some of Jazan's robe and brought out Nuria's amulet. The scowl came back into her face but it was a mask criss-crossed by doubt.
"How'd you take this?" she asked Jazan. He breathed a few times, getting just enough air in his lungs to speak.
"I... I... was given... this by a boy... as I left... Qasala," Jazan wheezed, still recovering. The Zafara got up and looked at them both. Brown fur slowly covered her silver body as she reached out and took Jazan's hand. He took it with great distrust but did not resist as she lifted him to his feet. Hathim raised an eyebrow.
"Why've you suddenly stopped trying to kill us? Couldn't we have stolen or bought it?" the Uni shouted almost angrily at her. The Zafara whipped her head around in his direction.
"That would be impossible. The amulets on sale are cheap imitations and stealing one would not be wise. You'd be invoking too much wrath. As you are not Nuria's Servants, you had to be given this by one of them, which means you must be trustworthy. Servants don't usually make mistakes that aren't very quickly corrected, for better or for worse," she stated, trying to keep her voice neutral. Both Hathim and Jazan stared at her.
"Who are Nuria's Servants? How do you know all this?" Jazan asked. The Zafara scanned them with her eyes
"Don't you think we should see to your friend first?" she said coolly, changing the subject. The Kyrii looked at Hathim. He was badly beaten up with many parts of his rotted bandages hanging loose or lying scattered around him.
"What can you do?" Jazan asked cynically. The Zafara smirked.
"Wait here," she told them and ran off into the streets. The Kyrii sat down by Hathim and stroked his friend's neck. The Uni felt no pain but to lie in the dirt helpless humiliated him just as much. Jazan crawled over to him and stroked his mane, trying to give some comfort.
"Do you think we can trust her?" Jazan asked him. Hathim looked him in the eye.
"She isn't a friend but I am fairly certain she isn't a foe, not anymore. Besides, if she has any information that could help us find a cure for this curse, we have to," he said with sincerity but at the same time, tried to convince himself it was the right thing.
The Zafara returned a few hours later, carrying several wads of bandages as well as sticky goo for Hathim's bones and a couple of Tchea fruits for Jazan. The Kyrii looked at her sceptically.
"Don't worry. I have an arrangement with the local merchants. They weren't stolen," she replied. Jazan took the fruit cautiously and regarded them with much suspicion for a long time but hunger won. The Kyrii took a small bite out of the first one. The Zafara, satisfied with this progress, went over to Hathim.
She knelt down beside him and began feeling his bones, applying the sticky goo to damaged areas. Bare bones were clothed with fresh bandages that would hold his body together. The Guardian worked efficiently but caringly, a statue and a living being at the same time. Hathim almost felt bad for speaking and interrupting her.
"Are you... completely made out of silver?" he asked tentatively, looking for any change in the Zafara's face.
"Yes, I am. Finest Qasalan silver," she replied. Jazan's eyes widened.
"You are?! I knew our city's economy depends on the metals we mine from the sand and the cliffs but I never thought you were all made from what we mined!"
"This desert is a lot wealthier than you can ever imagine," the Zafara interrupted him. The prince lowered his head and resumed eating.
"So, ...this whole city.... Does it belong to you? Are you like the true ruler?" said Hathim, changing the subject.
"No, it's just my home. However, I'm bound to it by my guardianship, as all guardians are," she replied without looking up from her work.
"Oh yes, you didn't answer my questions earlier. Who are Nuria's servants?" Jazan broke his silence, finishing his Tchea fruit but leaving the second one alone.
"Nuria's Servants take care of Nuria's Temple, but only a small number do that. Mostly they're roaming all over the desert, gathering wisdom. There are lots and lots of them that are travelling outside the city, to help people in need."
"Mmm, I see. And how many creatures like you are there?"
"Six guardians, one for each elemental temple. It's unknown how many Nuria's servants are out there."
"Do you think you could help us? We-" Jazan stopped as the Zafara turned and looked directly at him.
"I can't help you with your curse. No books will be able to help you either. However, you could try asking the other Guardians. Many of them are wiser than a thing like me. Even if that fails, they would lead you to the Temple of Nuria. It's likely to contain an answer," she replied and did up the last of Hathim's bandage. He stood up tentatively and moved his limbs as if expecting them to break at any moment. Yet the Earth Guardian had done her job well; the bandages strained but they did not break.
"Thank you," he said kindly to her. She smiled a little.
"It's the least I could do,"
"So, how do we find the other guardians?" Jazan asked impatiently. The Zafara turned back to him.
"To find the Water Guardian, you must follow the river upstream 'til you come to the first oasis. She's there," she recited as if by rote. "The others, I don't know."
"Thank you," Jazan said with a small bow.
"But you're not going out to the desert without proper equipment. If you wait here, I'll get you everything you'll need, again by special arrangement," the Guardian said hurriedly and ran off without even waiting for an answer. Jazan stood there, his annoyance at being denied the right to reply subtly showing through.
"Don't worry, Jazan, I think she'll keep her word," Hathim said as he trotted up to his friend. The Kyrii sighed.
"I hope you're right," he sighed and sat down, with every expectation of leaving soon.
"By the way, that was good magic."
"Thank you. I wonder, though..."
"About your father?"
"Yes. I wonder if he would have approved... if he were still alive."
"Why does it matter?"
"Don't know. But for some reason, it does. He's kept a firm grip on me all his life and I just cannot accept that it's gone."
The Zafara returned sooner than expected with food, water and white robes for Jazan.
"Trust me, you're going to need them if you're going to travel deep into the desert," she said with a hint of metal in her voice. Reluctantly he took them. They felt cold on his skin, unlike the royal robes that he wore. He quickly changed into them, keeping a firm gaze on the Zafara.
"Thank you for all this," Hathim said while the Prince was getting dressed. Her faint smile appeared again.
"Don't mention it; I owe it you for attacking like that. You don't have to show the amulet to the others, by the way, they know by now. But even so, they'll have to test you."
"Test?" Jazan piped up, examining his new robes. "And I was really hoping that they wouldn't go for something as old as that."
The Zafara shrugged and smiled a little. Hathim bowed to her politely and she bowed back. Jazan only nodded and leapt onto Hathim's back, once again giving him the disguise of being a normal pet. The Uni ran at a fair pace as he headed towards the city gates. The Zafara picked up the prince's black robes and stashed them away for him. Giving the pair her final glance, the Earth Guardian disappeared once more into her city while Hathim and Jazan trekked out into the desert to meet the Water Guardian.
An invisible shadow trailed along behind them.
To be continued...