The Fate of Dust and Fire: Part Ten
Even though it was ruined and partially buried by sand, the temple was still a magnificent structure. Its stone face was a landmark known throughout the desert and as a result used as a navigational aid by travellers and nomadic tribes. Yet they never came too close to it. Whenever somebody tried to approach the temple, the sands would grow hot and the air around them became stifling. The temple shimmered in the distance as though it was trying to hide. Most pets were usually discouraged, sensing some kind of discomfort at their presence, although they could never understand where it came from. The brave souls who dared to venture closer could never reach its doors: the temple always appeared to take two steps back for each step they took. Many went by it but few went near it.
It was the first difference that Hathim and Jazan noticed when they came near the Temple of a Thousand Tombs. Even though nothing looked different, the temple nevertheless felt more open towards them and much more willing to let them get close. Hathim carefully walked forward on the sand but nothing changed. It felt the same beneath his feet, rippling slightly like a pond when struck by a stone but remaining firm, never hostile. Gaining more confidence, the Uni went further forward.
Jazan's gaze drifted in the direction of Qasala. Normally from this distance, you would see the spires of the city breaking through the monotony of the sands yet even though he had his back to the sun, he couldn't see them. The prince twitched as the wound of losing Qasala to the curse reopened, like a thin layer of sand blown away from a tomb.
"We'll get it back, Jazan. It'll be alright," Hathim said gently, looking up at his friend. The Kyrii smiled and nodded but his eyes were the dull, distant eyes of a man who was holding back misery. The Uni turned away and plodded on towards the temple, hoping that his words wouldn't come back to bite him later.
They reached the stone doors of the temple without exchanging another word between them. Hathim looked at the riddle carved into the door. Even though the Uni knew that the symbols were anchored firmly in the stone, his eyes told him that the edges shimmered as though they were a desert mirage. Jazan however, knew the illusion well. The words would change depending on who viewed them. A faint smile appeared on the Kyrii's face. He had tormented the servants to no end when he had learnt that spell, back when he was a child. Of course, his father had scolded him for that every time, using harsher methods than most ordinary children experience.
The smile faded.
"Hathim, just open it," he asked quietly and the Uni nodded. 'Place the Faerie token below the riddle,' the Light Guardian had said. He lifted his front hoof and let the flames lick the stone. They tentatively tasted it before exploding through the cracks like a flood spreads through streets. Hopefully the flames of the token would be enough to open the door.
From inside the stone temple, there came a sound like wheat being crushed between grinding stones. It was joined by dull roaring and a chorus of clicking. Hathim tore his hoof away from the stone and hurriedly moved himself between the temple and Jazan. Both of them watched it with wide eyes, sharing different degrees of fear, confusion and a little hope. Even though it was no longer touched by the token, the sound inside the temple continued like a great beast stretching its muscles.
After what seemed like forever, it stopped. Once again, the temple and the sands around it were silent. The two friends however, did not dare to make a move. After all the Guardians and their tricks, they did not want to take any chances with this.
Sandals slapped the sand behind them. Both Hathim and Jazan whirled around, their pulses quickening like thunder at the perceived threat.
It was the Gelert boy, the one who gave Jazan his amulet. Nuria's servant. With him was the old Acara who sent them to Sakhmet in the first place. He was supported by the Gelert, although he gave the impression that the support was more of a courtesy than a necessity. As they approached the pair, the boy grinned while the old man nodded at them, not meeting their gaze.
"Hello," the Uni exclaimed, smiling kindly at the two pets facing them. The Gelert bowed to them both. His eyes dashed around behind them as if he was looking for something.
"Hello. I knew it was you as soon as I felt the temple shift but... where's the Darkness Guardian?"
"Not here," Jazan replied. The Gelert boy looked at him as if he was mad. Hathim, despite himself, grinned.
"She didn't need to come. I'm the Fire Guardian now so I could open the temple on my own."
At this, the Acara's eyes widened. The Gelert let him go and dropped down into the sand on his knees. Jazan's eyebrows lifted up in amusement at this display. Hathim just stared at the boy prostrate at his feet.
"No... need for... well, that," he finally stuttered out, embarrassed at this sudden worship. The boy got up and Hathim dusted him off with his mane.
"I'm sorry. I did not mean to make you feel awkward. It's necessary to bow to all Guardians for us Nuria's Servants," he replied and covered his mouth, looking fearfully at Jazan. The Kyrii looked at the boy in a way which was almost annoyed.
"We know you're a Nuria's Servant. The Earth Guardian told us all about you when I showed her the amulet you gave me. Useful thing, although strangely enough, I didn't need it once we got past her. So please, don't bother with the secrecy act," he said in a dry tone. "Plus, Qasalan subjects shouldn't hide secrets as big as this from their king. If you are my subject, that is,"
"Yes, your Majesty. I was born in Qasala and my employ as a servant to the Desert Faerie does not negate that," the Gelert replied, punctuating his words with a curt bow. "The amulet really was just so you could get past her though. I doubted that the Earth Guardian would have been kind to you in your cursed forms."
"I see. Well, thank you," Jazan said. He smiled a little, although his tone wouldn't support it. The Gelert boy began to bow but he stopped half way and instead nodded respectfully.
"Your journey is about to end. Come inside with me," the boy said and walked confidently across the sand towards Hathim. The Uni regarded him with curiosity and watched him for indications of what he would do next.
"Put your hoof on the riddle now. The temple will open," the Gelert told him. Hathim nodded and walked with caution towards the doorway. He put his hoof where he was told to, watching the flames assume the shape of the words for a split second before dissipating again, as though uncertain that this is where they should be. He however, did not mirror the fire's feelings. The Uni was brimming with anticipation. A brief look at Jazan betrayed little of the Kyrii's mind but Hathim could sense that his friend was even more excited than he was. But that was only part of what Jazan felt: he was also afraid of what they would find inside the temple, what more they would have to sacrifice to lift the curse.
With a groan, the temple door opened to reveal a long hallway made out of sandstone, different from the grey stone outer shell of the temple. Hathim gingerly stepped inside it, flinching slightly at first at the unfamiliar sound of his hooves striking stone. After a week of travelling through the desert, he had grown used to walking on sand instead of rock. The Gelert boy grinned at him and skipped a few steps before he almost seemed to remember himself and walk over to where Hathim was. He then turned around and gestured to Jazan, beckoning him to come inside. The prince did his best to look as regal as he possibly could and followed them.
"Wait!" the old Acara, who everyone had ignored during the conversation, called out to them. "Please take me inside with you."
"I don't... think that'd be right," the Gelert replied hesitantly, playing with the end of his ear as if nervous. Jazan turned and looked him in the eye.
"Well, I don't want to leave one of my subjects alone in the desert. Besides, you brought him with you!"
"He insisted on coming."
"It wouldn't hurt, I mean, to bring him in, right?" Hathim interjected. The boy glanced at the Uni briefly before nodding. He clearly could not refuse a Guardian.
The old Acara smiled and hobbled over to join their party. The Gelert looked at him for a long time before reluctantly turning away and continuing down the tunnel, slowing down a little for his elder.
They only walked a few steps before the door shut quietly behind them. The tunnel, however, instead of being submerged into darkness, lit up as though the desert sun had suddenly risen above them. Hathim gasped and looked around in fascination. Jazan pragmatically scanned the walls for torches but he could see none. Every grain of the sandstone around them was shining like a tiny sun, each one trying to outdo its neighbours. The high walls and the wide floors were lined with this shining sand but somehow, it wasn't too bright to be uncomfortable. It was just beautiful.
This corridor seemed to go on for miles but the party found themselves taking no time at all to traverse it. They emerged in a chamber that was made out of the same grey stone as the outside of the temple. Crudely carved rectangular stones were stacked on top of one another to create the walls, their untidiness contrasting with the perfectly carved pillars in each corner which fanned out at the top and joined seamlessly with the ceiling. Standing in the middle of all this was a statue of a fire Faerie in the traditional garb of the Lost Desert, her hand clasped around a bit of flame as though she had just caught a falling star. The pose was heroic, a queen greeting her subjects. A ray of light shone down from above, illuminating the statue and highlighting every metallic impurity in the rock, making it glitter as though with magic. There was a symbol on the pedestal beneath her feet which shimmered like a mirage. Hathim gasped in wonder as his eyes took it all in. Jazan was more restrained but looking at his face, you could tell that he too was enchanted by this simple room. The Gelert stood back, letting them enjoy the sight.
"Put your hoof on the symbol, firmly. It will recognise your Guardianship and open the heart of the temple. It will also provide you with a scroll that says what you must do," the boy stated after a while. Jazan raised his eyebrows.
"A scroll? Is that all we're getting? I honestly expected something more... impressive when it came to Nuria giving answers instead of something like a carnival fortune-teller," he said with amusement. The Gelert glared at him.
"Perhaps, but when it comes to prophecies, scrolls tend to be more useful. People sometimes forget what was said," he replied icily. Jazan shrugged and turned to Hathim, giving him a small nod. Hathim walked forward towards the statue.
Something changed in the temple. The Uni tensed as his instincts felt a threat he couldn't see. Out of the corner of his eye, he looked back at the rest of the party. Jazan and the Gelert were looking at him with some confusion but the old Acara who came with them had his eyes on the ground. His shadow was longer and darker, even though there had been no change in the light in the room.
"Go on, little one. Don't hesitate," were the words that came from the old man's mouth. It felt as though somebody had grabbed the Uni's spine. It took every bit of will he had not to show any reaction, let alone restrain himself from bolting.
The voice did not belong to the Acara. It was trying to sound like an old man's voice but it was young, feminine and distant, like the words were being spoken from afar. Whatever it was, the old Acara was no longer himself.
To be continued...