“We do not have a guardian here,” the priestess tells Ike, bowing apologetically. Her robes are of the deepest blues, sweeping across the stone grounds in compelling mimicry of ocean waves. “They’ve been missing for the better part of a century.”
“Missing,” Ike repeats, then turns to look at the massive temple grounds. There are twin statues at the entrance, tall, intertwined structures of blue jade that seem as though they could come to life. The smell of the sea washes through the temple, comforting despite the last remnants of winter chill. As if in response to the breeze, the statues glint in the sunlight, twisting silver like the arc of steel, swaying from side to side like ships over gentle waves. He blinks, and they are still once more.
He faces the priestess again, eyeing the kind face. No malevolence there, and the smile is genuine enough.
“You wish to meet with one, do you not?” she asks. “They are quite difficult to persuade into appearing before us.”
“From here,” Ike says, “which would be the closest?”
“We are dedicated to the temple here, of the East.” With another humble bow, the monastic gestures to the clay and wooden buildings, stone arches, painted flowers. Blue beads clatter around her neck, echoing those strung upon her neck. “You can either branch to the South, where the fire bird dwells, or to the North, where the winter tortoise rests.”
Ike has traveled long enough to know that creatures associated with fire either tend to be very unpredictable, or terrifying in might, or even both. He is curious to know what the temperance of fire’s cardinal opposite is like.
“I will seek an audience with the guardian of the North,” he decides.
The priestess gifts him with a charm of black jade, so dark he can scarce see his distorted reflection on its polished half. It sits heavily in his hand, warm to the touch. On the other half, the texture is similar to that of rough scales, tugging just so at his skin when he runs his finger the wrong way. He’s sure that in the soft palm of a child, the stone would cut deep enough to draw blood.
“Safe journeys,” the priestess smiles. The sound of the seas follows him even as he ventures to the mountains, ringing in time with the temple bells behind him.
At a nondescript, barren shrine, there are many porcelain bowls adrift a small pond. The wind ushers them in a circular movement, hypnotizing and calming. They sound like bells, varying in tone as they do in size, though perhaps a bit more hollow, more melancholy. There is something eerie in their odd discord and harmony—the space around the shrine is empty, almost as lonely as it is hallowed. He feels like—an intruder, loud and clumsy within the chimes’ watery melody.
He reaches out to touch one of the smaller ones, but freezes when the harsh cry of a bird startles him. Ike stares a moment at the crow that has decided to watch him closely, and thinks against disturbing the strange tranquil of the water bells.
The crow continues to train its beady eyes on him, but he moves on.
It is colder, up in the mountains. Ike had expected the drop in temperature, but still finds the chill a bit too biting on his bare arms, through his ragged cloak. When Ike pulls his sword out of the disintegrating corpse on the ground, perturbed at the progression of miasma through its waiflike body, his breath clouds the air before him.
He prods at the uneven gash on his forearm, pulls his hand away to examine his bloodied fingers. Oddly enough, though he knows most corruption in these poor creatures to be contagious, he has sustained injury without any trace of dark, crooked energy stemming from his wounds. It must be the protection from the talisman he carries. His purging herbs lay unused in one of his pouches, bound tightly in worn leather and string.
He eyes the corpse further down the mountain, now but a bland stain upon the rock. It disappears soon enough.
As Ike walks further up the mountain, his chest feels tight as the air grows thin. He wraps bandages around his arms as a means of making up for his thin dress, even tugging his cloak tighter around himself for warmth. He has stopped shivering, but something still isn’t quite enough. From this perplexing ache, he has made a habit of running his fingers over the talisman, both smooth and rough halves, wondering why it is so that such a simple behavior could calm him.
There is another small shrine with the same arrangement of water bells, but the pond has frozen over. Instead, an odd silence permeates the waters, the white bells a clutter of ugly flaws upon the pond’s smooth, icy surface. This time, when he reaches to touch one of the bells, he stops himself at the sensation of eyes on him.
There is but a slow-moving tortoise upon the pond banks, yet when he turns around after seeing nothing else around him, there is a man standing upon the ice. He is barefoot within the circle of the bells frozen in place, and stalks closer once Ike has met his ebony, depthless eyes.
“I’d assumed a weapon of such size would be clumsy and ill-suited for real combat,” the man says, fingers sharp and cold against Ike’s skin. His eyes flicker towards Ike’s for a moment, shining with the reflection of crags and white skies, before returning to the skin beneath his hand. “But you wield it quite well.”
Ike stays very still, watching as the snake wound around the man’s neck tastes the chilly air. Fingertips still prick at his arm, curious and half-threatening, prodding at the hastily-wrapped bandages around Ike’s arms. There is no snowfall around this time of year at this altitude, but suddenly he feels as though there is ice on his skin, snow in his hair.
Finally, the man steps back, head tilted to the side. Enough of his neck is exposed that Ike can see black scales trailing from his jaw to his collarbones, and lower. Bracelets and necklaces of delicate gold, garlands of black jade.
“You watched me kill those ferals,” he says cautiously, unnerved at how black eyes—with irises like pools of blood—never seem to leave him. There has been many a feral on his way here, a testament to the weakening boundaries. He wonders how long he has been watched. Maybe ever since he’d first stepped into the mountains? At the shrine in the lower ranges?
“Recent times have not seen many visitors to my home,” the guardian muses. “You seek the black tortoise, do you not?”
Ike takes a step back from the pond, away from the dark, dark robes that seem to follow footsteps like portent shadows, like subdued demons. It is as though they are in fact a living darkness, deep enough to swallow him whole and think nothing of it. “I was told you do not show your face often.”
“Indeed,” he agrees, then grins lazily. His tongue is black, his teeth are sharp. There is no amusement in his gaze, but something hungrier, something ravenous. “But good displays of strength are always a sure way of getting my attention.”
“Displays of strength,” Ike echoes.
“Come closer,” the guardian says, stepping outside the circle towards him, and suddenly Ike cannot move. Those eyes are beguiling, dangerous, glimmering as all precious stones and fresh blood do in light. “I am Lon’qu, and I find your strength worth keeping.”
Even higher up the mountains, where the crunch of dried leaves and bramble softens into deadening snow, Ike does not feel the cold. It may have something to do with how the guardian is quite insistent on keeping one hand on him, fingers curled enough that thick claws dig into Ike’s skin. It might just be a matter of nerves—a mixture of dread and anticipation that hones in on the danger beside him. While they cut through bits of forest and crags and he rends beasts into dust, he feels strangely naïve and small, like it is once again his first time he’d swung his sword at a live enemy.
On one occasion, the guardian simply plunges his hands into a creature’s chest, pulls the still-beating heart out, and crushes it within his palm. He drops the bruised organ, opens his mouth to lick at the blood on his fingers, and Ike looks away. Terror quickens his pulse, but interest compels him to stay.
Lon’qu leads him past a crumbling gate and into an overrun temple. He sees mighty bronze bells, some marred with cracks like lightning, overgrown with moss and persistent flowers. The structures that might’ve housed monks are collapsed upon each other, splintered wood over clay over rubble. An old stone lanterns glows with sudden light, an odd luminescence that reminds Ike of haloed moonlight through clouds. The place is so haunted, so desolate; he almost expects phantoms to slither out from the debris.
Despite the state of the ruins, there are still lingering traces of incense in the air.
“This is your home?” Ike asks, wondering if he sounds disrespectful.
“The mountains are my home,” Lon’qu replies, miffed, and with a simple gesture, straightens the stone column at their feet. The stone path clears with mystic wind, lanterns flaring brightly in succession. “Surely you’d not rather sleep in the snow?”
Realizing he’s been given a place to stay, Ike shakes his head.
“But first,” the guardian says, walking away and expecting Ike to follow. His footsteps glow momentarily white, as though he’s leaving a trail of stars. “You will rid of your awful smell. Such uncleanliness is appalling in sacred ground.”
After Ike steps out from the peculiar spring, dressed once again in his dirty clothes, but his skin scrubbed clean and dirt cleaned out from under his fingernails, he finds that his injuries have vanished.
“You took me to a healing spring,” he says.
“A purification spring,” Lon’qu corrects pointedly. “Had you ill intent, you would not be standing before me.” He seems to reconsider this, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully. “Well, not as a living human, in any case.”
Ike now realizes that many of the statues in the temple seem remarkably… human in shape. Ossified mementos of those who had once been.
“It is late,” Lon’qu says after a moment of Ike’s stunned silence. He runs fingers idly down the snake still perched upon his shoulder. Despite all the shadows, his eyes are alight, fiery pinpoints in the dark. “I will see you in the morning.”
“Oh,” Ike says long after the guardian has vanished.
He’d expected something less forsaken, he supposes, hadn’t stopped to think that there might be gods with no prayers to answer, no wishes to grant. After traveling through lands with statues of deities adorned piously with gold, he hadn’t known there could one so bitter, so reckless and covetous of power. A black tortoise seems more gentle than a flaming bird would, but perhaps he’d vastly misjudged.
He can still remember the blood dripping down Lon’qu’s hand, dark and viscous and fetid.
Ike sleeps with his cloak pulled tight around his shoulders, preferring the smell of sweat and earth over that of an empty sanctum.
Mornings are cold, here, despite the beginnings of spring greenery and blossoms.
At the entrance of fallen, crumbling effigies, smokes billow from Lon’qu’s lips. Lon’qu blows a stream straight into Ike’s face when he’s close enough, and he chokes on the pungent smell—bitter and sweet, cloying at the back of his throat. Once he recovers, however, he notices Lon’qu covering his mouth with one hand, coughing slightly as if also unused to the thick taste of smoke.
“Do not,” Lon’qu seethes.
“Yen’fay can do it,” Lon’qu grumbles, chewing viciously at the end of the pipe. The metal bends easily, riddled with dents as he continues to grind his teeth. “Even Say’ri can do it.”
“Uh,” Ike says, staring at the clean white of Lon’qu’s sharp teeth, how they peek out slightly from under his lips. Smoke still idles in the air, but instead of noticing how it shimmers gold in the sunlight, all he can see is how Lon’qu’s lips turn downwards as he frowns, how his dark eyes narrow with frustration. He flinches when Lon’qu pauses to fix him with a sharp glare.
“What,” Lon’qu says.
You’re kind of beautiful when you’re angry, Ike is about to say, in a scary, godlike way. But he thinks better of it and keeps silent. He looks to the side, still unsettled at the startling void of Lon’qu’s gaze. Eventually, the guardian stows the pipe in one of his sleeves, the movement causing the hilt of his sword to catch light—silver and blinding; Ike has many similar memories, most of brazen warriors and the glint of weapons in battle.
Lon’qu must notice how he tenses, for his eyes flicker to the sword at Ike’s side. The snake unravels from his neck, moving leisurely down his arm.
“You come to me without offerings,” he says amusedly. “Perhaps you have come to give me your sword?”
It is easy for a normal person to understand the power within such a blade—must be even easier for a divine being to feel and taste the energy hammered into its edge.
“I’d searched for the dragon of the East,” he says instead. “But the warden claim they’ve been missing.”
“Missing,” Lon’qu says, not quite disdainfully, but not fondly, either. “Locked away, to be more precise, bound by the very people who worship her.”
Ike frowns. “Can you not free her?”
“Spring moves on without her,” Lon’qu says idly. “I do not meddle in the other guardians’ affairs.”
“Surely you care for the wellbeing of Eastern villages?” Ike seats himself on a fallen pillar, fiddling with the edges of his cloak. The red material is familiar, a far cry from home, but the closest that he has. “Without their guardian, more corrupted beasts will hound the lands.”
“Perhaps,” Lon’qu says, and his voice is cold. “They have enough warriors. Were you not also drawn in by the seas? Tempted by those glittering waters and their peoples?” He shakes his head once, twice. “No. They do not need my help.”
“Enough,” Lon’qu says, just as a dark cloud passes over. He is a menacing shadow, two-headed and vicious. “Draw your sword.”
“Draw your sword,” Lon’qu repeats, bristling. “If you have nothing else to offer me, then give me your strength!”
Ike remembers—he has fought and triumphed a god’s fury before. There is no gentleness, no forgiveness, and certainly no compassion. He cannot tell whether the power behind the guardian’s sword is a vendetta against the august, against those with dedicated paeans and followers, or whether it is simple desperation.
The blessed blade is light in his hands. He parries, and finds that there is fear in his heart; Lon’qu’s eyes hold no mercy.
A short walk from the desecrated temple, Lon’qu drops another dried branch onto a pile of tinder. Ike watches as he drags his nails harshly across the scales of his arm. Sparks fall into the heap, and the wood quickly bursts into flame. The sound of blackening tinder is rough, not unpleasant, but jarring enough that Ike has to hold back a wince.
The resulting blaze is nearly as tall as Lon’qu, crackling and warming the chill in Ike’s bones. It sways slightly, as if indecisive of its appearance, before diminishing into the shape of a prim, straight-backed woman.
“Say’ri,” Lon’qu says.
“Lon’qu,” says the fire, settling even further into something less crude. For a moment, the fire shimmers. Ike realizes those must be wings on the woman’s back, tall and grand. “I feared something had happened to you.”
“Almost,” Lon’qu replies, glancing back at Ike. “I did not mean to worry you.”
The fire breathes, sending sparks adrift, shifts as though to peer behind Lon’qu. “Is there someone with you? A new warden?” The woman pauses, surprised. “He is wearing your robes.”
Ike almost chokes on the bit of cooked fish he’s eating, subconsciously tugging at the layer of robes Lon’qu had wrapped around him. It smells of faint mint, of rain and incense. The sleeves constantly fall past his fingers, but the fabric is warm and clean.
“My apologies,” the fire sighs when Lon’qu does not respond. “I didn’t mean to imply.”
“In any case,” Lon’qu says abruptly. His snake sniffs at the air, as if trying to taste fire without burning itself. “I thought to contact you, just so you wouldn’t send an entire army marching up my mountains like last time.”
“There was no one with you then, Lon’qu,” Say’ri says. “Not since… Well, surely you do not still resent me?”
They continue to converse, and Ike is unfazed by the fact that there’s a talking fire. Well, a manifestation of the firebird through a burning pyre, which—isn’t strange, all things considered. He dozes from the warmth, comfortable with the quiet flickering past his closed eyelids, the press of shadows cloaked around him.
“Ike,” Lon’qu murmurs, rousing him when the fire has died down into a mass of glowing ember. It is like a heartbeat.
“Your shoulder,” Ike says groggily, sitting up the best he can. He reaches out towards where his blade had nearly sliced through completely, then pulls his hand back. “I’m sorry about that, still. Are you okay?”
Lon’qu has lived long, long enough to see the sky break and the seas froth forth from barren sands. Many a compliment, a prayer, a confession have fallen upon his cold, pale ears. There have been countless wanderers from different civilizations, different times and worlds, all climbing the peaks for the sole purpose of attaining eternal life, attaining him as their prize.
He has turned them all away.
From some, he has taken their hearts; for others, he has indulged in their souls. They decorate what used to be his temple, morbid reminders of his power.
He draws nearer, nose nearly touching Ike’s fluttering pulse as he inhales deeply. There’s vulnerability there, in how Ike lets him lean in this close, teeth so close to thin skin. Vulnerability in how he tries sleepily to meet Lon’qu’s dark, dark gaze and fails to hold it for very long. Something exquisite in how he tries so hard to hold still, only to press into Lon’qu’s touch with a mix of confusion and resignation.
“You’re very close,” Ike says in a tight voice, very awake now, hands hovering unsurely in the space by Lon’qu’s waist. He swallows nervously when the snake slowly glides from Lon’qu’s arm to his, heavy and cold on his skin.
“Yes?” Lon’qu says, and lifts one hand to press against Ike’s heartbeat.
Ike stays quiet, fidgeting beneath the cold fingers brushing past his collar, beneath the weight of somber scales. He cannot see the fire anymore, no, but the glow of Lon’qu’s eyes is very much the same: eerie, eternal.
“Come closer,” he says, wondering if a god would punish him for being so demanding. But Lon’qu just grins softly, teeth bright as moonlight.
One morning, Ike catches Lon’qu staring off towards the south, frowning. His arms are folded, which is no different than usual, but there is something in his expression akin to distaste.
“Summer is coming early,” Lon’qu finally says. He doesn’t seem quite fond of the prospect of warm weather arriving any sooner than it should.
Still sluggish from sleep, Ike stretches, sunlight like liquid gold over his skin. Lon’qu watches his every movement. “What does summer mean for you?”
Lon’qu stiffens, shoulders a rigid line. For a moment, Ike fears that he may answer with yet another deflection, or even draw his sword and demand another impromptu duel as he so oft has; instead, he brings a hand to shade his eyes from the sunlight, and sighs.
“I am weaker during the summer,” he admits. “Say’ri and I do not get along.”
Get along has a lot more intricacies and connotations than Ike can fathom. They’d seemed amicable enough when Lon’qu had communicated with her through the flame pyre, though perhaps that comes with centuries and centuries of knowing someone, begrudging acceptance of the give and take of seasons—of knowing that in one’s weakness, the complement is stronger.
“You seem fond enough,” Ike says. “Don’t guardians typically have warden to help during those times?”
“Bloodlines dedicated to them, as it may be,” Lon’qu says. “The last of mine died out long ago.”
“Must be lonely.”
Ah, Ike has pushed too far, and Lon’qu has revealed too much again. The guardian withdraws silently, though Ike knows how much he enjoys the warmth of morning sunlight, knows how much human touch makes him drowsy and pliant.
It would explain the barren temple, how a small stream splits the silent grounds from years of pushing and carving through abandoned stone. Explains the numerous statues of humans turned to bone, and the cobwebs upon tortoise sculptures, empty altars, dust and ash from old incense. Cracked black jade, shattered bronze mirrors—an old hair ornament, dulled from age.
Ike turns onto his side, back to the sunrise as he drifts off to sleep again. His dreams are vague, confusing and inchoate. Once, when he opens his eyes, Lon’qu is there to press his lips to Ike’s forehead, so softly, as though he fears Ike will break otherwise. When Ike finally wakes, the noon sun piercing and blue skies blinding, he presses a palm to his brow. Cold lingers there, tender and lonely.
“You are late,” says Lon’qu, standing within the pool of water bells, the first of the shrines leading up the mountain.
“It’s hardly the end of winter,” Ike retorts after his initial surprise. “It has barely been half a year.”
Lon’qu ignores this small detail, eyes sharp as he notes Ike’s clothes. “You’re overdressed.”
“I was cold the last I was here,” Ike says pointedly, and continues up the path. Lon’qu follows, leaving wet footprints behind him. “I didn’t want to borrow your robes all the time; you need them, too.”
Humming noncommittedly, Lon’qu extends his arm, allowing his snake free reign around Ike’s neck. For some reason, he sounds rather disappointed. “I see.”
They step over shattered skulls, charred bones and putrid corpses. Twice, Lon’qu crushes the hearts of demons; upon the third time, he catches Ike watching him carefully, and tilts his head knowingly.
“Come closer,” he says. Ike inhales sharply, and obeys.