What You Protect (short story)

He had been guarding the object for a very long time. Long enough, and deep enough, down deep below the groaning, shifting plates of the earth, where the ground beneath his feet was warm to the touch, this hollowed out nest of ash and ancient whispers, he had stood, he had waited. His knuckles had grown large and nobbled, his knees creaked a little more and moved a little less easily. His beard, long since white and wiry, hung in intricate braids, braids knotted with the patience and shaking of arthritic hands, made beautiful by time and only time, this never ending amount of time, that kept him here, withered face flushed with the heat of it, the earth rumbling above and below him as though the angels and the demons were minutes away from all consuming war.

He remembered sunlight, though his eyes would fail to see it so clearly now, foggy and whitened, the blue of them hidden by the clouds of his years. Yet, they could see well enough still, to protect, to defend, should someone find their way down to where he was, and true enough, he had defended his post well throughout history, if the littering of bones strewn not so far from his feet was any indication.

The object had never moved, had never broken. It was older than he was, older than the earth itself, they’d told him, and infinitely more valuable. It was the last of something beyond his understanding, beyond what the world had been ready for, and it was his honour to be its silent protector.

Though not so silent, at times. He would sometimes find himself, his voice rusty and barely there, as though it had been worn away by lack of use, muttering to the object, stroking it, telling it about the stories he’d heard as a child, the wars that had been won and lost, and how it had felt to walk on dewy green grass, all of it he’d recounted over the years, like a slow flowing stream breaking through rock.

When his breathing caught and his lungs turned air into bitter coughing fits, he’d lean a hand upon the object, feeling almost a sense of comfort from the contact, as though he were not as alone as he was. Though truth be told, he’d never felt alone, not really. There was a presence to the object, something beyond words, like there was another soul down at the core of the earth with him, easing the sense of isolation, protecting him from the very worst of his thoughts as he stared night after night at the scorch burnt rock above him.

He knew, deep in his bones, bird thin and hollowed out, that his guardianship was coming to a close. Nobody had been sent to replace him, and he thought that maybe they’d forgotten, those that walked on the earth rather than under it, lifting their faces up to the warm caress of sun beams, maybe they’d forgotten that there had been a promise made, that below them stood a man who protected something so sacred, so rare, that there wasn’t a name for it.

If he was to die, he was glad it would be in this cave, in this carved out cavern, where the air was still and time could have been too, was it not for the way his skin wrinkled as he flexed his hands, the way his back curved his body downwards, as though urging him to lay down and rest.

And gods, how tempting it was to rest now.

He found himself with a callused hand resting on the object, fingertips brushing over the smooth curve of it, barely able now to reach to stroke the ash that rested on its point from the top of it. It sat upright in a nest of bone and coal and the kind of treasures men dreamt of owning, their gleam not yet dulled. He had never been tempted, because the gems and the stones and the gold did not belong to him, and to take it would be a crime beyond any other he could commit. He had his honour, even if nobody else was left to hold him accountable. He had himself, and the promise he had made. So, he rested his hand against the curve of the object, and talked in the tongue of his grandfather before him, syllables that bent and swirled together like a song.

The object warmed beneath his palm, as it always did, and it felt like he was being listened to. He sank to the ground, leaning against it, eyes closing as an all-encompassing weariness took him over.

He had done a good job, hadn’t he? They may have forgotten him, up there, where the sky was blue and the continents had shifted, the creak crack of their own bones mirroring his own. He’d done a good job. It was okay, then, if he rested for a little while.

To be a guardian is to love, beyond your own being. And he had been a very good guardian. As his eyes closed and his breathing grew more ragged, the object warmed, the fire within it already mourning him.

It was with sightless eyes and a still heart that he would have seen the creature that emerged, its soul borne from the love he had bestowed upon it. For years and years, millennia, the rise and fall of empires above, he had nurtured it, and it had grown, the very last of its kind, until finally, when he had given it everything, it had risen from his ashes.

The object cracked piece by piece, like it had been struck from within. A shell, then, and then, life, blood warm and fierce, scales black as the coal that had cradled it, eyes white as the ash that shifted as it took its first tentative steps.

The cavern was large, but when it spread its wings for the first time, the creature found itself cramped. It wanted to fly. It wanted to see the skies the man had told it about.

It pawed the ground where the man lay. It nuzzled at his face, first in confusion, and then in understanding.

It walked on legs that felt too new to where the cave gave way to a long and winding tunnel. Upwards promised the world, but also the loss of the only home it’d known.

At the mouth of the tunnel, the creature looked back. The man’s body looked so small compared to his stories, his dedication, his love. It wasn’t him, not really. It was something that had once been him, but he was gone now. Where he had gone, the creature did not know, but he was not in that empty shell any more so than the creature was in the object anymore.

The creature filled the cavern with its flame, scorching everything molten hot. It would burn for a thousand years, until nothing remained, the treasures and the man devoured by the heat of it.

If the creature could cry, perhaps it would have done. But it couldn’t.

Instead, it took the first steps into the tunnel, and then the next steps, leaving the fire burning behind it, daring itself, with every step, to dream of sunlight on its scales and the world its guardian had talked of – confused and broken and happy and sad and warring and peaceful and corrupt and kind. It wanted to see everything.

And, for the kindness the man had given it, the years he had guarded it, it wanted to be seen. It wanted the world to see, in all its beautiful and terrible glory, the monstrous god that tender empathy could birth.

It would step into sunlight, and it would marvel. And so, the people would marvel too. And they would see love.   

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