The shadow that follows you

The shadows cast by the flames of the campfire danced behind her as Chanta moved further into the small patch of trees. While saying prayers with her sisters was rewarding and inspirational, Chanta made sure she had time for her private prayers ever night, even on a trip such as this. The moon shone brightly, a full moon illuminating the mountains that were her home. They were almost at the shrine.

When she was certain she was far enough away from the others, she paused and closed her eyes. Prana began to glow around her, swirling softly.

“Goddess Vitalia, hear my prayers. Watch over my sisters. Watch over the home you made for us. Watch over your children. And guide us on this difficult journey. Illuminate our path. Please, help us find the plume. And please help me lead the Keepers. I’m afraid they might need me now, more than ever.” Her voice was but a whisper, but her prayers came from deep within her, like a warm flow of water that emerged from the depths.

She never felt more at peace than right after she’d said her prayers. While being with her sisters gave her comfort, her connection with the Guardians and the Goddess had always been personal. She needed this moment.

Chanta pulled her cloak before moving back, glancing behind her only casually. Of course, she’d been aware of his presence since they had crossed the river two days earlier. She had only seen him once, when his shadow was cast on the ground in the evening sun the night before, but it didn’t matter. She was the main Keeper. She knew when a Guardian was close, even when they tried to hide so badly that her sisters had no clue.

She had contemplated just calling out to him. It felt like lying, somehow, continuing her journey pretending she had no idea while she was well aware of the Guardian following her. But if he wanted to talk to her, he would come to her. Main Keeper or not, she was not going to call out a Guardian if he didn’t want to talk.

She almost made it back to the camp when she finally heard him calling her name.

“Chanta.” His voice was a relief, no matter how deep and demanding it was.

“Guardian Aras. What a pleasure to see you here,” she smiled as she turned.

“Skip the formalities, Chanta. I know you’ve been aware of me. I’m not the only one who hides his tracks badly.” The Guardian walked towards her, past the trees, the branches brushing his wings. His red eyes reflected the moonlight casually, like they belonged together, the great light in the sky and the dark shadow down below.

“The plume was gone. It wasn’t in the vault. The protector didn’t know what happened. He hadn’t noticed a thing. But you knew that already, didn’t you?” Chanta said.

She wasn’t surprised when he nodded. She had figured it out on the way back to the shrine. Of course he had known. There was no way that the great Guardian Aras had sent her out on this journey without knowing something was odd.

“I wasn’t sure. I just felt something… odd. Like something was off in the balance of power on the earth.”

Chanta knew that was why Aras had come to her. The other Guardians wouldn’t feel such a disturbance. They were too disconnected from the Earth to feel a shift in power in a room no ethereal being could visit. Even so, she felt annoyance rise up inside her.

“So you just told us to retrieve the plume, knowing we’d be in for a surprise? Why didn’t you just ask us to check it out? Have you forgotten you can trust me?” Her voice was loud in the evening air and she instantly regretted raising it. Not that it had anything to do with Aras; she just hoped she didn’t alarm any of their sisters. It wouldn’t do to have them see her talking back to a Guardian like this.

Aras shrugged, a weird thing for a Guardian to do. Wasn’t their entire purpose to care about things? “If I’d told you that it might be gone, that I felt something shift, you’d be worried. You might have run off and told the Queen. And I wasn’t sure. Maybe it was nothing. It usually is nothing.”

The Guardian was standing right in front of her now. She was used to other ponies being larger than she was; she’d always been small. Even her newest recruit Amina was bigger than she was. But Aras was something else. He towered over her, blocking her view.

“So what will you do now? Who took the plume? I thought nobody could enter the vault and get away with anything without the protector noticing. But he hadn’t noticed, Aras. He had no clue.”

Aras shook his head softly, closing his eyes. “I don’t know, Chanta. I felt the disturbance half a year ago.”

“Half a year? And you only came to me two months ago!” Chanta exclaimed.

“I know. I know. It was foolish of me to wait that long. I dismissed it at first. The others didn’t mention a thing. I even asked the others to… help me,” he said. Chanta noticed the hesitation in his voice.

“But they said there was nothing wrong, that I was making things up,” Aras continued. “So I let it go. Until two months ago… I wasn’t even sure what I felt. A small tingle in the Earth. Maybe I didn’t feel it at all, maybe it was just my memory. But I knew then I had to be sure.”

“So you came to me.” It was not a question. It never was a question.

“Of course I did.”

Chanta sighed and took a step back, away from the Guardian. The world appeared again, the trees and the moon and the smell of the fire her sisters had made.

“So what will we do now? We can’t just ignore this. Even Rasa already showed up earlier, worried. The plume will vanish if we don’t bring it back in time. And you know the other Guardians can’t help. If they touch the plume it will disappear for sure.”

“I know that. And I have a few ideas. But I need you to do something for me.”

Anything, she’d almost said. But that was not a wise thing to say to a Guardian, even if you were main Keeper and your entire life was devoted to them.

“Visit the High Queen for me. Tell her of the plume. Ask for her to send out messages to all corners of the continent.”

Chanta nodded. “Of course. I was already planning on doing that anyway.”

“And I may need one of your Keepers to accompany me somewhere.”

“Somewhere? And who do you need?” Chanta asked, slightly surprised and unable to hide it in her voice. None of the Guardians ever asked for a Keeper to accompany them. They just ordered them around, as was their right.

Aras shook his head. “I’ll just come to the shrine when the time comes. Don’t let it bother you.”

“Oh, okay.” Chanta didn’t often feel defeated, but Aras had just plain dismissed her. Of course, he was the Guardian of the two of them. He was allowed to dismiss her or summon her.

“Well. I better get back to my sisters, then. They’ll start to worry if I stay away for too long,” Chanta said, turning back to the camp. She could hear their laughter, and she saw Lis and Amina laughing by the fire. She was glad to see the girl adjust so well. She hadn’t had enough time to guide her properly, and she vowed to change that when they got back to the shrine. She couldn’t leave her entire education to her apprentice, no matter how well the girls were getting along.

“Chanta.” She froze. She had hoped he’d let her go.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry. For lying to you.”

Chanta exhaled and turned her head. “Aras. You’re the Guardian of the two of us. If withholding the truth from us is what you deem best, I will never judge you for it.”

He nodded once before spreading his massive wings. The trees rustled when he took off. He soon blended in with the black sky and Chanta was sure her sisters never even noticed he’d been there. She had been that foolish once, too, to believe that she could sense the Guardians when they were close. It wasn’t until she was main Keeper that she learned they could only sense them if they wanted to be noticed.

For a few moments longer, Chanta stared into the starry sky, trying to convince herself that she could see his silhouette growing smaller and smaller. But he was gone already, the Guardian who had been the sole reason she had joined the Keepers, so many summers ago. The sole reason she still dreaded the beach and warm summer nights.