Eminence of Ash: Beauty Among The Embers



Beauty Among The Embers✦ 

A contest entry written by Momo


Summary: Every four years or so, coming-of-age women come forth where grass and ash meet. They are to be brides to the sons of lava–both vanguards and harbingers of ash and flame. The union stands against the tide of retribution but one girl questions this rite, knowing time and time again the person she lost with it. 

The story has no relation to any canon material or series and must be regarded as a standalone project. Any comparisons made are incidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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many moons ago
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The drumming of beats, stomping upon the sand, hoots, and hollers gathered about. The group swayed in unison. To be charged with emotion, shifting along the flow, raised their souls.  Energy bounced amid the shouting and claps, filling those gathered with a sense of purpose and belonging.

One sole woman, the highest of priests, stood between life and death, raising her arms high for the gods to behold. “Chant to him the great mighty one who keeps its rage at bay!”

Men, women, and children followed her lead, letting their words reach the sky. Hums by the thousand weave into a harmonious chorus, loud enough to be heard by the even star mother above. Perhaps even the old guard.

Feather fans dart through the air. Many entwined their legs front and back like lapping ocean waves. A little girl held her mother’s finger, unsure of what was happening or why they gathered here screaming, gleaming only a shallow gist. Her guiding star ensured a smile. Across from her the green ended and the black began. The sky grew gray as the trees swayed to the wind’s breath. Everyone quieted down. Murky air lined with soot and ash. Some of it encroached on her throat, uninvited. She blew her tongue to expel the horrid, acrid taste.

The high priestess, stepping forward, walked across the stretch, one of green and midnight, and one of gray and black. Her skirt laced behind her, her toes dancing among the burnt, hard rock. On the horizon, a line of black figures came in droves, stragglers amidst the ashen backdrop of orange in their wake.

The young girl dared not ask who they were; to do so would break some sacred code. She could only nestle by her mother’s side, holding onto her wrist for dear life, her eyes firmly shut. A loud thud hit the sand, followed by hissing and a burnt grass smell. At this point, her mother’s warmth departed, leaving her at the mercy of the chilling gale of night.

Mother?

“Ma ma!” she cried out, opening her eyes to a large, towering beast nearing her mother.

Standing like a man, Despite its formation from obsidian, part of its body resembled sun-kissed skin.  Its face was especially human, though something felt off. Perhaps it’s the eyes, which were completely molten orange, save for their yellow center. Its arms and legs were covered in volcanic rock, flowing hot veins—its marks of war. Long white hair, threaded by fire and ash, waved in the oddly cold breeze. It then scoured her mother’s form, using its sharp, stony claws to trace her hair, down her body, and towards her hips.

Her stomach twisted in two.

She was her heart, her home, and the one she returned to once the sun fell. Mother!

She dashed into the fray, not caring about precautions or rituals.  None of those mattered when the center of her life was on the line.  She doesn’t care what her mother did to deserve this; they aren’t taking her! Pounding from behind, their footsteps caught up with her as she approached them.

“Ma ma!” Her pleas ripped free, carrying fear. “Ma ma!”

Her mother stared at her, the warmth of her smile standing defiant against the looming fate. Yet, as the flames flickered their final dance, both her mother and those indomitable beasts disappeared into ash and smoke.

Only embers remained.

 

 

 

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many moons later
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The ocean breeze guided her gaze towards the wide sweeping village below. Life went on in its benign mundanity, ambling till they reached the end of their trek, like all in life. The young, solemn woman crested the hill, taking in the crisp smell before heading down, her hand cradling a basket of fruit. They jangled all the while she took into account her surroundings.

She’s far from Ashland’s edge, but you’d never know who hid within the shade. The sun’s peak served as a bringer of shadows despite signaling the morning day. It ray’s had limits, with the farthest being the distant hills on a good day.

The sunlit path winded down to the beach where Aenue,  Nihai, and Ine giggled like a gaggle of gulls, not bothering with life’s throes. Once they met up, the three shushed their gossip and fell into a false guise of work.

“How’s the catch?” the young woman asked, scanning the other baskets in detail. Only one coconut among the bunch and some toko fruit. Its glow rubbed off the other fruits like a chain of fireflies, bringing out their natural brilliance in a dance of colors. For a moment, she had forgotten the uneventful moments during their trip, but time herself whisked past.

No use moaning.

The fishers by the shore would come home soon, so perhaps this day’s outing wouldn’t be in vain. She would have to comb the trees and bushes again if the boys were to lounge about, never catching a single fish, let alone a stray crab.

Being a fisherman hardened the mind after all, requiring focus that even the most resilient must master. The ocean tides were as unpredictable as the one that birthed it. Ever-rolling and changing, one moment it’s still, then the next, morphing into a monstrous wave like a titan rising from the depths. Seeing as fishing parties dwindled in number each time they went, one returning intact came as a shock. When the tumultuous waves caught their sight, its seaborne tendrils would never let go, claiming lives without mercy.

Her uncle was a fisher. Once. Among the best on this side of the island. His deft spearmanship rivaled even the great fishing deity, though peerless in his spearing capabilities.

But like any mortal man, he lacked divine foresight, a flaw which became his grave.

It was a stormy night, the wildest in moons. The water’s surface ebbed up and down in large, tall peaks reaching the clouds. Uncle’s canoe had weathered bigger storms, but as the storm picked up and thunder roared, the child of the ocean deity wouldn’t let him pass a living man. Its fingers capsized his boat, sending him careening to the ocean waves’ grasp.

Yelling towards the mighty one drowned beneath the waves. The ocean’s underbelly made sure to silence his screams while the icy depths pulled him down despite his partner doing everything in his power to save him. But regardless, the ocean claimed another.

How’d she know? Her uncle’s partner had returned to tell the tale, albeit in a shell-shocked manner. It took him several moons for his bearings to return, leaving a lingering sense of dread until his final days.

The worst a gatherer typically encountered was a mere bump or bruise, with the occasional stray beast lurking in the shadows. With this in mind, the young woman found herself perplexed: why was their return taking so long?

“Did the ocean god eat them?” asked one of the gatherers.

Another person scoffed, remarking, “They probably never even set foot in the water. How cowardly. I would never date a man who refused to launch his canoe into the sea, no matter what.”

The third raised an unspeakable prospect as to why. She was quickly shot down. Thank the great earth. Kein was among the several fishers this morning, and her heart would break thinking of his death.

Hasn’t she lost enough already?  Seeing as fate had it against her, she wouldn’t put it past them, the gods turning her life into one big game of strung-along.

After praying over the fruit and herb rations, the four of them went further down. Auntie Ioi stood idly near the cloth racks. Sarongs, tops, and loincloths swayed through the wind, somehow holding on despite the string’s relative thinness.  She had her finger and thumb cupping her raised chin and in an inner world instead of watching over the currently drying garments.

Oh,  Auntie. Her age brought numbness and confusion over the years so great she forgot her east from her west, night and day, and friend and stranger. By now, entering her view would’ve caused Ioi to regard Lahmi as a stranger. She knew she was her niece, they’ve lived together since mother’s unfortunate departure moons ago. The other Aunties did the usual ‘smother niece with gifts, chin pressing, and smooches’. Lahmai was unsure whether to be grateful or ungrateful because of the bittersweet blend of attention and overwhelming gestures that often accompanied the other Aunties’ well-meaning but sometimes suffocating expressions of affection.

There was one thing she never forgot. One ceremony which happens every four years. Ioi’s mind could still expound on each detail like the back of her mind–The rite of ash and ember. It’s like a sixth sense possessed her to step over the end of the hut, yammering to herself the rite is nigh, over and over again. Chills scurried down her spine each time she sensed the faintest hint of ash in the air. It was a sign they drew near when normally the hut smelled of berries, leaves, fish, and herbs.

She didn’t want to be reminded of that accursed rite. The very rite that stripped that beacon in the sky from her. A day she’d never see her mother again. And the worst part is she never knew why.

Why’d they take her? It ran through her mind often, badgering her by noon to dawn, then dusk.  It didn’t help that her father refused to disclose the truth. When she brought it up, his lips pursed shut. Her Aunties were no better, refusing to spill even the faintest clue of her whereabouts. They all act as though she simply died and that was it.

No, there has to be more to it. Lahmi saw the rites. Taking them deeper into the Ashlands is how it went, not disappearing into thin air. Since there was only one golem who came forward to claim her, why the others? Shouldn’t they claim their maidens? Come to think of it, there were no other women besides her mother as offerings. It was her alone, smiling at certain death or a different fate entirely.

Could she be—

“Lahmi! What’s going on in your head? We need to go!” Aenue’s voice cut through her deductive train of thought, forcing her to toss it away into the subconscious.

“Sorry,” Lahmi shot back promptly, getting a share of the rations.

Lahmi proceeded toward the stockpile with purpose, her steps quickening as she caught sight of Kein and his companions approaching. Relief washed over her as her eyes locked onto him. A sigh of relief escaped her lips, carrying with it the weight of unspoken fears.

He’s okay?!

Her heart skipped a beat in tandem with the pace of her thoughts. The unpredictable nature of the ocean, with its turbulent currents and hidden dangers, always fueled a gnawing anxiety within her. Lahmi couldn’t shake the constant worry that someone she cared about, like Kein, might fall victim to the unforgiving sea.

“Kein!”

No bumps, or minor bruises, limbs were stable and intact. Lahmi breathed in, and then out, softly thanking the earth once more for his safe voyage home. For all the turmoil it wrought, the ocean’s drift also served as a gentle guide, guiding those who dared to traverse its depths toward destinations unknown. Fishers could sleep soundly, knowing that the earth watched over them, guiding their vessels through the ebb and flow of the vast and unpredictable sea.

Lahmi dashed over to Kein for a tight embrace, her heart racing with a mixture of relief and an unspoken affection that danced on the edges of her consciousness. At that moment, as the salty breeze brushed against their figures, Lahmi felt a warmth enveloping her, a comfort derived from the presence of someone she cared for deeply.

As Kein’s strong arms encircled her in return, Lahmi couldn’t help but feel a sense of belonging that transcended the salty air around them. She marveled at the way his embrace provided solace, a sanctuary amidst the chaotic waves of life. No worries, concerns, or biting uncertainties could rip them apart.

“Thank the earth,” she whispered, a sentiment carried away by the gentle sea breeze as she tightened her hold on Kein.

“Woah now,” Kein chuckled, lightly pushing her, but not too much to send him tumbling to the sand. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Oh, does his girlfriend miss him that much!” came a cringe-worthy nasally voice from one of the onlookers.

His fellow young fisher friends began making kissing faces in hopes of bashing an embarrassing bump on the two embracing parties’ heads.

“Get to the handfasting!”

“Yeah, what’s the holdup, eh?”

As they continued their relentless barrage of teasing remarks, Kein gritted his teeth, holding in a simmering frustration.

“Would you all zip it and scram?!” Though unfazed, the raised tone at the end of his retort had Lahmi shaken. “We’re just friends, okay?”

“Geez, fine.”

“Your canoe, man…”

Once they ambled off, Kein retired his gaze, staring into her eyes with a soft warmth. “Can we…go somewhere? Alone?”

Alone? Lahmi wondered. Had the day finally come? In all their years of growing up together, Kein had always been her protector, the village’s steadfast older brother. Since the unfortunate events of moons ago, he had taken on the role of her guiding star, a responsibility he carried even better than her father. So when he suggested going off somewhere private, it caught her off guard, to say the least. It wasn’t that she was angry or disappointed–it was more like her eyes widened in surprise.

He’d never asked for her privacy, let alone someplace where they could be together, nothing in their way, enjoying the beach as is.

A burning sensation ignited within her chest, causing her entire body to shiver, and her eyes wavered. She wished to speak, but the words buried in her throat refused to come out.

“You don’t have to…” Kein led her hands into his grasp, smiling, hair blowing through the breeze to catch those soft sunset rays. “Take your time.”

Lahmi’s gaze shifted from his hands to his face and back to his hands. Pursing of the lips and a moment of introspection allowed his offer to gently weave its way into her thoughts. The ocean breeze whispered its subtle influence.

“Sure…”

Kein led her to a secluded part of the beach, under the silent oversight of a palm tree, and where the sun and ocean reconvened as night inched near. The golden sands beneath their feet felt cool and inviting as they left behind the lively chatter of the village.

Just her and him, staring at the sky as the gentle breeze brought with it a soothing calm ambiance. Low whispers of the waves, the shimmering pink tides, and the soft calls of distant seagulls in the distance. She almost forgot why he brought her here in the first place.

After a long, drawn moment of silence, Kein unfurled his lips. Her heart pounded in her chest. Will he say it?

Years of being siblings from different mothers, rushing through the shoreline, and climbing palm trees came down to this momentous juncture. Maybe with him as her partner, the sons of lava would leave her to savor smaller moments in life, no longer having to extinguish her freedoms just to appease some god.

“About this rite…” Kein murmured, his voice laced with concern. “I hate for you to go. After all, you did for our village, our home, why now?”

A thought returned. Her mother. She lingered on what became of her. The fate that befell her on that fateful day, which severed her warm alcove from her cold, small hands. Lahmi breathed in, pulling her gaze away from his inquisitive eyes. The harsh, lifting gales had swept between them as a chilling reminder of the rite’s eventual specter, casting shadows over the unspoken and uncertain fate that awaited her.

With a sigh, she uttered plainly. “For the best of us and this village. But that’s not it, isn’t it? You want something more.”

Kein’s eyes widened, his gaze lingering, seeking to understand the unspoken thoughts that played across Lahmi’s face.

“To tell you the truth, I need to see my mother again,” Lahmi admitted, her voice carrying a weight of determination. “And I won’t rest until I know, finally know, what they’ve done to her.”

“But is it worth it?” Kein furrowed his brow. “If this catches wind, the priest will–”

“No, I’ll act out the rite as expected of me. Once everything goes smoothly, I’ll run, find her, and never look back…”

“And If it went south?”

“You’ll know.”

In her portable bag, a mix of tools and ingredients lay hidden—everything necessary for a reliable fire starter. Shells, wood, clay, and stone, were gathered on expeditions or borrowed from home. With her Aunties misplacing items often, she aimed to craft a makeshift beacon in case the rite didn’t go as planned.

It happened before. She had the misfortune of witnessing her cousin get rejected on the spot because her heart belonged to someone else. He was a humble craftsman apprentice—young, bright-eyed, and admittedly naive. His innocent view of the situation endeared her to him even more once the sun fell. So when the dawn drew, she couldn’t fulfill the requirements of the sons and thus was banished from the village ever since.

Lahmi could still see the young craftsman near the village’s edge, tears welling in his eyes, crying out in hopes of seeing her again. The memory crushed her heart and tugged at her chest. The ritual of the sons’ selection demolished spirits and stole futures from numerous innocent people, some banished like that young woman. It struck a chord to know that so many shared in her distaste for this long-standing ceremony of despair and derision. Everyone else treated the rite as the second coming of harvest, a time when every walk of life converged into one assembly bearing witness to a sacred occasion–to see the sons in the flesh.

Few were graced by them, and even fewer lived to speak of how they smelled, felt, and towered over them like palm trees made of molten stone and rock. Back then, Lahmi stood motionless as one swiped her mother away into the billowing ash, never asking why and where they went.

Perhaps the rite may be her only chance of doing so.

Kein nodded his head, respecting her wishes.

“Farewell…” His voice became soft and tender, likened to the silent whispers of the breeze.

May they carry her till the ocean’s end.

They embraced. She’ll miss his soft yet rugged flesh blanketing her frame, the way his nose laid over the side of her head, his sweet smell radiating from days over the ocean.

She’ll learn to miss it, very, very much.

“Farewell to you too…”

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A chief’s worth of food lay before prying, hungry eyes. Slow-cooked pork, roasted seafood, pudding, and a whole throng of well-prepared meals. Her Aunties made sure no one slept empty-bellied.  To not would insult the goddess of food and harvest.  Normally she scarfed down a good helping like she hadn’t eaten before, but tonight, she could only stare as the rest of the family took their stake in the food huddle.

“La, come, eat!” Auntie Vana grabbed Lahmi by the wrist, trying to guide her toward a plate.

“You’d never know when the rite’s around the corner, dear,” Kona added. “A maiden can’t be hungry!”

“What about your face? Did your cheeks get bigger?” Eme chimed in.

She tugged at the young lady’s cheek to make sure. Vana shoved in, swiping it away.

“She didn’t get bigger, her bones are poking out!” Vana remarked.

She speared a helping of pork into her wooden plate

“To you! I’d said she needs adequate nourishment. Could do her some good…” Eme lightly nibbled some pineapple slices while lacking so much food in her mouth to sound audible.

She hadn’t finished the rest of her meal. Auntie Eme wasn’t one to devour whole swathes of food considering she’d hate gaining even an inch of fat. Unlike Auntie Kona, who found solace in the taste of her favorite dishes, Eme approached her meals with a cautious restraint, always mindful of her figure and health.

“No! She needs to eat more,” Kona insisted.

“Within reason!” Eme added.

“I’m not hungry…”

All three leaned over carrying concern in their eyes, gasping as they observed Lahmi’s untouched plate. Their usual banter paused, replaced by a shared worry for her well-being. For once, they put their verbal scuffles aside and noted Lahmi’s refusal to take a bite. Though she knew it might become a springboard to point fingers at each other like they always do. Her Aunties argued more than they cooked.

“What’s the matter, sweetpea?” Vana asked.

Lahmi replied, “Nothing, just not hungry.”

Seeing as the rite might come out of the blue at any moment had planted a queasy bundle in her mind and body. She couldn’t be asked to eat when her stomach was curdled, twisted, and pulled into a knot.

“It’s Eme’s fault,” Kona said, “she made the food unappetizing.”

“Blame it on the gatherers, not me!” Eme retorted.

She sighed, reclining back and letting the thunderous chitchat fill the hut. It’ll blow over, hopefully.

Dad should be home soon. He was off on a brief trip with his comrades. But as the chat grew louder, his eventual return grew unbearable. It could mean several things—perhaps he caught an unexpectedly large haul and is taking extra time to transport it home. Or maybe he decided to extend his trip to help a fellow fisherman in need. Alternatively, knowing Dad’s adventurous spirit, he might have encountered some unforeseen challenges while out at sea, such as unfavorable weather conditions or a hole in his canoe. Whatever the reason,  the last part drove a tingle across her skin.

And then there was Auntie Ioi. Her signature touch found itself laced with the food but where was she?  She’d always come by to take her fill and then sit quietly in her corner of the hut.

“Vana, have you seen Ioi?” Lahmi asked, raising her eyes.

“Oh, saw her outside the village.”

Outside the village? For what? 

Ioi rarely went a foot away unless it was laundry duty or to convene with the gatherers. Her mind settled on one reason: the rite was near. It could explain Ioi’s strange behavior. Before, she looked to the sky, as though to perceive what the star mother had told her. Why now? According to the lunar cycle, it should’ve been due at least a few more weeks at best.

More anxious pits formed. Her dad and now her? Who else will seemingly disappear? Kein. No, she’d hate herself forever if he vanished into thin air with nothing to remember him by.  This only emboldened her drive to find Mom and by extension the end of these blasted formalities.  By then, her village can breathe knowing their daughters can rest.

With new ignited vigor fueling her feet, she left the hut, leaving behind her meal to be at the mercy of two grubby hands. As unfortunate as leaving behind a perfectly good dish was, there were bigger issues at hand. What Ioi was doing may get her injured, or worse yet, killed.

“Ioi!” Lahmi dashed across the shore, sand kicking up as her legs sliced through the winding gale. The wind stopped at nothing to hinder her message, but her shouts fought back. “IOI!”

“IOI, WHERE ARE YOU!”

“The rite is nigh, the rite is nigh, the rite is nigh.”

Repeating chants echoed afar. The worn, hoarse yet gentle melody brought to mind Ioi, her Ioi. She must’ve not gone any further for her eyes settled on her standing by the shoreline where the sea and beach were at a crossroads. Ocean became the coast and the coast became the ocean. Neither ended nor began; they intermixed, morphing into a unified force between the two.

“Ioi!”

The old, white robe-adorned woman idled peacefully. Her niece’s screams couldn’t reach her, even as she yelled at the top of her lungs, nearly rupturing her airways. Her mind roamed elsewhere.

“The rite is nigh, the rite is nigh, the rite is nigh.”

She repeated, her voice croaking by the end. Just as Lahmi padded closer, heavy footfalls pounded against the sand, the thuds of spears by their sides. She cursed. Sneaking out without a sound should’ve gotten suspicion off her back. But since she was in a hurry, her strange mad dash outside of the territory may have drawn attention, unwarranted attention at that.

Having the guard’s eyes set on someone often resulted in death, or if they’re merciful, banishment or imprisonment. But they weren’t here for that, were they?

A well-built man clad in war paint and a feathered headdress proceeded forward “The rite has come, join with the rest, young maiden.”

The color and style of body paint revealed his rank as higher than the two flanking his sides. If not that, his imposing presence and cadence instilled a mix of enough fear and respect to buckle the knees of anyone.

“N-No, no, I’m not ready.” She backed away, quivering.  “I checked the signs! the rite is due by–”

“Join the rest” He commanded darkly, then turned back to his men.  “take the other home, we’ll contend with her later.”

“Yes sir.”

The two had Ioi locked between them as they headed off. For Lahmi, the high-ranked individual narrowed his eyes, perhaps thinking of what to do with her. She swallowed her throat and prayed for a more just sentence.

“The rite is nigh, the rite is nigh, the rite is nigh…”

Ioi’s voice trailed away once they were several feet away from them. The beach followed not too close behind, melting into a black inky delve, the last vestiges of light being his smug grin.

════✦════

No matter what happens, I’ll always be there for my little Lala…

The same drums. The same chants. The same thumping on the ground. The same smells of burned grass, ash, and soot. She didn’t need to open her eyes. Lahmi could perceive a mass of people all gathered once every four years. Their shared breath, and presence, somehow culminated in a congregation of countless souls.

And the strangest part? It came so soon like the gods chose to change the flow of her fate in ways beyond her comprehension. No matter, the plan was flexible. Bend it one way, and the course will change to account for new variables. All she had to do was wait.

Then a voice bloomed into her being. “On this fateful day, We are all gathered here to conjoin with our brothers of ash so we may lessen retribution and sate his wrath!”

It became loud enough to be heard by the star mother, causing her to flick open her lids, staring head first at the priest, tethering between the edge of the Ashlands.

“Come, come, sons of the mighty one, join us, as we weave our paths into one!”

The crowd chanted in unison. “Come forth, come forth, come forth, come forth”

She looked at her peers. They weren’t bound by any physical restraints but moral ones. None of them dare squander off or forsake their duties. In their eyes, this was inevitable.  To run from fate only hastened the endpoint, why try some may say?

Trying is what’s keeping her tied to this pole specifically made for dissenters like her.

As the thrumming of drums, blasting of horns, and the combined chants resounded through the ash-riddled air, the horizon grew orange. Black silhouettes drew closer, becoming clearer the more they advanced. Before she knew it, they reached halfway, and to say they were oddly intriguing was an understatement,  of the legends that were spoken of them.

They’re here. The grass burned to dust, wafting into ash and disappearing into the wind. Its smell was all too familiar to her, now more potent instead of the faint remainder of their entry. The assemblage consisted of several lava golems, varying in both height and appearance. The one in the middle possessed striking red hair, which contrasted with his kin who mostly had gray, black, and white in terms of hair color. He was also notably withdrawn and preferred to stay further back like he too harbored reluctance for this rite. Could she presume he too was like her? Judging by his shy glances as well as his brothers forcing him towards the sandy side, maybe, just maybe, there’s more going on than it seemed.

The high priestess, bowing as expected, guided the young golem to his maiden-to-be.

“Come, my child, do not be shy,” the high priestess said softly. “Tell me, what do your eyes seek?”

Given a moment, his molten eyes scanned the decent selection of women at his disposal. But then, he stopped. He closed them.

The crowd stirred with anticipation, whispers weaving through the air like delicate threads. Murmurs turned into hushed exclamations as the golem’s unexpected action held them in suspense. They exchanged puzzled glances, their curiosity piqued by the golem’s sudden stillness. Lahmi waited intently, studying his subtle movements, noting the faintest twitch in his form.

Upon opening them again, he settled on…her. The red-haired construct of magma pointed to her, out of all the maidens in this ceremony. She shouldn’t be shocked, it’s part of the plan, but she couldn’t help but feign a sense of curiosity. Why her? The black-haired one from behind seemed more experienced, potentially providing a clue to her mother’s whereabouts. This one seemed like he was born yesterday with the way his doe-like eyes gullied her gaze. The quaking of his posture didn’t help either.

This is a formal event– chin up, and act like a man!

Worse still, any inquiry she’d give could go to waste along with any oodles of time invested in searching for her once guiding star. The gathering shared similar reservations as everyone gasped at his decision, their collective disbelief palpable in the tense air.

“You wish to pick her? Very well then.” She turned to two men. “Undo her binds and hand her over to him.” She whispered another command and left them to do as they pleased.

They did as they were told and freed her. Let it simmer, Lahmi. Don’t rush.

“Here.” said one of the men as they passed their possession over to the golem who looked at Lahmi with oddly amazed eyes.

And for the first time in history, he spoke, “T-thank you–” a slap on the head quickly cut his gratitude short. He mouthed his apologies and seized her by the hand, gently she noted.

Next, enter Ashland’s heart, and finally learn the truth. Therein lies the answers I seek.

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Vast terrain of gray, black ground stretched for miles, dotted by a dash of orange and red. The drifting warm sky sent a strange, vexing tingle whereas the barreling black clouds brought gloom amidst the desolate hellscape.  They all led towards a sky-high volcano, Ashland’s heart. Though hard to see at this vantage point, a pillar of smoke billowed into the heavens like a beacon of resilience, a tangent remainder.

Lahmi made sure to stand by her golem’s side during their trek. She caught wind of its deadly fauna though flora rarely appeared. It begged the question how did they survive? Rocks weren’t exactly the best source of nutrients, let alone useful for rations.

“So once we reach home, where will I sleep?” she asked.

His gaze avoided her own. Cheeks flushed and hot, he came off more like a ripe papaya than an imposing portable volcano. Lahmi’s disappointment deepened.

“Sources of water?”

His cheeks blushed a bright shade of gold.

“Food?”

Smoked began streaming from his head.

“How am I gonna eat?”

Once her final question dripped from her lips, he sped off.

“HEY, WHERE ARE YOU GOING? I’M SUPPOSED TO BE YOUR MAIDEN!”

And as a maiden, that moron must accompany her at all times. The Ashland may be bereft of most life, but danger lurked at every corner, she couldn’t risk roaming about defenseless and afraid.

Thankfully, the shy fool left a scorched trail in his mad dash from responsibility. Lahmi traced along since her so-called guardian was too chicken to guide her himself….

Letting out a sigh, she went on with it. Moping won’t bring Mom closer. Lahmi allowed the thought to fester. She’s partially old enough to think logically, she mustn’t let petty benign setbacks get her all tangled in a bunch. If Mother was here, she’d happily slap a stick on her head for acting like a brat and not the mature woman she’s supposed to be.

If only…

As Lahmi trudged onward, the landscape shifted, revealing the silhouette of the ash village on the horizon. Despite the uncertainty gnawing at her, she quickened her pace, fueled by a mix of determination and desperation.

She finally made it.

Making her trip down, a gaggle of golems circled the village’s perimeter, no different from the guards at home. Their heads were adorned with a stack of rocks stuck to their heads which resembled mohawks at a glance. It served to carry a threatening aura of sorts but by now Lahmi had grown used to being gazed at. The usual song and dance of intimidation lessened its staying power the more she aged, leaving insight to jab through the golems’ thin defenses.

But she knew better than to waltz up and ask for entry. Her guide was nowhere by her side, and if she was without a golem, there was no way she could enter without clearance. As much as squaring up and bearing through was the better option, in the end, she was still human. Nevertheless, a human woman at that. She’d be deader than daylight.

Lahmi softly strolled nearby trying to do the damndest to act natural. They’ll assume she’s waiting for someone. Then, maybe just maybe, that shy little pebble will rear his head and come get her.

Spotting rock close by, she made it a seat, ensuring its edges didn’t jab at her rear. The surface was particularly callous and rough, scraping at her hands as she settled into a comfortable position. Her nose took a whiff of that sulfuric smell and quickly closed in on itself with the help of a finger pinch. This will take a while.

Time had no place here. Since the sky was almost always covered in smoke and ash, there was no telling if it was morning, dawn, night, or dusk. The moon could reach towards the sky and she wouldn’t know because the long stretches of clouds blanketed the sky in an indiscernible fog. When she asked the guards, they only mumbled, staring outward into the wide expanse.

An idea graced by. The guard line must have a blind spot, doesn’t it? So maybe if she’d crept through the cracks they wouldn’t know she’s gone, perhaps evading their gaze and finding what she seeks?

Silently slipping away without a trace, Lahmi expertly navigated through the shadows, evading the vigilant guards with graceful ease. She found herself in a secluded spot, a place where the faint echoes of two voices intertwined in conversation lingered in the air.

“What do you mean you lost her?”

His voice held a deep gravelly tongue, going against the soft tenor of the other’s voice, which sounded familiar. Was it the red-haired one?  It seemed so as barrels of reprimands sounded off while the other rarely uttered a word.

“She is your maiden. Be by her side no matter what!”

“I-I’m sorry, it’s just…”

“Do you wish to bring shame to our father?! We have a deal to uphold, and if anything goes awry, his wrath will kill us all. Now find her or Mukah so help me–”

“I-I’ll get her.”

“Hmph, good. Meet the rest of us at the center. She better be with you by then.”

Once the exchange, a one-sided affair ended, Lahmi received a glimpse of her golem. Head low and eyes drifting, he slumped his way out, his gaze ignoring the obvious spy among the rocks, for the best. He’d drown her with worry if she left too soon but an aching droop tugged down her chest. Some part of her wanted to comfort him. She can’t believe it herself. She wanted to console him, ensuring it wasn’t his fault. For what? Lakshmi couldn’t devise the rationale behind it, but her heart was pulling her to help in some way she could.

Her times of being yelled at by her Aunties for most benign mistakes created a parallel between her and this new stranger she came to accompany. As to her circumstances, she lived a wholly typical life. Gathering, weaving, decorating. She had friends, as few as they were, and many relatives waving in and out of her life. Some she didn’t see again. Several visited her regularly. A scant few remained till life stripped them sway from the hearth.

In contrast, he had no mother. Legends say their kind were made, not born like her and the many humans on this island. Thus, he had no one to return to when his spirits were low. While one could argue they had brothers, being the sons of the mighty one, the scolding he received didn’t resemble a joyous interplay. Frankly, it sounded like he despised the poor thing. Understandable, yet undoubtedly harsh.

She swallowed her reservations and stepped out of her hiding place. “Ey,” Lahmi called out, hoping to capture his attention. “Hello?”

“Hm?” The lava golem’s eyes widened in surprise.

“M-my maiden?!” he exclaimed, dashing towards her and enveloping her in a surprisingly gentle hold. As Lahmi felt the unexpected tenderness, she couldn’t help but be surprised.

Realizing he might be too tight with his grip, the golem quickly released her. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry,” he stammered apologetically.

“No, don’t be…” Lahmi reassured him. “Was that guy a friend of yours?” she asked, seeking clarification.

“Friend?”

“You know, someone you’re close to?”

“Close?”

Lahmi sighs, realizing any further explanation served to fan his befuddlement. Shaking her head, she directed her attention towards a cluster of huts.

“So that’s your village right?” Lahmi gestures to the village across from them. From where they stood, its centermost heart resembled a circular blotch of glowing red and yellow.

“If that’s what you call it. May we go?”

She nodded and followed him past the guards who let them weave through and into the village edge. Flocks of golems, brides, and children seemed to partake in semblances of life, though aspects of gathering, hunting, and fishing were absent. She observed their activities with a mixture of curiosity and perplexity, wondering how they managed to sustain themselves. The thought of feeding the women crossed her mind too, but she decided to save that question for another time. The last time she brought it up, it had turned him into a flaming stove of a man, and she wasn’t eager to revisit that heated conversation.

The local dress norms displayed particular decisions in style. Most golem men wore loincloths, faulty ones at that, whereas the women were more risque in their clothing choices. The kids just played naked. Back home, women wore dresses and ponchos while the men wore loincloths, yes, but under them were either pants or a skirt. Some wore just skirts or standard-issue sarongs.

The material was equally strange as the origin was unbeknownst to her besides being made from some reptile. Lizards were drawn to warm climes. She normally saw several basking on beach rocks to take in the sun’s rays and then leave in the evening when the sun was at the midpoint.  They didn’t make for good fabric however as the largest a lizard could get was the length of a forehead. What they were used for was as alternates when normal prey couldn’t suffice. For clothing, usually cotton laces itself among the colorful designs worn by her fellow tribesmen. If not that, simple animal hides from larger prey animals. On the other hand, their outfits were rather drab with only a hint of warm hues.

Lahmi additionally paid regard to their women seemingly matching aspects of their male counterparts but lacked the stature and the amount of rocks on their limbs. They did however have glowing molten eyes just like the men and their hair wasn’t just black and dark brown but sometimes white, silver, blonde, orange, and rarely red. The huts upon closer inspection were intricately embellished with unique cravings related to whatever values they held. The curves were harsher and judged and brought to the peaks of volcanoes and jagged rocks.

Her eyes then settled on the center of the village, its core. A couple whispered in hushed tones, hands clasped in prayer. They both tossed a stone into the heart. The surface bubbled and out emerged a crying infant. So that’s how? She assumed golems were born as adults, considering they’re often grown each time the rite begins, but this revelation challenged that assumption. But then how exactly do they age? Not a single elderly man or woman resided here and it seems as though no one aged past middle age.

Several “young” golems–at least her and the redhead’s age– convened near the middle. By their side stood maidens like her. All were either confused, quiet, or curious about their surroundings. One of them leaned over the core before their golem reeled them back. She recognized Ine midst of the flock, her eyes darting all over as she studied the intricacies and enigmas of their existence. She was the most curious and the most anxious. The rite was a blur but she couldn’t forget the anxiety in her eyes once her golem approached. It brought anxiety to all of them, to leave their homes behind in favor of a place they don’t know, people who claim to be their fated lovers.

What was love besides a transaction? As far as she knew, they were needed to quell the mighty one’s wrath and nothing else. Anything beyond this point was either a side effect or happenstance.

Exhaustion weighed heavily on her, slowing her progress as she finally reached the village. Lahmi still had questions, yet she found no suitable candidates to provide answers, nor even any eyewitnesses to speak to.

“There they are,” the redheaded golem pointed to the rest of the kin.“As promised”

She chose to remain silent. Acting out of line, especially in a space like this, could land her into a vat of lava. Behave and keep going, you’re almost there.

He offered her like a barter, showcasing her as he would his prized livestock. The golems and brides exchanged glances filled with curiosity and skepticism. One golem snickered into his obsidian talons, attempting to conceal his amusement. One hid behind hers, while the rest wondered why she was there. Out of all the maidens of the village, it was the motherless girl, the strange scheming girl, the girl who went against the grain.

Lahmi scoffed at their jeers and stood with pride.

Afterward, an older golem, his stony limbs marred from age, meet with the rest. Flanking his side was a bride about the same age as him. Her milky silver locks and ample chest swayed by each stride she took, turning heads and inspiring jealousy in some of the brides. Lahmi was none the wiser, noting her lack of cleavage in the face of a rather filled-out individual. Her partner was no slouch. Standing around half the height of a palm tree, he towered over the other golems by sheer size and width. His jet-black hair was slicked back into a low ponytail and sparkled under the embers in a kaleidoscope of purple and orange hues.

“Welcome, sons and daughters,” the silver-haired wife spoke with elegant inflections, denoting her standing. “May your union with our kind be blessed and fruitful.”

Her partner added, his voice deeply gravelly. “You should acclimate to your new home during your first two weeks. However, if the guards discover any unauthorized departure, you know what that entails, yes?”

She pushed down a knot of concern within her throat, sensing the weight of their words.

“But worry not, we have plenty of food and water to spare,” her voice carried a soothing, disarming tone along with a smile. “After all, we understand that some haven’t gone through the ‘change’ as of yet. We wouldn’t want our brides to go thirsty and dry now, would we?”

The golems around them feigned laughter, trying to lighten the mood for the brides. The red-haired one, the last to laugh, emitted a measly whimpering excuse for a giggle.

One raised her hand. “Um, I have a question?”

“What is it, dear?”

“How are we supposed to eat?” she blurted out.

“The finest meals, of course. We might ruin the surprise if we spoke about it, however. You’ll know soon enough.”

“You all take them to their huts, we resume by the horn.”

As the others departed, leaving the redhead and Lahmi alone, a moment of silence lingered between them, punctuated only by the faint echo of their footsteps fading into the distance.

Lahmi shifted uneasily, breaking the silence. “Hey, um…I realized I never caught your name. What do they call you around here?”

The redhead regarded her with a hint of amusement dancing in his eyes. “Ah, you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it,” he chuckled softly. “But you can call me Kura.”

“Kura,” Lahmi repeated, testing the unfamiliar name on her tongue. “It has a nice ring to it. Alright then, Kura it is.”

A small smile graced Kura’s lips as he nodded in approval. “Glad you think so. Now, shall we catch up with the others?” he suggested, gesturing towards the direction their companions had gone.

Lahmi nodded, falling into step beside Kura as they made their way forward, their newfound camaraderie weaving a bond between them amidst the departing shadows of the evening, or what could be evening anyway. Time had blazed by that it could be night by now. Her body seems to think as much. Her legs buckled as she staggered her way near the designated hut, eyes weary and ready to close in on themselves.

════✦════

Two pairs of feet, one leading, one following, moved in perfect harmony. Each step synchronized with the ebb and flow of the ocean’s breeze and the rhythmic melody of waves kissing the shore. They swayed together, tracing the meandering path of the coastline, feeling the gentle embrace of the sand beneath their soles. With each stride, her toes embraced the earth, propelling her skyward in a graceful dance that seemed to encompass the entire world. In her mother’s warm brown eyes, kindness and joy still glimmered, igniting a contagious laughter that spread like wildfire.

Her mother then swept her off her feet, guiding arms enveloping the little girl in a warm and gentle embrace. In that tender moment, their hearts seemed to shine brighter than the stars as they pressed close together, chest to chest. She hoped their hug lasted longer than itself, but then came a shifting departure of heat. Her small form shivered, prompting her mother to hug her tight, but her gentle warmth wavered at the hands of overwhelming chills.

The sky drained of its color, the sea waves stilled, and the music of the shore faded into silence. Amidst the quiet, the only sound was the steady rhythm of her mother’s heartbeat, gradually slowing to a halt in the presence of a looming shadow that swallowed the light.

Mommy, what’s going on?

Don’t look, Lala, close your eyes

But she refused. Pivoting, a weight snuffed the flickers of hope within. A colossal, lumbering shadow rose in oppressive silence. From the depths emerged pairs of Glowing red eyes. Lahmi could feel her essence spill away the more she gazed into those hellish eyes. It unraveled into thin, drawn-out threads. She wanted to look away, but those fiery orbs had a chokehold on the poor girl’s psyche.

Lala!

Mama?

The shadowy monster, a grotesque manifestation of all her deepest fears, tore her mother from her with a force that seemed to rend the very fabric of reality. In the swirling darkness, its tendrils snaked out, ensnaring her mother in a grip as cold and unyielding as death itself.

MAMA!

Molten lava streamed from her mother’s eyes and lips, a horrifying cascade of anguish and despair. With each fiery tear, the ground beneath them ruptured, unleashing jets of volcanic ash and flames that consumed everything in their path. Lahmi staggered back, her senses overwhelmed by the searing heat and the deafening roar of destruction echoing in her ears. Her world, once stable and familiar, now crumbled around her like fragile glass.

As the chaos reached its crescendo, Lahmi felt herself teetering on the precipice of oblivion. The ground gave way beneath her feet, and she plummeted into the abyss, her screams lost amidst the inferno below. Falling through the darkness, she felt the tendrils of her horrid nightmare clinging to her, suffocating her with their malevolent presence.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the nightmare melted away into the ether, leaving Lahmi gasping for air as she jolted awake in her bed. Beads of sweat dotted her forehead, her heart still racing. Slowly, she blinked away the remnants of her dream, grateful for the solace of the waking world, even as the memory of her harrowing ordeal lingered like a shadow in the corners of her mind.

Lahmi found herself enveloped in Kura’s comforting presence, but the trauma of the dream lingered.

She pushed him away, adrenaline offering enough strength to drive a massive pile of rocks onto the ground.  “Get away! Get away you monster!!” venomous words lashed from lips out of instinctual stress.

“Lahmi?”

She gasped, softened her gaze, and turned away. Kura shouldn’t have seen her like this. Ioi had the misfortune of being her post-nightmare target, but to a total stranger, her heart crinkled.

“S-sorry” Lahmi’s apologies poured forth in a torrent of regret in recognition of her mistake.

“It’s…it’s fine,” Kura softly murmured, his voice tinged with resignation. “I get that a lot.”

“Y-you do?”

“Mostly from humans…”

“But don’t golems remain in the Ashlands?”

“…Long story.” Kura trailed off before switching the subject “Say, does this…happen often? Yea, know you yelling and stuff.”

Lahmi rose and exchanged her worn attire for a fresh outfit. She longed for him to comprehend her actions, but could he truly fathom the depths of her trauma? Kura’s lack of enthusiasm for the rites, in contrast to his kin, made her hesitant to burden him with unwarranted scrutiny, which could further fracture his already fragile self-esteem. Though he played no role in his mother’s disappearance, Lahmi grappled with the notion of guilt by association. Yet, to indict him on such grounds seemed unjust. Kura exuded a sort of kindness that lacked any nefarious involvement. Engaging in illicit affairs risked tarnishing his innocence, a prospect she could not bear to entertain.

════✦════

 

Outside, Lahmi sought solace in the promise of a new day, leaving behind the echoes of her nightmares to find comfort in the simple ritual of morning munching. With the assurance of spare food, she pondered what meals awaited her. Perhaps some fried eggs? Or maybe some poi?

Lahmi’s gaze fell upon a large dead lizard corpse being roasted above the fire’s core. Well, she assumed it was a lizard; its appearance came off as both canine and feline in build, with the front legs ending in semi-dexterous claws. Steam swirled around its tail, while the other end, charred and sizzling, emitted an enticing aroma. A pulley was used to twirl it around, cooking each side evenly, ending in a golden brown.

Unorthodox, sure, but her stomach couldn’t care less. It needed some substance after walking for what felt like miles. Her tongue, too, felt dry and itchy, longing for a drop of water to quench its thirst.

Rocks carved to resemble tables surrounded the makeshift kitchen, where other brides sat, eagerly devouring the roasted lava drake meat with gusto. Lahmi hesitated, her stomach churning with a mixture of hunger and apprehension at the sight before her. She longed to ask one of the golems about her mother’s whereabouts, but the words stuck in her throat as she observed their stoic demeanor.

Kura was nowhere to be seen, his absence casting a shadow over the gathering. Despite the warmth coming from the core, Lahmi felt a chill settle in her bones, a sense of unease creeping over her as she realized the gravity of her situation. With a deep breath, she steeled herself and approached the nearest golem, her heart pounding with determination.

Lahmi’s hand trembled as she reached out, tapping the golem’s shoulder lightly. “Um, excuse me?”

The golem turned, its expression inscrutable. “Hm?”

She hesitated, her words caught in her throat. Lahmi’s gaze flickered to the bowl of meat and bones before her, a strange concoction that stirred both curiosity and suspicion. “Would you happen to know someone?” she asked, her voice faltering. “She’s my—”

Before Lahmi could finish her sentence, another golem interrupted, diverting their attention elsewhere.

Undeterred, she moved on to another golem, then another, and another, only to be met with silence each time. The table remained full, yet Lahmi departed empty-handed, her questions unanswered and her heart heavy with disappointment.

As Lahmi ventured from the kitchen, she glimpsed a group of golems approaching, each bearing bowls of water. Suspicion pricked at her senses, yet the aroma of spice beckoned, tempting her to take a sip. With cautious reluctance, she lifted the bowl to her lips, finding the taste peculiar but palatable, with subtle notes of spice lingering on her tongue. Could this truly be fresh? The waters of her home possessed a peculiar quality, drawn from the surface waters of the island. The refreshments offered here were of lesser condition, swirling with minor ash particles and strange hints of sulfur, leaving an eggy aftertaste. Lahmi longed to spit it out, yet her parched tongue found relief in the strange brew.

She hoped it might tide her over for a few days, as the plan might require longer travel times in addition to sneaking out. But still, an empty void gripped her, flooding her with a sense of concern akin to a mother fretting over a missing child. Her thoughts returned to earlier outbursts, recalling how his eyes widened in fear despite his towering size. He deserved an explanation, yet for now, he wasn’t among the golems overseeing the meal, far from the reach of any of the golem grooms.

The eldest golem announced meals are set to close and brides must attend to their grooms as they head to their huts. Lahmi once again darted her eyes in search of Kura, but no matter where she looked, that familiar shade of red never revealed itself among the sea of huts, rocks, and rough terrain. Sighing, Lahmi caved in and followed the rest home. Next time, kura might come home. Might was the word here. For all she knew, he was far from the village off to swallow into a ditch all because she branded something he wasn’t.

Monster came with a loose idea of what it entailed. Sometimes it was metaphorical, often physical. For others, a monster was someone who turned a blind eye to the suffering of others, a predator taking in the pain its prey feels. A fisherman who fishes for sport and not the greater good of the village. A monster meant a lot to Lahmi. And as someone who witnessed her fair share of monsters, he felt more human than even the humans she had the misfortune of growing up with.

Change of plans, Kura, wherever he is, must be found. It wouldn’t do her good to be without her groom, especially as any transgressions would be met with consequences. Her body shuddered, but she must remain calm for his sake.

════✦════

While the others sleep, a wailing howl pierced the silence, jolting her awake. No nightmares plagued her this time, but she couldn’t shake the feeling of being caught in a dream or one of those lucid ones where reality blurred at the edges. Her resting place swathed in a soft haze, blurring the lines between sleep and wakefulness, compelled her to wander outside her hut and gaze into the ashy, cloud-filled sky.

The wailing persisted. Her ears traced the sound until she located its source outside the village. With few guards on duty at this hour, she contemplated sneaking out to investigate the disturbance. Her intuition whispered Kura’s name, but he was typically reserved, not given to loud dramatics. Could it be some kind of animal? The local fauna were known to be peculiar. Who’s to say one of them wasn’t responsible, perhaps using it as a mating call? Either way, she promised to find him and hopefully set the record straight.

Her guilt had taken on a life of its own, haunting her through the restless hours of the night as time wandered by. She wished it could just stand still for once. No amount of simple apologetic platitudes could mend their fractured bond. Why is she even doing this? They had only known each other for a few days, perhaps several if the time made sense here. There wasn’t room for deeper bonds, but a thread, an embodiment of love, had her in its stranglehold. One could only feel such a thing for relatives, childhood friends, and…siblings. Was Kura the brother she never had? It stood to reason he shared traits found among her family. They sometimes possessed red hair too, but like the golems, it rarely showed, save for a couple of generations.

Her mother’s signature warm eyes briefly glinted in his gaze each time they exchanged glances, though only for a fleeting moment. Once he locked eyes with her, he often averted his gaze, fixating on anything but the eye contact of another person. But then, Could he–no, nonsense. That can’t be right. Mom was taken from her, and by then, she wouldn’t have a child with another man, would she? Her father would be devastated to learn what mom was doing in the Ashlands. He wasn’t even the jealous type, but the thought of his wife being involved with another man would drive him mad. He wasn’t himself when she was gone, and he’d lose any shred of his former self if this came to light. She hoped that whatever conjecture she came up with never boded true.

As she approached the noise, it began to lessen, simmering down to a whimper as she found Kura, in a fetal position, sobbing in his arms. The shade from the steep hill made it hard for her to discern it was him, but his striking red hair signaled his presence well enough.

“Kura?” Lahmi called softly. “Kura?”

No response. He merely buried his face deeper into his arms.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Lahmi softened her gaze and pursed her lips, looking away to give him space. “I didn’t mean what I said, okay?”

Under the muffles, Lahmi could make out a “What if you meant it? What if this means picking you was a mistake?” from his pained, low voice.

“Your choice was yours. Who cares what others think…”

Or was his decision born from the influence of others? Lahmi passed that thought aside and went into another one, one that could finally bring her worries to rest.

“Is it because I…I look like her?”

“Who?”

Kura undid the chains of his sorrow, his expression perking with interest as his eyes widened in surprise. Lahmi’s question seemed to penetrate the walls he had built around himself.

“Your mom? You have a mom right?”

“You…you do look like her…” he whispered, his voice barely audible amidst the quiet of the night, his gaze returning to his feet. ”before the change…”

The change. How she almost forgot. The change that made the wives here resemble minor mimicries of their husbands. They did say staying here for long is harmful for one’s longevity. It was more or less mandatory and she feared she must undergo it as well. Casting aside her humanity, letting it rot as every inch of her being is remodeled into the mighty one’s image rattled her core. But what got her was the indirect answer to her woes, given she had a son, that would make Kura–her half-brother.

On her way out of the village, she saw a couple making out and engaging in passionate intermingling, not for reproduction. The Sons may possess genitalia but their equipment lacked any of the essentials for producing offspring. What came out of their shafts was mostly yellow precum which served no purpose besides arousal. Not that the brides minded. It must be a relief not carrying a child to term. They’re free to do whatever they want without having to worry about herbs, midwives, or having to lie down for hours exhausted beyond belief.

She’d loved to have a child. But combined with the labor of bringing new life to this world and the fear of the firstborn daughter being taken from her, she couldn’t bear the crushing weight. Lahmi wished, no, she hoped she lived long for this barbaric tradition to die in the flames, never to harm anyone again. She didn’t care if she had to sacrifice her well-being or the goodwill she built between the few she had. Her aunties, her father, her last remaining uncles, her gathermates. All ties will be severed in the wake of the rebellion. I brought a tear down her eye, knowing this had to be done.

A soft warmth stroked her cheek, and as Lahmi looked up, she found Kura’s eyes meeting hers once more. That warm smile. For a moment, Lahmi gazed into her mother’s face, back before the divide, before the ritual, before the thought of her leaving was even a blip in the sky.

“Mom…” Lahmi’s voice trembled as she reached out tentatively, her heart pounding in her chest. “Is that you?”

In a fit of tears, Lahmi lunged forward, seeking solace in Kura’s embrace. Within the safety of his arms, she poured out her traumas, her sorrows, her fears, and concerns, each word laden with the weight of the looming responsibility that had haunted her until this moment. Questions, once fleeting and unanswered, now tumbled from her lips, mingling with her tears. Yet amidst the pain, her love for him burned fiercely, wrapping around them both in a tight, firm hold.

In their exchange, Lahmi discovered the story behind Kura’s distinctive mark—the fiery red hue of his hair that set him apart, the sense of alienation he felt as though he wasn’t the lava golem he was meant to be. She felt the weight of his struggles—the taunts and whispers that followed him, the unrelenting pressure to live up to expectations imposed by both his peers and his crimson mane. With each word, she could sense the burden he carried, the weight of unmet expectations bearing down on him.

As they held each other, she noticed the strength in his grip, tighter than hers, yet beneath the surface, there was a tenderness—a delicate balance between protecting her and expressing the depth of his emotions. His touch conveyed a silent promise not to harm her, even as he shared the pain that dwelled within him.

For what felt like an eternity, they held each other, sharing their burdens and finding strength in their connection. Eventually, as the weight of their emotions began to ease, they slowly released their embrace, their bond strengthened by the shared catharsis they had experienced.

“I have a plan”

════✦════

Lahmi traced a collection of circles, lines, and arrows through the sand of the hut, the dim light casting shadows across the rough surface. Kura watched intently, his expression a mix of curiosity and determination as he absorbed the information she provided.

“As you can see here, several blind spots punctuate the perimeter,” Lahmi explained, her voice hushed yet determined. “If we can pinpoint these weak spots, we can slip away unnoticed.”

Kura’s eyes lit up with understanding. “Oh, so if a certain line of guards don’t have their eyes on us, they won’t know we’re gone?”

“Exactly,” Lahmi affirmed, her confidence bolstered by his comprehension. She glanced around the dimly lit hut, a flicker of hope igniting within her. “Now, we just need to execute the plan flawlessly.” She rose from her crouched position, a sense of purpose driving her movements as she prepared to put their strategy into action. “Let’s get ready.”

The plan was simple. By the dead of night, fewer guards skirted the outer lines, which allowed any seed to slip through weaves and into the sand–the deeper corners of the ashen landscape. If they’re able to be carried by wind and somewhere else, the sooner they can find Mom. Kura mentioned mom wasn’t allowed in the village for long intervals, for reasons he wasn’t privy to himself. That sparked an inquiry as to why but she chose to bury it, all thoughts set to the plan.

Within lava drake territory, out-hunters would scope out any weaker individuals and chuck them home for storage. Not many unchanged lived in the village, so their stock could last for a couple of decades, even more so if the preservation methods were employed diligently. It didn’t answer the water issues until Kura explained it was untainted groundwater that intermingled with lava and created several stones like limestone and obsidian. Acceptable as it was, the twisting kink could never untangle itself.

The home to the drakes was only a few feet away, marked by the distinct scent of sulfur and the telltale claw marks scattered across the landscape. These creatures favored volcanic caves, utilizing the various nooks and crannies to rear their offspring and engage in mating rituals. Typically, it was the older, weaker, or hunting pairs that braved the outside world, each driven by their motivations.

As Lahmi hoped for a weaker encounter, she couldn’t shake the realization that even elders among the drakes possessed formidable strength. Kura, though strong, was still young and inexperienced. The average elder could match the ferocity of a fully grown golem, leading to intense conflicts if their paths were to cross. This dynamic explained why most out-hunters were adults or older individuals for one bite from their jaws could render a youngling as good as dead.

Amidst the eerie silence, the faint sound of claws scratching against stone echoed ominously. The ground beneath trembled as if heralding the arrival of something powerful.

Suddenly, bursting forth from the shadows, came a lava drake and a magma wyrm, both imposing monsters with fiery eyes and scaled bodies. Their humanoid forms were intertwined seamlessly with the monstrous features, exuding an aura of primal strength and danger.

The lava drake’s rough scales gleamed with molten hues, radiating heat that warped the air around him. With each step, the ground sizzled beneath his massive talons, leaving behind a trail of smoldering marks.

Beside him, the magma wyrm slithered gracefully, his serpentine lower half undulating with fluid motion. Lava-like patterns danced across his scaly skin, mirroring the fiery depths of the cavern they called home.

Lahmi’s heart skipped a beat as Kura swiftly ducked in and scooped her up, carrying her to safety. The two volcanic beasts gave chase, the magma wyrm closing the distance with alarming speed.

The two began skidding downward after their former means of defense were shattered into pieces. As the lava drake pounced forward, the young lava golem dodged and rolled out of the way, forcing him to assume a huddled stance.

Amid the chaos, Lahmi found herself pressed close to Kura’s chest, her senses overwhelmed by the scent of sulfur and ash emanating from him. The acrid smell filled her nostrils, mingling with the heat radiating from his rough skin, as they clung together in a desperate bid for survival.

“LET ME HAVE HER!” bellowed a deep, raspy yet thunderous voice.

Lahmi’s very being pounded like one giant heart as her body got to work putting her in fight or flight mode.

In a sudden twist of fate, the lava wyrm managed to tear Kura and Lahmi apart, causing her to stumble forward into the grasp of the menacing drake. With a sense of dread creeping over her, Lahmi found herself at the mercy of the fiery beast, feeling its hot saliva drip down her neck as it prepared to strike. Meanwhile, Kura was locked in a desperate struggle with the magma wyrm, its powerful coils threatening to crush him into oblivion.

As the drake’s claw loomed dangerously close to tearing through her defenseless form, Lahmi braced herself for what seemed like an inevitable end. But just as despair threatened to consume her, a sudden battle cry echoed, breaking through the chaos with a glimmer of hope.

Out of nowhere, a dark form streaked by fire and ember appeared before her. In an instant, she found herself abruptly sitting down, watching as a fierce battle unfolded in front of her. A drake became entangled with another, while a wyrm coiled itself around one of them. As the chaos subsided and she saw who emerged victorious from the tangle, Lahmi’s heart swelled with excitement and emotion.

“Mom?!”

A woman with long, flowing black hair stood tall and proud, covered in dust and grime. Her white cloak lay torn and frayed, hanging off her shoulders, revealing multiple layers of bandages that protected various parts of her arms, legs, and torso. Even her skirt bore similar marks of wear and tear, but it did little to detract from her powerful presence.

Her muscular physique was marked with light scars and intricate body paint, adding to her intimidating appearance. Rocks and lava-like veins seemed to be embedded within her coppery-brown skin, giving her an otherworldly allure. Despite the damage wrought upon her clothing, there was no denying the sense of power and strength.

After looking at Lahmi with molten red eyes, she lit up warmly, recognizing her baby. She wore her best smile and approached Lahmi with loving arms.

“My dear Lala!” she exclaimed, pulling her child into her gentle yet firm embrace. It had been too long since they last saw each other, and Lahmi could feel her mother’s love enfolding her tightly.

During their embrace, Lahmi could feel the roughness of her mother’s hardened muscles subtly mold against her softer skin as the duration of the hug went on. These muscles moved rhythmically under her skin, accompanied by glowing red veins running through them. Additionally, the faint whiff of something sulfurous filled her nostrils; however, Lahmi paid no heed to its unpleasant odor, as it also carried hints of floral and marine fragrances. Nonetheless, her mother’s touch was undoubtedly authentic, although perhaps somewhat forceful.

“Mom, your grip is stronger than I remember,” Lahmi teased, trying to wriggle free playfully.

With a chuckle, Mom loosened her hold slightly, replying, “Ah, yes, my sweet girl. I guess I need to be more mindful of my newfound strength. Forgive me.”

Despite her imposing figure, Mom remained every bit the nurturing and protective mother that Lahmi loved dearly. Her infectious laughter eased the tension brought about by the recent struggle, filling the air with warmth and joy.

She then turned to Kura, who was ambling there with his head low and arms behind his back anxious.

“Kuku, what are you doing over here, come!” she beckoned, proclaiming her invitation for an all-around family reunion hug.

He happily obliged and gave everyone a mighty strong hug.

They all let go. Lahmi couldn’t believe her eyes. Her mother was alive and well, Kura got to see his mom again, and everything was finally falling into place, save for a few unanswered questions swirling in her mind.

“Mom?” Lahmi’s voice trembled as she released her grasp fully. “What happened to you? Where have you been? And that other golem–”

Lahmi’s mother gently pressed a finger to her lips. “Shush, one question at a time, please. And before you ask, we’re on amicable terms. Neither he nor I are in love. We’re just friends.”

“Well, yeah, but you’ve changed so much since you’ve been gone. It’s like I’m looking at a different person.”

“That’s the change for you,” she attempted to laugh it off, but it did little to assuage Lahmi’s concerns.

After a bit of silence, she turned to face Kura.

“Thank you for keeping her safe…” Her mother’s voice softened briefly before taking on a slightly scolding edge. “But you could’ve gotten yourself killed! Where’s Peke?”

Kura remained silent, his expression unreadable as Lahmi’s mother’s words hung in the air.

“And as for you? Where did he hurt you? You know how they  are, bitey little pests.”

“Momma! I’m fine! I’m not that little girl anymore?”

“I know,” her mother replied softly. “I can’t believe so many moons have passed.”

As Lahmi listened to her mother’s words, she couldn’t shake the feeling of tension in the air. Kura’s silence spoke volumes, leaving her to wonder what was going through his mind at that moment. And by the star mother, had it been that long? Not too long ago, she had witnessed her mother being torn away from her, and now, she was standing before her in the Ashlands, speaking with her as if no time had passed at all.

With a gentle sigh, Lahmi’s mother reached out and clasped Lahmi’s hand in hers. A sense of warmth and reassurance washed over Lahmi as their eyes met, silently conveying a lifetime of unspoken emotions. In that moment, Lahmi felt a surge of gratitude and relief flood her being, knowing that despite the challenges they faced, they were finally together again.

Her mother’s warm hands let go, leaving Lahmi to internally lament how short the moment felt. Kura stood facing outward, his gaze fixed on the horizon, his red mane catching a gentle breeze, his posture unwavering. Lahmi and her mother exchanged looks of concern, both wondering what was happening. Then, her mother’s eyes widened, and she barked at Lahmi to stay behind.

In the distance, a marching army of golems surged forth. Despite their distance, the sounds of rock slamming onto the earth drowned out Lahmi’s pained gasp. She looked to her mother, who gazed as if knowing this day would come.

“They’re here,” her mom stated darkly, taking several steps forward.

Her cloak billowed and rippled with each gust of the harsh ash-laden wind, the fabric dancing in defiance against the relentless gales. Despite the relentless onslaught of the elements, Lahmi stood firm, her determination unwavering.

In the distance, the rhythmic thud of approaching footsteps reverberated through the air as the army of guard golems drew nearer. Their towering forms cast long shadows against the desolate landscape, a formidable force marching with calculated precision.

Among them, a figure stood out, her silver hair gleaming in the dim light. With an air of authority, she strode forward, the golems parting seamlessly to make way for her passage.

“Good noon, Allyna,” Kaia said, her voice dripping with icy venom as she met her gaze.

Allyna, Lahmi’s mother, returned the greeting with a coolness that sent shivers down Lahmi’s spine. “Kaia.”

“I see that accursed thing’s with you,” Kaia remarked, her tone laced with disdain.

Allyna’s eyes narrowed slightly, a flicker of defiance flashing in her gaze. “Son,” she corrected. “He’s my son.”

“If he’s your son that only implies Peke’s the father but we all know he wasn’t born with love.” Kaia’s lips curled into a sinister smirk as she turned her attention to Lahmi, her eyes gleaming with a malevolent glint. “Then your little girl wouldn’t come all this way to see you.”

Lahmi glanced at her mother in confusion, a knot of unease forming in her stomach.

“Mom, what is she talking about?”

Allyna’s expression tightened before she masked it with a composed facade. “Lahmi, please.”

“No, seriously, what’s going on?” Lahmi persisted, her confusion turning to frustration.

Kaia’s mocking laughter echoed in the air as the lava golem guards approached, their imposing presence casting a shadow over the tense exchange. Kura stood nearby, his hands clenched into fists, but something seemed to hold him back, preventing him from intervening.

As the guards moved to restrain Lahmi, she felt a surge of anger welling up within her. “If you lay a finger on my mother, I swear to–ugh!” Her threat was cut short as one of the guards struck her across the back, sending her sprawling to the ground.

Amidst the chaos, Lahmi could hear her mother’s frantic cries and Kaia’s sadistic laughter ringing in her ears. Darkness encroached upon her mind.  As it faded, a sense of foreboding lingered in the air, a reminder that the past could never truly be forgotten.

“May your crimes be tossed to the volcano’s heart and may the mighty one give unto thee eternal penance”

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