#4 – Flames of Water
No journey starts, until the traveller is ready.
– Elder Dangeroba
The tides of the water rolled over her as she lay motionless by the shore. In a distant part of her mind, she felt the coolness envelope her as the water ebbed and covered her legs. Then, with a hint of sadness, she felt the coolness leave as the water receded from the shoreline. Then from a distance, a squawk that wouldn’t stop until it kept getting closer. And then…
Gasp. And coughing.
She came to, coughing long and hard as water escaped her lungs and allowed her to breathe fresh air again. The coughing subsided, and she wiped the tears away from her eyes. Looking up, the bird stared at her with its head cocked to the side.
“I was wondering if you’d decided to become a mamiwater and leave me behind. But I guess that wasn’t the case.” The only reply the bird got from her was a grunt as she tried to sit up. “I know what happened. Or… at least I know. Or I think at least I know. Is there a difference in any of these things I just mentioned? I feel like there shouldn’t be. But you see this language you speak? It’s very strange. It’s even stranger than the squawks, coos and cuckoos my brethren speak.
“Although… now that I speak your language, I think my previous one is weird. But what do I know? I’m a bird! A talking bird, yes… but a bird no less—hey did you get a new tattoo?”
She looked at her arm, and sure enough there were new markings. On the left and right sides of the wavy line were six crystal-like etchings, three on each side of the line. The crystals had already become dark like the line and the spiral, yet there was a low pulsing warmth she felt from it.
“Oooooo,” the bird cooed in excitement, “the labyrinth made you face another trial. And you succeeded! Oh I wish I was there to witness it. Not just witness, help even! Hey, don’t look at me like that. You know very well I saved you with the ghoul… even though you jumped my body. Not that I’m upset or anything. If I’m talking too much it’s because I was honestly worried about you not coming out of the water. And now that you’re here, it’s like I have to do double the talking for all that time you were fighting underwater.”
She laughed. A genuine laugh. And it felt good. The laughter helped her ease some of the tension she didn’t know was coiled up in her. The bird too joined in the laughter, and that even made her laugh some more. Imagine a bird laughing; it was one of the oddest and yet nicest things she’d ever heard.
But then, how did she know that? She couldn’t even remember anything. The thoughts of her lost memories dimmed the light of laughter, and immediately she wondered what was next.
“The labyrinth… it changed again. Look.” The bird turned around to point with its beak. She wondered again if it could actually read her mind, or if they just happened to be of the same feather… “See the mountain range? That is where next to go. I fail to understand how mountains formed in the middle of all this sand, but it shouldn’t be surprising anymore. The labyrinth is alive, isn’t it?”
She agreed with the bird’s logic. The labyrinth had to be alive for it to pull off things like this. But why was it doing all this? What was the point? The endgame? Was there really an end, or did it all end when one of these trials killed her?
She didn’t dally much in the thoughts. It would prove fruitless. Her only action was to go to where the labyrinth wanted her to, for better or worse. And so she brushed herself of clinging sands and began walking towards the mountains.
There was a path at the bottom of the mountain.
That was the very first thing she truly noticed.
The second thing she noticed was how different it was. Like a world on its own; vegetation, critters on the grounds, birds in the air, different sights and sounds hitting her all at once. She felt very comfortable in this setting, and somewhere inside of her there was a deep yearning to be one with the place. But try as she might, she didn’t know how. All she knew was she had to reach the end of the path.
It was like the bird felt things too, because for most of the journey it didn’t speak, instead keeping itself busy flying over the trees to see what was in front before perching itself down on her shoulder to let her know that all seemed clear.
It was another thing she had noticed. Short of getting lost a few times before facing the ghoul, or having to swim a bit before facing the mermaid, her walks had been peaceful so far. She didn’t have to fight off anything, and everything seemed not to take her as a threat. Several times she caught beady eyes looking at her through foliage, and once or twice she saw the glint of predator eyes watching her progress. But in the end, nothing came at her to attack.
Why wasn’t anything attacking her? Surely she was a stranger in these parts, and that was more than enough to get some of the animals to act territorial. Her thoughts moving so fast she couldn’t snatch one and make it settle, she reached the end of the path in no time.
When had she done that? Was it not a mountain she was meant to climb?
She looked around, confirming that she had indeed reached the summit, but completely unaware as to how she did. Had she walked the full length without even knowing it? She turned back, and the dense foliage trailed down the slope till she couldn’t make out much. Wondering about it wouldn’t do anything to help, and so she decided to move forward with her journey.
From lush greenery to smoky atmosphere and rocky surroundings, the scenery changed almost in an instant.
“Wait…” the bird cooed softly. “Something is coming.”
She felt it too, and instinctively her hand went to her dagger. There was a rumble, and then the grounds began to shake violently. In front of her, the grounds began breaking, splitting themselves open as pieces of rock fell into the earth. There was a loud growl, and then an explosion so loud she had to cover her ears.
The growl grew in intensity and suddenly magma began to shoot out from the hole.
“Are we on a volcano??? A volcano that is actually active? Are we going to die?” She could hear the fear in the bird’s voice over all the cacophony of the erupting volcano.
Out of the hole, a large paw reached out, clamping to the edge as another paw rose. A snout rose up, sniffed the air, and retreated back into the hole. Smoke and soot covered the area, and the only clear vision she had was when she looked up. That’s when she noticed something odd. And the bird seemed to notice it as well.
“Am I mad, or is the sun actually crac—”
A loud roar filled the air as a creature of destruction jumped out of the hole in the earth, landing with so much force the grounds cracked again. The red eyes, rocky body and veins of lava made her forget she was yet to recover from the creature’s landing. It was the bird that recognized it.
“The gods are crazy… a hellhound!? A hellhound??? They eat anything! Including birds like me!!”
A low growl emanated from the hellhound as it barked and shot out a ball of lava. Filled with fear, it was all she could do to roll out of the way of the fireball. It hit the grounds and splashed, some of it getting on her and singeing her clothes. She kept rolling in an effort to stamp out the flames that had begun licking at her skin, and she only had enough time to roll away as another fireball was shot her way.
She got up to a crouch, wondering just what she was going to do with a beast so big it towered over her. Her arm burned, and it took her a while to realize it wasn’t the magma. It was the tattoos that were burning. The crystals were lighting up, giving the illusion that they were moving.
Distracted by her arm, the hellhound tried to surprise her and leapt to chomp on her from above. It almost succeeded, being much more silent that she imagined it should actually be, but on reflex she thrust out her arm and an obsidian shard flew from her arm into the foreleg of the hound. The hit made it falter in its descent, pitching it at an angle that let her roll away from its landing zone. It got up, tendrils of smoke escaping its nostrils as it regarded its foe in a different light.
She looked at her arm again, and willed a shard into being. Just like that, it materialized in her palm.
“I said it! You have a new power now! Aiyeee, that was close!” The hound had tried to shoot the bird down, but it was fortunate enough to evade the attack. “I’m not sure how I can help you with this one. That thing is made of rocks and magma. I touch it, and I’m roasted meat! I hear that tastes good, but I don’t want to be one.”
Even at a time like this, she didn’t understand how the bird could have its focus shift so drastically. The hellhound didn’t bother about such things, and instead charged at her. While the bird was still going on about meat, she grabbed it with her right hand and felt the familiar pull that came whenever she took over its body. Her mind now in the bird’s she lifted her body up and flew towards the hound, flinging her body over it at the last second. Her mind returned to her body, and effortlessly she flung out several obsidian shards into the back of the hound.
They connected, driving deep into the rocky exterior. The hound cried out, magma leaking from its wounds to slowly burn whatever had managed to grow around the volcano’s vicinity. The soot and ash swirled around with the brushings of the wind, and it gave the fight a sombre note of finality.
The hound retreated, roared out loud and spewed a stream of lava at her. She ran, jumping over obstacles and hiding behind boulders until the lava was thick enough to burn through and destroy her hiding place.
The magma had spread all over, making the number of places she could move to very limited. She was not equipped to walk on lava, and she definitely wasn’t ready to die by it. She had come far, and she needed to find that core that kept ringing through her head. Something twisted inside of her, and she began to feel heavy. She watched as her skin got thicker, felt it get thicker. The magma around her began to cool off rapidly, releasing high amounts of steam that could burn flesh.
But she didn’t burn.
She felt cool instead, with new energy to fight what was in front of her. The hound could feel her new found power, but it was in its domain, and it wasn’t ready to back down. It roared again, and from somewhere a roar came back as a reply. It wasn’t until she was charging towards it before she realized the second roar had come from her.
They butted heads, the impact sending a shockwave out. Immediately blows were exchanged; the hound swiping with its paws, she throwing punches with her fists. Each blow stronger than the last, and yet it only seemed to fuel them both. The hound tried to bite her, missing by some inches and only taking part of her hair. It tried again, but this time she caught its open jaws with both hands, exerting enough force to dislocate the lower jaw.
The bits of her hair the hound had taken out where blue, and a closer look at her limbs showed that blue lines were running all over them. She flexed her fingers, feeling inner power begging to be released. And she was more than happy to oblige.
The hound tried to stomp on her, but a sharp jab to its chest made it crumple to the ground. It tried to get up, but she delivered another jab straight to the eye. It whined, hoping to scamper away and regroup. But she was having none of it.
The power begging her to be used, she rotated her arms, gearing up to dish out a beating like never before. A left hook, then a right, then 3 left jabs and a right uppercut all landed square on the hound’s face. The blows hit hard, making it disoriented and unable to defend itself. Without wasting a beat, she landed blow after blow after blow until the rocky exterior of the hound’s head began to crack so bad the lava was virtually pouring out and coating her hands.
But she didn’t feel the heat. Instead, she felt calm. She was working with muscle memory. Memories she didn’t remember but somehow knew how to utilize at this precise moment. After an upwards of about 20 blows, she sent energy to her hand and used it to break through the hound’s chest, seizing its heart in her hand. She made the energy flow from her fingers into the heart, completely cooling all the magma inside the hound.
It tried to resist, but it had been weakened so much it barely made a sound. The energy travelled through it, and its red eyes turned blue, along with all the magma. It stayed still, and she pulled out her hand.
Just then, a bright light exploded in her vision, blinding her completely.
Do you know your name?
The voice again. She didn’t know it. How would she? She was meant to find the core and recover her memories. Wasn’t she?
DO YOU KNOW YOUR NAME!?
She was angry. She didn’t know it, and nothing had helped! Who was this trying to question her?
If you don’t know your name, then you have to die!
The silhouette from before appeared before her, brandishing a dagger. When the silhouette moved forward and showed a face, she was shocked completely.
In the labyrinth, the fissures in the sun spread, finally breaking it into two.
And then everything shattered.
Did you hear the one about the couch potato? Me neither. I was too lazy to listen.