Smoky embers hissed angrily as they escaped with a gasp from the shifting surface of lava. Heat blistered the air, smudging colors and shapes into hazy outlines and wavy tear-stained figures.
As if unaware of this scorching heat, Taja sat crouched beside the pit, naked and bleeding, her wispy brown hair wild about her small round face. Her eyes spoke of horrors and her nose was wrinkled as if from the smell of burning flesh. And indeed, what she had just witnessed was enough to send such rancor smells to the core of one's mind.
"She's dead," murmured Taja. "I killed her." Her voice was bitter.
She continued to stare at the glowing lava, her fists now rocking and rubbing against her muddy temples and her chin resting on her knees. She crouched this way for some time before finally rolling backwards to lie against the scorched grounds, her hair in complete disarray and her eyes gazing to the gray skies with a lost and longing look of despair.
"She shouldna touched me like that."
Gnarled hands grasped at her with ragged black nails, and her entire body shuddered.
"She shouldna tried to trick me like that."
The wicked voice of the old crone dug like nails into her back, and she scratched at her ears.
"She shouldna hit me."
The solid bones of the woman's arm met her cheek like a whipping branch of thorns, and she gingerly touched the tips of her fingers to the bruise.
"She shouldna..." Taja was met with overflowing tears and she rolled onto her knees with wrenching sobs.
And in this miserable state, a pang of fear thrust itself into her heart as she realized that all would grow only worse. The lava had devoured the woman whole, leaving only Taja behind, a murderer, an outcast, a monster.
Her family, friends, mentors, everyone she ever knew would turn against her. And to be cast out upon the lifeless barrens was certain death. She had only lived for fifteen years. An outcast from life at such an age was a disgrace. Her world was gone. Her life was gone. And yet here she remained, crying desperately and scratching her nails into the blackened ground with no regard for the blood that now fell from her fingers.
Could she accept her fate?
There was no choice in the matter. She lifted her tired head and peered out from behind her hair. Here they came, across the dusty landscape, their eyes already stabbing into her with merciless judgment.
When they arrived, they picked her up in silence. They could not speak to an outcast. But Taja could see the pain and sorrow in their eyes. She knew them all so well; they were her friends! But they could not be friends with an outcast. Taja could see her father through the swinging legs as she hung limply in their grasp. His eyes were aimed ahead, and he walked like a zombie, his limbs rigid and sore. Even he could not acknowledge her. She had died with the old crone in the lava pit.
They walked in a solemn band and did not speak a word until Taja had been deposited in the soot of the boundary ridge. And there they left her, lying in a heap, dead to the dead, dead world.
The fire of the morning sun turned her eyelids to flame as the chilly ice frosted around her form. Today she would live again. Her death was complete. Now she could rise as an outcast and finish what was left of her days.
She began her stumble across the gray plains, still naked, still bruised, still numbed with pain. She did not speak, she did not stop, she did not look back. She walked the world of the dead for days it seemed, never once even parting her lips, and only ever stopping when sleep pulled her to the ground.
There was nothing else in the world. Everyone knew that when you were cast out of the settlement you left life behind. The world did not hold anything more. And yet, Taja had only walked for four days before she spotted a looming figure on the horizon.
It looked like a tremendous grave stone. It was a stone and a landmarker, yes. But it did not mark a grave. It did not mark death. It marked life.