She walked into its shadow, her fingers tracing the deep scores in the pitted surface. The scores were cut with intent, angular patterns carved out by hand. Taja ran her fingers over a symbol that resembled a person bending, peered at one that almost, but not quite, could have been a face. Rounding the stone she saw the other side was fire-blackened, blistered, the symbols corrupted. Breath of fire and ash had scorched it long ago.
Looking down she could see the ground before the stone had suffered. Stones were sunken, melted hard into crystalline mounds, the earth cracked. She raised her head and turned, stared into the blaze of the sun, held out her arms, inviting.
She couldn't stand long. Her head was swimming, her legs weak. She'd wet her throat with dew but her stomach shrivelled inside her, aching with hunger. For days she'd walked until she'd dropped into exhausted sleep, woken just as tired, and walked until she dropped again.The ground swelled and swayed and the sun burned and she knew neither up nor down. She didn't know she'd fallen, barely felt her body hit the ground.
Then there she was, dirt caking her dry mouth, grit in her nose.
Time to die Taja, here by this stone. Time to go.
She felt she was falling again, dreamlike, the heat of the sun catching her in its rays and lifting her, spinning her so her empty stomach heaved and clenched. She could see the old woman's face, feel the roar and hiss of the lava, redder, brighter. The ground beneath her groaned. The dirt sagged suddenly under her, dropped down, splintered and tore apart in a cloud that filled her eyes and throat.
Down, tumbling with broken boards and dry earth. Cold rushed up to meet her, darkness deep and empty. I'm dead. I'm dead and falling into hell.
Cold, icy water slammed into her, slapped her skin into fresh agonies. She screamed, but her mouth filled with water and she was choking, going under. So cold, it hurt like knives. She thrashed, terrified. There wasn't so much water in the world.
It carried her, dragged at her, filled her nose and stung her eyes and tugged at her hair. The cold seeped in everywhere and the water rushed all around, flinging her against stones and pounding her against the ground, scraping her numbed legs over sharp rocks and hard edges. It pushed her up and she felt space below her, clung to a stone with her eyes shut, trembling and shaking.
Taja lay there, bruised and panting, coughing up water, for a long while before she opened her eyes.
She was on the edge of a cliff, the deepest foaming water passing just to the left of her and dropping like a sheet of silver into blackness without end. She had been washed up somehow away from the strongest current. To her right, there were stairs.
Stairs, narrow and steep, hugging the rock, travelling downwards.
And a light.