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The Echoes of a Sundered Queen

A Hollow World Story

Written by Humbledore.   Audio version available here is available here: https://Humbledore.podbean.com/mf/play/tuau8z/Echos_of_a_Sundered_Queen_-_Audiobook.mp3
The golden sea of desert stretches far into the beyond, within it a single, serpentine Goddess burying itself in and out of the sand. She is a godly shadow in the setting sun, a dark ribbon threading its divine protection through the lands of my home. I watch in reverence, as always, as She rises up a final time, catching the last streaks of sunlight in a dimming sky, a gleaming rainbow of coiled power, before with a quaking roar that lightly thrums through my window seat, She disappears into the cooling sands to sleep for the night.   Quietly, I let a hushed prayer fall from my lips; for Her skin to shed to bring the rain, for my lord husband to return safely on the morrow, for this relative safety to last just a few more years.   A quiet knock, familiar in its rhythm, breaks my solemn request.   “My Queen? The princess wishes to say goodnight.”   Despite worry clenching its icy, unwanted hands around my throat, the warmth in my chest allows me to speak. “Send her in, sister, and could you kindly take away the dishes in here.”   Nanu enters first, dropping into a low curtsy that sends the light blue linen of her dress fluttering. It is cut in a traditional style, with flowing sleeves and skirts that allow for airflow while maintaining the modesty of our scales. Sandaled toes peek out from underneath the fabric as she turns to usher in my daughter Parvati, who barely reaches her waist. Large green eyes, a distant mirror of my own before my ascension to Matriarchy, look at me with shy expectation as Nanu begins to tidy the remnants of a lonely tea.   Unfolding my hands from my stomach, I beckon her forward. “Come, little love. Tell me of your day.”   In a flurry of chiffon and cotton she is settled on my lap, the blonde curls of her hair - her father's influence, for my own is dark like the tobacco he likes to chew - pressing itself into my lips. I keep them there as she begins to speak in the way that a learned five year old does; precocious and self-absorbed, but delightful as ever as she recounts tales of her studies and play-dates with the other sisters and her enigmatic godmother.   I listen, inputting and encouraging when necessary, until her stories run dry and her lips stutter. I shift us both so my back is firmly pressed against the chaise-lounge, supporting me when the inevitable overcomes me. With my back settled and my grip affectionately tight, I take stock of how I am feeling. My limbs ache, as if grit was packed between the corded muscles which rub and chafe at the very bones they are anchored to. The skin of my neck prickles with incessant warmth in warning, but the splitting headache that accompanies those deep trances remains mercifully absent for now.   “It sounds like you have had quite a day, my love. Have you had time to clean your scales?” I ask, knowing the answer was negative by the way her small toes rap a nervous rhythm against my ankle.   She hums a noncommittal response, wedging herself to get more comfortable in my lap. Well that is that.   “I suppose you would like me to do it for you today?”   “Yes.”   “Yes…?”   “...please. I did my legs already mama, I promise.”   “Good girl.” I grab the small kit from a table beside me, always in arms reach. Simple instruments made of the finest steel: tweezers, a push stick, a picking needle, a bowl and finally a horse-hair brush. I begin to help her out of her clothes, inspecting her skin with a clinical care. The topaz and amethyst gems embedded within the skin of her back and shoulders only hold a little muck, and so my work begins.   I begin with the brush first, loosening any bits of sand and debris before working with the tweezers to peel off any stray flakes of skin. “You know, you are getting too old for me to do this for you.” I chide lightly, flicking away a piece of dislodged, tan skin into the bowl. It settles and sticks to the side like a flake of gold leaf. I make a mental note to ask Nanu for a small fire for the remains to be destroyed in the proper way.   “I can’t reach my back! God-sister Rowan says I should try turning into a weasel.” She calls back with expected, childish indignation, and I cannot help a sly grin. My daughter is most unfortunate to have the majority of her scales down her back where she cannot easily reach them, unlike my own, which run down my neck and sides in a mosaic of rubies, emeralds and garnets. But they must be cleaned regardless, these beautiful tapestries that capture the light of the sun and signify our closeness to the Great Serpent, our pride as a people. Every scale of our people is unique in colour, no two scales are ever quite the same shade, and each one is considered a gift from the Great Mother Herself.   A gift that requires much upkeep, however. Especially when shedding, as my princess is now; common for those her age, in a period of rapid growth as they are.   “Your Godmother is blessed with a gift we do not have. All the more reason to practice your stretches, is it not?” I retort, to which the answer was a grumpy sort of silence, which eventually was forgotten in favour of a young child's ceaseless thirst for entertainment.   “Are you well enough to tell stories today mama?”   With a flourish, I remove the last of the detritus with the picking needle, the push stick left untouched as it proved still a little too large to be efficient against her juvenile scales. “I am well enough for one story, my dear. Which do you wish to hear?”   “God-sister Rowan told me she was grown from a great big tree. Was I grown from a tree too, mama?”   I blanch a little, grateful her back is turned. I love Rowan, but she incites mischief wherever she goes, I can almost hear the tinkling of mischievous laughter as I process how to answer.   “I’m afraid not, little love. You were grown in me.”   “How?”   I sigh warily, trying to think of a way out of this particular conversation. I take my time to place the cleaning tools back on the table, wrapping them in red cloth to show Nanu they had been used. “With the help of your father. Unlike the Queen Nistarti, who came from the Great Mother’s egg, She didn’t need a father.”   “Why?”   “The Great Mother is a serpent, She laid an egg and the Great Queen hatched from it. I think-” I say quickly, just as I catch the intake of her breath to ask another single worded question. “-this is the story I will tell you today.”   My child squirms in my lap for a minute, burrowing her way to further comfort in my chest, stealing a little breath out of my lungs. I pull her garments back to rights as best as she allows, stuck to me as stubbornly as she is.   “The story of our people began long ago, with the Great Mother, the mighty Serpent goddess that roamed the Ghabarian desert - and roams it still today. She laid three eggs, and coiled around them to protect them for many years. She stayed so still Her skin shed from the light of the sun, and the first rains fell upon the desert, blessing the rolling hills and baked planes with plant life for the first time, but in doing so, two of Her eggs were washed away. The third egg hatched, and from it came Queen Nistarti. She was a woman, and not. With Her shifting form She could slither through the sand or walk upon it beside the Great Mother. Together, they built the first cities, the largest being our home, S-.”   My neck burns and cools with a sudden intensity, spreading savage winter down my spine as my eyes roll back, my tongue going limp around the name.  
I form myself with limbs, mine and my Mothers scales casting chromatic shadows in the hot sand and in the waters of the oasis. I raise these strange limbs and the colours bend to my will, dragging the sands with it, the grains forming large, hollow spirals and domes as I envisage them.   Mother strikes at my temporary, sprawling creations, sinking Her fangs deep into the base. Her venom climbs and twists like liquid vines around the fragile buildings, binding it together and leaving an iridescent, deadly lattice within the tan sand that glints and glimmers in the unrelenting sun. A new home, Shams Afeea, untouchable to the rains and sandstorms that would tear it down.   Clusters of darkly lined eyes, wrapped in ragged clothes watch in awe as a city of sand and pearl builds and solidifies before their eyes. They fall to their knees at Our command, seeking shelter and the waters of the oasis that my home is now built around.   My people, as I will call them, tell me of the desert clans that wage war upon one another and upon the God King Adewale, who jealously guards all of his rich, fertile land to the north. I tell them Mother and I will build more cities and bring rain, if only they lay down their arms in worship. I tell them they have my protection from this God King in my cities, but they must never commit crimes upon Our holy ground.   Within a few years I am a Queen, and my sands are no longer red from the spilling of blood, but blooming green with life.
  I taste the sweet tang of blood as I come to, my daughter waiting patiently. The back of my head lightly throbs, the coldness fading into that hot itching once again. More will come tonight, telling this story.   “Shams Afeea.” My daughter says, nudging my cheek to rouse me. "You were having visions again, mama." Her lips struggle and lisp around the word.   “I may have a few more tonight, but be a good girl for me and stay with your mama?" She nods, and I press a little kiss onto her cheek in thanks. "And yes, you were right. Our home, Shams Afeea. It was made with sand, magic and venom, and was the largest the Mother Snake and the Queen ever built.” I capture my child's small hand and press it to the wall underneath the window, over a streak of lustrous, solidified venom that is always warm to the touch. She feels over the smoothness of it, contrasting the roughness of the stone, a soft scar upon calloused skin.   Meanwhile, I continue the story. “She brought together the desert clans, who were fighting each other for food and water when the Jungle King in the north would not allow them access to his resources. But if the people were good, and they worshipped the Queen and the Great Mother properly, Their skin would shed and bring rain to the desert, allowing food to be grown. These skins, every colour of the rainbow, were used to build and decorate holy shrines which gave the people a place of worship.”   “Will you take me to one?”   “They have long been buried by the sand, but if we find one, of course I will. Your father has his men searching for them.” I stroke her head for a second, biting my tongue as the real reason for the desperate search. The Great Mother is a fierce protector, but Her reach only extends so far. We can see enemies approaching over the horizon of the desert banks, but what of the ones that lurk beneath the sand itself?   “Okay… so what happened next?”   “Well, the Queen was a fair ruler and beloved by all, but would not stand violence against Her people. She eventually clashed with the Jungle King, who sought to take Her now thriving lands from Her. The war went on for many years, the dark magic of the Jungle King and his armies frightfully strong, but the desert was the Queen and Her Mothers to command, swallowing his men whole.”   “The desert swallowed them whole?”   “It did. Big waves of sand that buried them all.” I raise my hands above her, and bring them softly crashing down upon her belly with a playful laugh that she mirrors.   “Eventually however, the Queen grew tired of the war, and tricked the Jungle King. She acted as if She was losing, and offered Herself in matrimony - marriage - to the King. Their union would join their lands and peoples together, and they could rule it all together without any more bloodshed. Our Queen was very beautiful, it is said that Her eyes glittered brighter than the treasures he hoarded in his mountain temple, and Her magics and words wove songs in the air that no man could ignore. The King was greedy and wished to have such a prize-”   Pain puts its cruel lance through my temples and I see the back of my skull, a dark void.  
The sands shift and move under my command, revealing the twisted labyrinths that harbour those grey abominations. My vision travels through those tunnels, brought before a stone door that whispers of eternity, of scales that flake, wither and grow over and over. A chanting, choking demon, swallowing their own tail forever and ever, bringing corruption with each cycle.   I take the strong hand beside me, and we go forward together. His lions rip apart their dull, slimy forms and we look on without mercy, the memories of our own peoples flesh twisted and torn fresh in our minds. They sought to divide us, but instead, we are one.   He slits my hand gently after placing a kiss upon my palm, and guides my bloodied flesh to that door. The colours chase away the grey, sealing it shut, the whispers behind it now a furious roar that digs relentlessly into my soul-
  I choke for air, my daughter turning around to look at me with wide, viridescent eyes. I feel the crawling whispers echo through my skull still, a grim confirmation that the story we were taught was not the whole one.   But she is not ready for the truth yet. In truth, nor was I when I learnt it.   As I placate my daughter with soothing murmurs, I remember how I learnt. The harder way, in the flesh, rather than with visions. Those came after.   Just a few weeks ago, my husband hadn’t returned from leading a trading envoy to collect the ‘penance’. A trail was left for us to find, blatant and taunting; my husbands ring was placed over the entrance to an underground temple at the end of it.   Damned by devotion, my forces and I went in and encountered the horrors of the Orobos for ourselves, like Mother did so long ago. Oddly childlike in form, they were stunted beings with flaky grey scales and a mouth too small to contain their teeth. Milky eyes that were unseeing watched my descent in the shadows, yet despite their apparent blindness they navigated their lair with ease. They are all female, like us, and yet there are lesser men like themselves, with grey skin and scale, made prisoner as slaves and nourishment, along with the corpses of travelers stripped clean of their flesh.   Whenever we entered a chamber, it was always dimly lit with dying torches. The flames flickered as I had walked past, causing the shadows of the engravings upon those walls to grow and shrink as if moving and alive. They told of a story that seared itself into my memory ever since - a snake and a lion, side by side, fighting off the armies of the corrupt souls that infected the underbelly of the desert like a parasite, rather than each other, like the stories always said.   The Orobos hissed and mocked me in a bastard tongue as I walked in their darkness, feeling their rank breaths upon my skin like an oily plague. At the end of it, I found my husband chained to that giant stone door, poisoned knives to his throat. The leader, a head priestess in a white mask, stepped forward and a deal was proposed, a drop of my blood for the life of my husband. That drop would be the key to their salvation, the echo of the Queens power undoing the seal. That the Great Mother snake was only half the story, half the power, that the other half lay in what is sealed away.   Vas’elarath.   The name rattles in my skull even now, as eternal as they are.   I brought the colours from above and weaved patterns in the air, mesmerising most of them to complacency. Rows and rows of their disfigured, ashen forms all looking towards the sky in a tranquil awe, akin to a man seeing the sun for the first time. Those strong enough of will tried to shake them from their daze, hissing and shrieking a terrible cacophony in the chamber that whispers at the edges of my nightmares.   Perhaps it was the first time some of them had seen colour, and for most of them, it was the last time they ever would.   My forces freed my husband, and fought the rest to a tentative standstill, but their head priestess slipped through my fingers, melding into the stone walls of her cursed temple. Outmatched and their leverage safely in my hands, the rest let us free - I couldn’t risk spilling a drop for someone to use later, so they are there still, but weakened.   She will come after my blood again… Whether it be me or my daughter.   And so, my husband searches for those holy shrines buried under the sand while my own treacherous hand writes to our enemy, telling them of the danger that is lurking beneath the sands once more.   My gaze falls upon my writing table. Neat stacks of paper, along with a scattering of a few letters; news from over the sea in a script only my husband can fully comprehend. There was no reply, but I had not expected one.   “Mama? You ‘kay?”   I wet the gravel of my lips and throat with a drink of spring water. “Well enough to tell the rest of the story.”   She nods, and turns in my lap so she faces me to bury her face in my neck. I catch a glimpse of her half-lidded, sleepy expression. I smile into her cheek; no doubt the end of the story will fall on deaf ears tonight.   I keep my tone low, gentle and soothing like a lullaby. Every word was slow, drawn out, with a softness that did not match the events in the story; but that would not matter to my daughter. I laced the words with a downy green that soothed the deep ache in my bones, a salve to the itching on my skin. “Where was I…? Ah, yes... The King, he accepted the proposal of the Queen, but first, punished Her by slaying Her best and most devout warriors, promising that from now on, She would be served by those loyal to them both. The Queen did not forget, and so, in response, poisoned him with Her blood as he slept beside Her.”   The gentle snores of my daughter greet me as I pause, but I continue, whispering the half-truths to the unfeeling lights held in the night sky and no one else.   “Mother escaped upon the back of the Great Serpent, freeing the jungle people to follow whatever path they wanted. She returned to Her city, ravaged as it was, and rebuilt it, safe in the knowledge that tyrant of a King was dead. In this peace, She bore three daughters, and although they were tainted with the blood of the now dead Adewale, She loved them deeply. The Queen decided to keep their lineage a secret lest Her people turned against them, enacting a final revenge against those laden with the blood of the Jungle King. They all possessed a similar intelligence and beauty to the Queen, but had an easier time in a humanoid form due to their fathers influence.” The word father is heavy leadened poison on my tongue.   “There was peace, for a time, but it was not to last. Through unholy means, the King was resurrected from his poisoned death. Now, unable to die, he, with the help of his corrupt alchemists, lay siege to Her city. He brought with him his greatest and most vicious lions, who he imbued with the same unholy power as he held, that of undeath. The Queen, fearing his wrath, implored the Great Mother to take the daughters he knew nothing of and leave Her, as he would only rest with Her death.”   Knew nothing of. I clutch Parvati as darkness tugs at me, guiding me to the unpleasant truth.  
“Hold the brush like so, Safiya. We shall do this one together, you and I.” A large, strong hand encapsulates my wrist, steadying the shaking of my inexperience. Scarlet paints the edge of the brush, posed over the lips of Mothers burgeoning visage. Father guides my hand just so, bringing the smiling lips to life. A curling grin, soft in so many ways, but always promising of more, for good or ill.   We continue to paint, him showing me every colour of our land and how to bring it to life upon the canvas. One day, he says, he will show me how to wield the colours like a weapon, just as he and Mother do.   A year later we step back together, the hands moving to become cold weight on my shoulders. I crane my neck to catch Fathers expression - solemn as always, but his eyes never lie. They are bright, terrifyingly alive, and now, quietly satisfied.   I could never have known that this picture would hang in his throne room long after I was gone, for anyone to look upon our family in what I’d hope was awe. My sisters, one tall and lithe, built like a sleek lion and just as deadly, the other with softer edges and a kindly look about her, with glittering vials of unknown concoctions upon her hip. Myself, shorter, in the centre wearing the finest silks of my favourite dancing clothes, with bells so bright I can almost hear them tinkle. And lastly, Mother and Father, encircling us all, contrasting in emotion and poise like night and day, but ever watchful over us.
  I desperately catch my breath, my watering eyes finding their way to my own latest creation, a half painted owl, snow-white and moody, wings carefully folded and eyes full of intelligent disdain.   Those amber eyes watch lifelessly as I lose myself again.  
“Nefret! Do not wander too far from your Father!”   “You worry too much, Mother!” I cry, and with a gentle kick the powerful, dark muscle beneath me begins to shift. I cling to the thick mane with both hands as we begin to bound forward, away from the cries of Mother, the wind stinging my eyes, but I will not close them.   The jungle around passes in a blur of exotic colours and sounds: the cries and coos of birds, the creaking, clicking songs of insects, the rustling of branches and lush leaves above as monkeys scatter at our approach, taking their ripened treasured fruits with them. Fresh rain from the night before leaves the jungle glimmering, diamond droplets dripping off foliage as Taki and I disturb them.   A shrill cry of elation tears itself from my chest as Taki leaps over a fallen log, the verdant mosses growing upon it a river we have to cross. From the apex, I spot the flash of a hefty, brown form dash into the undergrowth with a piercing squeal.   Needing no words, Taki turns as I draw my spear and our hunt begins. The tusks of boars are deadly, but the fatty meat makes a rich feast for the lucky and brave enough to risk being gored on.   I am fearless. Let us see about lucky.   Raising that spear, I can feel the wind whistle past its tip like a battle cry. My arm snaps back, ready to throw, I can already see the sharp point embedding itself into the flesh of its shoulder-   Suddenly my world goes spinning in a blur of motion, my limbs slamming into thick trees with painful thuds, vines and branches whipping the skin off my back. I hear Taki give out a low whine, but our connection is broken, I cannot see what they can. If I’m honest with myself, even if I could, with the sense knocked out of me I wouldn’t register it anyway.   “Your Mother told you to stay by me, child.”   I freeze, before rolling onto my bloodied back and craning my bruised neck up.   Father sits atop his lion, arms folded in a picture of kingly calm, yet I struggle not to slither backwards as what's left of the skin on my neck prickles.The giant paw of his mount crushes into the shoulder of Taki with claws outstretched, who exposes his neck in submission. My spear lies discarded at the base of a tree, my quarry long gone. Unlucky…   “She said not to wander too far, and since you were close enough to catch me like that, I think I did as I was told.” Brain to mouth, please stop. You’re only making this worse for yourself!   “You think, hm?” He dismounts smoothly, deftly avoiding stepping on Taki, who remains pinned by his older brother. “Stand and tell me what you think.”   A challenge indeed. I use the tree that flayed me as a grip, and I’m halfway to victory when I’m brought back down by strong arms. My back screeches as the sticks and stones of the jungle floor bite into it once more, but it is nothing compared to the terror in my heart. Father looks down upon me, jaw tense, holding my neck with one large, cold hand.   “You do not think.” His other finger presses against my temple, coating his fingers in my blood. “Enemies wander in this jungle. Enemies that are stronger than the pigs you hunt, who will not be as merciful as me when they capture you.”   Wisely, I do not respond, the hammering in my chest not allowing me to form words. A long moment passes between us before the weight is gone and I’m lifted into his arms.   “You forever try my patience, Nefret.” He whispers into my temple, the shattered bones and torn skin of me knitting together once more. I itch, but say nothing. “Try it no more today.”   “I’ll be good… sorry.”   “You can try.” I feel a gentle rumble of humor in his chest, and my breath relaxes. He places me upon his lion, who finally releases my dear Taki. Fathers arms encircle me as we ride together through the jungle, the promises of roasted boar fueling my determination.   Unbeknownst to me, ashen forms lay bleeding and burnt nearby, to rot into the soft loam of the jungle and never to be seen again.
  A breath and a stifled cry. I hope Parvati doesn’t wake-  
“Again, Therma.”   “Again, Father?”   At his stoic silence, I stifle a tired sigh and shoot a look of disdain at the failed concoction below me. Near it stands many more vials, some successful, most not.   Why is this happening?   “That is for you to figure out, as I once did. The answer is before you, if you only look and think.” He replies, my mind always is an open book to him. Mother says my face gives everything away. I say they just know me too well.   I inspect the most recent of my failures, a pleasant mix of sweet mint and other herbs. A very simple recipe to aid in digestion, but proving too difficult for me to master consistently. I pinch my fingers through it, feeling the grit of the diced leaves that should have dissolved…   A spark ignites in my brain, and ignoring the cramping in my fingers, I slice, chop and dice away yet another set of herbs. My hands will smell for weeks, but it will be worth it.   I set up two stations and automatically begin adding the right amounts, turning the heat from low to high as required, stirring carefully and precisely in the right directions, paying attention to the brews within. Soon I reach the final stage, where everything seems to melt together in a matter of seconds, the leaves and pods within disestablishing and leaving behind a smooth liquid that can be drunk with ease. That is, when it goes correctly.   Unlike the other times, I actively call upon the colours, plucking at them and seeing where they go. Blue dives within one mixture, but I keep it away from the other.   One melds together seamlessly, the other stays a gritty paste. I look to Father, the quirk of his lips present just long enough to appreciate it.   “The world supplies the foundation with the ingredients it provides, a lattice that we shape with our own energy. A lattice of herbs, shaped by our power, becomes something different and new.” His lectures are always short, so I keep my ears peeled as I turn the heat off and bottle the success, victory leaving me giddy.   In a flurry of motion that I can’t follow, more herbs are prepared, the mint ground rather than diced, the aloe cubed rather than into thin slimy slices, rose petals sprinkled in whole rather than ripped apart. He plucks blue, as I did, and I watch in awe as his concoction turns a sickly green, the acrid scent of it burning my nostrils. “But we can only stretch that lattice so far, so the right ingredients must be provided, cut and prepared in the right way.” He gestures to the acidic mixture, so different from the smooth mint of my potion. “A simple change in how they are prepared, in how the foundational lattice is laid out, can alter the end result.”   I scan the room with fresh eyes, taking in the plethora of ingredients around me. Flowers of our lands and of distant ones, animal parts both rare and common in jars, gems and metals in iron chests - I only considered their properties static, but now, endless possibility lays outstretched before me, with the right tools I can do anything. “What determines the lattice?”   His teeth are so white against the steel of his skin, sharing my enthusiasm. “That, my daughter, is your next lesson. But for now, Mother calls us to dine.”   We clean in contented silence together, though I request for my failed attempts to be set to one side for further experimentation. After all, if the lattice is laid out and it is just not shaped, how far could I shape it? What if I add additional lattices atop it? What can I build and create with different colours?   It provokes a rare laugh out of Father, who tells me I am his daughter through and through.   I am proud to be just that.
  Finally, I come to the surface, to my senses, my tears pooling and wetting the clothed shoulder of my child. Thankfully she has not stirred yet, but this story is dangerous now in what they provoke. Someone could have taken the tools beside me, heated them to a blazing glow and pressed them into my temples and I would know no difference, such is that terrible pain.   The prickling on my neck has become an incessant clawing of a beast that tells me this story is not over yet, the grit between my muscles now sharp scraps of metal. I draw on the colours through the pain, streaks of red and amber sending a desperate signal for help. Now I can only sit and endure the pages that turn with agonising clarity in my head.  
We hold each other, sat upon the tongue of the Great Serpent whose maw is tightly shut around us, a triad of misery. I watch Her gently swallow without moving the tongue, the back of Her throat closing and opening rapidly like a fleshy flower. The tang of ancient iron is overwhelming to the senses, but nothing compared to the grief. Many eyes watch us, fearful and subservient.   “How could she do this to us?” Nefret snaps, he grief only sharpening her rage. “Send us away when She needs us the most?”   I stay silent, letting Therma do the talking. I fear if I open my mouth, I’ll shatter.   “She does not wish for us to see Her killed…” Therma softly responds, her long limbs tightening around us. “And Father is so angry… maybe he would hurt us too.”   “Well maybe Mother deserves it, for what she did!”   “What she did was to save us, you know that!” The gentleness of Therma hardens slightly, but her grip remains loving still.   “And Father came back from the dead, angrier than ever! And now we are shipped off across the bloody sea, to Mother-knows-not-where, little more than homeless orphans!”   It stings so deeply, those two little words. Never again we will look over the lush jungles upon the mountain palace, watching the sun rise with Mother and Father in hand. Nor will we see the beautiful sunset in the desert, streaking violets and simmering oranges giving way to the clearest of night skies where the stars told silent stories in the above. No more bell dancing with Mother, no more painting with Father.   No more anything.   A headache builds as my dearest sisters continue to argue, a cold scratching down my spine of dread at what lies ahead. The scent of blood becomes the taste of it, dripping into my mouth, and I vanish into nothing as those holding me argue long into the night.
  Shouting servants, the weight of my daughter is gone from the safety of my chest, blood flowing freely and staining my dress. I panic, trying to keep my vision clear to see if she is still with me, fighting off the spectral beast that sinks its claws into me to drag me down again. A kaleidoscope of hysterical power ripples within, where is she?  
Colours that once rose so easily flail weakly at the maws of His lions that hold each of my arms, their terrible fangs piercing their way through the whole limb. The curses that wracked my body stopped me from shifting into my true form, and so I shall die on my knees today.   Yet, I have won, as my home stands empty behind me; my beloved daughters now far across the sea in the belly of Mother, to a land I pray is more welcoming than our own. They are as safe as I can make them, far from the corruption that poisons the sands, far from the possessive fury of Adewale, and if I have taught them enough, they will not return.   With my failing strength, I meet His eyes for one last time. They burn with a cold grief, the moisture within surely a trick of the light, for the rest of his body is set in hard, unforgiving lines. The last fragments of colour I have left itch for release, pouring from my grievous wounds faster than the gold of my blood. I have one last fail-safe, one last protection left within me for my daughters, for the ancestors I hope to have.   “You and your people... will know only suffering if they invade my home again, my husband.” I cry, unabashed, as the lions begin to pull either way, feeling my flesh rip at the seams, my bones being pulled from my sockets. But I do not look away, He will see this. “My spirit won’t rest! Not until you rest with me! THIS I SWEAR!”   His fingers grip my jaw, tilting my head up, as his lions continue to tug and drag the flesh from my bones. Gently, a knife is placed through my temple, and my spirit watches my own body become a sundered mess of flesh, scale and sinew as His lions continue to devour every trace.   When they are done, not a single drop of blood is left.   It is as promised.
  The doors slamming open, a tall shadow stood against the light. My mind is brighter than it ever was. My daughter-!  
Days turn into weeks, weeks of sitting or slithering through the Great Mothers many teeth. I count them over and over again, the number always changing. We must be a whole world away now, yet the distance has not dulled the grief.   The walls are always echoing with nervous chatter, servants playing games, my sisters arguing or training, or songs of home. Of loss. Of dreams for a new land. Of hope to leave this maw and see something.   Our wish is granted after an eternity, the rhythmic movement of Her body finally ceases which sends those unprepared stumbling forward into Her front teeth from the force. Her jaws creak as they open for the first time in forever and salty, tanged air, fresh and welcome, invades Her cavernous mouth. I, along with the others, begin breathing in large gulps of it in desperate relief, relishing the taste of air that wasn’t strongly sullied with waste. Some squeal as salt water begins to rush in over Her gums, lapping at their toes, urging them forward to submerge themselves within it and scrub themselves clean of the journey they endured.   The blanket of night is set over the sky, and we wade through the sea waters to a vision of white that stretches into the sky like Mothers palace did. It is a wall that gleams with a soft halo in the moonlight, with moving speckles of flame perched atop it - no doubt guards. Beyond it lies a city that is still awake with song, with life and colour unseen and unknown.   But for now, we dig our bare feet into the new, damp sand, feeling the grit between our toes, so familiar and yet… the grit here is coarse, mixed with pebbles both sharp and smooth, unlike the silken sands of the desert that have been polished by a thousand sandstorms.   The waters behind me splash with movement as the rest emerge onto the beach, falling to their knees and crying ‘Maladah! Maladah!’.   Time will tell if this place with these white high walls will be our Maladah, our sanctuary. I look to my sisters, extending a compassionate colour to them both. They take my hands, Therma to my right, Nefret to my left.   They feel as I do. This may be a sanctuary, but that is all it will ever be. Home is across the sea, calling to us all now, a sad lament in our soul that has no end.   We watch the Great Mother rise upon the beach, bending Her head down to inspect us with an animalistic gaze that takes us all off guard. Hands are clasped to mouths in startled screams - surely She would not take us here to eat us? The light and life in Her eyes… it’s almost extinguished. She looks at us like She does not know who we are, and with a hiss that rattles our scales, disappears back into the cool waters of the sea, never to be seen by us again. The last link of our family swims away without a glance back.   “We have each other, always. Even if this city does not like us, ” Therma murmurs to us, the first thing that doesn’t sound so hollow to our ears since we left Shams Afeea.   “Always together.” Nefret responds, her tough grip tightening.   “Always family.” I agree, a touch of golden song weaving the bonds of promise between us.   And so we step forward to carve ourselves shining new destinies, to try and fill the void of home with anything else.
  Cool hands upon my forehead, the scent of rich comfort and spices, of love. Arms encircle me and lift me out the chair with a loud grunt of pain. A smell of blood and seared flesh, iron upon iron, my own and others. In the distance of the room my baby weeps, asking if her mama is dead. My love calls for me.   “Sayyida!”   I am already gone.  
I let my eyes slide closed as I bend over the blank cards, letting the colours guide my hand to bring the pictures to life. A new life in Aria, in the white city of Averius, still called Maladah to us.   “Show me my sisters.”   My hand stops after a while, the melody of the colours coming to an end. Three cards lay before me, beautiful in their intricacies, and I am relieved to see that we are all still alive.   Nefret's card is sleek blue, dancing with the shadows that see no stars. Gone is the spear, now she holds daggers, and yet whatever she targets still bleeds all the same. A dangerous job, but she did always love the thrill of the hunt.   Therma’s is the colour of the summer sky, with twisting vines and blooming gardens that she walks within, her face held high in serenity. At her hip, glass baubles glitter, the same as they did back home. Her experiments always continue, and she will never run out of things to learn.   Mine last. It is grey, with threaded webs of gold that extend to the back of the card like a spider left to weave its nest for too long. Between the webs, hidden in the grey, faint echoes lurk that tell tales of past, present and future, that bleed me red before fading away.   The eyes are my own at my most vulnerable; haunted by the creaking lights in my mind, dreams of a world that once was, and a world to come.   I can only watch and write these stories down, fragments of a grander picture others must put together. I am too late, and too early. But there will be many others that are placed just so in time, and so, a spark of hope for us all.   “Sayyida?”
  “Sayyida…?”   I groan, shaking my head slightly into… flesh? Light assaults my eyes as I flutter my lids to catch a glimpse, a chest of white bandages and the stubbled neck I am buried into. Strong, lithe arms are wrapped around me as we lay upon the bed together, the rustling of cotton sheets and the smoked scent of tobacco filling my senses.   “Balthazar?” The name comes with a rasping effort, the vibrations of it rough in my throat.   “I’d hope so. I wouldn’t want my wife waking up in just any man's arms.”   I hiss a light chuckle, before going to cough. The sound explodes in my ears, and I retch up. My eyes water from the force of it and the warm golds, whites and reds of the room become a blur.   Strong hands rub my sore back and bring a bowl to cough up the blood I had swallowed, before soothing me back down to rest again. His fingers, perfectly soft, wipe away the tear tracks on my cheeks.   “Yes, I find the image of you with anyone else quite disgusting as well.”   “Don’t…” I plead, a pained smile curling my lips. “Make me laugh... Please.”   “Of course, my Queen. I shall keep my wit firmly to myself until you are better.” A warm kiss is pressed to my forehead, though I hear his breath intake sharply. Pain?   “What happened…? Where-” I shoot up, out of his arms, eyes scanning the room for my daughter. A breeze rolls in through the open window, shifting the translucent material of our bed curtains just enough for me to see her curled upon the same chaise-lounge that we told stories upon last night, a shaft of morning sunlight basking her peaceful form.   That sudden spike of adrenaline fades, and with it, the harsh reality of feeling comes back.   “If you are done scaring the heart from my chest, my love…?” My husband tugs at me to lay once more. “You had one of your episodes again. Parvati fetched the servants, who alerted me. I'd just arrived back at the time, and was more than taken a little off guard. It was a bad one this time…” He taps over his bandages. “Caught me when I held you to try and get you out of it. Rowan healed me as best she could, but was rather a little more worried about you. A sentiment we share, it seems.”   I murmur my apologies into his chest, threading them with green to soothe beneath the cotton. I feel him relax again, his breaths becoming easier.   “Thank you. As much as I love being your hero, I find scars quite distasteful.” I can feel his smile against my ear, a playful nip at my earlobe.   I shiver just a little, before ducking away and hiding in the crook of his neck.   “My exchange with the God King's men went well. We are building some respectable emergency stores now.” I stiffen a little, but say nothing. “I heard an interesting piece of news too… He’s hosting another auction. Out in the open.”   I meet his eyes, concealed with a careful impassiveness that only the Southern nobility of Aria can achieve. Probing to see my response, hiding his worry.   He knows I must go at some point.   “I am in no state… not until I get control of these…visions.”   “It was what I was hoping you’d say.”   “But I have to go soon.”   “...I wish you’d have stopped at the first one.”   I press a kiss upon his cheek. “I wish too, my dear. But I have an obligation-”   “Do you?”   “Of course. To my people, to our daughter and the daughters to come, to our friends, to the mage sitting in our attic giving us extra incentive. A mage, I kindly remind you, you brought into this.”   “I’d lost you, what else could I d-” I hold my fingers to his lips, silencing him.   “We are not having this argument again.” I say, with as much firmness as Rowan in kitten form. “I have to go, but not today.”   “Not tomorrow either.”   “Not tomorrow.” I promise, my eyes finding a godly shadow rising out of the sand to bask in the morning sun.   Not tomorrow, but soon.   Father will have answers, if I live long enough to ask him.   And if I have any time left, I’ll put him and mother to rest at last.   Upon my daughter's life, that is my promise.   -Fin-

Comments

Author's Notes

Final word count: 7868.   Thank you so much for making it to the end! This story was written in the Hollow World, a world I have played in for many years, and I am grateful my DM (Hollow) gave the go ahead for me to write this story. Credits to them below.   Any feedback is much appreciated and most definitely will be considered for future works (if any)! Thank you again, and to those also in the competition, best of luck!   -Humbledore   Twitch: @Ahollowtale   YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCndvHdQuzfwhmKOA3hPjUAQ


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Sage yingfire
Sean Sullivan
8 Aug, 2019 05:43

Haven't finished yet, but my goodness it was a relief to read this. Most of the other stories in the anthology competition are not nearly as well written. You actually take some time to make the prose pleasant, and your first paragraph introduced wonder rather than a fight scene or a character faffing around.

As for criticism, I noticed you rely on adverbs a lot. You could have more creative and interesting descriptions if you removed the adverbs from most non-dialogue related stuff. As for the story itself, I'm unhappy to say that if the story is going to give exposition about the lore, and you're going to have jump-cuts between scenes with different characters in the lore, it might be better, structure-wise, to simply start in the middle of where the lore starts. I haven't finished, yet, so I'll need to read the whole thing to be sure -- it's just that you don't want your readers to have so many sympathies for so many characters at once, especially ones that are separated by time.

You can give me unhappy criticisms in return.r

Sage yingfire
Sean Sullivan
8 Aug, 2019 11:17

Finished it now, and I realised that this is more of a worldbuilding exercise for your campaign. With that in mind, I want to take back what I said about the jump-cuts. I think you did them well, and they are good worldbuilding bits. Good writing!

8 Aug, 2019 12:47

Hi Sean,   First, thank you for reading through to the end and then taking the time to think about it and give real feedback.   I will have to do a little research into different descriptive techniques, maybe do a few short stories with that in mind. So thank you for that!   I'm glad that you think it is well written, and that the visions worked well in the end.   I will definitely check out your story and get to reading once I have some spare time on a weekend! I'd want to sit down and give it the same careful thought that you gave mine. :)   Many thanks again,   Humbledore

8 Aug, 2019 23:06

Your story is beautiful, and your worldbuilding really pulled me in. A beautiful, wondrous tale, and I am so grateful I had the opportunity to read it.   Just one question. In the last flashback vision I felt like the Goddess was the one who carried them away in her mouth? It says she disappeared into the ocean, never to be seen again, but then who is that in your opening? That bit confused me.   Aside from that I am loving this, especially the way you used the grooming session to introduce the scales. That little interaction with her daughter before the story was my favorite part. So tender and sweet but also with purpose! Well done.

Author of Fillimet, bright fantasy land of possibilities
8 Aug, 2019 23:36

Hey! Thank you so much, I'm humbled that you would say that!   Ah that is a great point, I think I'll need to clarify that it was never seen again by the daughters - thank you for catching that :)   Thank you again, I based the interactions off how my little nephew acts sometimes, so I'm particularly glad you enjoyed that!

Johnatron3000
John Rivers
9 Aug, 2019 00:04

Nice story Humbledore!

10 Aug, 2019 11:44

Thank you, I hope you enjoyed it!

9 Aug, 2019 22:53

After reading through this the first time, this is wonderful. The setting is intriguing, the characters are engrossing, and the lore is fantastic. In all honesty, this is making me want to go back and either rewrite my own entry, or do a different one entirely. As with everything I read/watch/play, I try to find inspiration from it, and this has easily succeeded in doing so. I wished I had found something funky to talk about before I commented so it didn't sound like mindless praise (which I guess I kinda did, though that was patched over later in the story). In any case, well done!

10 Aug, 2019 11:49

If you have found a little inspiration in this, then that is the highest compliment you could have given me, mindless or not. Thank you very much! <3

12 Aug, 2019 11:26

Amazing story :) loved it :)

13 Aug, 2019 16:33

Thank you! <3

13 Aug, 2019 08:29

This is an excellent story. The panic that Sayyida feels when forced into vision is a strong emotional linkage, and makes for compelling reading when woven together tightly. It's a great way to introduce people further into the world you've made.   The initial transition to vision is a bit abrupt in my view - I had to re-read that a few times to parse it. These episodes are recurring, right? It would be a helpful segue to have Parvati ask if her mother is having visions again, to better explain to the viewer that the visions didn't just start happening at random in the timeframe of the story.   Other than that nitpick this is a great entry, and more than happy to revisit after revisions.

13 Aug, 2019 16:33

Hello, and thank you for reading through it and giving that useful feedback! I have had similar crit about some parts not being quite as clear to the reader, and I am doing my best to fix those. I'm sure you can understand as a writer yourself, there are times when you'll have a scene in mind so clearly but you just miss a few key touches when putting it down on paper.   The question is a wonderful idea, and I've implemented that already, thank you. If you have any similar comments on scenes that leave a little too much ambiguity in that sense, please let me know!

30 Aug, 2019 18:35

I-   All I can say is "wow". My heart is still pounding from just reading the vision scenes.   Beautiful work Humbledore

31 Aug, 2019 10:48

Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the vision scenes, I think they were my favourite to write!   Can't wait to see what you come up with as well!