Her name, in sound and meaning, was perfection. For no word ever before lifted my heart, my spirits, or my soul to such great heights. Simply hearing it spoken from her tender lips, the moment we met, told me all that was needed to know of her to fall in love with every piece of her; Cinder.
In reality, it was a warning. As beautiful and sweet as the delicate heat that rolled from her eyes into her movements across the breeze to graze my flesh with its syllables, so too did it burn. For I could not possibly know that, as it ignited my life, it would also char it to embers.
When I first saw her, Cinder Spark was a glow in countless radiant strands of gold-like flame tongues that licked the sweat from her brow as she spun and sang the song of her people. Centerstage, illuminated by the amber inferno swimming through her crimson hair, Cinder donned clean silks embossed with golden filigree, in such pristine detail, that her garment breathed alongside her perfectly timed breaths. Every lily-white fiber of her flowing gown sang alongside the notes she birthed into the silenced crowd, the intricate weaving of flowers and mountains and aurum sunrays across the bodice dazzled as they melted into graceful swells of oceanic waves along the tight-fitting shape caressing her legs. For however long the performance lasted, which, unfortunately, I didn't have the pleasure of witnessing from its start, time moved with her, and I, as well as the gathered hundreds I envied for being able to see her from their own perspectives, were bound to Cinder.
Just as her song came to a crescendo, I was blown away by a tempestuous blast of heat as she smiled in my direction, stopping my heart and sending it a flurry in the same instant. She bore holes into the depths of my soul with that look and charred the edges of myself before her. With just a glance, she erased all of who I was and became who I am from the ashen remains. Awash in a burning frenzy of desire, yet knowing a peace like never before, life began a new.
As if she evaporated the crowd as she walked and parted their waters, Cinder came to stand before me, certain my heart was seconds away from bursting as it stared into the sun.
"And who might you be, traveler?"
The words escaped my mind, just as the air did my lungs. Everything spun and the eyes of the onlookers were suddenly on us. The realm was ripped from beneath my feet and I was falling, over myself, head over heels, for her.
"Ahem, I, uh . . ."
"Quite the name," she chuckled, lifting my chin to look her in the scorched spheres of striking orange fire above perfect cinnamon-peaked cheeks. "I'm Cinder Spark, visiting from the Obsidian Chimnies. It's my first time to Ashasis and also boundless pleasure to meet you, Ahemiya. Care to show me around?"
"Yulin! My name is Yulin, ma'am!" They came to me with a jolt of lightning and I suddenly flushed as bright red as her hair beneath the blue hue of my round face. She offered me her hand and it wasn’t until our palms met that I noticed how horribly I was trembling, yet all she did was grip it tighter to steady it. With the gentlest amount of guidance and force possible, Cinder pulled me to the door of the tavern to the streets of the Jewel of Arhan-Ikar, my home, Ashasis.
Two fewer eyes watched us leave than the hundreds that were enamored by her performance as I, myself, could hardly bear to look away from her; a sentiment seemingly shared by all the patrons of the Drinking Hole that evening. Cinder had an inexplicable, otherworldly, and captivating essence that exuded from every breath, glance, and step. At this proximity, my hand firmly locked in hers, I could feel myself on the verge of combusting from within; the friction of my heart rattling against my ribs threatening to set me ablaze as spontaneously as the morning light.
“So,” she said, speaking over the roaring din of passersby and hubbub of streetlife and guffawing gawkers. People from all across the realm crossed the desert of Arhan-Ikar to make their way into the city we traipsed through, and there was always a bustling flow of caravans and foot traffic. “Young features across pale blue skin with billowing white hair beneath that stylish turban. Am I wrong in my assumptions of an air genasi lineage?” We had walked for several blocks in a shared silence among the bustling cityscape before she, the far more composed of our coupling, made an effort at continued conversation. In our trek, comfort found its way into my chest again, and words to my increasingly dry mouth in the hours that blazed past us in a mirage-like blur. She met every turn of a corner with a joke, an anecdote, a story, a thought-provoking insight, and all wrapped in that encompassing brilliance.
“Why yes,” putting on my most confident facade of an eloquent suave manner, for how could a breeze compare to a solar wind? “My genie ancestor, Jahmani Rahmeen, came into Rhyonis from the Plane of Air alongside this gentleman right here.” We had found our way to Vavyan’s Bazaar and I did my best to spin to face her and bow with as much grace as available to muster before the solid gold statue of my ancestor; Vavyan d’Rahmeen. “Dear old Vavyan explored the realm while Jahmani helped the Armistead family establish the reign of the infamous Sand King. Eventually, he even founded the city of Ashasis, even before Frey-Uum scorched the forests to create Arhan-Ikar. But, like a miraculous hollyhock, the city bloomed even brighter under the heat of the God of Cleansing Fire’s flames.”
Cinder began to move away from the raucous song of shouting shoppers in the Bazaar. She moved unimpeded as even in the dark of night, her hair was ablaze and cut through the crowd like a heated blade. Just several yards away, but the desire to be directly beside her made the distance feel as if it spanned the Continental Sea, she paused to look over the railing of the city into the silent descent of darkness into the Soundless Canyon beneath Ashasis.
Just as quickly as she tore through the only city I had ever known, that was my whole world, Cinder released a languid sigh to look up to the countless stars she put to shame. This woman was an enigmatic vision that shone as brilliantly as a spotlight, a living inferno, boundless and untethered that made me realize there was more to Rhyonis than these familiar streets. She was hope and life incarnate, but as she looked skyward, those astral lights danced in pools gathering on her lashes.
“Oh, no, dear Cinder, don’t cry! We can part here if you please.” I spoke from the heart but hoped with everything I had she would choose to stay. The better part of me wanted to let her go to save her from any sadness, but the selfish and honest truth was that I had never seen so much as I did in those few hours together, brightened by her light.
At that, Cinder dabbed her perfectly manicured fingers, also long and slender and dipped in gold, to her eyes and let the tears roll down them, of which I was envious; to know her touch was to know true joy. “It was not by chance I approached you, sweet Yulin.” She grazed my cheeks with a warm softness that let the wetness from her hand fall upon my jaw; hers joined the tears I hadn’t noticed I shed in the face of her sadness. “In your eyes, I can see a shrouded struggle; a painful truth that brings you turmoil. Even if you can’t see it yourself, or feel the conflict swelling within, I can see the storm brewing, you tragic tornado of a man."
Cinder pulled away, and me with her as I was drawn, magnetically, magically, to her warmth like a moth to a flame. As though I had never felt warmth before, now, presented with the sun, death would take me if I drifted too far.
"I can see this in you as I have felt it in myself before I emerged from my imprisonment in my home. As beautiful as they were, I longed for more." Something stirred within me; a longing beast I hadn't realized was dormant, demanding to be freed. The words she spoke, though I hadn't dreamt them before she had come into my life, were now all I wanted.
"If you are the wind, maybe I can be the flame to let you soar as an updraft. Say you’ll come with me, beyond the sands of Arhan-Ikar, above the reaches of Arhan-Zoul, let’s explore the world and save each other from the fates we’ve found.”
She touched something in my heart of heart's that I hadn't even known was there. Understanding that Cinders lay beyond the expanse void of sound, it became entirely clear how I longed to see what else could be found beyond all I had known. All that was life had meant nothing compared to all the beauty I could come to have if I simply touched the flame.
Years passed in the blink of an eye as I came to live for the first time in my life, finally ignited with a spark of passion. Cinder took me with her across the realm, teaching me of new cultures, of new worlds that were just a camel away. Upon taking me to her home, she revealed to me that she was an ambassador from the Obsidian Chimnies, no mere visitor as she implied on our first meeting. It came as no surprise that her home was beautiful, but upon seeing them, it became apparent that she deserved more and was truly trapped within the black rock tunnels she was born into.
The Chimnies were subterranean tunnels, lava tubes carrying scalding liquid earth from the core of the realm through the smoking mountains that dotted the landscape like the crown of an earthen kingdom she was both queen of and prisoner to. Since freeing herself from their confines, Cinder had danced across all of Rhyonis, meeting the eyes of countless wayward souls. As it turned out, none more appeared more lost than that poor spirit imprisoned within mine. None more appeared to be so in need of saving as myself, and so she did, melting away those bars and freeing me from what I couldn't feel as a prison.
On our journies, we would absorb new cultures and take them to her home of the Obsidian Chimnies and establish relations with them. So much of the world opened before each road I tread alongside her and each color we took back proved more beautiful. Together, we truly flew into each day and they were the happiest days I had ever known for they were the first I had spent under the sun, finally free from the desert.
In our first year, we discovered a rambunctious camel calf, completely black of fur that Cinder named Kappi and affectionately called him her 'Little Night.' I was never sure if she spelled it with a K or not, I never cared to ask, only if she was happy. He steadily grew on me, but as the bond developed, he did a great deal to rebuff me as well. Every time she turned her back, he would ram his broad head into the small of my back or shoot hot saliva-swaddled snot into my face. Even in my deepest anger towards the beast, I could never act against him, for as soon as she turned around to smile at us together, the Little Night and I would melt. It wasn't until the day everything we had built was torn asunder that I truly felt Kappi's trust.
During my homecoming, it seemed I had adopted the same magnetism Cinder radiated as, this time around, even when we would briefly part ways, I held the eye of all those who would have once ignored me entirely. We returned to Ashasis for a bit of nostalgia and everything had remained the same except, seemingly, myself. Merchants and guards, city officials and visitors, animal and plant, they all drifted to watch as I would tread the same paths I had countless times before without notice. This sensation of being watched would only amplify when Cinder and I would reunite, for whatever it was we now carried together seemed only to intensify. Perhaps there is something to be said for the air of fascination that comes with the confidence of the unknown and unfamiliar. All that had changed was my world experience, my awareness of lands beyond these ashen wastes, and the garb I had collected and donned from them.
As the sun Balasar dimmed and the moon Maxiluna cast its halo across the city we met, the bustling, vibrant streets were flipped around me and all the air left my body. Cinder had turned to speak to a friendly weaver she had called friend once some decades ago, still remembering each other in perfect clarity after so many years. She had that effect on people, to forever be burned into their memories. Unfortunately, some would not deserve to have her anywhere near their memory, and they would prove the folly of their nature.
Foolishly, I took a moment of thoughtless self-indulgence. Allowing her the space to commune with her friend on the promise I would return briefly, I tied Kappi to a hitching post and stepped into the Drinking Hole. The scene of my rebirth with the introduction of Cinder had, too, stagnated, of course with a few unfamiliar faces but many of the same ghosts that haunted the establishment remained. Grud, the orcish man I had always known to own and operate the bar, passed to the Grey-Lit Path shortly after my departure. His son, Grug, took over the renowned tavern but the pleasantries of our reunion were cut short.
His hand reached out to comment on the shimmering brass amulet strung around my neck but I spun on my heels as Kappi grunted in angry defiance. He thrashed and sent passersby screaming as the post he was tied to was wrenched free from the ground and he called with his animalistic cursing.
"Kappi," I shouted over him and the cries of pedestrians who were less accustomed to the thrashing of an enraged camel. "Little Night, what is it?" Suddenly, as I evoked his name, it struck me. "Cinder! Ride, Kappi, after her!"
With breakneck speed, I vaulted myself onto Kappi's back and into the saddle, bracing my feet within the stirrups as I waved aside the gathering crowd and we were off into the blazing honey-hued sunset. As we rode, careening over the rope bridges suspended thousands of feet above the daunting Soundless Canyon, Kappi wailed horrific cries that rotted my stomach from within and I too began to weep with the influx of panic rising in my throat. What would I do without Cinder? She was the meaning of life now and the thought of losing her was too much to bear.
"Onward, Kappi, find he- ahhhh!" Just as we crossed the final bridge and began to trudge through the ash-grey dunes of sand that were Arhan-Ikar proper, both Kappi and I were sent reeling as he struck something jutting out of the ground in the opposite direction we were racing. It was hard to make out at first, but as I wiped the grains from my eyes and the sun had finally set, our obstacle, an ornate glass and metal lantern, began to glow a vibrant blue, not a flame, but an arcane power. "What is thi- woah!"
As if sucked through a vortex and funneled into another space, I found myself with Kappi beside me and sand scratching my skin from every nook and cranny. The wraps of my turban began to unravel and obfuscate my vision, but as I tightened and bundled the garment around my hair, I found us standing in an ellipsed room; tall, curved glass walls with intricately carved metal posts making both a pane for the opaque windows as well as remarkable art pieces in their frames.
The dizzying view seemed to travel upward indefinitely, but the immediate space around myself, and a very confused Kappi, was much more intimate. There were plush sitting cushions scattered across the floor in total disarray but with an evident intent behind the chaos as there wasn’t a spare spot of floor that could not be lounged upon one of these silver-tasseled thrones. In the center of the room, which I gathered to be roughly twenty feet wide by twenty feet long with no indication as to its true height, was a curious round table.
“Please,” a booming voice called from the crystal orb placed at its center. It struck me so suddenly that, upon leaping out of my skin, I fell to the nearest cushion and Kappi loosed a massive wad of saliva toward the sphere. “Take a seat, child. I can sense your urgency, but I promise, but all I have seen, you will save her.”
“Who . . . where . . . what are you?”
“Oh, you know me.” There was a sourceless wind that spun everything around us, a tornado of energy that flung back all the fabric and furnishings into the air until all that was left was the levitating orb, roiling with a translucent grey smoke, like ash swirling in the wind. “I am Jahmani Rahmeen and I have waited for you for some time, Yulin d’Rahmeen.”
With a flurry of dizzying movement, the orb shattered and released a torrent of frenzied wind, whipping against the ornamental window panes that housed us like a cell. From the shards formed his pockless face, the cracks and seams or reforged glass sanded down to smooth features porcelain and from the wind formed the flowing garment draped over his glassy body like a freshly pressed curtain. Dozens of metallic baubles, fetishes, and priceless accouterments dangled from every swept-aside fabric and lengthy breath he, Jahmani Rahmeen, drew before me.
“Be not alarmed, mortal descendent!”
“AHHHH! You’re colossal and terrifying! What do you mean ‘be not alarmed’?! You expect me to be calm now?!”
“Okay, firstly, I resent that. Secondly, I expect those of my lineage to conduct themselves with more decorum than a beast of burden.” He gestured to Kappi who, miraculously, had kneeled before the genie addressing us, bending a knee to graze the revealed floor with his dark fur. “It seems your mount has more manners than you, Yulin. Which will make what comes next more difficult, but if we’re to rescue your Cinder, and I am to return home, we’ll need to hold off on the formalities of grace for now.”
Ignoring the fact that I was set before an ancestral legend, I sat on the edge of anticipation. The anxiety of what fate may have befallen my Cinder pushed the words from my mind, unreachable to my tongue, and I silently implored him to continue.
“Two shall race to break the shackles of fate;
kin cast aside in the founder’s wake.
One must prove themself over the other,
lest their wish will fail to take.
Where their loved ones fall as bait,
destiny will surely smother.”
Jahmani’s words became ancient and wisened and withered, speaking over themselves with the hollowed coldness of a million indifferent voices. He grew to an immense size and I felt diminutive in his shadow that swelled as the largest sand dunes I had ever tread. There was an ancient power in these echoes I couldn’t comprehend but felt at my core. In an instant, everything shook beneath me and the windows shattered, the floor crumbled, and my hands flew out for Jahmani for salvation but all that met them was the rushing gale of gravity as Kappi and I both fell into nothing beneath his eyes that began to glow as two separate moons until they grew so large, they became a singular blue flame sun.
An unknown amount of time passed before we, Kappi and myself, awoke half-buried by the sands of Arhan-Ikar. It was completely dark, save for the light of the stars and the moons Maxiluna, full, bright, and radiant, and Truciluna, a distant ruddy scab above Thuergius. Just as I stood, leaning on Kappi for support, I felt an uneven weight in my hand. Looking down, the strange lamp that tripped the Little Night in his pursuit of our love, affixed to a black metal staff, illuminated our immediate vicinity with a smokey cyan din.
“Onward, Yulin,” Jahmani’s voice called from within my head, but somehow I knew it to originate from the light at the head of the lamp-supporting staff. It was a telepathic tether to one another that kept me focused in the face of frantic fear. "She's not far off, the camel knows the way, let him guide you to all of our salvation!"
For what seemed like hours, Kappi ran faster than I knew him capable of. Over dunes and ashen hills, under broken ruins of long scorched outposts or fallen cities, the Little Night rode as pins and needles pricked every inch of my skin within, matching the biting chill of the desert's night air. Just when my breath was about to escape me with all hope of seeing Cinder again, a distant glow began to crest on the horizon, like a rising sun heralding a new day to come. Both Kappi and I felt a renewed surge of a second wind where exhaustion had drained us of all but fatigue. All the while, Jahmani's words rang in my ears in time with my burgeoning heart.
“Hold," I pulled back on my steed's reins several hundred yards away from the rampant flames of a raucous campfire, hiding him behind a cluster of cacti blooms to avoid notice. "You’ve earned your ‘K’, Little Knight! Good work Kappi! Stay here, I’ll see to her rescue, you’ve done enough for now, my friend, take your rest.”
Exhausted, and thankful, Kappi looked at me with the light of the moons reflected in his eyes which exuded a waning hope. He nudged his head into my neck, voicing his appreciation with a whispered grunt and I was off; the Lamp of Jahmani Rahmeen in one hand and a glinting scimitar in another. The chances of me alone taking whatever band of fiends who had stolen the Spark from my life were abysmal, but as I gripped the staff tightly in my grasp, Jahmani whispered in my mind again and I wasn't alone.
"Good," the psychic echo called from behind my eyes. "While you have my lamp, you have a modicum of my power. Your bravery and will will see us to victory and the prophecy will come to pass." Though his words were silent, it felt as though they, and the rapid beating of my heart, would betray my approach. Despite the stilling of my breath and cautious trepidation I advanced with, it felt as if every move could be my last as I surveyed the area. Fastly fleeting shadows danced as they were cast across the land by the taunting flames that beckoned me closer.
One, two . . . five, six . . . eight, "Jahmani," I thought, as the count of individuals rose higher with each passing second. "There's nine total, do you think your magic will be enough to face them all? I don't see Cinder, where is sh-,"
"By the gods, you think too much," he sighed, the sensation of his eyes rolling behind my own made me dizzy but I steeled myself against the sensation. It became apparent he was growing frustrated and eager to move past this, but I wasn't going to risk the love of my life on uncertainty. "Yes, I swear by every grain of sand in this eviscerated desert that my magic will save her." There was a poignant emphasis on will that didn't make sense until it was too late.
With a confidence and drive I knew to not be my own, my feet charged forth. Everything devolved into a mirage of heat and light as sand was kicked up into the glow of the lamp's cerulean luster. Activity burst to life with palpable luminosity licking my sweat-beaded skin as roars of opposition charged for me, arms of all types drawn, only to be cut down with a timely swing of a blade. Body after body fell to my swipes, casting amethyst fluid across my limbs and torso as the sapphire luminesce tinted the hue of freshly spilled rubies.
Muffled screams of panic caught my frenzy-rung ears, pulling me into the central tent that crowned the small circle of domiciles that now claimed no owners. "Cinder!" I screamed over the sonorous wail of blood in my ears as I charged forth to see everything flash before my eyes. Tied to a central support pole, bound and gagged, surrounded by barrels of black powder, was my reason for existence with her hair woven through the greasy fingers of the weaver 'friend' Cinder had been so thrilled to be reunited with. Just as tears welled in her eyes, fury burst forth from mine.
In her free hand, the captor held a loaded hand crossbow in my direction and everything stopped except my heart which played the rhythm of the song Cinder sang so many years ago.
Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.
Her finger clutched the trigger, just tight enough to draw the bolt back.
Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.
A gust of wind picked up from beneath my arms.
Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.
Sweat dropped from the weaver's brow and she flinched, pulling the trigger.
Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump . . .
Time distorted and was pulled out from under me like a rug flung out a window. My hand shot up to swipe away the bolt with my scimitar, sending sparks flying across the room as an explosion rocked reality. Everything was sucked from my being in that point of singularity; my breath, my mind, my soul, my love, my Cinder.
"Yulin . . ." Jahmani's voice was omnipresent as I stirred to find myself in his lamp once again. "I pulled you into my lamp at the last minute. You must wake up, we're not finished yet." Everything was unbearably sore as I was supported by a massive cushion with Kappi kneeling and weeping beside me. The Little Knight was unharmed, physically, but the heaving sobs that shook his large body told me he was in just as poor a state as myself. "Outside these walls, you'll want to crumble, to give up and let go, but the prophecy is still being written and you must ride." I didn't even have the will to argue; I knew she was gone, but that was what I would use to fuel my fire.
As the wind rolls without care for those it topples, Jahmani waved his hand and the metal swirls lining the windows opened to release me into the smoldering wastes of the camp. Emerging from my ill-gotten and undeserved refuge, everything was charred beyond recognition. Everything except for her who, even in death, burned brighter and more beautiful than anything else. There was nothing except cinders left; dull glowing sparks of light where her eyes were and, as I buried my hands against the searing pain of burning flesh and insurmountable loss, I wept. Oceans of tears flowed from my eyes in heaving waves that swept and broke me. They cascaded like a torrential downpour from my heavy eyes and wails of sorrow to crash across what was once Cinder’s flesh, but was now only a cindered corpse. I cried until twilight had melted to dusk and rose as the dawn, until there was no more liquid in my body, until every tear had quenched the smoldering remains of my love, until the bones of my fingers were all that remained to hold her. A final tear, a final hiss, and the final Cinder.
My hopes had been dashed in the consuming blast that cast illumination over us, Kappi and I, but robbed the fire from our lives. With the black metal lantern at the head of my staff holding the answer to all that plaguing sorrow, I trudged forward, beneath the scorching sun, toward all that lay before me. There was no one, nothing for miles, save for myself and Kappi marching on as we had for years, but now, the Little Knight and Camel Rider had no light to follow. Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.
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About the Creator
Hey there! My name is Austin, I'm a writer who strives for inclusion and representation in all of my work! My primary focus in writing is my fantasy world of Rhyonis, find more at rhyonisrr.com, including world lore, maps, and art pieces!