Crystal clear pools collect on an enormous obsidian shelf. Mara crouches next to the largest one, the hem of her garment soaking up sacred water. Great flocks of cormorant wheel overhead, undisturbed by the plume of smoke and ash.
She rocks back on her heels and wraps her arms tightly around her knees. If she stays still enough, pulls herself into a tight enough ball, perhaps she can contain the wholly inappropriate laughter that threatens to bubble out of her.
Mara risks a quick glance over her shoulder. The guards stand a respectful distance away, eyes not exactly averted but not exactly looking at her. That’s a skill she’d have liked to learn.
At the moment, however, she finds their piousness inconvenient. A guard willing to sneak a peak at a bathing virgin is a guard willing to break rules, willing to anger gods, willing to carry desperate virgins into the verdant jungle in search of something more than ancient tradition.
Unfortunately, these guards wear fervent belief all across their blank faces and rigid torsos. Not even the earth shuddering beneath their feet can break their concentration.
The air shimmers above sun-baked rock. Mara stands and exhales the sigh of a girl whose path was decided the minute she emerged, red-faced and screaming, into this world. She pulls at the strings that hold the wealth of cloth to her narrow frame. Letting the robe drop to the ground, she lowers herself into the pool.
All thought of laughter has passed, replaced with the cold, twisting knowledge of what she must do. This final bath, meant for purification and reflection, holds no meaning to her beyond a delay of the inevitable. Behind her, thick rivers of lava drool from between the sharp teeth of the volcano’s mouth. It grumbles, hungry for what has been promised.
The guards shift almost imperceptibly, perhaps growing impatient. The sun, almost at its zenith, threatens to disappear into the thickening pillar of smoke. High above, priests await her return.
Mara snakes one pale hand under the tangle of fabric at the edge of the pool. Her fingers find the length of obsidian–no longer than her thumb, thick on one side, tapered to a natural blade on the other.
She remembers the look in the old woman’s eyes last night as she slipped the stone into Mara’s hand along with a bowl of fish stew. Mara had blinked her thanks and stitched it loosely to the hem of her ceremonial robe after the lamps were extinguished.
Mara palms the obsidian, pulling her hand back to her side. Volcanic glass glistens in the sunlight refracted through the pool for a moment. Then the cloud of smoke and ash swallows the sun and the world grows dim.
Embers rain down around the pool. She hears screams from the rocky outcropping where her people have gathered.
The guards approach on silent feet, their wild eyes no longer partially averted.
Mara grips the obsidian tightly in her dominant hand.
It is time.
*6/3/17 RRWG Speed Writing – from the prompt “sacred, compassion, clarity” (heavily edited as I typed it here)