The air resonated with screams of those about to suffer, their eyes transfixed on the cold finger of the Ashen Queen as she limply started to point in their direction. They scattered in every direction to escape the point; the ash mixed with the morning dew on the grass made their attempts to move with agency more difficult as they struggled against the slip of the paste beneath their feet. The shrills of the voices were accompanied by the base of footfalls and bodies falling to the ground, the song reaching the bandaged ears of the Ashen Queen who sat upon her throne of wood and flesh. Her arm slowed as she was getting ready to stop and point; she looked through the bandages over her eyes to those scattering from her and the man who stood before her with wide eyes.
His eyes were bloodshot and un-blinking as a torrent of tears streamed from his face; they followed the curves of his cheekbones, sinking into his sallow cheeks and curving back over his jaw before pooling at the point of his chin and falling to the ash that nestled at his feet. Inside his head, he could hear the Ashen queen’s silky voice echo like a whisper in a cave.
“Now you can be ash as I was once ash, understand the joy of simplicity, and escape.”
The man let out one last whimper before the Ashen Queen straightened her arm, and the man in front of her violently exploded into ash and a mass of screaming individuals were silenced behind him as they two erupted into ash. The soft ash was scattered into the air and slowly drifted down to the ground. There was no blood, no gore, just ash and silence.
The Queen closed her eyes behind her bandages to cut the last light from her vision, basking in the silence and enjoying the soft kisses of the falling ash on the few parts of her skin that were not covered by bandages.
After her skin stopped reacting to the ash, she slowly opened her eyes again, her vision obscured by the thin bandages covering her eyes. She looked around her, her empire of ash that she had made; a perpetual fall of ash came down from the sky like a soft fall of water before the arrival of rain. Her head slowly turned through the gentle breeze, and all around her was ash; the sparse foliage lost its blacks and browns to be overtaken with greys.
Her eyes sharpened, and her ears twitched as she could hear a rhythm of delicate foot placement, avoiding the strewn foliage of the area. She prepared her arm to point again, but once her eyes locked on her target, she relaxed; leaning over her twisted throne of corpses and driftwood, her crackled voice spoke.
“Aramaia, what a pleasant surprise. Do you like what I have done?”
The young female continued her approach in silence, her attention entirely on her feet as she stepped past every small stone and branch on the ground. The Queen looked down upon Aramaia as she stepped to the bottom of her throne, her giant form dwarfing the reasonable-sized Aramaia.
Looking up, Aramaia smiled, then lines of dried blood stained under her eyes, each with darker and lighter streams.
“It has been a while, Belle; I see your domain grows.”
“And me with it, you are still so small, Aramaia; you should stop spending your energy with those mortals you wander with and instead focus on creating your own domain.
“I don’t think so, Belle. This is not the life I want; it draws too much attention, too many unwanted challengers.”
“Can anyone really challenge me at this point? It is only a matter of time before the surface of Hollow is nothing but ash for the ashen children of the stars; we will transcend this celestial body and shall become deities where we can search for more of us and grow in power.”
Aramaia lay down, looking up to the Queen before closing her eyes and breathing deeply.
“That is different; I remember when you dreamed of seclusion and a quiet life in a deep cave. Why the change?”
“Those who are small dream of big things; those who are enormous dream of godly goals. Realising your true potential will show you what you truly crave.”
Aramaia was silent; her smile was gone, and she remained motionless on the ground. The Queen’s forehead wrinkled ever so slightly before she spoke again.
“Why are you here, Aramaia?”
Aramaia opened her eyes and looked straight up into the empty sky, with the occasional flake of ash landing on her skin and eyes.
“Sephrial is coming.”
The Queen fell silent; her breath stopped, and the only thing making noise was the rapid beat from her heart as it rose into her throat.
“Hollow is a place of brutal hierarchy; it is all about who is the biggest monster and who can amass the biggest armies. But even the titans of the world fall, Belle. Gara-Vae, Potion Man, old Rem, Enadrome, even Xarius. All dead, all suffering. They were all powerful mortals, unstoppable cities, and even gods; nothing is above death, not even the immortals of Hollow.”
Aramaia slowly got to her feet, resting a hand on the Queen’s throne; she shared her sympathies.
“The craving of power only works for very few; for the rest of us, those of us with power, we take our cut of the world, and we reside in it. The greed of power throws the balance, and it is when that balance is thrown that the power struggles happen. True ambition is nothing in the face of order. The strongest birds may dream of flying through space, but it is not until they get there that they will realise their mistake, a mistake that can’t be undone.”
“How long do I have?” The Queen said like a wounded child, her posture to match.
“Depends; if you leave your throne, you could escape into the underground, evading him and his angels. If you remain on your throne, you have until he arrives, and that haste to which he arrives will be determined by why he wants you.
The Queen’s eyes flick upwards as a shadow emerges from the veil of ash.
“I guess he was very interested in you.” Aramaia walked away from the Queen, keeping her distance from the looming shadow and calling back as she faded from view. “I’ll keep my eyes on you.”
The shadow of the approaching individual grew in size as two large feathered wings stretched out just as their silhouette faded, and the pale complexion of Sephrial emerged.
“My ash suits you; maybe you should stay with me, Sephrial.”
The Queen called out as her voice warbled.
Sephrial did not respond.
“You are not allowed your arrogance here, Sephrial; this is my domain.” The Queen started to fill her charred voice with vigour. “This is my domain; you are in the land of ash, and I am her queen.”
The Queen screamed at Sephrial, standing on her throne as Sephrial continued his walk towards her in silence.
“I was once ash in the stars, brought here on cosmic winds, and guided by the hand of fate. You are a pale-winged mortal who sustains their strength by eating rocks, and you will know the joy of being ash you, false king.”
The Ashen Queen pointed her finger towards Sephrial with fear in her bound eyes. There was an eruption of noise as she pointed. The surface skin of Sephrial peeled off and turned to ash, but still he walked. The Queen’s eyes darted around, her foot inching towards the edge of her throne. The unrelenting march finally sunk in, and she leapt from her throne, her size reducing to that of a mortal, and she started to run. She did not dare to look back, and her desire to see him shrunk even less when she heard the sudden beat of enormous wings. The falling ash around her swirled as the sound of the wing beat got closer, and as the swirling ash encompassed her, the distinct sound of metal clanging started to pierce her ears.