Perched upon a porous boulder at the toes of a fiery mountain, I regarded a distant but nearing lava flow. No flames breathed from the peak above, but smoke billowed moodily into the evening sky. The ground vibrated with constant rumbling and heat soaked my hair with sweat. This was no place for people, yet many had waited here before me, judging by an ash-dusted stack of stones nearby.
It was not until after nightfall that the approaching lava flowed close enough for a vapor spirit to step from the fiery goo. The smokey creature billowed forth, eyes and mouth mere burning pits. Behind it, the lava strip glittered like a golden ribbon.
“My master has accepted your request for audience.” The spirit’s voice hissed like escaping gas. “You may ascend.”
I nodded my thanks, holding my breath against its toxic vapors behind a cloth mask.
Upon the mountaintop, I found bubbling magma simmering within a massive crater. Extreme heat snatched at my eyebrows.
“What would you ask of me?” the mountain growled. “A bountiful crop? Love? I cannot grant those wishes.”
Keeping my distance from the rim’s edge, I held up a carved jade figurine – a stylized bear, all wide eyes and snarling maw. “An offering. For safe passage.” With a grunt, I hurled the figurine far into the center; it burned up before even touching the surface.
The entire mountain hummed. “Delicious,” it rumbled. “You will pass in safety.”
I glanced out at the huge lava field blocking my way forward. Before my eyes, distant glowing stripes of melted rock and pockets of fire blinked out as the magma cooled and solidified. When I passed by the stone pile below, I set another on top, for solidarity with those who’d told me the secret of what to offer.
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