They’d hiked this mountain before, Daniel was certain of it. The two had gone up the same slope at least a dozen times, and now they were passing the exact same foliage, leaves in the exact same pattern of turning auburn and violet. Spatial loops were to be expected, but he’d never come across one that couldn’t be broken out of, not yet anyways. Eventually, it’d spit them out where they intended to go. Hopefully within their lifetimes.
“This path Sir.” His Doll was the only reason they were still alive; it possessed a memory far better than any human, and eyes that could see things even his magic couldn’t reveal. “It shouldn’t be far now.”
He nodded, following it as he looked up at the sky. The once beautiful blue skies of this moon were now mottled with a swirling abyss of queer colors, hurting his eyes if he stared too long. The bleed-through was getting stronger by the day; it was a wonder that this moon had survived as long as it had. In the three months he had been here, the habitable zones had shrunk by nearly half. It wouldn’t be long before the moon’s core began to phase out, and with it, the integrity of this sphere.
He trailed behind his Doll as they made their way through foliage, taking a moment to think about how he had found himself here. When he finally shed the stiff uniform of a Recruit, became an Initiate of his Chapter, he didn’t expect this turn of events. It needed to be convincing, his Mother told him. Sometimes, the work of the Chapter had to done outside of the Chapter. Still, it would have been nice if they had warned him before a team of Inquisitors broke down his dorm room door and hauled him off for cultist contraband. It was certainly a convincing fall from grace, and convincing bullet wounds from his escape.
Now look at him. A full Brother of the Chapter, except none could know but the few he took orders from. He could never step foot into Terran space again, or most of the aligned worlds. A life jumping from border world to border world, living out of hotels that didn’t ask who was topping off your credstick. Never knowing when he’d turn down the wrong corner and find an Inquisitor waiting to execute him on the spot. Killing other Witches to keep his mission a secret.
“We’re here Sir.” The Doll pointed out past the cliff they stood at, towards an opposing cliff-face… and the temple that hung off of it. A creation of granite and marble, seemingly cut straight from the mountain itself, an impossibly smooth polish on every surface. Dozens of statues ringed the structure, depicting what he could only assume were heroes of this world, immortalized into this local sect. The bigger problem was the lack of any sort of access to it; a wide chasm separated them, with no visible way to get around.
“Never easy, huh.” Daniel muttered, putting his hands together and whispering his will into the air. Confidently he stepped out into the chasm, his foot falling for a split second before making contact with something, the air hissing as he continued to walk forward, eyes closed and hands clenched against each other. His Doll dutifully followed behind him, copying his steps precisely as they made their way across the open sky of the mountains.
When he felt solid ground beneath his feet again he opened his eyes, breathing a sigh of relief as he surveyed their surroundings. The inner walls were decorated with extravagant tapestries, depictions of this world’s history: first landing, terraforming, city founding, war… they held all of it. Scattered throughout were radiant figures, generally placed at key points in the story of the walls. Heroes, saints, demigods, some combination of them all perhaps.
They arrived in a center chamber not far from the entrance, a fountain a dozen feet high scattering water in a myriad of shapes, scattering the ambient light into a radiant display across the chamber walls. At the foot of it knelt a woman, draped in ruby-red robes, praying over a patch of flowers. She took notice of the two of them, but didn’t move to greet them, continuing on with her prayer as he investigated the fountain and the plant life around it further. The garden was well tended, and the plants seemed to be no worse for the wear, given the ongoing breakdown of reality. He plucked a flower, a pearl white blossom, inspecting its petals closely to make sure it wasn’t artificial.
“Disturbing the flower beds is disrespectful,” the priestess murmured, still knelt over. “Now is a poor time to fall out of the gods’ favor.”
“No disrespect meant to any deities ma’am, just making sure you aren’t doing anything peculiar in this place.” He looked to his Doll, feeling its anxiety rippling across his mind. It certainly didn’t care for this place, though to be fair neither did he. “Have you looked outside recently? Might be a wise time to leave gardening to the gods as well.”
“I am provided for Sir Witch… though you and your automaton may not be for long. Is it not unwise for your kind to cross into this realm?”
“Unless you’re going to cut my heart out and sacrifice it to some cultist god, I think we’ll be fine.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose; the light being scattered around this room certainly wasn’t helping his head. “Me and my Doll have protections against this sort of thing. Since you haven’t been driven mad by this blasted light, I assume you do too.”
“I am provided for.” She finally stood, looking up at the sky yearnfully. “My order has kept this temple since the foundation of this world; the gods have kept us in turn.”
“Mm.” Daniel made a face; while he was always skeptical of actual divine influence, this was his mission: track down divine or otherwise blessed artifacts, return them to his Chapter. It was hard to deny that this temple seemed largely shielded from the bleed-through, and if this world had some patron deities safeguarding it, all the better. Of course, it was equally likely that it was the meddling of xeno gods, or Pocket influence manifesting itself in some new and bizarre way. “If it’s all the same to you, I need to take a look around before we get out of your hair. Check under the floorboards for any scary glowing bones, that sort of thing.”
“I know of your Chapter, Sir Witch, and your purpose here. Scavenging the universe for things your order understands so little about.” She shook her head, looking at his Doll. “And what of you, automaton? Do you follow your master’s every move without thought to your own?”
“That is a Doll’s purpose. It does not think about anything but its Witch’s safety and success.”
“But you once did more, yes? Had a life of your own, before this shell that you are now?”
“This Doll took on its mission willingly.”
“Not to interrupt a pleasant conversation but there’s a ticking clock here.” Daniel glanced at his watch, and then the sky, wincing. “Doll, start looking for artifacts.”
His Doll nodded, dimly lit rings surrounding its arms as it began to systematically sweep the temple. The priestess watched it with an uneasy calm, while he looked back to the fountain, whispering an incantation and putting his hands towards it. There was something there, he could feel it, pushing back against him… was it the entire fountain? That’d make retrieval awfully difficult. Demolishing this temple wasn’t out of the question, but in the event this planet did have a pantheon present, he’d prefer not to so thoroughly annoy them on his way out.
So caught up in his thoughts as he was, he almost didn’t feel his Doll’s sudden alertness, the crackle of the air behind him. He dropped to the floor suddenly, a plasma blast soaring over where his head used to be and into the fountain, cracking the pristine marble and causing water to spray erratically across the chamber. When he looked up, the priestess was on her knees again, chanting the same prayer over and over, and beyond her…
“Don’t resist,” came the bark of a combat Doll, rushing his position and tackling him to the ground with a bloodthirsty grin. “This one will gladly take your arms off if you-“
Its words were cut off as a boot collided with its torso, sending it flying to the other side of the room. His Doll followed it, the two engaging each other while he turned his attention to the inevitable companion; another Witch. It was always hard to tell the age of a Witch, even when you lived with them, but her wards had the tells of someone newer to the Sisterhood.
“Stand down!” The rival Witch yelled at him, raising a pistol in one hand and a fistful of static in the other. “I have orders to kill if you don’t comply!”
“You don’t look like an Inquisitor,” he quipped back, reaching for a short sword under his cloak. “Your Doll wouldn’t have missed if you were. What Chapter are you with?”
“The Chapter of the Thresh.” She stepped forward, approaching him slowly. “Our Mother wants to have a word with you.”
“Yours and everyone else’s.” He drew his sword fully, defensive wards glinting off of it as he felt a wave of pain hit him from his Doll. This Witch’s Doll was rapidly overwhelming his, either a more capable model or simply far less restrained. He gritted his teeth, looking over at the priestess again. At least she had the good sense to stay still, but she’d be collateral if the two of them started really going at it. “Personally I think fighting is very uncivilized, especially in a holy place like this. Maybe we could have this discussion somewhere else, another time?”
“Are you surrendering?”
The rival Witch decided to respond with gunfire rather than words, igniting the mist filled air as plasma deflected off of his wards. He charged through the splatter, stabbing his sword towards the Witch’s gut while she let off a burst of lightning, forcing him back with a wince and welp. He wasn’t much of a one on one fighter; especially not against a combat-focused chapter member like this. He needed something to even the playing field, even if it meant playing a bit dirty…
He rolled back, seizing the priestess and pulling her close to him, sword still outstretched at the rival Witch. “Order your killing machine off my Doll or I’m gutting the only person keeping us alive.”
“What?” The Witch made no effort to hide her incredulity.
“The temple isn’t what’s shielding this place, this priestess is. She dies, the Pocket consumes this place whole and us with it. So tell your fucking Doll to get its teeth out of mine.”
“Doll!” She barked, her Doll reluctantly pulling away from his. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“What, a Thresher can’t tell when someone is blessed?” He wasn’t really certain that this priestess was the key to all of this, but he could maintain the bluff better than he could fight. “I expected better.”
“Is he telling the truth?” She looked towards the captive priestess. “Are you keeping this place together?”
“The gods provide,” the priestess responded quietly, seeming entirely too calm for having her life actively threatened. “This is to their plan.”
“For all I know she’s some Pocket cultist who’s already lost her mind.” The Witch leveled her pistol again. “Your wards are cracking. You’re buying time.”
“Let this Doll kill him Miss,” the rival Doll growled, now standing next to its mistress. “It can do it before he can move.”
Daniel’s own Doll moved beside him, silently holding its fists up. This was a bad situation, something he absolutely did not want to have to prolong any longer.
And then the air changed.
He realized it, right as it happened. The water filling the air. The priestess’ prayers. The garden. The fountain was just the focal point, releasing the energies of this place in a controlled fashion, while the priestess and the plants took it back in. A controlled cycle that was now out of control, thanks to the spewing ruin behind him. The divine energies of this place saturated the air, reaching far beyond the temple and touching the polluted sky, rebuffing the Pocket… and then the Pocket fought back.
A blinding flash of light filled the room, forcing him and everyone else to the ground, the worst headache of Daniel’s life filling every inch of his thoughts. Unconsciousness came far to late to be merciful, but eventually come it did, pushing him to the depths of the void, listening helplessly to the wordless cries of his Doll as he finally slipped under.
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