District of Profaners, Third Ring
Annabelle stood at the edge of the massive stone bowl. The problems kept piling on but she had no way to immediately solve them. One of the prime issues was Tharia. Her body wasn’t in good condition at the best of days. Sure, the human girl kept fit despite her disability but her range of motion was limited. Now, with a slightly deranged elemental in control, every movement looked awkward.
“Do you think she’ll need her liver? It’s kinda in the way”, Sisi said, using Tharia's mouth. The goddess didn’t react. Everything the elemental did was meant to demean, provoke and taunt. It was best to not feed into it. The current state of the elemental, however, brought her to their second problem. Light. Sisi had been their light source. Without it, the remaining illumination came from the burning archery towers and there wasn’t much left of them.
Her third problem was the lack of a way forward. Which is why she now stood at the edge of the bowl. Before the trap had sprung, two ways had led to and away from the bowl. Both had spiraled away with an unseen mechanism. She could probably make the jump. Barely. But Tharia was out and it would have to be a jump into darkness. Annabelle sighed.
“Can you scout for the mechanism?”
“No can do. I had to supplement some organs with divine energy. This body is a mess throughout. How often does one person normally break their bones?” Sisi said. It still felt strange to hear Tharia’s voice without it actually being her. The strange intonation and different inflection made the difference obvious.
Annabelle looked back at the ledge. Tharia would know a way. It would be something utterly insane like just jumping over the edge and then finding the mechanism. The goddess took a deep breath, paced back a couple of steps and then pushed herself forward with all her strength. One step, two steps – and she leaped forward. Kinetic momentum launched her over the edge. Her body described a graceful arc over the pit, with a not so graceful landing. She had misjudged her target in the dark. Her right foot landed safely on the stone but her left foot treaded air.
Tumbling forward in complete darkness, she could do nothing but try and hold onto something. Anything. Her fingers caught the edge of stone in the nick of time. She quivered under the impact and suddenly realized she had another source of light. Energy pulsed into the gloves and emitted as tiny golden sparks. It wasn’t a lot of light, just enough to see the ugly grimace of a priest just above her. It somehow managed to grin, despite having no lower jaw. Something long lashed out of the dark and struck her across her arm. Luckily, her armor prevented deeper damage. The tongue quivered back up.
She quickly grabbed onto the ledge with her other hand and used the imbued strength to climb up while the priest recovered. However, it was only when she reached the top, that she realized it was another trap. The priest suddenly lashed his tongue again. Annabelle risked it by taking the hit on her gloved hand. She wrapped her fingers around the tongue and held on.
“Got you”, Annabelle said. The sudden laughter of Sisi, using Tharia's voice, rang up from the bowl some distance away.
“I know that one!”
In confusion, the goddess locked her gaze on the priest and suddenly noticed a collection of small pots wrapped around his robe. A fuse was merrily burning away. She quickly crushed the tip of the tongue and then stepped into a medium-high kick against the priest. He had a manic look on his face as he prayed to whatever of his made up apostate gods would listen. The priest disappeared over the edge, yet just as Annabelle considered herself safe, the midsection of the tongue wrapped around her leg. She smacked onto the stone and found herself dragged closer to the edge.
Her golden gloves dug into the stone, crunching it underneath her amplified strength but sheer weight and momentum dragged her ever closer. A sudden explosion shook the foundation and the drag on her leg stopped. When the goddess pulled herself back up, nothing of the priest remained but a charred tongue.
“He missed some comedic timing there”, Sisi commented. The sprite had made Tharia sit down with crossed legs. It looked like it was really enjoying the show.
“Well if you’re lucky the mechanism still works. Just saw it right about there. Oh right, pointing won't help since you can’t see in the dark”
Cheeky laughter followed.
“It’s close by, you’ll find it, love”
Annabelle took another deep breath. Sisi had a way to get under her skin. Tharia would probably joke about how literal that was. She already missed her little insane daredevil. With a pang of melancholy, the goddess turned around and then concentrated on summoning the Scythe. As was usual, a golden eruption of light appeared out of thin air. It gave her a bit of light at best, much less than the charged gloves did. So the only thing she could do was to crouch down close enough to the ground, then focus energy into her gloves and light the path. All while probably dozens of mad exploding priests lingered around her.
She paced along the stone in a crouched manner, keeping her eyes open. This side had started with a bridge connection too but quickly widened into a platform. There were pedestals without anything on them and a pile of rucksacks. They smelled like Tharia's bags had smelled early on in their travels, so Annabelle just assumed they were more black powder. She continued with nothing but her gloves to light the way when she suddenly found a staircase leading up and down. It had actual handlebars this time too.
“Getting warmer”, Sisi shouted. Somehow, using Tharia's voice with a squeaking inflection drove the goddess mad with anger. Still, she told herself, this would give her love a much needed break. Annabelle then walked down the stairs until she felt oddly warm.
“Much warmer”, Sisi screamed, followed by a chuckle.
Getting a sudden sinking feeling, Annabelle looked over the edge and gazed directly into a blazing inferno below. She clenched her fists. The sprite had played another trick on her. Somehow, the elemental must have seen her from the distance away as she rolled around laughing. The goddess could do nothing but endure the ridicule.
“Oh, you meant the mechanism. It’s the other way”
Pushing air out of her lungs and counting up to twenty-three, Annabelle turned around and walked back upstairs. She passed the platform a second time and continued just a small bit until she entered a room that was closed off on all sides. The subtle glow from her gloves gifted her just enough light to make out the various shapes inside. It looked like an assortment of levers, gears and metallic chains. She also noticed something else, there was no way the sprite had seen this during the short explosion.
Gritting her teeth, Annabelle looked for a central lever of sorts. She found one near a window and then, all or nothing, she jammed it forward. Rumbling ran through the ground underneath as the platform below suddenly started turning. It did so a for a good while until it suddenly locked in place with a strong vibration underneath her feet. When Annabelle turned around, she nearly struck out in reflex. Tharia stood there with crossed arms and a smug grin.
“Hey. Looking to kill your love again, aren’t you?” Sisi said, “Your girl is struggling splendidly with her fear”
“I know”, was all that Annabelle could say. How could she not? She had seen her shy away and noticed the fear in the eyes. Worse, whenever she gave her mind a moment to linger, she saw hundreds of faces twisted in agony and despair. She shook her head, then prodded Tharia.
“You will keep her safe or...
“Or what?” Sisi snapped and then showed an even broader grin, “The best part about seeking death is that nothing can threaten you. But fret not, this girl will be alive in the end. Wanna know why?”
Not waiting for an answer, the body of Tharia held up an arm and pulled back the light armor there, showing Annabelle a bit of skin. Plant images had wrapped their way around the wrist and the part of the forearm that the goddess could see.
“She’s marked. You will lose the current her, you know? This contract can never be broken, only shaped. I’m not as good at prediction as dearest Mother Bone, but it’s obvious to see, that unless you two fix your mess... well, she’ll be good at her job at least.”
Annabelle pursed her lips in a gesture she had learned to mimic from Tharia. She didn’t know all the implications of it, but at the moment it communicated her frustration and restlessness perfectly. At least in her mind. Annabelle realized a certain irony in that she imitated Tharia which was now controlled by Sisi that imitated Tharia.
“And what is that?” Annabelle said to get the conversation back on track.
“Knowing might damage your relationship forever”, Sisi said with a sudden bout of seriousness.
Sisi shrugged the shoulders, it almost looked like the real gesture, before grinning.
“Nah, not telling. You might tell Tharia and we both know how unstable that girl is. Besides, you’ve got other problems. Don’t you think it’s getting warmer? Maybe a wee bit of inferno down below, yeah?”
Annabelle grabbed Tharia's hand and then rushed down the stairs. With how angry she currently was, it was better to not speak at all. Any word might show Sisi just how much the sprite had gotten under her skin already. When she reached the platform, she hesitated. The discarded bags of black powder would go up and take half the structure with them. Time took away her choice. Another rumble ran through the ground and everything suddenly tilted. The entire stone construction shifted to the side and Annabelle found herself flat on her bum, racing towards the black pit. Tharia's body, naturally, squealed in joy.
The goddess tried to twist her body to the side and then clenched her fist into the stone. Divine empowered strength made it easy to hold onto the flat surface by crunching a hole into it. With her other hand, she snatched up the sliding Tharia and then could do nothing but wait. The surface tilted further until everything toppled down. First, she felt no weight at all. It came back a second later. She held on for dear life, one hand clawed into the stone that had now swiveled above her and the other hand held onto Tharia's body. The whimpering made it obvious she used too much strength, as did the crunching of bones. Yet there was no nuance with these gloves. It was either that or falling to their death.
A sudden impact marked the end of the fall, she noticed a faint light of fire underneath, a whole pyramid structure was laid out with several kilometers in length. The platform she hung onto was part of a stone archway that had now lodged straight into the pyramid.
“You know”, Sisi began talking, “You really hate her left arm, don’t you? First, you bite it off at the shoulder, then you crush the bones to dust. Do you have any idea how much it will take to heal what you’ve done?”
That was it. Too much. Annabelle, while holding on for dear life, felt tears run down her cheeks. It was rare for her to show emotions this openly, but she couldn’t hold it in anymore. Subconsciously, she simply clamped down on her hold. The divine essence made sure there was enough strength to do it safely. Still, she was stuck up here with all of her failings crashing down on her.
“Oh crap”, the sprite then said, “look I was pulling your leg. See, I can do it, literally”
Annabelle felt something pull on her leg. It wasn’t helping her mood.
“You’re not having a breakdown while hanging on a ledge of certain doom, are you? Listen, the hand is alright, just slightly fractured. Oh come on you broken girls of self-destructive doom, gods cursed idiots. Pull me up to your waist. I’ll hold on and you move us to the pyramid. Stop whining, start acting”
The goddess looked down through tear-blurred eyes and saw Sisi use the seemingly broken hand to wave at her. She clenched her teeth in response. The elemental had gotten her.
“When we survive this, I’m going to drag you out and torture you”, she said with a snarl. Sisi let the face of Tharia show a beaming smile.
“So you do know my kinks. The part of Tharia that’s here actually agrees as well. I think, or is that... nope, not agreeing. Uh, please move forward, I think she wants me to let go.”
Annabelle, fed up with the elemental, pulled Tharia’s body up to her waist and then felt two arms lock around her. She then used her second hand to punch a hole into the stone above. Using her magically enhanced grabbing power, she then moved towards the ominous pyramid, one hole at a time. All that time, Sisi remained silent, while Annabelle forced down the tumult inside. Another perk picked up from her love. Yet each punch forward, she saw another one of her fairy’s masks of death in front of her mind’s eye. The Dreamreaper had been rather creative in his visions of death and they all were burned into her thoughts.
When she finally reached the slope of the giant pyramid, she first let down Tharia’s body and then jumped down as well. She was mentally exhausted. Once down and with a moment of respite, Annabelle hid her face behind her hands and grew quiet.
“Alright, there’s no enemy around as far as I can feel, so I’ll tell you”, the sprite said, “About Mother Bone. Each god has a domain, right? Well, so do old ones. You can attest to that. But while the power of a god is mostly mimicry, the old ones are forces of nature itself.”
The goddess kept her face hidden away. This wasn’t who she wanted to be. She needed to be strong for her love but right now, all those images of constant death in her mind had worn down her defenses. Sisi continued the monologue in the meantime.
“The way you live and feel shapes how these concepts manifest in the world. Once you’re at the top, Annabelle, when you lust after this sweet body, the world over will need to feed a lot of new mouths nine months later. Yet when you decide to abstain, mankind might die out from lack of children. Following me so far?”
Annabelle sighed, “I’ve got a whole lot of creepy stalkers that screw around when I do.”
“That’s one way of looking at it. Quite apt really. Do you like being watched... damn it”, Sisi began and cut her sentence off in the middle, before shifting her tone.
“She has a strong urge to tease you. It’s too close to my kink for sadism. Talking about which, Mother Bone is the embodiment of all things that end”, Sisi said with a shiver to its voice. The sprite ran a hand through the hair just like Tharia often did.
“This merge is quicker than I thought. Alright. Short notes, if we can fix her mind by the time she picks up the role, this world will join a healthy cycle of birth and rebirth with you two doing it like rabbits, but if you fail, Mother Bone will come for all. Including you. And trust me. A force as old as that can’t be beaten.”
Annabelle took a deep breath and then uttered a single sentence, “The power of love then?”
“No, you blasted idiot. Nothing like that. It’s about healing scars as old as she is and as old as you are. Don’t you realize? You’re life, she is death, you’re light, she is darkness. Wanna know why I’m helping you ditzy prude sex maniacs?”
The goddess lifted her head and pulled aside her silvery hair. She locked gaze with the sprite.
“Why is that?” Annabelle asked.
“Because you might just break this aeon long fixation on putting things back together. Accept, Heal, move on, let the past be gone. All things must end, you two must make them end the right way. Well, others could do it as well but they’re busy powertripping”, the sprite said.
They grew silent as they watched the rest of the burning platform tumble away into the darkness. Soon, they were sitting in near complete darkness. A subtle glow circled around Tharia, giving her an otherworldly appearance.
“You’ll get her back”, Sisi said after a sideglance in Annabelle’s direction. There was no mockery in that voice and the goddess nodded in appreciation. They remained like this for a while longer. After what felt like a small eternity, Tharia’s body got up from the ground and stretched.
“So, are you good now? Did you stop crying? Because it’s hard to resist the urge to punch myself. Tharia is fuming inside but these things needed to be said. Yes, they did, stop trying to punch yourself when I’m healing you. Gods below and buried six feet under, Annabelle, can you hold the hands while I go and talk to this idiot inside?”
Annabelle shook her head and left the sprite to its struggle with Tharia. She turned around and let her eyes wander. Now that they had spent a while in complete darkness, she started to make out shadowy shapes. What she first assumed to be a simple pyramid, had more distinct forms now. The top ended in a wide-open platform with massive hands reaching up towards something in the dark. On the other hand, the ground below showed a garden of statues. Various statues of beasts threatened the pyramid itself while a single statue of an imposing figure stood with a shield and a hooked staff.
“Ouch, stop it you damned...”
Realizing Sisi was still busy, Annabelle sighed again. She was feeling better now. Not good, but better. All this talk about duty, world this and end of days that had made her realize that at the end of days, she didn’t give a single fuck about any of this. All that mattered to her was the girl that was currently punching herself - or the sprite within, maybe both. Yeah, she was an odd one but that made her special to Annabelle.
“The world can fuck right off”, Annabelle said out loud.
“Uh, Tharia agrees”, Sisi added, seemingly out of breath.
Annabelle watched her for a bit, then showed a subtle smile, “If you two are done, can we get back to killing Luciano and his cult of naysayers please?”
End: Matters of faith | Coming up: Hold your tongue!