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Gabrielle gently shook her head, closing her eyes for a second. Foolish little Gabi, she thought, is there ever a point in questioning things? You don’t have the head for that! Foolish, stupid Gabi. Stop thinking.

Thinking was something people could do, but Gabi often had to remind herself not to think; Whenever she did, she got it wrong. Usually there was someone right there to remind her of the severe lack of wit in her brains, but when she was alone she had to be the one to stuff down the pesky voice of her own ideas. Otherwise, she could just spend entire afternoons, just…well…

… What was she doing those afternoons? It was certainly not “thinking”! People always chastised her for doing things without thinking, after all! Whether it was following the wrong indications or just pushing things around, it seemed anything she did was without thinking. But if this wasn’t thinking, then what was it?

Was hearing her own voice in her mind, dictating words and forming images that were not there even when she could so vividly remember them afterwards, not “thinking”? Maybe she was just thinking wrong! Maybe the others used other methods to think, or–

– there she went again! Thinking! Or, well, not thinking but…

Bah!

Gabi knocked her head on the door a few times to try and stop the maybe-thinking . Focus, Saints’ sake, focus! Knocking on the wood helped her get a better grip on reality, return to the place she was standing right then… and notice the eyes of Father staring at her from the pulpit. She was never sure what those looks meant. People used to either look at her too much or ignore her completely, but she could never understand what they were trying to tell her either way. Why didn’t they just say the things they needed to say?

But no matter what, even if she couldn’t figure out the grimace on Father’s face, the intensity of his eyes meant something bad for sure. It always did. Gabi looked around, no one had noticed… So she checked herself. Then she noticed her habit had fallen completely out of place.

Her accursed red hair was completely exposed!

Gabi wasn’t someone who felt many things, at least not intensely, yet terror had her shaking right then and there. She was quick to cover herself again, hands trembling at the idea that anyone might have seen her hideous secret. The mark of the wicked!

Ashamed, the girl pushed herself away from the door, backing off from the chapel as quickly as her legs could take her. The hymns came to a stop, there was that synchronized thump that comes from everyone in the church sitting at once... then, Father began his sermon.

"It is in our best interest to seek the betterment of ourselves, my children. For only by honing our bodies, and tempering our determination, may we find the path to the Glory of our Mother! And finally, we may walk in the footprints of the Saints!"

The little redhead stumbled on her small naked feet, finally falling under the shade of one of the trees outside the chapel. It hurt, but it also felt so distant… Gabi’s biggest concern right now was clinging to her habit and covering up all she could.

She wouldn’t be able to get back up anytime soon. Her legs always did that weird, twitchy thing after a failed Ascension, probably because they thought they wouldn't need to walk anymore. Her whole body was aching, nagging and punishing her. Why? Why was she still there? Why did she never get it right? Tears started leaking from her eyes, her nose getting runny and uncomfortable. She bit her lower lip, trying not to make much noise.

She had been so sure this was going to be the night! She had steeled herself harder than ever, tried not to talk, tried to cling to the bed! With enough effort, after the blinding light, she was certain she would wake up somewhere else, as something new. Something better.

But once again she woke up back in her bed, sweating and aching, alone in the bedding rooms. Once again, the other girls had left without bothering to wake her up, as if they all knew of her failure.

All of them except for one. Martha was now flying far, far away with the rest of the angels.

Gabi's little fists balled again, the many stigmata on her body burning from the tension, the frustration, and the dirt getting into the still-fresh wounds.

Sometimes she thought about just giving up. Witches didn't get anything, after all. They didn’t deserve things. They weren’t even people to begin with!

Ascension was a people thing.

Still, something deep inside of her just... refused. It pushed her to get back up, to ignore the burning sensation in her skin, to get back to work now that she was still there to do it.

No point in lying down, grumbling, or crying. No one helped a witch, much less a crying one. If she had the energy to do that, she might as well just get back up and work.

Deep breaths… come on… deeper, hold it good in your belly…

It wasn’t as easy as just telling herself to stop crying, though. Just because she wanted to get back up, to stop the shaking of her entire body, that didn’t mean it would work and things would suddenly be fine.

She tried to bite her lower lip a little harder, to stop the pathetic whimpers escaping, and yet… nothing. It only made her feel even worse, more inadequate, useless.

Gabi often felt better when comparing herself to the other girls in the Chapel because she didn’t cry as much. She didn’t complain, she didn’t really bother to argue with others, mostly because she had realized that no matter what she would say or yell about, no one would do a thing to change it. For the other girls it was pretty much the same, but they still cried about it. They were so noisy… It made Gabi feel a little less annoying than them. Still, it never lasted. Even if she cried less than the other girls, once she started breaking down it just wouldn’t stop.

Each breath was loud and full of nasty, wet slurps. It was unpleasant, disgusting… her lower lip felt swollen and warm, painful from her continued chewing.

Recognizing the pain, she stopped biting and took a deep breath in. Then, she let it out in a big, shaky sigh.

What if she never Ascended… What if she always woke up like this? Every. Single. Day. What would she do…?

Some ideas started to form in her head, useless as she thought they were. There was no real way to stop her brain from thinking, voices, ideas and pain, until suddenly something popped. A familiar image, one that suddenly felt quite relevant in her life.

The image of Saint Martha.

The legendary Saint Martha, Slayer of Demons, Tamer of Dragons…

Gabi sniffled and slurped through her nose again, still whimpering but much less than before. Her shaking started to die down as the memory returned.

For all the trouble she had remembering faces, voices were something Gabi treasured. Words were even more precious, impossible to erase from her mind.

She could remember so vividly the words of Father when he read to them, in one of those rare occasions the girls were blessed with a bedtime story. This time, she specifically recalled an even rarer occasion when she had been allowed to choose the story herself.

The Prologue of Saint Martha was her favorite. It was the story of a girl of lowly origins who, following the Inspiration and the Echoes of the Gods – terms she still struggled to understand – had dedicated herself to the good of the people and the perfection of her body.

Father often emphasized her struggle, how she was punished, again and again, by her hubris, her recklessness, and her lack of respect for religious Law in her youth… but Gabi liked the other parts of that story even better. The parts she loved were the ones where the adventures, the combat! No matter how hard she was struck down, Saint Martha always found it within herself to get back on her feet.

Something clicked in Gabi’s brain as she remembered Saint Martha, something that, somehow, had eluded her every time she had told that same story to herself before going to sleep.

Maybe it was the adrenaline of the moment, the constant pain, maybe just pure frustration, but all of the sudden parallels between her story and Saint Martha’s felt much closer than ever before.

Mngh…up… come on… up…!

Saint Martha was just like her! Well, she had been just like her.

Of course comparing herself to a Saint was blasphemy, and she would usually smack her own cheeks to shake that bad thought out of her, but not that afternoon. Not when she was feeling so unusually good about it.

Everyone else was inside the Chapel. Martha was gone. There was no one there who could tell her to stop! Without even realizing it, Gabi actually managed to get back up onto her knees. She used one of her sleeves to wipe snot and dirt off her face and committed to getting back on her feet.

Good, good… there we go… Perfect!

There she was, back up again! Just like Saint Martha! Gabi felt a little warmer inside. She often got back up after feeling sickly or in pain, but for some reason this was the first time she felt proud of herself for it. Yes! She was on the good way, now!

Besides, did Saint Martha ever Ascend? Not really, not like Father was trying, at least. So maybe Gabi could just try and do it like Saint Martha had done instead? She clearly had more in common with the Saint than with Father.

Gabi pumped her fists together with a bit more enthusiasm. Yes! Yes! This had to be the way! If Saint Martha could, everyone could, right? That’s what Father always said – “Follow the steps of the Saints and reach Illumination”!

She had no idea what Illumination meant, but it was probably easier than Ascension! She could try to reach that, while Father kept trying to make her Ascend with those odd nails he poked in her body!

Gabi nodded to herself, agreeing with her current thoughts. This had to be her best idea… and probably her first one? Only if the others hadn’t counted, of course.

There was a slight problem though; during her last battle, and after failing several times, Saint Martha had managed to subdue the powerful Tarrasque… before collapsing and… dying… But that wasn’t really important! Dragons no longer existed anyways, so there was nothing to fear. She could just be like Saint Martha without that dragon part! That would surely get her to Ascend – or Illuminate – eventually!

But for now, she would need to keep up with her duties. Afterwards, she could try and learn more about Saint Martha, maybe she could even ask Father about it so she could help him with the Ascension ritual!

Gabrielle pumped both fists together. Alright. The plan was ready.

For now, she just needed to worry about feeding the chickens… she hoped they didn’t escape in the time she’d gone to check the church. Did she close the coop when she left…?

A branch suddenly snapped, interrupting her pondering. Something stepping on a branch, to be more exact. Like a startled animal, Gabi immediately turned towards the sound. Something had moved in the forest, something way too close to where she was standing.

Animals didn’t come close to the chapel, for the most part; certainly not during the day when anyone could see them. Any that did were smart enough to not make noises like that. Maybe it was an escaped chicken?

Gabi’s blue eyes peered at the many, many trees. She wasn’t really focusing on any of them, just looking in the general direction of the sound as her ears worked. Slowly, she picked up something else: the sound of frightened breathing.

Before she could even raise her voice to ask who was there or what they wanted, the shadow in the forest seemed to realize it had been spotted and immediately bolted deeper into the forest.

“Hey! Wait! Come back–!”

The girl gave her legs a couple steadying pats before breaking into a sprint. That sound, that scared breathing, it was probably a spooked chicken or a lost child; whether it was one or the other, it was scared of the Witch-girl. Scared of her.

That… wasn’t normal. People who were afraid of her would generally scream or attack. This one just ran away. Gabi stood there for a few moments, trying, against her better judgment, to think again.

What would Saint Martha do?

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