Pearly Gates 2: Waking Nightmare

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Where am I? Who am I? What happened? All questions that those with a little more practice might ask after waking in a strange place. Megumi blinks behind her helmet, shaking her head as consciousness slowly returns to her, much to her irritation.

"This again."

Well, not quite how these moments were meant to go, but it was better than nothing.

The forest stretches around her in all directions, just as it did in her dream. ...If this was any realer. A forest? Here? A barrier, then. It must be. She couldn't have walked so far, unless- no. The one where they had found Kaede was nothing so strange. And... day? It felt a little dim for that, but somehow, though she had fallen asleep in the earlier parts of the night, the sun was pinned to the sky in a spot that brooked no argument. Noon it was, then, under the beautiful blue sky, and clouds that refused to move. Somewhere, too close, she could hear beating wings.

And then the trees. Oh yes, the trees. Grasping at the sky with claw-like branches, more structure than plant, from gleaming chrome-plated steel and improbably rusted wood. They had no leaves, and their bark was stained with blood. Each one thick enough to only be circled after half a minute's time of walking, tall enough to bring on a dizzy sensation when she tried to look up. The many branches, blades and thorns upon it - or sometimes simply spearheads driven into its trunk - held its trophies.

Dolls, facsimiles of humans, pierced and impaled all over the tree, as though they were placeholders or some sort of practice. Now and then, in among them, she could find limp humans, even magical girls, hanging limply but still alive, wearing inexplicably peaceful expressions. Blood trickled down from them, long since dried on the bark. Faces she did not know, and faces that should have been dead long ago, lost to some barrier. ...A hallucination, then, an art that most barriers knew well. The only explanation. She must be seeing things.

At least she came with an excuse for that, somewhere in her sleepwalking. A spearhead of her own lodged in her midsection, twisting and turning hungrily in the wound it had left. Strangely, there was almost no pain there, only a faint discomfort as a reminder that it was there. Truth be told, it had taken her a few moments to notice it there at all.

"Now why couldn't that wake me up sooner?" She asks of the empty air, looking down before shaking her head again, this time in disgust, remembering her helmet only in time to avoid spitting at the ground. Really, she expected more of the strange places she found herself in, most of all a barrier, at least some semblance of taste. Was that so much to hope for? But then, looking at the impaled bodies around her, it should not have come as a surprise that hers would be so different.

"...Gold. Pretty tacky," she mumbles, watching that feathered shadow flit across the sky again.

There was a song, somewhere in there. A beautiful one that seemed to bounce off the sky and sink into her bones. She could only make out the faintest snatches of meaning in it; if only she could understand the words. Were they words at all? ...Probably not, knowing witches. Something about a lady, about Her blessings and a promised land. Her mercy. Her golden paradise that awaited the faithful, and the bliss they would know on these trees. An offering made in the hopes of once - just for once - drawing the attention of that inscrutable goddess.

When it ends - or at least slows down enough to make for a good stopping point - Megumi offers her half-hearted applause. It seemed right, somehow.

"Hmhmhm. Not bad. Nice voice." She pauses for a moment, a silence not met by the crackle in the vox, before posing a question to the sky.


Deafening silence, but at least she had managed to give her position away. She shrugs as the beating wings draw closer. She shrugs, watching idly as the golden spearhead writhes away from the wound, falling to the earth with a soft thud and a puff of disturbed soil. Intent, apparently, on taking back what it had done, as though it meant to spare her.

Some weapon that was.

"...No? Shame." At least she tried. She raises the shield, then, as the ear-piercing screech washes over her, practically a banshee wail. A burning stare from behind a thin mask of porcelain, or painted plastic, or who knew what with all this movement to throw her off. The scream practically skids off the Culexus's barrier, splintering into pieces and echoing through the forest. As one, the impaled bodies - human and puppet alike - turn to stare at Megumi with empty eyes, their attention fixed on this forest's latest victim.

She never knew faceless dolls could look so impatient.

Claws and shrieks assail her, blackened feathers clouding out anything she might hope to see, but for a pair of piercing golden eyes. Gold, always gold with this forest. At least this witch had the good sense to offset it with something a little more tasteful. With a weary sigh, she lifts one arm up, clenching her left hand into a fist, and the witch rises as though gripped about the neck. She only had a few tricks for a Culexus; best to make the most of it.

"Get many nightmares, lately," she says, conversational in spite of the flailing, screeching monster she was holding aloft.

"Not your problem, I know. Heard one was bothering Kaede. You a nightmare? Real?" She lets the question hang in the air, in the exact same way that her opponent does not, slamming the creature into the ground, though not - to her disappointment - hard enough to break anything. Her magic could only give so much strength.

"Stupid question," she mutters to herself. "Like there's a difference." What was a barrier, if not a nightmare made real?

But the monster sprawled on the ground in front of her - quickly collecting itself and rising to its feet - was, for all its talons, wings and beaked mask, human in shape. The feathers held fast onto a cloak and dress, wrapped about her body, and the eyes were not those of a bird, a witch or otherwise. This, then, was no witch. As Megumi takes a step back, a golden spear materialises in her opponent's hands, to a chorus of whispers from the spearheads scattered about the forest. There was some sort of bulky, closed octagonal device behind the spearhead, to some end she could make no sense of, and the whole gleamed with a sort of hunger. Hunger and resentment, in that near-blinding glare from its shining metal. A predator denied its feast.

This, then, was another magical girl, somehow. The lady whose attention this forest had been made to attract, or the earnest supplicant who had created this towering morgue?

"Leave," she finally hisses out.

"Plain Japanese. Surprising," Megumi remarks. "No tree for me?"

"The spear is... demanding I set you free. It tells me this golden bliss is not yet meant for you."

"Could still take y-" A gasp of pain cuts her off, the agony of the earlier wound suddenly returning in full force, with whatever was numbing it returning in full force, growing as it had been ever since... since the spearhead fell out? There was no time to think on it, much less when it had made such a poor effort to make sense to her.

"No, I don't think so. Leave."

The pain brings her to her knees, and looking up at the nearly-unharmed magical girl above her, wielding that golden spear, she could only nod weakly. She was no Culexus of note, but she knew power when she saw it. There was little of it in the holder, but the golden weapon... better to look away than to see what another few seconds of staring would show her. Better to accept it, then, this strange and convenient mercy; it must have caught her captor by surprise as much as her, by the look of this.

"You will forget this." Somehow, it sounded like an order. A tempting one, truth be told. The Culexus's vision begins to blur and shimmer as though through a heat haze, and she slumps forward, helmet touching the soft soil on its way down. She must have said something, or at least, she hoped she did. It would have been a wasted opportunity, otherwise, but whether it was anything good... well, she wouldn't remember it either way, apparently. Hopefully this lunatic would let it slide, given the circumstances.

When she wakes in her room, she has only the clock at her side to tell her what has passed: A handful of hours and no more, not yet enough - in spite of the clear day she had seen - for daylight to come.

As a night's rest went, unfortunately, she had had worse.