[ Writing prompt via my arch nemesis: “Mage does a pilgrimage through a desert temple” ]

This is not your land, the sandstorms wail. This is not your place, the blazing sun hisses. Turn back, turn back, the dry winds moan. You will not survive here, the jackals howl.

But still she walks. Across savannah grasses, rocky outcroppings, desert sands. Over dried streambeds and through wide, still rivers. She walks across the entirety of the dark continent, a solitary traveler beneath a wheeling cobalt sky. She could have sailed her slim black ship up the Great River and to the very doorstep of her destination, but then it would not be a pilgrimage. Every step she takes is a sign of her respect for another creature, so unlike her and yet… similar. She recognizes the similarities between them, few as there are, and it is for these reasons she makes the pilgrimage. There are few she truly respects; this is one.

In time her journey brings her finally to the first branches of the Great River, and these she follows north for countless miles as they flow into the larger artery and toward the distant sea. In this way she comes to the goddess’ city, surrounded as it is on three sides by wide canals. In this reality the city stands brilliant and whole, a wonder of ancient architecture and affluence, and yet also stands empty of human inhabitants. No civilians, no guards, no royalty or merchants or farmers. Even the grand temple, sharp and new as if it has just risen from the desert sands, is tended by no worshipers or priests. No music or chanting float from its dark corridors. This is not a place for humans.

This is a place for cats. She steps carefully as she makes her way through the city and toward the temple at its center, for everywhere lay felines of every size and color, basking in the hot afternoon sun. Some are small, domestic cats with triangular faces and pointed ears. Others are much larger, wild cats with paws the size of dinner plates and teeth made for breaking bone. They seem to exist together in perfect harmony; kittens dance and play between groups, crawling over sleeping lionesses and tagging cheetah cubs into the game. The heavy air thrums with the buzz of a thousand cats’ deep purring.

The cats pay her no mind until she reaches the temple’s entrance; here the doorway is guarded by two wild felines larger than any she has passed, one the tawny color of the desert and the other black as night. They watch her keenly as she approaches. When she bows her head to them in acknowledgement, they move aside silently. Inside the temple is dark, the cats needing no torches to see the way – and luckily neither does she. She moves as surely and softly as any feline, following the hallways and antechambers deeper into the structure. Finally she comes to the altar room, a masterpiece of architecture and beauty, and approaches the giant statue at its far end. More cats nap at its base, curled up on the stone feet and nestled in the crook of the statue’s lifted arms. One even bats idly at the ankh held up in one stone hand.

“Greetings, Lady of Flame,” she says to the statue as she bows her head respectfully. “It’s time we talked, you and I. I believe we have an acquaintance in common.”

The statue begins to glow.

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