Arista is.. suffering too, apparently? [5.10]

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There's always two sides to every story, sometimes more, which can get rather messy in all honesty so it's probably better to stick with just two for now, right?

The problem with bad guy's is that, rather predictably, they lie sometimes.
It makes it rather hard to take anything they say seriously... unless they offer proof at least.

Events unfold including but not limited to:
Arista explaining the world as she see's it,
Ari being useful at long last
(although not half as useful as John apparently is)
and Hannah has enough dignity left to blush when confronted with the truth about her relationship with the smirking-wonder from multiple, utterly annoying, angles!


 

Slowly I pulled myself up from the splayed position that I apparently phased into my mindscape already sat in, boobs pressed hard into the stark white floor a bit awkwardly but I’ve got to admit is a better than the last time Arista got done pulling me along with her at least.

“Take a seat Alice.”
My eyes scanned around to find her amused voice and settled on an unnervingly rich looking ornate round garden table, piled high with what appeared to be some kind of ‘high tea’ set up for us as Arista sat expectantly in one chair while waving me towards the free seat on the other side as if it was the most normal thing in the world for her to be doing at this exact moment.

“I’d rather not if it’s all the same to you..”

Her smile dipped slightly and the world around us as a whole seemed to grow darker to match her mood. A moment later the floor beneath me bulged up until I was forced to reluctantly stand on my own two feet out of necessity more than anything else.

My hands came up to brush myself down in annoyance but before I could even finish doing that simple little action the floor beneath me twitched again, shifting my feet forwards suddenly as if I was standing on some kind of invisible conveyer belt until I came to a halt right in front of the seat opposite a mildly amused looking Arista.

“I hate to seem heavy-handed Dearheart but I control this mindscape now, I really think you should sit down..”
Naturally my first response to that ‘suggestion’ came in the form of a defiant glare that she didn’t find amusing in the slightest, judging by the way the space around us darkened ever so slightly more, despite her expression not changing at all.

I opened my mouth to respond to her but before I could get a word off she’d obviously lost patience with me because the floor shifted again, in a way that reminded me slightly of the time I rolled John around back when I got ‘lost’ shaping my realm under the effects of far too much overwhelmingly powerful magic running wild through my system, as it rose up to shove at my shoulder just enough to put me off balance so my butt landed heavily in the seat at last.

The moment I landed, the empty space around us brightened suddenly as Arista’s smile became noticeably less sinister in general.

..she’s subconsciously controlling our mindscape somehow?..
She’s consciously controlling it too judging by the less then subtle nudges it took to get me sitting here like this.
..give me a minute to think on this, I might have an idea..

What the hell am I meant to-
..just keep her busy damn it! Be annoying, your good at that..

“There, isn’t this much better now Alice?.. Tea?”
As Arista moved forward to pick up the suddenly steaming teapot between us I seethed internally at Ari’s cheek almost as much as the situation I’m stuck in now.

“Got any beer? Bet I could drink you under the table if we started doing shots instead an-”
Arista’s frown returned.

The room around us darkened suddenly to a deep red for just a moment before brightening again and leaving me momentarily disorientated.
It took a few blinks for me to realise that the room had changed during that flash of darkness, or gotten bigger at the very least, and a few more for me to put together my change in perspective which, when mixed with Arista’s suddenly sunny smile, was enough for me to see what she’d actually just done without even glancing down to double-check.

I’m a bloody kid again!

“Turn me back you sadistic evil old b-mmph!”
As I closed my mouth to continue with the next syllable of my tirade against her my lips stuck together tightly and refused to open up again.

Frantically my hands shot up to feel along my lip-line but despite being able to feel the texture and shape of my lips in general I couldn’t get even a fingernail between them?!
In one foul swoop she’d completely silenced me by LITERALLY removing my ability to speak!

“There, children should be seen and not heard Dearheart.. besides, Mummy has a lot to tell you in a short amount of time so you need to listen carefully, okay?”
With an angry grunt I slammed my hands down onto the arms of the chair I’m sitting on, only to get my arms caught in a froth of unnecessarily large skirting attached to a party dress that had apparently also formed up out of bloody-nowhere around me on her whim too.
“I’m glad you agree Alice. I’d hate to have to go further to keep your behaviour in check after all..”

Her smile dipped for a moment but if anything the room around us brightened with happiness which sent a cold shiver down my spine at the implications involved if nothing else.

“Now then, you’ve heard Mother’s side of things at this point no doubt so I think it’s about time you heard my side of things too.”
Despite having fused my mouth shut to stop me speaking the crazy bitch still went on carefully pouring us both out cups of steaming hot tea, mixing in milk and sugar with precision as if it really mattered when none of this is real and even if it was I wouldn’t be able to bloody DRINK IT at this point in time anyway!

“I was created as a foil to Mothers weakness, from the moment I was ‘born’ she shaped me, designed me to complete one goal.. Esti gave her a prediction of the future so horrifying that she knew someone like me was needed to stop it, even if my very existence went against everything she stood for..”
Careful to not set her off again I shifted my now smaller body a little so I could lean more heavily into the chair and relax a bit better despite the stupid fluffy dress around me.

So far I’m not hearing anything new or particularly impressive honestly?
Ari mucked up badly in her desperation, not exactly shocking news considering how well ‘we’ tend to handle being under pressure when our families are involved apparently.

“This won’t do.. you’re not really understanding the importance of things are you?.. I know!”
Arista’s free hand came up to point at me suddenly and I barely had a chance to flinch back before the world blew up around me.

======

Suddenly I was no longer sitting inside my empty mindscape but stood in front of a large heavy-looking metal door, someone behind me reached past my right shoulder and almost gently pushed the door open onto a scene that burned its way into my mind with a wave of horrified disbelief.

Mages.. thousands and thousands of naked mages.. all lined up and attached to huge metal frameworks with electrodes, and probes, and machines with blinking lights surrounding them like something taken straight out of every mages worst high-tech nightmare?!

“A-T-Four-Nine-Seven, step forward”
Outside of my control my head shook from side to side and a tiny squeak of fear left my lips as my body tried to back-peddle away from the glassy, pain-filled eyes of the mages in front of me.
Those same hands that had opened the door came down and picked me up around my waist, holding me tight to their chest as they walked further into the room.

The sobs of pain and despair around us seemed to increase with each step my carrier took until we came to a stop before a metal framework like all the others.. except for the fact that it was empty..

My eyes darted from the blinking lights to the electrodes and probes before settling on a large set of five-inch long metal needles bundled together, blood still dripping from them in a way that sent a jolt of fear through me with each passing droplet that fell.

The person carrying me shifted his grip and turned me to face him as he leaned forward to fit my obviously small form into the monstrosity of metal and technology ahead of us.
His face was calm, almost bored really, his eyes and hair were a non-descript brown while the uniform he wore consisted mostly of a dark blue jumpsuit and some kind of beret cap that reminded me vaguely of something I’ve seen military forces wear before.

As I took all this in my body didn’t remain idle, it thrashed and yelped in a desperate bid for freedom but with little-to-no success.

With a heavy thump, restraints came down on my legs followed moments later by my arms as the man casually pushed my too small hands up into the ‘proper’ positions.
From there all I could do was watch and whimper as he set about disrobing me, the sound of Velcro pulling apart making me jump internally while my body still thrashed around uselessly until finally slumping in defeat as what little clothing I had was removed completely.

He set about fitting the electrodes and probes to my body, some with medical tape and others with a sticky adhesive pad that he had to place upon them first as he went.
Finally all of the dangling cables seemed to be in place and I thought that it was finally all over.. but then he reached up to a handle near the top of the framework and pulled it, spinning me around in a circle to face away from him entirely in the process.

My eyes scanned the area before me in fear as, no matter where I looked, all that could be seen were the backs of other imprisoned mages heads.. all with a set of small cabled nubs sticking out of them in a way that sent a new shock of fear through me all over again.

The blood covered needles I saw before.. he’s going to.. he’s gonna..

With my one last moment of clarity I found my eyes landing heavily on a dirty, obviously disused, sign hung high above my head, tucked away within the stacks of human-beings all around me.

‘Battery three-nineteen, Element B, Subsector HC-Seven’
A battery.. a magical battery?.. they’re taking mages and using us to-

Something large clamped down hard on the back of my skull.
My body barely had time to gasp before a loud noise started up behind me, sounding horribly like some kind of large electric drill, and with a piercing jolt the world disappeared into an endless white noise of pure incomprehensible pain.

======

With a jolt we were back inside my mindscape, Arista staring at me thoughtfully as I collapsed forward onto the table with massive heaving puffs of air coming through my nose that did nothing to help my half-panicked NEED to breathe in the slightest!

“Hmm.. yes, that was a bit more effective I think? Direct memory transfer is definitely the way to go if I’m to convince you in the time we have left Dearheart.”
It felt like my forehead was burning for some reason but luckily the table I’d rested it on had cooled dramatically in a short amount of time which really seemed to be helping if nothing else.
“That, my dear Alice, is what I’m fighting for.. that is the future you were born to stop.”

People.. bloody.. PEOPLE!

I’d like to say I was shocked but that would be an outright lie.
I’ve seen the depths that humanity can sink to before and while I’d always hoped that, if the time ever came for the magical world to be exposed to the normals on-mass, things would work out in the end.. a part of me always knew th-that something like THAT was a possibility!..
One which no amount of blind hope could ever get rid of entirely, despite my best efforts.

“As you can imagine, all steps must be taken to stop that future from coming to pass. At first I used what knowledge I had and came up with a plan, I’m not sure if you’ve realised it yet Alice but there’s a REASON we are known collectively as the ‘Mother of Magic’.. can you guess what it is?”
Please stop talking. My head hurts, my eyes hurt, everything hurts!
“They call us the Mother of Magic because that’s exactly what we are Dearheart, there isn’t a single mage alive on this planet who wasn’t born from us in one way or another.”

She paused dramatically and shifted a little in her chair while my body screamed at me about the pain, along with everything else wrong with me at this exact moment, and my mind slowly started to digest what her words truly meant.

Every single magical alive?.. every mage on Earth, was born from ‘us’?..

“Oh, do keep up Alice, I know, maybe this will help.”
My body protested but didn’t hinder me too much as I shot up in a vain attempt to stare up at her in horror but it was too slow of a reaction in the end and once again the world exploded around me into nothingness.

======

The first thing I could feel was pain as the world resolved around me.
I couldn’t tell much about where I was by the sheer fact that my eyes were shut tight in a near permanent wince.

My stomach felt like someone was tying it in knots and something was pushing sharply against my spine in a way that almost seemed to burn from the force of it all if nothing else.

I thought the bloody period was bad but this is beyond anything I’ve eve-AHH!

“One more push”
Instantly I know what was going on and with a numb sense of horror all I could do was lay there, suffering along with the incarnation I’m currently stuck in as she goes through labor pains and the inevita-AHH!!
“PUSH!”

The pain didn’t cease but the indescribable stretching feeling in my lower body stopped suddenly leaving me to quiver and shake as waves of pain hit me at levels I never thought possible before.

In the ensuing mess of noise there was a clear slapping sound followed quickly be the sound of a baby’s loud wailing cries.
My eyes peaked open slowly without any input from me to see a poorly lit hut of some kind with a large woman standing in front of me covered in gore and a small twitching bundle of flesh in her arms that was quite possibly a baby of some kind underneath it all.

“What will you name her?”
My breathing wouldn’t settle and waves of pain were still hitting me enough to make my thoughts hazy but as the world started to darken I clearly heard my own voice speak in little more than a whisper.

“Eir.. her name will be Eir-is..”

======

The world reformed around me and my blood ran cold when, instead of the nice clean white space of my mindscape, I found myself staring up at some kind of tented ceiling instead?
A moment later the pain struck again, somehow worse the second time around as a heavy compression set in and my body cried out in utter agony.

“It’s okay ‘ista the baby’s fine, you’re fine, just breath.”

Things progressed from there with a horrible sense of inevitability and the moment my eyes landed on the squealing little mess of amniotic fluid and flailing limbs the ‘midwife’ assured me was a healthy baby boy the world disappeared again.

======

On and on the procession went from there.

Sometimes I was lying down, others I was standing on an awkward set of bricks for some reason or perched on a stool with someone behind me supporting my back.
Sometimes there would be a team of women rushing around me in their times equivalent of relatively high fashion clothing or a gallery of what appeared to be richly dressed spectators watching over us, while other times it was just me and an older woman or even just me on my own.

More than a few times I even came back into existence to find myself blisteringly drunk or high on some now considered illicit narcotic or two!

Finally after what felt like an endless stream of births the world faded out and I found myself seated in a chair while blissfully not in any sort of pain aside from a blistering headache.
My eyes resisted slightly, my body did too honestly, but with a lot of effort I managed to roll my head back against the chair and glare at Arista’s far too pleasant smile.

“For centuries my duty as the only woman capable of bringing life to new magical children and the compulsions placed upon me by mother turned me into little more than a broodmare.. what you saw was nothing compared to the true extent of my efforts to help our species grow enough to survive the normals clutches someday.”
She sighed and the room around us dimmed slightly to match her mood once more.
“Naturally I tried to find other ways to do things; having the growth of an entire species hinge on a single woman’s ability to have children is monumentally stupid, even when you factor in our immortality.. then it happened..”

I opened my mouth to plead against what I knew she was going to do but yet again I was far too slow to react and the world exploded all over again to my senses.

======

“ARISTA!”
The world formed around me suddenly and moments after there was a stabbing pain in my gut as a man in thick leather armor practically fell toward me, sword at full extension.

My magic twisted and thrashed around us violently, ripping the man to pieces in the process as something warm inside me grew cold and my body collapsed to the ground in a growing pool of blood.
Slowly my shaking hands came up to my stomach to hug at a large bulge there and heart-breaking sobs pulled themselves from my lips as some tiny spark of power under my palm died out into nothingness.

“..my baby..”

======

With another jolt I was standing up suddenly, no blood or remains of the man in sight as I leaned heavily against a wall of some kind and watched people fawning over a young girl with long blonde hair who practically glowed as everyone paid attention to her, or more specifically the small bundle of cloth in her arms.

A single bitter tear left the corner of my eye as the baby in her arms started to wail, as they’re want to do at that age apparently, but with an almost unnatural shift in stance the tears stopped and my body turned away from the crowd before me to leave the room sharply.

Outside, my eyes drifted up to the star’s twinkling above us and one shaking hand came up to cup at my now flat stomach.
“..my baby..”

This time the world took its time to dissolve, as if lingering on that final scene for some unknown reason.

======

When I came back to myself again I was facing Arista in those same chairs with the tea-set sitting between us as before but the sorrow on her face and the watery smile spread across her trembling lips gave me a moment’s pause, allowing her to be the first one to speak.

“That day, I realised that my children didn’t NEED to come to full-term in order to be reborn.. seeing a child which should rightfully be mine, seeing one of my many daughters being elevated above all others in our families eyes for having miraculously had a completely ‘new-born’ magical child when none but me had ever managed it before..”
Her lips trembled harder and she ducked her head a little as the room around us bleached out of all color into an inky darkness beyond anything I’d ever seen before.

“Oh Alice, I did something terrible.. the compulsions saw a way to improve our chances of survival and I had to.. I had to do what they wanted no matter my feelings on the topic, can you see that?”

I couldn’t see her face in the sudden darkness but the feeling of the world exploding around me was unmistakable as I slipped into yet another of her memory streams.

======

What followed was nothing short of a horror show that will live with me for the rest of my days.
A parade of incarnations, hundreds of them, maybe thousands, I lost track of them honestly when it all became too much for me to witness and I did everything I could to somehow block out the unstoppable visions of the past before my eyes.

Stabbing, poison, hammers and falling.. about the only thing she didn’t try was suicide in order to pre-emptively end her pregnancies!

======

When the ‘show’ finished at last I slumped hard into the big chair around me and sobbed openly in disgust, for her, for me, for all of us and the truly twisted foundation which our magical culture was apparently built upon.

“I refined it down to an art-form Alice, it takes two weeks for the core of a new-born magical baby to become stable.. I learnt to feel it and when the juvenile core within me stabilised I would end it to start on the next one as the compulsions demanded.”
She sighed heavily and brought a trembling hand up to rub against her face slightly before turning back to me once more with a weak smile on her lips.
“Mother finally saw past my actions and realised what her compulsions were forcing me to do, she tried to stop me and the compulsions saw her as an enemy.. my own hatred for what she’d made me become trapped us all within this cycle with only one path of escape open to us.”

My eyes widened as things slowly started to sink into my numb brain, making a horrible sort of sense in a way I desperately hoped they shouldn’t.
‘my favorite daughter Alice’
‘the last of your kind’
‘free at last’

“What are you planning here today Arista? Why me?”
She laughed loudly, almost brokenly, as her eyes settled on my horrified face with nothing but warm love shining from within them.

“You see it now Alice, don’t you? The lengths I’ve had to go to and the things I’ve had to do, all leading up to this one precious moment.. the day the world stops needing a ‘Mother of Magic’ anymore..”
She’s going to.. she can’t just-
“I’m sorry to say that I was forced to breed your line with precision just to create you, the world’s first truly stable human Locus point, a nexus where all magic of all forms meet within one perfect child.. your body will be my template Alice and with this ritual I can finally let all of the daughters trapped within me out at last, finally be free of my responsibility by creating a new breed of mage, powerful, unstoppable, perfect.. and able to reproduce without my aid..”

..she’s insane!..
The math alone to work something like that out would be mind-bending.
It would take her centuries, millennia even, just to get CLOSE to a result worth trying an-and..

..and that’s exactly what she’s had, isn’t it?..

She can’t do this Ari?!
..She can, we can’t let her obviously but she most definitely can manage it..

“Why?”

..Why, what?..
“Why, what Dearheart?”

“Why all of the cloak-and-dagger manipulation? Why all the tests, suffering and everything else you’ve put us all through to reach this point?”
Why can’t we let her do it?

“You’re core needed strife Alice. Locus points don’t just form from nothing and even then most of them reach a point of premature-stability where they just become regular, if rather powerful, cores unless they are constantly challenged and pushed to their limits progressively over time.”
..because if she succeeds it will swing things too far the other way..
“You needed to be pushed beyond your limits until your core finally reached a level of self-sustainability that no other living core has managed before!”
..Mages will take over and the normals will die in ways just as bad as you saw them do to us!..

I sat back in my chair heavily, my mind rolling with a mess of contradictions and conflicted feelings.
Ari is right, Arista can’t be allowed to continue like this, there must be a better way out there somehow.. on the other hand, if that vision she showed me of our future is true?..
Thousands, possibly millions of mages being tortured for who-knows-how-long as a power source for the normals!

“There is one unfortunate side-effect to all of this which I may have neglected to mention before Alice-”
Arista sighed and stared at me with an almost pained look on her face.
“-the new mages need to be strong in body, mind and conviction if they are to prevent that disgusting future you saw.. for that to happen there must be a few sacrifices, the weak, the timid and the broken..”

My mind spun at the implications of those seemingly simple words.
Ari was right, mages are only human after all and it’s human nature to punish the weak for our own gain, ‘the weak, the timid and the broken’ ..

More dots connected slowly in my head and-
I think I’m finally seeing the true picture here at last?

She wants to ‘sacrifice’ the weak personalities within our core so that they aren’t ‘freed’ like the others she controls; and the only incarnations I’ve ever successfully managed to integrate into myself are..

The weak.. those too young to have properly gained any useful knowledge or spent most of their lives unaware of their magical nature?

The timid.. Rosaline, the brutes and all the other incarnations who fled from Arista’s wrath in fear to hide under my protection?

and the broken .. Theodora, Dexi and any number of others inside my head who are awkward, or weird, or jus-just plain crazy!

Arista planned for me to be unstable, weak, in a time when she needed me to be mentally strained, so she could take over my body eventually.
She planned for me to face enemies who would force me to overuse powers I still don’t fully understand and face the consequences afterwards!

She planned for ‘Ellie’ to let specific incarnations out, both to keep me off center, to strain my body, mind and magic to their limits at a crucial time leaving me with no other option BUT to integrate them all into myself.

I’m her recycling bin?

Arista has tossed all of the incarnations she doesn’t want into my mindscape and she’s going to.. she’s gonna get rid of me somehow. My eyes shifted up to Arista’s face in fear and the knowing, almost apologetic look on her face didn’t help in any way-shape-or-form.

She’s really going to do it?
She’s going to kill me in cold blood!

“I think you understand what’s at stake now Alice, what I must do to finally end this cycle of life and death at long last, for the greater good. I’ll give you time to process things, speak to Mother again if you wish it doesn’t matter now, it’s far too late for you to change any of this and I WILL see my plans to fruition no matter what the eventual cost.”
Slowly she rose to her feet and stepped away from the table.

“When you’ve come to terms with things, leave this place, come join me for the final hours so we might enjoy them as much as possible.”
With a wave of her hand a doorway appeared in the distance which seemed to just lead to an endless darkness at the moment, from her accompanying nod I’d infer that it should somehow lead me back into the real world if I walk through it at some point though, I guess.
“I love you darling, never forget that, you will always be my favorite and live on in my memory.. but some events must come to pass whether we wish them to or not.”

In an instant Arista was gone leaving me alone with my swirling thoughts, my fear and my numb sense of un-reality at everything I’d learned in however long we’d spent talking about ‘her side of things’.

======

..Now that she’s finally gone..
Ari’s voice caught me off guard slightly by coming so suddenly out of nowhere but her presence, for what it is, did help a little bit by giving me something different to focus on if nothing else.
..How about I tell you my plan to stop all of that crap she just said from actually happening?..

Oh yes, anything, yes Ari!
Call me selfish or useless, or a hopeless optimist, but one thing is clear above all others in my mind right about now.

I’m not Arista’s obedient ‘little Alice’!
I’m HANNAH Powers-damned COOPER and I’m NOT going down without a bloody fight!

Maybe her motives are right, maybe she’s just lying to me again?
Maybe what I want to do will make me the ‘bad guy’ in the eyes of history but I don’t bloody care!

She manipulated me.
She killed all those people, she killed my MUM!
She turned Eris into some messed up little programmable doll then harmed her just to get a reaction out of me and above all else she hurt Sarah..
NOBODY hurts SARAH!

“What’s the plan?”

======

“Are you sure this will work?”
..As long as we get an opening and she’s distracted enough..

Basically Ari’s plan falls into three main parts:
The first step relies on me going out into the real world and finding some way to entice Arista back within our mindscape again.
The second is kind of the lynch pin to it all and will require a little bit of experimentation in a moment or so, to make sure it’s even possible at this point.
The third.. the third part requires me to prove that I’m my ‘mothers’ daughter in all of this, sadly.

I’m sorry to say that the only way to beat ruthlessness of Arista’s level is to be equally ruthless yourself, if not more so.. I’m not completely sold on that idea yet honestly but it’s not like we’re swimming in options here or anything.

The main part of Ari’s plan I CAN get behind though stems from the simple fact that Arista wants to get rid of me.
She weaken me to the point where she has dominance over my body and my mindscape, then she’s going to toss me aside for her grand master plan to be completed.

Fair’s fair, I’m totally willing to turn the tables on her there if at all possible!

“Let’s try this then, you reckon that I’ve still got control of my mindscape despite her ability to change things so much?”
..I saw the world shift in subtle ways according to YOUR emotions, just as it did more dramatically to hers..

Slowly I scanned the empty white space around us with a tight glare but nothing seemed to change or be out of place at all despite her words.

“That doesn’t mean I can have any sort of control though, especially enough to overpower her in here?”
..That’s just a matter of believing in yourself..

My eyes scanned the area once more and I focused all my willpower on making something, anything happen to prove her right.
..Magic is about willpower above all else, never forget that..

It’s funny, John said pretty much the same thing to me at one point, I think?
He was right too in the end. When I’ve pushed myself beyond my limits and thrown away all my preconceived notions, I’ve managed to pull off things that moments before I just KNEW weren’t possible at all!

“Cut away the emotional instability, cut away the self-doubt, the panic attacks, and all that’s left is you.. my best friend, Hannah nee Alistor Cooper.”

“John?!”
I spun on the spot and stared in awe as a slumped version of John smirked up at me from his position seated amongst the roots of an old tree with a suspiciously empty space next to him that felt at once familiar and worryingly wrong.

“You really have NO idea about magic do you?”
With a shriek I spun around again and came face to face with those expressive, taunting, eyes of his that were so full of amusement as he stared at me in confusion.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret Hannah.. if your powerful enough.. the rules don’t apply..”

My hand came up to touch his smiling face but flinched back at the last moment as doubt and pain resurfaced with sickening thoughts about his possible role in all of this that came roaring back into my head with a vengeance.

“John.. be honest with me, what’s the real reason you didn’t tell me?”
One last time I spun around in surprise at hearing my own voice and found the strange sight of him sitting in a partly visible seat staring to his side at a blurry, feminine shape as raw emotions played across his face.

After a long drawn out pause the entire scene seemed to jump and John suddenly had a coffee in his hand out of nowhere as he stared slightly further to the left then he had moments before.

“How do you do it John? How do you hold back Max so easily?”
My mouth went dry as my own voice echoed around me again.

“I don’t”
Even now those two words made my blood chill with just a touch of fear.
“Mages, there’s an old trick we developed centuries.. millennia ago. I can teach you but you need clarity first, that’s why I’m taking you to her, so you can have enough clarity to pull off the first crucial steps.”

That’s right?.. he DID say that..

I’d forgotten in all the mess with my visions and the whole ‘Cat-Hannah’ thing, but he said that right to my face before we even went to see his Mother and there wasn’t a hint of a lie in his magic even as his thoughts went into turmoil making it hurt just to sense them second-hand through his magic!

“Have I mentioned lately how much I love that big, beautifully twisted brain of yours?”
I didn’t have to turn around to recognise the scene this time, having lived through it less than a day ago, his voice was like a soothing balm to my nerves though as my doubts about him seemed to melt away behind some indescribable trust I could feel rekindling in my heart.

The same warmth that made me give him a second change, seemingly so long ago, when by all rights I never should have even considered it as an option but I did it because.. because.. that’s my John?

The John that understands me.
The John that uses inappropriate humor to cover every time he’s uncomfortable in the slightest.
The John that has a moral compass so twisted it’s not even funny but will still rush into insanity to protect me if needed.

..The John that loves you?..

Ari’s question broke my moment of reverie but let me focus on the here-and-now again which I guess is something I should be thankful for in some way or another, even if it did leave me glowing red in embarrassment from the implications of it all.

“This is me controlling my mindscape, isn’t it?”
..Strong emotions are often good starting points with magic..

I sighed and ran a hand through my hair distractedly as another scene appeared off to my left of John playing with that same hair while I lay inert in bed with a gentle smile on his face.

“How did you know this would happen?”
..I didn’t, I suspected it would though, you don’t hear it usually but he’s in here more then you are..

“WHAT?!”

..whether you want to admit it or not, the fact remains that you stopped living your life until he came back to you again, you’ve felt more passionate and inspired in the last month then you did for all those years working ‘missions’ as Al..

I didn’t!- I mean, he didn’t.. we.. I don’t!..

..You’re young and in love, forgetting everything else, why are you surprised that he would be a source of power and inspiration to you?..
My eye’s scanned around us as more and more scenes started appearing, multiple versions of me and him all laid out in their own isolated little worlds within my mindscapes otherwise blank existence.

Some were happy, some angry, some laughing, crying, kissing..
“OKAY, ENOUGH!”

That simple yell caused the world around us to shudder and in the blink of an eye they were all gone, leaving just me standing in the once-more bleak landscape around us with glowing hot ears and a slight tremble in my hands.

“So it works, I can have control in here.. how do we distract Arista long enough to get anything done behind her back then?”

For a few seconds there was nothing but silence from Ari and I could practically feel her judging, non-existent gaze upon me as if I were a particularly obstinate child who refused to listen to reason.
Eventually however the Grand-high voice in my head deigned to speak once more despite her obvious annoyance with me.

..Craft a distraction from memories, reach into HER subconscious to find HER nightmares, then use them..
How the hell can that work?
..She can do it to you, we saw your fantasies plain as day after all, so it’s possible, the rest is just willpower and belief..

Great, thanks for the helpful step by step guide there?!
I SWEAR one of these days someone will have to just GIVE me a bloody straight answer instead of expecting me to come up with them all on my own!

Fine, okay, let’s do this.. damn it..
This is all in my mind, I have control. To see Arista’s nightmares all I need to do, in theory, is WANT them hard enough and BELIEVE I can actually find them in the first bloody place apparently.

Focus Hannah.. Focus.. Arista’s nightmares.
I need images that will torment her into silence and leave her completely unable to notice as I try to stop her plans permanently while she’s occupied.
Focus.. focus.. fo-URAGH!

I can’t DO this!
Why is it when I think about John he starts popping up all around me but when I need to find something that could literally save my life I can’t do a damn thin-

“You’re public awaits..”
Spinning around with a flustered gasp I found myself facing a smirking John stood before a wide, ragged hole that seemed to have been torn directly into my mindscape.

It can’t be that easy, can it?

“You’re public awaits..”
Urg! Powers, even in my head he’s still a smug bastard.

“FINE! I’ll go through the dangerous looking hole torn in my mindscape, you happy?!”
The image of John flickered for a moment before disappearing and a quite mumble came to my ears from right behind me making me freeze up instinctively to stop myself from facing it again.

“I love you.. Hannah..”
Damn smart-assed bastard always knows what to say.

“I swear to the Powers, if this hole leads to a realm of unending torment or something equally terrible I’ll find a way to win the battle for ownership of my body with Arista on principle alone just so I can come back to reality and beat your rock-hard head in John you son of a bitch!”

My stipulations stated, I carefully stepped forward until I stood at the very edge of the tear in my mind before taking a deep breath and leaping inside.

======

I landed in an awkward stumble when it turned out that the ‘leap’ was more of a ‘hop’ as my feet hit a floor that happened to be equally as high as the one in my mindscape, leading to me staggering forward slightly with all the usual grace and poise that I’m ever-so famous for.
The darkness inside the tear around me grew brighter as I moved forward until all I could see was a wide white space filled with millions of flying little objects moving around so fast I could barely keep track of them.

Almost instinctively my hands came up in a halting motion and the world froze.
With a few sweeping arm movements and pointed gestures the moving objects, memories from the look of it, formed themselves into some kind of order and I was left staring at quite a few scenes playing out in real-time as if I were watching them on large floating TV screens.

“No way? Talk about being messed up in the head.”
I stared at the scenes before me in surprise, with more then a little bit of disgust evident on my face, as multiple scenes involving a worryingly young me and an older Arista arguing played out from all angles around me in different settings throughout history.

Slowly those initial reactions bled away into a wide, malicious grin as each ‘nightmare’ reached its apparently inevitable conclusion.
“THIS.. This, I can work with..”

Look out Arista, someone just got a secret weapon, or twenty, up her sleeve!

“Now how do I make copies of the-”
The world span and a pile of orbs formed at my feet out of nowhere.
“-se.. okay?.. so maybe I can-”
The world lurched again and suddenly, where there was once a pile, there now sat a large suitcase full to the brim with orbs, its zippers mostly closed aside from an awkwardly wide gap at the top.

“This is so unfair, how comes her mindscape is so much better behaved then mi-”
As if to add insult to injury a large book about the size of my chest landed heavily on top of the suitcase with a thump.

Cautiously I shifted closer and peeked at it only to slump in relief a moment later, letting out a long breath as the title shined tauntingly up at me.
‘Mind magic’s for nosy, idiot children by Aris-Ta’

“Powers, even her mindscape is a snarky bitch?”
Slowly my frown turned back into that same malicious grin yet again as an idea struck me that made me want to dance in glee.

“When in Rome, huh?”

======

..THERE you are! What happened? I lost connection with you for a minute there?!..

“I.. uh.. kinda invaded Arista’s mind and stole a load of junk?”
An awkwardly protracted silence followed that statement, probably not helped by the incriminating bags full of knowledge in the form of insultingly titled textbooks I had piled up behind me no doubt.
“She stole my body, I stole her abilities.. seemed kinda fair at the time honestly?”

The silence stretched on for a moment more before she answered at last.

..You’re unbelievable you know that?..
“Hell yeah I am, that’s why I’m gonna win this thing. All’s fair in love and war so-”

“I love you.. Hannah..”
With an angry growl I flicked my hand behind me dismissively to get rid of the annoying phantasm of John that decided to crop up again for no apparent reason.

..I want to say I’m surprised, but all I’m feeling at the moment is a strange mix of pride and pity for you for some reason?..
“Thanks, I guess?”

We both sunk into another awkward silence.
To my left an image of John offering me an equally awkward and thankfully silent smile appeared before I banished it away again with a frustrated growl.

“That’s going to get SERIOUSLY annoying!”
The only response I got was more awkward silence which made me growl once more.
“Let’s just get started with this, somewhere in the book of mind magic skills I stole from Arista must be some kind of technique to force an invader into a false reality or something, right?”

“You dropped you’re book again Al.”
I practically jumped out of my skin as a little child, no older than ten and with the unmistakable face of my best friend, offered me an annoyed stare as he held up the mind magic ‘book’ with his thumb stuck between two seemingly random pages.

Gingerly I took the book from his little hands and glanced down at the page he was holding, only to see a chapter titled ‘false realities and how to not muck them up’ which left me slightly stunned for a second or two.

By the time I gathered myself together again enough to look up and thank the little John-clone, he’d already disappeared sadly.

..He was really cute as a kid, wasn’t he?..
Shut up Ari, now’s really not the time, I’ve got a book to skim read like my life depends on it.
..Fine, be that way, you know I’m right though..

That’s not the point damn it!
Gah! Stupid smug voices in my head!

======

“Sooo.. it’s like, this?.. then..”
With carefully slow movements I grasped the memory orb-thingy in my hand and tossed it underhand to a patch of clear space a little-ways away from me.

The moment it struck the ground the orb burst into a flash of light and in its place seemed to be some kind of brightly shining ward-like bubble instead.

..That looks about right, the same as the books picture shows at least, although it’s a different color..
Hopefully it works the same way too or else I’m seriously screwed here, our whole plan kinda hinges on this little thing and it’s soon to be existent buddies working after all.

..It’ll be fine, just get the next one and remember to charge it a bit more then you did the last one-..
“-so the eventual ‘bubble’ it creates is slightly bigger and encircles the last one, forcing her to get dumped into it when the first bubble breaks, yes I know, I read the same damn book as you did for Powers sake!”

Ari didn’t respond to my frustrated yell but I’m getting used to reading her emotions pretty well and I think it’s safe to say she’s in a huff now.

“I swear you really ARE someone’s mother, you’ve got to be with the amount of nagging you do.”
..If you didn’t run headlong into big holes in your mindscape like an insanely stupid CHILD I wouldn’t have to nag so bloody-much!..

To the strains of this now annoyingly familiar argument on my priorities and apparent ‘death wish’ I grabbed the next memory orb, charging it up slightly, before tossing it over to hit nearly dead on the spot where the last one broke causing another flash of light and another colored bubble to form up just outside the borders of the last one.

“Two down, a couple hundred more to go, I guess?”
..Are you even listening to me?!..
A heavy sigh left my lips as I reached down to snag up the next orb.

I miss having private time in my own head.

======

“So I just step through the door that Arista left behind and hope for the best, right?”
..Be annoying and act uncharacteristically childish, it will add to her confusion when she gets here..

With a heavy sigh I took another step towards the doorway and cringed a little in anticipation, before taking that last heavy step, only to find no purchase on the other side and having my whole body tip forward into a seemingly endless fall of inky black nothingness until, with a bright flash of light, the world reappeared in all its technicolor beauty, filled with a rather uninspiring view of the rune covered crater floor that we’re apparently still surrounded by.

“Welcome back Alice, you took longer than I thought you would, the ritual is about to start-”
She shifted our butt slightly to get more comfortable as she spoke in that same annoyingly ‘motherly’ tone of hers.
“-once Esti finishes her final inspection and the last component arrives, we can begin at last.”

Our eyes drifted upwards without my control, settling on a familiar crouched form that appeared to be tapping her fingers against the shield above us with a frown on her aged face.
My stomach dropped out even as my brain span, trying to deny what was right in front of my eyes.

The same hunched form.
The same sharp eyes.
The same tightly clenched jaw.

She’s not wearing her usual shapeless dress and fluffy slippers combo, apparently choosing to wear a loose fitting black formal-robe with some kind of Blue insignia above her left breast instead for some reason, but it’s unmistakably her from this distance.
My heart hammered in my chest and all thought of plans went out the window as a single word slipped out of me in a pained whisper.

‘..Edith?..’



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