Arista is.. confident [5.11]

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A wise, presumably enchanted, group of entrance-ways once sung:
"This is the end, my only friend, the end."

Rather fitting right about now I guess.. or is it?

Events unfold including but not limited to:
Dirt-brown magic splashing on things,
Several (either literal or metaphysical) tug's-of-war,
and Hannah has nothing left to lose!

Do I need to mention how potentially dangerous that last point could be for everyone involved by now?


 

“Oh, you haven’t been properly introduced to Esti have you?.. it wouldn’t do for you to go without understanding the true extent of things Alice. She’s one of my most loyal followers after all, instrumental in shaping events that led up to this glorious day.”

WHAT?! She can’t be-
..Edith would NEVER!-
I can’t.. she.. I?..

‘Edith?!’

“There’s no need to cry Dearheart, Esti helped shape your ascension perfectly and she deserves to see your appreciation.”
With that said Arista slowly stood us up and started carefully walking along the rune covered floor towards the shield edge that Edith.. ‘Esti’?.. appeared to be testing at this exact moment.
“How are things looking Esti, is the main shield stable enough for me to drop it yet?”

“Yes Mother”
The smooth, deferential voice that came from Edith’s body made a shudder go down my non-existent spine.. where are the half-muttered words? The slurred speech patterns and Yoda-like barely decipherable rambling I’m so used to hearing from that exact same voice?!

“Oh.. you actually believed her odd manner of speech was natural?.. you really are painfully naive sometimes my darling Alice.”
SHUT UP! Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut UP!

‘Edith wouldn’t.. Edith would never do something like this, what the HELL have you done to her?!’

“I’ve done nothing to her darling. Since the day she told Mother of the prophecy, Esti has always looked for a way to make things right again, and when she finally spoke to me honestly about her fears we came to an agreement on how things must come to pass.. it’s just that simple.”

Betrayal, burning hot anger and a horribly heavy sense of loss settled over my heart as we stared up at Edith’s almost obliviously hard-working form above us for a few painfully long seconds.

‘First Gran, then John and now E-Edith?’
..don’t listen to her..
‘It’s too much, it.. it hurts?’

IT HURTS!

“Oh those are only the start of things little Alice-”
Arista paused as Edith straightened, as much as she ever seems capable of doing at least, and offered us a slight nod before stepping back.
“-after all, who do you think created the MPA in the first place?”

With even steps Arista brought us back down to the little pedestal we’d been sitting on before I woke up and carefully stepped up onto it with her usual smooth grace.

“Do you really think there’s a single high-level awakened mage in existence who doesn’t work for me at this point Alice?”
She spun us around with a flourish, sending the thigh-split on her black sequined dress flying like some strange knee-high cloak that would make Vlad proud with it’s over the top nature.
..Show off..

“I plan to win this day Dearheart and while it hurts me ever so much that you must suffer, it is a necessary evil so that we may all avoid even worse fates as a species.. people are selfish creatures; phrased like that even the most benevolent of my children will bow to logic with time.”

The shield above us flickered out of existence and the pedestal under our feet rose up slightly from the ground with a great rumbling shudder.
After a moment’s pause Edith bounced over the lip of the hole we’re in with her JuJu stick held at her side to cushion her landing next to us, the moment she’d settled her feet properly the shield sprung back to life trapping us inside all over again.

“How long until we’re ready Esti?”
Edith glanced up at us, not with her usual annoyance but a look that I can only describe as pride, as she did the math in her head silently.

“About another minute Mother.”
That being said she knelt down and started examining the burnt runes around the hole that the pedestal we’re standing on just rose out of.
“You can begin the ritual preparation; my presence will not effect anything.”

“Thank you Esti”
The bright smile Arista offered her felt false to me, but then, a lot of the motions she makes with my face and body feel wrong anyway so that could just be me being bias I guess?

After a deep calming breath Arista slowly moved us down into mediation position, paying careful attention to the slit on her dress so that she wasn’t showing anything unnecessarily, despite Edith being the only person within range to see us anyway.

Our eyes closed for a moment only to shoot open again as our arm came up to catch a fast moving object coming towards our head at worrying speed.

It took me a moment or two to realise what Arista now held tightly in her white-knuckled gasp but when I did a gasp left my non-physical lips and my heart sored with new hope as Edith glared up at us from her crouched position, her JuJu stick held in an almost motionless tug-of-war between her hand and ours.

“Really Esti?”
Edith’s glare softened slightly, not in compliance but in amusement which again made me want to cheer as loudly as I could, seeing that at least SOMEONE hadn’t truly betrayed me in all of this mess!

“You be planning to hurt my student, can’t be blaming me for trying ‘Mother’.”
Her words made that burgeoning flame of hope in my chest dim as it became obvious that her plan had already been thwarted before I’d even known it was coming.

To add insult to injury Arista flexed the muscles in my arm slightly and with a pulse of magic through my body she ripped the JuJu stick out of Edith’s grasp, tossing it aside as she stepped down from the pedestal to face Edith on even ground.

“Why Esti? We are so close, why now of all times would you decide to show your true colors?”
Edith took a step or two backwards before squaring her withered shoulders as best she could and fixing us with yet another angry glare.

“You be hurtin’ Fena and now you hurt the girl, Mother or not, your madness needs to stop an’ who but your ‘most loyal’ would ever have the chance to do so?..”
The mocking way she trailed off that sentence with just the slightest hint of a smirk on her lips made our blood boil with rage that was purely Arista’s in nature.

“I should have seen your betrayal for what it was long ago; you never forgave me for what happened to that useless sister of yours, did you?”
Edith’s smirk slid away into possibly the most intense glare I’ve ever seen on her often grumpy looking face.
“Of course you bonded with Alice over these last few years, Louise said as much but I ignored her warnings foolishly..”

‘Yeah, having your trust in people betrayed is going around these day’s apparently.’
..HA!..

“Shut up Alice, Mummy’s busy!”

A pressure pushed down on my chest as it always does when Arista forces me back into my mindscape but something was different this time?
I could feel the pressure, feel the drawing sensation pulling me towards the lines connecting to my mindscape again but I could RESIST it at last!
..Looks like Theodora and the others have been busy..

“Alice? What are you- how are you doing that? You can’t-”

Before Arista could finish her building rant at my disobedience a wrinkled old hand flew towards our face at speeds that shouldn’t be physically possible and managed to just clip our ear from Arista’s distraction, although it felt like we’d been hit by a sledgehammer despite being the barest of touches in reality.

Arista flipped my body away from Edith and staggered to a stop a few paces away, her hand flying up to our ear and coming away covered in blood which made our eyes dilate in rage all over again.

“You would DARE?!”
Arista swung her eyes up to glare at Edith only to throw us into another near panicked roll as a bolt of brown magic flew towards us, only to splash against the floor in a seemingly harmless discharge instead moments later.

“Useless girl is my student Arista, you told me once that the old ways must be respected above all, you do not HARM what is MINE!”

Edith practically spun on the spot and as she finished her spin a barrage of dirt-brown magical bolts shot after us in quick succession as if rapid-fired from a gun or something equally insane.
It was all Arista could do to keep moving and ensure Edith didn’t land another hammering blow against us, although there were quite a few close calls and she never really had a chance to retaliate in the process either which I’d say is a good thing at this point.

“You’re goals were good once Arista but your methods have gone too far, the woman I once called Mother would never even consider harming one of her children no matter the end goal.. the fact that you wish to send one into the void is beyond anything I could ever accept!”

With one more roll Arista managed to get us into a crouched position and threw a hand up, creating a shield of solid ice on our palm to deflect the next volley away and get some breathing room.
She went to stand up again and close the gap between us but with a force of will that I’m slowly becoming used to using I managed to twist my ankle hard enough that it actually translated into the physical world as I forced back Arista’s control in a minor but potentially important way.

She stumbled.

In a battle at these speeds with this much magic flying around, a stumble is all it takes to finish a fight, I cringed as yet another round of brown bolts flew in towards our now open side and even Arista winced our eyes shut momentarily in anticipation of the impact.
When the bolts hit I was expecting something close to what I imagine being hit by a semi-truck would feel like in all honesty, and it momentarily threw me when all I could feel was, at worst, a solid punch or two to our ribs?

Arista still cried out in obvious pain but she also shot our eyes open again to stare with dark amusement at Edith’s now widening eyes as those same fast-moving brown bolts of magic that just hit us practically bounced off of our body and flew straight back at their caster.

The whole reaction took seconds and left Edith with little-to-no time to react before landing with a crushing force to her chest that threw her back across the crater until she hit the wall hard and slumped down to the floor with a blood-filled sputter of breath.

“Do you really think I wouldn’t plan ahead for something like this Esti?”
Our eyes winced slightly as Arista took a step forward in obvious pain but she didn’t hesitate in stalking towards her now fallen prey with a renewed sense of superiority virtually radiating out of her mind and into mine.

“I will admit that I didn’t suspect you of such duplicity, but Max has been acting strange of late and when you factor the rather unavoidable need for me to work with Lichs on a regular basis while having an entire supposedly ‘secret’ resistance movement working against me as well, then it should be no surprise that I would tend to become just the slightest bit paranoid about such things, no?”

We came to a stop over Edith’s still sputtering, beaten body and Arista crouched down to be on eye-level with her once more.

“You could have had it all Esti, power, dominion, anything your heart desired but you had to throw it all away.. for what?.. what have you achieved in this pathetic attempt to stop me?”
The smug bitch actually leaned in closer to hear any kind of answer Edith might be able to offer while her fingers gently ghosted across the bare flesh on Edith’s arm leaving tiny little patches of ice as they went.

“First lesson.. useless girl..”
Arista leaned back sharply, surprise radiating out of her as she tried to understand the meaning behind those words and her magic lashed against mine in what I’d assume was an attempt to extract the answer she sought in a much more direct way then I think I’d ever want to imagine she could possibly manage.

Whatever the others have been doing to remove her ‘little sticky claws’ from my subconscious is obviously working because I barely had to even think about stopping her invasion to repel the once overpowering force of her magic with ease.
More importantly then that though, is the fact that I recognise that ‘lesson’ and it wasn’t a pleasant one to learn first-hand in my years as Al, I can tell you that much!

‘Don’t gloat until the enemy is dead useless girl, when they be dead, THEN rub victory in their faces.’

The slightest of sounds from behind us made Arista spin on the spot in paranoid fear which left us completely open when a large chunk of wood most commonly referred to as a ‘JuJu stick’ came flying in from its discarded position across the crater to smack almost perfectly against our forehead with seemingly shattering force.

The blow was so powerful that it sent Arista sprawling to the floor and even then it obviously wasn’t finished because the physical pain was quickly surpassed by a bone-deep tearing sensation in both my chest and my brain itself.
For a moment it felt like someone was trying to pull my brain and heart apart with their bare-hands.. but even that didn’t last long before, with a final searing blast of unimaginable pain, something deep within me broke and Arista’s presence disappeared from my mind with an agonised scream.

For the first time in what seems like years I could finally feel a direct connection between my mind and my body?
I promptly chose to use said miraculous new-found power of control to roll myself over slightly so I could throw up whatever Arista has eaten in the last day or so in shock and pain more than anything else.

“Useless.. girl..”
With a few heavy pants and a lot more effort than I’d like to admit I managed to roll myself away from the disgusting pile on my right to face Edith’s not-smiling, horribly pale face.
“Real battle.. be inside.. you.. girl.. go, quick!”

She finished that painfully slow statement with another wracking cough that sent blood flying and I couldn’t help but notice the frantic twitching of her arm where the spots that Arista touched appeared to have settled into tiny little patches of frost.

“Edith? Edith I-”
My hands came up to reach out to her but she shook herself forcefully, starting another round of painfully sharp coughs.

“GO! Stop.. Mother..”
My mouth moved soundlessly for a moment or two but anything I could say didn’t seem to want to leave my lips for some unfathomable reason?

I wanted to thank her for helping me when I thought I’d been deserted by everyone.
I wanted to beg her to hold on, to survive despite the damage I could see had been done to her.
I wanted.. I wanted..

“I love you Edith, don’t die on me you evil little Yoda-wannabe.”
Her pained wince twitched a few times before finally settling into an amused smirk that I know all too well from years of watching her torment other people for her own amusement.
“Fine, I’m going, bossy old witch..”

If she could, I think Edith would have laughed at that point.
Instead she made a heavy wheezing sound which really didn’t help me concentrate on following the lines to my mindscape, especially when you added in quite a few curious faces that seemed to be slowly appearing around the edge of the shield high above us.

My last sight was that of Edith’s blood splattered but warm smile before my lines connected at last and the crater around me disappeared.

======

I materialised into a world of chaos.

All around me my mindscape was changing, in a constant state of flux, as wild colors fought against my usual endless white for dominance and massive black tears formed around me only to collapse back into nothingness moments later.

“Holy fuck?.. FUCK!”
A rift formed up practically at my feet and I had to frantically roll away before I fell into the endless abyss inside.
“What the HELL have you done Edith?!”

One good thing came from my roll to safety and the movements that followed it at least, as I dodged yet more rolling chaos all around me, my view point shifted enough that I got to see Arista standing in her ‘adult’ form within a set of ever shrinking rings of multi-colored memory bubbles.

The whole set of constructs made from her very nightmares were apparently untouched by anything outside them, just as we’d hoped they would be.
If the bubbles are working like they are supposed to then she’s currently watching all of her nightmares come to life in a far too vivid reality, hopefully that’s enough to disorientate and delay her for a while.

Even I was a little surprised to see that pretty much every one of her nightmares involved me, or rather a younger, much cuter version of me, and that they all followed basically the same plotline where we would argue about anything from ethics to fashion until every one of them ended practically the same way, with her reaching out in anger to silence me only to find her magic lashing out and freezing the little-me to death in an instant.

There’s probably some deep psychological meaning behind all of that but I’m content to settle for ‘crazy woman is crazy’ at this point considering I’m kind of busy trying not to fall into whatever keeps trying to tear its way into my mindscape in general at this exact moment!

“Alice!”

I jumped in fright at the sudden voice behind me, only to turn and see yet another tear hovering in the air before me, this time however instead of an endless void there were people inside.. lots and lots of near identical girls I know all too well.

“Theodora?”
She didn’t get a chance to respond as the rift between us shut itself violently moments later leaving me alone once more and feeling truly helpless.

..You’re not alone..
Thanks Ari but that’s not exactly helping when-
‘I’m sorry for your loss. It won’t help but know that you are not alone’
‘Never forget, you’re not alone Alice’
‘She needs you to believe her on that one important point but you are NEVER alone and despite how it feels we’re going to win this war, just you wait and see!’

-What? Where did that come from..

Oh powers damn it, I REALLY hate seers!

‘they be usin’ you to get what they want’
‘She doesn’t want you to know this Alice’
‘some things I want you to see, others I NEED you to see’

‘Where else would a SUB-conscious be? It’s below the ground in your mindscape, DUH!’
For a moment the world span and I watched on as Theodora twisted her body on the spot before literally just falling through the white floor of my mindscape into non-existence again
‘everyone tells you what they want you to hear’
‘enemy’s be saying only what they be wanting you to hear and friends not being much better’

OKAY, I get it already!
‘people are going to see what they WANT to se-’
ENOUGH!

Stupid memories, more pushy then bloody Ari is.
..HEY!..
“Sorry, force of habit, so how do we do this?”

..What makes you think I know what to do?..
“Stop playing innocent, it’s pretty obvious that whatever the real plan is Theodora’s got you involved. Let’s just get on with this before Arista realises that she’s-”

There was a tremendous ‘boom’ that shook my mindscape as a whole and a deep pit of dread formed in my gut in response to it.

The rifts started to slow down their previous pattern of forming as a nearly incandescently glowing Arista launched herself forward, bursting her way through the nightmare bubbles using nothing but willpower and rage alone.
She let off a wounded roar that shook the ground beneath our feet as her head whipped around in search of me.

“Ari.. little help here?”
The sound of my voice made Arista’s head snap around to glare at me darkly as she huffed like an animal and practically broke into a sprint, every movement seemingly etched with some raw new pain that can only come from having watched your own hands kill a loved one before your eyes.. I should know what that looks like at this point after all..

..It’s you’re mindscape. Think, feel, and do it already dumbass!..
I barely took the time to process what she’d said, my instincts already roaring in my ears so loudly, the same information pouring into my brain from some outside source along with my long developed primal instincts to flee shouting above the confusion and fear.

Arista dived at me and at the very last second a rift opened up beneath my feet making me fall straight down into it, only to snap shut before she could follow after me.

======

Seemingly a moment later a rift re-opened below me within the inky black void I’d fallen into and I slid once more into the tattered white expanse of my mindscape with a heavy thud.

It took me a moment to catch my breath but when I did a smirk slowly formed on my lips.
..Told you so..

‘Think, feel, do’ my ass!
One part panic, two parts desperation and three parts actually being the owner of an already unstable mindscape is more like it!
I literally have no idea how I pulled that off an-

“ALICE!”

“Shit!”
With another forceful mental push, my best attempt at copying the sensation I felt when the last tear opened up, I fell back into the floor again only to fly out sideways this time, so far away from Arista’s enraged form that I could barely see her along the horizon line of my mindscape.

“Okay, that’s not dying covered, what’s next?”

..How about you listen for once?!..
Damn it! I need help here, not a moral lesson on my admittedly poor record for retention of seemingly unimportant details wh-

‘I’m not a Seer damn it!’
‘My gut instinct says this will work’
‘more instinct then thought’

My own voice practically taunted me with the facts involved.
My instincts have always pointed me in the right direction, I just never though that they could be-

‘be havin’ the touch f’sure. No stomach to ya!’
‘Bad Juju be cloudin’ ya eye’

‘even if I could see the future on some things I might have to lie to you about them because me just telling you about specific events could work against us’

That’s getting REALLY annoying!
You know what? FINE!

For the record I’m not a bloody seer and just because I have a good gut instinct, and Edith is obsessed with my stomach.. and Theodora lies constantly like everyone else.. that has NOTHING to do with trusting my instincts in this case because it’s not going to work an-
..Your rambling..

Gah! Fine I’ll trust my bloody instincts!
I swear if I die from this I’m blaming that crazy little Yoda for it all and haunting her ass or something.
..That’s the spirit!..
Really NOT the time for puns Ari!

“Okay, instincts, trust my instincts, instincts, instincts, instincts, COME ON!”
My eyes flew around the empty patchwork mess of my mindscape, settling on a rapidly approaching figure who practically glowed with waves of tightly controlled magical power.
“Oh sure, when I WANT you to start bugging me you get shy?! Told you I’m not a bloody seer Ar-”

“Have I mentioned lately how much I love that big, beautifully twisted brain of yours?”
My whole body froze for a moment before spinning around to face a proudly grinning copy of John.
Behind him were two more rifts floating in mid-air, one leading to that same strange city-scape full of my integrated past-incarnations that I’ll assume is my subconscious at this point, and the other leading to a mental-scape I’m all too familiar with but never thought I’d find inside my bloody mindscape itself!

As my eye’s flicked from one to the other, hesitating as they were drawn back to the usually bright ball of magic that makes up my core and the golden lines of power streaming away from it in all directions.

It all seemed so dull for once, the light of my core and lines obviously weakened for one of any number of possible reasons, but while looking at it I had just the barest hints of a plan forming in my panicked mind.. a possible route that I could take to finally end all of this, end it the same way that Arista planned to do to me in the first bloody place!

The mental space that I call my ‘lines’ looked good in general, back to how I remember it being instead of that weird ‘weather’ form it took under Arista’s control at least, but the core..

As my core spun around slowly in front of my eyes a great big pair of brown cracks became visible on the outer edge of one side.
Honestly, it almost looked like a giant glowing segment had been ‘cut out’ from my core and it was only that one section which showed any kind of roughly marked out ‘cracks’ compared to the rest of my core which just looked dimmer then usual somehow, instead of dividing the whole thing completely as I imagine would happen if my core were naturally breaking.

As the core turned a little more, a tiny stream of magic reached out from the divided off portion of my core only to be slapped back by an equally weak stream of the brown-crack magic I recognised all too well, as everything finally clicked in my head and weeks, years even, of manipulation started to make a horrible amount of sense.

Edith was always so focused on teaching me how to use my lines?
I spent more time learning how to manipulate and cast spells in there then I did any other form of magic and she never WOULD tell me why it was all so important to her!

When having such total control of my lines made learning blood magic, enchanting and any number of other tricks that saved my life over the years relatively easy to learn I just kind of gave up asking and accepted that she obviously had her reasons from the proof alone that it had helped me in the end.. but that’s not why she did it..

‘it’s going to be so delicious turning her own weapon against her’
‘the perfect weapon to stop me’

“When this is over, you and I are going to have a long talk about keeping secrets Ari!”
..What you don’t know she couldn’t find out, sorry?..
“How long have Edith and you been working on thi-”
..DUCK!..

My instincts kicked in at almost the exact same moment Ari yelled out to me, in a way that I’m now both much more aware of than ever before and completely unsure if it ever happened in the past without me realising it honestly.
Either way it gave me just that tiny micro-second extra to twist myself out of the way as Arista came barrelling in on a poorly judged dive to tackle me like a bull in a china shop.

Before she could turn around I pushed my magic and fell through the floor into yet another rift that I’m actually becoming worryingly good at manipulating at this point.

======

When I came out of the void on the other side I found myself so far away from Arista that I couldn’t even see her anymore, I didn’t aim for that or anything, the rift just seemed to either judge what I needed or work on blind luck, I don’t have time to work out which at this point.

"Theodora of the Byzantine I call you forth!"
I’m not sure if the words are necessary or intent will do, I’m not sure if anything I’m thinking of will work honestly but those were the first words that came to my mind as my hand shot up to point palm first at the floor to my right so they will have to do hopefully!

For a long, tense second nothing happened before a tiny dark spot appeared on the floor I’d gestured at and widened rapidly until a figure I never thought I’d be happy to see came shooting out of it with an ecstatic giggle.

"Yes! Yes, yes, YES! You clever little monkey Alice, for once in your life you bloody listened!"
She started hopping around happily and waving her arms in the air as if directing some grand symphony but I really don’t have time for her special brand of crazy right now, let alone her manipulative seer personality that she hides underneath it all so well.

“Shut up Dora, I’m trying to concentrate!”
My brow furrowed as I threw both my hands together and aimed them at the empty space on my left.

"I call-”
Theodora skipped over to my side and wrapped her arms around me in a tight hug that threw me off completely in a way that I can only imagine was intentional from her at this point.
“-I call-”
Her face moved up and she nuzzled under my chin, her tongue coming out like an over-grown cat to lick at my neck and once again interrupting me by-

“ARRG! Screw it, YOU LOT GET OUT HERE! We’ve got work to do!"

A great cheer rose up as my once empty and now falling-apart mindscape was flooded with past-incarnations, many of which I hadn't seen in weeks but all of which were offering me proud and eager looks as they congregated at my side while a giggling Theodora looked on smugly.

“Don’t think I’m not angry at you all for letting Dora manipulate me into this situation.. but I have to admit I’m glad your all here despite that, I guess.. now who’s ready to get rid of an annoying brain-leech once and for all?”
Another cheer rose up and everyone started moving into neatly uniform lines as if they’d been practicing for a military style parade or something over the past week, which honestly, I wouldn’t put past them all at this point.

“I take it you all know the plan, right?”
When no-one outright denied it I felt like letting off a frustrated growl considering I only just came up with the bloody plan five-seconds ago.
..Annoyances like this are what you get when you start working with seers sadly..

“Shut up Ari, really not the time..”

So now, all that’s left to do is open up another rift to-
“What kind of heartless bastard would I have to be to not rescue a helpless little school girl in need?”
I spun around to glare at yet another fake-John who’d decided to crop up out of bloody nowhere!

Despite the seriousness of the situation we’re all in at this exact moment, more than a few of the girls around me sniggered at the annoying quote that the stupid copy echoed out at us with his usual, annoyingly perfect timing.

To make things worse he was standing in John’s over-the-top ‘game-show presenter’ pose while a wider than usual rift floated behind him leading directly into whatever part of my mind holds my lines and the mental representation of my core in general.

Sometimes.. sometimes, even knowing that this is all some big symbolic representation of how my mind is processing events inside my body that are far out of the preview a normal human brain was built to handle, just isn’t enough to stop it all from being REALLY aggravating!

“Well hello John-boy..”
Theodora practically oozed forward and cozied herself up tight to the fake-John’s side with a contented purr.

Slowly she turned around to face me again with a wry smirk on her face that said far more then I feel ready to deal with about how funny she finds the fact that my brain apparently thinks John is the best way to point my attention towards things ‘subtly’ in any way-shape-or-form..

“Enough playing around Dora, we’ve got work to do before Arista finds us again.”
Just to make sure she was listening I grabbed her arm and tugged her back into the mass of girls behind me before turning to face them all properly for what I’ll admit is probably not going to be the most inspirational of speeches in human existence.
“Just so we’re all on the same page here, we go into my lines, we all grab ahold of my core then we pull that damn parasite Arista from our mind once and for all by bloody force if necessary.. half of you stay out here to stop her if she finds us, the rest follow me, any questions?”

For a long moment all I got in response was a bit of awkward shuffling but that quickly gave way to a surprised gasp or two and some smattered laughter for some reason; a reason which became perfectly clear when a warm pair of arms attached to an equally warm body wrapped themselves around me in the gentlest of hugs a moment or so later, naturally.

“Arista could never have made something so.. brilliant..”
DAMN IT FAKE JOHN-BOY, DON’T BREATHE IN MY EAR!

“..I hate my mindscape sometimes..”

======

Everyone else seemed more than a little cautious as they followed me through the rift into my lines, although the wide-eyed looks and muttered comments that came afterwards point to the very real possibility that I might get my curious nature from more than a few of the incarnations currently under my dubious ‘command’ as a whole.

“How do we do this then?”
I turned and shot Dexi an uncertain look.

Honestly.. I have no clue?.. my stupid gut instinct just keeps telling me this is the right place to be if we want to stop Arista, something about the way my core looks with its fractured surface and lazily waving loose threads of power jus-
oh.. oh, that could work?

“We all stand around my core and grab the loose strands of magic, I’ll take Arista’s broken portion and on a count of three we all pull as hard as we can?”
It took everything I had to sound even partly sure about that plan in general and even then it came out more as a question then the cool statement of fact I’d been hoping for.

My lines shined brightly around us in response to my presence, flickering with sparks of wild magic and that brilliant golden glow as always which helped calm me down just a little bit at least, having something familiar around always helps me take a step away from the edge when I’m close to panicking or just generally getting worked up over something luckily and any improvement in here is better then nothing.

“You heard the Boss ladies. Take your places for the first ever, hopefully not annual, great core tug of war!”

For a long second or two I blinked slowly at Theodora’s back as she practically skipped forward and started not-so-gently picking through the tentacle like strands of magic drifting loose from my core to find one that she apparently felt was in some way ‘superior’ to the others.

Is it bad that I kinda miss when she was just outright crazy, instead of this weird hybrid between an actual person and the insane seer caricature that I’m used to?
..Completely understandable, she creeps me out too..
Well that’s reassuring at least.

When Theodora apparently found the stream of magic that she liked at last and was promptly NOT absorbed by my core or any other horrible thing they could imagine happening when an incarnation comes into direct contact with the core that houses them, the others started reluctantly moving closer and picking ‘tentacles’ of their own to hold onto as best they could.

For my part, I walked over to the ‘broken’ side of my core and tentatively reached out to touch one of the strands coming off of it.

The moment my hand made contact with it an almost irresistible wave of rage hit me like a freight train, apparently Arista is still mad at me for the whole ‘nightmares of killing a younger me’ thing.
Big surprise there, I guess?

It took everything I had to not start yelling from the vicarious anger that came pouring into me from her magic dumping directly into my brain, and even then I ended up letting off a snarl that was more than a little bit feral in a way that I’m sure would make certain members of my extended family rather proud of me in all honesty.

When I reached a tipping point where it almost felt like I was losing control to her overwhelming power, and no matter what I tried to do I couldn’t seem to let go of the tendril in my grasp, the pressure suddenly cut off leaving me to gasp out in relief.

My eyes shot down to my hands and widened in surprise when what appeared to be mittens made of brown magic formed up over my hands with tiny strands connecting them to the cracks full of equally brown magic still separating Arista’s section of my core from the rest of it.

“..Edith?..”
Tears came to my eyes and I let them fall as waves of trust, love and an overwhelming sense of pride came over me from only one possible source.
It took me a few moments to gather myself back together again from the initial shock of emotions that were so overwhelmingly strong from the woman who I’d always considered to be so controlled and repressed with her real feelings that I couldn’t help the wet smile which formed on my lips as the seconds ticked by.
“Powers damn it Edith you sappy little Yoda.. fine, let’s get this over with at last!”

I scanned around what parts of my lines I could see and made eye contact with more than a few equally watery-eyed incarnations who seemed to have felt at least part of the emotions running through me by extension of being.. well.. part of me, I guess?

“On the count of three!”
Everyone tensed up and I squeezed my magical-mitten covered hands down tightly on the strands I had as well.
“One, Two, THREE!”

As one we leaned back and pulled for all we were worth.
The moment we started tugging in earnest a bone-deep pain that felt horribly familiar to the way I’d felt when Arista tore Sarah’s core out of our chest less than a day ago made itself known and the world around us started shaking uncontrollably, making a few of the girls around me scream in fear.

With one more desperate surge I threw my back into it and my feet slipped slightly on the ground until with an almost deafening crack the chunk of core connected to the tendrils in my hands shifted ever so slightly forward, disconnecting it from the main heart of my being at almost the exact same moment that the world around me exploded and an all too familiar jerking sensation took over my body as a whole.

======

“-other?! MOTHER!”

My head shot up with a gasp as my chest burned like I’ve been running a marathon or something.
Within seconds I was scanning the area around me and patting my body down frantically to make sure everything was still where it should be as I slowly began to realise that I’m not only back in the real world but fully in control of my body too!

‘WHAT DID YOU DO?!’
..Oh, well that’s a novel experience..

So this is what it feels like to have someone else riding shotgun in your head?
I definitely like things from this perspective a lot better to say the least!
Now, let’s see if this still works shall we-

‘Hello Arista, lovely to hear from you again..’
HA! Less than a day’s practice and I’ve totally got this whole ‘mind speaking’ thing down like a pro!

‘Alice? Alice Dearheart, what’s happening? Tell Mummy wh-’
..Does she really think that’s going to work?..
‘Shut up Mother! Alice darling let Mummy just take-’

“Yeah, no chance.. almost proud of you for trying that one still though honestly?”
She growled loudly at being interrupted again and I had to hold back a laugh from seeing my once all-powerful tormentor stuck in the same position she’d put me into not so long ago.

“Mother! Can you hear me?”

My eye’s shot up to the craters edge above us with a frown as several curious, rather worried looking faces peered down with fear obvious on each of their faces.
The speaker happened to be a rather familiar looking old man who helped John and I create an identity for a newly registered ‘Hannah Cooper-Garnier’ back at the Hub.

I knew there was something wrong with him when we first met, no-one with a soul shrugs me off when I’m trying to be purposefully annoying!
..I’m really starting to wonder just who WASN’T involved in this plot of Arista’s at this point?..

“I’m okay-”
Shit, what’s his name?!
“-darling?..”

For a few seconds I really thought I’d blown it already but lucky for me Arista apparently really does have a terrible tendency to use that stupid term of endearment with practically everybody she meets because none of the faces perched above me seemed to notice anything wrong with my use of it in the slightest.

“Darling little Alice put up more of a fight than I was expecting at the last second there but everything is sorted now, can one of you lower the shield over the crater for me? I feel tired and could really use a short break before we start the ritual at long last.”
Please buy it, please buy it, please buy it!

All the heads shifted and glanced at each other uncertainly for a moment or two before the old Hub pen-pusher spoke up again with a slightly more worried tone to his voice.

“The ritual has already begun Mother? As you requested, we activated the outer runes the moment that Esti made a wrong movement against you.”
..shit..

‘Did you really think I wouldn’t have a contingency plan in place Alice? I ALWAYS have a contingency plan, my mission is too important not to, even now with this miraculous take-over you’ve achieved I will still win this day Darling.’
..She’s bluffing!..

Oh Powers, do I HOPE she’s bluffing?!

“Are you sure everything is okay Mother? We’re coming up to the Layline pulse and everyone is anxious to move into position.”
A ‘Layline pulse’? What the bloody-hell is a LAYLINE PULSE?!

‘Oh Dearheart, you really have no idea what you’ve gotten into do you?’

..I’d assume it would be some kind of pulse through the local Laylines..
I would assume so, yes, thank you Ari; I couldn’t have gotten that far on my bloody own of course?!
..No need to get snippy just because your stressed out..

OF COURSE I’M BLOODY STRESSED OUT!

‘This is all rather amusing but perhaps you should answer the dear boy, he seems slightly perplexed by your silence.’
URRG!

“Tell everyone to prepare, then leave me to rest for a while, I’m feeling out of sorts at the moment.”
The heads around the craters rim all shared another set of uncertain looks but eventually they shrugged it off and disappeared slowly to leave me alone at last, or near enough, with nothing but the rune covered crater, Edith’s barely breathing body and the voices in my head for company.
“What the hell are you planning here Arista?”

‘I could tell you but.. how did you put it?.. ah yes, Shan’t, Can’t, Won’t!’
A growl slipped past my lips and I almost felt like punching my own head just to spite her for that one, it’s never a good sign when the bad guy feels safe enough to start mocking you.

Okay Hannah, time to put that brain you’re so proud of to work!

‘What do you really think you can do?’
Now that she said it, there are definitely some things I can do at this exact moment.

My eyes hesitated for a second while scanning Edith’s heavy breathing, slumped over in her baggy robes and seemingly unconscious, form with worry but after a deep breath to fortify my stance I forced myself to keep going despite the pale tone to her skin and my fears for what my currently screwed up magic might actually do unintentionally when used.

It took more effort then I’m used to and my chest ached just from the act of me even reaching for my magic but I built up a relatively small ball of golden ‘diversion’ magic pretty quickly before the pain became too much, forcing me to let it off in a concentrated burst that seemed to bring at least some color back to Edith’s face even as it tore something deep inside me and making the whole world disappear in a crash of unimaginable pain.

======

“She’s back!”

..Owwie..
That. sucked..

“The core’s moving again! Quickly, man your lines girls!”
Craaaapppp..

With a monumental effort I managed to push myself up from the floor and glance around to get my bearings again.

It looks like I’m back inside the rift room to my lines, nice to know I didn’t move in here when I got so unceremoniously thrown back into the real world at leas-
..Hannah get up and pull, Arista is trying to reattach herself to our core!..

It was a mad dash few seconds for me to get standing again but as I reached out to snag up a handful of the wavering tendrils of magic hanging out of Arista’s core fragment Edith’s brown magic encompassed my hands again to protect me from her influence as if it was second nature for it to do so at this point.
..Thanks Edith..

“PULL!”

I threw everything I had into tugging at the insidious lump once more and with a string of tiny ripping sounds that reminded me of the time I split the seams on my jeans as a kid, along with the accompanying build-up of pain deep down in my chest, the core fragment moved slightly further away from the rest of my core by a few more inches or so.

My feet slipped at the last second but before I could even land back on my ass the world went crazy again and the pain in my chest exploded, once more throwing me out into the real world without any warning whatsoever.

======

“Uuugh.. Bouncing between reality and my mindscape is SO not healthy at the moment!”
..You’re mindscape is kind of in shreds so I can’t really say I’m surprised..

‘I don’t know what you think you’re achieving Alice but for both our sake’s I suggest you stop trying to destroy my core without the proper protections in place.’
..Proper protections?..

That almost sounds like- No..
She couldn’t have.. could she?

“This was your plan to start with, wasn’t it Arista?”
..Huh?..

The evil tumor in my head remained suspiciously silent at my question, which probably said enough in itself honestly.

She said it earlier, she wanted to get rid of me, she loaded me up with all the ‘useless’ incarnations and was going to toss me aside!
How ELSE would you get rid of a load of incarnations which are directly connected to your core then to actually REMOVE them from your core entirely?!

She hadn’t planned on me being the one in control during this ritual that I’ll assume for the moment is designed to make it easier for her to remove parts of our core, or at least keep our damaged core stable somehow, after the piece she’s trying to discard is gone.
..That isn’t much to go on..

On its own, I’d have to agree with you Ari and say that the knowledge of what she’s planned in general would be almost worse than not knowing anything at all.. but it isn’t on its own, is it?..

Think what you like about her, personally I’m at the point where I wouldn’t piss on Arista if she was on fire considering the things she’s done to both me and my family, but there’s one thing I’ll give her if nothing else.. she’s confident!

She confident to the point of arrogance and that’s going to be her downfall on this one.

“Oh Arista, for someone older than human civilisation, you are so STUPID!”
My eyes flew wildly around the rune covered floor around me, already pieces are coming into focus, connections being made in my head with wild abandon as I broke down and analysed what she’s done here.

The first step to breaking, fixing, creating or even just copying any rune system in existence is knowing what it bloody-well DOES!

“You took possibly the most dangerous rune mistress on Earth today, one that also happens to specialise in both sympathetic magic and blood rituals, just like you.. then you put her in a crater full of unhidden control clusters directly connected to the truly awe-inspiringly complicated ritual circle you’ve made?”
Even Dante, insane Lich-bastard that he is, knows that you don’t let ANYTHING potentially effect the ritual when it’s in progress!

When it comes to rituals you don’t cut corners, you don’t assume anything is safe and you don’t EVER allow something to go wrong because the effects can be catastrophic for everyone involved.
When it comes to rituals you use double layers of shielding to protect everything, backups for everything if necessary, doubles to all components involved within easy reach and a kill-switch whenever possible as well.

The same is true for runes to a lesser extent and it’s practically suicide to ignore something THAT important when you’re mixing both fields together into one horrendous mass of magic!
All I need to do is find something recognisably important an-

‘Your bluffing Alice, no-one can break down a ritual this complex alone in any kind of useful time frame.. and more importantly every second you waste playing around out here I come closer to regaining control of our core as it tries to heal itself from the damage you’ve done to it.’
That would be a very true and valid problem, if I actually needed to break down the ritual..

Ah, hah! There it is!

“Correct me if I’m wrong Arista.. darling.. but, no matter how you go about things, precision in a ritual is key.. so I wonder what would happen if I tweaked this boring little amplitude cluster right here up from what I can only assume is meant to be something close to ‘one-percent’ to, say, ‘one-hundred-percent’?”
The silence was back but my gut is telling me that I just scored a critical hit on her so I stood there, staring down at the rune cluster in question and calmly waited for her response one way or the other.

‘..You wouldn’t dare..’
SCORE!

“What have I got to lose Arista? If you get your way then I’m doomed to be cast out into the void for all eternity anyway, apparently ‘for the greater good’.. you KILLED my Mother, left Eris and my sister for DEAD and dragged John off to who-knows-where while basically crippling Edith right here in this great big sacred pit of yours!”

Slowly I leaned forward and hovered my hand carefully over the one specific rune that could honestly do anything at this point without really mattering, all I need to know is that me changing it would be bad enough to make even Arista nervous and THAT is something I can definitely work with!

“So tell me Arista.. WHAT DO I HAVE LEFT TO LOSE?!”
My hand dropped another inch or so and Arista gasped in horror.

‘STOP! You can’t do this Alice, I know you and you’re not a killer, if you change that rune then instead of using every person inside Crater Lake right now to help heal my core you’ll drain them all dry, every SINGLE person here will die by YOUR hand!’
Despite everything I’ve been through in the last day or so I still flinched guiltily at that idea.

I’ve killed before, I’m a killer.. or at least I was..

Al could be that cold hearted monster the world needed to keep it safe.
Al could weigh a bus full of orphans’ verses a town full of adults and calmly reach a decision on which one’s blood would be splattered across his face come morning.
Al could.. Al could-
..Basically Al was a sociopath..
-and try as I might I can’t be that monster ever again?
The very idea of being such a cold, emotionless killing machine once more just twists me up inside!

‘Thousands of innocent mages Alice, tens-of-thousands even, all out there and completely blind to the danger they’re in as they celebrate the long promised days of glory to come.’
..Don’t lie to her Arista! No-one here is innocent..

If you ignore everything else, if you ignore the personal bias I have from being turned into their unwitting sacrifice and all the crap Arista’s pulled to get me here, then they STILL agreed to join a cult-like group who at best want to sacrifice an innocent person in exchange for stopping a vaguely explained potential vision of the future given by Edith of all people millions of years ago.

‘I know who you are Alice, I MADE you who you are!’
..Ignore her! We may not be able to stop her completely but you have a plan now so do it already!..

Much to Arista’s apparent amusement I hesitated with my hand hovering over the amplitude rune.
One thought just kept running through my head over and over again.

What if she’s right?

What if she really has set this whole thing up to somehow ‘sample’ tiny amounts of power from the cores of her followers as a way of fixing OUR core after she throws MY part of it away..
She’s crazy, but is she really THAT crazy?!

It would take refining sympathetic magic down to an art form to pull off successfully.
It would take more runes then I can imagine, with an insane level of math to back them up!
It would take.. it would take so much work, time and effort.. but that’s the point I guess?
It WOULD take all of that and more, but it’s POSSIBLE, theoretically at least..

‘Take as long as you wish to decide Alice, the clock is ticking in my favor at this point.’
Shit.. shit, shitting, SHIT!

..She’s messing with your head Hannah, don’t let her-..
Shut up Ari!

I can’t just.. just.. URRG!

The magic in my core reacted violently to my frustration.
Almost instinctively I reached out with my senses and grasped it all tightly back into myself as wave after wave of pain hit me from my protesting core in response to its release.

‘Poor little Alice, you really are just a child still, aren’t you?’
..Oh for powers sake just-..

“That DOES it you smug parasitic bitch!”
With almost practiced ease at this point from how many times Arista had forced me along this same well-worn path within my lines I dropped my consciousness back towards my mindscape, dragging her along for the ride.

I’m stressed out, under pressure and feeling completely lost.
Someone just volunteered to be my well-deserving stress relief target!

======

With a jerk I reappeared inside the rift to my core, mid-stride already as my anger pushed me onward.

“Hannah?”
I growled low in my throat making all the girls that had moved to assist me back away again really-bloody-quickly and for good reason.

“Not. Now. Dora!”

My hand came up in a grasping motion and with barely a thought Arista appeared out of nowhere only to choke loudly a moment later when my hand clenched down into a tight fist around her windpipe before she could even realise what was happening.
When squeezing as she thrashed desperately against my single hand didn’t satisfy me enough I reached up with my other one and squeezed as hard as I could, actually making her face turn blue for a second before I threw her heavily to the ground, making it easier to stamp on her ribs with abandon.

“I found something out recently because of you Arista!”
My foot came down once more, getting a satisfyingly loud crack for my efforts.
“As long as you don’t pass out, I can do whatever the hell I want in here to hurt you and there is NOTHING you can do about it!”

She tried to pull her knee’s up to her chest protectively but with a swing and a full power kick her legs went limp as I quite possible broke at least one of them from the sheer force behind my strike.

Why didn’t I think of doing this earlier?!
Fuck you Arista! Fuck you and your taunting words, and your stupid overly complicated schemes, and your FUCKING INSANITY!!

“You KILLED my MOTHER!”
My foot pulled back again and with a wild swing I managed to send blood flying from her mouth as her teeth met a gruesome end.
“You STOLE my DAUGHTER!-”
Another kick flew in, this one hitting her arm so hard that the crack it let off practically vibrated up my leg on impact.
“-AND YOU HURT MY SISTER, YOU PSYCHOTIC BITCH!”

At that final cry of blind rage mixed with sadness, worry, fear and all the other emotions I haven’t been able to allow myself to feel as I worked to find some way to stop this madness, I collapsed to my knees above her and reached out to end her life with my own bare hands.
I’ll show her who’s not a killer!
I’ll show her who’s weak, who’s pathetic, who’s USELESS!
I’ll-

A pair of large hands came down on my shoulders heavily, almost gently as they pulled me away from the puddle of flesh and broken bones that used to be my tormentor.

The only men in here that I can think of are the fake-John’s that my mind creates when I need them, but it didn’t matter if he was real or not when I turned away from her to bury my face in his chest as my sobs overtook my ability to process the world as a whole, finally being released properly at long last.

“Shhh.. it’s okay, it’s going to be okay, she can’t hurt you anymore..”
At the oddly familiar voice speaking into my hair I jerked backwards slightly to stare up at its owner.

“Al?”
My old, far too wide for my new face to handle comfortably, smile beamed down at me with pride as I stared up in shock at a face so close to Sarah’s with just those few minor differences only someone who’d seen it staring back at them in the mirror for years could ever hope to detect giving any sign of what was really happening.
“What.. I.. I thought you were dead?”

Slowly his warm eyes softened ever so slightly and one curious eyebrow popped up at me in the same way mine always used to do when I was busy mentally mocking Sarah for being slow.

“You’re not him, are you?”
He blinked a few times but didn’t deny it, instead focusing on my comfort as his hands ran up and down my arms gently in a way I vaguely remember doing to a distraught Sarah once upon a time.
“You’re just like the fake-Johns, aren’t you?.. my mindscape made you to help me.. because I needed you to be here?”

“Close enough”
I flinched as he pretty much acknowledged my fears.
I’ve said it before but my mind is a SCARY place sometimes.. especially when it can pull off crap like this without warning!
“She’s not worth it Hannah, you know that, and we’ve all got much more important things to focus on right about now like this ‘Layline pulse’ with whatever might happen when it hits us.”

After a few moments just staring up at his calm face in awe at the logical, almost calculating way that he said those few important words, I leaned back slowly from him and glanced wearily around me so I didn’t have to stare at the fake-incarnation that my mind created to help me for too long as I tried to re-focus on what’s really important right now.

Several of the girls standing off to the side of my core met my eyes but none could hold my gaze for long sadly, considering the pathetic wheezing sounds coming from Arista’s crumpled body at my feet I can’t exactly blame them for that at this point either honestly.

“Someone get Arista out of here so we can get back to work Ladies.”
My eyes shot back over to the fake-Al who offered me a reassuring smile I couldn’t help but mirror back at him despite myself.
“Do you want me to take control for you in the real world Hannah? I can make the changes to the runes while you focus on removing Arista from our core before the pulse hits.”

The offer was so tempting.

As much as the idea of willingly giving up control of my body to ANYONE again is horrifying at this point.. he’s Al?.. he may be fake, he may be a construct produced by my mindscape to help me deal with everything but at the end of the day he’s still a part of me.

A part of me I’ve been in denial of for a long time I’m afraid.

“Thanks for the offer Al, I really do appreciate it.. but it’s time I stopped hiding from reality behind the mask I’ve made for myself as ‘Hannah Cooper’, it’s time I accepted myself for the monster I really am.”
He sighed heavily and leaned closer to pull me into a nice tight hug all over again.

Maybe it’s just the stress talking, but I wonder if this is what it feels like to have a big brother?
Someone who’s male that I can rely on and take comfort from without him being.. well.. John, I guess?

“You’re not a monster Hannah, no matter what you must do to protect the ones you love, that very conviction TO protect them in itself is what stops you from becoming a monster.. that stops you from becoming me again.”

“..You weren’t the bad guy Al..”
The words tumbled out of my lips but the bright smile I received for them made me glad that they did pretty quickly.

Back when I was Al I always wished that someone could be there to see what I was going through, someone who could understand why I did what I did.. someone to tell me that I wasn’t the bad guy no matter what my self-doubts had to say on the matter.

“I know that now, death has a funny way of putting things into perspective after all.”
He laughed again and I did everything I could to burn that laugh into my memory as a dull ache formed in my chest from all the little things I’d lost in truly becoming Hannah, things like that damned infectious laugh of mine that could brighten the room in seconds on the rare times I allowed it to get loose.
“Besides, you’re the one who’s struggling to understand her morally ambiguous nature here so let’s not focus on the hang-ups of a dead man, shall we?”

Stupid smug asshole.. no wonder me and John became friends with an attitude like that!

Al, I can’t think of him as anything but ‘Al’ now despite knowing his true nature, he slowly let me out of his arms and with that same measured stride I remember teaching myself so long ago he paced over to the fractured part of my core that houses everything that makes up ‘Arista’ in her entirety.

As he came close to it the remnants of Edith’s brown magic, that was still busy holding the divide between the two halves of my core, reached out to him and a dazzlingly warm smile crossed his lips as the glow from Edith’s pride and love for us seemed to sink into his very being almost as quickly as it formed those same protective mittens on his hands that it’d done for me before.

He finally sighed heavily and reached out, taking ahold of the tendrils swaying loosely from Arista’s core fragment with a determination and confidence that I only WISH I could copy right about now!

It figures that the only incarnation besides me that could be trusted to hold on to those dangerous tendrils would be him.. poetic in a way.. he really was the only person she could never corrupt, no matter how hard she tried for most of our life after all.

“Ready when you are Hannah, Ladies? Care to give me a hand?”
The watching crowd of past-incarnations around us that weren’t busy dragging Arista back outside at the moment all started nervously moving forward, still giving me a wide birth which I’m sure will take more than a few minutes of hugging for me to make up to them sadly.

“Let's give that bitch Arista hell and take no prisoners! “
I jumped slightly in surprise when Al’s eager shout burst forth suddenly but more than a few of the approaching incarnations seemed to take strength from it for some reason.

“This is for you, for all of us, for everyone she’s ever hurt or may ever hurt if we don’t put a stop to her TODAY!”
His second shout was full of pride and warmth which I’d honestly forgotten he could ever pull off without faking it completely until now, Al always did have a way with words, and judging by the smattered cheering that rose up at his words this time as more and more girls came forth to take up their positions holding counterpoint to him on the un-tainted side of my core at last, they thought so too.
“For the past, the present and the future!”

I’m pretty sure he could have called out just about anything at this point and gotten the same, much louder, cheer that he just did all the same honestly?
He’s got them eating out of the palm of his hand just like I used to be able to do with people when necessary with an almost terrifying amount of ease.

“For us! For Hannah!”
The cheer they all let off as they tightened their grips and turned their eyes to him for guidance almost shook the space around us in its intensity.

..He really could have been a great leader..
Yeah, he really could have.. hopefully I can live up to that image he’s projecting for them someday.
..You will..

As reassuring as those words were intended to be they honestly didn’t help much in convincing me in the slightest sadly.

“Let’s go Ari, I’ve got a genocide to commit.”
As I tugged at my magic to send myself back into the real world once more Ari remained worryingly silent on my last comment.
It didn’t matter in all honesty, I know she’s just as uneasy as I am about what I’m about to do but, just as we know that violence doesn’t have to always be the answer, Al’s presence has reminded me of the flip-side to that nice sounding ideology.

“Sometimes the peaceful way isn’t worth the potential losses involved.. sometimes the world needs a monster to do the things it can’t without losing the very innocence we fight to protect.”
I’m not sure if anyone heard me but I needed to hear it out-loud again anyway, just to reassure myself on the very deep hole I’m about to put myself very close to falling right back into all over again.

It’s ironic really, Arista did all of this ‘for the greater good’ and now here I am, not only casting her out of my body into the open void where her very being will fade into nothingness as all energy does without a container, but taking her followers along for the ride too.. all for the greater good..

As my self-proclaimed ‘mother’, I’m surprised she isn’t more proud of me at this point honestly?
I’m going into the family business apparently.

======

‘Alice don’t do thi-’
An angry growl from me silenced Arista’s protest quickly but sadly it didn’t last long.
‘-you ca-aaAHH!’

Her next attempt bled out into a scream of pain, not that I could enjoy it when it felt like someone was trying to pull my heart out through my chest using a hacksaw all of a sudden!

Eventually the latest round of, what I assume, was Al and the others forcefully pulling my core into two fairly uneven pieces with willpower alone finally finished, I came back to myself while huddled into a ball on the rune covered floor panting heavy breaths into uncooperative lungs as best I could.

“Sorry, you were.. saying something.. Arista?”
Before she could respond properly to my admittedly weak jab the pain spiked once more, possibly worse than the first bloody time too!

======

I think I blacked out for a moment there?
The world feels weird around me, like I’m on the very edge of passing out all over again or something.

‘Stop this.. Alice..’

Arista’s voice sounded distant now and really weak too.
Rather than answer her with words I let my actions speak for me.

In practically a diving motion towards the floor I slapped one barely charged palm full of magic against the rune I pointed out to her before and, using years of experience in rune modification to my advantage, I altered it in that deceptively simple but oh so crucial way.

I added ‘two zeros’ to it.. well, it was more of a squiggle and a looping swirl really but you get the general idea.
Arista screamed in mixed rage and horror as the new magical pattern behind the burnt rune settled in, changing the look of it to signify its new value as it went.

The pain in my chest spiked again and her voice dwindled into nothing before, with an explosive force that almost felt like something was bursting out of my chest, a misshapen ball of cold blue magic flew out of me to sail straight through the shield high above and out into the world where it could dissipate harmlessly at long last, taking all of my magic with it.

For a long moment I sunk down to the floor in relief but it was short lived as a gnawing pit of emptiness made itself known almost the second that I landed.
It felt like I was starving, but instead of the feeling being centered on my stomach it was fixed on that spot just above my heart that Eris always used to put her ear to whenever she could-

“..Eris..”
Tears formed in my eyes and my hand came up to clench into a fist on the dress material above my heart as if that would somehow help stop the growing pain within me.

As the tears finally fell, my mind flew from one smiling face to the other.
First Mum standing in her kitchen with a teasing grin on her lips, then John with his smug smirk and Edith’s tiny twitches that could be barely considered a ‘smile’ on a good day, before inevitably settling on the most important face of all.

“..Sarah..”
I don’t even know if she’s alive?

If she is, will she ever want to speak to me again after finding out I, however unintentionally, stole her magic from her when we were kids?!
..Focus on Edith, Hannah..

Why would I focus on Edith?
Sarah’s the important one a-
HOLY SHIT, EDITH?!

My eyes snapped open with more force then I honestly thought I had left in me to give at this point and with a grunt that was more reflex than anything else I rolled over so I could peer at the spot I left Edith in earlier, only to find a sight that instantly burnt itself into my memory, to better fuel nightmares for years to come no doubt.

Where Edith had once lain, breathing heavy and body wrapped up within her dark robe as she fought to cling on to life as best she could.. was little more than a statue of solid ice, shaped like a vaguely human ball with her tired old face sticking up on top of it in a grotesque mockery of life itself.

When could she.. HOW did she-?!

A memory flashed across my mind, as they all seem to love doing of late, and I had to bite back a gasp before promptly turning away from her to vomit in a guilt-ridden fit of despair.
Arista’s fingers gently ghosting across the bare flesh on Edith’s arm leaving tiny little patches of ice as they went.
Edith telling me to go finish Arista off with a wracking cough shaking her whole body, sending blood flying and my eyes being drawn down to the frantic twitching of her arm where those same tiny spots of ice appeared to have settled with a vengeance.

..Edith knew?..
She never said anything, even when I tried to heal her and failed miserably due to my damaged core, she already knew that Arista’s ice magic was spreading like a horribly slow version of the same thing I did to Storyteller’s arm back at the Hub!

“E-Edith?”
My hands came up to gently trace the well preserved lines of her face, completely ignoring the bone-deep chill that burnt my fingers as I did so.
“I’m so sorry Edith.. I’m so sorry..”

My body practically moved on its own as I leaned in to plant a kiss on what remained of her wrinkled old forehead.
“..E-Edith..”

The fight left me at that point.

Slowly I slumped to the floor next to the frozen corpse of my mentor and all I could do was cry.
Even when cheer’s started rising loudly over the edge of the crater and twelve thick lines of magic burned their way across the sky high above us, I couldn’t bring myself to care.

They all converged on a point directly above the crater in the peak of Wizard Island that I was sat watching it from, before exploding out in a net that probably covered the whole of Crater Lake if not even more than that in all honesty.. that’s when the screaming started..

Part of me wanted to cover my ears but a stronger part, a part of me I’ve suppressed and run from ever since the old magic of that ancient ritual chamber triggered my second awakening, refused to hide from the pain and destruction I’d caused.

As thick streams of multi-colored magic, so powerful that they were visible to the naked eye without any form of magesight activated, converged on that same point high above me, I took the time to breath in deeply and blow that breath out in one long calming gust.

I did this, I caused this suffering.. and if given the option I’d do it all again?
If that makes me a monster then so be it.

There are worse things to be in life then a monster.

“..Goodbye Edith, I’m sorry I failed you..”
The magic flashed so bright it blinded me for a moment but before the effects of that flash had even cleared properly it surged downwards with such speed that it left a burning trail in the sky.

The ‘Layline pulse’, with its cargo of thousands of recently removed human magical cores crashed into the shield at the lip of the crater and for one glorious moment all I could see was a kaleidoscope of colors cycling before my eyes, until the barrier finally gave way and the magic struck me head on.
A scream ripped from my lips before the power surging down on me took even that as the world disintegrated into pure white nothingness.

All I could do was focus on my family, what’s left of it at least, it helped me fight through the pain just enough to stay lucid for those few vital seconds it took for me to work on redirecting as much of the incoming magic as possible into a returning blast straight up and away from me.
It’s all I can do at this point, a surge of this strength into the Laylines of the Earth would probably shatter the planet, if we’re bloody lucky!

I happen to like this planet.
It’s got Sarah and Eris, tuna-sub sandwiches and even bloody John on it after all?

Still.. suicide missions suck sometimes..
Especially when the dying part hurts this mu- AHH!

The shaky pattern I’d managed to form in my lines finally connected and, with a blinding flash of gold, a blast of pure uncontrolled magic burst out of my chest leaving a burning trail of it’s own in the sky as wide as Crater Lake itself when it peaked while seemingly endless in length to go with it, high up into the atmosphere above me.

With a final scream, my core feeling like it was shattering in my chest and my stomach twisting harshly in upon itself for some Powers-known reason, I passed out into oblivion for possibly the last time without any real warnin-

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End of ‘Magic is..’ season one.
Look for season two at all good websites sometime this fall.

On a personal note, I’d like to thank all of you who have stuck in with the story for so long and hopefully still enjoy it as we go on. I can’t promise much, but I can promise that the next ‘season’ is on its way; honestly I just need a break to recharge my batteries before carrying on? lol

That being said, there’s a little teaser addendum for what’s to come still to go, bridging the season gap as it is.

Thank you all for reaching this point with me along Hannah’s Journey so far.
Don't forget to stick around for the 'Magic is..' After-Credits !

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