Arista is.. not the Messiah! [5.9]

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Have you ever got half-way into a group project and realised that you already regret pairing up with the people your working with?
Too late to change now, history lesson or no, we work with who we have sometimes and just pray we don't get an 'F' in the end.

That being said, even I wouldn't expect a passing grade if one of your team members was basically lobotomized, the other crazy and your starting to envy schizophrenics in general, honestly.

Events unfold including but not limited to:
Big people playing big games,
Boat rides being ignored,
Subtext being read
(or not, depending on who you ask),
and Hannah gets to play 'spot the historical figure' bingo, whether she wants to or not.


 

My knees were curled up to my chest and great big sobs echoed in the empty space around me as I just let it all out in the ruined sanctity of my own mindscape.
There’s definitely some kind of catharsis to be found from crying so openly with someone suffering right along with you I guess because eventually, as with all things, my crying had to come to an end.

I honestly feel a tiny bit better from all the tears somehow at the very least.
Not good, not really calm either or in any way ready to deal with Mum’s loss let alone what happened to Sarah and Eris.. but maybe a little bit more in control?

In control enough to start planning Arista’s downfall if nothing else!
..Count me in!..

It still feels weird to hear that voice in my head, the one I’ve always thought was my conscience or my subconscious or.. I dunno?.. something related to me more than my past-incarnations are at least. Certainly not THE incarnation, Ari, the first Arista I’ve heard so many mixed reports about lately.

..That title sounds far too grand..
Yeah, well, not my fault you’re famous..
..I’m really not, you know? In fact you and Arista are pretty much the only people who know I’m in here right now..

Why did you do it? Why pretend to be part of me for so long?
..I know it’s hard to take in but I AM a part of you, or you’re all of me, I’m not really sure, mind magic was always more her thing then mine..

Well that’s just great!
All I need is yet another poorly informed voice to give me more, completely useless until it’s too late, partially correct informa-

I froze mid-rant as my eyes finally registered what they’d been blankly staring at while I argued with the latest voice in my head.. not in my mindscape, but in my head in my mindscape an.. URG!
You know what I mean?!
..Yes, I do..

How long has Theodora been standing there?

“Long enough to watch you tie yourself in knots over this, and long enough to decide that maybe now isn’t the time for the crazy-wise soothsayer act, but rather it’s time someone was finally straight with you about what the hell is going on around here?”
FINALLY!

..I honestly thought she was crazy?..
“Oh, don’t worry, I’m definitely crazy, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong by any means.”
..Touché..

Great, another mind reader, this time one that can read the mind INSIDE my mind while being in the form of my self-declared ‘crazy’ sex-mad seer past-incarnation!
..her title is more fun than mine..
“It certainly is!”

The delight in Theodora’s voice was the last straw.
With a tired sigh I flopped down on my ‘bed’ again which puffed up around me invitingly.

If it were physically possible, I’m pretty sure I’d have a headache right now.. in fact I know it isn’t, yet I’m pretty sure I have one any-bloody-way?!
..You don’t have to keep narrating you know, I’m right here after all..
“It really is pretty distracting to hear your thoughts even if they can be rather amusing.”

URRG!!
..no need to shout either..
“Yeah, what she said.”

Slowly I lowered my hand to glare at the now widely grinning form of Theodora in front of me.
“I hate my life..”
..Ditto..

“Try being a past-incarnation. It’s boring as all hell and we only get an audio-book about your life for entertainment, narrated by you with your stupid squeaky voice.”
My voice isn’t squeaky!
..Compared to Al’s one that we’re all still used to? Kinda is really..

Quiet! I think I preferred you when you were a figment of my imagination.
..and I preferred you when you were oblivious to my existence, so I guess we’re even..

“Ladies, please”
I groaned at Theodora’s passable impersonation of not-Edith from the Salon a few days ago, which only seemed to encourage her sadly.
“I call to order the first meeting of SO-O-CP.. uh?.. SCPA-CCA-I!”

What the hell is she on about no-

“Stop Our Out of Control Parent/Sibling/Child/Pain in the Ass Commonly Called Arista, Initiative!”
My eye twitched heavily as I stared at her in incredulous disbelief.
“Why initiative you may ask?”

I didn’t want to nod and encourage her but I didn’t really have to because Ari’s heavy sigh was apparently all Theodora needed to carry on of her own volition.

“-because every acronym sounds better if it ends with Initiative!.. also I’m pretty sure the ‘SOOCPSCPACCA project’ has already been trademarked by NASA, possibly ripped off by several rather clever members of the National school board association too during their annual office Christmas meetings..”

All I could do was stare blankly at her feeling hopelessly lost.
..She’s a seer, I hate to say it but she’s probably right..
Knowing her, SHE was probably the one who trademarked that stupid acronym in NASA’s name for them somehow, AND she was probably the several different members of the school system that coined the phrase too!

“You both give me too much credit while being equally far too naive for your age and far too stupid for your own safety.”

I’m getting that headache again, I hate you so much Theodora..
..In total agreement, minus the headache..

“I can tell this is going to get fun! Now, onto someone we all hate even more than me, I’d like to open debate with the suggestion that we somehow telepathically control the president into launching a nuke and land it on Arista’s head at point-blank range? All in favor say ‘Aie’!”
Headache.. getting worse..

Why couldn’t I have gotten one of the Roman girls? or a sane version of Ellie?.. or just.. even that muttering one that kept pinching herself!
..She really WAS a weirdo that one..
“Why out of all the possible incarnations on offer am I stuck with YOU as help Theodora?”

She didn’t look offended as I’d anticipated, although trying to anticipate anything with her is just begging for trouble to start with I guess.

“Please call me Dora, and to answer your question, that would be because all the other assimilated incarnations are busy ripping every little sticky claw that Arista has within your subconscious out of place so we have a shot at finally being rid of her when the time comes.. also I may have accidentally created a rollercoaster with seats made out of naked John’s when I got bored half-way through and they all think I can do less damage out here with you then in there with your subconscious at my fingertips.”

She said the whole thing with a straight face.. she said the whole thing with a straight bloody-face and absolutely ZERO regret for what that naked-John rollercoaster might have done to my sexual preferences by having it placed in my bloody SUBCONSCIOUS?!

..I didn’t even know we had a literal subconscious?..
Me either but apparently I do!

“Of course you have a subconscious, where did you THINK all the absorbed incarnations went? We’ve got a nice big city all to ourselves now and everything, it’s very cosmopolitan.”

Must not.. strangle.. my only chance at freedom!
..Huh, I wonder where it is?..

“Where else would a SUB-conscious be? It’s below the ground in your mindscape, DUH!”

Two sets of memories flashed through my brain suddenly at that statement in annoyingly quick succession, as they seem to be doing a lot lately.
The first consisting of all the time’s that Theodora has either risen out of, or sunken back into the ground of my mindscape since this mess with Arista started, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to her.
Along with it came the time I searched the area around Rosaline’s suddenly missing ‘house’ weeks ago where I could still vaguely smell roses on the ground that had held it previously, despite the spot now just being a slightly darkened, empty patch of white floor instead.

It’s like the universe is mocking me!
Giving me just enough completely and utterly useless information for so long instead of just outright telling me about things when they could have come in bloody-handy, and now happily rubbing it in my face with its chosen messenger of Theo-bloody-DORA!

“Theodora, best queen of the Byzantine Empire ever! Best ‘actress’ and seer of the Byzantine Empire ever! Honorary saint of the Miaphysite religion and now chosen messenger of the universe.. I LOVE it!”
..How come she gets such a cool long-winded title?..

Oh powers, they’re both as bad as each other..

..HEY! I’m part of you, don’t go blaming me for your own craziness at this point..
“While we’re on the topic, can you stop blaming me every time you have a pervy through about a guy? It’s highly offensive, I liked women just as much as men you know?”

As if to punctuate her point Theodora took a flying leap onto the bed, which I barely managed to dodge, and in doing so ended up with my face being squished into her relatively small but well supported cleavage a moment or two later as I rolled over in a desperate attempt to not fall off the bed in the confusion that followed.
She practically purred to herself in pleasure and ran a hand through my hair lovingly while my first few frantic attempts to get free failed miserably, leaving me with no other option then to just let myself go limp in defeat instead.

..Can’t.. breathe..
YOU DON’T NEED TO BREATHE, I BLOODY DO!
“No fair, it’s not fun if you don’t struggle properly”

This is getting ridiculous.
Can we PLEASE just get on with stopping whatever the hell Arista is planning?!

Almost instantly Theodora dropped her arms from around me and sat up, for all the world looking like she was actually going to be serious for once.
..That’ll be the day..
I know, wishful thinking really..

“Come on then you two let’s get on with this. First of all, a history lesson!”
I groaned loudly to myself and felt my headache throb slightly when ‘Ari’ joined in with an identical despairing groan of her own.

Who put Theodora in charge again?
..Wasn’t me!..

======

“Okay.. so let me get this straight-”

“Oh, please do! It’s always funny watching you trying to pretend you’re straight when you’re more confused about your situation than a dormouse on the moon!”
For a single beat I paused long enough to glare at Theodora, although it’s a pretty sorry testament to how long this whole conversation has been going on that her interruption didn’t surprise or really offend me in the slightest at this point.
“As I was saying,-”

She didn’t take the bait, so thankfully I could continue speaking at last without further interruption.

“-as I was saying, just to be sure we’re all on the same page here..”
Yet again Theodora didn’t interrupt which honestly surprised me a little bit, especially when you add in the suddenly rather serious look on her face as well.

With a tired sigh I swallowed forcefully to give myself a moment to actually get my words in order so I look like less of an ass then usual if nothing else.
..We can still hear you by the way..
“Ditto”

“Powers damn it! Okay, so your ‘history lesson’ boils down to the fact that my visions were real?”
I stared up at Theodora who had a wide knowing grin on her face as she nodded happily.

“Thanks to you unconsciously tapping into my awesome self as I tried to defend you from Arista’s army of incarnations that were working to wear you down mentally, yes”
She looked so damn pleased with herself that I don’t really feel like pointing out that she wasn’t exactly innocent in the whole ‘break Hannah mentally and take over her body’ situation.
..Moving on..

“The vision about the ice queen was real.”

“Yup, mother dearest got her ass kicked by Max and Eris, and thanks to a miscalculation on Max’s part, they managed to re-split ‘our’ core moments before we died allowing both ‘halves’ of our core to go out into the world as two separate weakened ‘souls’ with their own independent reincarnation cycles and incarnations.”

As much as I hate to admit it, that makes some sort of sense at this point.
I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on it before now but something has always seemed a bit off about my incarnation memories, the incarnations are so different from each other to such a dramatic degree that it wouldn’t really make sense at all unless they were coming from two different core personalities.

That’s not even going into the timeframes involved and the very real possibility that more than one of my incarnations were actually alive at the same time as each other, which should be physically impossible if I couldn’t literally be in two places at once at the time.
..Can still hear you by the way-..

“Shh! At least we know she’s listening for once.”
Smartass insane bitch!
“Pouting child with an inferiority complex”
Well at least I don’t go around making naked-John rollercoasters in other peoples subconscious!
“As if you had enough imagination to-”

..CAN YOU BOTH JUST STOP?!..

We all fell into a moment of silence.
Eventually I let out a heavy huff and stretched my arms a little bit to relieve some of the tension in them.

I’m not really mad at Theodora, or even ‘Ari’ come to that.
We’re all in this together now no matter what may have happened in the past between us and we have a mutual enemy to focus on, this is just like when I used to get stressed with Sarah and we’d end up bickering for hours instead of getting stuff done.

..Apology accepted..
What? I didn’t apologise!
“Close as we’re going to get to one from you Princess.”
DAMN IT THEODORA, GET OUT OF MY HEAD!

..Let’s get back on track shall we?..

“Yes, right, okay.. so for centuries ‘Ari’ and ‘Arista’ were completely separate people but everyone just figured they were still one person, one core, that kept flipping between the two personality extremes?”
..Precisely..

“Uh huh, Mages are stupid”
I think we can all agree on that one sadly..

“So while Arista went proactively evil, playing a massive game of primitive, magically assisted genetic-engineering bingo on my family line in search of creating a stable ‘Locus Point’ for currently unknown reasons, you took a more passive approach in a vain attempt at having a quiet life which Arista took great joy in ruining whenever she could?”

That statement was met by a cold silence from ‘Ari’ and after a few seconds of awkwardness Theodora decided to intercede for all our sakes.

“She won’t answer that one, she’s sulking, duh?”
..I’m not sulking!..
“She’s totally sulking”

“OKAY! Again, let’s try to stay on topic here.”
How do schizophrenics handle talking to themselves so much? I’m going to go insane at this rate!
This whole conversation’s just getting to be a bloody nightmare honestly.
“So, you reckon that the vision I had about ‘Arista’ facing the vampire countess that killed Eris at the time was actually an un-awakened version of ‘Ari’, facing a malicious and awakened version of Arista instead?”

Yet more silence greeted that question annoyingly.
For a previously rather talkative past-incarnation masked as my conscience, Ari’s really not being very helpful right about now.

“That’s a ‘yes’ by the way Alice, learn to read subtext faster.”
Shut up Dora, I’m having a hard enough time understanding all of this as it is!

Theodora huffed loudly to herself and settled on the floor in meditation position instead of responding to that snipe from me, but I think it’s pretty easy to see the subtext from HER actions enough that it’s safe to continue at least

“To run a long story short, Arista is still following the guidelines of this prophecy that you saw Ari.. the same prophecy that was so horrible and important that you panicked over it for a while before forcefully splitting a part of yourself off, creating her, so she could fulfil the parts of the visions that you didn’t think you could handle. All without realising that you were, in fact, opening Pandora’s box by playing with magics that you had NO idea what you were doing with in the first place?”

Her only response was a protracted silence that frustrated me even more sadly.

“Arista’s close to completing her plan which required her to, at the very least, create me.. a stable Locus point with a carefully crafted genetic history going back millennia which YOU unwittingly helped her make in a vain attempt to form some kind of a ‘weapon’ powerful enough to stop her?”

More silence.

I growled low in my throat and banged my fist on the mattress below me to calm myself slightly.
Now’s really not the time for more yelling.

“All this work, all this effort put in with the express purpose of.. what, exactly?..”
Theodora and I both paused for a long moment, waiting for Ari to give some kind of answer to that very important question.
When I’d just about given up hope on her she finally decided to speak up, making me jump a little in surprise.
..I don’t know..

“What do you mean ‘you don’t know’?! You were bloody THERE!”
..She stole my fucking memories of the prophecy, OKAY?!..

That damned silence came back again, this time with a lot more awkwardness on my part along with a slight amount of guilt too.

..W-when she merged us back together inside you she shredded my psyche to pieces..
I winced, having only the vaguest of ideas how much that must have hurt.
..I clung on to as many incarnations as I could and it cost me a lot more than you can EVER imagine..

As a wave of regret, anger and sorrow came over me through our connection I found tears leaking out of my eyes all over again, not for my pain but from hers this time instead.

..My memory is practically Swiss-cheese from all the holes in it at this point and what little was left of ‘Me’ when she was finished had to merge into your new-born psyche or face falling into the abyss from all the damage she did to me..
My eyes turned towards Theodora for help but she just stared back at me with a sad look on her face as if she’d known this moment was coming all along but wished it didn’t have to.

..I’m more YOU then ME anymore!..

My lips trembled as a cry tried to force its way out of me with the waves of her emotions that were overwhelming her and spreading out into my own head through our connection.
It took everything I had to not just breakdown all over again until, much to my surprise, a gentle pair of hands settled around my shoulders and I found myself being pulled into a tight hug by Theodora.

For a moment or two longer I held out almost desperately against her comfort but from the instant she’d reached out to me I knew it was a futile effort, with one shuddering gasp of breath I pushed my face into her shoulder and started really crying again.

For Ari, For Me, For Mum and everyone else that Arista has harmed in her monstrously long lifetime.
..I fucking HATE her!..

======

It was more than a little awkward, the moment I realised that ‘Ari’ had stopped crying but I hadn’t and Dora seemed less than willing to let go of our hug in any event.
I’m not sure how long this latest crying jag went on for but it felt like an eternity at least.

“Ready to keep going now? We don’t have much time left before she returns for you.”
If you’d told me even an hour ago that hearing Theodora talking to me with so much worry obvious in her tone of voice would be reassuring in any way I’d probably have laughed at you honestly.. but here we are and, as much as it probably shouldn’t, her presence DOES help in some strange way.

“Good. So we’ve established that Ari is useless as a Font-of-all-knowledge in this case, let’s move on and see what we can get from deduction alone, shall we?”
I snorted to myself in amusement at her suddenly almost perky tone of voice while leaning my head back a little to stare at her now smiling face thoughtfully.
“Aside from her little trick with stealing Sarah’s core before it could fully form inside her body, in order to bring the two halves of ‘our’ original-self back together again inside your body, what else do we know that she’s doing to prepare for this ‘end goal’ of hers?”

My face scrunched up at the reminder of Sarah, as an image of her lying on the floor of my realm twitching violently as dark lines of fire burned their way across her form, flashed viciously through my mind for a brief moment before I forcefully pushed it back to focus on the question at hand instead.

“She needs something, some items? They must be important because she tried to force me to give them to her but they can’t be rare if she has more of them in backup locations around the world, including the Hub.”

“Good! Items are important, possibly a weakness if they can be destroyed, what else?”
The warm smile on Dora’s face felt awkward for some reason but the light in her eyes as she watched me try to think things through left me feeling like I was some kind of prized pupil answering questions on a difficult test or something for a proud teacher.

“A ritual.. she sent Gran off to tell D-Dante that the ritual needed tweaking for some reason?”
Dora’s smile widened slightly in what I can only guess was relief.
“Dante, that sick Lich-king bastard is still alive and he’s WORKING with Arista?!”

“Yes he is, while his current incarnation has become rather twisted from diving so deeply into necromancy, he is and always will be a Knight of Arista.”
My blood ran cold, which really shouldn’t have been possible considering the fact that my ‘body’ is a metaphysical form crafted by my mind to help me deal with my mindscape in general.

“The Knights.. like Handyman’s knights?.. a-and..”
A memory blasted across my eyes again, this one from my later visions where Handyman was arguing with Storyteller while he drew runes out on a rocky area that felt vaguely like a mountain at the time.
“..and Storyteller is with them too?..”

Theodora winced at the lost confusion that had slipped into my voice at the horrified statement of fact that I’d barely hidden as a question.
“The rabbit hole goes deep Alice, I told you that, everyone tells you what they want you to hear.”

More memories flashed across my eyes at her words.
All the times one of my suddenly appearing enemies went into a monologue or ranted about something to me, all the times they said something which turned out to be false or at least unreliably presented in order to get me to react a certain way.

All the times I’ve faced unbeatable odds lately, yet somehow managed to just scrape through on pure luck and raw instinct alone?!

“They set me up..”
Theodora winced again and squeezed my shoulders reassuringly in response.
“Those bastards are all working for her and they SET ME UP!”

“She needed you weakened, she needed you unstable enough to let cracks form in your mind that she could abuse for her own gain, until you finally snapped and she could take over properly.. did you think it was a coincidence that the only expert in mind-magics you would even have a chance to meet in general would be Hel, one of her people?”
Theodora squeezed me again and sighed heavily.
“I did what I could to hold us together but when she locked me away it was only a matter of time before Arista took over..”

For the second time in history I felt my non-existent blood run cold as a thought occurred to me.
A thought that hurt so much, it felt like someone was physically pulling my heart out through my rib-cage.

“John..”
Theodora winced yet again, glancing away from me almost guiltily for a moment or two.
“He took me to her!.. He said it would help!.. He tr.. he..”

The words wouldn’t come.
A deep pit of dread formed in my gut as so many things started making more sense, most important of all being clarity about all the warnings Theodora has been giving me about trusting John in the slightest ever since we first met.

“I can’t be sure, all I know are his actions, his intentions are his own but I will say that something about him is off.. he’s not-”
She sighed heavily and shifted her head a little to the side in thought.
“-he’s not the Max I knew so many years ago and I think that could mean something?”

My teeth clenched down hard as I glared at her, hurt and pain rolling around inside me at the idea that John would betray me again, betray US again, just when I was starting to-

“What do you mean you don’t know for sure?! You’re a bloody SEER! Can’t you just.. just ‘vision’ the answer or something for Powers sake!”
Her eye twitched a little in what I think might actually have been a suppressed glare of her own at some point before she got it back under control.

“That’s not how being a seer works for me Alice.”
Her legs shifted uncomfortably and she glanced around us for a moment before continuing.
“First off, I can’t exactly control when I’m going to have a vision and second of all I don’t tend to have perfect clarity in remembering what I say or see while in a trance for very long so-”

Great! Just fucking great!
I have the oldest mage on record with a Swiss-cheese memory and the ‘Greatest seer of her line’ who can’t remember what she bloody-well SEES?!

“Thirdly, Alice-”
Theodora paused long enough to glare at me for my internal rant, one that she obviously heard but I honestly don’t bloody-CARE if she did at this point because this whole situation is just so fu-
“-Thirdly, Alice, 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 and allow Mother the final kick she needs to win against you in the end.”
-ucked..

‘Big people be playing big games with big consequences and they be usin’ you to get what they want.. trust no-one useless girl, enemy’s be saying only what they be wanting you to hear and friends not being much better..’
Edith’s voice echoed around in my head as fact’s slotted neatly into place with that last confession.
I couldn’t help but stare at Theodora in fear as Edith’s warning finally sunk in for what it truly was.

“You’re using me? You’re ALL using me!”

“It’s not quite like you think Alice but-”

“You’re just as bad as SHE is! Telling me what you want me to hear, nudging me towards some end goal you don’t think I need to know about, all for your own gain?!”
Theodora blanched and wouldn’t meet my eyes, which was practically an admission of guilt in my opinion at this point!
“..get out..”

“Alice, I really think you should just try to calm do-”

“Get out of my head! My name’s Hannah damn it and I’ve had enough of all you selfish, narcissistic GHOSTS trying to manipulate me into doing what you want!”

For a few moment’s there, I actually thought she could be trusted?
I thought I’d finally found someone to help me make sense of all of this mess at last.
Edith was right, ‘trust no-one’, trust no-one because every time I fucking trust someone they turn right around and betray me!

I trusted Dad and he ruined Alice for us, then ran away.
I trusted Sarah and she treated me like crap for years growing up.
I trusted John and he’s been working with bloody-Arista this whole time!

I trusted.. I trusted Mum and she went and fucking DIED on me!
No more, I’m fed up with being the victim of my own mistakes!

“A-Hannah, you really should calm down and jus-”

GET OUT!

I didn’t even vocalise the shout.
The moment I thought that rage filled cry of pained frustration the world around us shook and in the blink of an eye my childhood bedroom was gone, replaced by sweeping wave-like walls of ice on all sides and a few tiny spots of blood left on the only blank patch of white floor visible where Theodora had stood moments before, obviously having either chosen to escape back into my subconscious or been forcefully thrown back into it by my anger as the world changed around us.

..Was that really necessary?..
SHUT UP! Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut UP!

I’ve had it with the LOT of you!

I’ve had enough of being treated like some brainless pet that you can all lead around and show off with smug little looks on your faces!
This is MY mindscape damn it and if Arista wants to take it then she’s gonna have to fight me for it!

“A lovely sentiment Alice, I admire your spirit, even if it’s really more of an empty gesture than anything else at this point.”
I swung around almost instinctively, my hands up in a sweeping arc that sent a new wave of ice flying towards that horrible, smug voice at last.

My other hand came up to finish the job and freeze her into a solid statue or something satisfyingly painful before my eyes finally realised what I was seeing.

Arista was standing in front of me, her hand risen casually with a glowing blue ball held in her palm and a wide space left free from the touch of my attack against her where this, so far pretty devastating looking, new ice magic I seem to have gained inside here had been completely negated?

“Don’t try and use my own element against me Alice, I didn’t think even you would be that stupid..”

In the blink of an eye she disappeared suddenly and the first indication I got of her reappearance was when a slender hand grabbed tightly around my throat, lifting me off my feet before slamming me hard against the ice walls I’d created all in one smooth motion.

“No more.. acting then.. I take it?”
It was hard to get the words out past her death grip on my throat but I managed it anyway somehow.

For the shortest of moments Arista’s smile slipped but it was quickly back with a vengeance as her fingers tightened a little more, cutting off any further statements I might try to make easily.

“I haven’t been acting Dearheart, you are my most precious daughter and nothing will ever change that.”
Her free hand came up to stroke my hair lovingly and no amount of half-baked twitches from me could shake her off, no matter how hard I tried to fight for my freedom.
“I love you darling, but this is for your own good.. for the good of the world as a whole.. you need to be ready and so do the others.”

Slowly she leaned our faces closer together until our noses were practically touching and her breath ghosted across my cheek in a horrible parody of intimacy.

“I must be cruel to be kind Dearheart, it’s a mothers duty to make sure her children grow up properly after all.. now, it’s time to go, our family and history await.”

Her grip on my throat eased ever so slightly but before I could capitalise on it there was a tugging sensation in my chest and the world disappeared into a now familiar darkness as she pulled us both back into the real world again.

======

“-re here Mother.”

A wide smile split our face as Arista grinned at the vaguely familiar looking blonde woman who appears to be acting as a driver to the long car we’re sitting in the back of.
One which, if I’ve not missed my guess, happens to be a rather high-priced looking stretch-limo of some kind?

“Thank you Pythia darling, I’m sorry I wasn’t more attentive, your sister required some assistance in preparing for tonight as you can probably imagine.”
The driver ducked her head with a flush on her face as if just having Arista speak to her directly was embarrassing for her in some way. To be honest it kinda looks like she’s got some kind of crush, either romantic or just plain old hero-worship, on Arista of all people to my relatively experienced eyes.
“Do you happen to know if preparations are on schedule? Dante is a sweetheart but time management has never really been his thing I’m afraid.”

“Everything is running smoothly Mother, I spoke with Athena and Esti about ten minutes ago, apparently we’re just waiting on a few stragglers so you should be okay to go meet everyone-”
The poor driver trailed off uncertainly, her blush getting worse for a moment or two before her head snapped back up in horror and she began babbling frantically.
“-I mean, if you want to of course Mother?.. or I could drive us around for a bit longer if you wish, or we could stop somewhere to-”

A warm chuckle left our lips and Arista rose her hand in a calming gesture getting near instant silence from the still vaguely familiar looking woman.

“Calm yourself Pythia. I am not so easily offended by presumption from one of my children, especially one who only wishes well.”
Our lips twitched up into a warm smile to match the chuckle and the driver seemed to almost melt as she basked in Arista’s words to a degree that just felt wrong as an outsider watching her reactions.

I don’t know what she did to her in the past but something has obviously left this woman as a rather fanatical follower of Arista if nothing else.

“I shall disembark from here for now to join the others, don’t worry yourself darling, after tonight we will have all the time we could ever want to truly bond with each other at last, like real family should.”
As Arista shuffled our legs slightly to get out of the car, our poor driver seemed to be lost in a dream world for a moment or two before jolting back into reality and quickly making her way outside to open the door for us.

It wasn’t until Arista glanced down at our legs to check her footing that I noticed the change in outfit that we’ve apparently undertaken while I was busy conferencing inside my mindscape.

One smooth leg stuck almost tantalisingly out of a thigh-high slit on the glittery black formal dress we’re now wearing as she moved the last few inches needed to place one black high-heeled shoe down onto the relatively rough path outside the limo.

Our exit was quickly aided by the now far too eager to please driver as a slightly shaking hand held onto ours through the deep red, almost black, elbow length gloves Arista apparently chose to add in an attempt to finish off this little over-the-top ensemble she’s chosen for us to wear.

When Arista finally got her footing at last she leaned over and planted a gentle kiss on the drivers forehead before leaning back to smile at the woman indulgently as she melted into a jibbering, stuttering mess all over again with almost glowingly bright-red cheeks to match.

‘The masses are so easy to keep under control, aren’t they Dearheart?’
A shudder went down my metaphysical spine at the amusement present in Arista’s voice.
‘I love all my children of course but some incarnations are more expendable then others naturally.. it will be a shame to see this one die though, Pythia is always good for entertainment at the very least..’

..See this one die?..
What does she mean ‘see this one’ die?!
..I’d assume it’s a hint of what’s to come, she likes giving those I’m afraid..

I froze for a moment or two as worryingly horrific scenario’s played out across my minds-eye about what she could be ‘hinting’ at with those silent words.
..Also, while we’re on the topic, don’t say anything back to me at the moment Hannah, we can’t let her know that I’m still here after you’re little blowout scared Theodora off so easily..

It took all of my control to not instinctively respond to her words but I managed it somehow luckily.

..Your still responding, this narration problem of yours was amusing and has been useful in the past but it could be a problem now..
Well what the bloody-hell do you want ME to do about it?! It’s instinctive for powers sake!

..I’ll stop speaking unless it’s necessary for now, you just focus on keeping Arista busy until we can finally finish this mess once-and-for-all..

Her orders w- oh..
Uh?.. La la la, not thinking about it, la la la!
-better, now I can get back to Arista instead of thinking about- GAH!

Damn my brain and this stupid inner-monologue of mine, ‘ignoring’ her is impossible at this rate!
It’s like having someone tell you not to think about pink elephants.
The moment they do you can’t help BUT think about them!

‘Pink elephants? Alice, really I worry about your thought patterns sometimes.’
If I could I would have jumped out of my skin in fright at the sound of Arista’s mental voice to a rather astounding degree and-
‘Please pay attention Dearheart, I’d hate for you to miss the introductions, these peoples futures all rest on your shoulders at the moment and it’s vital that you understand all the good your sacrifices will bring for us all’

..Sacrifices?..
Not good.

“Michelangelo darling!”
Our body moved with that same predatory sway I’ve come to expect to see while its under Arista’s control as she moved quickly over to give a rather squat older man a warm hug which he awkwardly, but not unhappily, returned as best he could.

A crowd started to form up loosely around us as Arista chatted away with a few people like long lost friends, our arms constantly moving so she could reach out and stroke or just generally touch members of the crowd like some kind of Messiah blessing her flock as she slowly made her way towards what appeared to be a rather steep cliff-edge up ahead, just visible through the thick treeline and crowd around us at this point.

As we moved along she would greet people in that same light, falsely enthusiastic way of hers while secretly throwing in short comments to me about each person we meet as if trying to tempt me into speaking back to her in return somehow.

“Catherine darling, how is Peter doing?”
Our eyes scanned up and down the rather heavily-built woman who gave a regal nod to Arista before announcing almost proudly that Peter is, in fact, dead again apparently.

‘Even by Russian standards she’s a nasty piece of work, she has a kind soul like any of my children naturally but still not one to be trusted lightly Alice.’

“Nicholas, Perenelle, as resplendent as ever.”
A middle-aged couple wearing outfits that appeared to be crafted almost entirely out of gold, bowed reverently to us for a long moment before stepping forward for a hug each.

‘Show offs. Ever since he made that little stone, he can’t resist making everything he can into solid gold. It’s so garish that it reminds me of Mother’s decoration tastes annoyingly.’
..HEY! It’s not like I chose the form my magic naturally takes when it’s injected into an unclaimed dimensional space or anything?!..

“Eliphas, come give Mommy a hug darling.”
A young boy who honestly gave me the hibbie-jibbies from just how close a likeness he held to most modern depictions of ‘The Anti-Christ’ out there, with his dark bowl-cut hair and deep-set shadow laden eyes that looked far too old for his young little frame, came running forward to be scooped up onto our hip in a way that felt painfully similar to the way I always end up holding Eris.

That reminder jolted something painful inside me and led me into a fit of internalised worry and sadness so powerful that I almost didn’t hear the next comment Arista tacked silently on to her external conversations.

‘Creepy little guy obviously but his research into demonology was the foundation to how I finally reigned in those half-sentient beasts at last so he has his uses at least and he’s just so adorably pliant too!’

I stopped focusing on her voice from that point on, my mind going into a pretty dark place that I’d been trying to put aside to keep going for now.
My thoughts jumped from worry over Sarah’s condition, a numb disbelief from the still raw pain from losing Mum by my own hands no less, and that horrible echoing snap that came from Eris’s little neck breaking which only seemed to get louder as time went on until it was all I could hear in my head and-

======

‘Do pay attention Alice’

Her words didn’t really have much effect on me with how lost I’d become inside my own mind at first but the sharp mental tug she gave to my chest, as if she were about to send me back into my mindscape, did shake me out of my growing depression enough that I could take in our surroundings at least.

After a long pause where my brain tried to take everything before me in and failed due to the growing pit of terror forming in my gut as our eyes scanned around the high stone basin of land surrounding us on all sides with almost loving care as Arista savoured my reaction to it.

I know where we are.. I know where we are, and while part of me is a little confused how I managed to completely miss the apparently sunset-draped boat trip I assume we must have taken to get across the water filled caldera to reach the mini-mountain peak of ‘Wizard Island’ that we’re currently standing on, with seemingly thousands of people standing around us and even more sitting out on a variety of ‘ships’ in the water below, a much larger part of me wanted to desperately run far away because I’m not an insane-bloody-IDIOT!

‘Why are we at Crater Lake?’

“Oh, you CAN speak after all Alice? I’d started to wonder with how silent you’ve been lately.”
Needless to say her voice was painfully smug at her having finally broken my silence but I honestly couldn’t bring myself to care.

We’re at Crater Lake.. we’re at one of the biggest inactive ley-line hubs in America just north of Klamath lake and, if you believe the old myths, a once proud volcanic mountain home to a god which collapsed with his death so long ago.

A place where twelve worryingly powerful ley-lines once met until the Mountain imploded somehow, forcing the Earth’s magic itself to shift and divert around it in what was thought to be a temporary natural change but has yet to show signs of repairing itself despite that admittedly hope-filled statement and several millennia to work on the problem.

‘Why are we here?’
What can she possibly hope to gain from coming HERE of all places?!
The Crater is magically dead, it’s about as barren as you can get magically at this point.

She can only be here for one of two reasons, she either needs to be magically isolated from the rest of the world for some reason or she wants to specifically stand right on top of twelve currently cut off ley-lines for whatever ritual she’s planning.. neither option has ‘good’ implications for what she intends to do in either case!

“Now then Alice, shall we reach the top of the island and settle down to wait for our destiny to finally be fulfilled?”
I tried to throw all of my mental energy against hers in a desperate attempt to stop her as she turned around on a heel to lead us onwards up the rough path leading towards the mini-caldera at the top of Wizard Island.

Every step we took upwards brought a slightly stronger pulse of magic pushing down upon our entire body with such force that even in my partly suppressed state I could feel it tingle across my skin.

..That shouldn’t be possible, you said this place is magically dead!..
This shouldn’t be possible and-
Oh crap.. crap, crap, crap, crap, CRAP!

A smile slowly twitched its way onto our lips as Arista obviously listened in on my ranting stream of panicked swears.

‘Language Alice’
I wanted to be annoyed at her for that little jab but I’ve got much more important things to be focusing on right about now.

Down on the dusty old magmatic stone path in front of us, that Arista happens to be so casually walking along without a care in the world, is a string of partly covered runes that appear to have been burned into the underlying rock itself with painstaking care.

They’re slightly worn from what I imagine is age judging just by the scale of them in general as more and more become apparent now that I’m actually looking for them but not badly enough to be a problem considering all the dust and debris that normally appears to cover them from the elements otherwise.
..Runes? She’s put runes over this entire half-mile wide island?!..

A standard rune array is about the size of your palm..
A complicated one can be anything from the size of a human body to a wall..
The most convoluted, reality warping, soul destroying, world changing ritual arrays I know of are usually around the size of a house at worst..

She’s got runes covering an entire bloody island!

‘What the hell are you trying to do here Arista?’
Our pace didn’t slow in the slightest but the already painfully wide smile on our lips spread a little more in real joy as we finally crested the top of the hill and stood on the lip of the almost half-a-kilometre wide caldera below that appeared to be covered from every visible corner by freshly burned dark runes, all squeezed into tightly packed clusters that even my eyes can’t make out properly from this distance in the dusky light around us.

“We, Dearheart, WE are going to change the world for the better and YOU are going to help me birth the new magical renaissance that you were born to create, one that will save the human race from itself and prevent any other danger that may come for us all after that!”

Our eyes scanned around the caldera once more before she took that last step over the edge and magic roared to life around us from some hidden, previously unfelt source deep beneath our feet.

As the magic built higher and higher to my muted senses, it finally crested in the form of a thick ice-blue barrier that sprung up around the edge of the caldera to lock us inside the hole like a shining cage of almost unbelievable power.

It was all I could do to stop myself from falling apart in fear as Arista stared up at the barrier with glee.
..This is big, this is WAY bigger than anything we’ve had to deal with before!..

I-I’m scared?
I’m scared and I don’t know what’s about to happen, I don’t know what to do an-and.. I.. I..

“How about I explain things to you Alice? We have time, the ritual can’t begin until the others arrive and Esti performs the final checks, after all.”
A warm smile played across our lips yet again as she hummed a somehow familiar, yet tuneless song to herself and settled my body on a small stone dais sat at the approximate ‘center’ of the hole we’re now trapped inside.
“It wouldn’t do for you to die without knowing why these events must be, darling. You deserve to know, you ARE my favorite daughter after all.. the one who can free me at last..”

..DIE?!..
Oh no, oh powers what is she going to do?!
I can’t.. I don’t!.. I?..

“Into the mindscape we go Dearheart.. you seem troubled? Don’t worry, Mommy will make it all better.”

..NO!..
Ari’s shout echoed in my mind uselessly for a second as the tugging sensation at my chest returned and the world around us disappeared to be replaced by the white glow of my mindscape, the stark remains of my ice-magic fuelled rage fit from earlier still present on all sides around us and my ‘bedroom’ nowhere in sight.

“We’re screwed, aren’t we?”
Ari didn’t answer at all after a few seconds which didn’t help my growing panic in the slightest sadly.

“We are so screwed..”



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