• hcmills

Chapter 177: Breaking the mould [End of Book 4]

“What?” I ask, stunned, her words finally snapping me out of my daze. “No! Stay out of my head, Suri!”


It’s not that I didn’t see this coming; it’s basically been my biggest fear for a while now and the reason I’ve been working on finding ways to resist mind control. But still, the casual way Suri announces her imminent, ultimate betrayal, is... it’s too much. Too much to comprehend, all at once.


[Calm down, Emma. It’s a simple procedure, and I’ve done this many times before,] Suri chimes in what I’m sure is meant to be a reassuring tone. [It’s just to make you feel more at ease, content to follow instructions, and make sure you never suffer from boredom.]


“No amount of sugar-coating is going to make a psychic lobotomy sound appetising to me, Suri!” I bite back through gritted teeth.


[You know, back in the day, Peilor would force obedience through pain and fear,] Suri chimes. [Would you rather I try that? Because I think you’ll find our current methods far more pleasing than those barbaric practices. Honestly, it won’t take but a minute, and you’ll feel much better once I’m done. Well, it’ll feel like a minute to you, anyway.]


“It’s not about how you try to control me, Suri, it’s that you try that’s the issue! What gives your people the right to enslave members of another sapient species?!”


[The right?] Suri repeats, sounding confused, like she’s never even considered such a question before. [It has nothing to do with rights, it is simply our nature. And like I’ve said, you’ll be perfectly content, never suffering for a moment. Isn’t it, frankly, far better than your species’ habit of putting other species in tiny cages, only to later kill and eat them and their offspring?]


I sputter. “Just because there are worse crimes, that doesn’t make what you’re doing okay!”


[I can tell this discussion is going nowhere,] Suri chimes. [I’m sorry, Emma. I know you don’t see it right now, but this is for your own good. You’ll just have to trust me.]


“Like hell I have to!” I snarl at her in my reflection, my hands balling into fists, even as I frantically go over my options.


I could try to rip her out, but that didn’t go so hot last time... also, she could probably just call for help somehow, perhaps even Warp herself away—or back in!


A prickle erupts at the back of my eye socket, which I recognise as the sensation of Suri attempting to initiate a mind-meld.


I push back, but Suri is like a tide, rolling in inexorably.


I will my arm to rise and snatch her, but I’m paralysed, the signals travelling through my Lavi dissipating like waves on a beach.


With my panic rising, and my path to the Realm of Imagination still blocked, I react more or less instinctively and do something I’ve never done before.


I attempt to flee my own body.


I do so by conjuring an image of myself elsewhere in the room, and pushing all of my Espir into it at once.


For a moment, there’s a resistance, then it fades away, along with all of the sensations coming from my physical body, including the prickling at my optic nerve.


It is a most peculiar thing, to be looking at myself from behind.


It is stranger still when my physical body jerks, and turns around with stiff, robotic movements, my face a blank mask.


I can’t believe that worked!


Suri once warned me to never push more than two-thirds of my Espir Pool out at once, told me it was dangerous. I never forgot about that, of course, and while I couldn’t test it, I’d long theorised that doing so might allow my consciousness to leave my body, the way it does when I Visit the Realm of Imagination.


Basically, I kept it in the back of my head as a final Hail Mary against mind control, which I’d sincerely hoped to never have to try. And it actually worked!


[Emma, what are you doing?] Suri’s voice chimes in bafflement, the conjured sound almost visibly radiating off of Suri in waves of Espir. [I realise you’re upset, but do my warnings mean so little to you? If you leave your body like this and run out of Espir, you will cease to exist! Please, just do me a favour and come back!]


An angry retort dies on my Imaginary lips at her final words, and for a moment, I can feel myself considering her suggestion.


No! Hell no! What am I thinking, and why am I... wait, those waves of Espir just now...


‘You bitch,’ I grind out through Imaginary teeth. ‘That was a trigger sentence, wasn’t it? “Do me a favour.” Is that how you’ve been gently guiding me?!’


[We were afforded some subtle means; it was all well within the rules,] Suri chimes defensively. [I can see that you’re very distressed right now, Emma, but might I suggest it’s not worth risking your life over?]


‘What, the lovely life you’re offering me as a slave?’ I scoff, folding my Imaginary arms over my Imaginary chest. ‘A mindless friggin’ drone?!’


Even as I talk to her, I consider my options.


It seems that my conjecture about the mind-meld requiring physical contact to establish was correct. However, I know it can exist outside my body as well, as I noticed Suri using it to keep me from Fading during Skilldreams.


[You won’t be mindless, Emma,] Suri exclaims, sounding frustrated. [You’ll just be... content with your position! You’ll have a wonderful, happy life, I’ll make sure of that! I’ll—I’ll make sure you get to see Kaitlynn regularly!]


For the first time since Suri started about mind control, I waver, as the idea of never seeing Kaitlynn again crashes into me.


[Is it really so important to you to be in charge?] Suri continues, her chimes turning sweeter and gentler. [I mean, from what I’ve seen—and what you’ve told me about your past—you’re not exactly great at making decisions that lead to your personal happiness. Face it, you’re a great driver, but you really shouldn’t be planning the route. Especially when it comes to Kaitlynn.]


She’s... right. For a moment, I teeter on the edge, imaginary tears forming in my imaginary eyes. I’ve messed up so many times with Kaitlynn... is leaving her behind like this going to be my final one?


Suddenly, a strange sense of awareness comes over me, part of my mind screaming at me that I’m being manipulated.


I finally recognise the insidious waves of Espir pulsing through the Aether: Suri is using Charm.


As soon as I realise this, waves of renewed fear and fury wash through me and help me fight off her compulsion.


Time to get out of here, before she tries something else!


In the end, since I don’t know what’s behind the walls, floor, or ceiling, the choice of exit is obvious. I sweep my tail and fly straight for the window.


However, just before I can reach it, I feel a strange pain, as something yanks me back.


I turn to find my body, somehow physically grabbing the chain that connects it to my spirit, and holding it taut.


Shit! If Suri’s aware of that thing, then even if I make it to the Realm of Imagination, she could just follow that and drag me back!


[I’m growing quite tired of your little rebellion, Emma,] Suri chimes. [Do you truly not realise it is as futile as it is dangerous? It’s honestly impressive that you’ve managed to raise your Mental Fortitude to 17—]


I knew it! I did gain another point!


[—but it still falls well short of my Willpower. So, will you be coming back willingly, or will I have to force you?]


Her... Willpower? What does that have to do with—


My eyes widen as it clicks, as the final piece of the puzzle slots into place.


That’s it! Charm and Radiance aren’t the only mental stats that can be used actively! If you apply Espir to Willpower, you can project it to try to control someone, and if you apply it to Mental Fortitude...


You can defend against Mind Control.


[Please don’t make me force you, Emma,] Suri chimes, more soothing waves of Charm coming off her. [It’s a distasteful thing, and I’m not sure your mind would be able to handle it in its current, fragile state. You won’t be much good to Kaitlynn as a vegetable, so believe me when I say it would be better for everyone if you just—]


It’s now or never. I draw myself up fully. ‘Your concern is very sweet, Suri, but I’d like to see you try.’


Suri shakes my head with jerky movements. [I suppose I should’ve seen that coming. Very well.]


Even as she speaks, I’m already turning part of my attention inwards. I’m very practised with activating my Charm, of course, but my Mental Fortitude is, of course, a separate beast. However, I’ve had enough experience with feeling the stat go up by now to know in what corner of my mind to look.


And indeed, I find a well of strength inside of me that tastes like mountains and deep-rooted, unbending trees. And as Suri lights up in front of me, I recklessly pour in Espir.


[YOU WISH TO RETURN TO YOUR BODY.]


The waves of controlling Espir wash over me. I grit my Imaginary teeth and focus on remaining unmoved, still in the face of her assault.


Part of me wants to return to the safety of my body. A larger part of me tells it to go to hell.


The waves pass. ‘No, I don’t,’ I tell Suri, triumphant.


My physical body freezes entirely. [You—when did you learn..? Emma, you can’t go on burning Espir like that, you’re really going to die!]


For the first time, a sense of panic enters Suri’s voice.


‘You really don’t get it, do you?’ I ask, shaking my head. ‘I’d much rather die than live the rest of my life like a zombie.’


And with those words, I conjure a knife.


Closing my eyes, I spare a thought for my blue angel. I’m sorry, Kaitlynn. I do love you, so so much, but that’s why right now... I’ve got to let you go.


My knife flashes through the Aether... and smashes into my chain.


Pain rockets through me at the contact, and the chain rattles as it’s pushed aside, but doesn’t break.


[Emma, stop that!] Suri yells. [What you’re trying to do is not even possible!]


I frown at the chain, then look back up at her and shake my head. ‘You’re thinking according to the laws of the Yin-Yang Realm, Suri. Espir isn’t from here, it follows the rules of the Realm of Imagination. Anything is possible there. You just need to believe.’


Suri starts moving my physical body toward me in jerky steps, making very little progress.


I look back down at the chain that’s always accompanied me to the Realm of Imagination. Except it’s not really a chain at all, that’s just how I see it. It’s nothing but a connection, a tether. It might as well be a piece of string.


I raise my knife a second time, and this time I swing it at the thin piece of string connecting me to my body. In a flash of inspiration, I dive into a different corner of my mind, where I find a section that’s like a roiling ball of molten steel that smells like winning.


My Willpower, obviously.


I immediately pour in some Espir, and the molten steel lights up. A burning fore erupts from it, which I direct into my knife.


As my knife hits the tether, blinding, white-hot pain racks my whole ethereal body—like the worst migraine I could imagine—but I push through it.


In front of me, my physical body spasms, apparently feeling it too.


Then, with a feeling like the crack of a whip, the connection snaps.


I suddenly feel a lot lighter, like a balloon in the wind. A deflating balloon, as I’ve by now already expended half of my Espir.


It’s a dizzying, disorienting experience, but I have no time to linger on it.


I quickly seek out the connection to the toy ship I left in the Realm of Imagination more than two weeks ago.


It’s still there. Good.


[Emma, do you have any idea what you’ve done?!] Suri cries out in disbelief, as she regains control over my body somewhat.


‘Yeah,’ I reply. ‘I just severed my puppet strings.’


With that, I close my eyes, push some of my precious remaining Espir into my pool of Mental Fortitude, and pull on the connection.


As always, memories of a bird’s life erupt within me and attempt to drown me in sorrow. However, the barrage feels weaker than it used to, having been activated so many times.


Moreover, my Mental Fortitude is stronger than ever, and now that I’ve finally figured out how to use it to actively resist the sensations, I find I’m capable of letting them wash over me without being moved.


The memories are still sad, but I’ve lived this life over and over. It was a good life, and that’s more than many get.


I’m sorry, my feathered little friend, and thank you for all you’ve done for me. But I have to let you go now. I can’t carry this grief forever, when my life and those of my friends are all at stake.


‘Hey Suri,’ I say, reopening my eyes before I raise my middle finger. ‘Go get glorbed in a fire.’


And with those final words, I pull myself out of the Realm of Crystals.



Author's note:

That's right my gentlepeople, we have lift-off ^^


Next week, the start of Book 5, the final book of this series! But first a little announcement:


Remember that audiobook version of Book 1 that I occasionally mentioned was being worked on? No? That's okay, it's been a while... :')


Anyway, there were a lot of delays for various reasons, though mostly because my fantastic narrator, Madeline Thaler, and I were both doing this for the time and kept running into new issues to fix. But! At last, the audiobook is here!


Actually, it's been here for nearly a month, I just wasn't aware yet... I was waiting for ACX to publish it before announcing the release, which apparently they did on November 23rd. I just wasn't notified by Findaway like I expected...


Apparently, hundreds of people have purchased it while I was still twiddling my thumbs, waiting for it to be published so I could start marketing it. XD


Tl;dr, Audiobook version of Book 1 is finally out, yay!


You can find all of the stores selling it right here: https://books2read.com/whisperingcrystals1



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