Chapter 184: Chains on me
“My oh my,” the vaguely woman-shaped mass of pink energy mumbles, her dark eye-pools fixated on me. “So you actually survived... how intriguing.” Then she lets out a warm, comfortable sigh, truly a sound for sore ears. “But to think finding you would be this easy... it’s kind of a let-down, really. Oh well.” She beckons me with a hand. “COME, child.”
Powerful waves of Espir roll over me, drowning out the part of my mind that makes a feeble attempt to resist the command. Unthinking, unquestioning, I start to move towards the motherly figure warmly beckoning me.
Then a field of smothering pressure drops down on me, rooting me to the spot.
“What is the meaning of this?” Goddess asks, her voice rumbling like thunder.
Her raw anger shakes me from my fugue-like state. Holy shit, that pink woman-thing took control of me like it was nothing! Is she a Peilor?!
The things she said combined with the casual tone she took with Goddess cause a vague yet horrible premonition to well up in the back of my mind regarding her identity.
Meanwhile, the pink figure turns to Goddess in surprise. “The meaning? I’m just retrieving an errant stray for one of my children. Surely you haven’t forgotten our pact?”
“I am well aware of our pact,” Goddess intones, dark and foreboding. “Hence my surprise at your attempt to order around a denizen of my Realm.”
“A denizen of...” Flares of agitated light pulse off the feminine mass of pink energy. “That is a being born of matter, not spirit, how could it possibly count as one of your subjects?!”
“Emma may have been born of matter,” Goddess replies, her voice made of unwavering steel, “but she has overcome that limitation. Her connection to her former mortal coil is well and truly severed.”
“Impossible,” the pink figure protests. “Body and mind are One.”
My chain reacts to her words, rattling lightly as it stirs, its severed, jagged end itching.
Goddess’s eyes light up with terrible power. “This is not your Realm. It is mine, and Emma is a being of pure Espir like any of its inhabitants. Your Laws no longer apply to her.”
The itching ceases as abruptly as it began.
“That does not make her yours,” the pink figure spits. A flare of power arcs off her and smashes into a nearby crystalline statue, causing it to shatter with a sharp crack.
From somewhere behind me, I hear an alarmed squawk, followed by a rhythmic flapping as Raindrop hightails it with Dio. Good call. Wish I could do the same.
Goddess coolly raises an eyebrow, as the pieces of the statue freeze in mid-air, then smoothly come together again, returning to its previous unblemished state. “You’re right. What makes her mine is that I granted her request of asylum, as I have for many wayward souls and will for many yet to come. She is a denizen of my Realm in every sense now, and therefore protected under our agreement.”
A tense silence falls. Finally, the pink figure throws her head back and laughs. “Ahhh... you led me right into that one. Well-played, Ghothys, well-played.”
Ghothys? Is that her real name? Well, I suppose Goddess really sounds more like a title than a name. Actually, it sounds suspiciously similar...
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Goddess replies smoothly, the sound of her voice returning to that of a smooth vocal arrangement. “However, since your little errand here has turned out fruitless, I suppose it’s time for you to leave. Pity.”
The pink figure stares at Goddess for a long moment, then lets out another warm sigh. “Very well, since you insist on spoiling my fun.” Then she turns to look at me, a soft smirk on what little I can make out of her glowing pink face. “And you’re more of a challenge than I anticipated, little Emma.”
Hearing my name roll off her lips for the first time causes a shiver to run up my spine.
“Till we meet again,” she concludes. The next thing I know, pink light sears my retinas as she turns blindingly bright.
When I can see again, she’s gone.
And Goddess is staring at me, her eyes inscrutable.
I swallow, and bow to her. From the corner of my eye, I see Akir do the same. “Thank you, your Highness,” I say earnestly. “I don’t deserve your kindness.”
Goddess sighs. Unlike the pink figure’s, her sigh isn’t warm, it’s weary, laden with the weight of aeons. “It is no kindness, child. You’ve become a pawn in a dangerous game. Your timing was most unfortunate. It would’ve been better if Mara hadn’t found you; she will not let this matter rest.”
Mara... well, that doesn’t tell me much about her identity, really.
I look up at Goddess and frown, that earlier premonition of mine coming back full force. “Who... who is she, exactly? If you don’t mind my asking.”
Goddess holds my gaze unblinking. “Mara is the Peilor’s Godqueen. You may know her under a different name: Starmother.”
Hooo boy. I knew it. I have to say, I’m surprised Suri was actually able to convince her queen to personally come looking for me... Then again, she did get promoted to the highest tier. I take a deep breath. “How worried do I need to be?”
“I’m sure you have many questions,” Goddess muses, “and I suppose I owe you some answers. But this is hardly the place. Come.”
She turns and floats back inside, leading us to the great hall she receives audiences in.
Light filters through the crystal walls of the palace, causing the murals to glow with vibrant, shifting colours.
She lands gently upon a dais, looking down upon us mere mortals on the crystal floor.
Akir bows once more, and I follow suit.
“When the Peilor first arrived they were a mere curiosity,” Goddess starts, waving a clawed finger and causing a shimmering image to appear, depicting glowing, floating crystals appearing in a wide meadow of flowers. “They delighted in this world because it allowed them to do things that, for all their power and knowledge, they could never do in the material planes. Move their own body.”
Studying the innocuous scene, I frown. “But... your Highness, I’ve seen Suri move my body after I left it...”
“They can take control of their host’s body,” Goddess explains, “but from what I understand, that’s not quite the same, more akin to steering a vehicle. Regardless, I kept an eye on them, but without much concern. They were not the first to Visit my Realm, and like any Visitor, far too weak to pose any threat.”
“I suppose it didn’t stay that way?” I prompt politely when she remains silent for a few seconds.
Goddess nods slowly, somehow making the simple motion seem majestic. “Left to their own devices, the Peilor soon grew bolder. Much like you, they sought ways to lengthen their stays. It wasn’t long before the first sentient being fell victim to them.”
The scene shifts, to that of a floating crystal, hovering over a twitching, jerking bunny with massive, slowly Fading ears.
“Naturally, I was outraged,” Goddess intones, her visage visibly darkening at the scene. “I tossed out all the Peilor Visiting at the time, with a message and a warning.”
Knowing the Peilor acted similar to me does not exactly make me feel better about what I did, but I comfort myself that I at least Erased a being by accident.
“The Peilor kept Visiting,” Goddess continues, “and for a time they were on their best behaviour. Then another victim fell. A sapient being, somewhat of a hermit. Except they weren’t Erased so much as... assimilated.”
The scene shifts again, depicting a silver turtle in a pond with a red crystal boring into its shell from the top.
“The Peilor tried to do what they did best: taking hosts. I soon learned they’d been secretly experimenting with parasitising increasingly powerful beings, draining them of Espir to lengthen their stays.”
My Imaginary blood runs cold at the idea.
“The extent of their crimes this time was beyond the pale. I broke the connection between aggressor and victim, barely managing to save my subject from Fading in the process. Then I immediately and publicly Erased the responsible Peilor, and told the rest to leave and never come back if they valued their existence.”
Akir shivers. “I remember that. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen your Highness as angry.”
Goddess nods primly. “It was a rare occurrence. It appeared to have worked, too. For a long time, I genuinely believed I was rid of them. However, unlike other mortal beings, the Peilor do not age or die. One day, the oldest and strongest of them, Mara, returned. And she came prepared for war.”
Goddess once more lifts a clawed finger, and the scene brightens, depicting a familiar mass of pink energy facing off against a monochrome Goddess.
“She had formed a linked network of Peilor minds somehow, and together they had stockpiled a huge amount of Espir, far larger than her Core should have been able to handle on its own at the time. She came to try and control me.”
I watch the scene of their battle with bated breath. Arcs of blinding light and creeping shadows trade blows at a speed that’s hard to follow, and I don’t understand even half of what goes on.
“Ultimately, her attempt lacked both power and finesse, so she was far from successful. In fact, I nearly destroyed her,” Goddess coolly says, as she allows the scene to fade. “Unfortunately, she had amassed enough power—if barely—to manage a retreat despite my attempts to detain her. And that’s where her most important advantage came into play.”
Understanding dawns on Akir’s face. “Your highness cannot leave the Realm.”
Goddess gives another regal nod.
I frown. “What? Why not?”
“If she left, Apexes from the Realms below would come running,” Akir explains quickly, glancing at Goddess. “They’d tear this place apart, consuming everything and everyone they came across to fuel their fight for the Apex position.”
Apex. I’ve heard Akir use that term before, but I’m starting to think there’s more to it than just being ‘the strongest.’
“Exactly,” Goddess confirms. “I am capable of leaving, but I could never do so in good conscience. Though chasing her right then and there might've been the wisest move in the long run, I was—and remain—unwilling to break the bonds that shackle me to this Realm. Moreover... while I have confidence in my power, I have never been to Material Realmspace before. I cannot say how it would affect me.”
“So her attempt was unsuccessful, but there was nothing to stop her from trying again,” I conclude.
“Indeed. A long time passed, but eventually, she returned. We fought, I overpowered her, and she retreated. This became a cycle. I fought her off, tried to imprison her, but she always got away thanks to her connection to her body in the Yin-Yang Realm, which I could not break, nor ever fully block. And each time she came back stronger, more experienced, wiser. As our battles grew fiercer, the destruction they wrought grew greater, as did the death toll.”
A quiet fury simmers under the hymns of her voice, and I can’t help but instinctively cringe, make myself smaller before this ultimate predator.
“Then one day, she came and didn’t attack. Instead, she offered a truce. Her people had grown impatient. They wanted to return to the paradise they had found in my Realm. I did not like it one bit, but the toll of the war was wearing on me, so I ultimately agreed to negotiate. Thus, we arrive at the present situation. There is a substantial set of rules detailing the number of Peilor Visiting at a time, the length of their stays, and what they are and aren‘t allowed to do. Generally speaking, they are allowed to look but not touch, experience but not change anything. And moreover, limit their interaction with the locals to mere pleasantries. Starmother herself Visits only once in a while, on a schedule we fight tooth and nail over, and is only allowed to explore in my personal presence.”
Many thoughts race through my head as I try to take this all in. Of course the Peilor tried to colonise this Realm, the bastards. But to think they actually drove Goddess into a corner with their tactics...
“It sounds like the treaty should protect me,” I finally say. “And if Starmother never explores without your presence... Do I really need to be worried, your Highness?”
Goddess sighs. “I fear we may all need to be worried. Don’t mistake this truce for a peace. Starmother has been chafing under the treaty for a while; the agreements in place restrict her quite heavily. She most likely believes that I’m entirely incapable of leaving my Realm, and that she would therefore eventually defeat me if we continued clashing. You might just be the excuse she needs to restart the war.”
I stare at her in surprise. “What? Me?!”
“It seems you do not understand the significance of what you’ve done,” Goddess says, her gaze dropping to the jagged end of the chain. “Your situation is unique, and your very existence begs questions that could change the course of this struggle. You severed your own connection, but is it possible to sever another’s? Starmother’s for example? Can the connection to a physical body be mended? If so, could beings from this Realm go over to theirs and snatch bodies, take the fight to the Peilor in their Realm? I believe Starmother quite desperately wishes to study you, or she would never have personally come looking for you.”
I can feel the blood drain from my face when I finally understand what she’s saying. “All arguments she could use to convince her people to support her going into another war, the opening move of which would be to snatch me up.”
Goddess nods, staring at me with unsettling intensity again. “Indeed. Tell me, Emma. Would you consider me a merciful ruler for allowing your continued existence, or a cruel one? Principled, or foolish?”
Would. She said would you consider, not do you consider. That would mean...
She hasn’t decided yet.
I swallow, and draw myself up. “Actually, your Highness, I think I might have a solution to both our problems...”
Looking up the title reference is highly recommended ^^
Thanks for reading!