tagMind ControlTristan's Tale Pt. 12

Tristan's Tale Pt. 12


Thanks to John Smith, as usual. And thank you to my Patrons for catching typos!
I know the last chapter had a few of you feeling like things would never work out for Tristan. Sometimes, that's just how life goes. But just as we all must break out of darkness eventually, maybe this chapter will rekindle, in you, some hope for our hero.


"Here is the first thing you must remember. If you forget it, even for just a second...you will die."

We all leaned forward, breath held in, waiting for more. Rinzai squinted his weathered eyes, looking at each of us in turn.

"You will want to take your clothes off."

We sat cross legged on a floating island. Blue sky stretched above us, patterned with unrealistic clouds. Other islands occupied the nearby air—a fantasy world. The ones higher than us, we could see their dirt underbellies. Animals grazed the grass of the ones below. And the ground was far enough beneath us that you could see the curvature of the small planet that was Rinzai's Castle.

I raised my hand.

"What?" said Rinzai.

I cleared my throat. "Are you asking us to strip?"

Rinzai stared at me. His gaze was flat, his features severe.

"It's just kind of cold up here," I said.

Sailor laughed at my joke, but it wasn't really the right time or place.

None of us trusted Rinzai. But mistrust a life raft all you want, you'll still fling your arms around it. My teacher, and the most powerful of Shae's captives, was our only chance.

The enemy? The very friends I had been so overjoyed to finally see again. They were infected by Shae, changed into walking time bombs of her leviathan Art. And Shae's power was subtle. You only knew she was changing you when she wanted you to know.

Right now, I didn't feel a thing. That's why I was so terrified, making the shitty jokes out of an old nervous habit.

Rinzai hadn't taken the joke well, and for a second I thought he was going to hit me. It certainly wouldn't have been the first time.

But he just let out a low growl. "No more questions. We have very little time."

He extended his arm, palm-up, and a large translucent sphere appeared above his hand. "I am, of course, referring to Shae's primary mode of attack. I have some understanding of what Shae has implanted into you, and I know that the main attack is targeting our sexual urges."

We all looked at each other. Emmit wasn't one for silly jokes, really, but Sailor and I were definitely suppressing smiles. Rinzai said "sexual urges" like a nun.

"The Arasit know how the human mind functions," he continued. "They know which parts to target. Someone explain to me why sexuality is a better target than, say, withholding your ability to breathe." Two different segments of the sphere glowed as he said this, representing the two parts of the mind he had just described.

Alice raised her hand. Rinzai acknowledged the action by looking at her. I wanted to look at her too, which may or may not have been because of her plunging neckline. There just wasn't Alice-level cleavage on display anywhere in Cammes, or, for that matter, anywhere else I had been on my travels.

But I didn't: Jade was right next to me, and despite the fact that she didn't know who I was...I don't know. It was still weird. She was still my girlfriend, right?

"It would defeat the purpose," Alice was explaining. "Taking your breath away would trigger a stronger survival impulse. The resulting subconscious response could potentially override the invading manipulation. Or, at the very least, make things more difficult."

"Good," said Rinzai. He looked at the rest of us. "Someone else pick up where she left off."

Emmit spoke next, without hesitation. "The Art works from the inside out." He was sitting with the straightest spine I've ever seen in my life. "It's hard to align yourself with another mind when you're threatening to kill it."

Rinzai nodded. "Then why sex, of all things? Jade?"

I couldn't get over how crazy this was. In the real world, we were sitting on the ground in a forest, about half a mile from a city on fire. Because of a war I had started. Now Rinzai had roped us into a shared Castle—a mental projection of the Art; a place for us to talk.

Why make a Castle when we could talk in the real world?

Because being in a mindscape let you speak at the speed of thought, or closer to it. That bought us time. And time was something we were desperate to get. Acting through my friends, Shae would not waste any time in corrupting our minds.

Which couldn't happen. It would be disastrous. The last time Shae got inside my head, the consequences were world-altering. Only Rinzai's power was keeping the current manipulations at bay, and he'd made it clear he couldn't keep it up for very long.

Jade wasn't responding to Rinzai's question. We looked at her. I didn't have it in me to look at her for long, and I averted my eyes.

In the real world, and when we'd been getting situated on the island, I could barely tear my eyes off of her. Now I could barely stomach it.

Not just because she didn't recognize me. It was that here, in Rinzai's mind, you could see the struggle.

Her face was changing color. Her skin, normally a pale white perfectly matched to her vivid orange hair, now it was a tapestry for Shae's pastel-blues, melted pinks, and deep garnet reds to travel like clouds across the sky of her face. And she had this tick that was awful to look at, where she would shake her head suddenly, and look around as if she was seeing us for the first time. I can't tell you how many times I saw recognition bloom and die in her eyes. Like she knew who we were, but not for long enough to say anything about it.

And I couldn't do a damn thing to help.

She had been hit hardest out of all my friends. And I just knew it was because she was close to me. It was Shae's revenge, the revenge of a petty child.

A petty child with world-dominating capabilities...

Rinzai pinched his nose. "Okay. I'm seeing that you all will have to help Jade last."

That made something burn in me. "Last?" I said. "If she's the worst off, shouldn't we help her first?"

Rinzai looked at me wearily. "Don't make me explain this again."

"Airplane rule, bro," said Sailor. "You gotta put your own mask on before you help the kid."

I shook my head. "Whatever," I said.

I wasn't going to change anybody's mind. I understood their logic, too. Despite appearances, Rinzai was even more mentally messed up than Jade, and we would only help after all of us were safe. Going in there without our full strength was suicide. Who knows what Shae had put inside his mind?

Still. It was Jade. I hated having to wait when she was right there.

Time to move things along. "Shae targets sex," I said, answering Rinzai's question, "because sex, mentally, straddles the line between reptilian instinct and conscious intention. She can sidle up to your real mind at the same time as she grabs your reptilian brain's junk. It's the perfect place to take control from you, because it's the place where you're most deluded about the control you think you have."

Rinzai nodded. "Well said."

A compliment from Rinzai? That was a first.

Rinzai made a gesture, and the glowing part of the sphere that represented our sex drive detached, and became its own misshapen object. A silver net encased it all of a sudden as he said, "That's why the first defense you must establish is a shield around your sexual urges. I trust you all have access to it?

Everyone nodded except for me.

"Hold on," I said, looking at all the affirmative nods around me. "Really? You guys, you can just point at that part of yourself? Like, yup, right there, that's the part of me that wants to fuck."
Emmit spoke up. "It wasn't all bad after you left. Shae was deeply absorbed with the Two-Faced Man, so we still had room to practice and grow."

I screwed my face up. "That just seems like a lot of control to have. Also, what the hell does she want from Jasper?"

Then, Rinzai disappeared from the island.

"Shit." I looked at the spot where he'd been sitting. "That can't be good."

Jade shook her head abruptly. "Wait. Everyone, wait."

It was not the first time she had done this, and it hurts to say, but we ignored her.

Tori stood up and stretched her long arms over her head. I appreciated the gesture. Tori is who you get if a semi-goth runway model decides she wants ridiculous muscle definition. "Let's get started."

Sailor stood up too. "Let's do it." He was a few inches short of Tori, and he'd stubbornly refused to ever cut his ponytail, despite its disadvantages in combat. He'd looked really certain as he spoke, but now a confused expression crossed his face. "Uh, what are we doing, exactly?"

Emmit sighed. "Rinzai told us to shield our sex drives. So that's what we do."

I couldn't help but laugh. They looked at me. "What?" said Alice.

"I mean, that's not a plan. Is it?" I looked at their eyes, measuring what they were thinking. "Wait, you're serious? You're all set to go with that?"

"You have to start somewhere," said Alice.

"There's no endgame," I said. "Shield your sex drive, and then what? Shae's power overruns your shield like it's nothing, and then she makes us kill each other?"

Alice shook her head. "You don't know what it's like to be affected by her. You've been gone for too long. We have a chance, now, and if you see a chance, you take it. You don't wait."

I pressed my mouth into a thin line. "I don't know what it's like to have Shae in my head? Did you forget the part where she forced me to kill the freaking Liberator?"

"Oh, right, that one time," said Alice. "Silly me, I forgot. But you can hardly blame me, since we've been under her influence for weeks, and she made some of those days take literal months."

What could I say to that? They'd gone through an incomprehensible hell, that was obvious. But at the same time Alice was treating me like I didn't know anything. And that gets me all prickly.

Emmit was about to butt in with his usual calm rationality, but thankfully, the argument was stifled by Rinzai's abrupt re-appearance.

Aaaand he was naked. I'd seen him shirtless a few times in our travels, and so I was the only one whose jaw didn't drop at the sight of his muscles. Sailor wolf whistled—the guy was anywhere from forty to sixty five, but he had no right to be as strong as he was.

"My apologies," said Rinzai. And then suddenly he was wearing the baggy linen outfit he had on in the real world, "She got the best of me for a moment. I don't have much time. You all are going to have to bring him up to speed." He pointed to me. "You'll need his strength, and he needs your help in applying it. Don't bother with who he is, just guide his perceptions. Go, make your shields, and quickly." He put his hands out, and then after a moment a door appeared between them such that he was grabbing it. "Then, walk through here. This is an Alice-Castle that will help you find Shae's intrusion in her. I trust you will all use it to its greatest potential."

I was at a loss. "But our shields won't do anything against Shae," I protested. "You guys didn't see what she did to my Chi. I don't know how she does it, but she made me powerful. I literally dissolved stone. Real-world stone. It was nuts."

"The Shields will hold, if any of you are as talented as you ought to be by now," said Rinzai. "I'm bearing the brunt of her power: the Castle will serve as enough of a buffer that your shields should be functional, long enough at least to find the part of her that Shae has turned against herself, and bring it back under Alice's control."

"Why her?" I asked. "Why are we going into Wonderland first?" I turned to Alice. "You do call your Castles 'Wonderland,' don't you?"

Alice ignored me. Rinzai breathed out through his nose. "She is the best healer of your group," said Rinzai. "Her subconscious will meld best with my Castle. After that, Alice, you're in charge. I embedded the next Castles in your own. Do Jade last. Then, get me out of here. Once we're all back on Haerth, we can-"

He vanished again. We were left alone on the floating island with the door in the middle of it.

After a beat, Sailor said, "Think he's coming back?"

"Nope," I said. I looked at the group. Everyone had the somewhat faraway looks you get when you're focusing intently on the Art. "Uh, guys?"

Emmit said, "I'm not sure how we help Tristan. Without knowing who he is, how can he isolate any part of himself?"

Alice snapped her fingers in front of Jade's face. Jade frowned, opening her mouth. But she didn't say anything.

Alice shook her head. "We can use the same hack that Shae does." She walked over to me, and put her hands on her hips. Her eyes searched mine, though, admittedly, I wasn't looking at her eyes.

"We're talking about sexual urges, right?" I asked. "I'm getting the impression we're talking about sexual urges."

Alice pursed her lips, seeming to find something in me that satisfied her. "Here's the thing, cutie. To shield a part of yourself, you have to be able to see it. Not the idea of it, or the memory. The realer the better. To make it real, you have to immerse yourself in it to the point that you can't see it because you're too deep. Then, you take a step back, and that's what you shield."

I blinked. "I think I'm following. Sort of like how you punch walls when you're pissed, but once you cool down you can see what was really going on. But the anger isn't gone, it's just more...digestible?"

Alice laughed. My god, there's something about the sound of a beautiful woman's laughter. "I can't speak to the wall punching. But I can speak to your sex drive." She gracefully raised a hand to her shoulder and shrugged her shirt off of it.

My pants stiffened. "Oh," I said.

"You've been trying not to look at my tits the whole time we've been talking," she said. "That tension, that's good. Look into it. Look at the feeling that's telling you to stare." She lowered the shirt just a little more, exposing a scandalous amount of chest. Not showing everything, just enough to make you wish she was.

"You know, normally I would," I said. I licked my suddenly dry lips. "Introspection and all that, that's great. But you're being very distracting."

Alice rolled her eyes. "I'm not the distraction. I'm the catalyst." Then, she bridged the gap between us and grabbed my junk.

"Woah!" I said. "Wait-"

That's when I got it. I think her forwardness helped, in conjunction with the fact that Jade was right next to us, noticing us with mild interest. So there was this awkward thing going on. Now, don't get me wrong, Alice with half a shirt on and grabbing your dick is an experience that doctors say is clinically proven to get you hard every time, without fail.

Which combined perfectly with the awkwardness of it all. I could sort of see what she was talking about. If I had been totally 'in' the feeling, then I would be stripping my clothes off, ready to pounce. That being said, I don't think you ever really get totally absorbed into any feeling; there's always some degree of awareness. The only exceptions that come to mind are my memories of fucking Jade. The feelings of it were so intense, the littlest thing was magnified to be this whole, all encompassing amazing thing.

Point being that I guess feelings inhabit us by degrees. And in this case, I was both removed enough and possessed enough that I could kind of see what was going on. I could compare it to when you disregard an emotion. Like, feeling something but looking at it and being like, so what?

So per Alice's instruction, I was looking at the feeling of being attracted to her. I was looking at my sexual urges, to use Rinzai's terminology. But I had this background niggle telling me that it wasn't quite right. The first lesson of Caer'Aton is that there are no names. And wasn't 'sexual urge' just a lazy way to name the, what, the complex enmeshed network of sexually related things occurring in my mind?

"How do I shield this if it's not real?" I asked aloud.

Alice had been letting me figure things out while she roved her hands lightly on my body. "That's what I was saying before. It doesn't have to be perfect, since the parts of us attacking you are working in the same plane. You have a Cathedral, right?"

I raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, they call me Friar Tristan. Mass is at nine AM sharp..."

"Duh." Alice smacked her forehead. "You've been gone. A Cathedral is just your main Castle. The one you use to represent your mind."

"Ah," I said. "Yeah, I kind of have one of those. It needs some dusting off."

"At least you have it at all," she replied. "I'm surprised, to be honest, since I don't think you ever got that lesson."

I laughed. I laughed, and laughed, and laughed. Alice said, "Uh, Tristan?"

"Sorry," I said, wiping at tear from my eye. "It's just...wow. I never thought I'd feel nostalgic about missing vital information that everyone else has."

"Well, now you have me to teach you everything," she said. She put my hand on her chest as she said this, further quickening my heart rate. "Don't forget to keep sex in mind. Now, first, you have to-"

"Ohhh," I said, starting to get it. I pictured my mindscape—my Cathedral—which at this point only barely resembled the Course. A collection of barely connected blue platforms floating in an empty black space. Then I deliberately remembered Alice's sultry expression, the way her shirt had fallen from her shoulder, the way she'd bridged the gap between us...

There. Thinking about that experience had teleported me to a new platform that symbolized that particular kind of awkward desire. That was the whole function of this place, to make it easier to relate to the abstract nebulousness of thought. If this platform represented this awkward desire for Alice, and if I remembered correctly, that one way over there beneath the rope ladder—that was my first kiss with Jade, then weren't they both under the 'sex drive' umbrella term?

Shouldn't that mean that they're close together? To shield them, yeah, I probably wanted them close. But how did that work? Hmm...

I was in the middle of rounding up all my feelings and memories when Alice surprised the bejeezus out of me by knocking on my mind. More surprising still was that as she did this, she kissed me.

The reason I got so startled was because it was hard to move my feelings around. First of all, they liked to stay put as the platforms that represented them, so I had to really feel them, really put myself in that place to get them to budge.

I actually jumped away from her lips in the real world, dazed and off-put.

She laughed. "So skittish!"

Then she brought us back to kissing. And I got it, I got why she was doing it. But it felt wrong. These were not the lips I'd been missing. These were just...lips. It was the feeling of really, really wanting two puzzle pieces to fit, but knowing in your heart that they just weren't meant for each other. I didn't stop it, though, because this was useful—this new feeling of "not wanting my first kiss to be like this" became its own platform in my Cathedral, and, as a new one, it was easier for me to rope it in with the others. Alice was giving me a fuller, stronger shield.

And Jade was right next to me, silently working on a shield of her own.

Sailor was chatting as he made his. "You know, I bet there's all kinds of magic in this world. But I think the Art is the coolest one."

"How so?" asked Emmit.

"Dude, what other kind of magic uses making out as a shield?"

"Fair point," said Emmit. "Speaking of which, are you feeling jealous at all, watching this?"

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