“What does it mean to control someone’s mind?” I asked.
“It means you make them do something they don’t want to do,” answered Noel.
“But what if I control you by making you think you want to do what I want you to do,” I said.
“Then you’ve made me believe something I didn’t want to believe, which is the same thing,” she said.
“How do you know you didn’t want to do it before? If I showed you a doubleberry and made you want to eat it, how do you know if you would have wanted to eat it without my mind control,” I said.
“I… don’t,” answered Noel, “but the fact you made that choice for me before I could even think about it means you did something I didn’t want to do. Not wanting to do something doesn’t mean I have to hate doing it, it could also mean I hadn’t thought about doing it or would have done it later.”
“Good point,” I said, “so let’s just say one way to control my mind is for The Terrible to make me want to do something I wouldn’t otherwise do. For example, by making me want to attack you. There’s a whole bunch of ways it could do that. It could amplify any existing things I don’t like about you, and make them worse.”
“Wait, what do you not like about me?” asked Noel.
“The way you keep insisting you’re older than me,” I said, “I mean, you are, but like, you had no way of knowing it when we first met.”
“You sounded younger,” she said. What was that supposed to mean?
“Whatever, back to my explanation, one thing The Terrible could do is manipulate my emotions, and make a small dislike into a large pile of hate,” I said.
“Right, and if it can do that, it could probably work on your own flaws and make them stronger too,” said Noel.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know, stuff like distrust and paranoia,” said Noel. “You’re not exactly the most trusting elf I’ve ever met.”
I frowned. I was a little cautious, sure. Careful, maybe. But paranoid? Just because I didn’t trust her enough to tell her about being from another world even though she couldn’t have used that against me at all, didn’t mean I was paranoid. Why would I trust Noel? We’d known each other for like a month. It wasn’t like we’d been through a bunch of life and death situations that made us grow closer as friends. “Alright, fine,” I said. “I’ll admit that I’m less naive than you.”
“Whatever you say. We’ve established The Terrible can control your mind by exploiting your emotions towards other people or some aspect of your personality,” said Noel.
“Right, but there’s another thing it could do,” I said. “The mind isn’t necessarily the brain, which the people back on my Earth figured out is the organ that sends signals to the rest of the body. The mind is the part of consciousness that controls things that we consider part of sentience. That’s things like emotion, feeling, and of course, reason. Different people have different opinions on it, and on what exactly ‘I’ or ‘we’ are, but we don’t need to get into that. I think The Terrible might try to take control of my body to make me attack you.”
“That sounds terrifying!” said Noel.
“Yeah, I could be punching you in the face and laughing out loud while screaming on the inside,” I said.
“And since you wouldn’t be able to move your own mouth, I wouldn’t know that you were being controlled. But can the mind and body really be disconnected like that?” she said.
“I think so. I mean, your heart beats even though you don’t tell it to. And if The Terrible can control my body, it could make my heart stop without me being able to do anything about it,” I said.
“Okay,” said Noel. “So, we think The Terrible is going to control you to make you attack me. The way it could do so, is by controlling your mind, which means controlling your feelings or personality, or by controlling your body, which means you would still have control of your mind.”
“Yeah,” said Noel, “I guess it could control both the mind and the body. Wouldn’t that be redundant?”
“Not if The Terrible is working with the God of Evil who can, apparently, see the future,” I said.
“But then why are we even talking about it. If the God of Evil knows the future, nothing we do will stop what’s going to happen,” said Noel.
“We know his ability isn’t perfect,” I said. “Or else we would have been in this cave on the first night I came to this world.”
“We don’t know why that happened, though. The moon was out that night, so the God of Madness might have been involved. And I’d been going to the large tree where we met the God of Madness’ lover. Either of them could have been involved,” she said.
“You heard the Oracle, the God of Evil would have known if his enemies were involved. According to the story elder Starry told us, both the God of Madness and the God of Madness’ lover are the God of Evil’s enemies. No, I’m pretty sure I escaped my fate myself. And I think we can escape this situation the same way. We just need to come up with a type of magic that helps me fight off The Terrible.” I massaged my forehead. All this thinking and talking in the dimly lit cave was making my head hurt. “Seeing those shadows on the wall gave me an idea. And I think this headache is giving me another one. Hey Noel.”
“There aren’t any sticks in this cave.” I stood my torch up in a hole in the ground. “We’re going to have draw in the dirt with our fingers.”
Noel frowned. “Why are we always drawing things in the dirt.”
I shrugged. “Wait a few hundred years. I might get around to inventing blackboards. Now quit complaining and find a good patch of dirt. We don’t have a lot of time. These torches aren’t gonna last forever.”
The cave was dark and our torches were on their last legs. The air was dry and the rocks cracked, and sandy. Despite being a cave in the middle of a forest, this place was more desolate than a desert. At least there was only one path. Noel said most elves walked along the walls until they reached The Terrible. How did they know they when they had reached The Terrible?
“You hear it breathing,” said Noel as she stepped cautiously forward.
“Has anyone ever seen The Terrible?” I asked.
Noel shook her head. “When you hear breathing, you’re supposed to drop to the floor and hold your offering stick up. If you stay up, you might get caught in the flame.”
“Is that what it means to get cursed instead of blessed?” I asked, remembering how scared Noel had been of being cursed instead of blessed by The Terrible.
“No, the curse of The Terrible is supposed to be much more powerful. Of course, nobody has lived to tell the tale, so we don’t know what it actually is,” said Noel.
“Then how do you know it doesn’t just burn people?” I asked.
“We…” Noel stuttered. “We don’t know.”
I nodded. We continued talking about The Terrible as we went deeper and deeper into the cave. We spent some time coming up with some magic to help us fight The Terrible, but honestly, we had no idea if it would be enough.
“Do you hear that?” Noel whispered.
I held my breath. The torches flickered in a cold draft. Deep, rattling breaths. Like lungs made of metal, air whistling past steel. The breathing was rhythmic and monotonous. Shadows danced on the wall, seemingly in tune with the breathing. I narrowed my eyes and stared. I couldn’t see anything beyond the little bubble of light around us.
I raised my torch. Something moved. My eyes made out a large, dark figure, towering over us. It was taller than the ceiling over my head, so I assumed it was inside a cavern. I stepped forward and the very edges of its silhouette were filled in by the orange hue of the fire. Sharp contours, like something two-dimensional had made its way into our world. Its chin and face were a smooth oval, its body a slab, its limbs and wings like links on piece of chain-mail armor. The figure leaned closer and I realized I was already holding my breath.
A statue carved out of gems, stamped into the darkness like a header on an envelope. A body made of gems, ruby as red as blood, it seemed to me in the dim light. It was unnatural. An abomination. Its breathing was accompanied with the creaking of its joints and the hum of its body striking against the rocky cavern as it lumbered towards the little tunnel that Noel and I were in. But none of that was what had made my heart jump into my mouth, making it hard to breathe, hard to focus, hard to believe what was staring right at me.
On the face of this gleaming, bejeweled monster, stood five angry red stars like the one I’d seen on the one starred monster that almost killed Noel and me. Each of those five stars reflected the torchlight brighter than anything else in the cavern. In fact, they were the first things I’d seen when I’d made the stupid, stupid decision to step forward.
The reason I said stupid twice, was because when I stepped forward, saw this menacing behemoth that went way over what I should be encountering this early in any normal reincarnation story, and tried to correct my mistake by retreating as quickly as I could, the ground beneath me crumbled.
I fell into the cavern.