Chapter 139: A Well-Adjusted Puppet
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The Grateful One rose, pulling herself to her feet - but something about that thought seemed wrong. It didn’t fit. What should it be called when a body moves so naturally, so perfectly, that it becomes unnatural again?

I wasn’t the only one to notice the change; I caught a flash of [surprise] when I raked my fangs across the-female-who-was-not-Needle’s [Little Guardian’s Totem]. The Grateful One, by comparison, gave off [WONDER], [EXCITEMENT], [GLEE], and a host of other things. She stared down at her own flesh with widened eyes, yet almost seemed to stare past it - as if the things that she was looking at were different from what I was seeing.

A quiet hiss slipped free just as The Grateful One started to giggle in a great, lilting wave. It went on for a long time, not stopping even when I was sure that it should have, though I couldn’t point out exactly why. It started to sound strange. Manic.

“Elara?” the-female-who-was-not-Needle said, the sound lilting up in a questioning tone. [concern] and [relief] warred with one another in her mind, each trying to swallow the other whole.

The giggling stopped just as suddenly as it had started, cut off with an immediacy that was almost unnerving in just how unnatural it seemed. The once-corrupted looked up, baring her teeth. There was a light in her eyes that surpassed even what had been there before; the whirling emotions that I found in her [Little Guardian’s Totem] felt as if they would send me spinning alongside them.

“Yes?”

“You need to focus. Breathe. Try to calm down and talk to me. I need to make sure that you’re okay. What’s going on?” the-female-who-was-not-Needle asked, her brow furrowed and her lips slightly downturned. The Grateful One nodded rapidly, yet somehow gracefully at the same time. Her teeth were still bared wide.

Meanwhile, I was still swimming in the swirling emotions of The Grateful One’s [Little Guardian’s Totem], batted this way and that by their evershifting nature - until I wasn’t, and it all disappeared. The Grateful One’s expression flattened in an instant.

“Okay, it’s calm. Focused,” she said, the sound monotone and flat. “I apologize; it took me a moment to find the right strings to pull.”

Not-Needle frowned, [concern] swallowing [relief] entirely. “It’s? The right...strings?”

The Grateful One nodded, the noises she made just as flat as before. “To get the body’s emotions to stop. There were a lot of them.”

“What do you mean by ‘the body’, Elara?” not-Needle questioned. There was a creeping [worry] in the noises that the-female-who-was-not-Needle was making, though I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t see any injuries on The Grateful One’s body anymore; if anything, she was healthier than she’d ever been.

The Grateful One motioned down towards herself with a smooth and sweeping gesture. “The body. The puppet. I adjusted it. Fixed it. It’s calm now. We can talk.”

It was hard to understand what was going on, now that The Grateful One’s emotions had disappeared. Before, they had been a dizzying maelstrom, but one with some meaning behind it. Now, there was nothing; I dug more deeply into my connection to not-Needle, searching for what understanding I could find.

She was [worried], but it was a [worry] that was edging towards [horror] - yet even so, I still couldn’t find what was wrong. I slithered towards the-female-who-was-not-Needle, winding my way up her body and finding a closer perch. For once, there were no scratches of greeting, no noises of adoration. She hardly even noticed, too focused on the once-corrupted in front of her to pay me any mind.

“Sweetie...you’re not a puppet.”

The words were firm, yet quiet. The Grateful One cocked her head to the side. “Yes, I know that,” she said. Like before, the words were flat; almost lifeless. “I can’t be a puppet; I’m the one pulling the strings now. I’m the one that tells it what to do - if it walks, or talks, or feels, or even if its heart stops. I can sense every part of it. I can shut it down or make it work. It’s...better than before, when I was the puppet.”

With every new sound that once-corrupted made, the-female-who-was-not-Needle pushed a little further into [horror]. It was joined by an overwhelming [sadness].

“...enhancement...extreme body control, then?” I heard her mutter before she spoke louder. “But I don’t understand. Why would you call yourself a puppet, Elara?”

For a moment, I thought that I sensed something from The Grateful One. It quickly passed, and she became like a void once again. The once-corrupted’s head somehow cocked even further. That seemed to bother not-Needle.

“Because I was. Every time the strings tugged, I followed - even when I didn’t want to. That’s when I realized that my body was just a puppet pulled by strings. It had to have been. Otherwise, I did all of those things. Hurt all of those people. Made them puppets. Tried to hurt you, too. You were strong, though - not a puppet at all. Not like me.”

“Elara, that’s…” not-Needle hissed softly, clearly distressed. “Is that why you did this, why you tried so hard to swallow that mana core? To be a Seeker? To be stronger?”

“Of course. And it worked. I’m strong now. Like you.”

“Elara, you were always like me,” not-Needle said, a glisten in her eyes and [sympathy] flooding her [Little Guardian’s Totem]. “I was infected for a little bit, too - I could have done the same things that you did. Worse, even. The only difference was that I happened to be saved from that a little more quickly. Like we eventually saved you. Does that make me a puppet in your eyes? Or am I still me?”

There was a pause, a stillness that rested in the air after not-Needle’s words. The once-corrupted’s jaw worked open. It closed. And yet, while there was a stillness in the air, there was anything but a stillness within her. Again and again, ghosts of emotion tried to break free from whatever was holding them down, clawing their way to the surface only to be buried once more.

Not-Needle stepped forward, wrapping her arms around the other Coreless. One hand reached up to run its fingers through the once-corrupted’s hair, softly untangling the matted mess that it had become in her earlier struggles. It slowly flowed up and down, and I noticed The Grateful One’s eyes begin to lid shut.

“You’re not a puppet. You’re a person, Elara - no matter what you did and, more importantly, no matter what was done to you. Never forget that. Don’t force yourself to become a puppet just to feel in control again. You’re safe here.”

Her hands moved again, holding fast to the once-corrupted’s cheeks and forcing their eyes to meet. Not-Needle’s were wet; her counterpart’s were dry.

“Let yourself feel that.”

The void vanished just as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by a tumultuous maelstrom of emotion that threatened to drown me. Its waters welled up in the once-corrupted’s eyes and slipped down her cheeks. She shook and shuddered.

Not-Needle pulled her in tighter, stroking her hair again.

Like the manic giggling of before, it lasted for a long while - though unlike before, the Great Core’s disciple didn’t seem [concerned]. She hummed softly under her breath, the noise vibrating its way across my scale-flesh until I bridged the distance to the emotional once-corrupted with a careful stretch. I flicked a tongue at her face, and she bared her teeth in return, letting out a surprised laugh.

When it finally seemed like the once-corrupted had calmed down - and she really had, I knew - not-Needle spoke again. “You almost died, you know. You would have died, if the Little Guardian hadn’t been here to save you.”

“I know,” came the reply.

“Are you going to do something like that again?” the-female-who-was-not-Needle asked. “You made the little guy worried, I think.”

“No,” the once-corrupted answered. “I won’t. I’m sorry.”

“Good.”

They were quiet for a little while longer, not-Needle softly humming. Eventually, the once-corrupted spoke again.

“Can I...can I still learn to be a Seeker? Even though I stole from you guys?”

The-female-who-was-not-Needle made a face.

“Trust me, I’m angrier with Erik than I am with you - though you’re not entirely off the hook either. He should have known not to leave something like that where so many traumatized people could potentially see it. Terror breeds temptation and all that.”

She pulled away, taking a few steps back before speaking again. “Now, why don’t you show me what you can do, Miss Future Seeker?”

The Grateful One bared her teeth, feeling like her namesake again.

She rushed forward.

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