The Little Guardian shifted in place, readjusting his coiled grasp. It was strange how little awareness she had of that compared to everything else. Even after a few days to get used to the change, Elara still found herself astounded by the sheer breadth of what she could sense - except that it was almost all inward, a sense of the things that formed herself. It wasn’t as if she actually had a hard time noticing the Little Guardian shift about on her shoulder, but it just felt so...small, by comparison.
Just one more sensation added to an already-uncountable number.
She flexed the muscles that would send her opposite arm towards where the tiny snake was laying, marveling at the sheer control that the movement held. Elara had never been clumsy, but she had never been graceful either.
She was now. It came easily when she could specifically adjust each and every part of her body that came together to create movement.
Her fingers scratched at the Little Guardian’s head; she let herself smile when the tiny thing almost burrowed into it, pressing his scales harder against the touch.
A few moments. She turned and the smile dropped. An expanse of green swirled in her vision.
“Are you sure that you’re okay with this?” Doran asked. “Valera won’t be happy about me taking you out here if you’re not.”
She wasn’t. She really wasn’t. Even just looking at the swirling mists hurt in a way that she didn’t like. The memories it brought wasn’t a pain that she could turn off. Not like the rest.
Still, Elara wanted to be okay - and proving her guess correct would go a long way towards being that.
Elara inhaled, focusing on the way that the breath expanded her lungs, the way that it filled her blood and spread through her veins. She followed its journey, distracting herself. Calming herself.
She could have done it an easier way; she could have clamped down on her body’s reaction, stopping the stress before it even had time to take root.
She didn’t. The others had asked her not to unless it was absolutely necessary. They got unnerved when she adjusted her emotions that way.
“I’ll be fine - just needed a second.”
She took a few steps to the side, walking towards the nearest house. It was in better condition than many others she had seen, having somehow avoided most of the damage that a shifting mass of gargantuan roots could cause. Just lucky, she supposed.
The single sign of damage - a chunk of the siding that had been scraped away - was left leaning against the house’s wall at an angle. Elara kneeled down, reaching across her body and placing the tiny snake that had accompanied her within the gap.
He gave her a cute little hiss, and she hissed back.
Then, after another moment to gather herself, she stood back up and walked to the edge of the mist again.
“I could have held on to it,” Doran grunted from behind her.
“He likes enclosed spaces, I think,” Elara replied. She didn’t tell the burly Seeker that the Little Guardian also didn’t seem to like Doran all that much compared to the other Seekers; it probably had to do with the way he always called the tiny snake ‘it’.
Elara had given up on arguing with the man about that, but she still thought the way he spoke was extremely disrespectful. The Little Guardian had done a lot for them; without the tiny snake’s healing, or his Totems, or his Statue, she would still be…
Muscles twitched and Elara walked, feet dragging against the -
She pulled at her strings. Her breath, coming in ragged gasps, calmed. Her heart slowed. She breathed.
Elara shook it off, ignoring the look that Doran was giving her. She was okay. Better. She’d told them that - and if she told herself that enough times, maybe she’d start to believe it too.
Her hands found their way to the [Little Guardian’s Totem] around her neck, lifting it out from underneath her - sadly mana-barren, as Orken’s Seekers didn’t exactly carry extras - armor and placing it overtop. She fiddled with the carving for a moment, appreciating the little glow and sense of calm that it gave off.
It wasn’t much, and wasn’t nearly enough to break her free when the memories came calling, but it was something to cling to. Another reason to give thanks to the Little Guardian. Her lips quirked upwards at that. She had a debt to pay off, it seemed. It was a good thing the tiny snake wouldn’t be expecting her to pay it off in coin. She didn’t have any anymore.
Her hand dropped the carving and the little bit of calm it gave dropped with it.
She doubted. Worried. Feared - but only for a moment before she found the strings she needed to pull. Unnerving or not, Elara didn’t have room to feel for the next part. She would need a clear head.
She took one step forward, letting the swirling green overtake her.
Clusters of spores poured down her throat and raced for her lungs. Elara kept a tight rein on her body’s response, fighting against the urge to panic, and closed her eyes. The spores began to anchor themselves wherever they could; her mouth, her throat, her lungs. The numbers contained even in that single breath were staggering - that was part of why the mist was so dangerous.
There were just so many.
The thought would have made her panic again, if she actually could. Instead, she just watched - for lack of a better word - as the spores took root and grew. Little tendrils pushed their way through her flesh in a great and tangled mass, the spores crowding so close together that they became nearly a single massive growth; with her extremely precise body-sense, it was both clear and unnerving enough that she almost gave up on her hopeful idea.
Finally, she sensed what she was waiting for. The growths in her lungs tried to pump, forcing her to take another spore-filled breath.
They failed, unable to defeat Elara’s newfound control of her body.
Unable to pull her strings.
She - not the spores, but she - took another breath. And another. And another.
The spores infested her body, seemingly growing more quickly with each and every breath. Elara could sense the way that they stretched out, reaching for the few remaining portions of her body that remained uninfected. Clean.
Still, she breathed. She wanted to know for sure - that was part of why she had taken Doran and the Little Guardian along with her. Just in case the worst happened. Just in case she was wrong about this. If she was, she would need healing. Badly.
She was breathing faster now, hyperventilating in the same way that the spores would have wanted her to do. The way that she remembered them doing the first time.
Elara’s lungs worked desperately. She tried to hold them back; the air was thick with a green mist, filled with tiny spores that she didn’t want to think about - and wanted to breathe in even less.
She was lost. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t stop breathing. She couldn’t stop breathing. Why couldn’t she stop breathing?
She tried to stop breathing.
Her lungs didn’t listen to her - they were too busy listening to something else.
And then her body was covered in veins of green and black, and it was listening to something else too.
Elara stepped back out of the mist.
Doran darted forward, pulling her away and pinning her down. She let him, not that she could have done much; the man was ridiculously strong, his muscles enhanced past their natural limits by the mana that allowed him to call himself a Seeker. He was also very heavy.
Her face pressed against the ground, held down by a meaty hand at the back of her head while another pulled her arms back uncomfortably.
“Well?” he asked. “Were you right? Is that still you in there, Elara?”
She mumbled into the ground. He loosened his grip slightly, and she tried again.
“It worked,” she breathed, still dazed by the discovery. “Now let me up.”
He did, helping her stand back up. It didn’t come quite as effortlessly as before; part of Elara’s attention was focused on pulling at her own strings, countering the efforts of the spores to control her body. Even so, it didn’t take all of her effort. Just some of it.
“Good,” he grunted. “Any problems?”
She smiled, placing the [Little Guardian’s Totem] back against her skin again. Its warmth suffused her muscles, an amazing sensation when Elara could feel each and every one so clearly - and an even more amazing sensation when she could feel the spores that had grown throughout her body begin to slowly die.
New spores would grow again when she stepped back into the mist, but she knew that it didn’t matter anymore.
They couldn’t pull her strings. She would never be a puppet again. Valera had been right, even if a tiny part of her still hadn’t quite believed it.
She was a person, and she always would be.
A few tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She didn't bother to stop them.
“No,” she answered. “No problems at all.”