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Self-Determination

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Abyssal Nightmare, Time: Unknown

Adam Clarke

My arm was growing tired, but I continued to hold onto the chilly limb with everything I had. I refused to let go, not even for a second.

No. I thought, my eyes glued to those of my deceased mother. I reached over and closed them, so that she at least looked like she was sleeping. That way, I could maybe pretend just a little longer. I'm staying right here. I can't…

The steady beep of the machine beside me continued to grate on me with merciless, relentless purpose, but I forced myself to stay in place.

Even if I were to simply walk a few steps to switch it off, I feared that, if I let go of my mother's hand, she would disappear.

No. I was not letting go, no matter what.

I couldn't abandon her— not again.

"I should have fought to stay with you." I said, knowing she couldn't hear me. "I should have done better. I can't—"

I stopped; the words I wanted to say were so weighty, so heavy that they clogged my throat, choking my breath away.

With monumental effort, I swallowed some of the grief down. "I wanted to make you proud of me. I did my best. Surely you must know that already, right? After everything…"

No answer was forthcoming, but it was all right. I did not deserve answers, anyway. It was a fool's hope to even dare to think otherwise.

I closed my eyes, trying to center myself, but it was to no avail. "I…"

I felt a quick poke to the back of my neck, and opened my eyes again.

None of that! The corrupted creature said. Show her the respect she is owed. How dare you try to run away from her again? Look at her.

I wanted to rage against it for daring to put me into this position, for keeping me away from those who needed my help, but one look at my mother and my will faltered. "Maybe… Yeah. Just a few more minutes. I can't go yet."

There's plenty of time. It whispered to me; its voice was now as smooth as a mother's gentle caress. You don't have to go, just yet. Stay a while. It'll make her happy. You want that, right?

I nodded, finding the proposition to be altogether agreeable, neither aware nor caring of the strange, dream-like quality of my irrational behavior.

This was the truest of nightmares, and yet I could not look away. I could not ignore it, and I refused to wake.

And so it went. I stayed right there, ignoring the pain in my knees and arm, the stiffness of my muscles, as well as the coldness of the hand I was grasping.

Eventually, I began to lose track of time.

~F-gh-ch-eron-r.~

The sound of something came from my right, so I blinked and checked around. There was nothing there. I gave a mental shrug and returned to what I was doing.

~W-a-doi-dam.~

My head swiveled to the right again. What was that noise?

It's nothing. The creature which was latched to me said, and I nodded. Just the wind outside.

~I'll sh-w -ou -t- fu- po-r!~

The noise came back, stronger and far more pronounced, and it was enough to finally break me out of my haze. "What…"

It's nothing. The voice said again. Trust me, it's nothing to worry about. Plus, you have more important things to do, don't you?

My eyes flickered from my mother to the source of the sound. "I… Yeah. Maybe you're right, but… No. I can feel it. Something's wrong."

My surroundings shimmered for a moment before it all came back to normal.

Just ignore it. The creature said, and I felt something constrict around my throat. It's nothing important.

I frowned. Just a few seconds ago, I would have never even considered disobeying the voice, but now everything it said drove a shiver down my spine.

~Gi-e A-am -ack!~ The sound was stronger now, and I recognized the owner of the voice as I took my eyes off of my mother. "Harry?"

There was no answer, and so I kept talking, letting go of my mother's hand without even realizing what I'd done. "Harry? Is that you? Where are you?"

I felt a stabbing pain in the back of my neck, causing me to fall down. Why can't you just listen? You just had to stay still for a little longer.

I cringed and tried to move so that I could get back to my feet, only to find that I couldn't. The creature had wrapped its limbs around mine so thoroughly that, when it squeezed, I couldn't move a single inch. "What… is… this?"

You just couldn't help yourself, could you? The creature continued, wrapping its strange tentacles over my eyes. I suppose we'll have to do this the hard way.

I tried to struggle, but it was to no avail. The creature had me right where it wanted me.

I watched as its main body unlatched from my neck and positioned itself above me. A small orifice at its center began to widen, growing large enough to swallow me whole— not to mention serve as the source of many nightmares to come.

Though it'll be much easier than expected, still. It cackled and began its descent. My struggle turned furious, but I just couldn't do anything to stop it.

Was this to be my ultimate fate, after everything that's happened?

To be consumed by this… leech?

Light flashed in the room, and I heard the creature shriek in pain. I felt its tentacles loosen and did not hesitate, disentangling myself from them as soon as I was able to.

I scrambled away, tripping over a pile of boxes full of medical equipment and landing in a large pile of scrubs.

You… It cried with its stupid, high pitched voice. What did you do? How did you escape?

I wanted to answer, but I found myself at a loss as well.

"He got some help." A familiar voice came from beside me. I slowly got to my feet, feeling a thrill of shock course through my system when I recognized its owner.

"Helena." I greeted, though I kept my eyes on the threat, for the creature before me was too dangerous to lose track of. "You came for me? How?"

"Of course I did." Helena said, moving to stand beside me. "As to how, I'll explain later. What's important is that I'm here now."

I chanced a look upon her and my eyes widened with surprise. Instead of the beautiful, ethereal dress she usually wore, Helena now wore a set of plain, but functional robes of dark blue. Despite this, she looked more radiant than ever.

But, more than that… she looked solid, whole, even alive— and most displeased at the monster before us.

Curse you! The creature spoke, its voice a mix of frightened and furious. You shouldn't be here! I had him.

"Interesting what one can and can't do, when given the right tools and motivation." Helena said.

The creature snarled and lunged at her, but I was ready for it, now. Time for some payback.

"Depulso!" I roared, blasting the creature with every fiber of anger I could muster. The spell connected, sending my foe rocketing away, crashing through the window glass and into the dark abyss beyond.

Curse you! The creature shrieked once again before it shimmered into nothingness.

I stood there, staring at the trail of destruction I had caused in this important place.

"That was unpleasant." Helena said, looking almost disappointed at how quickly it was over.

I turned to Helena, still not over how shocked I was at her sudden arrival. "Helena… You're…"

"There's no time for that, now." She said, taking my hand and tugging me towards the door. "Come. We must go. Your real trial is not yet over."

"No." I said reflexively, tearing my hand away from hers and turning back to my mother. "I… I'm sorry, but I can't."

"Zero—"

"No!" I snapped, before shaking my head. "I'm sorry. Helena, I want to go, but…"

Helena did not say anything, moving to stand by my side to stare down at the bed's occupant. "Is this…?"

"My mother." I said, exhaling and giving the woman a rueful smile. "From my former life, when I went by another name."

"A name you've never shared with me." Helena said.

"I…" I said, looking down. "I wanted to put that life behind me, at least in some way."

"Strange way to go about it." Helena said. "Considering you still use the name Zero."

"That's different." I said. "That name kept me sane. Even when things were at their darkest, even when— when—"

I stopped and closed my eyes for a few moments to collect myself before opening them. "It helped remind me that I couldn't dwell on the past; but it was more than that…"

Helena stared at me, and then turned her gaze to my mother; I knew what she was thinking without the need for her to say anything.

"I know. I clearly haven't stopped dwelling, no matter how many times I've told myself differently." I said, chuckling as I turned to my mother. "I'm a hypocrite. All of these words and vows, and yet I can't apply them to my own life. Naming myself 'Zero Rewind', what a joke!"

"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself." Helena said, placing her hand on my shoulder. "We have all made mistakes. I know this better than most."

I turned my gaze back to Helena, searching her face before swallowing and turning back to my mother. "I… I wasn't there for her when she needed me most. It wasn't right, and what I did after— even less so."

"Still." Helena said. "She was your mother. I'm sure that she would forgive you, if she were here."

I frowned and considered her words, staying in place for a moment as short as a breath and as long as the tenspan of the universe.

"My heart wants me to scream at you— tell you just how wrong you are, just how little you truly understand." I said, taking a deep breath. "But my mind says that you're right. She probably would have forgiven me— for everything. All the mistakes…"

Helena didn't say anything, instead giving my shoulder a few more gentle squeezes.

"She would have forgiven me." I said again, my voice half-choked with emotion. "I just… I didn't want to dismiss her like that. Plenty of people use that as an excuse to do whatever they like; sweeping those who used to be important to them under the rug "

"Moving forward does not mean that you're dismissing her, Zero." Helena said, her voice both gentle and firm. "You are not."

I closed my eyes, hearing Helena's words echoing around in my mind. When I opened them, I approached my mother without a word. I knelt by her side, took the cold, stiff hand that had begun hanging off at an uncomfortable looking angle and held it close.

I stayed that way for a long moment, trying to figure out the right words to say.

"Everything in me— good and bad, sweet and sour, weak and strong— began with you and father." I said. "I've been so lost ever since I found myself here. I thought that, if I focused my pursuits on magic itself… that I could fix everything. That I could have it all. That the deep hole in my heart would finally somehow be filled. But…"

I looked down. "Maybe… Maybe there are some things that need to be let go, so that I can focus my sights forward."

My mother did not answer, but I kept going, raising my head to gaze upon her for the last time. "Whatever that creature was, it was right about one thing. I let the negativity of my past coil around my heart and twist it. That stupid mirror just made things even worse. The heartache that I thought I didn't feel anymore was rubbed in my face, and I did what I always do: run away. But I'm done; no more running."

I lowered her hand and laid it over her chest, before fixing her covers and raising her head slightly to fluff her pillows before standing back up.

"I won't say goodbye." I said. "Goodbye means that you're not here anymore, and that's a lie. I know that you're out there, somewhere, watching over me— I have to believe it. So, I'll see you later."

I closed my eyes for a single instant before leaning over and placing a kiss on her forehead. "I love you."

Turning away from my mother, I took a few steps forward, heading towards the door. Helena wordlessly followed, but then she stopped and turned. "Zero... Look."

I stopped and turned as well. "Helena? What is—"

I froze at the sight. A warm glow appeared around my mother's bed, brightening the entire room with its radiance.

The light suffused into her skin, and within seconds, her emaciated features became full. She looked young again, full of life and vigor.

My mother opened her black eyes, and I gulped, awed by what I was witnessing, but also scared at what she'd say.

I had always thought about what she would say to me, after all of these years, but to see her, here and now…

"M-Mom." I said, joining her side in an instant. "You…"

She smiled and brought her hand up to my face… only to flick my forehead hard enough for it to hurt.

"Ow!" I raised my hand to rub the spot.

"You always did overthink everything, Samir." She said, looking so amused and so damn familiar that I was ready to break down in tears, right then and there. "Try to enjoy your new life this time around, yes?"

"I..." I swallowed and nodded. "I will."

"Good." She said, nodding. "Follow your dreams, son. You almost achieved yours, last time."

I gulped. "You were watching."

"Of course." She looked at me as if I was an idiot. "I watched over all of you. My little band of monkeys."

I smiled, even as she began to fade away.

"Forge your own path, son. And do me a favor; I don't want to see you again until you're at least as old as I am. Do I make myself clear?" She said.

She had already turned translucent by the time I managed to answer.

"Yes, mom." I said and felt her hand's caress for a little longer before it passed through me. "Crystal clear."

"Good." She smiled, her radiance soothing my soul in ways I had not thought possible. "I'll tell everyone you said 'hello'. And that you'll bring your kids over, next time!"

My what?

Before I could even reply, she was gone— and so was the hospital room.

I blinked, finding myself back at the top floor of the lighthouse, standing right where I had been when the creature had attached itself to me.

Outside of the lighthouse, I could feel the strength of the storm of black and purple miasma shaking the air and charging it with power.

"I made it out." I said, shaking my thoughts away and turning my eyes to the source of the corruption. The cracks in the white stone floor had widened so much that I could likely fit my foot in each crevice.

The fluid coming out of them floated up high and began to gather together, slowly taking the form of a large, bulky monster.

"Just in time." Helena's voice came from behind me.

I turned my head to see Helena standing before the crystal at the center. She held it close, keeping it away from the corrupted cracks of the floor. Apprehension seized me for a moment, for the calcified gem looked to be on the verge of shattering into a thousand pieces.

"Finish this." Helena said, gesturing at the creature still forming on my other side. "Only then will this process be reversed. I'll keep the gem safe."

I had so many questions at the tip of my tongue, but I held them back, instead squaring up against the large, eight foot tall golem before me.

The creature rumbled in anger, and I smelled the essence of everything that ever was fetid, rotting, decayed and repulsive.

"Putridity incarnate." I said.

"You had to force my hand, didn't you?" It snarled, its voice still as high pitched as it was before. "All you needed to do was give up, like the other fool did when his time came. If you'd just let me kill you before, this would've been so much better for you."

I didn't dignify that with a response, drawing my wand and attacking within an instant. Diffindo!

The Severing Charm flew true, but ended up bouncing off of its chest and flying off into the dark storm beyond, making my eyes widen.

"That won't do you any good!" It crowed, bringing its massive arm down. I dove forward, feeling a massive woosh of air, as well as the ground shaking when its thick fist crashed into the stone floor, causing another crack to appear.

"You can't destroy me." The creature said as it swept its arm to the side, hoping to smash me into a fine paste, but I continued to scramble forward, swiping my wand behind me, straight at its spinning limb.

"Depulso!" I cried. The Banishing Charm struck its limb and doubled the creature's circular momentum, forcing it to spin like a top for a few seconds.

I got back to my feet and held my wand aloft for a moment as I focused my desire, will and energy together. "Stronger… Stronger, damn it! Odgovor!"

A spear-tipped chain as thick as an elephant's foot burst out of my wand, racing to the spinning creature. The spear impacted the monster's shoulder joint, tearing its arm off and sending it flying outside of the bounds of the lighthouse, out into the miasma.

The golem shrieked in annoyance as it regained its bearing and barrelled towards me, looking to smash me into paste before I could react to it. "You can't do anything!"

"I almost killed you, how about—" I said and stopped, eyes narrowing as I saw what had happened. Already, it was regenerating, having grown half of its arm back.

With a swift motion, I conjured another chain to form the buckler. I grasped the shield with my right hand before I swept my wand to the right; the moving spear-tipped chain did a one-eighty and rocketed towards my enemy, stabbing right through its back and coming out of the other side, before getting stuck in its stomach.

"Not good enough!" It cried out, continuing its rush towards me.

I jumped to the side, feeling its fist clip my right side. I winced, feeling the skin being ripped off of my midsection, as well as the shuddering of my ribs.

But it wasn't done, I realized as I was forced to move forward, again and again to stay out of its grasp.

I zigzagged past several of the columns supporting the lighthouse in some attempt to slow it down, only to realize that it had gone and crashed through them like they were made of paper mache.

"Did you not hear me, fool?!" The monster roared with glee as it forced me to the edge of the lighthouse. "You can't harm me! I am part of this lighthouse, and I'm part of you, whether you like it or not! So long as I remain here, I am invincible!"

I gulped, seeing the ledge of the lighthouse looming up ahead.

Soon, the creature would knock me out of this place, sending me down into the poisonous miasma of this realm and ending my life, once and for all.

I couldn't hurt it, I couldn't fight it head on. Was it right about the both of us being the same?

Every attack I launched did nothing to it.

All I could do was—

Wait. I thought, going over what it had said.

An idea blossomed to life in my mind and I stopped running, turning to face my enemy. With a wave of my wand, I made all of my chains disappear, except for the buckler on my hand.

"Zero!?" Helena shouted. "No! Don't fight him head on! That's suicide!"

"No more running, Helena." I said, smiling for a moment before my face turned serious. "I promised."

"Another pointless tactic, is it? Or, have you finally accepted your fate?" The creature cackled mid-charge as it cocked an arm back to smash the life out of me. "Good. Die!"

I would only have one shot at this, so I had to make it count. "Odgovor!"

Another chain burst forth from my wand, missing the giant by a hair's breadth and embedding itself in the ceiling above it.

"Too bad, you missed!" The monster cackled and smashed its fist against my body. "Shield or not, you won't survive this!"

I managed to move far enough to the side so that most of the damage was deflected by the shield, but the sheer strength of the monster was too much. I cried out, feeling my arm be crushed as I was sent flying backwards, out into the abyss. "So long, off-key clock!"

My face twisted into an expression of deep concentration at its proclamation. Ignoring the pain, I tugged at my chain, forcing it to pull me forward and into a swift, swinging trajectory.

Before the creature could even react to the sudden move, I had already swung behind it, letting loose all of my raging emotions in one furious torrent of power. "Depulso… Maxima!"

The air shimmered for a single moment before it pulsated around the monster, blasting it out of the bounds of the lighthouse and into the deadly miasma beyond.

"I may not be able to hurt you." I said, smiling a little as I lowered my arm and sank to my knees in tiredness. "But the storm outside can."

It cried in pain as part of it flew through the very edge of one of the many auroras circling it, getting its leg shorn off within an instant.

"You think you've won?" It cried even as it fell down into the abyss of black and purple, being devoured by the auroras right before my eyes. "This battle may be yours, but the war between us has only beg—"

Its voice disappeared, replaced by the eerie howl of the dark winds outside.

I stared down at where it was last and shook my head. "Of course. The end is only the beginning, after all."

A flash came from behind me, and I turned just in time to see the large gemstone stirring itself awake while in Helena's arms.

My eyes widened further as I saw the cracked and destroyed floors, columns and ceilings of the room slowly begin repairing themselves.

The filth was washed away, the bits of cracked stone returned from whence they came, the columns returned to their places in pristine condition, and the orange glow seemed to heal right before my eyes, turning into a calming blue, once again.

The lines in the ground pulsated as they streamed towards the center of the room, injecting themselves into the air around the precious gem. It tugged at Helena's hand, and the woman let go of it, stepping back to join my be my side.

I did not say anything to her, doing my best to ignore the agony running through my body, instead watching as the gem rose further and further until it reached the very center of the room. It stirred once, twice, and then—

The flash of light that came was so strong that I was forced to look away. A wave of energy erupted from the now-blue crystal, washing over me and making me feel more refreshed than I had ever felt in my life— even when I had first encountered Alef Ard.

My arm…! I raised my left arm, which now looked completely fine. Perfectly healed.

I followed the path of the wave, watching as it banished the swirling auroras to the far reaches of the dark realm, and marveling as it seemed to spread over the entire floating island, restoring it to the vibrant paradise it had once been.

"A haven, restored." I heard Alzalam's voice both from the floating gem and in my mind, and for the first time, I welcomed the being with open arms. "Thank you, Zero."

"You helped." I responded, taking a deep breath as I closed my eyes. "So thank you, as well. I'm glad you made it, Sam— Alzalam."

"Almost didn't. If the tower hadn't helped me out, well…"He said, trailing off for a moment before resuming. "I saw— what happened. The tower shared your sight with me."

He didn't say anything else, but I understood, just the same."A new beginning, huh?"

"Yes. You've certainly earned one."Alzalam said.

"You? You're talking as if you're not coming with me." I said and stopped. "...Oh."

"It's a strange feeling to see someone as perceptive as I am." Alzalam replied. "But a nice one. Yes, you're right; I will be staying in this world. I think I had a good enough run."

I swallowed, not having expected this. Not twenty-four hours ago, I would have cursed the sly voice to the deepest pits of Hell, but now… I felt sadness at the thought of letting him go.

"Come, now. Don't be sad." Alzalam said. "This is what I want. I've had my shot at life, and though it didn't go as well as I would have liked it to, it was still good. Now, it's time for you to live yours— free of my interference."

"You…" I said, eyes widening. "Have you been watching over me?"

"From the moment we reincarnated."

"Wow." I said. "How did I not notice…?"

"We were nearly indistinguishable in the beginning, and I was very subtle; a few suggestions, here and there..." He explained. "Hunches and gut feelings that you really couldn't explain. Like with Shifty Left-eye. Remember him?"

"Shifty Left-eye." I swallowed. "That was you?"

"Well, you were pretty suspicious to begin with. I just helped it along."

"Who is that?" Helena spoke, cutting in.

"Shifty… He's—" I said, shaking my head. "It's a long story. Let's just say some workers should be thoroughly checked for certain… proclivities, before they're hired to work with children in orphanages..."

"At least he was found out before anything really bad happened." Alzalam added, before the pure blue crystal began to pulsate with impatience. "You need to leave, I think. Potter is fighting Voldemort as we speak, but the child stands no chance, the way he is."

"Wait… Harry?" I said. "That makes no sense. I told him to get himself, his friends and the Professor to the Hospital Wing!"

"And you actually think he listened to you?"

I shook my head, sighing. "Right."

"Voldemort… Shouldn't this trial have driven him out of my body, already?"

But the crystal flashed red for a moment. "No. This… battle for your soul was something which has been a long-time coming, because of the way you were… reincarnated."

"I see. So all of this was just the entrée— the under-card." I said. "And—"

"And Voldemort is the main event." Alzalam finished for me. "You've made a great victory, but I'm afraid there's little time to celebrate. You have to go, now."

"Right." I said, turning to address Helena. "And I suppose you know the way out?"

Helena smiled and nodded towards my left. "Oh, you happen to know her quite well, yourself."

I checked my left, only to see nothing but white stone and the same black and purple backdrop of this realm. "I don't—"

And then I stopped, noticing a spec of lustrous silver moving towards us at breakneck speeds. "This is…!"

"I found her just outside of the Astronomy Tower." Helena said, smiling. "She has been trying to reach you, this whole time. Alef and I helped her along."

I swallowed as the creature finally came close enough for me to recognize. She landed beside me, staring at me with her milky white eyes.

"Absol." I said. "You came for me, too! But… How?"

This was becoming more confusing by the second. How was she here?

~No time for hows. Come, friend.~ Absol said, nudging me to mount her with her leathery wings. ~Back to Lifeland.~

"Lifeland." I repeated the word, smiling at how it was both accurate and childlike. "Yes, Absol. Let's go back to Lifeland. Come on, Helena."

We both mounted the steed's back, and within seconds, she leapt out of the tower, soaring far above the lighthouse, going deeper into the abyss.

And yet, I felt safe, like I was wearing a cozy blanket.

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Master link to my website, my Discord server, and the place where one patronizes:

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