He fought. Dammit, did he fight, but he was churning through those future boxes too frigging fast. He didn’t know if it was the fact the King was close by, but their effects weren’t lasting.
Make no mistake, he needed the future boxes to sharpen his telekinetic power, even in phase space. They gave him an advantage while reducing the power of the phase monsters at the same time. But as soon as they ran out, the inexhaustible phase monsters would cripple him. Then they’d go on to take down Sally.
Right now eight phase monsters came at him from all sides. As they shot in and sliced him across the back of the ankles, another grabbed him by the head. He was pushed down, and he momentarily couldn’t find the strength to fight back. As horror split through his mind, he heard and saw something rise. Caxus. He was still in there. Regardless of what Joseph had achieved, he hadn’t managed to pull the infection out yet.
But just before Caxus could take over Joseph’s mind, he thrust him back. Joseph also thrust up and threw the phase monsters off him. As sweat beaded down his brow, he sliced out in all directions, finally smashing them apart.
But Caxus was still there, his poisonous whispers growing louder.
“You don’t have enough power, Omega guard. You need another mind. I’ll give you mine.”
“Like hell you will. As soon as I give you more control, you will take my body over.”
“All you care about is destroying the King. You can’t do that alone. I offer myself up.”
“I’ll do it on my own.”
“There is a reason Gan sought me out.”
Joseph wouldn’t even interact with Caxus anymore. He twisted to the side, ported, and went to slash toward eight more phase monsters. But that’s when he felt his power reducing. He had to use another future box. He ported into the real world, grabbed one, and opened it. All just in time. By the time he arrived back on the first level of phase space, there were now 16 phase monsters. He’d never fought off this many.
A deep shudder ran down his stomach, across his legs, and up his back.
“See, Omega guard, you don’t have the mental force to be able to fight this many phase monsters. You need my power.”
“I don’t need your power. It’s a poisoned chalice.”
“So you will let her die? Trust me, she’s dying. I can feel her grip on the Queen slipping.”
“I don’t need you.”
“I understand the integration of mind and matter better than anyone else. I told you, Gan sought me out. And so too did the Queen. They understood that only with me could they rise.”
Joseph didn’t care. He wanted to silence Caxus forever. But he neither had the means nor the time to do that. Those 16 phase monsters piled on top of him. He could feel their greedy psyches straining to rip him apart. They were doing real damage. Every single time he was touched, his power reduced.
He might not be bleeding from obvious open wounds. But that would be better. He knew how to deal with physical injuries. A blast of subspace energy here or there, and he could seal off any wound until it had time to heal. This was deep damage to the soul.
“You have something these phase monsters do not have. You possess a body. That is all you require. If only you understood it, you would be able to defeat them easily.” Caxus laughed.
“One doesn’t really need a body in phase space,” Joseph shot back.
“Then you do not know the importance of a body, and you have failed to understand.”
“And you do, do you? You’re nothing more than a psychic infection. You don’t have a body, and God knows the last time you had one.”
“I gave it up when the Queen infected me.”
“Why? Because you saw her as a better host? Just get out of my head once and for all.”
“The Queen was ultimately a fool. She never stopped to realize that you must be limited in order to be effective.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“The Hendari are all ultimately fools. They believed too much in the phase realms. They didn’t stop to recognize the significance of the monsters that fill it – the very same monsters you currently fight. They are what happens to minds that are thrust into the phase realm without a plan and without a body. Bodies are anchors. They are necessary restraints. And bodies focus. It is through bodies that you must ultimately win.”
“I’m not gonna let you control me. Not even for a second.”
“But you want to save her. I can feel it. Every single time you wield your sword, Joseph Lance, while you tell yourself it’s for the Coalition, it’s for her. You desperately strive to make up for mistakes past, for moments lost. The only way to do that is to accept my hand. I understand bodies,” he hissed his creepy refrain once more. “And I know how to control yours to destroy every single one of these phase monsters and then to assist the Queen.”
For a single second, Joseph almost did it. There was so much certainty in Caxus’s voice. If he’d been thinking clearly, he would’ve realized how stupid it was, yet Caxus surely felt like he believed this.
He’d pierced through some veil of mystery, and he’d recognized the importance of the physical to the mind.
Joseph needed something, anything right now. As he opened yet another box, he could feel the future slipping from him. Though he didn’t want to be distracted, every single time he tuned in to Sally, he realized she was getting weaker.
“Only I can save her. Only I understand.”
“Why is it that only you understand? What’s so special about you, Caxus?”
“Because I lost so much,” he snarled. “My wife, my people, my hope. The Hendari forced me to sacrifice everything for their impossible, stupid dream. A dream that was never possible in the beginning. Enduring all of that, I gathered up my fear, and I used it to break down my ego until I understood.”
Joseph didn’t even chuck his head back and laugh at the possibility somebody as arrogant as Caxus actually thought he’d broken his ego down. It was the size of an entire planet.
But Joseph, he started… to listen.
Body and mind? Why would they be so important? Yeah, he’d already been dancing around at the edges of some form of conclusion. But now it shot into the center of his head. Just, incidentally, as one of those phase monsters sliced toward him, a burning blast of psychic energy slicing over Joseph’s arm. Again he was injured, but again there was no physical manifestation of it. No cut, no blood, nothing to show the outside world he was falling yet again. But he certainly felt himself degrading. Why? What exactly was happening to him if his physical body was showing no evidence of his ailing condition?
Joseph reminded himself of the numerous things he’d heard Caxus say. When they’d first been on Faxon A, Caxus had talked about the balance.
Could this be it? Was it not the balance between the physical realm and the phase realm – but that between the body and its mind?
“Let me in, Joseph. Let me in right now. I’m the only way to win.”
“The only way I will win is to rip you out for good. You might have sacrificed, Caxus. You might’ve fought as hard as you possibly could. But you did it in the wrong way. You did it for the wrong reasons. And you ultimately did it for the wrong person. Every action you ever took was for yourself. Do you want to know what the most important balance is? It’s not even between mind and matter. It’s between you and other people. The mind is there to help you connect. The day you forget that is the day the balance starts to break. Do you know what I have to do to finally eject you from my psyche? Use the one force against you you have lost.”
With that, Joseph connected. He shoved his hand out.
There were phase monsters surging all around him. They sensed his weakness, and they were coming in for the kill. But Joseph turned that weakness around.
As he came to a realization far more fundamental than Caxus’s and one that finally took Joseph out of his head for good, he reached up. Just as he cut through the phase monsters in the real world, he pulled Caxus out of his mind. Once and for all. No more waiting. No more thinking it was impossible. Joseph got to decide what happened in his head.
Caxus screamed. It was this lonely, endless affair. A shriek that went on and on and on and blasted through all realms of matter. It was the scream of someone who had never wanted to give up, someone who’d denied their part in reality and had thrown away every person who’d ever reached out to them.
It was the scream of somebody who’d made themselves lonely. And in time, it drifted away, never to return.