Black clouds roiled overhead. Off to the east, jags of lightning crackled into the mountains, marring the sky with rocky geysers.
Two hours ago, a giant arachnid had attacked Kor’Thank, and it had paid with its life. Now, as he trudged across the desert, he bit into a dripping hunk of its blue-blooded flesh. He’d avoided cutting through its venom sacs (the poison would drive him mad, then wrack him with a miserable, twitching death) and sliced out the meat embedded in its thorax.
A loud boom sounded from above. A second later, rain followed. As sand became mud, he sank to his knees and wept freely.
“BITEFIGHTER!” He pounded the silt with a scarred fist. “DAMN YOU, AKANAX! BRING HIM BACK! BRING HIM BACK!”
Holly wandered through the halls, humming softly to herself.
As far as she knew, she’d never used psychedelics (in order to stay sane, she’d purposefully suppressed her memory of the Event), so she had no context for the blooming calm within her belly, or the mess of fractals that was webbing through her vision.
She stopped before a darkened staircase and sat on its bottom step, gaping at the floral wireframes etched in the air.
Suddenly, her sight became tinged with yellow luminescence. The world collapsed into a light-speed blur, erasing her ability to focus or think. Her identity was ripped violently away, fluttering off like a storm-tossed sheet.
An appalling epiphany bubbled to the surface: her entire life had been a lie.
There was no Atherton, there was no Holly, time was an illusion, there was only this merciless intelligence, bombarding her with fractal after fractal after fractal oh God make it stop she wasn’t everything she wasn’t nothing she still wanted to be—
Holly’s body clutched its head.
“FIX THIS, DAMN YOU!”
Kor’Thank’s belly shone with eldritch energy. Waves of light set him ablaze, causing his bones to glare through his skin.
The clouds overhead erupted with bolts, printing glowing veins across the night.
As purple lightning electrified Kor’Thank, Holly flew into a technicolor vortex. The edges of her limbs frayed and wavered, as if they were about to completely unwind. Frightened whimpers bubbled from her lips and manifested as little red circles bisected by a bar, exactly like the one in the Ghostbusters’ logo.
She stared dumbly at them, then realized what they were.
They weren’t just noises—they were concepts.
A harsh rumble sounded from below. She looked down and saw an oval of light. It was ringed by a circle of spinning rocks. The light bubbled up, then slowly began to split in half.
A muscled figure breached the dome, gripping the rocks with a pair of gnarled hands. His striated body was massive—it seemed made of craggy stone rather than flesh—yet with each twitch and push, he moved with the liquid-smooth grace of a seasoned dancer.
He flexed one last time, and squirted out from the light-woven portal. As he tumbled upward his outline blurred, matching Holly’s. They spun in tandem; they were now positioned directly across from each other.
[Hey! HEY!] Her mental yell spilled from her lips, taking the form of jumbled letters.
He looked wildly from side to side, then met her gaze. An azure beam shot from his forehead and lasered onto hers. She flinched back, expecting a jolt, but none came. Unlike their surroundings, the beam stayed even and steady.
Holly went first: [Do I—]
[—know you?] he finished.
A tinny laugh rocked their minds.
Holly looked towards its source, and glimpsed half-formed faces outside the hurricane. Somehow she knew they were otherworldly beings—extradimensional psyches that were changing existence by shifting their perspective.
[STOP IT!] she screamed. [STOP FUCKING WITH ME!]
Her muscled companion followed her gaze. His eyes narrowed in puzzlement, then widened in anger. [FIGHT ME!] he roared. [FACE ME IN BATTLE, YE ARCANE LURKERS!]
One of them giggled; it sounded like a dissonant harp mixed with an electric guitar. The mental sound was accompanied by a distinct pressure—like she was flying on a plane and her ears were going to pop.
A hand made of sparking wireframes reached into the hurricane, clutching a small, furry body. It let go, and Holly saw it was Peter’s dog, the one she had killed. Conflicting emotions arose from within—a tangled mess of shame, anger, and guilt.
The dog’s skin began stretching and bulging, rippling with scales. Its entire body began to expand, and then a second later it became…
What the fuck?
Instead of a dog, it was now a six-foot tall velociraptor.
[BITEFIGHTER!] The barbarian roared, stretching a yearning hand toward the dinosaur.
It opened its mouth and screeched—[RAAAAAWKKK!!]—then its head morphed into a giant mushroom with cartoon features, exactly like the ones in the Super Mario video games. The air in front of it wrinkled and wavered…then blasted apart into a mandala-lined portal. The mushroom-headed dinosaur was sucked in. As soon as it vanished, the portal winked out of existence.
Holly and the barbarian exchanged a look. They were both thinking the same thing:
Did that dog just become a dinosaur…and then a mushroom?
The hurricane narrowed, drawing closer together and picking up speed. Holly elongated, stretching into a flattened out version of her three-dimensional body. Her psyche followed suit, tautening and lengthening until it was a stripped-down version of its former self. Her mind was turned inward, away from Manolo Blahniks and world domination; she was now face to face with the raw, painful truth.
When she was four years old, Peter’s concoction had divorced her from her body. She’d watched her fingers become tiny murder-machines, ripping Bitefighter’s jaw off his skull, then crunching his limbs into a twisted mess. When she’d regained control of her hijacked mind, she’d vowed that no one would ever control her again. If that meant securing power through treachery and evil, she was happy to do so. She would never bow down to a despicable force that would order her to eviscerate a helpless—
A great rending noise assaulted her ears. It was more than a sound; it felt like her very essence was being scraped thin. Trillions of voices clashed in her psyche, singing in a wondrous, terrible chorus. They were all saying the same thing:
You chose this.
She tried to flee from this terrible epiphany, but her perception circled back to her infinite-minded self, trapping her in a sickening prison of perpetual awareness. She was no longer Holly; she was a spiraling blast of unchecked suffering, yearning to forget she was personally culpable for all her triumph and all her failure. And so she prayed—she prayed for an end to this spin-cycle madness, she prayed for a linear narrative that would divest her of knowledge.
Down below, a twinkling portal began to appear. At the same time, another portal materialized above the barbarian. Both portals began to widen and pulse.
Kor’Thank, she realized. His name is Kor’Thank.
Holly went down, and Kor’Thank went up.