Black clouds roiled overhead. Off to the east, jags of lightning cracked the mountains, marring the sky with rocky geysers.
Two hours ago, a dog-sized arachnid had attacked Kor’Thank, and it had paid with its life. Now, as he stumbled 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, it was chased by rain. 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!”
His cry was lost in the rain-slashed tempest.
Holly wandered through the halls, humming softly under her breath.
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 fractal mess that was webbing through her vision.
She stopped at 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 fractals, erasing her ability to focus or think. Patterns stacked atop each other, one after the other, blitzing her mind with a light-speed blur. Her identity ripped 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 with its hands.
“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 webs 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 close to coming completely undone.
Frightened whimpers bubbled from her lips: [Nuh…nuh…] They 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 a circle of light, one that was ringed with spinning rocks. The light bubbled up, then slowly began to split open.
A muscled figure breached the dome, gripping the rocks with gnarled hands. His striated body seemed made from crags, and 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, positioned directly opposite from each other.
[Hey! HEY!] As her mental yell spilled from her lips, it took the form of jumbled letters.
He looked wildly from side to side, then met her gaze. An azure beam shot from his forehead, then lasered in on hers.
She flinched back, expecting a jolt, but none came. Unlike their surroundings, the beam stayed even and steady.
Holly spoke first: [Do I—]
[—know you?] he finished.
A high, tinny laugh rocked both 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 DENIZENS OF THE BLOOM!]
One of them giggled; it sounded like a dissonant harp mixed with an electric guitar, and was accompanied by a distinct feeling of 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.
[Bitefighter? Bitefighter is that you?] Her companion’s heavy voice boomed out from his thought-form.
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 stretched a yearning hand toward the dinosaur.
It opened its mouth and screeched—[RAAAAAWKKK!!]—then its head morphed into a gigantic mushroom with cartoon features, exactly like the ones in Super Mario video games. The air in front of it wrinkled and wavered…then blasted apart in a mandala-lined portal.
The mushroom-headed dinosaur jumped 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 you just see a dog 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; instead of contemplating world domination or Manolo Blahniks, she was now faced 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. Once she’d regained control, she’d vowed that no one would take it from her ever again. If that meant securing power through treachery and evil, she would gladly do so. She would never bow down to a despicable force that had made her eviscerate—
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 triumph and all failure.
And so she prayed. She prayed for an end to this spin-cycle madness—for a linear narrative that would divest her of knowledge.
Down below, a twinkling portal began to open. At the same time, another portal appeared above the barbarian. Both portals began to widen and pulse.
Holly looked from one to the other. The barbarian did the same.
Kor’Thank, she realized. His name is Kor’Thank.
Holly went down, and Kor’Thank went up.