Black clouds roiled overhead. Off to the east, jags of lightning shot down from above, cracking against the mountaintops and marring the sky with rocky geysers.
Two hours prior, Kor’Thank had been ambushed by a giant arachnid, and it had paid with its life. Now, as he trudged across the desert, he bit into a hunk of its blue-blooded flesh.
A loud boom sounded from above. A second later, rain followed thunder, and sand became mud. Kor’Thank sank to his knees and clutched at the air.
“BITEFIGHTER!” He pounded the silt with a battle-scarred fist. “BRING HIM BACK, AKANAX! BRING HIM BACK, DAMN YOU!”
Holly wandered through the halls, humming softly.
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 were webbing through her vision. She stopped walking, looked around with a dazed smile and sat on the bottom step of a darkened staircase, gaping at the floral wireframes crawling through the air.
A second later, yellow luminescence flooded her sight. The world collapsed into a light-speed blur, erasing her ability to think or focus. Her identity was ripped off her psyche, fluttering away like a storm-tossed sheet. There was no Holly, there was no Atherton, 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 Elithian night.
As purple lightning electrified Kor’Thank, Holly flew into a technicolor vortex. The edges of her limbs frayed and wavered like ripples in a pond. For a terrifying instant, she thought she might unravel. Frightened whimpers bubbled from her lips, manifesting as little red circles bisected by a bar, just like the one in the Ghostbusters’ films series.
A harsh rumble sounded from below. She looked down and saw a light-formed oval, ringed by a circle of spinning rocks. The oval bulged up, then slowly began to split in half. A muscled figure breached the dome, gripping the spinning rock-ring with a gnarled pair of hands.
He flexed one last time and squirted out. As he tumbled upward his outline blurred, matching Holly’s indistinct form. They spun in tandem, directly across from each other.
[Hey! HEY!] Her mental yell spilled from her lips. Her words took form as a visible jumble of vibrating letters.
He looked wildly around, then met her gaze. An azure beam shot from his forehead and lasered in on 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.
Tinny laughter rocked their minds.
Holly looked towards its source and glimpsed hazy faces outside the hurricane. Somehow, she was able to intuit 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. Th sound was accompanied by a distinct pressure—like she was gaining altitude and her ears were going to pop. A hand made from sparking wireframe reached into the hurricane, clutching a small, furry body. As it let go, Holly saw it had been holding Peter’s dog, the one she’d 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. A second later it became…
What the fuck?
Instead of a dog, it was now a six-foot tall velociraptor.
[BITEFIGHTER!] The barbarian roared. He stretched a hand out toward the dinosaur.
It screeched loudly—[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 vanished with it.
Holly and the barbarian exchanged a look. They were both thinking the same thing.
Did you see a dog turn into a dinosaur…and then a mushroom?
The hurricane narrowed, drawing inward and picking up speed. Holly began to elongate, stretching into a flattened-out version of her three-dimensional form. Her psyche followed suit, tautening and lengthening until it was a stripped-down version of its former self. Her focus turned inward, away from Manolo Blahniks and world domination, and brought her 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, crunching his limbs into a twisted mess. After she’d regained control of her hijacked mind, she’d vowed that no one would ever control her again. She would never again submit to a force that—
A great rending assaulted her ears. It was more than a sound; it felt like her very essence was being scraped thin. Trillions of voices filled the aether, coming together in a wondrous, terrible chorus. They were all saying the same thing:
You chose this. You.
She tried to flee this unwanted 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 every triumph and every 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 open. At the same time, another portal materialized above.
Kor’Thank, she realized. His name is Kor’Thank.
Holly went down, and Kor’Thank went up.