Desperation clawed at the Fool's throat as the Prince urged their steed forward, the ground dissolving into a blur beneath them. A strangled cry, snatched by the wind, escaped his lips. "We're doomed! Nothing but endless fields of flowers – a blooming nightmare!"
"This is the only way!" the Prince countered, his voice taut with an urgency that brooked no argument.
"Way to where? What awaits us there?" The Fool's voice, laced with rising panic, barely rose above the wind's howl.
"Home!" the Prince roared, his knuckles white on the reins.
"Home...where?" the Fool echoed, fear sharpening his tone like a whetstone.
A bone-chilling cackle split the air, followed by a menacing swarm of crows blotting out the sun. The Witch was closer, her malevolent presence a palpable weight in the air. Panic spurred their flight, the horse's hooves drumming a frantic rhythm against the yielding earth.
The Fool's gaze darted through the vibrant blooms, a feast for the eyes were it not for the terror gnawing at his heart. In the distance, a glimmer of hope - a colossal watchtower, its telescopic eye fixed upon them.
"We'll never make it!" despair tinged the Fool's voice. "Why lead her here?"
"Trust me!" the Prince yelled, his face grim.
If not for the imminent threat, the Fool thought with a sardonic twist, he might have even enjoyed the intoxicating beauty of the fields. But the Witch's laughter, growing closer with every thundering hoofbeat, painted the scene in shades of terror.
Now it happened that four small dwarves were gathering wood for their evening fire. They hitched their carts to weathered statues bordering the endless fields of wildflowers, giving their horses respite to graze and drink from the stream that gurgled over smooth stones. Hunger gnawed at their bellies, for their supplies dwindled to near nothing. Firewood, first and foremost, to chase away the encroaching twilight. And then, something, anything, to sizzle and sing over the crackling flames.
With practiced nods, three dwarves – the eldest and strongest, the nimble and quick-witted one, and the youngest, whose enthusiasm often outweighed his experience – set off into the fields, bows slung across their backs and arrows notched. Meanwhile, the one content with his basket weaving grumbled good-naturedly, "Don't forget your aim! Bring back something with substance, none of those scrawny critters! We need a proper feast!"
"Aye, aye," replied the others, already disappearing into the tapestry of blooms.
He grunted, then barked after them, "And fetch good, dry wood! No more of those green twigs that smoke more than they burn. It took half the night to get a decent fire going last time!"
"Won't be a problem," they called back, their voices swallowed by distance.
He watched them go, a wry smile playing on his lips. He enjoyed their company, but there was a certain peace in solitude, too. He settled back to his weaving, the rhythmic click of the willow shoots a calming counterpoint to the chirping crickets and the stream's gentle murmur.
A while later, as he hummed a dwarven tune, one of the three in the fields – the one with keen eyes – let out a sharp cry. "Crows! Look there! A flock of them!"
"Dinner is served!" boomed a voice, echoing through the flowers. Renowned as both ale- and song-lovers, the dwarves were also masters of the bow. Arrows flew, swift and true, sending the black birds plummeting like raindrops. But amidst the flurry of feathers and panicked squawks, something went unnoticed. One of those "drops" wasn't a crow at all. It was an evil witch, her true form hidden within the feathered disguise. And as the arrow struck, instead of feathers scattering, a plume of inky smoke erupted, swirling and coalescing into a figure cloaked in darkness, eyes burning with malevolent glee. "Foolish dwarves," she rasped, her voice carrying the promise of untold mischief. "You've just awakened a hunger far greater than your own..."
"Saved! Prince! We're saved!" the Fool shrieked, his voice trembling with adrenaline. "The Witch... she's fallen!"
The Prince spun around, reins tightening in his grip as he witnessed the massive flock of crows plummeting into the field of flowers. A grim satisfaction settled on his face.
"Seven, at least," one of the dwarves boasted, already eyeing the prize. "Let's collect them!"
But their celebration was cut short by a bloodcurdling screech. The Witch, sprawled amidst the blooms, ripped an arrow from her side, scattering the remaining crows in a flurry of panicked caws.
"What in the world was that?!" another dwarf exclaimed, eyeing the sound warily.
"Sounds like someone's trying to steal our spoils!" A dwarf started towards the fallen crows, sword drawn.
Suddenly, another cry pierced the air, this time from above. "More thieves!" cried another dwarf, pointing at the Prince and the Fool tumbling from their horse.
The Prince landed with a thud, grabbing the Fool who lay writhing on the ground, his face contorted in agony. The Witch's shriek echoed in his ears, a monstrous symphony of pain that conjured terrifying visions of the hissing toad.
"Fool, what is it? Speak!" the Prince demanded, his voice laced with urgency.
But the Fool remained silent, lost in the throes of the blinding pain. The cryptic words of the Seer surfaced in his mind amidst the chaos: "...at the beginning... learn to know real things... recognize false things..."
Meanwhile, the Prince noticed the three dwarves approaching the Witch, oblivious to the danger. "Run! Witch! Witch!" he bellowed, desperation coloring his voice.
"What's that thief squawking about?" one dwarf muttered, confused.
"He wants us to leave our supper behind!" another chuckled.
"Not likely," a third dwarf scoffed. "We won't go hungry tonight!"
As the Prince's frantic warnings went unheeded, the Witch stirred. Slowly, her eyes opened, glinting with malevolent rage. With a chilling screech that sent shivers down the Fool's spine, she yanked the second arrow from her flesh. The pain seemed to magnify, making him writhe on the ground in silent agony.
Despite the pain searing through him, the Fool felt a strange urge not to stay down. He pushed himself onto his hands and knees, crawling towards the source of the Witch's agonizing shrieks. Each movement sent fresh jolts of agony through his body, yet a perverse sense of purpose propelled him forward. With eyes squeezed shut, nails digging into the flower-studded earth, he inched closer.
"Foolish dwarves!" the Prince roared, his voice barely audible over the Witch's screams. "She's a witch! Run!" His warnings fell on deaf ears. Mesmerized by the fallen figure and their potential bounty, the dwarves stumbled closer.
In an instant, the Prince was upon them. He yanked one dwarf back, flinging him aside like a ragdoll. He grabbed the remaining two, one under each arm, and sprinted away, shouting over his shoulder, "She'll turn you into rabbits without blinking! I've seen it!"
Oblivious to their flight and the Prince's desperate pleas, the Fool continued his agonizing crawl. Every agonizing tremor in the Witch's voice resonated through his skull, a blinding symphony of pain. What unfolded next would forever etch itself into his memory.
In a sudden inferno, the Witch erupted in flames. The Prince and the dwarves leaped back, just in time to avoid the searing heat. But the Fool, lost in his trance, continued crawling straight into the blaze. Miraculously, the flames seemed to have no effect on him. He pushed onward, the air thick with the stench of burnt feathers and charred flowers, traversing a landscape transformed into a skeletal graveyard of crows and ash. Finally, he reached her, reaching out with trembling hands to grasp the Witch's head.
The blinding pain morphed into a swirling vortex of light, consuming the Fool and the Witch in its incandescent embrace. They tumbled deeper and deeper, a dizzying spiral of colors and sensations erasing the inferno's roar with a hushed emptiness. Then, abruptly, the descent stopped. They found themselves suspended in a vast, inky void, a space between spaces where even the faintest starlight held no sway.
The silence pressed against them, a thick, suffocating blanket. Below, an immeasurable distance stretched, shrouded in shadows so profound they felt like a tangible entity. Yet, amidst the overwhelming darkness, a pinprick of light flickered, pulsing with an inner rhythm. Driven by an unseen force, the Fool and the Witch drifted towards it, their forms shifting, solidifying in the strange emptiness.
He saw himself first. No longer the grimy, weary figure he knew, but a being of pure potential, youthful and vibrant. His clothes were gone, replaced by a shimmering light that clung to his form like a second skin. The pain was a distant memory, replaced by a sense of wholeness, of belonging.
Across from him, the Witch's transformation mirrored his own. Gone were the aged features, the malice glinting in her eyes. In their place, a woman of ethereal beauty, her expression tinged with wonder and confusion. Their gazes met, not with fear or hostility, but with a tentative curiosity.
At that moment, they saw and were seen. Countless reflections echoed back, each a mirror image yet strangely whole. They were all one, complete in every iteration. The vision unfolded before them: a tapestry woven with the fabric of knowledge, constellations swirling with planets and moons, grand palaces and towering temples adorned with intricate lettering. Ink flowed across vast libraries, vibrant clouds shimmered with the promise of healing, and patterns danced as beings moved freely, with and without physical form. Symbols pulsed with meaning, pyramids reached towards the heavens, and flowing water mirrored the cosmic starway. Hidden treasures lay veiled, keys glinted with potential, and their own blue planet hung amidst it all.
"What is this... this endless vision?" they echoed, the question shared across their united consciousness. "What... is it?" they asked, seeking understanding. "What... am I?" they pondered, the singular "I" encompassing their newfound unity. "What... is seeing?" the final inquiry resonated, transcending words and reaching towards a deeper comprehension.
The questions dissolved, replaced by a vast sense of being. Answers to unspoken inquiries washed over them, an immersive knowledge bath. "The questions will come on the path," they heard, the voice resonating in four distinct, yet unified tones.
A sudden explosion of vibrant light and swirling clouds engulfed them. Two visions materialized: the Fool's first encounter with the Enchanted Deer, bathed in warm sunlight, and the Witch, isolated by candlelight in her high tower, gazing out at the moonlit world. But at the center of the swirling spectacle, locked with a black keyhole, lay the heart of the vision. The keyhole held a distinct shape... their own.
As they moved closer, drawn by an irresistible force, the shape solidified. The massive black keyhole mirrored their essence, guarded by four sentinels – majestic, golden beings reflecting their form in the surrounding light.
As they approached the keyhole, four voices resonated in perfect harmony: "The world outside yourself seems more real because time seems pressing. Find the timelessness within. Return. Remember."
The words carried a profound weight, hinting at a truth just beyond understanding. Time, in this new perspective, pulsed with a terrifying urgency. What pressing demands did the outside world hold?
With a wisp of thought, they drew the clouds of memory back. The familiar world rushed in, a tapestry woven from thoughts, ideas, impressions, and the echo of the flesh they wore. Back in the field of flowers, the brilliant light faded, and they stood separate once more.
As the merged being dissolved back into the field of flowers, a tremor ripped through the Seer, seated serenely in the temple courtyard. "It has begun," she whispered, a knowing glint in her eyes.
Rising from her throne, she descended the steps, intending to share the momentous event with the nymphs by the temple fountain. But her path was intercepted by a spectral figure astride a midnight-black steed.
"Did you witness that?" the rider barked, voice muffled by the darkness of his helmet.
The Seer offered no immediate response, instead stating calmly, "Your arrival, dear harbinger, was anticipated."
"Anticipated, yes," the rider acknowledged, "but did you truly see it unfold?"
A gentle breeze, whispering of change, ruffled the crisp white fabric of the Seer's robe. "Anticipation serves no purpose," she declared, her voice carrying the weight of ancient wisdom. "All unfolds as it should."
The black rider remained silent, his presence a stark contrast to the vibrant life pulsing around them.
"And you, my friend," the Seer continued, her voice softening, "a heavy burden now rests upon your shoulders."