The room’s small space was illuminated by three torches which obscured no details of the horrific sight before them: two human corpses that had decayed past the point of identification. One was a slightly overweight man whose most distinctive feature was a very large black beard. The maggots which had consumed the flesh of his face had ignored the sizable tuft of facial hair. The other was an older man, whose gray hair and moustache still clung to a head which was more skull than skin.
“The path-strayers! The enlightenment-mockers! The WISDOM-DENIERS!” Chris proclaimed. Dennis and Shai were both covering their eyes in terror, and when Dennis made to run back the way they had come, Chris grabbed him roughly and held him in place.
“You have no hope of escaping these labyrinthine passages without my assistance,” Chris said sternly. “And now you have seen what happens to those who fail to follow me to the end. Nevertheless, whether or not to proceed is your choice and your choice alone.”
Dennis was crying now. “I don’t want to do any more teammate bonding!” he wailed. Chris, ignoring the pleading of his teammate, turned and proceeded up a curving set of stairs that was at the end of the hallway. Shai obediently followed, and Dennis, again faced with the prospective of being left alone in a very dismal and very large medieval castle, followed as well.
The stairs spiraled upwards for some time. They were in one of the castle’s many towers. A somber wind whistled through the skinny windows like a choir of ghouls. Both Shai and Dennis, still shocked over the grisly display of bodies that they had seen, said nothing. Chris could sense how miserable they were, but he knew they would thank him for this experience in the end.
They ascended the final step and found themselves on a landing. There was only one way to go: through a door that led to the interior of the tower. He decided to give Shai and Dennis one more chance to back out, although, given what they had seen in that death-vault, he was reasonably certain that they would choose to continue. “To enter this door is to face knowledge beyond your comprehension. Or you can leave, and remain the same man that you were when we stood outside the castle walls.”
“I will never be the same man again,” Shai whispered. “Not after what I have seen.”
“You’ll find that, once you are free from the mesmerizing grasp of this ancient place, your memories of it will quickly grow dim,” Chris said. “That is the nature of my castle.” But neither Shai nor Dennis made any attempt to back down the stairs.
Chris opened the door, unleashing a torrent of light. The ceiling of the room was all glass, letting in much more sunlight than any other place in the castle. The morning’s clouds had dissipated, making the sun’s rays that much more luminous.
Squinting, Shai and Dennis tried to get a clear view of what was inside. Chris, of course, already knew what the room held. He had always known. He proceeded a few steps into the room, which encouraged Shai and Dennis to do the same.
A man was sitting cross-legged on the floor wearing a sleeveless hooded tunic. Aside from the golden pillow he sat on, there were no furnishings to be found. His dark skin was withered with age, and a gray beard flowed halfway down his chest. Nothing could be seen of his face, so deep was the hood.
Sensing that this was the man who would bestow upon them the knowledge that they had quested so long to gain, the two young Thunder players approached him with reverence. “Provide us your teachings, old master,” Shai said, kneeling low to be at eye level with the sage.
The old man suddenly threw back his hood, revealing eyes that blazed with inner fire in defiance of time’s inexorable passage. “Shoot more midrange jumpers!” he rasped in a surprisingly powerful voice.
Dennis snorted. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” the man confirmed.
Shai was looking at the old man, then at Chris, then back again, comparing the facial similarities of the two. When he made the connection, his eyes grew wide. “Wait – is that? Are you…?”
Chris smiled. “Yes.”
Dennis still looked confused, but, a few seconds later, the truth dawned on him as well. “If that old man is you, and you’re the old man, why couldn’t you have just…I don’t know, tell us to shoot more midrange jumpers while we’re all at practice or something?”
“Think about it,” Chris said. “Who would you rather listen to? Me, or an old guy with a big white beard who is overflowing with wisdom?”
Shai looked concerned. “But you can’t exist as two people at once. It has to be an illusion…”
As Shai said these words, the castle disappeared around them. Instead, they were standing in a grassy clearing on a forested hill. There was no old man to be found. But in the hearts and minds of the two young players, the old man’s teachings would never be forgotten.