Holly had covered a dozen miles at a dead sprint, a good amount of it over soft sand, yet none of the others had raised an eyebrow. Whoever this Kor’Thank was, he must have been a goddamn beast. The cheerleader had done enough roadwork to know that she’d probably maintained a five-minute mile the entire time. And now, even after she’d covered twelve fucking miles, she was barely sweating.
Ug Rung, the Indashi Kingdom’s royal encampment, was comprised of a vast assemblage of yurts, built atop a grassy hill. Everyone was doing something—repairing fixtures, transporting supplies, or herding raptors by their leathered reins.
Krul’Dar pulled up beside her, looked over his shoulder, and addressed the troop: “Tend to your duties.” They responded with grunts and promptly dispersed. He faced forward and nodded at the hive of activity. “They have all been tasked with an individual duty. Right now, our enemy is complacency.”
Holly examined the acropolis with a thoughtful eye. She needed a way to get back to Earth…but she couldn’t just come out and say it. “Can I talk to a wizard?”
Krul’Dar cocked his head. “To what end?”
“I need to uh…” she scratched her temple. “I am interested in…in the idea of traveling between worlds. Is this possible?”
“You would have to ask High Mage Wodec.”
“Could you, uh…summon him for me?”
Krul’Dar rode up to a larger yurt ringed with gem-encrusted totem poles. He dismounted, opened the tent flap, and ducked inside. Five minutes later, he emerged with a barrel-chested, older barbarian.
As he made his way over, Holly noticed that Wodec’s beard was threaded with baubles. Some glittered and caught the light. Others swallowed it within their dark-sheened curves.
“Greetings, my liege.” He stopped in front of Holly and extended his arm. He’d bent it loosely at the elbow, and kept his fingers slightly curled. An odd way to solicit a handshake.
Holly stared at it. Then she realized he wasn’t offering his hand—he was offering his forearm.
She grasped its length and squeezed firmly. “Mage,” she grunted in her best man-voice.
Wodec squeezed back. His snowy brows rose in surprise, then narrowed in suspicion.
“You are not yourself today.” His weathered eyes ticked back and forth across her face.
Holly froze. “What do you mean?” It took conscious effort, but she forced her voice to remain calm.
“I think you know.” He smiled mischievously.
“Speak plainly, bondsman.” She remembered that term—bondsman—from a couple of years back, when Peter had hijacked the school’s intercom and read a passage from his favorite book series: The Dark Tower. He’d thrown some other stuff in there—an acapella rendition of the Star Wars Attack Theme, a handful of porno moans—before Principal Leguizamo had cut off the speakers.
“Krul’Dar mentioned your trial in the desert. He said you seem to have forgotten much of your past.”
Was he playing with her? Holly’s fingers twitched involuntarily. They wanted to ball into fists; they wanted to pulp Wodec’s face with a storm of blows.
“I remember enough,” she said coldly.
“Of course, of course.” He bowed slightly and thumped his fist against his heart. “I meant no offense.”
Holly gritted her teeth. This guy had just made her shit list; she’d find a way to make him suffer. Not now, though—there was too much at stake.
“Tell me what you know about interdimension—”
She stopped speaking. His grin became a notch more knowing.
“On the idea of travelling between worlds.”
“A fascinating subject, my liege. Why does it interest you?”
Her lips tightened into a thin, white line. “Never you mind. Now speak, lest you rouse my temper.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Krul’Dar eyeing her with suspicion. It was clear that her mannerisms were out of character.
“It is possible to cross between worlds, but ’tis a perilous prospect. Many have tried, few have succeeded. The reason is simple: our outer environments are tied to our psyches. If you wish to change one, then you must change the other.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Holly stated flatly. “Why would I need to change my mind in order to—”
“The separation between self and environment is an illusory construct; you are as connected to your surroundings as your shoulder is to your arm. In order to move between planes, you must train for decades in order to—”
“Unacceptable,” Holly snapped. “There’s a faster way—there has to be. It took me less than a second to—” she stopped short, closed her eyes, and took a breath.
Easy, Holly. Close to the vest.
“Took you less than a second to do what, exactly?” Wodec asked, a little too innocently.
“Forget it.” Holly met his gaze. “There’s a faster way. I know it.”
“Indeed there is,” Wodec replied. “The Eye of Scylish can twist space and time—it can send its owner into any conceivable pocket of existence.”
“Where is it?” Holly tried to keep the excitement out of her voice. She only partially succeeded. “What is it?”
“A magic broach, with an enchanted emerald mounted in its center. Alantil Fairwind had it last, but no one has seen him for o’er a decade. He is rumored to frequent the Southern Reach—the stretch of desert beyond the Ankaran Mountain Range.”
“The Southern Reach…” Holly murmured, her annoyance fading as her attention was directed onto a new objective. “How do I get there?”
“The route is rife with rogues and brigands—tens of thousands of them. They have banded together under Flaysac Chinsay, a consummate killer and strategic genius. Our forces trump his in strength and number, but we cannot engage him upon the mountains. His men know every nook and cranny of those treacherous peaks—their sides would run red with our soldiers’ blood.”
Krul’Dar sidled closer. “You have openly declared that you would leave Flaysac be, milord.”
“Perhaps it is time to change things up,” Holly replied.
A dark cloud passed over Krul’Dar’s face. Holly didn’t know it, but in his heart of hearts, the Chief Chronicler had feared that Kor’Thank would eventually come to this exact same conclusion. Krul had always trusted, though, that unless it was a matter of life and death, Kor’thank wouldn’t act on it. The king might possess a warrior’s battle-fury, but it was tempered by a keen mind and a good heart.
“Krul’Dar.” Holly locked eyes with the Chief Chronicler. “Who is in charge of war-time matters?”
“Volcasian Firehand, the Captain of the Guard.” Krul’Dar set his jaw. By the looks of it, he understood the implication behind her question.
“Shall I summon him, my liege?” the High Mage asked.
Wodec thumped his fist against his heart, then headed for an expansive yurt to his left. A rough walkway—it was lined with piked heads and polished halberds—led up to its entrance.
As Holly waited for the Captain of the Guard, paranoia raced through her mind. Wodec knew she wasn’t Kor’Thank, but for some reason, he’d decided to keep it to himself. She hadn’t concluded that because of his smug smile, or the way he’d danced around her questions.
It was because right before he’d headed for the yurt, he’d thrown her a wink.