“What the fuck?” Holly bolted up in her bedroll, woken by the sound of jangling gear.
She glimpsed silhouettes at the entrance of the cave. Her mind erupted with dozens of possibilities—my troops broke through, no it’s bandits, no it’s marauders, no it’s—before her brain recognized them as Yongthung and Horgoth, standing by their velociraptor mounts.
“Traitors!” she snarled, snatching up her sword and scrambling to her feet. “Low-down fuckgobbles, trying to sneak off in the dead of night!”
Yongthung and Horgoth hopped on their raptors and broke into a gallop.
Estilian sat up and blinked sleepily. “Milord?”
“Get UP, cuntbag!” Holly ran toward the entrance. “They’re taking our supplies!”
Holly stopped at the mouth of the cave and chucked her sword at her treacherous servants but they were too far away; her blade dropped and clattered to the earth.
Senkilo’s Cannon formed around her arm in yellow-red slashes, marking the night with thaumaturgic brilliance. She shot two rounds at them but her aim was off; both shots streaked past, shrinking into bright dots of light before they exploded against a distant mesa.
“Goddammit!” Holly raged. “Come on Estilian, we need to saddle up and—”
“And what?” He was sitting up in his bedroll, his gaze dull and vacant. “We don’t have the resources to mount a chase. Even if we did, it would invite peril and madness. There are forces in the Territories that twist minds and bend souls.” He dropped his head and muttered, “Though in our case, that may not be relevant. We gave up our souls the instant we ate Lorgp—”
“Oh spare me the bullshit!” Holly spat. “We did what we had to! He would have done the same, if any of us had gotten gutshot!”
“No.” Estilian’s head remained bowed. “He would not have consumed his fellow warriors. As savage as he was, he still upheld the Indashi code.”
“FUCK the code!” Holly screamed. “The code can’t feed us, motherfucker!”
His eyes rose. A terrifying emptiness shone from their depths. “Maybe not our bellies, but there is more to life than—”
Holly tromped to her bedroll and plunked down. “Shut up. Shut up and go back to sleep.”
Estilian sat there for a long while, staring at Holly as she hugged her blankets and faced away. She lay awake stewing in fury, glaring at the wall and pretending she was asleep. Eventually, she heard the rustle of bedding as he settled down and faced the other way. His breathing settled into a steady snore.
It took a long, long time before Holly drifted off.
And when she did, she was haunted by nightmares.
For the next few weeks they slogged across the Territories, eating smoked Lorgpug and drinking his blood.
Estilian grew more and more distant. He spoke in a deadened monotone, and his replies became clipped and short. At first, Holly thought he’d get over it, but when he started mumbling to himself, she became worried. She didn’t believe in PTSD (which was incredibly ironic—in the depths of her soul, she knew full well she was suffering from a giant case of it), so Estilian’s behavior disturbed and perplexed her.
On the first day of the fifth week, she decided to ask him about it.
“Estilian.” She shook her saddle, making sure it was firmly mounted on Gucci’s back. “What’s your deal? Why are you acting so goddamn weird?”
“Mmm?” The High Mage stared ahead at the sterile landscape. “I’m sorry—what did you say?”
“I said what the fuck is your deal?” Holly shouted. Gucci snorted and bristled.
“I am sorry, milord.” Estilian’s expression remained sluggish and listless. “My mind has been elsewhere.”
She put her hands on her hips. “And where would that be, exactly?”
“Where would…where would…” The mage’s mouth dropped open, working soundlessly. His cheeks hung slack on his face. He continued mouthing the same two words like a broken record.
Holly’s alarm began to grow; if he couldn’t get his shit together, she’d have to—
But then he took in a great, shuddering gasp. His sunburnt face wrinkled and twisted, gripped by a wash of tremendous sorrow. He hunched forward on his mount and began to sob.
“We ate him!” he cried. “We ate Lorgpug!”
Under normal circumstances, Holly would have recognized the need to comfort Estilian, but due to the fact that she’d been trekking across the Territories for five fucking weeks, the barbarian cheerleader was at her wit’s end.
“Quit bitching!” she snarled. She tromped toward him and grabbed his shoulders. “We’re here, goddammit!” She shook him fiercely. “We’re here, we have food, and it doesn’t fucking matter where the fuck it came from! Listen to me!” She stared deep into his eyes, which were now fraught with uncertainty and fear. “Before Wodec left, he told me about the Eye of Scylish: a portal into another dimension. If we can reach it, we’ll be able to ditch this shitty world and go somewhere else! Somewhere better!”
“The pastures are greener on the other side,” Estilian murmured. “Always.”
“Yes!” Holly let go and stepped back, beaming falsely at him. “Greener pastures! We just have to keep going. Let’s find those fucking pastures, huh?”
Estilian nodded. “As you wish, my lord.”
Holly’s sun-baked mind had completely missed the fact that Estilian had referenced an expression that meant the exact opposite of what she’d intended: The grass is always greener on the other side.
The irony, however, did not escape Estilian.
Two weeks later, they were forced to eat Estilian’s mount. They weren’t short on food (they still had some scraps from Lorgpug’s thighs and calf) but they’d run out of water and needed something to drink. After Estilian cleansed the raptors’ blood with a minor enchantment, they filled their bladders with the beast’s fluids. They loaded their remaining supplies onto Gucci’s back and continued their long, endless trudge.
Each night was invariably the same. The sun rose and sank upon its axis. The cold, glittering stars stared down at Holly from their unreachable perch. Estilian kept muttering Lorgpug’s name under his breath. Everything he did got under Holly’s skin, even the sound of his sand-shifting steps. It was a hellish metronome—the creak of granules beneath his boots, wearing slowly away at Holly’s mind.
How long had she been walking across the Territories? Four months? Five? Sometimes she remembered, sometimes she didn’t. Her mind was preoccupied with her traumatized mage—his dead-ass eyes, his dead-ass voice.
As they made camp, she took stock of their supplies. Three weeks left.
She had to kill him. If she waited until their food was almost gone, he might suspect what she was up to, or worse—he might try and kill her first. She didn’t think he had it in him, but she had to be sure. His sickly gray flesh could probably sustain her for three or four weeks, if she rationed carefully.
She closed her saddlebags, stroked Gucci’s neck, and went to her bedroll. She waited a couple of hours, pretending to be asleep, then sat up in bed and stared at Estilian. He was curled on his side, facing away, torso rising and falling in time with his annoying-ass breaths.
Finally, she thought. She brushed her blanket off her legs. She began stepping toward his slumbering form, heel-toe, heel-toe, agonizingly slow. When she was standing directly above him, she took a moment to settle her weight.
She dropped to a knee, bringing her dagger down as swiftly as she could. Her arm settled into a vicious rhythm. She chanted, “Fuck you. Fuck you,” as her knife pistoned in and out. She knew she was fucking up the meat, but at that moment, she didn’t care. This disrespectful cock-eater warranted every stab, every slash. Couldn’t get with the goddamn program, couldn’t shut up about motherfucking Lorgpug, he was always taking extra-loud steps and now he was finally getting WHAT HE FUCKING DESERVED—
“I knew it.” Estilian’s voice came from directly behind her.
She spun around, shocked, and fell on her palms and butt. The mage was standing a dozen yards away, limned by a glowing rind of stark moonlight.
“What…how…” Holly rose to her feet, clutching her dagger in a reverse grip.
“You’re not Kor’Thank, are you?” Estilian sounded steady and sure. A drastic change from the past few months.
“No,” she said, “I’m not.”
He stared at the ground. “I knew…but I refused to acknowledge it.” His eyes lifted.
Holly looked at his bedroll, still filled with a man-shaped carcass. “How did you—”
“A simple illusion: Arthani’s Wraith Form.” He nodded at the bedroll. “Look again.”
She looked. No one there; she’d punched a series of holes into blankets and sheets.
“We can go our separate ways,” the mage said. “We need not figh—”
Holly chopped her hand up, throwing her black-steel dagger as hard as she could. She was right behind it, darting forward in a scary-fast sprint.
Estilian responded by slicing his hands in inward arcs, shooting violet lasers from the tips of his fingers. Holly rolled right; from the corners of her eyes she saw the deadly purple streaks hit the ground in rapid succession; a series of puffs erupted from behind her as she flowed to her feet and jack-knifed over the top of a boulder. It shook and cracked from the arcane missiles.
“Fuck,” she hissed. “Fuck.”
“You cannot win,” Estilian called. “You’re overmatched.”
Holly adjusted her psyche and instantiated Senkilo’s Cannon around her forearm. Estilian, trained wizard that he was, picked up its auric signature. “Senkilo’s Cannon? You never mastered it, impostor. There’s little chance you’ll inflict any harm.”
Holly poked above the boulder and fired two shots from her enchanted arm. Estilian backhanded them out of the air with a glimmer-lit hand, causing the rounds to fly to his right. They sailed off into the desolate night, dimming into twinkling sparks. A few seconds later, they detonated in the distance, lighting the horizon with a brief flare.
“Wodec wasn’t wrong, was he?” Estilian said. “Your name isn’t Kor’Thank. It’s Holly. Holly Dent.”
Holly swore under her breath. If only she’d waited…
Estilian stated, “I will show no mercy, impostor. I will reduce your body to a crawling ruin. Your flesh will feed the nameless horrors that inhabit these lands. Thus far, I have guarded our passage with an aegis obscura—an arcane ward that renders us invisible. You will enjoy it no longer, Holly. I will break you down, and the pain will devour your wretched mind. You will swim through the depths of madness, before gnashing fangs and yellowed claws tear you apart.”
A cold drip of sweat ran down Holly’s brow. Was he serious? Had he been protecting her from giant creepy-crawlies? That meant that even if she killed him, she’d have to fend for herself against a bunch of “nameless horrors.” She was strong as fuck, but if she had to grapple with a hungry monster, then—
“I might make it quick.” Estilian mused. “I have learned from you, Holly. You have taught me the importance of toying with my prey. I offer you the choice between a bad end…and a worse one.” A delirious giggle slipped from his lips. “It feels intoxicating, this power over your fate. It feels…cathartic.”
Holly fired another round. This time Estilian held his right hand out and caught it in his palm. It hovered in the air, inches from his clutching fingers, then he made a fist and crushed it. Tendrils of light squirted from his knuckles, painting the air with multicolored squiggles. The High Mage began walking toward her. This time, the sound of his steps didn’t trigger rage or frustration, they made her heart skip with sheer, unadulterated terror.
This is it, she thought wildly. He’s gonna fuck me up and leave me out here. I’m gonna be eaten by whatever the fuck—
Peter’s face flashed through her mind. Her eyes steeled over.
She leapt to her feet and ran toward him. She wasn’t going to die in this smelly shithole, she was meant to return to Earth and destroy her enemies. Bury their corpses in the Nevada desert, or weighted down in a murky lake. This little shitfuck was not going to keep her from that.
Estilian boomed out a guttural phrase—the air warped and bulged toward his mouth—then spat out a torrent of gray fog. It sped across the desert, swirling the sand into a hissing, rattling maelstrom. Holly crossed her arms in front of her face, shielding her eyes from an onslaught of spellcraft. At first she tensed, expecting her flesh to be torn from her bones, then she realized it was just wind; nothing was happening to her except…except…
you’re nothing you don’t deserve you don’t you don’t you don’t
“RUAAAAHHH!” She pushed forward, gritting her teeth as wave after wave of despair crashed through her mind. Over the roar of the gale, she could hear Estilian, condemning her as a fraud, as a worthless waste of skin and breath. And it was true, wasn’t it? She hadn’t done anything to improve the world. Maybe some bake sales for a crap-ass charity, or a cheerleader demo for some disabled retards, but she’d never done anything to really help.
“RUAAAAHHH!” She didn’t just push with her legs; she pushed with her mind. She locked her soul into her rotting identity; the one she’d clung to through so many lives, across so many worlds. She’d been born to rule. She’d been born to crush peasants beneath her heel. And if she couldn’t do it, then she was gonna burn existence to the fucking ground. Estilian Linnear was just a bump in the road, a fucking speck she was going to gut and eat. There was no way he was going to—
And then it stopped. Holly stumbled forward, grunting in surprise. She banged into Estilian, her eyes widening in shock; she hadn’t realized she was this close to him.
“HRRNGH!” Her body acted of its own accord. She snatched her dagger out from her belt, then plunged the tip into Estilian’s neck. What happened next freaked her out; instead of gasping or pleading, the mage closed his eyes. His lips spread wide in a beatific smile.
“For what?” She tensed her fingers, adjusted her grip, and yanked the blade out from his neck.
He raised a hand to cover the wound. Blood flowed down his neck and arm, but he continued looking serenely into her eyes.
“For freeing me.”
He collapsed to his knees and stared straight ahead. His smile remained plastered to his face. Crimson trickled from the corners of his mouth.
“I’m free, and you’re trapped.” He bared his teeth in a terrifying grimace, displaying a double row of lurid red teeth.
“Bullshit!” Holly yelled. She kicked him in the chest and he fell onto his side, hand pressed against his spurting neck. “Bullshit!” she yelled again.
Estilian’s teeth were still visible, frozen into a bloody rictus. “I don’t envy you, Holly…I…I…”
His eyes drooped closed. A sigh of contentment issued from his mouth.
“I pity you.”
Holly saw red; she had the vague impression of her arm pumping up and down, riddling Estilian full of knife-wounds. She heard herself scream again and again, but each one sounded faint and disconnected, as if they were coming from a great distance. After a seeming eternity, her psyche reconnected with her body; she could feel her chest heaving, her mind racing, her limbs shaking.
“What…what…” She turned her hands up and stared at her palms. The moon gleamed off their bloody surfaces.
Her strength left her. She dropped to her knees in the hardscrabble wasteland.
“I can’t…I can’t…” She was trying to say I can’t go on. But ironically, she couldn’t get it out.
Then the same ancient force that had allowed her to withstand Estilian’s magic once again took hold. You can, it said. Not in words, but in a rush of conviction—in a tidal flush of cosmic kismet.
It was the cruelest, most empowering thing she’d ever felt.
“I can,” she whispered.
Then: “I can,” in a sure, confident voice.
Holly got to her feet. She grabbed hold of Estilian’s corpse and began dragging it toward a tree. She needed every bite of meat and every drop of blood. She knew what to do; she knew where to go.
Nevertheless, the deepest, truest part of her continued to nag her. Of course you can, it said. That’s not the issue.
Holly gritted her teeth, doggedly trying to ignore the voice. But it burrowed into her awareness like a worm into an apple. She couldn’t deny it.
She tried to, but she couldn’t.
It’s not that you can; it’s that you must.