“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, sneaking 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 stealing our supplies!”
Holly stopped at the entrance and chucked her sword at her treacherous servants, but they were too far away; her blade arced low 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 but her aim was off; both orbs streaked past the fleeing barbarians, 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, gazing dully at the wall. “We don’t have the resources to chase them across the desert. Even if we did, it would invite peril and madness. There are forces in the Territories that would twist our minds and bend our souls.” He dropped his head and muttered, “Though in our case, it may be too late. We gave up our souls when we ate Lorgp—”
“Oh spare me the bullshit!” Holly spat. “We did what we had to! He would have done the same, asshole!”
“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 met hers. “Maybe not our bellies, but there is more to life than—”
Holly tromped back to her bedroll. “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, glaring at the wall and pretending she was sleeping. Eventually, she heard the rustle of bedding as he settled down. His breathing settled into a steady snore.
It took a long, long time before Holly drifted off.
And when she did, she was plagued 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. Sometimes, he would mumble to himself. Holly 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 confront 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 vacantly 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 turned and facewd him, hands on her hips. “And where would that be, exactly?”
“Where would…where would…” The mage’s fucking with his velociraptor mount. His mouth dropped open, working soundlessly.
Holly’s alarm began to grow; if this asshole couldn’t get it together, she’d have to—
But then he took in a great, shuddering gasp. His sunburnt face wrinkled and twisted, gripped by a tremendous wash of heartrending sorrow.
“We ate him!” he cried. “We ate Lorgpug!”
Under normal circumstances, Holly would have recognized the need to comfort Estilian, but been trekking across the Territories for five fucking weeks. The barbarian cheerleader was at her wit’s end.
“Quit bitching!” she snarled. She stomped over to 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 in his eyes, 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! All we have to do is keep going. Let’s find those fucking pastures, huh?”
Estilian nodded. “As you wish, my lord.”
Holly’s sun-baked mind overlooked an important fact: Estilian’s words 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 ate 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 to drink something. Estilian cleansed the raptor’s blood with a minor enchantment. Then they filled their bladders with the beast’s fluids.
The sun rose and sank upon its axis. The cold, glittering stars stared down 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, slowly wearing at her disintegrating 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 gone, he might suspect what she was up to, or worse—he might try and kill her first. She didn’t think he had the stones, but she couldn’t risk it. His sickly gray flesh could probably sustain her for three or four months, if she rationed it 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.
Finally, she thought. She brushed her blanket off her legs. She began walking over, heel-toe, heel-toe, agonizingly slow. When she was standing 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 as she chanted, “Fuck you. Fuck you.” Her knife pistoned in and out. She knew she was messing up the meat, but at that moment, she didn’t care. This disrespectful cock-eater warranted every stab, every slash. Couldn’t shut up about eating Lorgpug, 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 back on her palms and butt. The mage was standing a dozen yards away, limned by a glowing rind of stark moonlight.
“What…how…” Holly clambered to her feet, clutching her dagger in a reverse grip.
“You’re not Kor’Thank.” 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.”
Holly looked again 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. There was no one there; she’d punched holes into blankets and sheets.
“We can go our separate ways,” the mage said. “We need not figh—”
Holly chopped her hand up and threw her black-steel dagger. She was right behind it, darting forward in a scary-fast sprint. Estilian responded by slicing his hands in inward arcs, shooting violet lines from the tips of his fingers.
Holly rolled right; from the corners of her eyes she saw the deadly purple streaks hitting 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, instantiating 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.”
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, then detonated in the distance, lighting the horizon with a brief flare.
“Wodec wasn’t wrong, was he?” Estilian said. “Your name is Holly. Holly Dent.”
Holly swore under her breath. If only she’d waited…
Estilian stated, “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 masked our presence. You will enjoy it no longer, Holly. You will swim through the depths of madness, before gnashing fangs and yellowed claws tear you apart.”
Cold sweat ran down her brow. Was he serious? Had he been protecting her from giant creepy-crawlies? She was strong as fuck, but if she had to grapple with a hungry monster…
“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, a jiggling, crackling orb. Then he made a fist and crushed it. Glowing tendrils 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 at Estilian. She wasn’t going to die in this smelly shithole, she was gonna make it back to Earth and destroy her enemies. This little shitfuck was not going to stop her.
The mage 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, shielding her eyes from an onslaught of spellcraft. At first she tensed, expecting her flesh to be torn off her bones, but then she realized it was just wind. Nothing was happening 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. She’d organized bake sales for crap-ass charities, or cheerleader demos for disabled retards, but she’d never done anything to really help.
“RUAAAAHHH!” She didn’t just push with her thighs and calves; she pushed with her mind. She pushed with her soul. She locked her psyche into her rotting identity; the one she’d clung to through so many lives, across so many worlds. She was made to rule. She was made 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 would gut and eat. There was no way he was going to—
And then it stopped. Holly stumbled forward and banged into Estilian. Her eyes widened; 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 and plunged it into Estilian’s neck. What happened next freaked her out. Instead of gasping or pleading, the mage closed his eyes. His lips spread into a beatific smile.
“For what?” She 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 serene and composed.
“For freeing me.”
He collapsed to his knees and stared straight ahead. 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 on 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 it sounded faint and disconnected, as if it was coming from a great distance. After a seeming eternity, her psyche reconnected with her murderous 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 flats.
Her strength left her. She dropped to her knees\.
“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 took hold of her again. 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, every drop of blood. She had to keep going. She’d find her way. She always had.
Nevertheless, the deepest, truest part of her continued to nag at 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 mind 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.