“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 possibilities—my troops broke through, no it’s bandits, no it’s marauders, no it’s—before her brain registered them as Yongthung and Horgoth, standing by their velociraptor mounts.
“Traitors!” She snatched up her sword and scrambled to her feet. “Low-down fuckgobbles, sneaking off in the dead of night!”
They hopped on their raptors and broke into a gallop. Estilian sat up and blinked sleepily. “Milord?”
“Get up, cuntbag!” Holly ran for the entrance. “They’re stealing our food!”
Holly stopped and threw her sword, but her treacherous servants were too far away. Her blade arced low and clattered to the earth.
She hastily cast Senkilo’s Cannon, marking the night with thaumaturgic brilliance. She shot twice but her aim was off; the orbs streaked past the fleeing deserters, shrinking into bright, winking dots before they exploded on a distant mesa.
“Goddammit!” Holly raged. “Come on Estilian, we need to saddle up and—”
“And what?” He was sitting in his bedroll, gazing dully at the wall. “We don’t have the resources to mount a chase. There are forces in the Territories that psychically feed off exhausted travelers; they would twist our minds and bend our souls.” He dropped his head and muttered, “Though in our case, it may be too little, 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. “Not our bellies, but there is more to life than—”
She tromped to her bedroll. “Shut up. Shut up and go back to sleep.”
Estilian sat there for a long while. Holly hugged her blankets and faced away, glaring at the wall and pretending she was asleep. Eventually, she heard the rustle of bedding as he laid back 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.
Estilian grew increasingly distant. He spoke in a deadened monotone, and his replies became clipped and short. 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.
Midway into the fifth week, she decided to confront him.
“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. “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…” His mouth worked soundlessly.
Alarms went off in Holly’s brain; 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 wash of heartrending sorrow.
“We ate him!” he cried. “We ate Lorgpug!”
Under normal circumstances, Holly would have recognized the need to comfort him, but 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 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 matter where the fuck it came from! Listen to me!” She stared into his eyes. “Wodec told me about a magic artifact: the Eye of Scylish. It’s a portal into another dimension. Once we find it, we can ditch this world and go somewhere else! Somewhere better!”
“The pastures are greener on the other side,” Estilian murmured. “Always.”
“Yes!” Holly beamed 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 sunbaked mind overlooked a crucial fact. The adage he’d referenced meant the exact opposite of what she’d intended:
The grass is always greener on the other side.
The irony, however, did not escape the mage.
Two weeks later, they ate Estilian’s mount. They weren’t short on food (they still had a chunk of Lorgpug’s thighs) but they’d run out of water and needed to hydrate. Estilian cast an enchantment that cleansed its blood, then they filled their bladders with the beast’s fluids.
They kept going. The sun rose and sank upon its axis. The stars looked down from their unreachable perch.
Estilian kept muttering Lorgpug’s name. Everything he did annoyed Holly, even the sound of his sand-shifting steps. The creak of granules beneath his boots, slowly wearing at her fraying mind.
How long had it been? Four months? Five? Sometimes she remembered, sometimes she didn’t. She couldn’t stop thinking about Estilian Linnear—his dead-ass eyes, his dead-ass voice. As they made camp, she took stock of their supplies. Three weeks left.
He had to die. 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. His flesh could sustain her for three months, maybe four, if she rationed carefully.
She closed her saddlebags, stroked Gucci’s neck, and went to her bedroll. She waited a for an hour, pretending to sleep, then sat up in bed and stared at Estilian. He was curled on his side, facing away.
Finally, she thought. She slid off her blanket and made her way over, heel-toe, heel-toe. When she was standing over him, she took a moment to settle her weight.
She dropped to a knee and skewered his chest. Her arm settled into a steady rhythm. “Fuck you. Fuck you.” Her knife pistoned in and out, again and again. She was messing up the meat, but she didn’t care. This disrespectful cock-eater warranted every stab, every slash. Couldn’t shut up about motherfucking Lorgpug, always taking extra-loud steps and now he was finally getting WHAT HE FUCKING DESERVED—
“I knew it.” Estilian’s voice came from behind her.
She spun around, falling back on her palms and butt. The mage was standing a dozen yards away, limned by a rind of stark moonlight.
“What…how…” Holly clambered to her feet, clutching her dagger in a reverse grip.
“You’re not Kor’Thank.” He 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 admit 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, throwing her dagger with breathtaking speed. She was right behind it, darting forward in a scary-fast sprint. Estilian responded by slicing his hands inward, shooting violet lines from the tips of his fingers. One hit the dagger and blew it to pieces, the others chased Holly across the sand.
She rolled right. The magic lasers struck the ground; 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.
Holly summoned Senkilo’s Cannon. 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 twice. Estilian backhanded the rounds with his glimmer-lit hands, causing the rounds to fly to the side. They sailed off into the night, dimming into twinkling sparks before they lit 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 a little longer, she could have attacked when he was actually sleeping…
Estilian stated, “I will reduce your body to a crawling ruin. Your flesh will feed the nameless horrors that inhabit these lands. Know this: I have guarded our passage with an aegis obscura—an arcane ward that masks our presence. You will enjoy it no longer, impostor. You will spiral into the depths of madness, before gnashing fangs tear you apart. There are predators here, Holly. As big as a yurt and quiet as a mouse.”
Cold sweat ran down her brow. Was he serious? Had he been protecting her from giant beasts? She was strong as fuck, but only compared to other humans…
“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 escaped 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.
The High Mage started toward her. This time, the sound of his steps didn’t evoke rage; they filled her heart with sheer 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 refused to die in this smelly shithole, she would make it to Earth and destroy her enemies. This little fuck was not going to stop her.
The mage boomed out a guttural phrase—the air warped and bulged toward his mouth—then he 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 the magical onslaught. At first she tensed, expecting her flesh to be torn from 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 waves of despair crashed through her being. 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 some crap-ass charities, done 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, 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.
“HRRNGH!” Her body acted of its own accord—she snatched a dagger out from her belt and plunged it into Estilian’s neck. Instead of gasping or pleading, the mage closed his eyes. His lips spread into a beatific smile.
“For what?” She yanked the blade 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, 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 to his side, hand pressing 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 saw her arm pumping up and down, riddling Estilian full of knife-wounds. She heard herself scream again and again, but it sounded faint and tinny, as if it was coming from a great distance. Eventually, her mind reconnected with her murderous body. She felt her chest heaving, her limbs shaking.
“What…what…” She stared down at her upturned 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. 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 soul. 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 surer voice.
Holly got to her feet. She grabbed hold of the mage’s corpse and began dragging it toward a tree. She needed every bite of meat, every drop of blood. She’d find her way. She always had. Nevertheless, the truest part of her continued to nag. 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 like a worm in an apple. She couldn’t deny it. She tried to, but she couldn’t do it.
It’s not that you can; it’s that you must.