“What the fuck?” Holly bolted up in her bedroll, woken by the sound of jangling gear.
She glimpsed a quartet of 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 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!”
Yongthung and Horgoth broke into a sprint and hopped on their raptors.
Estilian sat up in his roll and blinked sleepily. “Milord?”
“Get up, cuntbag!” Holly ran toward the entrance. “They’re taking our supplies!”
Holly reached the mouth of the cave and chucked her sword at her treacherous servants. Too late; they were already fleeing into the star-speckled night. Senkilo’s Cannon formed around her arm in yellow-red slashes, marking the night with thaumaturgic brilliance. She popped off two rounds at Yongthung and Horgoth, but her aim was off; both shots streaked past them, shrinking into bright dots of light before they blew against a distant mesa.
“Goddammit!” Holly raged. “Come on Estilian, we need to saddle up and—”
“And what?” Even though he was fully awake, his gaze was dull and vacant. “We don’t have the resources to mount a chase across the Territories, and even if we did, it would invite peril and madness. There are forces here that twist the mind and bend the soul.” He dropped his head and muttered, “Though in our case, that may not be relevant. We renounced our souls the instant we ate Lorgp—”
“Oh spare me the bullshit!” Holly spat. “We did what we had to do, Estilian! He would have done the exact same thing, 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 shouted. “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. “Stop talking. Stop talking and go back to sleep.”
Estilian sat there for a long while, staring at Holly as she bundled her blankets close to her chest and faced the wall. She lay awake stewing in her fury, glaring at the wall and pretending she was asleep.
Eventually, she heard the rustle of his 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 Shattered Territories, eating smoked Lorgpug and drinking his blood. On the sixth day of the third week, a downpour of rain blasted the plains. Holly and Estilian were able to refill their bladders with the use of rain-traps.
Estilian grew more and more distant. He spoke in a deadened monotone, and his replies were clipped and short. At first, Holly thought he was being a bitch and that he’d get over it, but then she became worried. What would happen if he continued acting like a goddamn zombie? Holly had never believed 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 their fifth week (at this point it seemed liked they’d spent several lifetimes out in the barrens), she decided to ask him.
“Estilian.” She shook her saddle, making sure it was firmly mounted atop Gucci’s back. “What’s your fucking deal? Why are you acting so goddamn weird?”
“Mmm?” The High Mage directed a dull-eyed stare at her. “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.”
Holly 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 kept 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 unstoppable sorrow. He hunched forward against his mount and began sobbing uncontrollably.
“We ate him!” he cried. “We ate Lorgpug!”
If she’d been in a normal state of mind, 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; she was tired of mollycoddling this useless oxygen thief.
“Quit bitching!” Holly 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 deeply 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 him 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 completely missed the fact that Estilian had referenced an expression that meant the exact opposite of what she’d been trying to convey.
The irony, however, did not escape the mage.
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 both filled their bladders with the beast’s fluids. They loaded their remaining supplies onto Gucci’s back and continued their long, endless trudge.
The sun rose and sank upon its axis. Each night was always the same; the cold, glittering stars stared down at Holly from their unreachable perch. Her sense of time became increasingly slippery.
Estilian kept muttering Lorgpug’s name under his breath. Everything he did got under Holly’s skin, even the sound of sand shifting beneath his feet. It was a hellish metronome; the soft creak of granules grinding beneath his boots, wearing slowly away at Holly’s mind.
How long had she been walking the Territories? Two months? Three? Sometimes she remembered, sometimes she didn’t. Her mind was preoccupied by Estilian—his fucking eyes. His fucking voice.
As they made camp, she took stock of their supplies. They might last a couple weeks, maybe three.
It was time.
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. She needed the meat beneath his sickly gray flesh. It could probably sustain her for three or four weeks, if she rationed carefully.
She closed the flaps on her saddlebags, stroked the back of Gucci’s neck, then went to her bedroll. She waited for a couple of hours, pretending to be asleep, then sat up in bed and looked over at the mage.
Estilian was curled on his side, facing away from her, his torso rising and falling in time with his breaths.
Finally, she thought. She gently brushed her blankets off her. She began stepping toward the mage, heel-toe, heel-toe, agonizingly slow. When she was standing over 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 punched holes in Estilian, a red rage overtook her mind. Chants of “Fuck you. Fuck you,” flew from her lips as her knife pistoned in and out. She knew she was fucking up the meat, but at that moment, she didn’t care; she was finally unleashing her built-up frustration. This little cock-eater warranted every stab, every slash. Couldn’t shut up about Lorgpug, couldn’t walk like a normal human being; 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 behind her.
She spun around onto her palms and butt. The mage was standing a dozen yards away, limned by a glowing rind of moonlight.
“What…how…” Holly rose to her feet, clutching the dagger in a reverse grip.
“You’re not Kor’Thank, are you?” Estilian’s voice sounded steady and sure. Holly was rattled; for the past few months, he’d been nearly catatonic.
“No,” she said, “I’m not.”
Estilian dipped his head and stared at the ground. “I knew…but I refused to acknowledge it.” His eyes lifted.
Holly looked down at the bedroll, still filled with a man-shaped carcass, then back at Estilian. “How did you—”
“A simple illusion. It’s called Arthani’s Wraith Form,” he replied. He nodded at the bedroll. “Look again.”
She looked. There wasn’t any body; she’d punched a series of holes into blankets and sheets.
“What now?” Estilian asked.
“That’s a stupid question.”
“We can go our separate ways,” the mage said. “We need not figh—”
Before he could finish, Holly chopped her hand up, throwing the black-steel dagger as hard as she could. Holly was right behind it, legs churning as she darted forward in a scary-fast sprint.
Estilian was ready. He sliced his hands in inward arcs, shooting laser-like streams of narrow purple light 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 a boulder. It shook and cracked from a barrage of arcane missiles.
“Fuck,” she hissed. “Fuck.”
“You cannot win,” Estilian called. “You’re overmatched. Come out from the boulder and I guarantee you a quick death.”
Fucker. Holly adjusted her psyche and instantiated Senkilo’s Cannon around her forearm.. Trying to assassinate him while he’d been sleeping had only served to restore his focus.
“Senkilo’s Cannon?” Estilian taunted. “You never mastered it, impostor. There’s little chance you’ll inflict any harm.”
Holly hissed through her teeth. She poked above the boulder and fired two shots from her enchanted arm. Estilian backhanded the ordnance with a glimmer-lit hand, causing the rounds to fly far to his right. They sailed off into the desolate night, dimming into twinkling sparks before they detonated, lighting the horizon with a brief flare.
“Wodec wasn’t wrong, was he?” Estilian shouted. “Your name isn’t Kor’Thank. It’s Holly. Holly Dent.”
Time to call a draw. Holly swore under her breath. If only she’d waited…
Estilian, as if he could read her mind, stated: “There will be no mercy for you, impostor. I will break your body into a crawling ruin. I will leave you out here; 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. You will know the pain of a broken body and it will devour your mind. It will usher you into the depths of madness, before gnashing fangs and yellowed claws tear you apart.”
A cold drip of sweat ran down Holly’s brow. Was this fucker serious? Had he been protecting her this whole time? 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 something that wasn’t human, then—
“Mayhap…mayhap I’ll 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 does feel intoxicating, this power over your fate. I am glad I never followed in your footsteps—that I never succumbed to the darkness in my soul—but I must say: I look forward to visiting it upon you, for you deserve it. It feels nothing short of 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 out from his knuckles, painting the air with multicolored squiggles.
The High Mage began walking toward her. Holly’s adrenalized mind registered each footfall. This time, the sound of Estilian’s steps didn’t trigger rage or frustration, they made her heart skip with sheer, unadulterated terror.
This is it, she thought wildly. Her eyes ticked back and forth. 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 up from behind the boulder and ran toward him. She wasn’t meant to die in this smelly shithole, she was meant to return to Earth and destroy her enemies. Rip their guts from their fucking bodies and leave their corpses on desert hardscrabble, or weighted down in a murky lake. And this little shitfuck named Estilian Linnear was not going to keep her from that.
Estilian boomed out a guttural phrase—the air warped and bulged toward him—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 and despondency crashed against her. 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 make the world better. 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 the world 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 and her eyes widened in shock; she hadn’t realized she was so close to him.
“HRRNGH!” Her body acted of its own accord. Her right hand her belt-dagger, then plunged the tip into Estilian’s neck. What happened next freaked her out; instead of gasping or pleading, the mage simply closed his eyes. His lips spread wide in a beatific smile.
“For what?” she hissed. 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 simply 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 to his side, hand still pressed to the side of his neck. “Bullshit!” she yelled again.
Estilian’s teeth were still visible, frozen into a bloody rictus. “Say…what you want,” he managed. “I don’t envy you, Holly…I…I…”
His eyes drooped closed. A sigh of contentment issued from his mouth.
“I pity you.”
Holly had the vague impression of her arm pumping up and down, riddling Estilian full of knife-wounds. She heard screams coming from her mouth, but as if from a great distance—they sounded faint and disconnected.
After what seemed like an endless stretch of time, 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.
The strength abruptly left her legs, and 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. Ironically, she couldn’t get it out.
Then the same ancient force that had allowed her to withstand Estilian’s magics 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 to make use of every bite of meat and every drop of blood. She didn’t know how long she’d be out here, and she needed to prepare accordingly.
She knew what she needed to do; she knew where she needed to go.
Nevertheless, the deepest, truest part of her continued to nag her. Of course you can do it, 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.