Holly arrived at a glimmering doorway.
She stood there a while, gazing uncertainly at its scintillant surface. It changed between wood, metal, light, smoke…never settling into a single configuration.
She had to open it. She had to walk through. She knew this. But when she contemplated what lay on the other side, she would spaz and convulse on the dusty floor, the cosmic equivalent of a grand mal seizure.
Nevertheless, she continued to stand there year after year. Half of her felt overwhelming dread, but the other half felt impatient and gleeful. It nagged and begged like a child on Christmas: please please please I HAVE TO SEE I HAVE TO SEE.
Gradually, little by little, the seizures began to lessen in intensity. After a millennia, she began to stay conscious during her fits. She would study the ceiling as it jerked and moved across her field of view.
Eventually, the seizures stopped altogether.
Which left her in the exact same place: staring blankly at a quick-flashing doorway. What lay beyond it? Her gut told her everything and nothing.
Everything and nothing.
Eons ticked by.
Krul’Dar and his rebels, unlike Holly, hadn’t crossed the Ankaran mountains. They’d teleported directly into the Shattered Territories, courtesy of a spell called Hythilium’s Fold. Wodec hadn’t kept it from Holly-as-Kor’Thank; he’d learned it from Atriya after he’d defected. The Paladin had issued specific instructions: watch the night sky, wait for the Raging Centaur to cross the leftmost star on Anixium’s Labyrinth before casting the spell.
Wodec had given his troop of forty-four barbarians a powerful stew, one that nullified the magic of the Shattered Territories. As a result, they hadn’t experienced the temporal distortion suffered by Holly, nor were they hunted by evil beasts that wore their face.
The elixir wasn’t anything special; he’d boiled several handfuls of dried fungus, and given the resulting concoction to his fellow travelers. After they’d drunk it, wondrous vibrations had thrummed through their bodies, and fantastic designs had appeared out of nowhere. Some had wept as the magic fungi guided them back to their innermost selves, revealing everything they’d done to be a joyous thread in an infinite tapestry.
Wodec, shaman that he was, had directed the experience. He allowed their soul-deep knowledge to come to the fore, and shore up their faith in all of existence. And it was faith—not magic, not mushrooms, nor any trick of the mystical arcane—that protected the troop from the Territories’ evil.
(Neither Peter, Eun, nor Kora would have been the least bit surprised to know that Wodec had given them psilocybe cubensis.)
Consequently, crossing the Territories took less than a month. The journey was easy, marked by laughter and cheer instead of fear and monotony. After camp was made and dinner was served, they basked in tales of bravery and triumph, enjoying the prelude to the coming conflict.
They still had to rescue Kor’Thank, after all.
Courtesy of Wodec’s aetheric vision, he’d garnered knowledge of the strange realm known as “Earth.” Not enough to make him an expert, but enough to gain a passing familiarity with life in San Francisco. The Indashi listened with wide eyes and parted lips as Wodec spoke of pedal-operated carts, of a soul-sick populace trapped in an arbitrary construct: the first world. These sad denizens were chained to glowing automata (Cahm-PYOO-ters) designed by the ruling merchant class (Core-pore-A-shions). Krul’Dar took notes in his hide-bound notebook.
“Wait,” he said during a lull in the story. “They live in the lap of mechanistic luxury, yet they still suffer?”
Wodec’s lips curved up in a smile. “Ironic, is it not? Most of them have forgotten the greatest of treasures, the one that renders luxury into a trifling curio.”
“Purpose.” Krul’Dar thought of Kor’Thank. “You speak of purpose.”
“Indeed.” Wodec nodded. “Purpose is life. Our pretender-king has ignored her calling, and it is crushing her soul, slowly but surely. She must let go of her vengeance-borne fantasies, and reach for true fulfillment.” The mage cast a weighted look at his fellow barbarians. “Take her existence as a cautionary tale. Life provides clues. Should you choose to ignore them, you will commit the First Sin: you will deem yourself separate. You will deem yourself better. You will chain yourself to a hierarchy of worth, when everyone is already born worthy. You will cut yourself off from the flow of the True, and though you may gain power, it will not last.”
The barbarians looked thoughtfully into the fire. Some exchanged quiet words.
Krul’Dar said, “What about—”
“Kor’Thank?” Wodec’s gaze shifted to Krul’Dar. “He is driven by nameless forces, the same forces that drive Holly. The difference is revealed in their perceptual paths; our king has chosen to embrace evolution, Holly has not. She can still move towards transcendence, but…” Wodec grimaced. “The weight of her choices—and more importantly, the weight of her identity—is trapping her within the same, endless cycle. She could change…but ’tisn’t likely. Most beings desire comfort and familiarity, even if those traits are the source of their misery.”
“What about us?” Krul’Dar asked.
Wodec smiled and cast a brief glance around. “We may be outcasts, forced to flee from all we knew, but we are graced by the call of the Eternal Quest. We brave few have been summoned by destiny to venture forth into strange worlds. We are exalted, Krul’Dar. Exalted beyond measure.”
The crackling fire filled the silence.
“We are lucky,” Krul’Dar agreed, “Lucky to be summoned, luckier to realize it.”
“Indeed.” Wodec’s smile was sad, joyful, and timeless. “Revel in the knowledge, for it will fade away soon enough.”