Holly arrived at a glimmering doorway. She stood there for a long while, gazing uncertainly at its scintillant surface. It changed between wood, metal, light, smoke…it never settled into one configuration. It seemed to be made of every material in all of existence.
She had to walk through it. 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 for year after year, anchored by a strange desire to complete her journey. 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 of her door-side watch, she began to stay conscious during her fits. Her body would be taken by an unknown power, forced to dance and jiggle like a puppet on a string. Her eyes, however, would remain open, studying 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. Could she handle that?
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 an intricate spell called Hythilium’s Fold. Wodec hadn’t purposefully withheld it from Holly; he’d learned it in the Bloom after he’d defected. The Celestine Paladin had given him careful instructions (study the night sky and wait for the Raging Centaur to cross the first star on the left side of the Anixium Labyrinth) before casting the spell.
Wodec had given his troop of forty-four barbarians an ancient and powerful stew that had nullified the effects of the Shattered Territories. As a result, the barbarians hadn’t experienced the same time distortion suffered by Holly, nor were they hunted by evil beasts that wore their faces. It wasn’t anything particularly grand; he’d boiled several handfuls of dried fungus in an iron kettle, then given the concoction to his fellow travelers. Upon drinking it, they’d experienced wondrous vibrations that made them thrum like Zilthanian lyres, and witnessed fantastic designs appear out of nowhere. Some had been reduced to a weeping mess as the magic fungi gently guided them into 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, then ushered them back to their physical forms. He allowed the barbarians’ soul-deep knowledge—the knowledge that resided at the kernels of their psyches—to reinforce 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’ power.
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 only took a few months. Their journey was easy and light, marked by laughter and cheer rather than paranoia and monotony. Each night, they regaled each other with hearty tales of bravery and triumph, enjoying the prelude to the coming conflict.
They still had to rescue Kor’Thank, after all.
This was never far from Krul’Dar’s mind, but Wodec assured him that the best way to assist their king was to keep the troops in good spirits. They had to concentrate on staying healthy, keeping sharp, and tending to their mounts. According to Wodec, when they arrived on Kor’Thank’s adopted world, their saurian steeds would grant them an advantage.
Courtesy of the mage’s aetheric vision, he’d received knowledge of the strange realm called “Earth.” Not enough to make him an expert, but enough to garner a passing familiarity with Earthling customs, along with a basic grasp of technology and etiquette. The Indashi had listened with wide eyes and parted lips as Wodec spoke of pedal-operated carts, and of a soul-sick populace trapped in an arbitrary construct: the first world. These sad denizens were chained to glowing automata (Cahm-PYOO-ters) which had been designed and refined by the merchant class (Core-pore-A-shions). Krul’Dar took notes in a hide-bound notebook.
“Wait,” he said, taking advantage of a lull in the storytelling. “They live in the lap of mechanistic luxury, yet they still suffer?”
Wodec’s snowy-bearded lips curved up in a smile. “Ironic, is it not? For the most part, they have forgotten the greatest of treasures, the one thing that renders luxury into a trifling curio.”
“Purpose.” Krul’Dar couldn’t help but think of Kor’Thank. “You speak of purpose.”
“Indeed.” Wodec nodded. “Holly’s purpose, ironically enough, is to discover that her vengeance-borne fantasies are completely irrelevant. She views herself as different than her fellow Earthlings, but she isn’t. Not really.” The mage cast a weighted look at his fellow barbarians. “Take her existence as a cautionary tale. Life gives us clues. Should you decide to ignore them and cease learning, you will end up committing the First Sin: you will deem yourself separate from all, you will deem yourself better than all. This feels good in the short-term, but in the long term, it is a ridiculous way to live. 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—”
“Our king?” Wodec’s eyes locked onto Krul’Dar. “Kor’Thank is driven by nameless forces. Right now, they are pushing him to become something more, something greater. Ironically, they are the same ones 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—anyone can—but ’tisn’t likely. Most beings desire comfort and familiarity, even if those very qualities 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 everything we knew, but we have been graced by the call of the Eternal Quest. We brave few have been summoned—assembled by destiny to venture forth into strange lands and stranger worlds. We are exalted, brothers. Exalted beyond measure.”
The crackling fire filled the silence.
“We are lucky,” Krul’Dar affirmed, “Lucky to be summoned, luckier to realize it.”
“Yes.” Wodec’s smile was sad, joyful, and timeless all at once.
“Revel in the knowledge while you can, for it will fade away soon enough.”