Holly had arrived at a glimmering doorway. After endless wandering through the deathless catacombs, this inconstant portal had appeared before her. She stood there for a long while, gazing uncertainly at the scintillant threshold.
Its surface was blinking in epileptic flashes. One instant it would be made out of wood, then metal, then light, then smoke, then patterns…it never settled into one configuration. Holly’s mind couldn’t keep track; the only impression she could decisively assign to it that it seemed to be complete. It seemed to be everything. Every material in all of existence.
There was no way she could have confirmed that. But she felt it. She felt it down to the core of her being.
She had to walk through it. She knew this. But the very idea sent her into paroxysms of terror. When she contemplated what was on the other side, she would spaz and convulse on the dusty floor, the cosmic equivalent of a grand mal seizure.
But nevertheless, she stood before the door, pulled by some strange desire to complete her journey. Half of her felt an overwhelming dread, but the other half was impatient with glee. It nagged and begged her like a child on Christmas morning: please please please I HAVE TO SEE I HAVE TO SEE.
Centuries passed. Holly would pull at her hair, pacing back and forth, moaning and swearing, dreading and coveting what lay beyond. Gradually, little by little, the seizures began to lessen in intensity. After a thousand years 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 would remain open, cataloguing the ceiling as it jerked and moved across her field of view.
Eventually, the seizures disappeared altogether.
Which left her in the same exact place: staring at a quick-flashing doorway, contemplatins its subliminal wash of stolid completeness. What was behind it? Her gut told her everything and nothing. Could she handle that?
Everything and nothing.
Eons ticked by. She finally realized she had to go through. There was no other choice.
Let us turn our attention back to a motley crew of characters. They play a minor yet important role, and even though it might not be the most important, it is decidedly colorful. And this story, if nothing else, is pretty damn colorful (or so I hope).
Krul’Dar and his rebels, long ago forgotten by Holly, had teleported 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.
The barbarians weren’t hassled by any of the time distortion suffered by HOlly, nor were they hunted by evil beasts that wore their faces. Wodec had given his troop of forty-four barbarians an ancient and powerful magic stew which had nullified the effect of the Shattered Territories.
It wasn’t anything grand; he’d simply boiled some dried fungus in an iron kettle, and given the resulting to concoction to his fellow travelers. They’d experienced wondrous vibrations that made their bodies thrum like Zilthanian lyres, and seen wondrous designs appear out of nowhere. Some had been reduced to a weeping mess, as the magic fungi guided them gently back into the deepest recesses of their innermost selves, revealing all that they’d done to be a joyous thread in an infinite tapestry. Wodec had smiled and directed them through it, allowing them a glimpse of their true natures, then guiding them back to their physical forms. He was allowing the barbarians’ soul-deep knowledge—the knowledge that resided at the kernels of their psyches—to reinforce their faith in 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 the Indashi psilocybin cubensis.)
Consequently, crossing the Territories only took a few months. Their journey was easy and light, marked by laughter and cheer rather than a hellish blend of paranoia and monotony. Every 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.
It was never far from Krul’Dar’s mind, but Wodec had assured him that the best way to help their king was to ensure that the troop was in good spirits. They had to concentrate on staying healthy, keeping sharp through the right balance of sparring and drills, and tending to their mounts. When they arrived on Kor’Thank’s adopted world, Wodec assured them, they would be able to gain an advantage from their saurian steeds.
Through the mage’s aetheric vision, he’d gathered knowledge of this strange realm called “Earth.” Not enough to make him an expert, but he’d gained a passing familiarity with Earthling customs, along with a basic grasp of technology and etiquette, and passed this on to his fellow Indashi. They listened with wide eyes and parted lips as Wodec regaled them with fantastic tales. Carts that operated through two pedals and a handheld wheel. Glowing machines that connected humanity through channeled lightning. A soul-sick populace trapped in an arbitrary construct termed the first world, a populace trapped by their whims and crazing. These sad denizens were chained to the glowing machines that connected their minds (CAHM-pyoo-ters, according to Wodec) for nine hours a day, imprisoned by nonsensical strictures formed by entities borne from the merchant class (Core-pore-A-shions). Krul’Dar took it upon himself to write this all down in his hide-bound notebooks.
“Wait,” he said after Wodec had described the corporate working class. “You say they live in the lap of mechanistic luxury? And yet they suffer from a lack of fulfillment?”
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 looked up from his notes. “You speak of purpose.”
“Indeed.” Wodec nodded. “Holly’s purpose, ironically enough, is to discover that the one she had is completely irrelevant. She thought herself different than her fellow Earthlings, but she wasn’t. Not really.” The mage cast a weighted look at his fellow barbarians. Light from the fire glimmered off his eyes. “Take her existence as a cautionary tale. Life gives us clues. Should you ever ignore them and cease learning, than you will commit 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 All-Encompassing, and though you may gain power, it will not last.”
The barbarian warriors looked thoughtfully into the fire or exchanged quiet words with with each other.
Krul’Dar said, “What about—”
“Our king?” Wodec’s eyes locked onto Krul’Dar’s. “Kor’Thank is being driven by nameless forces without any bounds. They are pushing him to become something more, something greater. Ironically, they are the same ones that are driving 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. “I do not think it very likely. The weight of her choices—and more importantly, the weight of her identity—is channeling her into an endless cycle. She could change—anyone can—but ’tis an unlikely proposition. Most beings desire comfort and familiarity, even if those very qualities are the source of their misery. Sincere desire for change is typically preceded by an immense amount of pain.”
“What about us?” Krul’Dar asked.
Wodec smiled and cast a brief glance around. “We might be outcasts, forced to flee from everything we knew…but we have been graced with yet another variation of the Eternal Quest. We brave few have been summoned. Called upon to venture forth, into strange lands and stranger worlds. What greater blessing could you desire? For this brief span of time, existence has gifted us with a sacred duty. We are exalted, brothers. Exalted beyond measure.”
Wodec stopped talking. The crackling fire filled the silence; everyone became aware of its snaps and pops, and the warm, welcome light emanating from its white-hot core.
“We are lucky,” Krul’Dar said, “Lucky to be summoned, luckier to realize it.”
“Yes.” Wodec’s smile was sad, joyful, and timeless.
“Revel in the knowledge while you can, for it will vanish from your minds soon enough.”