Holly had arrived at a glimmering doorway. She stood there for a long while, gazing uncertainly at the scintillant threshold.
Its surface was blinking in epileptic flashes. It changed between wood, then metal, then light, then smoke, then patterns…it never settled into one configuration. Holly’s mind couldn’t keep track. It seemed to be everything. Every material in all of existence.
She had to walk through it. She knew this. But the very idea terrified the shit out of her. 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 standing before the door, anchored by a strange desire to complete her journey. Half of her felt overwhelming dread, but the other half was impatient with glee. It nagged and begged like a child on Christmas: please please please I HAVE TO SEE I HAVE TO SEE.
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, however, would remain open, cataloguing 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 was behind it? Her gut told her everything and nothing. Could she handle that?
Everything and nothing.
Eons ticked by. She had to go through. There was no other choice.
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. Holly would have torn her hair out if she’d known there was a shortcut through the Ankaran Mountains, but Wodec hadn’t purposefully withheld it; 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 hadn’t suffered the same 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 stew that had nullified the effects of the Shattered Territories.
It wasn’t anything grand; he’d simply boiled some dried fungus in an iron kettle, and given the resulting concoction to his fellow travelers. They’d experienced wondrous vibrations that made their bodies thrum like Zilthanian lyres, and seen fantastic 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 everything they’d done to be a joyous thread in an infinite tapestry.
Wodec had smiled and directed the experience, allowing them a glimpse of their true natures, 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 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 a hellish paranoia and infernal 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 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. 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 gathered 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. He’d passed this on to his fellow Indashi. They listened with wide eyes and parted lips as Wodec regaled them with fantastic tales of carts that operated through the use of pedals. 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 whims and cravings. 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 notes in a hide-bound notebook.
“Wait,” he said after Wodec had finished described the corporate working class. “You say they live in the lap of mechanistic luxury? And 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 looked up from his notes, thinking of Kor’Thank. “You speak of purpose.”
“Indeed.” Wodec nodded. “Holly’s purpose, ironically enough, is to discover that her revenge-borne fantasies are completely irrelevant. She considers herself 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 should you ever cease learning, than 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 True, and though you may gain power, it will not last.”
The barbarian warriors 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. “I do not think it likely. The weight of her choices—and more importantly, the weight of her identity—is trapping her inside 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.”
“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 a variation of the Eternal Quest. We brave few have been summoned—called to venture forth into strange lands and stranger worlds. 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.
“We are lucky,” Krul’Dar said, “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 vanish from your minds soon enough.”