Eons before Holly found the portal, Wodec and his rebels had already done so. The space-time distortion resulting from her warped perception caused her to find it when Elithia was a cracked, dead world, while Wodec discovered it when humans still ranged across the plains.
The Mage handed out fistfuls of mushrooms. After his companions ate them, they walked wide-eyed and wonder-filled into the towering ziggurat. Holly had trudged through a maze of tunnels, but the barbarians didn’t, thanks to their open perceptions.
Instead, they entered an expansive refectory. The floor was a swath of gleaming marble. The walls were comprised of liquid shimmer, flowing down in a continuous ebb.
“It feels…calming,” Krul’Dar murmured. “Soothing.”
The other warriors muttered their assent. Amusingly enough, their velociraptor mounts followed suit, warbling softly under their breath.
“Welcome.” Boots clopped against the marble.
Krul’Dar and the warriors started in alarm. A white-haired man was walking toward them. Had he been there before, or…
Wodec, however, wasn’t surprised. “Long days and pleasant nights.” He wrapped both hands around his staff. “Alantil Fairwind, as I live and breathe.”
“Wodec O’Thonkian.” Alantil halted. “You’ve come a long way from eye of newt and toe of frog. How are your sisters?”
“Not a concern. Not in this life, anyway.”
“Flying solo, eh?”
Wodec glanced back at his troop. “For their sakes, keep your speech temporal-specific. They’re not ready to hear about linkups, second-line Exos, or quantum-tech Executors. I’ve been teaching them Earthling customs, and even that has been a little much.” He looked Alantil up and down. “Or in your case, ‘Old Earth’ customs.”
“ ‘My case?’ ” Alantil shook his head, grinning. “I’m Deepened, Wodec. My case is everyone’s case.”
“Deepening.” Wodec’s expression turned forlorn. “I’m not looking forward to it. Being Immersed was vexing enough.”
“It only gets better. Better, but more complex. Which will simplify your existence, since you’ll have too much to do to worry about yourself.”
Wodec sighed. “Everything, nothing, ironies, paradoxes…” Simultaneously, they both said: “Existence.” and burst out laughing.
The warriors regarded them with polite puzzlement.
Wodec said, “We need help, Alantil. My magic is potent, but I cannot traverse the dimensional bleed.”
Alantil nodded. “You seek passage to Earth. I can provide it. Tell me—what strikes you as its strangest aspect?”
Krul’Dar spoke without intending to: “Their inhabitants toil night and day, only to remain trapped in a prison—a prison formed from perpetuation.”
Alantil’s eyes lit with amusement. “The corporate life. Judge not, Chronicler, for you are blessed: raised with a purpose that speaks to your heart. As extensions of the True, we each choose our own path. First World Earthlings have simply chosen a different route.”
“I would never,” Krul’Dar said heatedly. “I would never live as they do.”
Alantil fixed him with a stern look. “You’re no different than anyone else.”
Krul’Dar said nothing. His revulsion became a thick ball of dread, heavy and cold in the pit of his stomach.
Alantil gave him a gentle smile. “Don’t worry—it’ll be a long time before you face that dilemma.”
“Cease your harrying,” Wodec groused. “Let us attend to the matter at hand.”
“Very well.” Alantil snapped his fingers, and everything shook for a terrifying second. His pupils dilated into mystic vortexes; hypnagogic symbols spun ’round and ’round their glowing centers. At the same time, a portal opened in the middle of the hall. Its outer reaches distorted the air, warping nearby space into a surreal lens. At its core was an ineffable locus of true-blue splendor, narrowing into a dot of pure white light.
The barbarians took an involuntary step backward.
Wodec threw them an annoyed glance. “Come hither, you trembling whissy-slips.” He waved impatiently. “We came to help Kor’Thank, did we not?”
The barbarians exchanged uneasy glances. Wodec waited, outwardly cantankerous, inwardly amused.
Krul’Dar the Chronicler recovered first. “The Fates call us,” he declared. “Let us heed their summons.” He strode toward the portal. The others began edging forward, like nervous children gathering the courage to jump in the water.
“Wait.” Wodec held up a hand and the warriors halted. “Your mounts.” He pointed at their raptors.
The men flinched. They’d been trained from birth to care for their raptors—neglecting their steeds was as grievous a sin as losing a weapon. They muttered apologies and returned to their dinos. Reigns in hand, they started forward once again.
“No.” Wodec halted them once again. “Sit astride them. We are barbarian warriors, true of heart and keen of blade.”
He favored them all with a mischievous smile.
“We should arrive in style.”