Eons before Holly found the portal, Wodec and his rebels had already done so. The space-time distortion 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 its plains.
The High Mage gave his brothers a handful of mushrooms. After they’d eaten them, they walked wide-eyed and wonder-filled into the towering ziggurat. While Holly had trudged through an endless maze of monotonous tunnels, the barbarians did not, thanks to their open perceptions. Instead, they entered an expansive refectory. The floor was coated in a vast swath of gleaming marble. The walls were comprised of liquid shimmer, flowing downward in a continuous ebb.
“It feels…calming,” Krul’Dar murmured, staring raptly at the shimmer. “Soothing.”
The other warriors muttered their assent. They too, stared at the walls with utter fascination. Amusingly enough, their velociraptors (the warriors had dismounted and were leading them by their reigns) did the same, 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, his snowy-browed eyes crinkling in a smile. “Alantil Fairwind, as I live and breathe.”
“Wodec O’Thonkian.” Alantil halted and folded his hands behind his back. “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 dialect 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. Becoming Immersed was vexing enough.”
“It only gets better, friend. 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. Krul’Dar felt a deep nagging at the edges of his mind, something wondrous and wordless, undeniably transcendent…
Wodec said, “We need help, Alantil. My magic is potent, but I cannot traverse the dimensional bleed.”
Alantil nodded. “You seek passage to Earth. Tell me,” and here he addressed the entire troop. “What struck you as its strangest aspect?”
Krul’Dar spoke without intending to: “That their inhabitants toil night and day, only to remain trapped in a prison—a prison formed from meaningless perpetuation.”
Alantil’s eyes lit with amusement. “The corporate life. Judge not, Chronicler, for you were blessed: raised with a purpose that spoke 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 wrong. You’re no different than any of them.”
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 will 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 said. “Passage to Earth.”
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. Closer to its core was the same portal that Holly had seen: 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 was the first to recover. “The Fates call us,” he declared. “Let us heed their summons.” He strode forward. The others began edging toward the gateway, like nervous children gathering the courage to jump in the water.
“Wait.” Wodec held up a hand. The warriors halted. “Your mounts.” He pointed at their raptors.
The men flinched. They’d been trained from birth to care for their steeds. Neglecting their mounts was as grievous a sin as losing a weapon. They muttered embarrassed apologies and walked back to their dinos. Reigns in hand, they started forward once again.
“No.” Wodec halted them again with a raised palm. “Sit astride them. We are barbarian warriors, true of heart and keen of blade.”
He favored the Indashi with a mischievous smile.
“We should arrive in style.”