Countless millenia before Holly crossed through the portal, Wodec and his rebels were preparing to do the same (the space-time distortion she’d suffered as a result of her warped perception had caused Wodec’s fellowship to arrive at the pyramid at a vastly different time in Elithia’s history; Holly had arrived when Elithia was a cracked, dead world, while Wodec had arrived when humans still ranged across the plains).
The High Mage had given his companions a handful of mushrooms, and after they’d eaten them, they’d walked wide-eyed and wonder-filled into the towering ziggurat. While Holly had suffered through an endless maze of monotonous tunnels, Wodec’s party did not. They were treated to an expansive refectory filled with golden ambience. The floor was coated in a vast, unbroken swath of gleaming white marble. The walls were unadorned, comprised of a liquid shimmer that ran downward in undulant waves.
“They feel calming,” Krul’Dar murmured. He was taking in the shimmer with a rapt, unblinking gaze. “Soothing.”
The barbarians behind him muttered their assent. They were mirroring Krul’Dar, staring at the walls with utter fascination. Amusingly enough, their velociraptor mounts (which no longer bore their riders; the barbarian warriors had gotten off their backs and led them by their reigns) were doing the same.
“Welcome.” Boots clopped loudly against the marble.
Krul’Dar and the warriors started in alarm; a white-haired man with a sword on his hip was walking toward them. Had he been there before, or…
Wodec didn’t seem surprised. “Long days and pleasant nights.” He wrapped both hands around the upper third of his staff, his snowy-browed eyes crinkled in a smile. “Alantil Fairwind, as I live and breathe.”
“Wodec Althusian.” Alantil stopped before them, folding his hands behind his back, and returned the Mage’s smile. “You’ve come a long way from eye of newt and toe of frog. How are your sisters?”
Wodec flapped a dismissive hand. “Not a concern. Not in this life, anyway.”
“Flying solo this time, eh?” Alantil’s voice rose in amusement.
Wodec nodded at his troop. “Keep your dialect temporal-specific. For their sakes.” He faced Alantil again. “They’re not ready to hear about linkups, second-line Exos, or quantum-tech Executors. I’ve been teaching them about Earthling customs. Even that has been a little much for them.” He looked Alantil up and down. “Or in your case, ‘Old Earth customs.’ ”
“ ‘My case?’ ” Alantil shook his head, grinning. “In the space-time coordinate you just referenced, I’ve experienced Deepening; my case is everyone’s case.”
“Deepening.” Wodec sighed and thumped his staff against the ground. His eyes turned misty and forlorn. “It’s going to come soon for me—I can feel it. To be perfectly honest, I’m not looking forward to it. Becoming Immersed was vexing enough.”
“It only gets better, old friend. Better, but more complex. Which will simplify your existence; you’ll have too much to do to think about yourself.”
Wodec sighed again. “Everything, nothing, ironies, paradoxes…”
They locked eyes. Simultaneously, they both said: “Existence.” And then busted out laughing.
The barbarians regarded them with polite puzzlement. Krul’Dar was a little different; he felt a deep nagging at the edges of his mind, something wondrous and wordless and utterly transcendent…
Wodec looked back at the other Indashi, as if he was only now acknowledging their presence. “We need help, Alantil. My magic is not powerful enough to traverse dimensions.”
Alantil nodded, his timeless face showed he understood. “It will be, Wodec. But it was necessary for you and your brethren to cross the Territories. It gave you ample time to prepare their minds for the strangeness of Earth. Tell me,” and here he addressed the entire troop. “What struck you as the strangest thing about Earth?”
Krul’Dar spoke without thinking: “That its inhabitants would work so hard to be trapped in a prison—a prison formed from meaningless perpetuation.”
“Ah.” Alantil nodded knowingly. “You speak of the corporate lifestyle. Judge not, Chronicler, for you possess the luxury of being raised with a purpose. As fragments of the True, we each choose our own path. First World Earthlings have simply chosen a different route.”
“I could never.” Krul’Dar spoke heatedly. At the same time, a shiver of revulsion ran up his spine.
Alantil fixed him with a stern look. “You could. You’re no different than any of them”
Krul’Dar fell silent. The shiver of revulsion condensed into a thick ball of dread that lay heavy and cold in the pit of his stomach.
Alantil gave him a gentle smile that was sad and knowing at the same time. “Do not worry—it will be a long time before you face that dilemma. And when you do, it will be a blessing and a curse.”
“Cease your harrying,” Wodec said, his voice tinged with irritation and amusement. “Let us attend to the matter at hand.”
“Very well,” Alantil acquiesced. “You require passage to Earth.”
“The Eye of Scylish. Step into its iris, and it will carry you there.” Alantil snapped his fingers, and everything shook for a terrifying second. A deep warble ran through the barbarians’ skulls. Alantil’s pupils dilated into mystic vortexes; hypnagogic symbols that 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 itself, warping empty space into a surreal lens. Closer to its core was the same portal that Holly had seen: an incandescent shimmer of ocean-blue splendor, leading into a blaze of pure white light.
The barbarians were struck by superstitious awe; they took an involuntary step back and murmured fearfully.
Wodec threw them an annoyed glance. “Spare me your primitive whimpers.”
“I tried to warn Holly of the peril she faced,” Alantil said. “But she refused to listen. The bending of worlds is no small thing.”
Wodec shrugged. “In the end, she will take care of herself.”
Alantil grimaced. “All too true.”
“Come hither, you trembling whissy-slips.” Wodec waved impatiently at the warriors. “Grab hold of your balls and claim your destiny. We came to help Kor’Thank, did we not?”
The barbarians exchanged an uneasy glance. Wodec waited. Outwardly cantankerous, inwardly smiling.
Krul’Dar was the first to recover. “The Fates call us,” he declared. “Let us heed their summons and aid our king.” He started toward the portal. The barbarians followed his lead and began edging forward, like nervous children who were gathering the courage to jump into water.
“Wait.” Wodec held up a hand and the warriors halted. “You require your mounts.” He threw a pointed look at the velociraptors behind the Indashi warriors.
The men started; they’d been trained since birth to care for their raptors. They wore mortified expressions and murmured embarrassedly as they turned on their heels and walked back towards their dinos. The warriors grabbed their steeds by the reigns and led them forward.
“No.” Wodec halted them again with a raised palm. His lips spread wide in a knowing smile. “Sit astride them. We are barbarian warriors, true of heart and keen of blade.”
His smile became wider.
“We should arrive in style.”