Eons before Holly found the portal, Wodec and his rebels were about to do the same (the space-time distortion she’d suffered due to her warped perception caused her to arrive when Elithia was a cracked, dead world, while Wodec arrived when humans still ranged across its plains).
The High Mage had given each of his fellow barbarians a handful of mushrooms. After they’d eaten them, they’d walked wide-eyed and wonder-filled into the towering ziggurat. While Holly had trudged through an endless maze of monotonous tunnels, Wodec’s party did not, thanks to their opened psyches. The barbarians entered an expansive refectory filled with golden ambience. The floor was coated in a vast, unbroken swath of gleaming white marble. The walls were comprised of a liquid shimmer that flowed downward in undulant waves.
“It feels…calming,” Krul’Dar murmured, staring at the shimmer with a rapt, unblinking gaze. “Soothing.”
The other barbarians muttered their assent. They too, were staring at the walls with utter fascination. Amusingly enough, their velociraptors (which no longer bore their riders; the warriors had dismounted and were leading the dinos by their reigns) 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 with a sword on his hip was walking toward them. Had he been there before, or…
Wodec, however, didn’t seem surprised. “Long days and pleasant nights.” He wrapped both hands around his staff, his snowy-browed eyes crinkling into a warm 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?”
Wodec flapped a dismissive hand. “Not a concern. Not in this life, anyway.”
“Flying solo this time, eh?”
Wodec glanced at his troop. “For their sakes, please keep your dialect temporal-specific.” 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. “I’ve experienced Deepening, Wodec; my case is everyone’s case.”
“Deepening.” Wodec’s eyes turned misty and forlorn. “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, 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, but Krul’Dar was different; he felt a deep nagging at the edges of his mind, something wondrous and wordless and utterly transcendent…
Wodec said, “We need help, Alantil. My magic is potent, but I cannot traverse the dimensional bleed.”
Alantil nodded. “It was necessary for you and your brethren to cross the Territories. The journey gave you ample time to prepare your minds for the strangeness of Earth. Tell me,” and here he addressed the entire troop. “What struck you as its strangest aspect?”
Krul’Dar spoke without intending to: “Their inhabitants work so hard to stay within a prison—a prison formed from meaningless perpetuation.”
“Ah.” Alantil’s eyes lit up. “You speak of the corporate life. Judge not, Chronicler, for you were blessed: raised with a purpose that spoke to your heart. As fragments 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 could. You’re no different than any one of them.”
Krul’Dar fell silent. His 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. “Don’t worry—it will be a long time before you face that dilemma. And when you do, it will be a gift and a curse.”
“Cease your harrying,” Wodec groused “Let us attend to the matter at hand.”
“Very well,” Alantil acquiesced. “You require passage to the world known as Earth.”
Alantil snapped his fingers, and everything shook for a terrifying second. His 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, warping empty space into a surreal lens. Closer to its core was the same portal that Holly had seen: an incandescent shimmer 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 started toward the portal. The others 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. “Your mounts.” He threw a pointed look at their velociraptors.
The men flinched. They’d been trained from birth to care for their raptors; neglecting their mounts was almost as grievous a sin as losing a weapon. They muttered apologies as they turned on their heels and walked back towards the dinos. They grabbed their steeds by the reigns and started forward 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.”