With new people came new ideas. Willow had so much new material breakthroughs seemed to be happening left and right. She had more information at her disposal than she could have ever hoped for.
Many people had come to join her in her research. There were people from places and cultures she had never heard of—hardly a great feat considering how new she was to this world—and they all wanted to make their own discoveries. For some reason, they wanted her so-called insight. She was willing to give it even if she did not see the value of it. What mattered to her was all of the knowledge they offered in exchange.
No one had managed such a global collaboration in centuries, if ever. Somehow, having an outsider in charge of the research effort made it easier for everyone to unite. It seemed a little silly when she thought about all of these scholars crammed into a single room. However, it gave her all the resources she could possibly need in one place. She never would have made the progress she had without all of their help.
Willow had made an astonishing breakthrough and now she was going to attempt something that had never been done before. The decision had attracted quite a bit of attention.
The pressure to succeed increased with each head that turned in her. Rather than wait to falter under the collective expectations of her audience, she thought it might be better to dive in and try her best to make it work.
Without announcement or any sort of ceremony, she closed her eyes and tried to shift into the deep concentration she needed to perform this experiment. Her audience seemed to anticipate her need for silence. As soon as her eyes closed the other researchers stopped murmuring to one another.
Silence did make it easier for her to concentrate. Soon enough she felt herself slip away. She was in complete darkness with no way to navigate for a long, long time. All she had was some faith in her research and a hope that she had enough momentum to get to where she was going.
Then the nothingness was gone. She could feel somehow that she was not present in this space she was now acutely aware of in her mind. She knew she was not experiencing this place with her senses, but somehow she was there. She allowed her thoughts to spread out and explore the space.
Willow was safe in the palace in Detreya. Willow was also in the space between worlds.
Exploring the space between worlds was strange without a physical presence there. Then again, being there in her physical body was a strange experience too. Projecting her awareness into the space had some distinct advantages she could not exploit if she was there in body as well as mind. She could sense and observe a much larger area.
She explored tentatively at first and when she found nothing worth reporting back, she expanded her search. Only then did she find something out of the ordinary. There were others in the space between worlds.
She had only been to this place a handful of times before, but she never ran into anyone else in there. She could not remember even seeing evidence of others passing through. Now others were traveling through here at the same time.
Moving toward the others was a strange sensation but surprisingly easy to do. All it took was a bit of willpower on her part and she could cover any distance.
Synthesizing the various studies the scholars had brought along with them had led her to believe this was a possibility. She just had never imagined she would be able to get here to try out these theories.
It seemed that without a physical body she was not limited by the speed and direction she would travel on foot. She could move to where she wanted to be almost instantaneously. The problem was knowing where she wanted to go.
This was Willow’s first experience existing anywhere without a body. Like with any major change in circumstance, she needed time to adjust to her current capabilities. She simply had not prepared herself for being more capable in this state.
She found the others through trial and error. Using feeling and instinct rather than her ordinary senses caused her to pass over them a few times before she managed to slow down and stay focused on them.
They were travelers. Their physical bodies were traveling from one world to the other. She stayed with them as they moved for a while to see if she could learn anything more about them. They did not react to her arrival in any way she could perceive so she assumed she could observe them without any risk of discovery.
While following them, she realized they were most likely her enemies. The us-versus-them mentality had always made her uncomfortable. Life just was not that simple. However, she was now an important figure on one side of a war. Detreya and her allies had all agreed to stop making artificial openings to the path between worlds. Their enemy was likely still looking the other way while unscrupulous merchants went looting in her world.
Shadowing them so closely was probably a big risk. Willow could not help associating these travelers with Barkly Jokin and that made them seem virtually harmless.
These travelers did not speak much and the words they did say were incomprehensible to her. She did not have ears in this place to hear them so she had to rely on the impression their words left behind to get the gist of what was happening. Things were a bit vague, of course, but she knew without a doubt that they knew where they were going. They had not stumbled in here accidentally and this was probably not their first time passing through this space.
She continued to track them. She did not know what else she could do. Coming to this place was a test in and of itself. She had not planned to succeed on her first try, not that she would admit that to any of the researchers currently waiting for her to return. They had so much faith in her, she was afraid to find out what would happen when the discovered that she did not live up to their expectations.
None of what she had read had prepared her for this experience. The idea had been purely theoretical until she tried it and somehow managed to make it work. She had a million questions and surely there would be at least a million more she had not considered once she returned to her body.
If this trip had been merely for the purpose of research, she would have turned back long ago. Incremental progress would make it easier to determine what worked and what did not. These huge leaps forward left a lot of room for misinterpretation of her experience. However, there was a real threat to the lives of thousands, perhaps millions, of people and Willow could help them if she was willing to take risks and improvise.
Willow had warned them that she was a terrible scientist.
Moving along with the travelers gave her a better feel for the corridor-like space. She realized she might be able to manipulate it. If she wanted she could bend this hallway and force the travelers to keep walking. No. That was too cruel. Even if they were thieves, which she was almost certain they were, they probably had someone waiting for them back home. She would not condemn anyone to an extended stay in this place. That notion gave way to another. Perhaps she could stop them from coming back through this way again.
Blocking off some of the places creating the most traffic might at least buy them some time. The overuse of the path between worlds was what was leading to its collapse.
With the path already so unstable, she just was not sure what the repercussions for her interference might be. If she acted rashly without fully understanding what needed to be done or how she could do it, the results could be disastrous. On the other hand, doing nothing was a guarantee of disaster. Time was running out. Something had to be done and none of them had a clear idea of how long they had left to act.
Going back and conferring with the others was probably the safest course of action. They collectively had centuries of knowledge and experience. Willow had a few weeks of intense research and a lot of luck to call her own. Then again, this might be their last chance to do something.
As she moved forward she wondered if Yuri or Asa would be the first to burst a blood vessel when heard about what she was doing. Guessing was almost impossible. They almost seemed to take turns being overprotective. Her bet was on Asa, though. Yuri cared a lot less about following correct procedures than Asa. She would not know for sure until she made it back and told them. For now, she just needed to focus on finishing her task and making it back to them.
The travelers were finally exiting the space between worlds. She felt certain they were back where they belonged so shutting the door behind them would not leave them stranded in a strange world. There could be others still on the other side she would be stranding by acting now, but she needed to act now or not at all.
She was not sure what she was doing. Coming here like this had been purely theoretical until she did it so the theories for steps beyond getting here were abstract, to say the least.
In the face of uncertainty, she had no choice but to wing it. That, at least, was something she had experience doing. Now that she was alone again there was nothing to take away from her concentration. She focused on her goal and blocked out everything else.
Most of what she accomplished today had occurred when she allowed her instincts to take control. With that in mind, she tried to instinctively close the doorway.
Her failure was disappointing, but not all that surprising. A great deal of time, effort and energy went into opening these doorways. There was a reason most of the people capable of doing it did not keep the doorway open for a return trip. The amount of energy being poured into it had to be astronomical.
Maybe it was just the confidence everyone had in her back in her makeshift research center, but Willow thought she just might be able to pull it off if she tried again. Her abilities seemed to have a strange effect on the magic of this world so she might not need to be as strong as the magic holding the door open to stop it.
If she failed this time she would not have enough energy to try again. Inexperience meant she lacked the finesse to see this through so she was going to give overwhelming force a try.
Once again she honed her awareness in on the doorway. The rest of the space between worlds faded away. This time she felt a build-up of energy in the center of her being. It was small and dense. The power built up with a burning sensation, but not from heat but from the tension of too much being packed into too small of a container. She needed to give her all to make this work so she ignored these early warnings and pushed forward.
She unleashed her power in a concussive burst and felt the energy reverberations of the door slamming shut half a second later. Her awareness spread out again with trepidation. The doorway was gone. Evidence of its existence still remained, but it was as though she had filled the hole in with a mixture of her own will and the material that made up this space. It might not be perfect, but no one would be crossing over from this spot until someone opened a new door.
Extending her awareness further told her there were more doors still open. She did not think she had the stamina to attempt to close any more this time. Her frustration was short-lived. Her attention was drawn to another presence somewhere in the space between worlds.
A shiver of fear struck her. This presence felt nothing like the travelers she had followed. This one knew she was here and it was not amused.
She panicked and with a whip-like snap, she was back in her body. A dozen curious, excited faces were crowded around her, watching her with rapt attention. They waited for her to say something and she scrambled to come up with something worth saying.
A sharp inhale pushed a panicked explanation to the forefront of her mind. Before she could begin a proper explanation, she blurted out, “I closed a door, but there was something else there. It was angry.”
Everyone started talking at once. Willow was drained, but she knew she had a long day ahead of her before there was any hope of breaking away to rest. The adrenaline from her experience would keep her going for a while longer. She hoped it would be long enough to come up with some real strategies moving forward.