The Unbound Realm: Vol.1, Chapter 23

The walls are lined with portraits of women, all of them beautiful.  Most are sporting mysterious-sexy smiles.  Apparently, that’s their thing.  Kinda like Eminem, only in the opposite sense—he mad-dogs the camera, while the Witches choose to be sexy instead of pissed.

(Definitely prefer the Witches.)

As we make our way through a maze of corridors, I realize that everything inside is made of wood.  The walls and floor are literally petrified, meaning they’re technically stone, but it all looks alive.  Feels alive would be a better way to put it.

“Are we…are we inside a tree?”  Even though I whisper the question, it sounds extra loud in the pin-drop silence.

Ren turns around, raking my face with a level ten stink-eye while putting a straightened finger against his lips. 

Gyrax, however, doesn’t seem to mind.  “We are,” he says in a normal tone.  “An old-world glamourwood.  Judging by its size and scope, I’d say it’s at least a thousand years old.”

“Glamourwood, huh?  Cool name.  Didn’t see it back in the city; maybe I wasn’t paying attention”

“They fade and dim when the sun is out, then brighten and liven in the light of the moon.  That is why it escaped your notice.”

“Whoa.”  Very cool.  (I’m also glad that he didn’t shush me.  If a threat was near, Gyrax would be the first one to sense it, so it’s safe to say we’re in the clear.)  Ren—irked by our lack of doom-and-gloom silence—shakes his head in apparent frustration. 

Whatever, dude.

The Witchery isn’t all up in my face yelling SUNDAY-SUNDAY-SUNDAY, but it becomes unmistakable as we tread the halls.  We pass several laboratory-workshops with occult-looking altars, grimoire-laden bookshelves, and jars of ingredients that look gross or exotic, sometimes both. 

Martha Stewart would not approve.

The others seem comfortable as we wind our way around twists and turns, down spiraling sets of shadowy stairwells.  I’m glad I’m in the rear—I’d get hopelessly lost if they asked me to lead. 

After a few more minutes of Witch-castle spelunking, I whisper to Gyrax:  “Hey, uh…how do you guys know where we’re going?  Has Ren been here or something?  Is that why he’s in front?”

“No,” he whispers back.  “There are auric diagrams inscribed in the air.  We’re following the ones marked ‘exit.’ ”

Auric diagrams—of course.  If this were a party, I’d be the loser hanging out in the corner, nursing a half-empty cup and bobbing along to the music.

Eventually, we make our way into a foyer.  There’s benches and chairs, tables and counters, tastefully arranged throughout the room.  But they’re not independent of the castle itself—they’re grown from the walls and the symbol-lined floor.  The main entrance—a large, double-gated door adorned with richly colored vines—looms before us.

Ren stops walking and meets our eyes.  “Once we’re outside, we need to be quiet.”  He pauses for a second, thinking something over, then looks me in the eye.  “There is no denying it Jon—you have shown your worth.  Whether you’re truly the Traveler or simply a man with magical gifts, it doesn’t matter—not to me.  I want you to know that before we venture into further danger.”

I’m shocked into silence.  Typically, Ren communicates through resentful glares and noncommittal grunts.  His compliment catches me off guard—so much so that I feel a lump growing in my throat.

Lucky sheaths his cutlass and draws his short bow, nocking an arrow onto its string.  The others do a quick gear-check, pulling and straightening their equipment and clothing.

“Remember:  this will all be over soon.”  Ren unlatches the door and pushes it open.  It creaks and groans, swinging wide on a giant set of iron hinges.

I think he’s trying to sound comforting.  Didn’t work, but I’ll keep that to myself.

———

I’m guessing it’s around two in the afternoon, judging by the position of the sun.  The fog is still there, but it’s only an inch or so high.  Unlike before, I can now see the ground, which comes as a big relief.  When it was deeper and thicker, I kept thinking about how Luke and his buddies ended up in the Death Star trash compactor, as unwitting prey for a stalk-eyed tentacle-monster. 

Tentacles.  Blech.

It isn’t long before we hear footsteps, rushing down the street to our front.  Ren darts right into an alley motions furiously for us to do the same.  A short sprint later, we’re lined up behind him, pressed tightly against the alleyway wall.  I hear the jangle of armor and an angry epithet—“Yah GEBBIN tebbit!”—then the patter of feet as they continue on past us. 

After they pass, Ren waits for nearly a minute, then pokes his head out and studies the street.  He looks back at us and beckons with a hand.  Come on.  The coast is clear.

My senses are magnified.  Every breath and footstep—even the rustle of clothing against skin—is utterly deafening.  I can’t get a grip on my dagger; my fingers continually adjust, trying to find the right amount of tension.

We’re being quiet, but the Iguars aren’t.  The air is filled with growls and snaps, along with the clatter of weapons and gear.  They sound a good way off, but I find myself flinching whenever they gabble.  If only I could understand what the hell they were saying.  I’d like to know if it was casual conversation or something like the humans are around this corner.  Pretend to keep going so we can circle behind them.

As we approach a cobbled intersection, Ren holds up a fist and halts in place.  Everyone freezes. 

A bead of sweat trickles down my temple.  I hope that—

And then an Iguar rounds the corner, wielding a serrated sword and a disc-shaped shield.  Its expression is annoyed and preoccupied, like it’s been told to carry out an irritating task.  When it spots Ren, its eyes widen in shock and outrage. 

Before it can speak, Ren lunges and cuts off its head. 

More Iguar appear before us.  Everyone rushes forward. stabbing and decapitating with vicious speed.  Before I know it, twelve Iguars are lying dead in the street. 

It happened so fast…I didn’t have a chance to throw a strike.

Ren wipes his sword on a prone body.  He looks us in the eye, places a finger against his lips, then straightens up and continues walking.  The others wipe their blades and follow in his steps. 

“YAAWK!”

I turn around, just in time to see twelve Iguar emerge from a house.  They barrel toward me, weapons raised. 

No time to think—I dive into a sideways roll, spinning across the street as the other Iguar chuck daggers and javelins; they clack loudly on the cobbles I just rolled across. 

I come up in a semi-crouch, ready to fight, when I see a single-edged long-knife whipping toward me, flipping end over end, growing large in my vision. 

This it.  I’m going to di—

An arrow hits the knife in its double-tined guard, striking a yellow spark off the gritty black metal.  Both missiles fly diagonally past me. 

Lucky and his short bow just saved my life.

I push hard off the ground and charge my attackers.  My blade slips in and out as I spin and weave, shifting from side to side as I rotate and strike, rotate and strike.  Keep the pressure on so I can force a gap, thrust my dagger into an exposed piece of neck or torso, because that’s how you do the most dama—

And then it’s over.  The last Iguar falls backward, a runny red wound in place of its eye.  My foot twitches up and kicks it away, just like Elier taught me:  after a critical hit, get some distance, because you never know how long it will take them to die. 

Suddenly, my mind downshifts.  I stop thinking about parries and counters and loading my weight for follow-on strikes.  I bring my hands up to my chest, staring at the bright red grime coating my fingers. 

I know they weren’t human and it was us or them, but—

Elier says, “Good job, Jon.”  The others murmur their assent. 

Lucky looks at my face, looks at my hands, then at my face again. 

“Welcome to Evermoor.”  He claps my shoulder and walks away.

Gyrax’s eyes are sad and knowing.  He opens his mouth like he’s about to speak, then shakes his head and takes his place in the column. 

I wish he’d say something, but at the same time, I get why he doesn’t.

There aren’t any words for this.  It has to be felt.