The Unbound Realm: Vol.1, Chapter 23

23

The walls are lined with portraits of women, most of them sporting mysterious-sexy smiles.  Apparently, that’s their thing.  Kinda like the opposite of Eminem—he mad-dogs the camera, but the Witches choose sexy instead of pissed.

(Definitely prefer the Witches.)

As we make our way through a maze of corridors, I realize that everything around us 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 in a tree?”  I whisper the question, but it still sounds loud in the pin-drop silence.

Ren turns around, throwing me a level ten stink-eye while angrily shushing me with a finger against his lips. 

Gyrax, however, doesn’t seem to mind.  “We are,” he says at normal volume.  “An elderly glamourwood.  Judging by its size and scope, I’d say it’s over a millennia 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 high, then brighten and liven in the light of the moon.  That is why it escaped your notice.”

“Whoa.”  Very cool.  (I’m also glad he didn’t shush me.  If there were any threats lurking nearby, Gyrax would be the first to sense them, 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 as we progress through the tree-castle, it becomes increasingly noticeable.  We pass several laboratories with occult-y altars, grimoire-laden shelves, and jars of ingredients that look gross or exotic, sometimes both.  The others seem confident as we wind our way around twists and turns, and down spiraling sets of shadowy stairwells.  I’m glad I’m in the rear—I’d be hopelessly lost if they asked me to navigate. 

After a couple minutes of Witch-castle spelunking, I whisper to Gyrax:  “Hey, uh…how do you know we’re going the right way?  Has Ren been here or something?  Is that why he’s leading?”

“No,” he whispers back.  “There are auric diagrams inscribed in the air.  He’s 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, 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.  “Once we’re outside, we need to be quiet.”  He dips his head as he thinks something over, then looks me in the eye.  “There is no denying it Jon—you have shown your worth.  Whether you are 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 sullen grunts.  His compliment catches me completely off guard, so much so that a lump begins growing inside my throat.

Lucky sheaths his cutlass and draws his short bow, nocking an arrow onto its string. 

“Remember:  it will be over soon.”  Ren unlatches the door and leans into it.  It creaks and groans as it yawns open.

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

———

Judging by the sun, I’m guessing it’s around two in the afternoon.  The fog is still there, but it’s only an inch or two high.  Unlike before, I can now see the ground.  That is a giant, giant plus—when it was deeper and thicker, I kept thinking about Luke and his buddies in the Death Star trash compactor.  I’m not in the mood to fight off a stalk-eyed tentacle-monster. 

(Tentacles.  Blech.)

It isn’t long before we hear a pack of Iguar heading toward us.  Ren darts into an alley and motions furiously for us to follow.  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!”—as they continue on past. 

Ren waits for nearly a minute, then pokes his head out and studies the street.  He meets our eyes and beckons with a hand.  Come on.  The coast is clear.

As we move through the city, my senses become magnified.  Every breath and footstep—even the rustle of clothing against skin—is utterly deafening.  I can’t get a comfortable grip on my dagger; my fingers continually adjust, trying but failing to find the right amount of tension.

We’re being quiet, but the Iguar 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.  I wish I could understand what the hell they were saying.  I’d like to know if it was casual conversation, or something along the lines of the humans are around this corner.  Pretend to keep going so we can circle behind them.

Ren holds up a fist and halts in place.  Everyone freezes.  A bead of sweat trickles down my temple.  God I hope that—

And then an Iguar rounds the corner, wielding a serrated sword and a disc-shaped shield.  It looks annoyed and preoccupied, like it’s been tasked with carrying out an irritating task.  When it spots Ren, its eyes widen in shock and outrage. 

Before it can speak, Ren cuts off its head. 

More Iguar appear before us.  My companions rush forward, stabbing and decapitating with vicious speed.  Before I know it, twelve Iguar 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 locks eyes with us, places a finger against his lips—shhhh—then straightens up and continues walking.  The others wipe their blades and follow behind. 

Then something behind me yells, “YAAWK!”  I turn around, just in time to see twelve Iguar burst from a house. 

No time to think—I dive into a sideways roll as the Iguar chuck daggers and javelins, clacking on the cobbles I just rolled across.  I finish my roll in a semi-crouch, ready to fight, when I see a single-edged long-knife whipping toward me, growing large in my adrenalized 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, gain some distance, because you never know how long it will take for 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 to my chest, staring at the bright red grime coating my fingers.  I know it was us or them, but—

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

Lucky looks at my face, then 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 clears his throat and takes his place in the column.  I wish he’d spoken, but I get why he didn’t.

There aren’t any words.  This has to be felt.