This is a Witch’s castle, but it isn’t creepy or stereotypical. Portraits of women line the walls, all of them beautiful. Most are sporting mysterious-sexy smiles. Apparently, that’s their thing—kinda like Marines or rappers who mad-dog the camera, only Witches are 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, gives me a level ten stink-eye, and puts a finger to his lips.
Gyrax, however, doesn’t seem to mind. “We are,” he says at normal volume. “An old-world glamourwood, to be exact. Judging by its size and scope, I’d say that it’s at least a thousand years old.”
“Glamourwood, huh? Cool name.”
“Aye. They fade and dim when the sun is out, then brighten and liven in the light of the moon. That’s why we couldn’t see it back in the city.”
“Whoa.” Very cool. (I’m also glad that he didn’t shush me—if a threat was near, Gyrax could sense it long before the rest of us, meaning we don’t need to worry about being quiet.) Ren shakes his head in apparent frustration.
Whatever, dude—save your emo-anger for someone who cares.
Although the Witchery isn’t all up in my face yelling SUNDAY-SUNDAY-SUNDAY, it becomes unmistakable as we keep going. We pass several laboratory-workshops equipped with occult-looking altars, grimoire-laden bookshelves, and ancient racks of jarred ingredients either gross or exotic, sometimes both. Martha Stewart would not approve.
The others seem perfectly at ease as we wind our way around twists and turns, down spiraling sets of shadowy stairwells. I’m glad I’m bringing up the rear—I’d get hopelessly lost if they asked me to navigate.
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 before? Is that why you guys let him lead?”
“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. Benches and chairs along with tables and counters are tastefully arranged throughout the room, but they’re not independent of the castle itself—they ‘re attached to the walls or grown from the floor. The main entrance—a large, double-gated door adorned with richly colored vines—looms before us.
Ren turns around and meets our eyes. “Once we’re outside, we need to be quiet.” He pauses for a second, thinking something over, then gives me a nod. “There is no denying it Jon—you have shown your worth. Whether you are the Prophesied Traveler or simply a man with magical gifts, it doesn’t matter—not to me. I wanted you to know that before we ventured into further danger.”
I’m shocked into silence. Typically, Ren communicates through resentful glares and noncommittal grunts. The compliment blindsides me—so much so that I feel a small lump growing in the middle of 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 gives it a push. It creaks and groans, swinging open 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 now it’s only an inch 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’s trash compactor. Then they had to fight off a stalk-eyed tentacle monster. Not my cup of tea.
It isn’t long before we hear footsteps, rushing down the street directly to our front. Ren darts into the alley to our right, puts his back to the wall, and motions furiously for us to do the same. A short sprint later, we’re inside the alley, pressed up against the wall. I hear the jangle of armor and an angry epithet—something like “Yah GEBBIN tebbit!”—then the patter of feet as they continue past us.
After they pass, Ren pokes his head out and studies the street for a long, tense moment.
He looks back at us and beckons with a hand. Come on. The coast is clear.
My senses magnify—every breath and footstep, even the rustle of clothing against skin sounds utterly deafening. I can’t get a comfortable grip on my dagger. My fingers continually adjust, trying to find the right amount of tension.
We walk a few more blocks in tense silence. We’re being quiet, but the Iguars aren’t. The air is filled with growls and snaps, along with the jangle of armor and weapons. They sound a good way off, but I can’t help but flinch whenever they gabble. If only I could understand what the hell they were saying—as it is, I’m not sure if it’s casual conversation or something like the humans are just around the corner. Pretend to keep going so we can circle around and cut them off.
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 charged with carrying out an irritating task. When it sees Ren, its eyes widen in shock and outrage. Before it can speak, Ren lunges forward and cuts off its head.
More Iguar race around the corner. My companions rush forward. stabbing and decapitating with vicious speed.
Before I know it, twelve Iguars lay dead in the street.
It happened so fast…I didn’t have a chance to throw a strike.
Ren wipes his sword off on a fallen Iguar. 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.
I turn around, just in time to see another squad of Iguar emerge from a house. They barrel toward me and raise their weapons. The first one slashes at my head.
No time to think—I dive into a sideways roll, spinning across the street as the other Iguar chuck daggers and javelins, clattering loudly on the cobbles I just rolled across.
I come up in a semi-crouch, ready to charge my attackers, when I see a single-edged long-knife whipping toward me, flipping end over end and growing large in my vision.
This it: I’m going to di—
And then 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 run at my attackers, focusing on the weak spots in their tarnished armor. 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 neck or piece of 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 your opponent to die.
Suddenly, my mind downshifts. I stop thinking about parries and counters and loading my weight for a follow-on strike. I bring my hands up to chest height, staring at the bright red grime coating my fingers. I just killed twelve of them. I know they weren’t human, I know 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 said something, but at the same time, I get why he didn’t.
There aren’t any words for this. It has to be felt.