This is a Witch’s castle, but it isn’t creepy or stereotypical. Portraits of women line the walls, most of them beautiful. By and large, they have mysterious sexy-smiles. Apparently, that’s the custom here. Like Marines or rappers who mad-dog the camera, only in sexy instead of pissed. I prefer the Witches.
As we make our way through darkened corridors, I realize that everything inside is made of wood. The walls and floor are petrified, so it’s technically stone, but everything else is definitely alive.
“Are we…are we inside a tree?”
Ren throws an annoyed glance at me and puts a finger to his lips. A surge of fear races through me; there’s like a million Iguars running through the city. If they made it into the castle and heard us talking…
Gyrax, however, doesn’t seem to mind. “We are,” he says. “It fades and dims in the daytime sun, but brightens and livens in the light of the moon. That’s why we couldn’t see it in the city.”
“Whoa.” Very cool. (I’m also glad that he didn’t shush me; if a threat was around, he could sense it a long time before any of the rest of us.) Ren shakes his head in apparent frustration.
Whatever, dude—save your emo-anger for when it actually matters.
Although the Witchery isn’t right in my face yelling Sunday-Sunday-Sunday, it’s still noticeable. Aside from the paintings, there are laboratory-workshops with occult-looking altars, grimoire-laden bookshelves, and ancient racks of exotic ingredients. Martha Stewart would not approve.
The others seem confident as we wind our way around twists and turns, and down spiraling sets of shadowy stairwells. I’m thankful I’m in the back—I’d get hopelessly lost if they asked me to navigate.
After a few minutes of Witch-castle spelunking, I whisper to Gyrax: “Hey, uh…how do you guys know where to go? Has Ren been here or something? Is that why you guys let him lead?”
“No,” he whispers back. “There are auric diagrams inscribed on the air. We’re simply following the ones marked ‘exit.’ ”
Oh right. Magic. Gee—who would have thought that being left out would be a constant source of amusement and joy? If this was a party, I’d be the kid hanging out in the corner, nursing a cup of whatever and bobbing to the music, desperately trying to look cool and suave.
Eventually, we tread into the main foyer—an open space filled with pleasant wooden sculptures, all grown out from the petrified walls. Benches and chairs, 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 grow nfrom the floor.
The main entrance—a large, double-gated door adorned with different colored vines that produce a mellow-colored glow—looms before us.
Ren turns around and sweeps us with his gaze. “Once we’re outside, we need to be quiet. If you have to speak, then do so into someone’s ear. For most of us, this goes without saying, but…” He pauses for a second, thinks something over, then gives me a meaningful nod. “There is no denying it Jon, you have shown your worth. Whether you are the Prophesied Traveler or simply a wanderer, it doesn’t matter—not to me. My instructions are for your protection and safety.”
I’m shocked into silence—usually, he communicates through resentful glares and noncommittal grunts. His compliment is so unexpected 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, patting themselves down or pulling and straightening their equipment and clothing.
“Remember: This will all be over soon.” Ren pushes the door open. It creaks softly as it swings open on its large iron hinges.
I think he was trying to sound comforting. Didn’t work, but I’ll keep it to myself.
I’m guessing it’s around two in the afternoon, judging by the position of the sun. The fog we encountered when we first arrived is still there, but it’s no longer up to our knees, now it’s maybe an inch high. I can see the ground, which is a big relief. When it was deeper and thicker, I kept thinking about how Han, Chewie, Luke and Leia ended up in the Death Star trash compactor and had to fight off a stalk-eyed tentacle monster.
It isn’t long before we hear a bunch of footsteps, rushing down the street that’s lying to our front. Ren darts into the alley to our right, puts his back up against the wall, and motions furiously for us to follow. A short sprint later, we’re inside the alley, pressed up against the side of a building.
Ren slowly pokes his head out. I hear the jangle of armor and an angry epithet—sounds something like “Yah GEBBIN tebbit!”—then the patter of feet as they continue on past us. Ren studies the street for a long, tense moment, then looks back at us and beckons with his hand—Come on. Coast is clear.
We emerge from the alley. My senses are magnified—every breath and rustle of clothing sounds utterly deafening. I can’t get a comfortable grip on my dagger, even though I know exactly how to hold it. My fingers continually adjust, trying to hold it with the right amount of tension.
We walk a few more blocks in eerie silence. Our party of seven is super quiet, but the Iguars aren’t. The air is filled with growls and snaps, along with the violent jangle of armor and weapons. Everything sounds a few blocks distant, but I can’t stop myself from an involuntary flinch here and there. I’m still trying to sort out how I feel about taking a life. I mean, I know that an Iguar isn’t technically a person, but—
Ren, still walking at the head of our line, approaches a cobbled intersection. He holds up a fist and stops in place. Everyone freezes. A bead of sweat trickles down my temple.
The Wayfarer coils, getting ready to spring. Maybe he heard something. I hope that—
And then an Iguar rounds the corner, wielding a serrated short sword and shield. Its expression is annoyed and a little distant—like it’s carrying out an irritating task.
When it sees Ren it abruptly halts. Its eyes widen in shock and outrage, but before it can speak the Wayfarer cuts it head off with a sweeping slash.
A bunch of Iguar race around the corner. Everyone rushes at the same time, stabbing and decapitating with urgent fury. 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 the blood off his sword, places a finger against his lips, and looks us in the eye before he straightens up and walks across the street. The others follow suit—they wipe their blades and continue padding forward.
I turn around, stunned into shock—another squad of Iguars emerges from a house and barrels toward me. The first one closes the distance in less than a second and slashes at my waist. No time to think—I dive sideways into a brisk shoulder roll, spinning across the cobbles as the other Iguar chuck their daggers and javelins. I glimpse them hitting the section of street I just rolled across.
I come up in a semi-crouch, ready to charge my attackers, when I see a single-edged long-knife whirling toward me, flipping end over end and growing large in my vision. This it: I’m going to di—
Then an arrow smacks its guard, striking a yellow spark off the gritty black metal. Both missiles fly past me at diagonal angles.
Lucky and his short bow just saved my life.
I push off the ground and run at the Iguars, targeting the weak spots in their armor, just like I’ve been taught. My blade slips in and out as I spin and weave, feeling my weight shift from side to side as I rotate and strike, rotate and strike. Elier taught me to use slashes to create openings or as secondary attacks if I have to block. Keep the pressure on, forcing a gap where I can thrust my dagger into an unarmored neck or piece of torso, because that’s how I can 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 reflexively kicks it—after the strike, get some distance; you never know how long it will take your enemy to die.
Suddenly, I stop thinking about parries and counters and how to load my weight. I bring my hands up to chest height, staring at the bright red grime coating my fingers. I just killed twelve Iguars without thinking twice. I know they weren’t human, and I know it was us or them, but—
Elier nods at me. “Good job, Jon.” The rest of them—they’d rushed up to help but I took care of the Iguars before they could—murmur their assent as they pass me by. Lucky looks at my face, looks at my hands, then looks at my face again.
“Welcome to Evermoor.” He claps me on the 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 spoken, but at the same time, I get why he didn’t.
There aren’t any words for this. It has to be felt.