The Unbound Realm: Vol.1, Chapter 23

This is a definitely 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 their thing.  Like Marines or rappers who mad-dog the camera, only the Witches are 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 thoroughly petrified, so technically they’re stone, but everything else looks alive.  Feels alive would be a better way to put it.

“Are we…are we inside a tree?”

Ren gives me the stink-eye and puts a finger to his lips.  Gyrax, however, doesn’t seem to mind.  “We are,” he says.  “It fades and dims in when the sun is out, but brightens and livens 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, he could sense it long before the rest of us.)  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’s still noticeable.  We pass by laboratory-workshops with occult-looking altars, grimoire-laden bookshelves, and ancient racks of exotic, gross-looking ingredients.  (Martha Stewart would not approve.)

The others seem confident as we wind our way around twists and turns, down spiraling sets of shadowy stairwells.  I’m glad I’m walking in 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.’ ”

Magic.  Of course.

If this were a party, I’d be the loser hanging out in the corner, nursing a cup of soda and bobbing along to the music.

Eventually, we tread into a foyer.  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 grown from 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 so he can address all of us.  “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 wanderer, it doesn’t matter—not to me.”

I’m shocked into silence.  Typically, Ren communicates through resentful glares and noncommittal grunts.  The 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, pulling and straightening their equipment and clothing.

“Remember:  this will all be over soon.”  Ren pushes the door.  It creaks and groans as it swings open on its giant iron hinges.

I think he’s trying to comfort us.  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 is still there, but now it’s only an inch high.  I can actually 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 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 all 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 on past us.

After they’re gone, Ren pokes his head out, studying the street for a long, tense moment, then looks back at us and beckons with a hand.  Come on.  The coast is clear.

My senses are magnified—every breath and rustle of clothing 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 eerie silence.  We’re being super 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 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 an Iguar isn’t a person, but—

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.  Maybe he heard something.  I hope that—

And then an Iguar rounds the corner, wielding a serrated sword and a disc-shaped shield.  Its expression is annoyed and a little distant, like it’s been charged with carrying out an irritating task.  When it sees Ren its eyes widen in shock and outrage, but before it can speak, Ren sweeps forward and cuts off its head.

And then all hell breaks loose.  As more Iguar race around the corner, the others 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 off his sword, looks us in the eye, and places a finger against his lips.  Then he straightens up and continues walking.  The others follow suit—they wipe their blades and follow in his steps.

“YAAWK!”

I turn around, stunned.  Another squad of Iguar emerge from a house.  They barrel toward me and raise their weapons.

The first one slashes horizontally at my head.  No time to think—I dive sideways into a roll, spinning across the street as the other Iguar chuck daggers and javelins.  I hear them clattering against 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 whirling toward me, flipping end over end and growing large in my vision.

This it:  I’m going to di—

And than an arrow hits 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 hard off the ground and run at the Iguars, targeting the weak spots in their 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 unarmored 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 reflexively kicks it, 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, it all falls away.  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 of them.  I know they weren’t human, I know it was us or them, but—

Elier whispers, “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 spoken, but at the same time…I get why he didn’t.

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