-The Unbound Realm: Vol.1, Chapter 3

Over the next few weeks, I see a lot more of Dragon World.  That’s my name for it, because all the scenes are from a fantasy realm.

Any door can serve as a portal.  Car door, bathroom door, double door, revolving door (Those are the worst; they alternate between Normal World and Dragon World in epileptic flashes).  It’s always short and always vivid—like a two-second trailer for an upcoming blockbuster.  But unlike a preview for the latest Avengers, Dragon World isn’t exciting or awesome; it’s downright terrifying.  Magic is cool if you confine it to a theater or trap it in a book.  When it makes you question your sanity, it’s the exact opposite of cool.

I’ve toyed with the idea of trying mushrooms, but these Dragon World visions have changed my mind.  At least with drugs you know you’re tripping—you can brace your mind to ride it out, or call some friends to calm you down.

The most common thing I see is armored soldiers.  They wear full-body plate mail:  impossibly white, jagged and austere, like D&D versions of Star Wars stormtroopers.  Most of the time, they’re fighting ragtag forest people who dress like Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. 

I also have visions of the guy with the blindfold.  He wears pitch-black armor:  lightweight plates defined by gold tracery.  He wields a pair of deep violet knives, engraved with runes that match the ones on his glowing blindfold.

Stormtroopers and Foresters fight like regular people, but Blindfold Guy moves like a Marvel superhero.  He jumps and kicks with balletic grace, pulling off moves I would have only thought possible in a martial arts action movie—twists and flips, spinning back-sweeps, and combos that take out multiple opponents.

He also knows magic.  He can zap his attackers with colored energy, bring plants to life and tangle opponents, or call water from a lake as a giant wave.  His magic and fighting flow together—when he casts a spell, it rises organically out of his movement, whether it’s a kick, block, or punch.  He’s a cross between Daredevil, Batman, and a 50th-level wizard.

That’s just the tip of the fantasy-world iceberg.

I see pirates navigating turbulent seas, raiding ships or fleeing hundred-feet serpents.  I see dragons battling hordes of gargoyles, dotting the sky with their bloody corpses.  I see palace interiors, filled with lords and warriors, servants and artisans.

I see a lot of peasants.  They work the lands and pay the Stormtroopers.  Usually in gold or silver, but in poorer communities, with food or goods.  They line up for bureaucrats who sit behind tables, writing stuff down in their hidebound notebooks.  Their Stormtrooper bodyguards stand around, fiddling with their weapons or picking at their armor.

Sometimes, a peasant won’t have enough.  The bureaucrat-recorder will throw a fit while the unfortunate commoner hangs their head.  After a lengthy scolding, the recorder gestures for a Pain Wizard.  (I’m sure they’re called something else, but Dragon World doesn’t come with audio or captions.)

Pain Wizards dress in ebony robes.  Some of it’s cloth, but the rest is an ever-shifting mass of pitch black smoke.  The only visible skin is their jaws and noses.  The rest is shadowed by a billowing hood.

The Wizard twists the air like Darth freaking Vader, causing black veins to erupt across the peasant.  It looks straight-up torturous—whoever’s getting punished will drop to their knees and scream their lungs out.  Everyone else just stands and stares.  Initially, I’m creeped out by their apparent lack of caring, but later I realize that on-the-spot punishment is seen as a blessing.

The real torture happens out of sight.  If the offender is shackled and taken away, the entire community begs and pleads.  The troopers don’t listen—they backhand the peasants and move on to the next town.

I see this every time I open a door.  Wizards.  Soldiers.  Creatures.

I’m not getting better.  I think I’m going crazy.

———

Atriya.  That’s where it started.  I’m gonna track him down and figure this out.  If necessary, I will threaten his life.  I do not care if he’s a gun-toting war guy.

I hop in my car (when I open the door I glimpse a Forester riding a giant, silvery lizard) and strap into my seat.  I get on 280, take the exit, then pull into the parking lot of the Armed Forces Recruiting Center.  I open the door and hop out (this time I remember to close my eyes) and close my eyes again as I enter the building.  I shove past a kid and skid to a stop in front of the recruiting office.

“Atriya!”  I forget to close my eyes as I open the door:  I see a long line of monks hiking a mesa, topped by a fifty-foot man made entirely of stone.  He’s sitting on the summit sound asleep, chin propped up on a bent-wristed hand.

“WHERE’S ATRIYA?”

“Whoa.”  One of the Marines stands up from his desk.  “Calm down.  He doesn’t work here.  Not anymore.”

“What?  But he was…he was just…where is he?”

I’m abruptly aware of my sweat-soaked hair, my beet-red cheeks.

The Marine gives me a hard stare.  A keep-your-hands-where-I-can-see-them stare.  He’s got a square-jaw, deep furrows around his nose and lips, and a thick, punch-proof skull.

“Gone.  Retired.”

“What?”  I’m repeating myself.  I’m too discombobulated to care or apologize.

“Come in,” he says gruffly.

I step inside.  The other Marines regard me warily.  I don’t blame them.  It’s been a couple of days since I last showered.  Haven’t changed clothes in at least three.

“You’ve got a place to stay, right?”  The Marine who let me in crosses his arms.

“Uh…yeah.”  I run a hand through my hair, willing my heart to slow the hell down.  “Yeah.  An apartment.”

“You hungry?”

“No.”  I look sideways, suddenly ashamed.  “I have plenty of food.  Money, too.”

He claps my shoulder with a calloused hand.  “You sure?”  His tone isn’t gentle, but there’s genuine concern.  “If you need any help, I can make some calls.”

“No, I’m fine.”  I shake my head.  “Atriya used to work here, right?”

“Yeah.”  He gives me a suspicious once-over.  Why do you care? 

“I’m friends with him.”

His eyes grow a notch more suspicious.  I can see his brain working the angles—he’s pulling a scam he wants some attention he’s lost his mind—but then he relaxes and gives a noncommittal shrug.  He’s a skinny teenager.  High-strung, not crazy.

“He didn’t like it here, but he always did whatever he was told.”  He gives me another once-over, less suspicious this time.  “Name’s Hardwick.  Gunny Hardwick.”  He extends a hand.

I shake it firmly.  “Jon.  He told me his boss took it easy on him.  Because he’d done some hard time.”

“He told you that, huh?”  He chuckles knowingly, loosening up.  “Yeah, when I said he ‘did whatever he was told,’ I meant he stayed home or went to the gym.  The guy earned it.  The things he’s done…”  He shakes his head in muted respect.

“What do you mean?”

“C’mere.”  Hardwick beckons me into a walled-off office, away from the cubicles.  He clicks on the lights and sits at a desk.  Opens a cabinet and gently takes out a wooden box, roughly the size of a standard laptop.

“This is a shadow box.”

The contents are shielded by a glass display cover.  Inside, mounted on velvet, are rows upon rows of ribbons and medals.

“We made it for him.”  As Hardwick gazes at it, I can tell that a big piece of him has gone somewhere else.  There’s deep emotion behind his eyes—a little bit of sadness and a whole lot of stuff I can only guess at.

“Here.”  He pushes it toward me.

I stare at the box, captivated by its weight and history.  “All these ribbons…” I murmur.

“He was supposed to take it, but he left it behind.”  A rueful smile.  “When I asked if he wanted anything inside it, he texted me a picture of his middle finger.”

My breath catches.  Hardwick’s talking, but I’m not listening.  Under the ribbons, centered beneath a Marine emblem, is a small black plate with six gold words.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

“What…what…”  I can’t speak.  I’m blown away.

“Huh?”  Hardwick leans forward in his chair, then sees what I’m looking at and relaxes in his seat.  “Oh.  Weird, right?  Most guys ask for a unit motto, but not Atriya.  That quote was the only thing he insisted on.  Who am I to judge?”  He shrugs.  “You don’t say no to Chris Atriya.”

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

With a conscious effort, I tear my eyes away.  “Do you have his number?”

“Nope.  No address, no email.  He wanted to cut all ties—didn’t even want a damn retirement ceremony.  I got him to compromise; on his last day, we took him out for beer and pizza.  But he made it clear that he didn’t want to discuss his service; all he wanted was to hang out and chat.  Said he was gonna live in peace and pursue his hobbies.  Guitar, jiu-jitsu, carpentry…it was always something new.  Right before he left, he was learning how to dance.  Can you believe that?  Dancing.”  Hardwick chuckles.  “He wanted to dance like Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder.”

I chuckle along with him.  “Sounds about right.  I mean, I didn’t know him for long, but—”

“How’d you guys meet?”

“It was a couple weeks ago.  I walked in and—”

“A couple weeks?  He hasn’t worked here in over a year.”

———

My mouth opens and closes, trying to form a sentence.  A year?

A YEAR?

“Something wrong?”

“Uh, no.”  I rub my neck and cough awkwardly.  “I meant to say a couple years ago.  Years, not weeks.”

“Right.”  The atmosphere shifts—our weird bonding moment has clearly passed.  He stands up and clears his throat.  “If there’s anything else…”

“Nope.  Thanks for your time.”

I make my body stand and turn.  I force my feet to start walking.  I close my eyes as I open the door.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

I break into a trot as I leave the office.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

As I exit the building, I forget to close my eyes.  I see a band of wanderers, swords out, standing back-to-back on an icy tundra.  They’re surrounded by a horde of dog-sized insects.

I take off running.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

I get in my car and gun the engine.  My heart is pounding like a giant drum.  I can feel it in my chest.  I can hear it in my head.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

I drive off the lot and onto the highway.  I don’t know where to go.  I don’t know what to do.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

I can’t think.  I can’t breathe.  I can’t.  I can’t.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

I have to pull over because of the visions.  Because it’s not just the doors.

Now it’s the windows.