-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.  (And in case you’re wondering, yes—there are dragons in Dragon World.)

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 fleeting trailer for an upcoming blockbuster.  But unlike a preview for the latest Avengers, Dragon World isn’t exciting or awesome; it’s downright scary.  Magic is cool when you see it in a movie or read about it in a book, not when it’s making you question your sanity.

Initially, all I see are armored soldiers.  They walk around in full-body plate—jagged and austere, impossibly white.  A couple days in, I see them fighting with forest people who dress like Aragorn

After a week, I start catching glimpses of the guy with the blindfold.  He wears pitch-black armor, made from lightweight sections defined by elegant gold tracery.  Stormtroopers and Foresters fight like regular people, but Blindfold fights like a Marvel superhero.  He can twist and flip, kick and spin, and throw combos that take out multiple opponents.

He also knows magic.  Every so often, he’ll zap his attackers with colored energy.  Sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes it’s ragged, but it’s always surrounded by glowing runes.  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 sailing turbulent seas, raiding ships or fleeing serpents.  I see dragons breathing lightning at gargoyle hordes, dotting the sky with their smoking corpses.  I see palace interiors filled with lords and warriors.

Three weeks in, I start seeing peasants who line up for bureaucrats:  small, measly men who write stuff down in hidebound notebooks.  Stormtrooper bodyguards dawdle behind them, fiddling with weapons or picking at their armor.

Occasionally, a peasant won’t have enough to pay their tribute.  The bureaucrat-recorder will throw a fit while the unfortunate commoner hangs their head.  After a lengthy scolding, the recorder signals for the nearest Pain Wizard.  (I’m pretty sure they’re called something else, but Dragon World doesn’t come with captions or audio.)  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 eclipsed by a shadowy hood.

The Wizard will twist and clutch the air, causing black veins to erupt across the peasant.  It looks straight-up torturous—whoever’s getting punished will scream and howl.  Everyone else just stands and stares.

At first I’m shaken by their seeming indifference, but later I realize that on-the-spot punishment is seen as a blessing.  The real torture happens out of sight.  If the peasant is shackled and taken away, the entire community begs and pleads.

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

It’s not getting better.  I think I’m losing it.

———

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 slide in my car (as I open the door, I glimpse a grimy Forester riding a silvery lizard) and strap into my seat.  Hop on 280, take the exit, and park in the lot of the Armed Forces Recruiting Center.  I get out (this time I remember to close my eyes) and rush inside.

“Atriya!”  I forget to close my eyes as I yank on the door.  I see a 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 onto 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 and my coffee-stained shirt.

The Marine gives me a hard stare.  A keep-your-hands-where-I-can-see-them stare.  “Gone.  Retired.”

“What?”  I’m repeating myself, I know, but I’m too disoriented to care or apologize.

“Come in,” he says gruffly.

As I step in the office, the other Marines regard me warily.  Can’t blame them—it’s been a couple of days since I last showered.  Haven’t changed clothes in at least three.

“You got a place to stay?”  The Marine crosses his brawny arms.

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

“Hungry?”

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

“You sure?”  His tone isn’t gentle, but there’s genuine concern.  “If you need some help, I can make a call.”

“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, uh…we’re friends.”

His eyes grow a notch more suspicious—he’s pulling a scam he wants attention he’s lost his mind—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.  Name’s Hardwick.  Gunny Hardwick.”  He extends a hand.

I reach out and shake it.  “Jon.  He told me his boss left him alone.  Because he’d done some hard time.”

“He told you that, huh?”  Hardwick chuckles, loosening up.  “Yeah, when I say he ‘did whatever he was told,’ I mean he stayed home or went to the gym.  The guy earned it.”  He shakes his head in quiet respect.

“What do you mean?”

“C’mere.”  Hardwick beckons me into a walled-off room.  He clicks on the lights, sits behind the one and only desk, and opens a knee-high cabinet.  Out comes a wooden box, roughly the size of a standard laptop.

“This is a shadow box.”

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

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

“Here.”  He slides it toward me.

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

“He left it behind.  He was supposed to take it.”  A rueful smile.

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 follows my gaze, then relaxes in his seat.  “Oh.  Weird, right?  Most guys want a unit motto.  Not Atriya.  That quote was all 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 look away from the box.  “Do you have his number?”

“Nope.  He got a new one after he left.  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 crystal 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.  Before he left, he was learning how to dance.  Can you believe that?  Dancing.”  Hardwick chuckles.  “He wanted to dance like Techno Viking.”

I force a laugh, trying to hide my unease.  “Sounds about right.  I mean, I didn’t—”

“How’d you guys meet?”

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

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

———

My mouth opens and closes, trying to form words.  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 come and gone.  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.

I get in the car and start the engine.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

I drive off the lot and onto the road.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

I have to pull over because of the visions.  It’s not just the doors…

Now it’s the windows.

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