The Unbound Realm: Vol.1, Chapter 3

Over the next few weeks, I see a lot more of Dragon World (that’s what I call 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 the trailer for the latest Avengers, Dragon World isn’t exciting or awesome.  It’s downright terrifying.

Magic (and by that I mean real magic) is only cool if you keep it in a theater, or trap it in a book.  When it’s happening in front of you and you’re questioning your sanity, it’s the exact opposite of cool.  I’ve always thought it would be fun to try mushrooms, but my 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, maybe call some friends to calm you down.

Not so with Dragon World.  When I go to class, I keep my eyes on the desk or the floor, just so I won’t have to look at the door.  If I see someone leave or go to the bathroom, I might catch a glimpse of God-knows-what.

One of the more common visions is legions of soldiers dressed in plate.  Their armor is impossibly white, jagged and austere.  They give off the impression of cold indifference, like a D&D version of a Star Wars stormtrooper.

They’re always fighting ragtag forest people that dress like Aragorn from Lord of the Rings.  The Stormtroopers, by contrast, wear uniform armor and carry high-quality weapons.  They seem to have a well-established chain of command—they move according to a designated leader.

Typically, the Foresters attack from heavy foliage.  When the Stormtroopers rally and launch a counterattack, the Foresters retreat and fight from cover.  (I think they’re trying to disorganize the Stormtroopers by making them walk through a bunch of trees.)  These are epic battles—shouted commands, hair-raising duels, and a lot of magic thrown in the mix.

The next most frequent thing I see is the guy with the blindfold.

Blindfold Guy usually appears in a lightweight suit of pitch-black armor—its plates are defined by elegant gold tracery.  He fights with a pair of deep violet knives, engraved with runes that look like the ones written on his blindfold.

The Foresters and Stormtroopers fight like regular people, but Blindfold Guy moves like a Marvel superhero.  He commits full force to every attack, jumping and kicking with balletic grace, pulling off stuff I would have only thought possible in a martial arts action movie.  Aerial twists, spinning back-sweeps, and combos that take out multiple opponents in less than a second.

As if that wasn’t enough, he also knows magic.  Most of the time, he zaps his attackers with colored energy, but occasionally, he’ll make plants come to life and entangle his attackers, or call giant streams out from a lake so he can deluge his enemies.  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.

Most of the time, I see him fighting regular humans.  Occasionally, he’ll fight monstrous creatures—demonized hounds with smoky red eyes, or giant insects as big as a horse.  He’s like a cross between Daredevil, Batman, and a 50th-level wizard.

I see other stuff as well.  Pirates sailing the high seas, raiding ships or fleeing from fifty-foot serpents (some of the crews get smashed and eaten, others act as a team and entangle their pursuer with nets and buoys).  I see dragons attacking gargoyle hordes, dotting the sky with flaming corpses.  I see palace interiors, filled with lords, warriors, and artisans.

Most of the non-humans keep to themselves—they stay in hiding or strike out across inhospitable terrain.  Doesn’t matter—they always end up fighting spirits or ghouls.  Sometimes Stormtroopers, but mostly undead.  Every so often they’ll argue with Foresters—there’s a lot of table-slamming, heated gesturing, and a mutually disgusted parting of ways.

I think they’re trying to come to an agreement, but failing miserably at it.

As far as the peasants go, their role is clear—they pay the Stormtroopers some kind of tax.  Usually it’s in the form of glowing coins (they’re made of red crystal, engraved with a lady’s face on both sides), but in the smaller communities, it’s food or goods.  There’s always a creepy little bureaucrat sitting at a table, recording names, occupations, and amounts.  Standing behind him are a bunch of Stormtroopers, bored and restless, fiddling with their weapons.  The same scene repeats throughout various settings:  cities, outposts, hamlets…no one is spared from the Stormtrooper presence.

Every so often, a peasant won’t have enough.  The bureaucrat-recorder will throw a giant fit, while the unfortunate commoner will hang their head and remain silent.  After the recorder calms down, he’ll call for a Pain Wizard.  (I’m sure there’s another name for it, but Dragon World doesn’t come with audio.)

Pain Wizards dress in ebony robes that are half fabric, half magic.  Some of it’s cloth, but the rest is an ever-shifting mass of pitch black smoke.  The only skin I can see is their jaws and noses; the rest is shadowed by a voluminous hood.

The penalty varies.  Most of the time, the Pain Wizard twists the air like Darth Vader, and black veins erupt across their victim.  It looks straight up torturous—whoever’s getting punished drops to their knees and screams their lungs out.  Everyone else stands by and watches.  At first, I’m creeped out by their lack of caring, but then I realize that immediate punishment is seen as a blessing.

They don’t say a word if they’re tortured on the spot, but if they’re put in shackles and taken away, the entire community begs and pleads.  The troopers don’t listen—they backhand the peasants with gauntleted fists and move on to wherever they’re going.

I see this every time I open a door.  Wizards, soldiers, and creatures.

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

 

 

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

I hop in my car (as I open the door, I catch a glimpse of a Forester riding a giant, silvery lizard) and gun the engine.  I hit 280, drive a few miles, then pull into the strip mall with the Armed Forces Recruiting Center.  I open the door and hop out (I remember to close my eyes to keep out Dragon World) and race into the mall, closing my eyes again as I enter the building.  I shove past some kids and skid to a stop in front of the Marine Corps recruiting office.

“Atriya!”  I forget to close my eyes as I open the door.  I see a long line of monks, hiking up a trail on a wind-whipped mesa.  A fifty-foot man made entirely of stone is sitting on the summit, apparently asleep.

“WHERE’S ATRIYA!”

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

“What?”  My mind feels raw.  “What are you talking about?  He was just…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 can’t help it.

“Come in,” he says gruffly.

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

“You have a place to stay, right?”  The Marine who let me in blocks my way forward.  He crosses his arms and stands up straight, demanding my attention.

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

“You hungry?”

“No,” I say, without meeting his gaze.  “I have 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 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? 

“Uh, I was friends with him.”

His eyes grow a notch more suspicious.  Really?  I can see his brain working the angles—he’s pulling a scam he wants 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 supposed to.”  He gives me another once-over, less suspicious this time.  “My name’s Hardwick.  Gunny Hardwick.”  He extends a hand.

I shake it.  “Jon.  He told me the 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 say he ‘did whatever he was supposed to,’ I mean he stayed home or went to the gym.  The guy’s earned it.  The things he’s done…”  He shakes his head.  “Dude’s a legend.”

“What do you mean?”

“C’mere.”  Hardwick ushers me into a walled-off office, away from the cubicles.  He clicks the lights on and walks behind a desk.  Slides a cabinet open, reaches in, and takes out a wooden box.

“Look.”  He gestures again.

I edge closer.

“This is a shadow box.”  He lays the wood-lined case onto the desk.  It’s roughly the size of a standard laptop.  Its contents are shielded by a glass display cover.  Inside, mounted on a velvet backing, are rows upon rows of ribbons and medals.

“We made this for him.”  As Hardwick gazes at it, I can tell that part 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 study the box.  “All these ribbons…” I murmur.

“He was supposed to take it with him after he retired.  Ungrateful bastard.”  He smiles ruefully.  “All the work I put into making it, and he leaves it behind like a piece of trash.  When I asked him what he wanted me to put in it, he texted me a picture of his middle finger.”

My breath catches.  Hardwick’s talking, but I’ve stopped 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.  He sees the letters and relaxes in his seat.  “Oh.  Weird, right?  Most guys ask for a unit motto.  Not Atriya.  That quote was the only thing he insisted on, and who am I to judge?”  He shrugs.  “It’s Chris Atriya.  You don’t say no.”

I keep staring.  THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

With a conscious effort, I tear my eyes away from the quote and meet Hardwick’s gaze.  “Do you have his number?  I need to talk with him.”

“Nope.  No number, no address, no email.  He wanted to cut all ties—didn’t even want a damn retirement ceremony.  I nagged him for a month and got him to compromise; we took him out to our favorite burger joint.  But he made it very, very clear that he didn’t want to discuss his service; he just wanted to hang out and chat.  He’s kinda the opposite of stolen valor—would’ve fit right in with the Old Breed Marines.  Said he wanted to be left 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.  “Said he wanted to dance like Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder.”

I chuckle with him.  “Yeah…seems right, though.  I mean, I didn’t know him for long, but—”

“How’d you 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?”  He’s assessing me again.

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

“Right.”  He stands up and clears his throat.  “If there’s anything else…”

“Thank you for your time,” I hear myself say.  I make my body turn around.  I force my feet to start walking.  I close my eyes as I open the door.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

I try not to run as I leave the office.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

I break into a trot.  As I exit the building, I forget to close my eyes.  I see a band of wanderers, swords out, standing back-to-back in a blizzard-swept tundra.  They’re surrounded by dog-sized insects with tentacles for mouths.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

I get in my car.  I start the engine.  My heart pounds 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 start driving.  I dimly register the oblivious pedestrians, the passing lane markers.  My entire life feels false and tacky, a cheap lie that’s fraying at the edges.  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know where to go.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

Off-ramps, side-roads, thoroughfares.  I take them all.  I can’t think.  I can’t breathe.  I can’t.  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.