-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 trailer for the latest Avengers, Dragon World isn’t exciting or awesome.  It’s downright terrifying.  Magic is cool if you display it in a theater, or trap it in a book.  When it’s happening right in front of you and you’re questioning your sanity, it’s the exact opposite of cool.

I’ve always been curious about 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, maybe call some friends to calm you down.

Not the case with Dragon World.  When I go to class, I keep my eyes glued to my desk, 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.

The visions vary, but 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 with ragtag forest people who dress like Aragorn from Lord of the Rings.  When the Stormtroopers rally and launch a counterattack, the Foresters retreat and fight from cover.  These are epic battles—shouted commands, hair-raising duels, and a lot of magic thrown in the mix.

Next up are visions of the guy with the glowing blindfold.

Blindfold Guy wears pitch-black armor—lightweight plates defined by golden tracery.  He fights with a pair of deep violet knives, engraved with runes that match the ones he’s got on his blindfold.

While the Foresters and Stormtroopers fight like regular people, Blindfold Guy moves like a Marvel superhero.  He jumps and kicks with balletic grace, pulling off stuff I would only have 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.  Most of the time, he zaps his attackers with colored energy, but occasionally, he’ll bring plants to life and tangle his attackers, or call water from a lake and deluge them with a 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 like a cross between Daredevil, Batman, and a 50th-level wizard.

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

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

A lot of the non-humans keep to themselves—they stay in hiding or strike out across desolate terrain.  Every so often they’ll argue with Foresters—I see a lot of table-slamming and heated gestures.  I think they’re trying to come to an agreement, but failing miserably at it.

I also see peasants.  A lot of peasants.  Their role is clear—work the lands and pay the Stormtroopers.  Usually it’s in the form of gold or silver, but in poorer communities, it’s food or goods.  They line up for creepy little bureaucrats who sit behind tables, writing stuff down in their hidebound notebooks.  Bored Stormtroopers stand by, fiddling with their weapons or picking at their armor.  The same scene repeats throughout:  cities, outposts, hamlets…no one is spared from the Stormtrooper presence.

Sometimes, a peasant won’t have enough.  The bureaucrat-recorder throws a fit, the unfortunate commoner hangs their head.  After the recorder scolds the peasant, he calls for a Pain Wizard.  (I’m sure they’re called something else, but Dragon World doesn’t have 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 billowy hood.

The Wizard twists the air like Darth 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 stands by and watches.  Initially, I’m creeped out by their lack of caring, but later 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 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 (as I open the door, I glimpse a Forester riding a giant, silvery lizard) and strap myself in.  I hit 280, take the exit, 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 this time) and race into the mall, closing my eyes 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.  A long line of monks are hiking up a wind-whipped mesa.  A fifty-foot man made entirely of stone is sitting on the summit, sleeping soundly.  His chin is propped on his 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, keep-your-hands-where-I-can-see-them type of stare.  He has 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 can’t blame them—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, I have an apartment.”

“Hungry?”

“No.”  I look sideways.  “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 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 was friends with him.”

His eyes grow a notch more suspicious.  I can see his brain working the angles—he’s pulling a fast one 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 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 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.

“What do you mean?”

“C’mere.”  Hardwick beckons me into a walled-off office, away from the cubicles.  He clicks the lights and walks behind a desk.  He slides a cabinet open and takes out a wooden box—roughly the size of a standard laptop.

“This is a shadow box.”  He lays the wood-lined case on the desk.  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 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, captivated by its sense of weight and history.  “All these ribbons…” I murmur.

“He was supposed to take it.”  A rueful smile.  “All the work I put into making this, and he leaves it behind like a piece of trash.  When I asked him if he wanted anything specific in 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.  He sees the letters 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 from the quote.  “Do you have his number?”

“Nope.  No number, address, or email.  He wanted to cut all ties—didn’t even want a damn retirement ceremony.  I nagged him for months and got him to compromise; we took him out to a local pizza joint.  But he made it very clear that he didn’t want to discuss his military 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 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 with him.  “Sounds about right.  I mean, I didn’t know him for long, but—”

“How’d you meet him?”

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

“Thanks 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 break into a trot as I leave the office.

THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.

When 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 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 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.

Off-ramps, side-roads, thoroughfares.  I take them all.  Can’t think, 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.  My car is full of monsters and nightmares.