I was officially freaked out. The whole stone walls thing, well, that could just be someone who likes masonry. A lot of masonry, because, seriously, I’ve seen castles on T.V. that were smaller than this chilly piece of real estate. The lights on the walls were kind of strange, but it’s not like they were torches or anything. They just didn’t seem to have light bulbs in the middle or LEDs or anything like that.
The place was very minimalist: no rugs, no pictures on the wall, no tables or display cases, no art, just the bare walls and thick wooden doors. I’m not sure where the room I had woken up in was in relation to the big — enormous, flipping gigantic, actually — double doors Omric led me to, but it felt like we walked for about as long as it took me to cross the college campus, Omric keeping up a soothing monologue in that growly singing language. The two kilted men in front of me stepped to the side of the doors, joining two more kilted people, one of whom was a seriously buff woman. I mean, she needed some fat on her because those eight pack abs were kind of more intimidating than the muscled look of the guys.
The doors stood opened, and a crowd of very strangely dressed people milled around, their bodies facing a low rise platform that reminded me of the place in the front of a church where the alter or the preacher man stand on Sunday mornings, depending on your flavor of church.
By strangely dressed I mean most of the people standing around wore leather vests and kilts or floor length skirts, the colors ranging from blacks and browns to vivid, almost metallic blues, greens and reds. There didn’t seem to be any gender distinctions in the dress, and everyone was at least as old as Tank, some older.
Then, almost like they rehearsed it, the entire group turned to look at Omric and me. It felt a little like seeing the borg in real life, all movement synchronized and controlled by some hive mind intelligence.
Omric bent down and said something, putting his hand to the small of my back, and it felt like a jolt of static electricity snapped me. He ushered me forward, and, not having any better reason to go back as head forward, I allowed him to guide me right up to the platform and the men seated and standing there.
There were two roman chairs on the platform, the larger done up in red leather with a nearly metallic gloss and a wood that was naturally black, maybe ebony? The smaller chair, though in the same style, was upholstered with brown leather and looked like the wood was a more common oak or pine.
The older man who had tried to touch my stomach stood to the other side of the larger chair. A golden haired, bronze skinned giant of a man lounged in the larger chair, but if the woman and her eight pack abs had been intimidating standing at attention, this man lounging was brain numbingly scary. He wore a vest longer and more ornamental than Omric’s and a roman style kilt – the difference being that a roman kilt is a series of overlapping leather strips while what I thought of as a regular kilt is a single piece. He was bare footed, and it caught up to me that just about everyone here was also unshod. The leather of his vest and kilt were nearly hidden by the golden thread used to embroider them, at least I thought it was leather.
I don’t really know why I felt like he was the most deadly person in the room. I mean, I stopped trying to size up who was the biggest and baddest bad ass in my dad’s classes when I figured out that they could all pretty much face plant me with a little effort on their part. It was almost as if he had an aura of bad-assery. Yeah, there were other cues, but I don’t recall catching them on first glance. Like that everyone in the room watched him from the corner of their eyes, taking care not to meet his gaze head on.
Omric bowed from the waist, his left fist, thumb out, clasped to the center of his pectorals. He kept his eyes on the man sitting in the larger chair rather like the way you bow to your opponent in a martial art’s class, watching for the tell tale movement that says he’s about to knock you off your feet. I copied Omric, pretty sure I hadn’t got it right, but no one seemed offended, so I figured I was coming out okay, at least.
Then Omric said something that included my name, and the lounging man was on his feet, faster than I could blink and making a line with his arm toward the second, smaller chair.
Omric gave me a light push with his side toward the dangerous man, and again, I went with it while I tried to figure out if I was being a damn stupid fool. Just because Omric and the older guy had been pissed off by my fear did not make them good guys. Maybe not the kind of bad guys that I needed to fear for my virtue around, but it did not make them good guys.
I was, if not ignored, at least given some space from interaction for a breath or two. There was speculation in the faces that the crowd turned to me, and I swear I could almost taste as much confusion, though not as much tension, from the strangers as I felt.
Then a tall man in a bomber jacket and stained slacks, bound in — I kid you not — shackles, like out of some over-done movie about knights and castles and possibly utterly stupid chivalric notions complete with dunder-headed princesses, was marched through the same open doorway Omric had led me through. He flinched when he looked at me, and the fear he displayed was almost too much for me to believe he wasn’t some melodramatic actor. Except, well, he was mostly afraid of golden guy sitting in the big chair on my left, which made it a lot more believable to me.
Golden guy said something to the prisoner that got a nodding reaction, and then a head shake and something that sounded like “mountain gong” out of the prisoner. Another exchange of words, and the prisoner turned to me, saying in thankfully plain, though lisping English, “How do you prefer to be addressed?”
“Oh, yay! Someone who talks a language I can understand! Where the hell are we?” I said back, ignoring his question.
“We’re in Nimala. What name should I call you by?” the guy asked.
“Yeah, uh, where is Nimala?”
“Through the Doors that join the worlds. I really need to get a name to tell the Montang, or my ass is toast. Please, just-”
“Hold up! Doors? Joining worlds? What are you talking about?”
“We found you in Dimeter and went through the Door to Nimala. So, name?”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait. Are you trying to make me believe that we went through some inter-dimensional portal or something like that?” That was just crazy talk, right?
The guy took a deep breath, and I noticed that he had fangs instead of regular canines. “Listen, yes, we went through a Door and now we are in deep shit because we got caught by the Beast Men, and I need a name to call you by before they kill us.”
I had a moment of just stunned numbness before my panic sensors got smacked by the metaphorical two-by-four across the face. I didn’t really believe in inter-dimensional travel, but I did believe in crazy. This was either an extremely elaborate hoax, or an extremely elaborate insanity.
Golden guy went from leaning back and watching the back and forth to throat choking the prisoner faster than I could follow. His speed was damned near unnatural and the fierceness of his anger was almost like watching a switch get flipped, all off to all on faster than my brain could follow. It scared the shit out of me, but I also could not stand back and watch that ferocity turn bloody without trying, at least in some small part, to calm things down.
I reached for my “in peace, out stress” mantra and, carefully, because touch can as easily escalate a situation as ease it down, laid a hand on the forearm golden guy was using to hold up the prisoner guy. In my softest, gentlest, talk-down-the-angry-drunk-guy voice, I said, “Hey, let’s all be calm. No need for violence, right?”
Golden guy turned his gaze to me, and his eyes were not human eyes. They were the bright yellow gold of a cat, complete with slitted pupils that widened from little more than vertical bars to nearly filling the whole of his irises as he looked me over. And they glowed, even in the relatively good lighting of the hall. Then, as abruptly as he had grabbed the prisoner, golden guy released him, the lines of ferocity smoothing out of his face, leaving him an almost alien air of curiosity.
Prisoner guy collapsed to his knees, cringing into a ball, and I could smell the acrid scent of urine. I didn’t blame the guy for pissing his pants. I certainly wasn’t sure that some of that smell didn’t come from me. I know I was frozen in place.
Golden guy’s alien air relaxed a little, and he placed a hand over my fingers where they still lay upon his arm. He said something more to me, and then guided me back to the smaller seat on his platform. I wet my lips and resumed my seat.
Golden guy had more to say to the prisoner, who looked up from his cringing with damned near absolute terror curdling his features.
It took him a few tries to say anything more, and when he did, what came out was, “Your name, please.”
I looked to golden guy and, using the same all fingers together squishy hand gesture that Omric had used earlier, tapped my chest and said, “Zoe.”
Golden guy, with a solemn look that I didn’t quite believe, repeated, “Thoee.”
I shook my head, and using exaggerated lip movements, said, “Zzzzzoe.”
I could almost feel the crowd shifting nervously behind me, but I managed to get a smile from Golden guy, who managed this time to say, “Zzoe.”
I gave him my “friendly but professional” smile, followed by a look of pleasant inquiry.
Using the same closed finger gesture toward his chest, he said, “Aiden.”
“Aiden,” I repeated, making sure to say it slowly and with an obvious attempt to get it right.
He nodded at me and patted my hand, then said something in that singing growl of a language.
The prisoner guy said, “The Montang, think of that as Lord of the Beast Men, would like to know if you are comfortable.”
I took a moment to think how to phrase the answer before saying, “I am a little disoriented still, and experiencing a tad wee bit of culture shock, shall we say? And, what do I call you?”
Prisoner guy said something back in golden guy, Aiden’s language. Aiden responded. Prisoner guy said to me, “The Montang recognizes you for a Luna, and extends the hospitality of his home, and his domain, to you. Just a heads up, you do not reject the Montang’s generosity. That would get us both killed very dead. And if you have any need, you have only to ask it of him. He is assigning the head of his honor guard, Keasair Neegart Omric, to attend you until more permanent arrangements can be made.”
I bit my lip, my tension climbing up again. “That’s very kind of him, of you,” I started, turning so that I addressed myself to Aiden the Montang directly. “But I have a home, family and friends, that I intend to return to just as soon as I can figure out how.”
“Please, just say thank you,” the prisoner guy asked me, looking really scared.
I turned my gaze to prisoner guy and said, my conviction growing perhaps in part because of the prisoner guy’s fear, “I do appreciate the hospitality, but I will return home.”
He swallowed, and even without knowing the language, I could tell he was stuttering his way through the translation.
Aiden, despite the terror spilling off prisoner guy, nodded his head and said something back.
“The Montang asks that you rest and regain your strength, and he will arrange safe transport to the Dimeter Door. If you can open the Door, you are free to leave, but you are welcome to remain his guest should that prove beyond your current abilities,” prisoner guy responded.
“What’s the catch?” I asked, made suspicious by the disparity between the prisoner’s expectations and the response.
Prisoner guy said something to Aiden, and there was an almost audible soundless gasp from the crowd. Aiden, however, laughed and caught my hand, pressing his grin to my knuckles. My nose decided to inform me right about then that Aiden’s scent carried the same smell that reminded me of the resurrected unicorn scene in Legend, the one I had thought was uniquely Tank’s. There was a difference to their scents, but the part I had thought most unique was shared with this cat eyed man being called the Lord of Beast Men.
I still hadn’t had enough time to process everything and decide what I believed, but I was starting to feel cornered. I do not like being cornered. It reminds me too much of being locked in that shed with Dickey threatening to light the whole thing on fire. I broke Dickie’s nose over that one, and I haven’t been sorry about that once yet.
Aiden looked at me with delight while he said something.
Prisoner guy answered my question. “The Doors only respond to deliberate magic, the kind that takes decades to learn.”
I held Aiden’s gaze, returning his delighted look with my solemnity, and carefully, gently removing my hand from his. That kind of hospitality was no kind in my book. “Thank you for the aid you have already rendered. If I might bother you for the directions, I’ll just be on my way.”
This time it was an actual audible gasp, not just audible by the sound it failed to make. The smile faded from Aiden’s lips. He shook his head and made a gesture toward the crowd.
Prisoner guy translated his next words. “You will rest, and you will have a guard to the Doors. You will have instruction, and the opportunity to attempt to open the Door, but Luna are too valuable to permit to go abroad without guards. Nimala is dangerous, princess, even for Night Kind and Beast Men, let alone a single magical null without a clue how to get along in the woods.”
Omric stepped up to the base of the platform, and Aiden rose, holding out his hand to me. I allowed him to help me rise, following Omric out of the hall, my back stiff with pride.