CHAPTER FOUR: REALM (2/4)

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For a long moment, Sol could see nothing at all but a fog of silver light. A warmth spread through his skin and thawed his bones, filling him with a euphoric sensation that reminded him of happiness.

When the fog cleared, Sol was shocked to find himself no longer in Manhattan but on a large grassy hill. There were no buildings or skyscrapers anywhere to be seen, but scattered all around him were triumphal arches, too many for him to count, each of them unique in size and design. He looked over his shoulder and saw the Washington Square Arch with its familiar twin figures of George Washington watching over him. Above it, a bright and full orange moon shone like a beacon in a cloudless night sky, surrounded by an eternity of twinkling stars.

"Where are we?" Sol asked Goone standing beside him.

But Goone didn't answer. He was staring at the ground ahead of them with a grim expression. Sol followed his eyeline and felt every hair on his body stand on end.

The Indian man was lying motionless on his back, sprawled out on the grass and wide-eyed as if he was staring up at the orange moon. The blood on his clothes looked black.

Goone walked towards the man while Sol stayed back, still wrapped up in Goone's coat. The detective crouched and studied the man's wounds, from the deep slash now visible in his neck to the stumps on his right hand where three of his fingers once were.

"What happened to you, Old Man...?" he muttered.

Sol felt sick. Old memories suppressed for years were bubbling back up to the surface of his conscience and threatening to pop.

"Let me out of this thing," he growled. For a moment, it didn't look like Goone had even heard him, but then the detective raised a hand and clicked his fingers, and the coat suddenly unravelled and flew back to its master. Sol fell to his hands and knees, his legs having buckled the moment the coat released him. He thought he was going to throw up, but after a few deep breaths, the feeling subsided.

When he looked up again he saw Goone standing and slipping his coat back on. The detective reached into his left sleeve and withdrew a small, thin rod of red wood. He pointed the wand at the Indian man who started to rise into the air like he weighed nothing at all. Goone started walking up the hill with the floating man gliding ahead.

"Come on," said Goone.

It took Sol a couple of seconds to realise he was talking to him. Still in shock, he forced himself to stand and followed after the detective like a lost child.

The hill became gradually steeper the higher they went, and every arch they passed looked increasingly old and fragile, as though they'd been eroded by centuries of wind and rain.

"What is this place?" Sol asked.

"The Kirina," replied Goone, as though that explained everything.

"What are all these arches doing here?"

"They're Gates. They're what connect your world to mine."

"My world? Where are we?"

"Think of it like two sides of the same coin. Our worlds are both separate and connected. You live on one side, I live on the other. These arches are how we pass through."

As they came to the top of the hill and passed the last of the arches—a particularly ancient looking thing—Sol saw the most magnificent tree he had ever seen. It was as wide as it was tall with a broad gnarled trunk covered with white bark and long branches adorned with thousands of delicate pink flowers.

As they arrived in front of it, the detective lowered the Indian man to the ground, laying him gently at the foot of the tree.

"I need to talk to you," said Goone.

Sol frowned, wondering what Goone had meant, but then he saw the bark on the tree start to move. A long vertical crack appeared and widened into a deep hollow, from which a woman stepped out. Her body was not of skin and flesh but of bark and wood—the same white as the tree. Her hair was made of vines adorned with light pink petals, and her face, smooth and pale, framed a pair of stunning amber eyes.

"Welcome home, detective," she said in a deep, hypnotic voice. "I was not expecting you back so soon."

"Neither was I," replied Goone. He nodded to the man on the floor. "But I had to bring him. It's Pan Magal."

The wooden woman looked at the body by her feet and nodded without expression.

"So it has happened at last," she said.

"What do you mean, 'at last'?" asked Goone.

"I foresaw his death five nights ago. I told the Elders, though I do not know if they told him or not."

"I'm guessing they didn't."

"Telling him would not have made any difference. My premonitions show me only what is certain. His death was fated."

"So did you see how he died?"

"No. Only that he would."

"He looks like he's been mauled by a wild animal."

The woman turned her amber eyes on Sol as if she had only just noticed him. She stared at him for a long moment before she spoke.

"I have not seen a human here in many centuries. What is your name, child?"

It took Sol a few seconds to remember how to speak. He was in awe of the woman, both drawn to her and fearful of her.

"S-Solomon," he said at last. "Solomon Hart."

"Solomon," repeated the woman. "That is a good name; it means 'Peace'. My name is Maeyana; Dryad of the Naetiya Tree and Guardian of the Kirina. I am the one who made the ring you carry."

Sol couldn't help but look taken aback. "You know about the ring?"

"I felt its energy the moment you arrived. It is made from the wood of my tree. May I please see it?"

With a trembling hand, Sol reached into his pocket and took out the wooden ring, holding it in the centre of his palm.

"Why don't you put it on," suggested Maeyana.

"I don't think it will fit," Sol replied.

"Try."

Sol brought the ring to his right hand and tried to put it on, but it was too small for even his little finger.

"It's too small," he said, but even as he said it, he noticed the ring start to swell in his fingers. He slipped it onto his ring finger and it fit perfectly.

"Excellent," said Maeyana. "Now it belongs to you."

Sol opened his mouth to speak, but he didn't know what to say.

"The Elders aren't going to like this," said Goone.

"Probably not," said Maeyana, "but they will accept it."

"Do you know why the Old Man gave it to Solomon?"

"No, but I trust his judgement." Maeyana knelt and took Pan Magal's body in her arms, lifting it gently into the air.

"What are you doing?"

"I wish to examine his wounds."

"Shouldn't the Elders do that?"

"I will keep him perfectly preserved. In the meantime, perhaps you would be so good as to tell them what has happened."

"Oh sure, they'll love me for that."

Maeyana stepped back into her tree with Pan Magal's body, and the hollow began to shrink around them.

"The ring is yours now, Solomon Hart," she said. "Protect it, and it will protect you." The hollow finished closing, sealing Maeyana and Pan Magal inside the tree.

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