Friday, June 24, 2022

Upstream Updates: Mid-Year Check-In


Life Stuff


Well! "What with one thing or another..." Six MONTHS pass! Where has this year gone?

I'll just say it, getting sicker than you've ever been really sucks the life out of you! It eats up your time and your strength... Almost like being hooked up to The Machine!

2022 started with me and all the rest of my family coming down with Omicron in various stages. Mine started with intense fatigue and a sore throat in the second week of Winter Break, (so, right around Christmas/New Years) and by the time school started again, I was moving slow and short of breath, but at least the joint-buckling aches had gone away! I thought if I just walked slow everywhere, I could get by, but by the afternoon, my principal stopped me and sent me home to recuperate. Y'all, I spent the rest of the week doing everything I could to fight it: taking meds, resting, drinking tea (me, a non-tea-drinker, managed to develop a taste for Throat-Coat tea (with lots of mallow root and slippery elm), albeit with an inordinate amount of Starbucks Cinnamon Dulce creamer mixed into it! By the next week, I could breathe and I wasn't coughing much, so I returned to work victorious and hoped things would get back to normal.

The trouble was, being sick for so many weeks really slowed down my writing and reading habits... like, almost completely stopped any sort of motivation or momentum I had going. My plans to hit the year running with the second draft of Fugitive of Crossway? Pfft. I didn't feel like reading much, so it was taking a long time to finish ebooks and such.

Then, in March, I all but confirmed that I wasn't just "shedding because my hair was too long and it had been three years since my last good haircut"... I was actually losing hair from all over my scalp. Like, I could hardly run my fingers through my hair without pulling out a few hairs, even just shaking my hair, I could watch them float away down my arms. And when I got my hair wet? Yikes... Whole palm-fulls of hair. I went from having "fine, thick hair" to a scraggly mane of "barely enough hair for a ponytail" in about a month. I took to buying a bunch of wide cloth headbands and wearing them to hide my seriously janky hairline, as spots around my temples had thinned enough to see my scalp through the hairs that remained. It was an awful couple months of not seeing any improvement at all, and wondering how long I'd have to coddle my own scalp... It finally stopped actively falling out by the end of April, and by now, I can see small one-inch spikes of new hair growth poking up through the longer hairs, so that's encouraging, to say the least!

Suffice to say, I have not hit my monthly writing goal of 25K a month even once this year... At last count, I've only just barely cleared 60K, all told so far. It's dismal, but here's to a better and brighter second half!

Writing


Fugitive of Crossway

As I mentioned before, spending the start of the new year sick as a dog really threw a spanner in the works of my writing habit, as even after I recovered, I didn't want to push myself too hard and risk undoing the progress I'd made... especially when things turned from "recovering from illness" to "but your hair is still falling out" for three months!

I'm just glad I was able to plunk out all my notes and get those finished up before things went sideways, because no matter how many days passed without any kind of motivation or energy to write, I knew I could always come back to it.

The toughest thing about second drafts, though, is figuring out what to keep, and what to add, and specifically how the small details need to change. I think the thing I'm running into with Fugitive is something I've expressed before, that this wasn't like Princess of Undersea, where it was a short story told in separate installments with certain details and transitions glossed over. It was much easier going back through the pieces I had for the fanfiction and adding and embellishing scenes to more fit a novel's storytelling style, than it is to now take what is essentially a novel and figure out how to cut things down to size so it doesn't feel like it's dragging or overblown!

With that being said, I think I probably won't make a big deal about how long it is anymore. I can't compare Book 1 and Book 2, when both are essentially telling enough of their own respective stories as it is. Perhaps Books 3 and 4 will end up a similar length to Book 2, and it will look more like I planned it this way all along!

At this point, I've only just finished Chapter 1, and the thing that I've changed is putting more things right after one another in the first scene. Rather than starting in the evening and overlapping into the next day, I just started in the morning and put everything into the same day, using the events themselves to pass the time, rather than telling a story like "and then Main Character went over here and did this", "and then Main Character went Over There and Did That." The difficulty came in trying to figure out how to work the secondary plot and make it more related to the first! One chief complaint from my "alpha reader" (my brother, who read the first few chapters of the first draft) is that Mellisande, my secondary Main Character is rather confusing and he has no idea why the two stories are connected, so at first it feels like gratuitous self-insertion. (Which, if I'm being honest, it kind of is... but I don't want that to be the whole summation of her character!) The thing is, her connection to Simon and the others isn't really revealed until like Chapter 7 or so, which means I am faced with the challenge of trying to make her relevant in the chapters building up to that. It took me about six different tries to come up with an opening that is as attention-grabbing as the very start of the book, but at long last, I figured it out, and was able to complete the chapter. So now it's on to Chapter 2, and beyond!

I'm really hoping I can get the rest of the draft done in these next couple months. I am desperate to have a second book on the market!

Fairies Under Glass

So... This is the other project taking up space in my imagination. I started it when I finished the first draft of Fugitive, and it's plugging away quite satisfactorily!

There have been quite a few changes from the very first time I wrote it. I went through a couple different choices with the name of my main character, just because I wanted it to fit more into the new style--so "Casey" became "Lewis", and the fairy character whose name had always been more of a placeholder "Sheerya", became "Ashwyn." The names that didn't change, however, are those of Krasimir Schlimme--the villain--and his bodyguard, Adolf. Those names are just so diabolical and fitting, nothing will ever induce me to change them.
I think the most interesting aspect about going back and rewriting a story I wrote so long ago is the fact that when I wrote it--I hadn't even graduated college yet! My concept for "Browning Academy" was definitely something I'd made up without any concept of how a formal education worked, I was just making things up based on what I'd read in books and such.

Now, having worked in public schools for almost ten years, I feel like I am more able to infuse the story with some of my real-world experience. Sure, Browning Academy is really an odd institution with its closed campus and requirement for students to register for "work experience", but it's not completely outlandish. I think it also gave me the leeway I needed to give Lewis friends around him that he's meeting up with, or they're interrupting his day to hang out with him, so it's not just him all by himself with the fantasy folk.

I've nearly gotten to the point in the story where things are really going to go sideways (I suppose it would be the climax? I am trying to decide whether there is an actual point where everything in the story culminates before the actual ending... but that just goes to show the kind of stories I used to write when I first started!) and I've almost completed my notes for how the rest of the story is going to be revised in this serial... but if you haven't started it yet, now is as good a time as any!

Reading


Reading was the other activity to suffer due to my illness and prolonged stress of this year!

In January I finished two books. Pendragon: Merchant of Death by D. J. MacHale, I wanted to be impressed with it, I was ready for a chaotic, fun adventure... but reading it kind of left me with the impression that it aimed for a reading audience much younger than what I was expecting. I mean, I know I'm not the age range for Middle Grade or Young Adult--but really, I have found selections of very good writing in spite of the target age range, and this... wasn't it. The narration felt very Middle-Grade-ish, but some of the events and scenarios felt more advanced, like it was directed more at Young Adult readers because it would be too intense or too graphic for Middle-Grade readers! I don't know. It just wasn't my thing. The other book was a Reader's Review featured read: Death Rites by E. A. Copen, and you can find my review of that title at the hyperlinked text.

Then in February, I only managed to finish one book, Archenemies by Marissa Meyer. It's the second book in her Renegades trilogy, and I really love what she's done with the story and the characters! I don't mind the romantic subplots she puts into her stories because the story is still compelling when you disregard it!

March, I believe I actually managed to get out to the library, so I had more new books to read, and more motivation to finish them! I read Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs, the next installment in the Miss Peregrine series, and I think a satisfying conclusion to this particular story arc (as I believe the next three books kind of put the characters on another arc, while this one had a lot of closure for the mysteries presented throughout). I really enjoyed how he developed the lore and concepts, and the way Riggs uses strange antique photos that would normally be discarded as "flawed" somehow, or just ended up poorly exposed, damaged, or just aged, and turns them into illustrations for the scenes he describes in his narrative is highly inventive and really lends a dose of realism to his urban fantasy world!

That was also the trip to the library when I discovered that Anthony Horowitz had written a sequel to Magpie Murders, called Moonflower Murders! It was a thick book, but I powered through it. I love the way he gives it all the feel of a classic Doyle or Christie whodunnit, even going so far as to include the fictional "novel" said to have contained clues to the mystery at hand in the actual book itself, so readers can go "direct to the source" themselves, and venture to solve the mystery along with the characters. Brilliant.

The two indie books I read in March were Argentum by Debbie Manber Kupfer and A Promise Due by Amy Hopkins. The former book came as somewhat of a surprise because it had been so long since I read the first book in the series that I kind of forgot that the tone was less "middle-grade" and more "Young adult" so some of the scenes were a little more graphic and intense than I anticipated! The latter, however, was just as delightful and enthralling as I wanted it to be--but for more specific impressions, you can click on the hyperlinked titles to read my featured Reader's Reviews.

April, I finished reading the library books with One By One by Ruth Ware, Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton, and Skyward by Brandon Sanderson. I've decided that I like Ware's style, she can really write a mystery! I thought I was reading the signs and following the clues, but the red herrings really got me this time around! Dragon Teeth was a bit of a departure from Crichton's signature "science fiction" and more along the lines of The Great Train Robbery in that he crafted a story around espionage, survival, and the human aspect of things, rather than science, technology, and speculation. Skyward was "Branderson" at his best, crafting a "City-of-Ember-esque" world where the society that lives underground is told certain things about the possibility of life on the surface that are supposed to keep them from going above, keep them in their prescribed roles for the benefit of the ruling class... until one plucky youngster (a girl this time) gives into her dissatisfaction and sets off to discover the truth... Some excellent, unique concepts at play here that I can't wait to read more of!

I only read one indie title in the month of April, and that was Danarko by Maxina Storibrook. You can read my official review by clicking the hyperlinked text.

Then in May, I didn't get out to the library for any more books, so the only other titles I read were two anthologies for which I wrote Reader's Reviews: Mythical Doorways which was an anthology by the Fellowship of Fantasy, and Cracks in The Tapestry, the anthology I participated in along with the Tapestry Group. Again, check out the hyperlinked titles for the full reviews.

As for what I'm currently reading, I'm about three quarters of the way through Threats by Numbers by Kimberly A. Rogers. This Rogue Spotter Universe series ties into her Therian Way series which I loved--and also, which is getting a reboot, an update, if you will. The main characters, Lauren and Mathias, don't really strike the same chords in me as my favorite Therians, Baran and Raina, but the mystery she's setting up in this book is plenty intriguing, so I can't even be mad about that! I've also got two books on my nightstand: Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson, which is sending off some very different vibes from anything else of his that I've read, and Supernova, the last book in the Renegades trilogy by Marissa Meyer. I also stopped by the library recently and picked out six books, but there's no telling how many of them I'll finish by the end of summer! So... maybe see you in the next quarter? Or perhaps I'll update again in December!

At any rate, whatever happens, you can be sure I will...

Catch You Upstream!

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Serial Saturday: "Fairies Under Glass" Part 17



Part 17
"The Ride-Along"

Lewis flinched, earning him a confused frown from the student walking by him, but he managed to regain his composure and keep a straight face as he rounded several corners to isolate himself. He put out his hand, and Ashwyn landed on his palm, her wings flickering with excitement.

"You found it?" he asked.

"Yes! It's here--in another building, though," she answered. "Building C--I saw a few people with the same clothes that you usually wore, so I think you could trade with them. The Captor has commandeered almost half the building with crates of Phantasmians and Underworlders, and actual structures and plants he's brought back from our world."

Lewis sighed. "So, where exactly is the Gyth? Did you see it?"

Ashwyn nodded. "Through a window, in a small room on the side near the front of the building--just like Lisa said, this room is guarded by armored ogres. But inside, I could see it in a glass case, just like Gathlen and the gryphon."

Lewis felt the excitement tingling through his arms. He felt like a criminal mastermind, casing for the heist of a lifetime. "So once we get into the building, all we'd have to do is figure out how to get past the ogres, and we'd have the Gyth, just like that!"

Ashwyn bobbed into the air. "Fairykind could do that easily, especially the elves because they don't glow like we fairies do."

Lewis tensed as he heard footsteps approaching, but the person kept walking down another aisle, and he could continue the conversation, albeit much quieter. He squinted at the fairy standing in front of him. "Does this mean I'm going to have to rescue more fairies?"

Ashwyn's wings twitched. "Maybe?" She chimed coyly. "Just a few more elves, at least. If that makes you nervous," she chattered on, as Lewis was about to cut her off with a protest, "I and a few other fairies can sneak in while you're at class, find the pieces with elves in them, and that way, you can come in later and know exactly who to look for."

Lewis considered the ramifications of his actions. "I don't know..." he groaned. "I think at this point, if I show my face at Moulton House, Krasimir will find out, and he'll get suspicious--"

"Not if you take the place of the student who is supposed to be there!" Ashwyn offered brightly. "You wear a uniform, and you already know how to act like you are just there to do your job."

"Ashwyn," Lewis complained. "I just started this new job! I don't want to do anything to jeopardize it. In a week, maybe--but not on the first day!"

"Fine," the little fairy retorted. "I'll let Queen Evalia know you're laying low for now. We'll be ready when you call for us, and we'll be watching for anything you should know about at the museum."

Lewis nodded. "Okay." He turned away and walked to another section of his assigned area. Once he finished his task list for the day, he checked in with his supervisor, a trim young man with a blunt haircut and narrow eyes. His name was Stanley.

"Got it all done?" Stanley grunted, looking over the list.

Lewis nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Any problems?"

"No, sir."

"Good; report back tomorrow after classes, and you'll do the same tasks again."

"Mr. Stanley," Lewis licked his lips and did his best to appear confident and yet nonchalant, "Can I ask--"

"What?" Stanley grunted, focusing his squinting gaze on Lewis in a way that made the words stick in the younger lad's mouth.

"Um," Lewis stammered, "Is there a chance I could maybe rotate to another building? Or am I stuck at this one warehouse for the rest of the semester?"

Stanley snorted. "What do you think this is, a scenic tour? Hate to break it to ya, but warehouse is pretty much drudge work all the time. I mean, if you want a change of scenery, I guess you could help unload the trucks as they come in, but as far as storage and maintenance, you're pretty much in charge of one area, and one area only. No swaps or rotations."

Well, there went that idea. "Okay, thanks," Lewis muttered, and trudged out of the warehouse lot.
That evening, at Study Hall, Quincy immediately wanted to know what Lewis thought of his new job, and for once, Lewis was glad that there wasn't much to tell.

"We report in, clean our areas, make sure the bins stay organized, sort the shipments as they come in, and keep a log of everything," he said. "That's all." He shrugged and sat back, shooting a glance toward Quincy herself. "What about you? What new job are you trying out this semester?"

The dark-haired girl grinned. "I've got a job at the Browning News Agency, as a journalist. It's so much more exciting than working at the library, but there's still a lot of research and reading and writing to do--I think I like it a lot!"

Jesse had traded in his food court job for a shift at the grocery store, and Henry had found a much calmer, simpler assignment at City Hall.

"New semesters are for trying new things," Jesse remarked, saluting the group with his slice of pizza. "I guess we all took that to heart!"

Meanwhile, Lewis found himself only half-present in the conversation, as the focus shifted to textbooks and upcoming quizzes. Part of him listened and nodded along as the others took turns reading through information about art styles at the turn of the century. The other part of him thought about a room full of stiff, captive fantasy creatures, and a baseball-sized gem sparkling in the moonlight.

For three days straight, Lewis kept his head down and stayed dedicated to his work at Warehouse 31. By the time Friday arrived, he reported to his section of the warehouse dressed in the official Warehouse 31 jumpsuit, just in time for Stanley to jog over.

"Grant!" Stanley barked.

Lewis wiped his hands and turned to face his supervisor. "Yes, sir?"

"Get over to Building C. They're loading a bunch of crates and they need an extra pair of hands."

Lewis didn't hesitate. "Right away, sir." He strode out of the warehouse and headed down the lane to the building with a large WAREHOUSE 31 truck parked in front of the loading dock.

Sure enough, jumpsuit-clad workers bustled in and out of the warehouse with crates stamped with the destination of Moulton House.

One of them stopped when he noticed the young man gawking at them. "What are you doing over here?" he barked.

Lewis raised his hand and waved. "Hi, I'm... here to help."

The dock worker shrugged and waved his hand toward the open bay doors. "Get in there and close up the crates. We need to get them delivered as soon as possible."

Lewis felt a tremor race down his spine. What a great time to have the fairies nearby... if only he'd known about this opportunity ahead of time, he could have brought Ashwyn along! He hustled inside the warehouse.

As expected, several tall, leathery monsters stood against the back wall, some of them only having one eye, while several small crates lined the sides. As Ashwyn had said, there was a portion of this section especially walled-off, with a thick door and a keypad at the entrance. However, when Lewis crept closer and peered through the small window into the room, he didn't see any massive gem. The tables inside the secure area were all empty--and where were the disguised ogres?

"Hey, you!" Someone shouted, and Lewis tried his best to appear as innocent as possible. The man glared at him in much the same way Adolf would. The man even curled his lip at the sight of him, the same reaction as the burly bodyguard. "What are you doing over there?"

Lewis stammered a few unintelligible syllables, trying to craft an excuse on the fly, when the man pointed to where a few open crates stood next to a table laid with row upon row of glittering brooches and sculptures that looked like they were intended for the museum gift shop. "We're supposed to be packing these ones, dingus. You're not authorized to touch anything else."

Lewis nodded emphatically. "Oh, right, okay!" He shuffled over and began fitting the lids on the crates as the other man nailed them shut.

As he grabbed the lid for the next crate, a flashy object caught his eye: there, amid the jeweled roses, strange coins, and bedazzling dragonflies (and miniature dragon sculptures) was a large white gem in a gold setting. The shimmering gem was about the size of his fist, and Lewis didn't have any doubts as to what he was seeing. The Gyth! Out here among the rhinestones and quartzite "crystals"!

Lewis quickly checked with his eyes. The man's back was turned, and the only other people in the room were fussing with an eight-foot-tall crate. Quickly, he snatched the Gyth and shoved it into the crate in front of him with one hand, while fitting the lid on top of it with the other. The lid settled over the frame of the crate with a thud that brought the other man's attention around.

"What are you doing?" he snarled.

Lewis patted the top of the crate. "Just making sure everything is secure, sir," he murmured.

The man rolled his eyes, but he walked over as Lewis backed off, nailing the crate shut.

Lewis cleared his throat. "Will that be all?" he asked.

The man shrugged as the others came in to cart away the sealed crates. "Yeah, that's what we needed here... unless you wanted to do a ride-along--"

"Sure!" Lewis didn't want to appear too eager, but just as someone curious about the warehouse jobs in general. "That sounds great."

The man jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Get in the truck, then. We'll drive out to the museum, unload, and drive back."

Lewis nodded quickly and headed for the loading bay. The last few crates were going in the cargo space, and he headed for the cab.

"I'm a student intern going to ride along," he informed the confused driver.

The driver shrugged. "Okay, just sit in that middle seat there and try not to bother any of us."

Lewis obediently took the seat he indicated. A few minutes later, four workers opened the doors of the cab, but there were really only three seats available.

The driver shrugged. "Gonna have to squeeze. The kid is riding along with us."

The next thing he knew, Lewis felt the rumble of the engine under him as he sat, the only teen in a cramped cab full of adults in the same pale warehouse jumpsuits, headed back toward the center of Browning Academy campus en route to Moulton House.
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Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Reader's Review: "Cracks in The Tapestry" by The Tapestry Group


Synopsis from Amazon:

What happens when the mundane and the fantastic meet? We get Cracks in the Tapestry.

Review for Cracks in the Tapestry follows description.
A former secret agent’s sister return from the dead, bringing with her mysteries surrounding her miraculous return?
A Reverend takes his message from God to a new planet eager to spread the gospel.
A NASCAR driver discovers there is much more happening on the track then he ever had imagined.
A thief must steal her love’s most prized possession.
A scientist discovers something very peculiar about an archeologist exhibiting odd behavior.
A newborn siren discovers a man who can resist her song.
A Sioux warrior must face off against the might of the US Military Remnant to defend his home and people.

Will you peer through the Cracks in the Tapestry?
>>>>>>>>>

My Review:

Ever since publishing Princess of Undersea for the first time in 2016, I had been looking for more publishing opportunities. In 2017, I contributed a short story to Dreamtime Dragons, and it was about that time that another group of authors from a writers' group I was part of on Facebook decided to produce an anthology, and we called ourselves The Tapestry Group.

The theme for the anthology was "when fantasy bleeds through into reality", and now that I have finally read all the stories involved, I wanted to review some of them!

Cracks in The Tapestry starts out reasonably well with "Ghosts of the Past" by Arthur David, a rousing crime-thriller style mystery tale of two sisters who had once been agents of a clandestine organization, until one sister got killed and then the other sister decided she wanted out of the organization. The twist? Five years later, the "retired" sister gets recalled when she receives word of an attack perpetrated by none other than her long-dead sister. What is really going on, here? Is someone impersonating her sister, or has the organization managed to do the impossible in her absence? I found the story relatively intriguing, although the pacing was a little clunky in places, and the ending felt rather abrupt--but all in all, a great start to the anthology, for sure!

Next up was "The Revival of Om" by R. Eric Smith--and I have to say, I found both his stories (he also had a second story in the anthology, "Through The Eyes") highly entertaining and unique! "The Revival of Om" is set up like a story of a preacher heading to the Wild West to present the Gospel to the native cultures, complete with a language barrier and a famously loose grasp of contrasting cultural practices... except that this preacher is coming from Earth and attempting to stage a revival on an alien planet. I was especially intrigued to see the way the preacher tried his best to stay straightforward in his presentation, yet when the translator attempted to further "translate" not just his words but the ideas into concepts more akin to the aliens' own belief system, the resulting communication gave new meaning to the phrase "lost in translation"! 
Smith took me on a journey again in "Through The Eyes", as a doctor heads to an asylum in the Congo Republic, where a brilliant researcher has suddenly and mysteriously gone insane, responding violently to her colleagues and babbling in some strange language. The doctor's process of figuring out how to calm her down, and then communicate with her yields some fascinating results--and the twist at the end that brings the payoff to all of the confusion and strangeness had me grinning with admiration! Smith is definitely an author I would read again in a heartbeat!

Of course, there was one story in the anthology I was most excited to read, because I am already a fan of the author. "Life at The Speed of Time" by J. D. Cunegan once again puts on display his strongest skill, and the one I most consistently enjoy across any of his stories: his sense of characterization. A NASCAR driver competing in Daytona experiences a strange sensation while in the middle of his race--not quite deja vu, but almost like magic. His reality is shaken, but as he learns more about it from his own racing team, he discovers that all is truly not as it seems! I think this story was probably my favorite out of the entire anthology! Cunegan does storytelling so well, throwing the reader right into the midst of the action through the eyes of a relatable point-of-view character, and we feel all the chaos, confusion, and curiosity that comes along with the incredible journey! (Definitely check out my reviews of other J. D. Cunegan books at the end of this review!)

The other stories in the anthology were quaint enough, just not as spectacular as the ones I've already mentioned. "The Sky-Rock Thief" by C. Scott Davis and "The Sioux" by Benjamin D. Pegg were both somewhat stories that followed characters from Native American backgrounds, with Davis' tale taking place far back in history, while Pegg's story brings the Lakotah culture far into the future. I found the contrast of time relatively interesting, but as far as the characters themselves, or even the plot, it just wasn't as thrilling as the others. And the final contribution to this anthology was a simple poem by Lorna Woulfe, a few stanzas describing the sensation and the experience we wish for the readers in this collection of stories, as they witness these "Cracks in The Tapestry."

My story "Heartsong", I'm opting not to review, but you can read a review of it from another reader by clicking the hyperlinked text! Here, I will just mention that it takes the archaic superstition that "a woman aboard a ship brings trouble" so the common response was just to throw her overboard, and turns it into "origin lore" for the mythical siren, a beautiful creature who could sing such alluring songs that men would throw themselves overboard at the sound of it. It was a fun tale to develop, not quite "Little Mermaid" but more along the lines of a gender-swapped, mermaid-themed "Beauty and The Beast", as my main character, a woman who became a siren after she was tossed overboard, and discovers a man who seems immune to her songs. She holds him prisoner until she can figure out what to do with him, or why she can't seem to drown him like the others.

On the whole, Cracks in The Tapestry celebrates the weird and wonderful dimension just beyond the "real world", and the writers who attempt to peel back that veil separating the two and give readers a glimpse of what is possible on a true flight of fantasy! I'm rating this anthology a solid ****4 STARS**** for the great storytelling on display, and I would definitely recommend it to anybody looking for a pleasant little "sample pack of imagination"!

Further Reading: (Anthologies/Also By The Authors)
The Jill Andersen Series--J. D. Cunegan
       -Bounty 
       -Blood Ties 
       -Behind the Badge 
       -Behind The Mask 

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Serial Saturday: "Fairies Under Glass" Part 16


Part 16
"Warehouse 31"

Early the next morning, in the quiet before his alarm went off, Lewis mused about the rest of the previous evening.

Lisa had grumbled about having to lie down again. "Can't I just lay here with my eyes closed?" she begged. "Under the cloth, no one would know!"

Lewis frowned. "And what if he takes the cloth off to display you again?" he challenged. "With all those humans milling around, talking about you, do you think you'd still be able to keep your eyes closed through all that?"

A small smile teased at the corners of her mouth. "Can I help it if I'm curious?" she mused.

Lewis dug into his pockets for the handfuls of wire. "Just lie still," he said. "I'll find the Gyth, and then I'll do whatever I can to help rescue all of you."

"And we'll be there to help you!" Queen Evalia had confirmed, hovering just beyond the mattress as Lewis fastened Lisa's eyelids shut again. He finished, and fished his way out from under the thick cover just in time to see a group of fairies dump a load of dust and debris from the floor into his trash cart. They'd done his job for him yet again.

"Let's start with this castle thing, huh?" Lewis had mused as the Queen and Ashwyn landed on the handle of his trash cart. "What do you know about where else Krasimir Schlimme keeps the Phantasmians he's captured, before he puts them into displays?"

The Fairy Queen described a large building, with many doors and wide open spaces, made of stone, and guarded by Underworlders in the guise of humans, or given armored clothing to conceal their nonhuman features. "Many of them have been painted over by the Captor, just like he paints us to look like tiny humans for his displays."

"Okay, but where is it?" Lewis persisted. "Lisa called it a castle, but it's not his home, is it?"

Queen Evalia bobbed slowly in midair, then rose quickly as she flew toward the door. "Come with me," she said. "I will show you."

Lewis rolled onto his side as he recalled packing up and walking outside (after confirming with the security guard that he'd finished) and following the fairies' dim light down the moonlit avenues of Browning Academy's campus. They reached the edge of where students were commonly allowed to go, and Queen Evalia returned to hover over Lewis' shoulder.

"There is the Captor's castle," she said.

Lewis squinted through the darkness to see a huge warehouse sitting on a gated property. He guessed that the lit area on the far side of the region was the gated, secure entrance. He'd have to get past them if he wanted to go inside to look for the Gyth.

And after that... what? The more he thought about it on the long walk back to the dorms, the more anxiety just swelled in his gut and climbed up his throat. By the time he arrived back in his room, Lewis could not think of a single rational idea that would get him anywhere near the warehouse, much less an excuse to get inside it.

"It's okay if you can't think of something right away," Ashwyn tried to reassure him as the fairykind settled down for the night. "As long as the Chain is safely out of the Captor's possession, we can take our time making the plan."

That was the problem, though, Lewis thought to himself as he rolled over and listened to the high-pitched chatter issuing from the closet. He didn't want to run a fairy refugee camp indefinitely!

He got ready for his day of classes, received reassurances of their best behavior from Queen Evalia and Ashwyn, and tried his best to forget the most stressful part of his life just now. The chain jangled in the small pocket at the top of his backpack, but Lewis could just ignore the fact that it was there. Students were abuzz with the new installment at the museum--even those who hadn't previously taken an interest in art were curious about the size and scope of Krasimir Schlimme's displays. At lunch, Quinn couldn't stop gushing about it, wondering who the artist had modeled the giant sculpture after, and why she'd been posed with her eyes closed, looking so serene, instead of open and looking off into the distance for a more dynamic effect.

At last, it was time for his shift at Moulton House.

He barely even heard the flutter of wings before a brilliant light flashed across his vision and a tiny voice asked, "So, are you going to wake any more fairies today?"

Lewis stopped so Ashwyn could land on his arm and he didn't have to squint to see her. "No," he answered. "Go back to the dorms; I'm not waking anyone else up until I have a plan for getting into the warehouse. I'm running out of closet space, as it is!"

"Please?" She begged, grabbing handfuls of his sleeve. "Just a few more friends! I could show you exactly the fairies I know. We won't be any trouble to you!"

"You're already too much trouble," Lewis grumbled. "And, if I'm being perfectly honest, I'm actually glad to have a few days where I honestly do get to do the job that's expected of me, rather than all this hiding and secret-keeping I've had to do!"

Ashwyn stood, keeping her wings low. "All right, if you insist." She lifted off of his arm.
Lewis tried to give her a smile and a wave, so she would see there was no hard feelings. "I'll see you when I finish," he said.

"See you then, Lewis," the fairy twinkled back.

By the following week, Lewis had slipped into a rather comfortable rhythm. Of course, it also happened to be the same time that Krasimir Schlimme had his team of outfitted Warehouse 31 contractors to rearrange the exhibit hall yet again, adding the disturbing and strange creatures from the storage room below the museum. In a single weekend, the room transformed from a light and colorful fairyland into a dark and shadowy labyrinth. Strange, witchy creatures with long limbs and squat bodies done up in long hair and patchy robes; hefty bats strung upside down with gleaming eyes and prominent fangs; at the back wall, behind a pair of walls done up like crumbling stone towers, a leather-skinned creature almost eight feet tall loomed, casting its shadow and absolutely terrifying Lewis every time he had to go back there to sweep and clean.

"I have the chain," he would mutter to himself. "I have the power, I am the Guardian." He pushed the broom head as far as he dared into the space at the troll's huge feet, and scurried back out again. "It can't hurt me, I have the chain..."

With all these changes, a few parts still remained the same: Lisa, curled up on her mattress (but draped in cobwebs and a funeral shroud, for thematic effect), the display case with Gathlen and the gryphon (except that Lewis noticed a lot more painted blood around the gryphon's claws, and if he hadn't actually met the unicorn, he might have concluded that Krasimir had somehow made the brilliant-red horn seem more vicious than ever.) A few display walls of fairykind in their frames and glass panes remained as well, so long as the theme of the artwork fit the dark and spooky aesthetic of the exhibit hall.

If anything, Lewis felt that as long as the new exhibit was up, that particular hall received more curious and thrill-seeking guests, who in turn left more messes, which made more work for him every day when he reported for his shift. Having only a few hours in the afternoon hardly felt sufficient for keeping the exhibit hall as spotless as it had been at the beginning, but the whole time, Mr. Schlimme had no complaints for Mr. Gilroy, and the curator seemed pleased enough with Lewis' efforts.

All too soon (but at the same time, not soon enough!) the notorious End of Semester approached, and in the midst of final exams and essays and plans for visits to family over the brief semester break, Lewis received notice that new job assignments were coming up, and if he wanted to try a different job for the next semester, he could submit an application to that effect.

A sense of elation welled inside him. No more Moulton House? Did he dare leave that to some other poor soul who would have no clue what awaited them through those grand double-doors? His eyes breezed over the list of job opportunities, until he found one that stood out: "Warehouse technician."
Flipping through the pamphlet of job descriptions for the appropriate page, Lewis read.

"WAREHOUSE TECHNICIAN--Students can receive on-the-job training at Browning Academy's affiliate storage facility, Warehouse 31. As a Warehouse Technician, student interns will be expected to: load and unload trucks; catalogue and sort supplies and resources for establishments all around the campus, assist in retrieval and deliveries, accurately read and fulfill manifests, track any damages to supplies and resources, and other jobs associated with standard warehouse operations."

A plan began forming in Lewis' mind as he read. So engrossed was he, that he didn't even notice Ashwyn's approach as she came to sit on his wrist.
"What's that?" she asked him.

Lewis could hardly contain his excitement. "It's a job description for a technician at Warehouse 31."

"Warehouse?" Queen Evalia caught his comment and fluttered over to perch on his other hand. "But won't that mean you can't be the janitor at the museum anymore?"

Lewis nodded to both fairies, doing his best to hold very still. "Well, yeah, I can't have multiple jobs--but this is Warehouse 31! The Captor's Castle, remember? You wanted me to find the Gyth, didn't you?"

"But..." Ashwyn's shoulders slumped, and even her wings sagged. "What about the other fairies?"

"They're safe as long as Krasimir still has them paralyzed, aren't they?" Lewis tried to reason. "I mean, as long as he has no reason to expect them to do anything out of the ordinary or expose him, he'll think he still has all the power. He still doesn't know where the Chain is."

"Or that you have it," Queen Evalia added gravely, giving a tiny glimmer with her wings.

"It's the perfect chance to search for the Gyth," Lewis assured them. "I won't have to make up an excuse to be in the warehouse--they'll be expecting me to be there!" He grinned. "What they won't expect is that I actually know more about this whole Phantasmian situation than anyone realizes, and once I know where the Gyth is, I can make a plan for getting it out of there, and if it works, we'll have the whole thing safe from him!"

"And you can give it back to Lord Gathlen, who will be able to open the portal to send us all home!" Ashwyn jingled, her wings lighting up suddenly as she lifted into the air.

Queen Evalia sighed with the icy clamor of batted wind chimes. "Very well, I see your point, Lewis. When will you begin this new job?"

Lewis shrugged. "Not till next semester; we're almost done with our last assignments, and then there's a break over the holidays, till the new term starts in January--which reminds me..." He frowned and stroked his chin, looking around the room at the inquisitive fairykind snooping into all sorts of corners and poring through his textbooks. His eyes returned to the fairy Queen. "I'm going back home to my family for a few weeks during the break, and I'll have to completely move out of this room, or at least enough so that if they do end up switching us around, the stuff I'm not taking home with me should be able to move fairly quickly. What are you all going to do if that happens?"

"Do not fear for us, Lewis," the Queen responded. "We will have no need to come with you to the place of your family, where it would be hard to hide us from those who would know all your secrets. Those of us that you have revived will stay upon the roof of the large building where we were once captives, and upon your return, you will need only to call for us, and we will once again be at your side."

Lewis nodded.

Four weeks back at home passed by in a blur of siblings and parents, extended family, holiday activities, and food. On the one hand, Lewis found that so much had changed about himself during the two semesters at Browning Academy--particularly over the course of this last semester--but on the other, going back to the "normal" things and not having to worry about any of his family discovering the new secrets he had to carry made it so much easier to just pretend that none of the past month ever happened. No one snooped through the pockets of his backpack, no one asked about the puzzle box he stowed in his empty suitcase under the bed. His parents were a little less than pleased that he'd ended up a janitor for a whole semester, and that the next job he was planning to take was a mere "warehouse grunt", as his father expressed it, but by the end of the vacation, as he was preparing to return to the Academy, they were at least understanding that these menial jobs were, in fact, excellent training for skills he could then use in a more "respectable" workplace.

He returned to Browning Academy, and found his fairy friends exactly where Queen Evalia had said they would be. Moulton House assignments had been given to other students, so Lewis welcomed the fairykind back into his dorm room where they could remake their personalized spaces, and their peculiar rhythms and habits could resume. A new year had begun, and Lewis was ready to face whatever came his way.

Still, the nerves overtook him as he finished the last of his new classes, and prepared to report to Warehouse 31 for his orientation.

He slipped his notebook back into the pack and zipped it shut. Stepping outside the building, he whispered, "Ashwyn!"

The young fairy buzzed toward him, diving into his pocket before anyone noticed the brilliant flash of light in Lewis' vicinity.

"Ready!" she chimed from the cloth depths.

Lewis followed the campus map over to the Warehouse, and gave his name to the guard at the gate, who had a roster of all the students who had signed up for that semester.

"Grant? Ok, you're here. Head on in to Building A, Room 16 for your orientation." He slid a badge with a clip across the small metal windowsill. "Keep this on you at all times; it lets people know you're authorized to be in your assigned areas. If you lose or damage this badge, we'll need to issue you a new one in order for you to be permitted on these premises."

Lewis nodded and clipped the badge to his pocket. "LEWIS G, WAREHOUSE FLOOR TECH", it read.
Inside the building, he found a knot of people his own age wearing Browning Academy uniforms, carrying badges similar to his. He followed them down the maze of hallways to Room 16, where they sat in rows of chairs while a warehouse foreman gave them instructions on the procedures, rules, and expectations for them while they were working their shifts at the warehouse.

Finally, when they were allowed on the warehouse floor--Buildings B through D, as it happened--to work through the various tasks on the lists they were given, Lewis waited until his group went around a corner, while he hung back and pulled on his pocket.

"Go find the Gyth," he whispered under his breath, moving his lips as little as possible and letting his eyes wander. "If it's not in my assigned section, I may have to swap with somebody to get assigned to whatever section Schlimme uses for his storage."

"Sure thing!" Ashwyn's bell-like voice twinkled, and Lewis could hear the flutter of her wings fading into the distance. He bent down as if checking his shoelaces, and then jogged to catch up with his group.
Each team of five interns was assigned a specific zone, where they would be in charge of keeping track of how many items were there, any orders that came for items stored in their zone, and unloading crates of deliveries that pertained to their zone. In all of the shelves and racks of crates and pallets stacked with bins of packages and boxes of things, Lewis could easily imagine how Krasimir Schlimme could stockpile a whole collection of fantasy creatures, provided they were packed in crates and remaining invisible and anonymous to the people who worked there.

He performed his duties faithfully, touring and memorizing key points of his section, stacking and lifting, maintaining order on the shelves and a clean workspace, and he was just counting down the last hour of his shift when a sharp chime clanged against his ear.

"It's here! I saw it! The Gyth is here!"
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Saturday, May 28, 2022

Serial Saturday: "Fairies Under Glass" Part 15



Part 15
"The Guardian"

Lewis almost forgot that he was standing right within the claws of the gryphon as he watched the noble unicorn step off the display dais and examine the wall nearest to it. He could hear the creature sniffing and snuffling as it inspected the painted fairies, even more as it picked its way through the debris of fallen wall and scattered "displays." Did it find Krasimir's handiwork perverse and abhorrent? Would he blame Lewis, once he found the human in their midst?

The golden light of the sunset hour reflected through the window and streamed over the unicorn's back--and as the light spilled over the unicorn, its hide and mane and tail all gleamed with their own ethereal light.

"That's strange," a deep, rumbling voice cut through the breathless silence. "I could have sworn there was someone else here..." The unicorn lifted its nose again.

Lewis carefully stepped down from the display case. A piece of drywall crunched under his shoe, bringing the unicorn's attention right to him. Lewis yelped and threw up his hands as the unicorn leveled its ruby-colored horn at his chest.

"You!" Snarled the voice of the unicorn. "What business does a human have with the creatures of Phantasm?"

"Whoa!" Lisa's hand landed beside them, shaking the ground with the impact. "It's all right, Milord! He is on our side!"

Bright lights converged beside Lewis' face as the Fairy Queen and Ashwyn joined him in confirmation.

The unicorn blinked. "Oh?" He raised his horn and stepped closer, extending his nose toward Lewis. "Oh, I see," he said. "Greetings, Queen Evalia!"

"It is good to see you living, Milord," chimed the Fairy Queen.

"Bow!" hissed a tiny voice directly in Lewis' ear, and he didn't even look to see who had said something. He immediately ducked his head and said, "I'm sorry to startle you. The fairies--and the giant--" he gestured to Lisa, "aided me in the process of reviving you, because I needed to know some very important information that only you could tell me. My name is Lewis."

"Lewis." The red-horned unicorn repeated the name slowly. "On behalf of all the displaced Phantasmian creatures, I thank you." He waited till Lewis stood up and looked level at him, and said, "My name is Gathlen, and I am the protector of all Phantasm, including the Phantasmagyth--" He ducked his head to nudge the bare chain hanging around his neck. "Which I'm afraid is missing."

Lewis nodded. "I know the one who took it," he said. "He is the interloper who captured you all, and he's got everyone paralyzed and painted over, passing himself off as an artist and you all as his sculptures and creations."

Gathlen paced closer to Lewis, turning aside so he could get a good look at the human. "And with this knowledge," he mused, "will you champion our cause, and purpose to take a stand against this villain, retrieve the Gyth that was stolen, and restore us all to our rightful home?"

Lewis felt the nervousness kick in, to hear the list of everything that was expected of him laid out so explicitly. "Um, well," he stammered, scratching the back of his neck. "That sounds like a lot, and I'm not sure how much I can accomplish all by myself--"

"Someone's coming!" A fairy zoomed toward them from some unknown quarter.

Queen Evalia intercepted her. "Report, sentry," she commanded. "Where were you posted, and how near is the threat?"

The fairy bobbed in salute. "Your Majesty, I observed the humans passing my checkpoint in the hallway furthest from this room. The ruler of this place has paused to chat with one of the human sentries, but I overheard him say that he was on his way to confirm that the janitor had finished cleaning!"

"Oh no!" Lewis wailed, looking at the pile of broken walls and displays near Lisa's bed. "I can't get this all put back together before Gilroy sees it!" He stared at the giant and the unicorn standing in the middle of the exhibit hall. "And what will he say when he sees you?"

"He won't!" Queen Evalia was already dispatching fairykind to all corners of the room. "We will see to it that everything is put to rights."

Gathlen nodded to Lewis as he trotted back to his display. "Simply remove this chain, and I will return to the state in which I was before you revived me. The same goes for the giant, as well. Replace that which you removed to revive her, and it will be as if our meeting never took place."

Lewis nodded. "Thank you, sir," he said. "I'll let you out again soon, I promise."

Lewis lifted off the chain, and--as he'd said--Gathlen's legs reared of their own accord, snapping like springs into exactly the position they'd been in. Lewis dropped the chain into the large utility pocket at his hip, and signaled to Lisa. "Okay, you can put the cover back on now."

Lisa lifted the heavy glass. "All right then; look out, everyone!" With the glass case returned to its proper place, you wouldn't know it had ever been breached.

"That's done," Lewis sighed. "Now all that's left is you, Lisa." He patted the pocket with the wires, to remind himself that they were still in his possession. "You're going to have to lay down on the bed again."

The giant girl wrinkled her nose. "But it's so tiny!" she whined. "Do I have to?"

"He approaches!" hollered a fairy.

Lewis worked his way to the surface of the mattress. "I promise it'll be temporary," he said. "I'll wake you up as soon as I can."

"Fine."

He clung to the pillow as Lisa collapsed onto the bed, curling her legs up so she didn't overhang the mattress, just the way she'd been laying before.

"Close your eyes," he instructed. "I'm going to have to climb on your face, but try not to move."

The puff of breath from her nose threatened to knock him over. "Whatever, little crawler."

Lewis quickly wrapped the wires around the lashes of her right eye, since that was closest to him. By the time he finished, her skin had reverted back to the hard, plastic-like feel it had been before. He tested it by prodding her forehead with his hand. "Lisa?" he called.

She didn't move, as if she was nothing more than a stiff, lifeless sculpture again. Lewis wrapped the lashes of the second eye, and clambered down from the mattress just as the massive doors of the exhibit hall swung open.

"Ah! Grant, have you finished? We're opening to the public soon!"

Lewis stepped in front of the doors, luckily right up alongside his cart that was full of dirt and bags from the trash cans around the floor. He nodded. "Just finished, sir," he said, gesturing behind him as if revealing all his hard work. He hardly dared to think what it might look like at this point.

Gilroy nodded in approval. "Not bad! Hurry out of the way, boy--I'll let you finish out your shift after closing tonight."

Lewis couldn't believe what he saw: somehow, the fairies had not only cleaned off all the usual surfaces as he would--but they'd somehow restored the broken display wall and erased the dent from Lisa's elbow! At any rate, it did look like he'd been cleaning the whole time, and not at all interfering with the displays!

"All right, Mr. Gilroy," he agreed, only dimly aware of what the curator had offered him. "I'll do that. Have a good evening!"

The bespectacled old man waved. "Good work today. I'll notify the security guards that you will need access."

Lewis ducked into the janitor's locker and quickly shimmied out of his cover-alls as the sparkling flecks of light swept in behind him. He pulled his backpack out and opened the upper pocket. "Everybody in!" he whispered.

The fairyfolk converged on his bag, the fairies diving inside and the elves crawling down his arms to reach the pocket. At last, he heard Queen Evalia's gentle jingle, "All accounted for!"
Lewis slung the backpack over his shoulder and slipped out the door.

In the foyer, Krasimir Schlimme stood in a pinstripe charcoal-grey suit, muttering frustrations to Adolf dressed all in black, standing at his side, while Mr. Gilroy puttered off to another wing of the museum with a distracted air. None of the men even gave the boy with the backpack a second glance.
Lewis breathed a sigh of relief as he heard the doors close beside him--but the breath caught in his throat as a familiar face framed by long, dark braids walked right up to him.

"Oh, Lewis!" Quincy exclaimed brightly.

He stopped in his tracks, more aware than ever of the miniature creatures currently hiding in his backpack. "H-hi, Quincy," he stammered. "What are you doing here?"

She huffed. "What else? I'm here to see the new exhibit! Does it look as realistic as everyone is saying?" She cuffed him on the shoulder. "What are you doing here, though? Aren't you leaving in the middle of your shift?"

Lewis couldn't restrain the sense of guilt that gripped him. "I have permission!" He blurted. "Um, because of the unveiling, Mr. Gilroy said I could come later and complete my hours after it's over."

Quincy smirked, tugging at one of her braids. "So," she sighed. "Does this mean you won't make it to Study Hall tonight?"

"Yeah," Lewis sighed. "I guess that's not a huge issue, just missing one night. We already took the unit quizzes."

She shrugged. "Okay, well... If you see Jesse at the food court, tell him I said Hi!"

Lewis waved a hand over his shoulder as he ambled down the rest of the steps.

At the food court, Jesse brought him his food, and Lewis was able to pass on Quincy's message. He, too, expressed interest in seeing the "macro sculpture" on display.

"I mean, putting up a bunch of paintings and tiny sculptures is one thing--but a giant figurine? That's gotta take a lot of work and attention to detail!"

Lewis bent over his burger and fries and muttered to himself, "You don't know the half of it."

He did his best to cram in some assigned reading before closing time at the museum approached, and Lewis knew he could return.

The large building was dark and empty-feeling at this hour, with only the moon shining through. Lewis checked in with a security guard, who grunted, "Oh, yeah; the Boss said you'd be coming in. Just let me know when you leave, so I can lock up, ok?"

"Sure thing," Lewis promised, and headed to that old familiar hallway to get his trash cart.

As he pulled back into the exhibit hall and flicked on the lights, his eyes searched for the pinpricks of light that meant the fairies had entered.

"Hey," he said to the air around him. "Do you think you can do the thing with the cameras again, before I wake Lisa?"

Ashwyn came to land on his left shoulder. "Unfortunately, Her Majesty says that our fairy dust only works in the light of the sun. It is the moon's time now, so you're just going to have to be very careful."

Lewis shifted over to Lisa's display. A huge black tarp had been spread over her sleeping form. He could get underneath without being discovered--but what if somebody was watching while she sat up?
"I just don't see how this is going to work!" he moaned.

Queen Evalia pointed to the pocket of his coveralls. "Use the Chain--its magic will shield you from being discovered," she said.

Lewis pulled it out, letting the chain dangle glitteringly from his hand. "This?" he asked. "But how?"

The Fairy Queen bobbed. "The scope of its magic is just as much a mystery to us as it is to you," she replied. "Believe that it will work, and it will protect you, like it protects all of us."

Lewis snorted, but there really wasn't any other option available to him. He put the chain around his neck and commenced climbing up the tall mattress.

Working under the tarp was almost unbearably stuffy. For a "silicone and resin sculpture", Lisa's body gave off quite a bit of heat, and it was all trapped under the dark fabric. This time, Lewis made sure to climb up and undo the wires on her left side first, before jumping down onto the pillow and releasing the lashes of her right eye. She sat up almost immediately, and freaked out just as fast.

"What happened to me?" She wailed. "Why is it so dark? I'm blind!"

The swath of fabric swung over Lewis' head and sent him tumbling down toward the mattress.
"Lisa!" He yelled. "It's just a drape!"

Her hands thumped the pillow and the mattress, searching for him. "Lewis? Is that you? I can't see you!"

Lewis had to crouch down to avoid being smacked by her huge palms. "Stop!" He shouted at her. "Don't move!"

She stilled at once.

"Take the drape off your head," he said.

She reached up and pulled it off, letting it skitter to the floor. "Oh, a cloth? That's all it was?"

Giant and human let out a relieved sigh together.

Lisa smiled and bent close to him. "You came back," she said, curling her hand around him without touching him.

Lewis nodded. "I said I would."

She pressed her lips together. "You want me to open the unicorn's case again?"

Lewis nodded. "Yes, please; there's still a bit more information I need from him."

The giant obliged, and this time, Lewis didn't feel any fear or apprehension at all as he transferred the chain from his neck to Gathlen's.

The silver hooves landed on the base of the display case, and Gathlen swung his head to one side so he could look directly at Lewis.

"Oh, it's you again," he said. "Was there something more you wanted to ask me?"

Lewis nodded. "Yes," he said. "But first," he gestured to the blinking cameras. "Is there something you can do about those? I don't want any of us to get into trouble while I'm doing this."

"Never fear," Gathlen reassured him. He raised his horn so that it caught a beam of moonlight. One by one, all the blinking cameras winked out. "The Phantasmagyth and its Guardian hold the power to shut the eyes of those who wish to bring harm to Phantasm."

Lewis felt his heartbeat quicken at this. "So, that's what Krasimir wants? To destroy your world?"

Gathlen shook his head, flicking the forelock of his mane from one side to the other. "Not destroy, young human. He wants dominion over it, over all of us. He seeks the overarching power that the Phantasmagyth holds--and he will not use it fairly when he has it." The unicorn bent his magnificent head. "He stole it from me for that purpose, and it was only by breaking it apart that I was able to ensure he never fully possesses it."

"So the Queen was right, then?" Lewis said. "That chain, it's part of it."

Gathlen raised his head. "Yes, a very powerful part--but the Phantasmagyth will never be at its full strength and capable of allowing us to return to our world until the two parts are reunited."

"The chain and the... the gyth," Lewis concluded. "But how do I find it?" He rubbed a hand through his hair. "If you're the Guardian, do you have some way of sensing where it is?"

"The most that I know is that the villainous Captor keeps it where only he may access it," Gathlen retorted. "I know only that it is nearby, within the bounds of this city--but I have never seen the outside of this place, so I would not be able to tell you where to begin your search."

"Ahem!" A loud voice rang high over their heads. Lisa had a corner of her lip bent between her teeth as she fidgeted with the black cloth. "I might know where he keeps it," she admitted.

Lewis stepped away from the display case. "You do?" he prompted her.

Lisa nodded. "I saw it once, when the Captor was trying to figure out how to make me all stiff like he'd done with the fairies. It's at his castle, with all the other things he's brought over from Phantasm. He's got it locked in a room and under heavy guard." She shuddered, and Lewis could feel the movement thrumming through the floorboards. "The Underworlders guard it."

"Underworlders?" Lewis immediately thought of the creepy creatures in the storage room below them. "He's got more of those things?"

"Of course he does," Gathlen confirmed. "He needs an army, and without the full strength and authority of the Phantasmagyth, the only creatures he would have in his thrall would be the Underworlders, as the absence of any protection would allow them to breach the surface and break out of the pits and caves of fiery darkness that is their normal habitat." Gathlen twitched, shaking his head back and forth as if the mere mention of Underworlders made his hide crawl. "You have met the one called Adolf, I presume? He is the leader of the Underworlders, at least the ones now serving the Captor. I suppose the wily villain made sure to collect only those subordinate to Adolf, to ensure he would always have a means of keeping them in line."

Lewis wagged his head. This problem was getting more and more complicated by the minute! "But why an army?" He said. "And why does he collect so many of you all?" he swept his arm to indicate the entire exhibit hall full of innocent, harmless creatures.

Gathlen sighed, the breath blowing between his lips in a soft nickering sound. "It is what I've been trying to tell you, Lewis. Ever since Krasimir Schlimme first discovered the pathway into Phantasm, he's wanted to control it, he's wanted power over all of us. The trouble is, now that he's gone and brought the Phantasmagyth into this world... if he were to ever get his hands on it, the Phantasmagyth would give him unstoppable power over this world and our own. Such an outcome would be unforgivable--so you must swear that you will do everything in your power to keep that from happening!" Gathlen's head swung around, and the tip of his gleaming red horn rested on Lewis' chest, right above his heart. "Swear it!" the unicorn whinnied.

Lewis hardly dared to breathe, lest his own pounding pulse allowed the point of the horn to pierce his skin. "All right," he gasped hoarsely. "I s-swear! I swear!"

Gathlen lifted his head and huffed. "Good," he said. "All will be well, then." He tilted his head, as if checking the angle of the moon's light. "Enough time has passed, good Lewis," he said. "Let me back to where I was, and complete the tasks assigned to you."

"Thank you, Gathlen," Lewis said. "I hope we can talk again soon."

"Find the gyth, Lewis," Gathlen reminded him. "It's our only hope of stopping the Captor."

Lewis patted Gathlen on the shoulder and nodded without a word. He removed the chain, and once again dodged aside as the unicorn's hooves sprang up to their "sculpted" positions.
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