39. The Room Where it Happens

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Hey loves - I'm not an expert on trigger warnings, but this chapter has some mistreated children. It's not as bad as what happens to Hansel and Gretel and characters in other fairy tales, but wanted you to know. I promise no actual children were harmed in the making of this book and that justice will be served! (If that helps!)

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Pushing back the edges of the portal like a curtain, Ashley stepped through into the room, one foot at a time, and continued to hold the seam open with her arms behind her like wings. Her eyes watered from the acrid air—so cold it seared her lungs—the ghostly vapor of her exhalations hovering in front of her face.

"What an exciting new smell you've unearthed, Princess,"* Derek grumbled. "Bat guano mixed with despair, nightmares, and poor ventilation."

"It's not only the smell that's horrible. Look at this place," Sadira whispered.

The cold gloom called for whispers, like empty churches and crowded graveyards.

A dozen sleeping children lay on mats in the middle of the room, while wooden shelves, sagging beneath the weight of hundreds of glass jars, lined the walls. In one corner stood a wood-burning stove, the charred remains of a fire disintegrating into ash, and in the middle, a wooden table laden with empty bottles and stained with what looked like blood. The walls pulsed with dull, eerie light—like the moon behind a passing swath of storm clouds.

"Standard lunatic magician lab," Derek said, eyes following a giant spider as it scuttled across a web that stretched the length of the room. "What? I got credit hours assisting a lunatic magician in college. It was either that or "The History of Coal." Which would you have chosen?"

"Maybe we can open a window," Sadira suggested, holding her nose.

"There don't appear to be any windows or doors," Kai said in an eerie, doomy voice.

"Of course not," Derek spat. "Yet another crime against architecture. Probably trolls again. How are they getting so much work?"

Tressa wrinkled her nose. "Why would anyone keep a bat colony in a laboratory?"

"Have you never read a gothic novel?" Derek forced a laugh. "Lemme see: fresh body parts for potions? Ambiance? Drama? Affinity for paranormal clichés?"

"Very funny," Tressa said.

"Look, Ashley, are you going to stand there like an angel statue, or are you going to come inside and do some actual angeling?" Derek griped.

"I'd love to, but remember when Druscilla first showed up in the garden, the portal closed as soon as she walked through? I can't risk letting go, especially if there's no other way out of this room. We'll need it to return to the garden with the children and make our escape. And it's not easy work. My arm muscles are burning."

"I'd take over," Derek said, all chivalrous-like, "but I have Derek Junior."

"I'll take him for you," Layyin said, batting her eyelashes.

Derek looked hopefully at Sadira, Tressa, and Kai, but got no other volunteers. He turned toward Layyin, who extracted the dragon from Derek's grip and tickled the baby's blue belly. Steam blew out of his glistening red nose. Derek wagged his index finger at her. "Do not turn him to your thrill-seeking ways."

"I would never," she said prettily, her tone subdued, for Layyin anyway.

Derek took Ashley's place at the portal, and she rested a hand on his arm. "Thank you, Derek. I appreciate this. But any sign of Druscilla let the portal close, and we'll figure another way out."

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