March 9, 2016

The Secrets of Solace Tour: Excerpt + Giveaway

Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for THE SECRETS OF SOLACE! I have a great excerpt from the book to share with you today - and don't forget to enter the awesome giveaway!!

The Secrets of Solace (World of Solace #2)
Author: Jaleigh Johnson
Genre: MG Fantasy
Release Date: March 8, 2016
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers


From Jaleigh Johnson, the acclaimed author of The Mark of the Dragonfly, comes another thrilling adventure in the magical world of Solace.
Lina Winterbock lives in the mountain strongholds of Solace. She’s an apprentice to the archivists, the wise men and women whose lives are dedicated to cataloging, studying, and preserving the objects that mysteriously fall from the sky in the scrap towns.
Lina should be spending her days with books, but the Iron War has changed everything. The strongholds are now a refuge, and the people Lina once counted on no longer have time for her, so she spends her days exploring the hidden tunnels and passages of her home. The strongholds are vast and old, with twisting paths, forgotten rooms, and collapsed chambers, some of them containing objects that have been lost and forgotten even by the archivists.
And in one of the forgotten chambers, Lina discovers a secret.
Hidden deep in a cavern is a half-buried airship like nothing she has ever seen before. She’s determined to dig it out and restore it. But Lina needs help, and she doesn’t know anyone she can trust with her secret.
Then she meets Ozben, a mysterious boy who has a secret of his own—a secret that’s so dangerous it could change the course of the Iron War and the world of Solace forever.
"Apprentices, quiet!” The excited chatter in the classroom almost drowned out Tolwin’s exasperated shout. “You’d think that none of you had ever seen a simple box before.”

From her seat near the back of the classroom, Lina Winterbock snorted in amusement. An archivist, even a junior apprentice like her, knew there was no such thing as “a simple box.” Not when that box had been shipped from the meteor fields up north.

The classroom for Archival Studies was an amphitheater, the desks arranged in a semicircle on stone tiers carved out of the cavern’s natural rock formations. At the bottom, in the teaching pit, there was a scarred oak table and a podium beside it for the teacher. The box that had caused the pandemonium sat in the middle of the table. Lina’s teacher, the archivist Tolwin, stood behind the podium. His apprentice and assistant, Simon, stood at Tolwin’s side, scowling at all the noise. Though to be fair, the sour expression could just be Simon’s version of a smile. With him, it was hard to tell. As Tolwin swept his gaze over the fifty- odd students assembled in the classroom, Lina turned her attention away from the box and sank as low in her seat as she could manage without actually falling to the floor. It didn’t matter. The teacher’s sharp eyes found her anyway and narrowed as his lips pressed into a thin line of displeasure. Lina forced herself to stare back at him without flinching, but it wasn’t easy. Tolwin’s glare felt like a spider skittering down her spine. A large, hairy spider with fangs.

Given the incident last year, Tolwin’s reaction to her wasn’t that surprising, but Lina kept hoping maybe he would fall and hit his head and somehow forget the whole unpleasant business. Normally, she would never wish a head injury on anyone, but it might make her days in Archival Studies a bit easier.

Lina released a tense breath as Tolwin finally looked away from her, and she eagerly refocused her attention on the mysterious box. What was Tolwin hiding in there? Some new bit of technology? A painting? Or maybe even a manuscript? Mystery poured from the depths of the box, filling Lina’s mind and quickening her heart.

Where do you come from? How far have you traveled? What secrets do you hold? Lina had never been to the meteor fields or the scrap towns where all these strange objects were gathered. They were located far to the north of the archivists’ strongholds, in the Merrow Kingdom. But she’d heard plenty of stories of the violent meteor storms that ravaged the land up there. For reasons that even the wisest of the archivists hadn’t been able to discover, the boundary between their world of Solace and other lands was thin in the meteor fields, and on the night of each full moon, it dissolved completely. With no barrier, objects from other worlds tumbled from the sky in clouds of poisonous green dust. It was the poorest people in the north, the scrappers, who bravely took on the task of harvesting these meteorites. They cleaned up whatever objects were still intact and sold them at local trade markets to make money to live on.

The scrappers’ best customers were the archivists, who bought up as many of these otherworldly artifacts as they could. They paid special attention to any object that might reveal hints of what life was like in unknown worlds. It was the archivists’ mission to preserve the artifacts and record whatever knowledge they gleaned from them, both for its own sake and because they believed that the more people learned about these other worlds, the more they would come to understand their own. It was a unique calling, one that, even as an apprentice, made Lina’s life very different from the lives of people living in other lands. 

“I said quiet!” Tolwin barked, shaking Lina from her thoughts. Anger deepened the crisscrossing lines on her instructor’s face. His bushy brown- gray hair even seemed unhappy. As he glared at the students, the noise level in the room gradually dropped to a quiet murmur. “Today I’m going to conduct a hands-on experiment, the purpose of which is to test your understanding of the archivist principles you’ve been taught so far.” Tolwin gestured to the box on the table. “You’re all wondering what I’ve got in here, yes? I hear you whispering about it, trying to guess which division it came from.”

Naturally, Lina thought. It was the first thing any archivist would wonder. The six general divisions— Flora, Fauna, Technology, Language/Literature, Cultural Artifacts, and Medicine— formed the basis for all the archivists’ work. At the end of their long years of study and apprenticeship, each of the students in this room would end up working in one of those divisions.

Tolwin rubbed his hands together as if to build suspense. “All I will tell you, to start, is that there is an object inside the box that was discovered in the meteor fields only two weeks ago.”

An astonished hush fell over the classroom at this announcement, and Lina sat up straighter in her seat.

Apprentices rarely got the opportunity to see, let alone study, an object newly recovered from the meteor fields. That privilege was usually reserved for the senior archivists.

“Well, now that we’ve finally achieved silence,” Tolwin said dryly, “we can begin the lesson. First, I will require a volunteer. Simon, would you care to select someone?” 

Hands shot up all over the room as the students squirmed in their seats and shot pleading looks at Tolwin’s apprentice. They all wanted to be the first to examine the object inside the box.

Only Lina sat with her hands folded tight on top of her desk. All the while, her heart banged against her ribs, begging her with each unsteady beat to raise her hand and volunteer. But, curious as she was about the secrets and wonders contained within the box, she didn’t trust Tolwin. She didn’t trust anyone who made her feel spider legs on her spine.

And then Simon said something that made her heart stand still. “I think . . . I think Lina Winterbock looks eager to volunteer.”

Lina’s stomach dropped, and she caught the malicious glint in Simon’s eyes as he motioned for her to come down and join them in the teaching pit.

“Ah yes, I believe you’re right.” Tolwin glanced up at her, and the slightest of smiles curved his thin lips.

“Come down and stand in front of the table here, Miss Winterbock.”

Lina’s mind raced even as she slid her chair away from her desk with a quiet scraping sound. All eyes in the classroom fixed on her, which automatically brought a deep flush of embarrassment to her cheeks. 

At times like this, Lina wished more than anything that she could look across the room and meet the eyes of a best friend, someone who would giggle and stick her tongue out at Tolwin when his back was turned, and who would mouth a few encouraging words to her while she faced down the teacher. She’d even settle for a temporary friend, one who appeared under only the direst of circumstances. She wasn’t picky.

Focus, Lina.

Whatever game Tolwin and Simon were playing, the way Lina saw it, she had three possible countermoves. She could refuse to volunteer, which would thwart Tolwin but also probably get her kicked out of class. There was always the option of feigning sickness. Lina considered it as she stood up and made her way down the stairs. All she had to do was clutch her stomach and run out of the room as if she were about to vomit. If she played it up enough, Tolwin might even believe her.

But that would give him the satisfaction of knowing that he’d scared her off.

Which left option three. Lina squared her shoulders and approached the box on the table, prepared to play along with whatever Tolwin had in store. Maybe, if she was good enough, she’d find a way to outsmart him and avoid the trap he and Simon had set. 

“Now then, Miss Winterbock,” Tolwin said, coming around the podium to stand beside her at the table. “We’re going to play a game of make- believe.” He pointed to the box. “I want you to imagine that you are a senior archivist— the very position everyone in this room aspires to— and that this object has just been delivered to your workshop. Tell me, how would you begin your examination of it?”

Easy question. Apprentices learned those steps as part of their introductory course work. Lina cleared her throat for the recitation. “Upon removal of the object from the box, I would first determine— ”

He held up a hand, stopping her. “Wait a moment. You say you would remove the object from the box. Do so, please.”

Lina saw the other apprentices’ eyes widen. She was just as shocked herself. She’d never expected Tolwin to let her handle the object. What was in that box?

Cautiously, palms sweating, fearing a trick but not knowing what it was, Lina lifted the lid off the box and set it carefully on the table. She inched forward to peer inside, then let out a quiet sigh of relief.

She’d expected some ugly critter with spines or horns to jump out at her. Reaching both hands into the box, she pulled out a small, ornate jewelry chest. Made of some kind of dark metal with bands of gold on the lid, the chest was in remarkably good shape, considering it had come crashing to the ground in a meteor storm. 

And that wasn’t the only thing strange about the object. Lina couldn’t help wondering how the archivists had managed to acquire the item so recently, with the Iron War raging between the Merrow Kingdom, where the meteor fields were located, and the Dragonfly territories to the south. The archivists were their own separate nation and had refused to choose a side in the conflict between the two lands, but even so, trade shipments were slow in coming from the Merrow Kingdom, when they arrived at all.

But Lina didn’t have time to dwell on that mystery. Tolwin wasn’t finished with her.

“Now,” he said when Lina put the jewelry chest on the table, “continue with your examination. How would you begin to identify this object?”

Lina scanned Tolwin’s face for any clue that he was trying to trick her, but the man’s expression was unreadable. She cleared her throat again and hoped her voice remained steady. “First, we need to note the material the object is made of and determine whether it’s organic or inorganic,” she said. “If inorganic, which this is, we then determine whether or not its composite materials are native to our world of Solace.”

“Excellent,” Tolwin said, though his tone was anything but warm. He turned to the class. “Would any of you care to guess what this object is made of?” 

Five hands shot up in the air. Tolwin nodded to a girl who’d been sitting next to Lina. “Pewter, with gold bands,” she guessed.

“Good eye,” Tolwin said, smiling thinly at the girl. He turned his attention back to Lina. “So far, we have identified an inorganic object made of materials native to Solace. If we were conducting a true examination, laboratory tests would need to be done to confirm this, but for now, we’ll move on with the demonstration. I assume you know the next step, Miss Winterbock?”

Lina met Tolwin’s eyes and saw the look of challenge there. Of course she knew the next step, as did everyone else in the room: classify the object according to one of the six divisions of archivist studies. But that involved examining the chest more closely— at the very least, lifting the lid.

And that’s where Tolwin would spring his trap. Lina could see it in his eyes. There was something in the box. Something meant just for her, and it wasn’t going to be pleasant.

Lina clutched her hands in front of her to keep them from shaking. She cast about for anything that could help her and spied a ruler on a little shelf behind Tolwin’s podium. Before he could protest, she walked over and grabbed it. Returning to the chest, she fitted the edge of the ruler beneath the lid and gently lifted it. 

Creaking hinges echoed in the amphitheater as the chest opened, and a faint moldy smell tickled Lina’s nose. Half the class leaned forward in their seats to get a better look at what was in the chest, while the other half craned away. It seemed they were all expecting something grand or dangerous to pop out.

And then Lina realized with a jolt that the chest was empty. A water- spotted lining of red velvet covered the bottom of it, but otherwise there was nothing, no waiting horror inside. Lina laid the ruler on the table and let out the breath she’d been holding. Tolwin had just been messing with her, trying to build suspense and make her afraid. She hated to admit that it had worked. Behind her, Simon chuckled, and Lina’s cheeks flamed.

“Very good, Miss Winterbock. Now that you’ve so bravely conquered the obstacle of opening the chest,” Tolwin said, amid titters of laughter from the class, “perhaps you could continue with your analysis?”

Lina gritted her teeth and nodded, determined not to let Tolwin get into her head. She thought the box belonged to the Cultural Artifacts division, but it didn’t hurt to check to see if there were any mechanical components that might designate it as Technology. Sometimes
these small jewelry chests were also music boxes. You just never knew. 

She reached into the box and felt along the velvet lining with her hands, searching for any machinery, but as far as she could tell, there was none. A Cultural Artifact, then.

She opened her mouth to say so, when suddenly she noticed a slight tingling in the tips of her fingers, as if they were falling asleep. At first, she thought it was just her nervousness, but then the sensation traveled into her hands, and Lina’s heart began to beat faster.

What was happening? No, it couldn’t be a trap. The chest was empty. She’d checked.

“Is there a problem, Miss Winterbock?” Tolwin asked, his voice deceptively serene. “We are all awaiting the results of your analysis.”

Lina tried to ignore him, focusing on her hands. She turned them palms up and saw with a growing panic that her fingers were starting to swell. A fine film of red dust coated the tips where she’d been feeling around in the chest. She hadn’t noticed it at first because it was the same color as the velvet, but she could see now, looking closer, that it covered the whole inside of the chest. She reached up to try to close the lid and found that her fingers had gone completely numb. The chest teetered as she fumbled with it, and the lid shut with a snap. More faint laughter threaded through the room, ringing in Lina’s ears.

How could she have been so stupid? She should have looked at the inside of the chest more closely. What was that dust Tolwin had planted? What had he done to her?

Lina tried to control her panic. She cupped her numb and swollen hands protectively against her middle and looked up at Tolwin. “What did you do?” she asked, her voice quavering.

I did nothing, Miss Winterbock,” Tolwin said, his tone smug. “I’m afraid it is you who failed to follow the proper procedure for examination of an unknown artifact. And you are, at this moment, discovering the consequences of such neglect.”

Lina shook her head stubbornly. “I followed the correct procedures,” she insisted. “I determined that the chest was an object made of inorganic material and— ”

“You are mistaken,” Tolwin interrupted her, his eyes narrowing. “You assumed that the object was inorganic because it appeared so to the naked eye. Based on that false assumption, you continued your examination without performing further tests, oblivious to the fact that the substance coating its interior is in fact an extraction from the lutea flower.”

So that was what it was. Lina’s heart sank. She knew a little bit about the lutea plant from her studies. It secreted a fine cloud of dust that acted as a paralytic on passing insects, which the plant then fed upon. In humans, the dust caused an allergic reaction when it came in contact with the skin.

But the lutea plant didn’t grow naturally inside old jewelry chests.

Anger flooded Lina. “You deliberately put the dust in there,” she accused.

“I don’t deny it,” Tolwin said, looking down at her hands and smiling. “I planted the dust to prove a point that you would all do well to remember,” he said, turning to face the class. “When you are examining an object that comes from another world, you must take nothing for granted. Even the most innocuous device may contain hidden dangers.”

Tolwin reached over and clasped Lina’s wrist in his hand. Before she could pull away, he lifted her arm so that the entire class could see the effects of the dust. Gasps and cries of “Eew, gross!” filled the room.

Blood pounded an unsteady rhythm in Lina’s ears as she tried to control her anger. Her fingers were now so swollen and red they looked like ugly little sausages. At least there was no pain, and so far, the sensation hadn’t spread past her hands, for which Lina was grateful. But she wouldn’t be able to pick anything up or even hold a pencil. No doubt that had been part of Tolwin’s intention. How long would her hands stay this way?

As if he sensed her worry, Tolwin released her wrist and returned to his podium. “Take your seat, Miss Winter bock,” he said, “and don’t look so glum. The effects of the dust are only temporary in humans. You should be able to use your hands again in a few hours.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll contemplate this lesson and perhaps take a few notes on it— when you are able to, of course.” He smiled, and several of the students snickered.

Holding her head up, Lina walked back to her seat, but her face was almost as red from embarrassment and anger as her hands were from the dust. The bell that signaled the end of class began to toll just as she reached her desk. Bending over, Lina awkwardly slid her pile of books off her desk and into her arms. She tried to grab her pencil, but it skittered away from her numb fingers and fell to the floor. A group of girls giggled as they walked past her. Lina gritted her teeth and crouched down to try to pick up her pencil, but her hands were useless on the small object. Tears burned in her eyes, but Lina furiously blinked them away. She looked up to see if any of the apprentices had lingered in the classroom and might help her out, but everyone, even Simon and Tolwin, was gone.

At least they hadn’t stayed around to gloat. That was something. Lina abandoned her pencil and stood up, juggling her books into a manageable pile. She walked back down the stairs and left the classroom, already dreading the journey through the passages where the other students would see her swollen hands.

As if they needed something else to point at and whisper about. They already looked sideways at her dirt-smudged face and frizzy brown hair, not to mention her rumpled and torn clothes. Today she wore a midnight- blue shirt covered with crooked black stitches where she’d tried to mend the dozens of holes. She’d grown used to people’s reactions to her appearance, but lobster- claw hands were a whole different kind of strange.

Lina blew out a frustrated sigh. She was tempted to go to Councilwoman Zara and tell her what had happened. The older woman might even have something that would reduce the swelling in Lina’s hands.

Like Tolwin, Zara was a teacher and a member of the archivists’ ruling council, but she was also Lina’s mentor and advisor. Junior apprentices— those in the first through third ranks, as Lina was— took general- knowledge classes, like science, history, reading, and mathematics, during their first several years of study. But in this time, they would also be apprenticed to a senior archivist, as Lina had been to Zara, and as Simon had been to Tolwin. Through one- on- one instruction, the archivist was responsible for mentoring and guiding his or her student toward one of the six divisions of archival work. Once the student passed into the fourth and fifth ranks of the senior apprentices, their classes would shift focus to their chosen division.

No matter what lesson he’d been trying to teach, what Tolwin had done was cruel, and Lina was sure Zara would agree with her.

But Zara was busy with her work on the council and might not be in her office if Lina went to see her. Ever since the Iron War broke out, Lina rarely had more than a few minutes alone with her teacher. Instead, she received written messages and assignments. And when they did see each other, more often than not, their conversations tended to end in arguments and shouting matches. So she didn’t have what she’d call the best relationship with Zara at the moment. The thought made Lina’s spirits sink even lower.

But if she wasn’t going to tell Zara what had happened, that meant she would have to endure the rest of the afternoon classes with her clumsy, swollen hands. She imagined more students giggling at her as she fumbled with her books and papers, trying to work.

No, Lina decided with a fierce shake of her head. That wasn’t going to happen. There were better ways and places to spend her time.

Her workshop, for instance. And the secret that was waiting there.

Excitement hummed in Lina’s veins at the prospect of a whole day alone with her project. She might not accomplish much without the use of her hands, but what better way to lift her spirits than to go to the place that felt most like home?

Her decision made, she turned and followed the twisting stone corridors that led away from the classrooms to the student dormitories. She passed through several more hallways and stopped at her room so she could drop off her textbooks.

The space was small, carved out of the stone in an L shape, like all the other sleeping quarters, scarcely large enough to fit a narrow bed, a desk, and a chair. The only decoration in the room was a large map that hung on the wall above her headboard. She used the word “decoration” loosely, especially since a casual observer wouldn’t be able to tell that the drawing was a map at all. It was a mess, fingerprinted and folded about ten thousand times, but Lina didn’t care. It was her masterpiece: a complete map of her home in the archivists’ mountain stronghold of Ortana. It depicted every secret tunnel, hidden doorway, and navigable ventilation shaft she’d ever explored— two years’ painstaking work, of which Lina was extremely proud.

She’d been born for the role of explorer archivist. True, she’d created the title herself, but it made sense. The archivists’ work was to uncover mysterious and wondrous things, and the archivists themselves were all about discovery and preservation of lost artifacts, history, and culture from other worlds. The problem was, they rarely stopped working long enough to realize that their own strongholds held hidden secrets and wonders lost to all but the most determined— and smallest— explorers. Also, the archivists thought the ventilation shafts and some of the tunnels were too dangerous for someone Lina’s age to play around in. When Lina first began her explorations, one of the chamelins had caught her using a secret tunnel between the Menagerie and her dormitory. The archivists had sealed off the shortcut, even though she’d begged them not to. Since then, Lina had learned to be careful and secretive to avoid discovery. If that meant she tended to avoid people and occasionally forgot to check in with her teacher, well, that was just the way it had to be. Most people tended to forget about her anyway, Zara included.

Lina dropped her books on her desk and picked up her heavy coat from where she’d slung it over the back of her chair. She pulled it on, leaving the mismatched blue and copper buttons undone. She had a pair of finger less gloves stowed in her pockets, which she would put on once the swelling in her hands went down.

Despite the steam radiators and fireplaces installed throughout the stronghold, it was never a truly warm place. It wasn’t uncommon to see the archivists and apprentices walking the halls in cloaks and scarves. But the place Lina was going was colder than most, and she was used to wearing a heavy coat in her workshop.

Her gaze rested on a corner of her desk where a thick black wristband lay. She picked it up carefully, using only the tips of her swollen fingers, and surveyed the twelve black fireflies clinging to the band. A dull silver light glowed from their abdomens.

“You didn’t think I’d leave you behind, did you?” she asked. The lumatites didn’t answer, of course, but their light brightened, filling the small room with a silver radiance. If they fed well, a dozen of the insects were powerful enough to light a small room for hours. Lina only needed their light to guide her through a single dark tunnel, a passage no one in the stronghold knew about except her. Satisfied that she had everything she needed, Lina took one last grimacing look at her swollen hands and left the room, kicking the door shut behind her.

She made her way out of the apprentice quarters and back to the larger main tunnels of the stronghold.

The Independent Nation of Archivists, or INA, as outsiders sometimes called it, was made up of three strongholds inside three mountains. The names of the strongholds were also the names of the mountains: Ortana, Ironstar, and Geligaunt. Lina loved saying them. She thought they sounded so valiant, and she imagined the three mountains standing like sentinels amid the rest of the frigid Hiterian Mountains.

Generations of craftspeople had worked to dig the tunnels and carve the buildings and architectural fixtures out of miles of rock and caves. Lina’s home, Ortana, was the largest of the three strongholds, and the seat of the nation’s ruling council. It had taken centuries to finish, and the names of some of the earliest architects to work on Ortana were carved on the walls of the passage Lina walked through now. Patches of feathery green moss nested with white flowers surrounded the names. The sunlight the flowers needed to grow filtered through holes in the rock ceiling, bouncing off prisms arranged by the archivists to bring the light from the surface.

Though the archivists could be irritating at times, their extraordinary talents, like the ability to coax sunlight into the heart of a mountain, were what Lina loved most about her people.

Passing beyond the Architects’ Way, Lina headed for the stronghold’s centerpiece, known as the Heart of the Mountain, the hub from which all the other tunnels originated. When she walked down the short flight of stone steps into the chamber, she was struck, as always, by the vastness of the place. Stone columns and curving staircases framed the council building situated on the west side of the chamber, where the archivists’ ruling body governed. The ceiling, riddled with stalactites, stretched like a tapestry of daggers a hundred feet above her head. From this chamber, she could travel to any other part of the stronghold, to the six workshops where the bulk of the archivists lived and practiced their crafts, or to the public museum, where they displayed a selection of their wondrous artifacts for the people of Solace.

Lina quickened her pace, casting glances around constantly to make sure she wasn’t being watched or followed. She couldn’t let anyone discover where she was going.

Ahead of her on the opposite side of the chamber was a set of tall iron gates that separated the archivists’ living and work areas from the public museum. Lina turned right before reaching them and continued down a side passage.

This hallway was used for collecting the garbage from the museum. Several bags were lined up along the walls, waiting to be taken to the lower chambers and burned. Nobody wandered down this passage for any other reason, which worked greatly in Lina’s favor.

She slowed, looked around again, and listened for the sound of approaching footsteps. She heard nothing, but she waited another minute anyway, just to be safe. Then she stepped up to the right- side wall and ran her hand under a large patch of deepa ivy. The plant grew wild even in the darkest caves, where the sunlight never reached, because its roots stretched deep into cracks in the earth, fed by the same volcanic vents that had formed the mountain thousands of years ago. It was an odd contrast to see them in this passage: delicate, spoon- shaped black leaves sprouting from the side of a tunnel filled with garbage.

Searching beneath the ivy, she found an empty space and lifted the black curtain aside to reveal a hole in the wall about three feet around. She bent down and ducked through the opening, letting the ivy fall gently behind her to conceal the secret entrance.

Next came the tricky part. The tunnel ahead of her was plenty large enough to stand up in and only about twenty feet in length, but it was so narrow in the middle that she had to turn sideways and suck in her breath to get through it. It was like walking through an hourglass turned on its side. Lina held up the wristband of lumatites and whispered a quick request for light. When she could see, she began the slow, awkward shuffle down the tunnel.

No matter how much she loved to explore, the idea of getting trapped in one of these narrow spaces wasn’t something Lina liked to contemplate, especially now, when it seemed like every day her body was changing on her, shoulders widening, feet getting bigger, hips all bony and awkward. She was small for her age, which helped, but someday, Lina knew, she would be too big to fit through this crucial passage. Then she would have to find some way to widen it, or she would lose access to her workshop for good. But she refused to dwell on that right now.

Finally, after she’d collected a few scrapes and bruises on her trek from one side of the Hourglass to the other, the short passage ended, and Lina popped out into a tunnel that was blessedly wider, though the ceiling was low and thick with stalactites. Weaving among them, she made her way through the passage, which sloped gradually downward. This was the longest part of her journey. She’d never actually measured how far the passage descended into the mountain, but Lina suspected that it emptied out a quarter of a mile below the museum. The air grew colder as she walked, and her breath formed thick clouds in front of her face.

She knew from studying old maps of Ortana that these chambers had once been used by the archivists as deep storage. Artifacts that were too broken to be salvaged or technologies that appeared to have no useful purpose had been consigned here. Things that had been on display for a time in the public museum had also been rotated out and stored down here to make room for more recent finds. Unfortunately, many of the oldest rooms and the tunnels leading to them had been buried long ago by a series of cave- ins. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of artifacts had been lost forever. The chambers and passages that remained intact were theoretically stable, except for a few tremors now and then, but the archivists hadn’t wanted to take the chance of losing any more of their artifacts. They’d moved the storage areas to the workshops above and abandoned these tunnels for good.

Lina had reclaimed them the day she’d discovered the hole behind the curtain of deepa ivy. Her best guess was that it had been made sometime during the excavations for the museum expansion two years ago. The area had been a torn- up mess at the time, so it wasn’t surprising that the workers had overlooked the hole, and the ivy had grown in later to cover it.

She knew she was getting close to her destination when the passage began to level out. The corridor narrowed again but not nearly as much as at the beginning of her journey. She skirted around the forest of stalactites until finally the passage emptied into a much larger cavern. The lumatites’ glow couldn’t reach the fifty- foot- high ceiling, and Lina estimated that the whole of the chamber was over two hundred feet in diameter.

To her left, in a tiny corner of the cavern, was her workshop. She’d fashioned a table by throwing two thin oak planks over a pair of sawhorses that she’d made herself. Eventually, she built a stool to go with it, although her first couple of attempts had collapsed under her when she tried to sit on them. Her carpentry skills had improved since then, and a good thing too. Everything she brought down here had to either fit through the passage or be in pieces that she’d later assemble. On the table, she had a pair of small lanterns and her tools spread out on a towel, along with her bigger maps of the stronghold and her secret tunnels.

Lina went to the table and draped her work apron over her head, though she had no hope of being able to tie the strings yet. Using both hands, she lifted a box of for the museum expansion two years ago. The area had been a torn- up mess at the time, so it wasn’t surprising that the workers had overlooked the hole, and the ivy had grown in later to cover it.

She knew she was getting close to her destination when the passage began to level out. The corridor narrowed again but not nearly as much as at the beginning of her journey. She skirted around the forest of stalactites until finally the passage emptied into a much larger cavern. The lumatites’ glow couldn’t reach the fifty- foot- high ceiling, and Lina estimated that the whole of the chamber was over two hundred feet in diameter.

To her left, in a tiny corner of the cavern, was her workshop. She’d fashioned a table by throwing two thin oak planks over a pair of sawhorses that she’d made herself. Eventually, she built a stool to go with it, although her first couple of attempts had collapsed under her when she tried to sit on them. Her carpentry skills had improved since then, and a good thing too. Everything she brought down here had to either fit through the passage or be in pieces that she’d later assemble. On the table, she had a pair of small lanterns and her tools spread out on a towel, along with her bigger maps of the stronghold and her secret tunnels.

Lina went to the table and draped her work apron over her head, though she had no hope of being able to tie the strings yet. Using both hands, she lifted a box of matches out of her apron pocket, all the while wondering if she could actually manage to strike one. No choice but to try, she supposed. She needed more light than her dozen lumatites could offer. And now that no one else was around to see her, she didn’t mind looking a little ridiculous.

Ten excruciating minutes later, hands trembling and sweat dripping down her forehead, Lina heard a satisfying crackle as her tenth match scraped across the stone floor and brought forth flame.

She lit the lanterns and then moved carefully to the cluster of stalagmites surrounding her worktable. On their tips, Lina had stuck dozens of candle stubs, which she also lit, until the room was awash in warm golden light. She muffled the lumatites with her hand until their light dimmed and went out, wanting to give them a rest.

“Thanks for the help,” she murmured.

Now that she had more light, the workshop felt almost cozy. Lina loved to take naps down here when she forgot about the time and needed a rest, but she’d had to dig a fire pit in order to keep from freezing in the cavern. She’d also collected a pile of thick quilts and one of her lumpy old pillows, arranging them among the stalagmites like a nest.

Lina shivered and stuffed her hands in her pockets. Her fingers weren’t up to making a fire yet. For now, the coat would have to be enough.

After surveying her space to make sure everything was as she’d left it, Lina closed her eyes and turned slowly toward the center of the now- lighted chamber, half- afraid that it wouldn’t be there, that even after all this time it had been some kind of fanciful dream. Her heart thudded against her rib cage, but she needn’t have worried. When she opened her eyes, it was waiting for her like a sleek bird of prey. The Merlin
JALEIGH JOHNSON is a lifelong reader, gamer, and moviegoer. She loves nothing better than to escape into fictional worlds and take part in fantastic adventures. She lives and writes in the wilds of the Midwest, but you can visit her online at or on Twitter at @JaleighJohnson.



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