After being chased by a mugger through Central Park, Lise stumbles through an odd patch of mist and into a whole other, more magical dimension. With only an elf, a fellow human, and the blessings of a goddess to help her, Lise must find a way to create her own place in this new world.
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The Mist Gate Crossings
Prisoners of the Keep
By Susan Bianculli
CBAY BooksCopyright © 2015 Susan Bianculli
All rights reserved.
My helmet under my arm, I stood on the long padded mat behind the en-garde line, sweating a little as I waited for the signal to start. The morning sun lit up the windows of the Crosstown Fencing Academy but fortunately didn't reflect off the long mirrored wall into my eyes. The cavernous second-floor hall where the Academy held classes had once been a ballet studio, and the mirrors that had helped the ballerinas watch their form as they danced now helped us.
This was my last bout for this Saturday morning class, and I faced Heather Chung. I was a little nervous for two reasons: she was one of the best students here, and she had hated me ever since I'd joined the Academy. I'd beaten her the very first time we had crossed swords, and she'd never forgotten it. But a few nerves before a match were a good thing, Mr. Bronson, our fencing coach, always said during lessons. They meant you weren't taking your opponent for granted. And I certainly never took Heather for granted; she was too good.
"Ready?" asked Mr. Bronson.
I took a deep breath, released it, and readied my epee. Across the mat from me, Heather raised hers. We nodded, and our chattering classmates who sat along the floor against the wood paneled wall opposite the glass fell into a hush.
"En-garde!" he called.
We put on our helmets and saluted each other and him. There was a certain reluctance in Heather's salute to me that was not in hers to Mr. Bronson's, but I ignored it.
Heather and I leapt together, our swords crossing with a harsh clang. I backed up slightly and extended again, my sword slipping past hers this time to hit her shoulder at sixte. The electronic sensor on the end of my sword completed its circuit with her suit, and the buzzer sounded. I stepped back and smiled under my facemask. My point. We returned to our en-garde lines and readied ourselves once more. When the command to fence came again, I feinted like I was going to leap forward but instead dropped further back, baiting Heather in. She came at me with a weird underhand sword stroke — definitely not a regulation move. I blocked it savagely to the outside at octave near her hip which unbalanced her, and then lunged and swung my sword up while keeping to the balls of my feet. She couldn't stop my return stroke, so I managed to score again — this time on the heart mark of her white protective gear. She cried out a stifled denial as Mr. Bronson called 'halt' while the buzzer sounded. I backed away from her towards my line.
"Chung! What did you think you were doing?" he demanded, coming over to where she still stood in the middle of the piste. "That was no fencing move that I have ever seen. This match is over, and you are disqualified." Looking at me, he said, "Baxter, you win this match; and this plus your other wins today makes you champion for class this week."
I nodded and took off my helmet, but something in the way Heather held her shoulders made me decide to not present my back to her. As Mr. Bronson turned away to address the rest of the class, she rushed me hard with her sword pointed straight at my chest! I jumped off the faded mat and brought my blade down to stop her, dropping my mask in the process. Mr. Bronson saw her movement and rushed in to slap her epee to the floor before she could reach me.
"Heather!? What the hell?!" I yelled in shock at her, glad I had listened to my instincts.
"Baxter! Are you all right?" Mr. Bronson almost simultaneously shouted at me while glaring at her.
Heather took off her head protection and threw it blindly across the hall. Her tan face was livid as she snarled at me like an animal denied a treat. The helmet struck one of the mirrored panels on the wall with a loud crash, making everybody jump and a few classmates shriek in fear and surprise. The glass shattered around it, pieces falling in shards of silver along with the helmet to the floor.
"Chung! That's more than enough! Serious talk! Right now!" Mr. Bronson yelled at her. "The rest of you, class dismissed!"
I'd never heard his voice so angry, or seen his round face so furious and red, as he jabbed his stubby forefinger sternly at his office. Heather, a dark look on her face, stomped inside it with him right on her heels, and the door slammed shut behind them. The class broke out into excited babbles, not moving from where they'd gathered in groups on the sidelines.
Embarrassed to be the subject of their chattering, I picked up my helmet, racked the school's epee that I'd used, and went to the girls' locker room without meeting anybody's eyes. I changed out of my gear into my favorite white t-shirt and jeans, packed up my brown leather duffel, and headed to the foyer of the dual changing area to get my black wool jacket from the coat hooks. Classmates trickled into where I was as I buttoned up. They threw sly glances at me as they whispered behind their hands before heading to their respective locker rooms. My lingering mortification abruptly morphed to anger that they wouldn't let it go. Pulling my fuzzy black hat out from my pocket, I jammed it on over the sweaty blonde braid that I always tied my hair in for class. I then grabbed up my duffel and stalked out to the bus stop with my head held high.
I sat on the public bus traveling through the New York City streets with my fencing bag slung across one shoulder, anger and stress from the class still simmering in my veins. Leaning my head against the window of my seat, the huge dark sunglasses I'd put on once I'd quit the Academy's building clicked against the glass with every bump. A billboard on the side of a building about the importance of education caught my eye, and reminded me of the tiny laptop I used for school in my duffel, and of my assignment that was due.
In between fencing bouts at class I'd been working on my sophomore year English term paper. I was going to call it "Renaissance Fairy Tales" when I turned it in to Mr. Cobb on Monday. I'd always loved going to renaissance faires and reading fantasy stories, so it had made sense to combine subjects I knew pretty well. But with the way I was still feeling, I knew that writing today was a lost cause, unless. ... I jumped up from my seat and pulled the stop cord as the bus passed one of the entrances to Central Park.
The Park was as close as I could get in New York City to the overnight 4-H riding camp located upstate that I'd gone to every summer since I was eight. Over the years I'd grown to associate being at camp among the trees — with or without horses — with stress relief, and I automatically looked to Central Park as a sort of substitute for it the rest of the year. Since being allowed to ride by myself on the public transit system, I'd come here every time I needed to calm down from something. If I wanted to be able to finish composing a coherent paper now, then Central Park was where I needed to be.
The bus came to a stop and let me out the side door. As soon as it pulled away I dashed across the busy street, dodging the cars and their blaring horns, and raced under the archway leading in to the trees. I ran about twenty yards off the paved path onto the short greening grass and picked out a nice, big tree to hug. I wrapped my arms about the bark and took a deep breath in. I let it out slowly, imagining all the stress swirling out on my exhale like dirty grey smoke. I did this a few more times until I felt better. I turned around and slid my back down the rough grey-brown trunk, drinking in the green smell of Nature around me. I heard the chattering of squirrels and the chirping of songbirds overhead, and relaxed even more despite the fainter hum of traffic that underscored everything. The animal sounds, at least, would provide a good atmosphere for finishing up my paper.
I settled back into a comfortable slouch, shrugged off my duffel and my coat, and brought out the laptop. While it booted up, I looked idly around. The unseasonably warm late March sky right now was almost the same shade of blue as my eyes, with white puffy clouds just starting to roll in. A change back to more normal weather was coming soon, I guessed. I felt my shoulder start to cramp, so I reached my hands way up over my head, interlaced my fingers while turning my palms over, and pushed upwards to soothe it. Lowering my arms, I noticed a cute, dark-haired older guy in red athletic shorts, maybe in his early twenties, stroll past on the nearby path. About fifteen yards away he took off his t-shirt, spread out on the grass a plain brown beach towel he'd carried under his arm, and laid down face-up on it. I could just see a nice six-pack to go with that cute face. He was way too old for me, but I could at least enjoy the view. I wondered how he would deal with the chill in the air that would happen when the clouds came all the way in, but I guessed that dedicated tanners would take any sunny day opportunity to catch some rays.
My stomach rumbled. A quick glance at my cell phone told me it was 11:30am, but I decided I would do some writing first before going to get some lunch.
"There you are!" a voice shouted nearby.
It sounded familiar.
I looked up and was startled to see Heather in a lemon-yellow jacket standing in the nearby Park entrance. At the sight of her my stress came right back. She strode towards me carrying her fencing satchel, fury in every step. My heart raced. Hunger forgotten, I snapped my laptop shut, shoved it into my brown duffel, and then scrambled to stand up. Somehow I had the feeling I didn't want to be seated when she reached me.
She came within two feet and planted herself in front of me, tan, long-fingered hands balled into fists at her side.
"Found you!" Her expression was the same I'd seen in class after attacking me, and she didn't lower her voice even though we were face to face.
"Why would you want to? And how'd you even know to look for me here anyway?" I asked her in a more normal tone, crossing my arms as casually as I could.
"I saw you walk in here as my bus passed the entrance. I got off at the next stop and came back. You've caused me a lot of trouble today, and you're going to pay for it!"
My jaw dropped. "What did I do?"
"You always win! And to top it all off, now I've been suspended because of YOU!" she snapped, black eyes furious.
"Now wait just a minute," I said, putting my hands on my hips and raising my own voice. "You're the one who tried to attack and hurt me after being disqualified. That's against the rules! And you were the one who threw the helmet and broke the mirror, not me. I'll bet that's why you got suspended! Really, Heather, the fact that I won today can't be the reason you went off the deep end. What gives?"
She slammed the pea-green bag in her hands to the ground and actually stomped her foot. "I didn't go off the deep end. You cheated me — you had to! I was the best in class until you showed your stupid face at the Academy. I've tried every trick I know to beat you, and now I can't come back for a month! It's all your fault!"
I was irritated enough to reply that just maybe she'd gotten what she'd deserved but didn't have the chance. A slender male wearing a tightly- cinched black hoodie around his bronzed face with a scarf covering the lower half rushed up out of nowhere from behind Heather. He snatched up the carry-all she'd abandoned on the grass and turned to run.
"No! My gear!" she wailed as she tried and failed to grab it back, tripping over herself in the process.
Responding to the theft by sheer reflex, I scooped up my leather duffel and in the same motion swung it so it clocked the guy on the ear. The laptop in it made for an effective bludgeon. He went down hard on his hands and knees, skidding a little and losing his grip on the strap. Heather scooted over and seized her bag back from him. Vaulting to her feet, she ran towards the Park entrance as fast as she could, hugging her carry-all to her chest. I watched her run away in disbelief until an angry, inarticulate rumble came from the direction of the ground near me. I backed up a couple of steps from the sound, nervous.
The would-be thief stood up with rage in his brown eyes and growled, "I'll get you for that!"
He lunged at me. I didn't even stop to think — I swung my bag across both shoulders, spun about, and dashed into the woods.
"Hey!" a distant voice shouted.
I looked back. The shirtless sunbathing guy had gotten up and was running my way, too. Not sure if he was going to help me or the thief, I kept right on going.
I was frantic to get away — who knew what the guy chasing me would do if he caught me? A jolt of what felt like electricity flashed through me almost as if in answer and made me leap forward in the air. I speedily glanced about to see if there were any other live wires I needed to avoid, but all I saw was the perimeter of a large mushroom-ringed patch of moss. I landed and continued to run. For some reason my mind pulled up from my storehouse of trivia that this was a fairies' dancing circle, and a place of power. Just then I noticed to the left a mist rolling along the ground through the trees some distance away.
Maybe I could use it to lose this guy! I thought hopefully, and veered towards it.
It seemed a little strange that fog would come in before the clouds did, but beggars can't be choosers when trying to avoid a beating, or maybe worse. Twigs clutched and tore at the exposed skin on my arms and face and drew drops of blood as I sprinted for the mist. Low hanging branches knocked both my sunglasses and my hat off me, but I didn't stop to pick up either of them. When I reached the swell of fog it seemed to grow thicker the further I went in, but the twin sets of footsteps behind me still kept pace.
"You won't get away from me — I'm gonna teach you a lesson about butting in!" the thief's voice huffed in anger.
I saw a glow ahead and off to the right that grew brighter as I drew closer. Surprised, I headed for it, thinking maybe it was someone from Park Conservancy who could help me. A burst of hope gave me enough fresh energy to outdistance my pursuers. I barreled into a tiny clearing and came skidding to a stop only a foot in front of the source of the light. It was a tall, wavering shimmer somehow stretched between two massive oaks. A cool blue-white in color, it had ripples of darker blues and brighter whites rolling from top to bottom. Mist poured out through the flickering light and fanned past my body in thick billows, like the light was an open doorway to a fog-filled room.
I looked around for the machinery or the people that had to be about, but the area was empty. Crazily, I wondered if it was a weird trick of the weather, or if it was somebody's special effect set-up. A loud crack from a branch getting snapped in half by one of the guys following me made me jump, and I tripped over my feet and fell towards the lit-up space between the two trees.
The shimmering light flared around me when I touched it, and everything went white.CHAPTER 2
Half-blinded, I stumbled. My eyesight cleared and I saw that both the brilliant light and the mist were gone. If I could see, then so could the guys behind me! I sprinted forward not caring where I was going in the Park, but soon a severe stitch in my right side made me lose my stride. I risked a quick look around but didn't see either of them behind me. Encouraged by that, I looked about for something to camouflage me while I recovered. A half- rotten log sat nearby with a pile of old leaves swept up against it. I dove forward and buried myself under the leaves up against the fallen wood.
When I was covered over, I cupped my hands around my mouth to muffle the sounds of my breathing and reduce the smell of decay in my nose. Time passed, the pain eased, and I didn't see or hear anyone crashing about. I relaxed in my woodland blind. When I felt like I could move, I peeked up out of my leaf cave. The small sounds that fill the Park when the animals feel safe had started up again; but since most of them are so used to people, I wasn't sure how good an indicator they should be. Eventually all the insects buzzing, birds chirping, and rustles of unseen squirrels made me decide that it was okay to move.
Excerpted from The Mist Gate Crossings by Susan Bianculli. Copyright © 2015 Susan Bianculli. Excerpted by permission of CBAY Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Lise, a average American kid with parents, after school actives, and the jealousy of peers. Jason, another average American kid with a decidedly different background from Lise's. Arghen, an outcast from his own people for a merciful act. What do these three have in common? Very little except Jason needs Lise to get back home, and Arghen's been ordered by his goddess to help Lise on her quest. But these three people - sensible, mature Lise; cynical, suspicious Jason; and devout, dedicated Arghen form a strong friendship that helps them survive a strange world of wonder, beauty, and danger to perform an impossible rescue. So that's the gist of this very well-written, beautifully imagined story. Nothing's perfect though, and to be fair I have to admit what bothered me: as an adult who's been reading fantasy/sci fic for more than 20 years, I'm familiar with two basic types of elves: Tolkien elves and Celtic elves. What Prisoners of the Keep has is like a mash-up of Tolkien and Celtic elves, with some human characteristics thrown in. It wasn't what I was expecting, and when you come across something you don't expect, it jars you until you get used to it. And that jarring sets a tone for everything else you read - until you get used to it. :) On reflection, however, the elves in Prisoner's of the Keep are a realistic portrayal of a race. Celtic and Tolkien elves are shrouded in enigma, but even elves have to have cities and markets and someone to run the inn, right? What I really, really like about this story is that the kids behave realistically. Lise is unusually mature for her age and it's shown in how she handles Heather's attacks, her first act once she crosses the Mist Gate, and her acceptance of being responsible for Jason, even knowing who he is. But she still has those adolescent flashes of immaturity that show that yeah, she's still a kid to. Jason, too, is a well-fleshed out character, skillfully showing that all people who initially seem like 'bad guys' aren't necessarily so - or are so simply because of the necessity. I also like how this isn't just a story, but an opportunity to learn: a little Spanish, what the Baghdad Battery was, how to re-evaluate or avoid assuming things about people, etc. But the very best thing about this book? The intended audience is for kids and teenagers, and this is a story about teenagers being able to help those in need. Their ability to do so isn't doubted or questioned, they aren't told to get an adult's advice, or leave the solution in adult hands. No, they're told, "This needs doing. Go do it." And they do. Age and inexperience don't stop them from doing the right thing, regardless of the risk to themselves. I really enjoyed reading this book and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy! :)
Lise is 15, into fencing class and fairy tales. Jason is 17, a street kid with a quick temper. When Lise thwarts Jason's attempt to rob her classmate, both end up running through Central Park--into another world, where Lise's fairy tales are only the beginning of the truth. A high fantasy novel that doesn't shy away from the dark side of fantasy, Prisoners of the Keep thrusts these two modern day teens into a world beyond there understanding. Lise makes enough mistakes to be interesting, but Jason steals the show; angry, scared, and out of his depth, he stubbornly clings to his goal to get home and his utter disbelief in magic, even while the magic blossoms around him. Faith and fictional Deities play a major role in this story, which may be uncomfortable for some readers. Violence is realistic but not gratuitous. While intended for young adults, there is plenty for adults to enjoy and nothing your tween hasn't already seen. Trigger warnings for slavery (no sexual element) and human (well, sentient) sacrifice.