- Pub. Date:
It's been a year since Indira rescued the city of Fable and landed a starring role in a story of her own. Now Indira's ready for a well-earned vacation.
Too bad her advisors have other plans. In preparation for her story's sequel, Indira has been enrolled in the Hero's Journey tutorial, a quest designed to teach her how to be a team player. Indira's assigned crew is a mix of familiar faces and new friends, each hoping to follow in her footsteps into a story.
Indira is ready for this new challengeuntil someone crashes their quest. The intruder is more powerful than anyone she's faced before and begins transforming Ordinary into a giant video game. Indira's team will have to level up and outplay their opponent, or else the world's most beloved stories might be lost forever.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Story House
“And for the first time in weeks, the sun began to rise.”
It took several seconds for that booming voice to fade. Indira stood at the center of a bright living room. The light glanced off her one-handed war hammer as she extended it. The Axel twinsalso known as the Thunder Brothersstood on her right and left, holding out their own matching weapons. Indira kind of felt like they looked like a soccer team in the middle of a halftime huddle. The three of them held the pose for a few stretching seconds. Indira could feel heat creeping up her neck until another voice broke the silence.
“Cut! That’s a wrap!”
Indira sighed with relief. They’d been working on the final scene of her first story for weeks. Just offstage, she saw matching relief on the face of everyone who’d been working with them. David came grinning onto the set as the other workers started clearing out equipment.
“Great job, everyone!” he called. “Seriously! What an accomplishment! Can you believe it? We’re really done. The Story House is finally finished!”
Indira gave her brother a side hug. The Axel twins nodded their thanks. Indira knew David had been a little disappointed by his role. After hearing the title of the storyIndira Story and the Thunder Brothershe had assumed that he would be one of the brothers in the book’s title. I mean, he was her brother, after all. But the Author had gone in a completely different direction. David had turned out to be a minor character in the story. Mostly there for comic relief. He’d put on a smile about it, but she knew him well enough to know that it hadn’t been easy on him.
“What now?” Indira asked, looking around. “Do we start the sequel?”
James Axel shrugged. “Are we even in the second book? I couldn’t tell from that ending.”
All of them looked around. It took a few seconds for one of the bookmark stagehands to come bustling forward. “Casting announcements to come! Indira, you’re headed back to Fable. It’s standard in-between-books protocol for protagonists. There’s a dragoneye waiting outside.”
The Axel twins nodded in unison before heading back through the nearest hallway. Some of the other characters involved in the final scene followed them. Indira wasn’t sure she was ready to go. It felt like they’d arrived just a few weeks ago to start working on the story.
“Can I walk around the Story House? One more time?”
The Mark smiled. “Of course, dear. It’s your house, after all.”
“I’ll meet you out front,” David whispered. “You did great, baby sister.”
When Indira and the rest of the cast had arrived six months ago, their Story House had been a single-level, one-room building. She had learned that each room represented a new scene or chapter in the story the Author was telling. After they’d performed the first scene, another door had appeared. Inside? A second room that represented the next scene.
Every new idea the Author came up with made their Story House bigger. Now Indira walked back through the mansion their crew had created together. She ran a hand along the banister before peeking through a door on her left. It was one of the bigger rooms.
Sensing her presence, the room activated. The boring wallpaper vanished, replaced by a clearing in a forest. Indira watched an image of herself running forward, the Axel twins close behind her, all of them ready to face their nemesis in the story’s climactic fight scene.
Indira made her patient way back through each room, watching highlights as she did. So much of her time at Protagonist Preparatory had been spent in fear that she’d never make it into a story at all. But here she was, walking through one that had been written just for her.
It still didn’t feel real sometimes.
She’d learned a lot since then. Her AuthorDarby Martinhad made plenty of tweaks along the way. A part of being a protagonist was learning to adjust. Being quick on your feet. Indira had slowly started to trust her Author to write the very best possible story. Not that she didn’t put in the occasional suggestion or two.
As she made her way back through the house, she watched happy moments and sad scenes and hilarious misunderstandings. She couldn’t help feeling proud. They’d done their job and they’d done it well. The story was complete now. Indira arrived back in the very first room.
It was called the Seed, dear reader.
Writers have them every day. Little seeds of ideas thatgiven light and water and room to growcan blossom into something more. Indira paused there to watch.
A slightly younger version of herself fell through a huge hole in the ground. She landed in a dark and forgotten cavern. It was there that she discovered her hammer for the first time.
“Thanks for believing in me,” she whispered to the walls.
No one knew if the Authors could actually hear them, but Indira felt grateful all the same. It was such a joy to be chosen. She walked out the front door and closed it carefully behind her.
A small, circular park waited. It was surrounded by other Story Houses that were still in progress. Characters from those stories were taking their breaks between scenes, chatting excitedly. Most of the houses on this block were still under construction. Some were no bigger than shacks. Others were even larger than her own house, and nowhere close to being done.
David strode forward. “Take a look at that Story House. It’s all yours, baby sister.”
She looked back. There were three levels, a pair of balconies, all covered in storm-gray bricks. Above the house, a huge cable extended up from the chimney and ran up into the clouds, out of sight. Indira had been told that that cable represented the house’s connection to the Author’s imagination. It was a source of power that fueled the story forever.
“Remember at the beginning?” she asked. “The connection was just a thin little thread.”
David nodded. “And look at it now. Pretty healthy-looking to me.”
The thicker the cable, the deeper the Author’s connection to the characters. Their link had only grown since the beginning. Everyone kept saying it was a great sign.
“And now . . . ,” Indira whispered. “The readers.”
Both of them looked farther up the road. Their Story House sat in a section of the neighborhood reserved for new stories. Around the block, though, were other, more established tales. Some were actually quite famous. In the air above those houses, she saw thousands of little strings attached to the roofs. Each one represented a connection to a reader.
It was hard not to look a little longingly in their direction.
“Readers will come,” David said calmly. “Let’s focus on what we can control.”
She allowed her brother to sling an arm around her shoulder and lead her off in the other direction. The dragoneye portals were waiting at the far end of the little park. Indira snuck one more glance back over her shoulder. Every cage has a key. Her First Words whispered into the air. She’d been through so much since she’d first heard them. Looking at her Story House, she smiled one more time. It was hard to imagine that she and the other characters had actually built it together. As she turned, though, she set her eyes firmly on what was next.
Fable was waiting.
Indira’s feet set down with a familiar whoosh.
The dragoneye had delivered them to the outskirts of Fable, and in that moment there was nowhere else she’d rather be. There was something about seeing the city from a distance that felt right. She led David down a row of particularly nice houses until Fable burst into view.
Once again, the city wore a new costume. And this costume was sleek.
“Whoa,” David said. “Looks like a science-fiction setup!”
Indira found herself grinning. The city looked as if it had leaped five hundred years into the future. She stared up at towering skyscrapers, each infused with bright light. Flying vehicles darted in and out of view, leaving little blue streaks behind them. The entire side of one building flashed massive advertisements. Like moths to a flame, Indira and David were drawn into the electric city.
“I missed this place,” Indira whispered.
The city walls winked back at her. As the two of them entered, more surprises waited. The city’s usual populace swirled in the streets, and it took Indira a few seconds to realize the Marks had all transformed into robots. Most of them were still tall and thinable to slip between pages at a moment’s noticebut many now sported spinning wheels, while others had silver antennae or brightly painted buttons. The dying sunlight reflected off their metal bodies like sparks.
Indira looked toward where she knew the Talespin coffee shop was located. Her heart beat a little faster. It was the first place she’d seen her Author, but also where her standoff with Brainstorm Ketty had happened last semester. The city’s new costume had temporarily relocated the coffee shop, though. Indira’s eyes scanned upward.
“Check it out, D. A flying coffeehouse!”
The entire building hovered in the air above them. Indira saw engine burners glowing blue beneath the structure, each one working hard to keep it afloat. A girl sitting along the outdoor patio noticed the two of them looking up and waved. Indira smiled back.
“Let’s head to Protagonist Prep,” she said. “We can explore the city after we check in.”
It took a lot of effort to keep walking and to ignore all the distractions. Bright lights flashing here, loud voices booming there. The streets felt more packed than ever, but Indira walked confidently forward. It was just one of the many spells that Protagonist Preparatory cast. Any character who’d attended the school had a knack for finding their way back to the front doors again.
Rounding a corner, Indira found the building waiting in the distance. Her first thought was that the school now looked like a grounded alien aircraft. The upper section was shaped like the top of a gigantic mushroom. The lower sections tightened into more structurally sound cylinders, and the exterior was lined with perfectly even glass windows that ran the entire length of the building. One detail remained the same, however: the front doors of the school stood open. They were massive blast doors now, but they still stood as open as they had when Indira first arrived.
Have you ever gone on a long trip, dear reader? Maybe you took a car ride down the coast, or a plane across the country. Other places can be so exciting. Almost like trying on a pair of new shoes for a time and walking around to see how they suit you. But there’s no feeling quite like returning to the place you know best, the place where everything began. There’s a word we use for such places, and it never quite captures our love for them. Indira said that word anyway.
The interior of Protagonist Preparatory had transformed to fit Fable’s science-fiction theme. Industrial lighting filled the halls. It pumped through the floors and ceilings like blue veins. Indira maneuvered through little pockets of students. She saw a mix of golden jackets and blue ones. The sight had her stomach turning.
Golden jackets for protagonists. Blue jackets for side characters.
The school hadn’t fully done away with its old classification policies. Brainstorm Underglass and Brainstorm Vesulias had agreed to eliminate classes that were just for one group or the other, though. It was a nice first step.
Indira led David down a familiar hallway and was struck once more by dueling emotions. This was where she’d first learned that she’d be in a story of her very own. It was also where Brainstorm Ketty had started her efforts to sabotage Indira’s career. The door into Ketty’s old office was open. Indira glanced inside and saw a red-haired woman with her back to them.
She hadn’t met the newest brainstorm, but rumor was that the woman was a big-time advocate for every character. Indira thought that was another step in the right direction.
A quick knock at Brainstorm Underglass’s door was followed by an even quicker call to enter. Indira and David walked in together. The brainstorm looked busy, but the second her eyes landed on Indira, a smile surfaced.
“As I live and breathe! Indira Story has returned. It is so wonderful to see you, dear.”
Underglass glided across the room. The woman surprised Indira with a hug instead of a handshake. She smiled once again before shifting back into her more typical business mode. The effect was complemented by the woman’s crisp suit and the fact that every single item in the office was set precisely in its proper place.
She took her seat and raised a single eyebrow. “I want a full report.”
Indira felt like a soldier relaying news back to a general. It didn’t take long to walk through the whole experience. How quickly their Story House had grown. How some of the rooms had taken much longer than other rooms. Underglass asked a few questions, but mostly listened. When Indira arrived at the end, the brainstorm nodded and pressed a button on her desk.
The magical blackboard behind her swirled with movement.
“We’ve monitored the initial response from beta readers,” Underglass announced. “Those are the earliest readers, kind of like test subjects. Not that we were worried. It’s just standard protocol for characters with series potential. And so far? It’s been great. The beta readers really like you. Full marks for adventure. Some high scores in humor. A really promising result in the ‘everyman’ category. A lot of readers find you very relatable.”
Indira could feel herself blushing. Why had she been so nervous?
“That’s such a relief,” she said.
Underglass held up a finger. “But there is always room for improvement.”
“Improvement?” Indira echoed.
“For both of you,” Underglass clarified. Another swipe brought up a new blackboard with detailed information about David. “Ultimately, there’s a very thin line between a series that never lifts off and one that nestles into the hearts of readers forever. David, you’re a likeable character, but you didn’t exactly fly off the page in the first novel. The majority of reviews don’t mention you. And those that do claim you’re a little flat.”
“Flat?” David repeated. “Like . . . a pancake?”
“Pancakes are supposed to be flat,” Underglass replied. “Characters are not. Most of your lines were there for comic relief. Some great moments, of course, but a character should be more than one thing. You want to be real enough that you cast a shadow.”
David stared at her for a second. “But I like pancakes.”
Underglass pointed. “See what I mean? Straight to the joke. You have to be more than one-liners. Indira and the rest of the cast need you to come into your own as the series progresses. Every character playing their part, so to speak. That’s why you’ve been enrolled in our side-character boot camp.”
Indira watched David’s playful grin vanish. Boot camp brought a very specific idea to mind. Indira could see a whistle between the lips of an army captain. She half imagined David in a uniform attempting to do push-ups. She wasn’t sure if she should feel bad for him, or laugh.
“. . . it’s not the end of the world,” Underglass was saying. “Aragorn is running this one, and he’s not nearly as strict as some of the other captains. It will be hard work, but we signed you up because we think it’s exactly the kind of thing that will sharpen your skill set.”
David’s eyes widened. “You mean the dude from The Lord of the Rings will be there?”
Underglass bristled. “That dude was a king. Show some respect. You’ll be reporting at six o’clock tomorrow morning. Don’t be late.” The brainstorm turned to Indira. “And that will also allow Indira to pursue the training we’ve assigned for her.”
She blinked back to life. “Wait. What? You said the readers liked me. I thought I was going to get a vacation or something! I’ve been working day and night!”
“Room for improvement,” Underglass repeated. “General consensus showed one glaring weakness in your first story. We’ve designed a training assignment that will help solve it.”
Indira’s cheeks went red again. This time her blushing had more to do with anger than embarrassment. “Weakness?” she repeated. “I don’t have any weaknesses.”
“That’s actually the problem,” Underglass answered. “The Author made you a little too flawless in the first book. Several readers noted that you didn’t exactly need the other characters, especially during the climax of the novel. We have to fix that. You need to have a little more vulnerability. Not to mention it’d be nice if you relied on your teammates more. Not everything should be solved with the smash of a hammer. Our tutorial will focus on the art of complementary teamwork. It’s called the Hero’s Journey.”
Indira started to protest again, but Brainstorm Underglass held down a button. There was a little robotic beep. “Melody. Could you bring in that paperwork? Thanks.”
A few seconds later a familiar-looking assistant came bustling into the room. Indira nodded politely to the woman, still holding back the frustrated words that were piling up in her mind. Melody hummed to herself as she handed David and then Indira their own individual folders.
“These detail your assignments,” Underglass explained. “Indira, your packet includes a rendezvous point, as well as a profile of all your teammates for the mission. I highly suspect some of the names listed there will have you feeling a little more positive about your mission.”
Indira lifted a curious eyebrow before opening the folder. There was a slightly blurred picture of a boy in a dark blue jersey. The initials JW glinted at the top of the page. Indira scanned down, reading some of the notes, but couldn’t make sense of any of it. She turned the folder back toward Underglass. “I’ve never seen this kid before.”
Melody gasped. “Oh no! That’s the wrong file!” The assistant scuttled across the room, exchanging folders with Indira, scolding herself as Brainstorm Underglass watched with hooded eyes. “I was sorting through some of our recent Author research. Apologies!”
Indira opened the new folder, and this time she did recognize the face staring up at her.
Underglass nodded. “You might recall that Allen went missing last year, before you arrived at Protagonist Preparatory. He was your Author’s first potential protagonist. Brainstorm Ketty targeted him the same way she targeted you. Only her methods of bullying actually worked on Allen. She drove the boy out of Fable entirely. He ended up down in Plot Hole, a nervous wreck. We found him and explained what happened. This mission is important for his recovery. He’s excited to get a second chance.”
Indira’s initial annoyance faded a little. She’d first seen Allen’s face on the missing posters last year. It was hard to stay mad about a mission that would help someone who’d been tricked out of his chance at being in a story.
When she turned the page, Indira’s heart jumped a little.
A familiar boy looked out from behind a curtain of fire-red hair. His irises smoldered, and the picture showed a flame summoned in one outstretched palm. It was Phoenix.
Indira felt like she hadn’t seen him in a really long time, but she knew less than a year had passed. She’d met Phoenix before ever setting foot in Fable. Even then she’d thought him mysterious. The two of them had become best friends. Their bond was only made deeper by the fact that she’d saved him from Brainstorm Ketty last semester. Her stomach fluttered at the thought of joining up with him again.
“Our selection of Phoenix was no accident,” Underglass noted. “At the risk of embarrassing you, Phoenix is a potential romantic interest in your next story.”
Indira actually choked. The noise that came out of her mouth could most accurately be described as a squawk. Her eyes darted over to David, who burst out laughing. Indira sputtered.
“I don’the doesn’tthere isn’t . . .”
Underglass grinned. “Exactly the point. You’re not sure how you feel about him, or how he feels about you. Your Author is apparently wrestling with that same problem. Our records show that Phoenix is one of two characters in consideration for the role.”
Indira slumped into the nearest chair. “Two?”
Underglass nodded. “After considering your history with Phoenixall the connection you’ve already developed to this pointwe decided to include him in the Hero’s Journey tutorial. We thought it might give him a slight edge over the other potential romantic interest. Normally we try to avoid bias in these situations, but let’s just say I have a soft spot for you and what you did to save the school. So unless I was mistaken about your feelings . . .”