The Shadow Grotto – Part 2
Welcome, Fantasy Nerds! Thanks for coming back to read part 2 of Clever’s story. If you haven’t read part 1, you can find it here.
I pull into the now dark parking lot in front of “Puppies and More” at 5 til 9. The sound of my car door closing seems too loud, and I try to soften the steps of my feet on the asphalt lot. In the light of day, this seemed like a good idea, exciting even. Now, I’m beginning to wonder if I should be here.
Fredrick steps out of the store, and I expect him to let me in. Instead, he locks the door behind him and walks toward me.
“I’m in the silver truck. You can follow me there,” he says.
“I thought you had the animals here.”
“There’s not enough room here for exoctic animals, so we keep them off site.”
I nod and get back in my car, not entirely prepared to follow Fredrick wherever he may lead me. Along the drive I work to convince myself that this is all above board. Plenty of people own exotic pets. I’m sure they’ll have whatever certificates I may need.
The rumble of my tires on a gravel road brings me back to the present. The road winds through trees dripping almost sinisterly with moss. When the wind blows, the moss reaches out like fingers to drag along my car. Through the greenery, I see glimpses of a metal building ahead.
Fredrick’s car rolls to a stop in front of a large warehouse. Despite the remote location, it looks like a well-kept building. I feel a bit relieved. It’s like Fredrick said, they probably just needed a bigger space where the noise wouldn’t disturb any neighbors.
By the time I’m out of my car, Fredrick is knocking on the warehouse door. It’s then that I notice another car in the lot. A tall, scruffy man opens the door and waves us inside. As my eyes adjust to the light, smells similar to a barn accost me. Then, I take in the large cages and glass enclosures full of animals.
A fierce mountain lion prowls one of the enclosures, and I decide to steer clear of that area. I turn toward the sound of a howling monkey, a much safer bet. I marvel at the cages of swinging primates. This place could fill a zoo with animals.
A glisten of scales catches my eye, and I turn to see a section of tanks with alligators, pythons, and other large reptiles. I shiver, and continue searching the room in silent awe. Koalas, foxes, wolves, sloths, and other furry creatures, whose names I don’t know, surround me.
I clear my throat. “These are all…legal?” I ask.
The scruffy man chuckles. His laugh is a bit off-putting, and so is his lack of response.
Fredrick steps up to appease me. “Many of these you can legally own in Florida. Just ask me if you would like to know which ones.”
I spin around the room, overwhelmed by the choices, some terrifying and others adorable.
“If you had a million dollars, which would you choose?” I ask.
“Do you have a million dollars?” the scruffy man asks too quickly.
I turn to him and watch as he and Fredrick hold a wordless conversation.
“I do,” I say out of curiosity, despite thinking I may regret it.
The man’s eyes snap to mine. After a pause, he turns and strides to the back of the warehouse. He presses his hand into the wall, and a door swings inward with a creak. The door blended seamlessly into the wall, but now I see nothing but darkness beyond. The man descends into the black void. I take a steadying breath, and follow.
At the bottom of the stairs, the man flicks on a switch. Light skitters down a long stone hallway, illuminating an endless set of identical archways. The pulse of my own heartbeat fills my head, interrupted by echoing footsteps. After what seems like an hour, we reach a heavy wooden door. The scruffy man pulls out a key and unlocks the door, which swings open with a groan.
I don’t know what I was prepared for, but it wasn’t this.
What I see isn’t just shocking or awe-inspiring; it’s unbelievable, literally impossible.
A huge cavernous space, several stories high, is filled with caves and cages of creatures that shouldn’t exist. I rub my eyes. They can’t exist.
“Welcome to The Shadow Grotto,” the man tells me. “Where you can find creatures from your wildest dreams.”
My legs nearly give out, and I lean against the nearest wall. The scrape of rough stone on my palms grounds me. I begin to take in what I see, still unsure how I went from working at the bank this morning to ending up here.
There’s a lion with hooves and a monkey with wings. A two-headed bird and a dog with snakes for a tail. A creature prowling like a panther, but covered in alligator scales.
And then I look up.
A higher row of caves features creatures from legend: a unicorn, griffin, centaur, pegasus, phoenix, and lastly, a dragon. There is something different about these animals, an otherworldly quality. The air around them seems to pulse with…magic.
I turn to the man who brought us here. “How?” I whisper.
“The chimera,” he answers, as he points to a mash-up of a beast that is chained to a cave wall and enclosed by thick bars of metal.
That’s when I first notice the chains, but when I look back at the others, I see they are all in chains. Something about these magical, majestic creatures being shackled makes me feel sick.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“Every beast in here is a child of the chimera. We breed her with other exotic creatures. Sometimes we get an ordinary creature, other times something unique, like a monkey with wings, and rarely, something magical is born. That’s when we hit the jackpot.” His eyes sparkle like the gold he is pondering wistfully.
“But…how did you get a chimera?”
“We stumbled upon her in the woods when we were looking to poach some bears. Can you believe it?” He chuckles joyfully, as he boasts of his accomplishment. “At first I thought I must be delirious, but we all saw her. She was just as shocked to see us. I think that’s the only reason we managed to catch her.”
A rumble escapes the chimera’s belly. A flash of light illuminates the cave, as fire bursts from her mouth. The flames can’t reach us down here, but the anger in her gaze pierces my heart.
“May I inspect some of the creatures more closely?” I ask.
“At your own peril,” he says. “Just try not to get killed. I want your money.” He grins mirthlessly.
I walk along the rows of creatures, as I ponder what to do.
“How much, then?” I ask. I’ll buy them all, if I can.
“For the bottom row, the oddities, as I call them, it’s 1 million. The magical ones are 10 million.”
“And the chimera?”
He laughs in that disconcerting way. And he doesn’t answer.
I climb to the highest level as I count the creatures: 6 magical beasts and around 30 “oddities”. I stop as close to the chimera’s cage as I dare, making sure she can see into my eyes.
“I’ll take all of the creatures,” I say, as much to the chimera as to the man. Then I whisper, “I’ll find a way to free you too.”
The chimera steps as close to me as she can get. I see understanding in her eyes, as she dips her head to me. I reach out a shaking hand to touch her lioness mane. A picture flashes in my mind, a wizened old man with kind eyes smiling and waving from outside a small cottage in the wilderness, and I jerk my hand back.
I walk back down the stone stairs, willing myself not to look back at the chimera, not to give us away.
“I’ll need a week to arrange a location to keep all these beasts,” I tell the man. I near the exit, but pause, as if a thought has just occurred to me. “Where was it that you went bear hunting?”
The man smiles as if he has made a new acquaintance with a shared hobby. “Found her up in Hyde County, North Carolina.”
I grin as if he’s caught me out. “Maybe I might get lucky enough to catch my own chimera.”
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Thanks so much for reading!
-Clever & WTF