20: No Crosswalks
Windslow woke from his dream-slip. Bolting upright, he scrambled to his feet and ran to the deck rail. He looked down to where his stepmother dream-slipped from last evening. He could see a depression in the ankle high grass. He turned around and saw Haggerwolf still dozing, one arm draped over the tiller.
“Wake up!” he shouted to the wizard.
Haggerwolf gave a short, jerked his feet and opened his eyes.
“We need to get airborne and fast!” Windslow pulled hand over hand on the halyard. The boom swung out as the sail rose higher up the mast. Tying the rope off on a cleat, Windslow flipped open the lid to the wooden crate holding the gravimite stones. He twisted the mechanism that controlled how much lift they gave the Storm Rider.
“What’s the danger!” Haggerwolf shouted back. “I don’t see anything!”
“My stepmother,” Windslow answered.
The Storm Rider rose gracefully and turned slowly when Windslow eased in the boom. “Mom would never be able to get us over the pass and she was going to leave me behind. We’re going without her.”
Haggerwolf put pressure on the tiller, steering the ship up and out of the meadow where they had moored her for the night. “She’s not going to like this.”
“Windslow! Windslow, come back here!” Windslow heard his mother’s voice call.
Letting the rope to the boom slide through his hand, he moved to the rail and looked back. His stepmother ran across the meadow, shaking her arm as she yelled again. “Windslow! Windslow don’t do this.”
As the Storm Rider sailed above the trees, Windslow heard his stepmother call one last time, her voice far away yet distinct. “Windslow, you’re grounded!”
“I’m more than grounded,” he mumbled. “I’d dead.”
“What?” Haggerwolf asked.
“Nothing. I was just talking to myself.”
Haggerwolf scratched at his beard, opened his mouth to say something then closed it again. They sailed for nearly fifteen minutes before he finally spoke. “You’ll be in a bit of a pickle when you get home, won’t you.”
Winslow nodded. “More than in a pickle. More like a casket. I’ll be grounded for the rest of my life. I know it was wrong to leave her, but you can’t learn to sail by only reading a book. I’m not even sure I can get us to Ghost Haven. Maybe we should turn back.”
“I’m not saying it was right to deceive your stepmother, Windslow,” Haggerwolf said. “I know how she is. I know how hard it can be to reason with her when she makes her mind up. The good thing is, she’s very often right in what she decides. The trouble is, this might be one of those times where she is just too stubborn to think things through.”
“What am I going to do, Haggerwolf?”
Haggerwolf reached out and placed a hand on Windslow’s shoulder. “The question is what are we going to do. There is only one answer to that. We are going to do our best to sail the Storm Rider to Ghost Haven. Any thought on which route to take?”
Winslow smiled. “If we try Never There Pass, the Eversham will see us and know what we’re up to. They might even try to make it across themselves or make things more difficult for us. I say we try Death Storm Ridge.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Haggerwolf said and adjusted the tiller.
Not far ahead, the mountaintops loomed. Two peaks hid beneath billowing pink and turquoise clouds. Bolts of blue lightning flickered endlessly, licking the bottoms of the clouds, lighting them up inside.
Hillary’s eyes fluttered open. She thought she’d wake standing up, floating in the whirlwind. Instead, she found herself sitting on a hard wooden floor, her back resting against metal bars. Ahead she saw more bars.
“Whoa, this is the cage where Mom was,” Hillary said. Just outside the bars, she saw DJ, his side turned to her. He stood silently, his arms folded. In front of DJ stood a slender bald headed man wearing short corduroy pants. The man studied a sheet of paper. His long crooked nose and eye patch fit the description Trish had given of the man DJ had called ‘Hardwire.’
“Hm…,” Hardwire said as he nodded, still studying the paper. “Very troubling. Very troubling indeed.”
“Well?” DJ asked.
“Yes. I’d say yes,” Hardwire said. He folded the piece of paper and tucked it into a pocket of his vest. He flipped his eye patch up. “Definitely yes. Or at least, maybe.”
DJ shook his head, raised his arms slightly and let them fall back to his sides. “At least you can get started, can’t you?”
“Of course,” Hardwire said. “I’m on it. But, what about her?” he asked pointing at Hillary. “Her hair’s wrong too. She looks like a younger version of the other one you had. Is she the same one? Did you make her younger? If you did, we should study how and--”
“No!” DJ shouted. He cleared his throat. “No,” he said again, his voice softer. “I almost had her. I don’t know who this one is. Keep her here. Did you fix the door?”
“I think so,” Hardwire said. He walked to a diamond shaped door at one end of the room. A sign reading “Concealed Emergency Exit” hug above it. Hardwire grabbed for the door handle. His fingers touched the wall just to the right of the knob. He reached again, this time his fingers missed to the left. He pulled his eye patch down, grabbed the handle and twisted. “All secure,” he said and turned back to DJ.
“Good,” DJ said. He snapped his fingers and a small whirlwind formed just behind him. “Don’t forget to feed her,” DJ said, tilting his head toward Hillary. Without saying another word, he stepped backward, disappearing into the whirlwind.
The spinning gray mini-cloud bulged then thinned no wider than a pencil. As if some invisible hand used an eraser, the line faded from top to bottom until no sign of it remained.
“My name is Hillary,” Hillary called out. “You’re Hardwire, aren’t you? I’m honored to meet you.” She moved to the bars forming door to the cage and thrust out her hand.
Hardwire stepped closer and stared at her hand.
“Oh,” Hardwire said. “You must be hungry. Keep your hand right there. I’ll be back in just a minute. Would a self-peeling banana be alright?”
“No, I’m not hungry,” Hillary said. “I mean, my hand isn’t out because I’m hungry. It’s out to shake your hand. It’s a greeting—a sign of friendship and honor.”
“Oh,” Hardwire said. He rubbed both hands on the sides of his corduroy pants and stepped forward. He held out his left hand, pulled it back and held out his right hand briefly before pulling it back too. He rubbed his right hand on his pants again and held it out once more, his fingertips six inches from Hillary’s. “Very nice to meet you,” he said and pulled his hand away.
“No, not like that,” Hillary said. “You take my hand. I take your hand. Then we shake them up and down like this,” she said, moving her hand in the air before holding it out again.
Hardwire slowly extended his hand, but to the left of Hillary’s. She moved her hand to line up with his. When their palms touched, he jumped. Hillary gently closed her fingers around his hand and shook.
Hardwire pulled his hand away and held it behind his back. His face glowed bright pink. “My pleasure is all yours,” he said.
Hillary smiled. “Don’t you mean the pleasure is all mine?”
“Hm…” Hardwire said and scrunched up his face. “Isn’t that what I just said? Now, if you’d rather my pleasure be split between us then I suppose I could… No. That wouldn’t work. I could… No, that wouldn’t work either. Nope,” he said. “My pleasure is all yours. Now would you like that banana or maybe an inside out apple? The skin’s on the inside. They’re quite delicious unless they have fruit flies.”
“Um… That would be great,” Hillary said.
Hardwire grinned and headed for the oval door at the other end of the room. “I won’t be gone long. We’ll maybe not that long. Well, long enough,” he said. “They’re down on level six. We’re at level fourteen, but I’ll hurry.” He ducked through the door and closed it behind him.
Hillary dug in her backpack, looking for her new all-in-one tool. When she found it, she shouldered her pack and knelt by the cage door. As she tried to work the lock with different attachments on her tool, she remembered something her mother had said. Looking closely at the flat metal plate around the keyhole, she saw the words ‘Press in case of crisis.’ Hillary pressed and the lock clicked. The iron bars vanished. She dashed to the oval door.
Hillary twisted the lock with one hand and placed the other against the painted wood. She opened it slowly, peeked outside. Before her stretched an open space at least fifty feet wide on all four sides with walls made of red brick and mortar and no floor. She drew in a breath when she looked down. The walls held rows of brown wooden doors. Hillary began counting rows and but lost count when she saw Hardwire in the center of the space, seemingly suspended in air. His feet moved and his motion carried him down at an angle. When he reached the far wall, he turned, and still standing on nothing, he angled downward again, this time toward the opposite wall. Hillary watched him stop at a door against the wall. Hardwire opened it and ducked out of sight.
“Six from the bottom,” Hillary said softly. She started over, counting rows of doors from the bottom. “Twenty,” she said, when she counted the level she stood on. Hillary looked up. There were no more levels above her. The roof was still far above. Made of stained glass, it filled the open space with beautiful colors. The glass pieces formed an ocean scene with two continents, one shaped like an upside down dragon and the other a frog. A glass rainbow began at one landform, arched gracefully across the sea and ended at the other. In the middle of the rainbow, the glass pieces depicted a ship with a single mast.
Straight across from her, each door had a small sign attached to wall. Hillary leaned out to see if her door had one. Next to the door casing a sign read, “Caution. Hold hand rail when traversing invisible walkways.”
“Oh, great,” Hillary said. She held onto the doorframe and stretched one leg out, tapping with her toe for something solid. She felt something straight in front of her. Easing her weight onto her outstretched leg, she felt the air with her hand. It bumped something solid and she grabbed hold. Feeling with her other hand, she found the other railing.
After several deep breaths, Hillary stepped forward. Her foot dangled in the air. When she lowered it, she felt something solid. “Of course,” She said. “Stairs.” After sliding her hands ahead, she took a slow step down. She released another breath when she felt the invisible steps. “I can do this,” she said softly and took another step.
Moving very slowly, Hillary continued downward. She reached an invisible platform and used her hands to follow her way along the railing. The next flight of steps angled to the left. Moving a bit faster this time, she followed the steps down to where they ended at a door on level thirteen. Exploring, she discovered a catwalk ran along the wall, providing access to the row of doors. She tried each one but found them all locked. Moving back to the door the stairs had led her to, she found the railing again and headed down another level.
“Sound the alarm!” Hillary heard someone yell. She looked down. Far below her stood Hardwire holding a basket full of white apples. “The alarm! Sound the alarm!” he screamed.
Hillary turned to run back up the steps. “Crud-o” she said. “The doors are all locked.” As she hurried downward to the next level, Hardwire worked his way up.
At the next level, Hillary quickly checked each door. None of the handles twisted. She moved back to the steps moved as quickly as she dared down another level. Hardwire was only two levels below.
“Crud!” Hillary cursed again. “Everything’s locked.” On a hunch, she looked closely under the doorknob in front of her. She saw what she had hoped for and pressed. The lock clicked. Hillary twisted the handle, darted through the door and slammed it behind her. “Oh, no,” she said when she turned around. The room, more like a long hallway, held hundreds of painted papier-mâché masks; Eversham masks.
By noon, the Storm Rider was as high as Windslow dared sail her. Death Storm Ridge seemed to be resting, waiting for the daring ship and crew. Turquoise and pink clouds still swirled, billowing up high. Lightning still flashed, flickering upward, unlike lightning on Earth.
A steady wind favored the Storm Rider, helping Windslow sail her straight into the raging storm.
“Are you sure there’s a pass?” Windslow asked.
“I can’t answer that,” Haggerwolf said. He stood by the mast; his harness on and tight, with a rope running from his chest up to the mast. “Legend says there is a pass, but with continuous storm, I don’t know of anyone who has really seen it.”
Windslow checked his own safety line. It got in his way, but he felt it was something his stepmother would want him to do. “Someone must have seen it sometime. Whoa…” he said and adjusted his grip on the tiller and halyard. A sudden gust of wind had kicked up. The Storm Rider leaned hard to one side. Windslow adjusted the sail, righting the ship. “Better be alert on that harness, Haggerwolf. We’re getting close.”
“Aye, captain,” Haggerwolf said and moved into position near the rail. “There wasn’t always a storm raging. As I understand it, a wizard did something here by accident and tore a rift in the very fabric of magic. On Gabendoor, magic flows from the ground. That’s why the lightning you see is striking upward. Those bolts are raw magic.”
“Lean out!” Windslow shouted when another gust hit, tipping the Storm Rider even farther over than before. “Counterbalance!”
Haggerwolf braced his boots against the deck where he and Windslow had removed a section of side rail. He leaned out, pulling his chest tether taught. His weight helped Windslow level the ship again.
“Whoa!” Windslow shouted. A stronger gust lifted the Storm Rider’s bow. A second gust turned her, nearly sideways. “Hang on!” he yelled and fought the tiller.
Thick clouds swirled around them. Windslow could barely see the bow. Storm Rider lurched and turned again. “Watch out!” Windslow yelled.
The wind shifted. The sail fluttered then snapped taught bulging out in the opposite direction. The boom swung across the deck. Haggerwolf barely ducked in time.
The Storm Chaser shuddered then tipped up sharply. Haggerwolf lost his footing and fell to the deck, sliding aft until his chest harness stopped him.
“Forget balancing!” Windslow shouted.
Wind whistled through the railings. Tight ropes hummed low-throated notes as the winds plucked them.
“You work the tiller,” Windslow yelled. “I’ll handle the sail. Try to steer us more to starboard.”
The wind shifted again, clawing at the sail and flinging the boom back the other way. Like riding a stormy sea, the Storm Rider plunged and rose in long waves. Another gust nearly tipped her on her side. Winslow and Haggerwolf both tightened their safety lines. Lightning crackled close by. The boom of thunder that followed rattled the ship.
The Storm Rider twisted, the sail flapping like a flag as the ship moved sideways.
“What happened?” Haggerwolf shouted.
“We lost our centerboard,” Windslow answered. “Turn her that way. We’ll have to sail with the wind.”
Like blue lace, strands of lightning stretched out on either side of the Storm Rider. They crackled and pulsed, changing from blue to blue-green. Pieces of gahbye reed flew up from the hull.
“We’re in trouble!” Haggerwolf shouted against the wind. “All the modifications I made with magic are gone. The storm is ripping apart the ship. Steer us out of here.”
“I can’t,” Windslow hollered. “The rudder’s gone. We’re out of control. Help me get the sail down.”
“No!” Haggerwolf shouted. “It’s too dangerous. I’ll do it. You stay put.”
Windslow didn’t argue. With the rudder gone, all he could do is use tiller as something to hold on to.”
Lightning crackled constantly. Winds shoved the Storm Rider like a toy, first in one direction and then another. Haggerwolf crawled along the deck until he could reach the box of gravimite stones as something to hold onto.
When Windslow heard cracking, he knew what is was. “Watch out!” He yelled. “The mast is coming down.”
Windslow watched the mast. Just above the gravimite box, the mast bent, large splinters popping out from one side. The sail whipped back and forth. Ropes hung down like feeding snakes. With a final series of cracks, the mast fell towards Windslow. He rolled to one side, twisting himself up in his safety line.
He looked for Haggerwolf and saw him still prone on the deck, his fingers clawing at one corner of the gravimite case. When the mast hit the deck, the broken end bounced up, then slammed down, striking the rock filled box. Crushed like an egg, pieces of the box and strands of netting blew away. Unrestrained, most of the gravimite flew upward. Other pieces slammed to the deck, slid until they hit something and shot into the air.
The Storm Rider rolled to her side. The mast swept down the deck and stopped when it jammed against the tiller. Windslow struggled to get out of its path. His safely line kept him from moving. Grabbing his Swiss army knife from his back pocket, Windslow snapped open the blade and sawed at the safety line. As the rope freed him, the mast moved. Windslow gritted his teeth. He had nowhere to go.
Thunder shook the ship and the Storm Rider rolled back upright, paused and nosed downward. The mast rested inches from Windslow’s side. He looked again for Haggerwolf, but had to duck when more sections of gahbye reed hull blew toward him. Lightning struck the ship. Fingers of blue energy spun round and round, as if wrapping the ship in a cocoon to save her for a later feast. The deck heaved. Windslow slid backward and watched the front half of the Storm Rider rip away.
“Haggerwolf!” Windslow yelled as loud as he could. “Haggerwolf where are--”
A piece of sail blew against Windslow’s face, cutting off his words. He clawed at the canvas. The wind pushed back, shoving him off balance. Wrapped in the sail, he felt himself falling; falling just as he had when he fell off his roof back home and broke his back. He closed his eyes and half choking, yelled out one last word… “Mom!”