I held the wooden box aloft and yelled after the retreating princess, “They want this!”
The bluebird darted back toward us to check out the object. A few seconds later the princess turned the unicorn around and trotted back.
“What is that?” she called as she approached.
“Garmin’s box,” I said.
The bluebird sang a staccato burst of chirps and tweets, then flew off for the iron trees. A low rumbling came from the direction of the wooden gate.
“Hurry!” she yelled. The unicorn pivoted and galloped again toward the trees.
The wooden gate splintered as a monster truck burst through it. Only one. Miranda must have taken out the other two.
Kaz lifted his robe and ran after the unicorn. I followed. The Winged Feet spell had a five-minute cool-down so we had to lope along at normal speed. The truck gained on us fast.
Up ahead Kara’s hands met in prayer. A large tunnel formed through the lattice of tree branches. She entered the tunnel and it bored deeper into the forest. The truck bore down on Kaz and I just as we ran into the tunnel. The entrance closed behind us like a camera lens. The truck turned into a slide at the last moment as it closed. We heard a metallic crash followed by the engine revving and trailing away.
We seemed safe inside this moving bubble of space among the strangulous trees.
The tunnel advanced as the unicorn trotted forward, and closed to nothing behind Kaz and I as we moved.
I could hear an engine faintly in the distance. It was joined by a sound like a dentist’s drill when it violates your tooth.
“It sounds as if they are cutting through,” called Kara. “How?”
“I don’t know,” I called back. “They must be Ensec.”
“I feared this would happen,” she told the bluebird on her shoulder.
She leapt off the unicorn and landed gracefully on her bare feet on the soft forest floor. We caught up to her. “We’re almost there,” she said. “The next passage might slow them. Do exactly what I do.”
The tunnel opened up to reveal a vast stone wall with a pointed wooden archway in the center.
She patted Stalwart on the rump and said, “Sorry boy, no mounts allowed.” Stalwart snorted, and then shrunk into a little glowing star and vanished.
We walked through the archway into what at first seemed like a huge room with wooden staircases on all sides. After a second I realized the staircases went off in strange directions. It was a jumble of stairs, landings, balustrades, and balconies all with varying orientations. An Escher sketch made virtually real.
“Come on!” said Kara. She tiptoed up a narrow staircase on our left.
I climbed the stairs behind her and Kaz followed. We reached a landing, but it was a dead end. Three blank walls. Kara waited until we got there, then walked to the far wall. She leaned back and put one foot flat on the wall in front of her. Then she walked up it.
I looked up. Another staircase began at the top of that wall and stretched back over our heads.
“Hurry!” she said. She stepped onto the overhead staircase, walking up it at a ninety degree angle away from us.
I tentatively placed one foot on the wall like she had. It gained weight there, like it was held somehow. I leaned back and walked up the wall myself.
“Whoa,” said Kaz.
“Localized gravity,” I told him. “Come on.”
Kaz wasn’t convinced. He leaned forward and put both hands on the wall to test it. From my perspective it looked like he was lying on the floor doing push-ups. And he was, without expecting it, so his arms gave way and he fell to the new floor.
“This is insane,” he said as he got to his feet.
We ran up the next staircase after Kara. A golden metal pole stretched from floor to ceiling at the next landing. Kara grabbed the pole and swung sideways until her feet touched the wall next to it. That wall became a new walkway for her and the pole was now its railing.
We continued like this for a while, switching modes and orientations, but proceeding generally upward and leftward, as far as I could tell. The view was dizzying when you tried to take it all in. I focused on Kara and my own feet so I wouldn’t get lost. When either Kaz or I fell, which we did more than once, Kara doubled backed and waited for us.
I heard an urgent cheep cheep cheep sound and a streak of blue whizzed through the maze past us. I had forgotten about her bluebird.
“They’re coming!” Kara said.
Far below us the drilling sound grew louder, followed by a crash. The schoolgirl must have broken through to the maze. I heard footsteps below, and vague cursing.
I had suspected that Kara would have great defenses. It could take someone days to find their own path through here.
“We’re almost there,” said Kara, pointing to the top of the next stairway.
She ran up and we followed. At the landing there was a wall on either side and nothing in front. No wall or railing. A sheer drop.
Kara walked right over the edge.
“No!” cried Kaz. He ran ahead of me and then stumbled and fell over the edge himself.
I side-stepped to the edge and looked over. Kaz sprawled below me on the wall, which was a floor for him by now. Kara walked down along that new floor to a pointed archway that showed blue sky beyond.
I sighed with relief. Then the big-eyed Japanese schoolgirl materialized right next to me.
She could Port. But how could she know where to find me?
“Give it up, Brennan!” she said. “Or you die, for real.” Her voice sounded like a bad English overdub from a Japanese movie.
I used one of my thug’s fight moves and swung a foot out, cutting her legs out from under her. She landed on her butt, then bounced right back with a palm thrust to my chest. I flew backwards over the edge, stunned, and plummeted to the pointed archway door like it was a drain.