Witch and wizard, p.13

Witch & Wizard, page 13

 part  #1 of  Witch & Wizard Series

 

Witch & Wizard
 


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  “See ya,” I called in a voice he couldn’t possibly hear.

  Then I peered up into the darkness of the rusty pipe. I could smell damp air, old leaves, and other nasty things I couldn’t identify. I’d heard mice were excellent climbers.

  I guess I was about to find out.

  Chapter 80

  Whit

  I SHUDDERED AND CRINGED as I watched Wisty’s tiny tail corkscrew, then disappear, up that drainpipe. No magic could wipe away the grotesque image of her being crushed under a New Order prison guard’s jackboot.

  But my job now was to save the kids who’d just been brought in the van, and then I could get to my parents. The quicker, the better.

  “We’re not staying here?” one of them asked timidly as I backed the vehicle out of the gates. “Isn’t that against the New Order rules?”

  “No to your first question, yep to the second,” I said, making sure there was no oncoming traffic. “Change of plans. It’s all good.”

  I popped the truck into drive and swung out into the street fast, racing to the alley we’d passed on our way in. I rolled down my window and waved.

  Margo, Emmet, and the others emerged from the shadows.

  “Where’s Wisty?” Margo asked.

  “Up a drainpipe. Where else?” I said. “We have to ditch this van.”

  “No! We can use it later,” said Emmet, sitting beside me in the front seat. Margo crammed herself in too. “Go up three blocks and take a right at the light.”

  Margo reassured the kids as we drove. “You aren’t criminals. We’re taking you to live with us. It isn’t fancy, but it’s better than prison.”

  “We’re not going to jail?” one girl asked, wiping her tear-streaked cheeks with both hands.

  “No,” said Margo, “we’re going to Garfunkel’s.”

  Seeing their little faces relax was incredible, I must admit. I knew they’d have lots of questions, but at least they had hope. They had us.

  “This next part gets a little tricky,” Emmet said nervously. “But it’ll get us back to Garfunkel’s without being seen on the main streets.”

  “Oh no, not that,” Margo yelped, looking alarmed—okay, make that frightened. “It’s a death trap!”

  “It’s the only way!” Emmet said.

  “Uh, can we go back to the death-trap part?” I asked.

  “Right here!” Emmet shouted suddenly, grabbing the wheel. “Sharp left!”

  “There’s nothing there!” I shouted back as the van hopped the curb.

  “Hang on, everybody!” Margo commanded. “This could get a little rough!”

  I whipped my head from side to side, checking for innocent pedestrians I should avoid mowing down.

  “There!” Emmet said, pointing again.

  “Where?”

  Then I saw what he meant… too late.

  Chapter 81

  Whit

  I SLAMMED ON THE BRAKES, but apparently if you’re driving a heavy van full of kids and you’re suddenly on a steep staircase going down, the brakes give out immediately.

  The children in back screamed like they were strapped into a thrill ride built by a serial killer. I had a split second to wonder if they all wished they were back at the prison, getting little gray-striped jumpsuits to try on.

  But that was the only coherent thought I managed before we were bouncing around too much to think straight.

  Down, down, down!

  Gachonk, gachonk, gachonk!

  Why is it that time flies when you’re having fun, but when you’re behind the wheel, plummeting down a flight of steps in a van full of hysterical kids, time virtually stops? The laws of physics are so unfair.

  “What were you thinking?” I yelled at Emmet. “This is a subway station!”

  “That’s right!” Emmet shouted over the gachonking noise of the crunching shock absorbers—which didn’t seem to be absorbing too much shock. The sound of the kids’ screaming bounced up and down like hysterical hic-cups. “Another abandoned subway! We can ride the tracks all the way to the portal, which will bring us home!”

  Oh, no way, I thought as the van got a couple of huge jolts—smashing through the turnstiles—then bounced across a platform and skidded sideways in horribly slow motion… toward the edge.

  Everyone shrieked in panic as the van skittered along the platform’s lip for a few long, agonizing seconds before dropping like a ton of concrete right onto the subway tracks.

  Silence rushed in to fill the void where the non-amusement-park-ride screaming had been. I felt like someone had just taken us out of one of those paint-can shakers at the hardware store.

  We were right smack on the tracks of the subway, though, our now cockeyed headlights shining into cavernous darkness. I turned the van off and stared at Emmet.

  “There we go. No problem,” he said finally, his voice a little shaky in the crushing silence. His face was also whiter than a marble statue’s.

  “Everyone okay?” I croaked.

  “Let’s not do that again,” one of the kids said through tears. “Okay, mister?”

  “The worst part’s over,” said Emmet. “Now we can ride these rails without anyone looking for the van or any of you missing prisoners. A turn off tunnel will take us right to the portal.”

  A long, low whistle suddenly echoed through the blackness.

  “Another train, far away,” said Emmet. “Okay, let’s get a move on.”

  I reflexively checked the rearview mirror as I felt for the ignition key under the steering wheel.

  What I saw was a bright, single light piercing the darkness behind us.

  “Um, not so far away.” I turned to Emmet, my heart slamming into my chest.

  “What?” asked Emmet.

  “Take a look out the back window.”

  He didn’t need to. The kids’ screams told him everything he needed to know.

  Chapter 82

  Wisty

  IF YOU’RE EVER on the brink of death—or, in my case, of ill-fated eternal life as a rodent—I recommend singing childhood songs to lift your spirits. How can you be climbing up a drainpipe without indulging in a cheerful round of “Itsy Bitsy Spider”? I sang the line about the spider being washed out with a nervous titter as I ascended into the prison complex.

  From the drainpipe, I came out into a gutter. I raced along the roof edge until I found an air-conditioning vent, just like I’d seen in the prison schematic back at Janine’s computer.

  Excellent. I squeezed through and then ran along the duct until I found another vent. And then another. And another.

  I was as close as I ever wanted to being a rat in a maze.

  But right then I was becoming increasingly aware of another mouse side effect: you can smell a million times better than you can as a person. I quickly found out that I could actually follow my nose. Pretty soon I came to a turnoff that I knew had to be the right one. It smelled like hell on a particularly hot day.

  The conduit was completely dark, but I figured I’d be able to see better when my eyes adjusted. Or I could always set myself on fire. Almost snickering at the vision of a flaming rodent skittering through the prison, I stretched my neck in through the slats, then squeezed my body most of the way. One final heroic tug, and I was suddenly dropping down, down, down, into nothing.

  Chapter 83

  Wisty

  THERE’S A GOOD REASON our worst nightmares are so often about falling. That deer-in-the-headlights awareness that something really, really bad’s coming, but not being able to do anything about it, is probably the world’s best (or should I say worst?) recipe for ultimate, deluxe, supersize terror.

  I plunged headlong into the spinning, blurring darkness, bouncing off one dusty metal wall and then another, flailing in order to catch something—anything—to slow my descent.

  But there was nothing. Just the wind blowing harder and harder as I fell faster and faster.

  And faster.

  And still there was no sign of the bottom. Altho
ugh, in this pitch-dark shaft, I probably wouldn’t even see it coming.

  “STOP!” I squealed mindlessly. Think fast, Wisty. I was a witch. A witch could use magic. Magic could stop a falling object. Whit stopped a gavel in midair. Why couldn’t I stop something as small and light as a mouse?

  I gestured with my paws, I flicked my tail like a wand, I wished and raged the way I had in the past when I’d gone invisible or burst into flames… but nothing worked. I felt about as magical as a tomato. A tomato dropping from the roof of a very tall building.

  About to go splat!

  I have to say, the old cliché about your life flashing before your very eyes is dead-on. I saw it all: Wisty, the feisty but loving daughter. Wisty, the high school truant. Wisty, the bad, scary witch. Wisty, the Liberator. Wisty, the Roadkill. Or something that was about to look a lot like it anyway.

  Then it hit me. Literally stopped my panicked breath. Not the force of a hard surface. Instead, I was clobbered by a rank smell that was about a hundred times worse than Whit’s gym bag.

  And I was falling right toward it.

  A dim light began to fill the tube below me, and in an instant I saw where my free fall would come to an end: in the prison garbage pile.

  Luckily, a mesh screen was fastened across the opening to the shaft. I hit it at what felt like sixty miles an hour. It’s a good thing the wire had some give to it, or I’m sure I would have been flattened on the spot. If the screen had been tighter or any thinner, it might have passed through me like an apple corer.

  As it was, the thing worked like an overstretched trampoline and sent me rebounding back up into the vent before my final smackdown.

  The force of the impact knocked the wind out of me, and I was instantly sure I’d broken some ribs and my left foreleg. Judging from how my head was throbbing and the fact that I couldn’t see straight, I probably had a concussion too.

  Shaken, injured, disoriented, but alive, I forced myself to scan my surroundings. I’d made a serious dent in the screen, and the rusty old clasps that held the thing in place had nearly bent straight.

  Then I recoiled at the sound of some squeaky chattering below me. I choked back my vertigo—I’m so bad about heights I usually turn around and face upward on down escalators—then rolled over and peered through the screen.

  It wasn’t technically a trash pit but an open-topped steel container, filled with torn bedding, soiled inmate uniforms, and revolting scraps from the prison kitchen. And—wait—it was full of eyes staring right at me!

  Rats. Dozens of them. Filthy-furred, greasy-tailed, evil-looking.

  I’m not especially squeamish about them normally. My science teacher even had one in the classroom last year. But these weren’t nice white pet-store rats like Mr. Nicolo’s. And I wasn’t a human girl here. I was a mouse—aka prey.

  Come on, magic. Come on. A spell to let me climb or fly? A spell to let me banish rats to oblivion? A spell to turn me into a large cat? A spell to make this all into a dream I could wake up from?

  But my mind, my energy, my spirit, were stone-cold frozen. All I could manage was to stare back at the rats—at their matted fur, their soulless black eyes, their wicked yellow teeth, their wormy pink tails.

  I was safe for the moment. There was at least eight feet of space between me and them, and unless they were really good with cheerleader-squad pyramids, they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near me.

  I looked up into the shaft and spied a ridge, a seam in the metal where two sections had been welded together. It wasn’t much, but it might be enough to grip. And if there was another seam above that, and another above that…

  I jumped desperately upward, my good foreleg out-stretched, and missed.

  And that was too bad, because the clasps on the screen really weren’t ready for me to fall on them again, and they promptly gave way.

  No, no, no!

  The screen swung open and I fell backward, helplessly airborne once again, plunging toward the trash and the nightmare scrum of rats.

  Chapter 84

  Wisty

  I THINK WE ALL CAN recognize that rats are not the cutest animals in the world. But until you’re one-tenth their size, you don’t really have a good sense of just how unsavory they are. To be as up close to them as I was right then… well, personally I’d rather face a tiger or a grizzly bear.

  At least tigers and bears don’t nest in trash heaps. These prison rodents smelled as if they’d give you an incurable disease just by brushing against you, to say nothing of what would happen if they sank their bone-splintering teeth into you.

  They quickly circled around me as I landed on the heap and gasped for breath in the suffocating stink. There was no spark of mercy in their lightless eyes. And judging by the drool coming out of their crooked mouths, I was clearly way more appetizing than whatever moldy items they’d been finding in this revolting pile of rancid kitchen grease, soup bones, shredded uniforms, soaked mattress stuffing, rat droppings, and unidentifiable brown-and-black sludge.

  Not wasting a moment to think about spells—or germs—I leaped at the largest gap in their circling pack and sprinted as fast as my aching body, and the slippery, treacherous sludge pile, would allow.

  It was no use. Even beyond the first ring of rats, more were swarming. In a moment they had seized each of my legs and had pinned me down in the slimy pile.

  A lean, fanged creature the size of a small wildcat loomed over me, snuffling my fur and drooling like I was a fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie… a treat for the Rat King.

  I clenched my eyes shut and, well, screamed my fool head off.

  And wouldn’t you know it—right then, without any warning, I was sprouting like a charmed beanstalk in a fairy tale.

  I’d become my full-size human self again!

  Good news: the mouse spell must have worn off at just the right moment! And my human self wasn’t all busted and broken. Bad news: maybe the last shred of magic I possessed had just evaporated. Good news: Who freaking cares? I just escaped death by dismemberment. And digestion.

  And then more bad news: my transformation back into human form had not been accompanied by a new wardrobe. There I was, lying in garbage, rats all over me, not a shred of clothing between me and them. I was stark naked.

  A big pink rat chew toy.

  But I’d suddenly become the largest creature in the trash, and the rats were pretty freaked out. They scurried up and over the top of the container.

  I, in the meantime, quickly picked through the disgusting pile for an abandoned prisoner uniform to wear, and noticed the lettering on the back of each shirt:

  NEW ORDER REFORMATORY

  NO. 426

  I finally found a uniform that fit and that wasn’t entirely soaked through with sludge. I numbly put it on, nearly oblivious to its smell and sickening dampness.

  There was a set of steel rungs at the front wall of the container, and—having never wanted anything more dearly than to be away from this rat-infested garbage pile—I climbed them faster than a bionic squirrel… and vowed to never make another rodent-based metaphor ever again.

  Next I lowered myself out of the container to the floor and squinted around in the dimly lit indoor loading bay. I spotted the outline of a regular door atop a nearby loading dock and hurried to it.

  It was unlocked, and I slowly pulled it open, allowing my eyes to adjust to the bright fluorescent light beyond. It appeared to be a service corridor. Everything seemed quiet, so I cautiously stuck my head out into the hall.

  I didn’t do it cautiously enough, though. The six prison guards who had just turned the corner saw me right away.

  Chapter 85

  Wisty

  I DIDN’T EVEN HAVE a split second to suck in a rejuvenating breath of non-stench-filled air before I had to take off running blindly like my life depended on it.

  Which it did.

  “Escapee!” one of the guards yelled as another slammed a red button on the wall, setting off earspl
itting sirens and eye-shattering strobe lights.

  As long as I didn’t have control over my magic and was stuck in my enemy-friendly, easy-to-catch-and-destroy human form, I had about a 1 percent chance of survival. But I hung on to that 1 percent. Like crazy. It fueled me like a cheap sugar high. I wasn’t going to do my parents any good if I got caught and killed.

  I reached a stairwell and sprinted up two, three steps at a time. Made me wonder if I’d accidentally come back with longer legs in my mouse-to-Wisty morph. One flight, two flights, three flights, the boot steps behind me getting closer with every passing second. But I was still ahead.

  Adrenaline rocks.

  When I got to the last landing and the door to the roof, I heaved against the exit bar—and then I was out on top of the gravel-covered building. I bolted in the only direction that wasn’t blocked by concertina wire.

  “Stop right there! There’s no escape!” I heard a meat-head guard shout as he burst through the door behind me.

  I skidded to a painful stop at the edge of a precipice that overlooked the central cell block’s courtyard, a concrete parade area five stories below.

  The guards knew they had me trapped. My only chance was to cross the courtyard gap on a two-foot-wide conduit—a metal round-backed pipe that stretched across the massive opening in the roof.

  Anyone would be insane to try it. But me? Aside from the heights thing, balance and I don’t have a good history. I’m serious. Ask Whit sometime about my one attempt at snowboarding.

  Without turning to look at my pursuers, I carefully stepped out on the pipe and, arms pinwheeling, started across the pit.

  “Stop and come back. You’ll kill yourself!” yelled one of the guards, his tone not exactly overflowing with concern.

  But I was already a quarter of the way across. I was making it!

 
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