Tillie slid down the kitchen wall to the floor, collapsing in a heap in the very spot where Grayden had crouched just a few minutes earlier.
“All my fault,” she said, sobbing.
The creeping house maintained its frantic pace.
After half an hour, Tillie managed to downgrade her sobs to sniffles. After half an hour more, she succeeded in converting the sniffles to a trembling lip. Soon you must stop crying altogether, she told herself, becoming annoyed by her own blubbering. And so she did. Instead of crying, she remained motionless on the floor, staring out the back door and wishing for Grayden to reappear.
Eventually, the quiet prairie night and the creeping house’s rhythmic strides beckoned Tillie to sleep. I don’t deserve to sleep, she thought, her eyelids beginning to droop. She tried to remain upright, but exhaustion soon got the best of her. She slumped forward and closed her eyes.
When Tillie opened her eyes again, beams of sunlight spilled through the windows, bathing the room in a warm glow. A lazy bee traced circles in the air above her.
The creeping house had finally come to a stop.
Tillie stood up and brushed the dust of broken dinnerware from her chaps and vest. “I’m sorry I threatened to destroy your kitchen last night,” she said to the creeping house, patting the wall gently. “I know you were too afraid to stop running. You lost your best friend yesterday, didn’t you?” She pictured the kind hunter for moment; then the image transformed into Grayden. “I did too,” she added.
She stepped to the door and looked outside, scanning the grass for any sign of the Trail of Dragon. She saw none. If I can find the trail, she thought, I can follow it backwards and search for Grayden. She kissed the door frame and dropped the few feet from the open door to the ground, landing with a grunt.
She circled the creeping house, continuing her search for the Trail of Dragon. Although she did not find the path, she did find something else; no more than a hundred yards away stood an awesome site – the sheer, vertical cliff that she had seen in the glass eye’s vision.
Since I can’t find the trail, I suppose I should go to the cliffs, Tillie decided. Grayden will probably head there as soon as he can, anyway. And besides, I promised to help Ophelia – and she should be close now. “Goodbye, creeping house,” she called over her shoulder. She marched toward the rockface, the shoulder-high weeds flinging seeds into the air as her arms brushed across their tops.
The rim of the rock wall was a mile above her, leaning out over her head and eclipsing the morning sun. “How will I get to the top of that?” she wondered aloud. She plopped down onto a small boulder a few feet from the cliff. Imitating one of the statues in Uncle Quentin’s garden, she leaned forward, placed her elbow on her knee, and rested her chin on her fist.
Just as she was getting into a good bit of thinking, a loud yet strangely familiar puttering disturbed her thoughts.
Tillie jumped off the boulder and crouched behind it. A second later she glimpsed what was making the noise; Eve sat astride Nora, hunched forward and hiding her face behind the motorcycle’s windscreen to avoid the flying blades of grass. She was no longer wearing her shimmering gown and exquisite sandals. Instead, she sported a full-body, red leather catsuit with matching knee-high boots. A belt of linked silver rings encircled her waist., Tillie thought. For a circus performer.
Eve drove Nora full-speed at the cliff face and spun the motorcycle to one side at the last second. Nora’s back tire dug into the ground, sending a shower of rocks and dirt directly at Tillie’s hiding place.
Eve dismounted and removed her helmet, shaking her head from side to side to untangle her green hair. She placed the helmet on the handlebars and grabbed a beaded purse from one of Nora’s saddlebags. Clutching the purse in one hand, she strode to the rock wall and began to inspect its surface.
Tillie stepped out from behind the boulder.
Eve’s eyes skimmed Tillie and then returned to the cliff face. The witch said nothing.
“Eve,” Tillie said. “It’s me. Tillie McGwinn.”
“I see that,” Eve said. She ran her hand along a crack in the wall.
“How’d you get here?” Tillie asked.
Tillie took a deep breath. “Thanks for leaving me locked up. Not enough mud in our cell to make a golem for me too?”
“Not enough voice. My throat was sore by the time I sang my own golem to life.” The witch glanced around. “Where is your little warrior friend, anyway?”
Tillie looked at her feet and didn’t answer.
“Bumped him off, did you?” The witch smiled.
Tillie walked back to her boulder and sat. “I’ll just be over here,” she said. “When you’re ready to act like a person, let me know.”
Eve ignored her and continued examining the cliff. She chanted a reveal spell that failed to reveal anything, although it did unleash a small shower of sparks that caught one of her boots on fire. She stomped out the flames and glanced over at Tillie to make sure she wasn’t watching.
She was; she thought the witch looked like she was clogging.
“I think you’ll find that the cliff is made from normal rock,” Tillie said. “I’ve already looked it over.”
“And you’d know what to look for?”
Tillie shrugged. “Knock yourself out, then. You’ll be joining me on this boulder soon enough.”
Thirty minutes later, the witch joined Tillie on the boulder, all of her tests and spells having accomplished nothing.
“There must be a way we can get up this cliff,” Eve said.
“What if we build some kind of pully system using items from inside the creeping house?”
Eve turned and looked at the house, eyes wide with amazement. “That’s a creeping house?”
“And you crossed the plains in it?”
“Impressive!” the witch said.
“So, do you think the pully idea will work?”
“Absolutely not. Even if we could somehow build one, which is doubtful, we’d still need a rope to put through the pullies.”
“Maybe we could weave some rope from prairie grass?”
“Forget the pully idea,” Eve said.
“Let’s hear your big plan, then.”
Eve crossed her arms and leaned back. “I could whip up a simple ascension spell.”
“Great,” Tillie said, jumping up. “Let’s do it.”
Eve remained seated. “But, I’d need an eyelash from a four-headed otter.”
Tillie sat again. “Are those rare?”
“I’ve only run across one four-headed otter in all my travels – and that one has been banished to another dimension.”
There was a moment of silence.
“It was you who banished it, wasn’t it?”
“Come on,” Tillie said, standing up again and pulling Eve with her this time. “Let’s walk. Maybe some exercise will help us think.”
“Fine,” the witch agreed, following.
The pair of them trudged along in silence for a few moments, staying close to the rock wall. A few hundred yards ahead of them, the cliff face made what looked like a sharp right turn. They agreed to head for it.
Tillie’s eyes suddenly lit up. “Here’s an idea,” she said.
“Uncle Qunetin and I once saw a man using a reverse glider near the Cliffs of Muchmohr. Instead of carrying him from the top of the cliffs to the sea far below, his contraption went in the opposite direction. Maybe we could build one of those.”
“And you think that’s a good idea?” Eve said.
“I didn’t say it was a good idea,” Tillie countered. “I just said it was an idea.” She rounded the corner of the rock wall. “To construct a reverse glider, I imagine we’d just need a hammer, some twine-”
“Ahem,” Eve said, interrupting Tillie.
“-a few pieces of wood-“
“Ahem,” the witch said again, louder this time.
“-a reverse glider construction kit-”
“AHEM!” Eve yelled.
“What?!” Tillie said, raising her hands to her hips. “I thought we were brainstorming!”
With a nonchalant wave of her arm, the witch pointed past Tillie. “Why don’t we just take the stairs?”
Surrounded by a raspberry bush and strangled by an overzealous vine stood a wooden, arrow-shaped sign decorated with multi-colored, hand-painted letters that read:
Follow the stairs to Rainbow’s End!
The sign pointed toward the gaping, black mouth of a cave.
Tillie looked at Eve, confused.
“Don’t even ask,” the witch said, ducking her head low and stepping into the cave, “because I haven’t got the foggiest idea.”
“So very odd,” Tillie said.
“Yes,” Eve agreed, her voice echoing from inside the cave. “Although there is a stairway in here leading up – and up and up and up.”
Tillie followed Eve inside and craned her neck. A tiny pinprick of sun glowed a mile or more above their heads. “I feel like we’re at the bottom of a really, really deep well,” she said.
“Been at the bottom of many really, really deep wells, have you?” Eve asked.
“Where are you?” Tillie stumbled forward, arms reaching. “I can barely make out any shapes in this dim light.”
“I’m over here at the foot of the stairs.”
Tillie glanced from side to side, seeing neither the witch nor the stairs. “And where’s that?”
A boney hand grabbed Tillie by one shoulder. “The stairs are right here. Put your foot straight out.”
Tillie did as Eve said, tapping the edge of the first step with the toe of her cowgirl boot. She felt along its surface with her foot. “These steps aren’t very wide,” she said, her voice trembling a little. “And there’s no railing.”
“True and true,” Eve said, pushing Tillie forward. “I do hope you have a good sense of balance.”
Tillie hugged the stone wall and carefully made her way up the first couple of stairs. Eve followed.
“This is going to be exhausting,” Eve said. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to carry me?”