Gears whirling, my arachnoped chugged uphill. Its eight spider-like legs scuttled over rocks, and I pedaled harder, eager to get where I was going.
I was on my way to see Wizard Ast and had been riding all afternoon to reach him. He lived in a tall castle named Ninespire on the top of Craggerscraw Hill. I could barely make out the dragon statue that guarded his home.
Castle Ninespire was a mysterious place. People whispered when they spoke its name or discussed its strange magic. Some folks even claimed that it was alive.
That morning I wasn’t one of those people. I still thought Ninespire was like any other castle. But I was about to learn that the rumors were true. Ninespire had secrets that few people dared to imagine.
Puffing from the effort, I continued to pedal, and my arachnoped continued to climb. Riding an arachnoped was usually fun, kind of like sitting on the back of a giant spider. But this spider had levers, pedals, gears, and a seat because it was a machine.
Almost everyone I passed turned to stare when I rode by. I smiled at them and waved like a princess in a parade.
Princess Gidget, that’s me. Well, without the Princess part. I’ve always enjoyed getting my hands, knees, and clothes dirty too much for a real princess.
Blame that on my father. He’s the tinker of Tiller’s Field, my home town. He even named me after his work—gadget … Gidget. A tinker builds gadgets like my arachnoped riding machine. Most people think my dad’s gadgets are magic but they aren’t.
I have brown eyes and short, curly black hair. Instead of a princess’ tiara, I wore a pair of goggles on my head, a sturdy tool belt, and plain clothes. I was twelve years old and kept a slingshot in my back pocket for emergencies.
Ninespire was getting close, and I gazed at it with mixed feelings. I was eager to finish my trip, but the castle wasn’t the most inviting place. Just one look at its dark walls told me to beware. All of the spooky stories could be true.
I tried not to shiver when the shadow of the castle’s tallest tower fell over me. The sun had nearly set, and the brightest light came from the castle. An electric radiance pulsed around it like the steady rhythm of a beating heart.
No, Ninespire wasn’t like other castles. I could almost believe that it really was alive.
“I hope Wizard Ast has dinner ready,” I said out loud, trying to get my mind off the castle’s eerie appearance. “Some kingbite cookies sound good—”
The explosion came without warning. There was no telltale rumble in the ground. There was no smoke. One second I was pedaling hard. The next I was thrown from my seat and sent spinning downhill.
Dirt and rocks whirled in a dusty blur. Metal flashed at the edges of my vision. Then a heavy crash and the sound of screeching gears told me my arachnoped wouldn’t be walking again anytime soon.
I landed hard on my back but managed to slap my goggles down over my eyes. I did it just in time, too, because blinding fire blazed before my eyes.
A roaring fireball as wide as a wagon streaked straight toward me. It hissed like a nest of angry vipers and sent fiery sparks the size of apples streaking in every direction.
There was no way I could escape. The fireball was going to plow right into me!
The fireball shrieked toward me, and I shrieked, too, expecting to die. I raised my arms uselessly and felt no hope. The end was near.
“Wizard Ast!” I wailed. “Please, somebody help!”
There was no response, of course. The wizard was far away and couldn’t help or even hear me. There was no one else around. I was as alone as a girl could be.
The fireball came fast. I expected pain. I expected deadly heat and the crushing blow of a sledgehammer. But what I really got amazed me.
Nothing! The fireball zipped through me as if I were a ghost.
It struck me, I swear it did. But I felt no pain, just a tingling in my chest and belly. My hair stood up straight, and electricity crackled between my fingertips. Then the fireball was gone like a passing breeze.
I lay on the hillside for a long time, panting and wondering why I had survived. I should have been dead and turned to ash. People didn’t survive being clobbered by fireballs.
But I could still feel my frightened heart thundering in my chest. Thwoon-thwoon! Thwoon-thwoon! I was definitely alive, and that meant something.
Aching and sore in a dozen places, I gingerly climbed to my feet. My arachnoped lay on its side a short distance away, twisted and jammed between two large rocks. Walking the rest of the way was my only choice. So I got moving—slowly. I needed dinner more than ever. Now I needed answers, too.
Where had the fireball gone? Why hadn’t it hurt me? What had Wizard Ast done to—?
The fireball had come from Castle Ninespire, and Wizard Ast was inside. What had the explosion done to him? Without pausing to brush the dust from my clothes, I started to run. Wizard Ast might need me. He could be alone and in serious trouble.
Clouds of dust hung in the air from the explosion. I could barely see the ground at my feet. Ninespire was just a bluish haze a short way uphill.
Rocks and holes appeared in my path without warning. They forced me to jump and zigzag like a frightened deer racing through the woods. The contents of my backpack clanked as I ran.
“Don’t break, please, don’t break,” I repeated with every clink and clunk. My backpack was filled with gadgets for Wizard Ast. They were from my father, and delivering them was my reason for visiting.
Even my heart got into the noisy act. It pounded so loudly that it drowned out everything else. That was strange. I wasn’t even tired yet..
I quickly stopped running and placed a hand on my chest. My heart sounded as if it was going to burst, but I could hardly feel it beating.
“Rusty buckets, Gidget,” I complained out loud. “Aren’t you in better shape?” Running usually didn’t wear my out so easily.
But my heart didn’t agree. It thundered louder, hammering in my head and ears and behind my eyes. In seconds, its noise drove me to my knees.
I clutched my head in my hands and moaned. “Please, stop!”
And then there was silence.
Exhaling heavily, I pushed myself to my knees. At first I could see nothing, but a strange building slowly took shape on the top of the hill.
It was Ninespire, but not the Ninespire I remembered. Something had changed it. The explosion had done something magical to the castle.
Wizard Ast’s home was now shaped like a giant frog five stories high!
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Copyright © 2006 Sigil Publishing, Inc.
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