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Chapter 22: Whirlwind

Matt found himself back in front of the tornado, still clutching the small green vial. Bahati showed up only a minute later. “So,” said Matt. “How was villain camp? Get to practice your evil laugh?”

Bahati chuckled. “That and so much more. I even got to join their little club.” She told him every detail of her epic battle with the mirror golem and her subsequent meeting with the strange Count Munchhausen.

“That does sound a bit more interesting,” said Matt, “but mine’s still pretty good.” He recounted his story about the mad potion mistress and her strange house. Bahati uncorked and sniffed the potion, but could not tell her any more about what it might be used for, and appeared doubtful that the crazy, old woman had been telling the truth.

Alec came running back about then, his camera held high. “You’re not going to believe some of the shots I got there. The Reverse Falls were just the beginning! I—”

Before Alec could continue, Matt’s dad materialized, though it took Matt a moment to recognize him, dressed in armor as he was. His dad held out his arms. “See?” his said. “This is what a knight looks like. Am I right?”

He then told them all about the field of swords and related every detail of the magnificent dinner he had been treated to, seemingly oblivious of the annoyed stares from the others.

Three sets of eyes then fixed on Alec. He held up the camera limply in one hand. “I must confess, I, uh…” He let out the remainder of his breath in a rush. “I got a bit distracted.”

“You mean,” said Neil. “You didn’t find anything.”

“Oh, I found many, many things. That was part of the problem.”

“Yeah, the pictures! Let me have a look.”

Matt hovered over Alec’s shoulder as he let him peruse his work. Each picture was accompanied by an “oo” or an “ah” and, in the case of the butterfly mosaic, an astonished gasp. All the while, his dad stood back a ways, tapping his heavily-armored foot. He cleared his throat loudly several times.

“The slide show is all very interesting,” he grumbled. “But I think we have a bigger task at hand. Come on, let’s tackle this thing. We can discuss making the scrapbook later.”

Alec nodded and stuffed the camera back in his pocket. “You’re right. I didn’t find anything, and so I shouldn’t be entitled to ride on your coattails. I think if it’s just the same to the rest of you that I would like to stay here. I’ve never seen so many incredible photo ops. And now that you don’t need me to fly anything for you, I think I would be slowing you down anyway.”

Matt shook his head. “Alec, don’t talk like that. You won’t slow us down. Maybe there will be another floor where we’ll have to fly something and then we’ll be completely stuck.”

Alec shook his head and worked his jaw up and down.

“Matt,” his dad said. “Don’t you see? He really doesn’t want to come with. He’s just too polite to say so. Our mission is to save our son. His mission is to become the next Ansel Adams.”

Matt wrinkled his brow. “Ansel who?”

“Never mind,” Neil said, fidgeting in his armor. “The longer we sit around here, the higher we may have to go. There’s no telling how quickly this tower is growing and that makes me nervous.”

“He is right,” Bahati said. “And I do not admit that lightly. We should make our attempt now.”

All four of them stared at the whirlwind. As if on cue, Tyclone materialized from the swirling mass and walked towards them.

“Ah, so good to see you all back in one piece. I was afraid that the odds were against you.”

“What do you mean by that?” Neil asked.

“Let’s just say more than one traveler has tripped in the sword field, or taken up Mad Meraj on her offer to try her ‘special ale.’ This is a strange place. Things can always end badly.”

“Yes,” muttered Bahati. “Let us hope that this attempt does not.”

Tyclone fixed each person with his unblinking gaze. “Did you all find something to help you?”

All but Alec nodded. “I’m just going to sit this one out. Maybe do a little photojournalism of this historic attempt.”

“Very well,” Tyclone said with a light chuckle. “The others should use your gifts now. It is often better to come at it all at the same time so that you can help each other in a pinch.”

Neil lowered his visor. Bahati raised the belfry and shook it violently, releasing a tiny bat to fly off into the distance. Matt uncorked the odd-smelling brew and took a large gulp of it.

Several things happened all at once. His dad lunged into the wind and stayed rooted to the ground. Dozens of screeches filled the air as the strange flying creatures that looked like gargoyles circled in on the whirlwind. They flew around it in the opposite direction, accelerating until they were only a blur. The whirlwind did not stop, but spun much slower.

However, the changes that came over Matt were by far the most shocking. In an instant, he sank into the ground and disappeared. The ground rumbled and a gigantic man, constructed completely of the hillside rose to his feet. When he reared up to his full height, he stood almost half as tall as the whirlwind itself. Bushes and strings of wildflowers formed a crude face that opened wide with a mighty bellow.

Raising his gigantic grass hands, he reached into the wind and pressed his way in. The whirlwind tore chunks of grass from his surface. The creatures Bahati had summoned increased their speed, slowing the whirlwind even more. His dad fought through the wind, every step much slower than usual.

Through the wind, Matt could see an enormous winding staircase, twisting through the center of the whirlwind and reaching up into the portal in the sky.

Matt held his ground as his dad landed his metal feet on the first step. He kept his body firmly in the path of wind, absorbing most of its force. Bahati dashed through the space under the great grass giant. Even with the diminished wind, the breeze lifted her off of her feet the moment she entered its pull. Bahati tried to call for help, but no sound penetrated the incessant roar of the wind.

Bahati shouted a command, and the ground before her slickened with a steady stream of ice. She turned the spell on herself until she wore a hard crust of ice over most of her body. The extra weight provided just enough ballast to root her to the ground, and she managed to slide towards the bottom of the stairs.

Meanwhile, the wind tore clods of grass and sod from Matt’s strange body, making him shorter and shorter by the minute. Matt opened his lopsided mouth and called out. “Hey, guys. Help me!” His voice came out much lower and louder than normal, and both his dad and Bahati turned in his direction.

Matt stepped into the center of the whirlwind. Bahati held up a hand and motioned for him to go back. The grass giant cocked his head to one side, and Bahati waved her hands and a message formed in the air in swirls of snow.

“You are too large for the stairs.”

Matt nodded and stepped back into the main force of the wind. Bahati waved her hands in a rapid succession of movements and the snowflakes reformed into a message in front of his dad’s face.

“Be ready to drag her out.”

Matt’s grass form shrunk until he was only slightly taller than Neil. Bahati nodded vigorously and the two of them grasped Matt’s grassy arms and pulled. They dragged an exhausted Matt towards the shelter of the stairs and collapsed in a heap on the bottom steps.

Just then, Bahati’s creatures left and the whirlwind returned to its full force. After taking a second to catch his breath, Matt began his arduous trek up the stairs. Every stair felt like scaling a sheer cliff face, but the beckoning glow of the star portal above spurred him on, promising a wonderful finish line.

When Bahati, started to falter, Matt lifted her from her feet and tucked her under one arm. He tried to do the same with his dad, but found that he could not budge him. The two of them reached the portal first, leaving his dad to trudge up the stairs alone in his heavy armor.

When at last his dad stood at the final step, he paused for a moment, trying to catch his breath. “Maybe,” he called. “Being a knight in shining armor isn’t all that great after all.”

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