“We’d better find some Tep leaves - and quick,” William smiled. “The old guy needs a smoke.”

Faraday took the silver compass from his pocket and flipped back the lid releasing the Seek-Wasp. He asked it to locate the Craggy Canyon. The Seek-Wasp fluttered about the room.

While it worked out the most direct route, Zach looked at his friend William and said, “Do you think we’re doing the right thing by going in search of these Boulder people?”

“What other choice do we have?” William shrugged, staring at Zach through his glowing lenses. “Cribbot isn’t here, so I guess the next place to look would be the canyon. Maybe this Boulder person will know where he is?”

“Okay we leave at sundown,” Zach said, turning away and climbing the stairs.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Wally Willabee led Willow through the forest. It was quiet. The moon cut through the canopy of leaves above them in sporadic shafts and lit their way. Neither Wally nor Willow spoke. She wasn’t completely comfortable in her new skin. Without the long braids of hair hanging from her cheeks and hands, she felt naked, even though she was clothed. Her skin felt too exposed. She looked at her long, slender fingers as she stepped into a shaft of moonlight. The fingernails were cut short and painted red. Who had ever heard of such a thing? Willow wondered. Red painted nails indeed. She much preferred her long, ivory-looking fingernails.

They reached the edge of the forest and stood on the crest of a great valley which cut through the hillsides like a deep cut in the land. The wind blew hard and cold about them, Willow’s new blond hair whispering about her face and neck. She brushed it aside so she could see down into the valley.

“That’s where we need to go,” Wally finally spoke, and pointed into the distance.

“What’s down there?” Willow asked.

“The station,” he said.

Before Willow had the chance to ask anything else, Wally was making his way down the hill. Moonlight filled the valley, giving the appearance that it was covered with a lake of silver water. The trainers that Willow was now wearing crunched over the uneven ground, and they felt uncomfortable. She wondered what her new toes looked like. Were they painted red, too?

At the bottom of the hill, Wally led her into the valley. They hadn’t gone far when Willow saw something shining through the grass beneath her feet. She stopped and toed some of the grass apart. There were tracks of some kind which lead away into the distance.

“We need to follow the tracks,” Wally told her, and set off again.

Walking between the two sets of rails, Willow followed him. The tracks spiralled downwards, twisting between the hills and gorges. Wildflowers and weeds grew tall between the rails, and Willow wondered how long it had been since any kind of vehicle had travelled over them. She had heard of the Great Wasteland Railroad in Endra but had never seen it. Often she had wondered if it was just a myth – a story that the folk from Endra liked to tell as they made camp in the Howling Forest at night. She had heard the tales of how a beast called the Scorpion Steam ran along these tracks, moving at great speeds, thick black smoke pouring from its funnel. Although she had enjoyed listening to these stories, she had never really believed them. But now as she walked between the two sets of silver tracks, she wasn’t so sure anymore.

“We’re nearly there,” Wally turned and said to her. His clean-shaven face looked deathly pale in the moonlight. Wally looked ill as a human. He seemed to have lost some of his spark. She preferred him as a Noxas.

Willow looked again in the direction that Wally was pointing, and in the distance she could see a squat-looking building set alongside the tracks. Willow followed Wally until they reached a slope made of grey stone. It was flat and smooth, and led up onto the platform. Halfway along was the building that Willow had seen in the distance. It was made of grey stone, and it looked old and tired as if it hadn’t been occupied for many years. It seemed like it had been forgotten about. Outside the building there was a weather-beaten bench made of wood, and it looked as if it might just collapse at any moment. Next to this there was a pole which stretched high above her. Attached to it was a wooden sign which swung back and forth in the wind. The rusty hinges which held it in place creaked and made a squealing noise as if in need of some oil. Willow looked up at the sign and read the faded lettering. Welcome to the Great Northern Railway, it read.

Willow looked back at Wally, who stood by a wooden door fixed into the front of the small building. “What is this place?” she asked him, brushing her hair from out of her eyes again.

“It’s a disused railway station,” he smiled.

“Why have you brought me here?”

“I want to show you something,” he said, pushing open the door and stepping inside.

Willow approached the door. It had once been red like her fingernails, but the paint had now mostly flaked away, revealing the knotted planks of wood beneath. She stepped through the doorway, and apart from the moonlight which spilled in through the dirty windows, it was dingy looking. Willow peered into the gloom and could see swathes of spider webs hanging from the ceiling like ancient chandeliers. Looking about at the worn leather-covered seats, Willow guessed that she was standing in some kind of waiting room. Then to one side she saw a small office. Like the door to the station, it was made of wood and had once been painted red. There was a glass panel in the front of it. Above the small window was written the words: Ticket Office. Willow crossed the waiting room and peered through the glass. On the other side of the window she could see a counter with two drawers set into it. One of these was partially open and it looked to be filled with rusty-looking coins and some strips of paper. Willow tilted her head to one side so she could read what was written on the tiny slips of paper. Each of them had the word Ticket written on them.

“So people do really travel on machines which run on rails?” Willow said, turning to look at Wally.

“Oh, yes,” he smiled. “The machines are called trains,” he smiled.

“I thought the tales of machines racing across the land were just stories,” she said.

“Like many other Noxas, you have spent your life living in the Howling Forest,” Wally said with a hint of sadness. “Can’t you see now why I left? There is more to life than what lives amongst those trees. I have discovered so much more, Willow Weaver, than you could possibly imagine.”

“Like what?” Willow asked.

With his eyes sparkling, he stepped towards her and said, “I know why the worlds are overlapping. I know why there are so many doorways appearing. I know why they have shifted and no longer stay still.”

“Why?” Willow asked him.

“The six-clicks,” he said.

“The six what?”

“The six-clicks, or that’s what I call them,” he started to explain. “Six people, who made six decisions, and pushed the six levers out of place.”

“What levers? What people? What are you talking about?” Willow shook her head.

Stepping to one side, Wally said, “These levers.” He stood before six long levers that jutted from the floor just to the left of the ticket office. They had wooden handles, and like everything else in the remote station, they were covered in dust. On the wall above each lever was written the words, Push and Pull.

“What are they?” Willow asked him, looking and sounding confused.

“They control the points,” he said as if she should have known exactly what he was talking about. Noticing the look of utter bewilderment on her face, Wally smiled and said, “Let me explain. The levers control the points on the tracks outside. They control the points on the tracks which keep everything running smoothly – on time – to the schedule that has been planned.” Wally took Willow by the hand and led her across the waiting room to one of the leather-covered seats. Sitting beside her, he continued.

“Like any railway, it needs to run on time, all the trains are to pass each other at certain times and points. To achieve this, the tracks have points which are controlled by levers. The levers get pushed or pulled at certain times and in a certain order so those trains never collide – never crash! We are just like those trains, Willow. Each one of us is running on our own set of tracks, which, to a degree, have been mapped out for us. We stop at certain points and get off to have a look around to explore new places, but we always get back on and follow our track. The points are switched for us so we never ever collide – crash – into someone or something that we aren’t meant to. But what if those levers got pushed or pulled when they shouldn’t have been?” Wally asked her, his smile fading.

“Then we would crash,” Willow breathed, trying to understand exactly what it was that he was telling her.

“You’ve got it!” Wally said. “We would crash, collide, derail – whatever you want to call it. That’s what’s happened. Someone pushed their lever out of place – they did something – made a decision that caused us to derail.”

“Who?” Willow asked him.

“Your son, William,” Wally said. “The day he opened the box – he pushed a lever – it clicked out of place. He changed the points on the tracks and our world derailed. Throat came out of the desert, imprisoned the Queen...do I need to go on?”

“No,” Willow whispered, shaking her head. Then looking at him, she added, “How does William push the lever back into place?”

“He doesn’t,” Wally said. “Zachary Black pushes it by taking the box to the Queen.”

Sitting quietly for a moment, Willow thought about everything that Wally had told her. Then slowly, she lifted her head, and looking at him she said, “You said there were six people who had made six decisions, who had pushed their levers out of place. Who are the other five? Won’t they have to push their levers back into place, too?”

“They will if they want their lives – their worlds – to get back on the rails,” Wally said. “But they don’t concern us. They come from a different place – a different when.”

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