By the time Josh reached the river, exhaustion and sadness had crept into him. Despite his quick resolves to regroup and rescue Check, he felt more helpless than heroic.
Alice’s sobbing told him where she stood with Luna, and he joined them. They shared a long few minutes together just feeling the connection between them. If a serious clash with Ani was on the horizon, something needed to be done to increase their chance of success.
Unfortunately, they didn’t have the luxury of sitting around and commiserating. Ani’s drones could be tracking them right now. They needed to get to the end of the river quick.
“Luna, can you hear me?” Josh asked.
“Yes,” she replied to his right.
“Grab Alice’s hand and walk with me.” In a moment, Josh held Luna’s hand and the three of them started down the riverbank.
Uncertainty joined the other feelings mulling around in Josh’s head, making him dizzy and off balance. As the invisibility glyph wore off, the sudden appearance of his legs distracted him long enough to walk straight into the door.
Luna helped Josh to his feet. All three of them were visible once more.
Alice still sobbed. Her fair cheeks were flushed and streaked with tears. Josh embraced her lovingly, held her tight.
“Don’t worry,” he said softly. “We’ll rescue Check. Ani won’t do anything to him. He wants the book and he wants me. I don’t think he’ll do anything to him if he wants me.” Josh glanced up at Luna who was shaking her head.
“What?” Josh mouthed silently.
Luna shook her head harder and turned away. Josh didn’t care. He was just trying to improve Alice’s mood.
“Let’s get through this door,” he went on.
“And do what?” Luna grumped. “We’re helpless. And Ani has Lee, so…”
“Oh my god, shut up. Don’t be so negative. If we can hide enough to frustrate Ani, then we’ll have a better chance of surprising him.”
“What makes you think he’ll even leave this rift space?”
“Ani didn’t get his hands dirty until he thought he could get his hands on me. If I go away, out of his sight, he may return to his headquarters, wherever that is. We can attack him if he holes up again. And maybe save my parents or Lee too.”
“I think you’re dreaming.”
“What is your problem!”
Luna’s beautiful emerald eyes teared up all of the sudden just as her face contorted frighteningly. “If I can’t beat him, then who can? I’m strong! I’m fast! And I failed. I’m a failure. I’ve been a failure my whole life. I see a million different futures for everyone I meet and I can’t do anything to stop the bad things happening. And now there are actually people I care about and it’s just been proven to me that I can’t do anything about it!” She dropped to her knees and broke down crying.
Josh opened his mouth to speak, but it was Alice who spoke first.
“You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met, Luna,” she said steadily. “If you lose hope, I don’t know if we can beat Ani. We’ve all looked up to you for so long. We believe in you. We know you’ll always look over us even though we hate each other sometimes.”
Luna sniffed. She slowly looked up at Alice and Josh. “But I can’t beat him.”
Josh smiled. "Well, maybe you can. Maybe you think you can't because you see too much future and think you can't change any of it."
"How can I?" Luna cried.
Josh shrugged. "Maybe you should focus on one future to change instead of thinking you need to change all of them."
Luna looked down in consternation.
“Luna, none of us can beat him alone,” Alice added. “But together we can. We can save Check and we can beat Ani. We just need the right plan and enough knowledge.”
Luna sniffed again and stood up. A smile crept across her face. “I’m really happy,” she said slowly, “that we’re all together.”
“Me too,” Josh agreed.
“Me too,” Alice put in.
Josh jumped forward and hugged Luna tight. He held her for a minute before the three of them turned to face the door. Josh pulled it open to reveal a solid black portal.
“Let’s mentally prepare for anything,” Alice suggested.
“Once we figure out where we are,” Josh explained, “I’ll transport us to my house.”
“Sounds good. Let’s go.”
Alice eagerly stepped through followed by Josh and Luna hand-in-hand.
As freezing wind hit his face, high-pitched screaming also filled Josh’s ears. His breath suddenly came up short so he started breathing slowly, trying to keep himself from panicking.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Luna groaned, her hand still tight in his.
When Josh finally opened his eyes, he found the three of them freefalling a handful of thousands of feet up in the sky.
“Why didn’t the elder tell us about this?” he whined.
“Who knows? But this sucks.”
“What do we do? You seem a little too calm!”
Luna shrugged. “I’ll survive the fall. But you two won’t. Use the transport glyph.”
“I can’t. I have to know where I am and where I’m going. I have no idea where I am!”
Abruptly, the screaming cut out, leaving only the sound of their clothing flapping in the wind. Alice drifted into line with Josh and Luna.”
“How’s your voice?” Josh asked.
“Ha!” Luna laughed.
Alice threw her a dirty look, but forgot it quickly. “I have an idea! I put a ton of glyphs into these gloves.” She clapped her hands together to create a backpack that she slung across her back and fastened across her chest.
“A parachute!” Josh cheered.
When Josh and Luna had their own parachutes attached, the three kids spread out.
“I’ve never skydived before!” Josh yelled. “How do I use this thing?”
“Pull the cord,” Alice called.
Josh pulled it.
Five minutes later, the ground raced up at him. Luna crashed landed in the field below them while Alice conjured a slab of rock. She wrote another glyph on the rock and then tossed it to the ground. A large tank filled with foam cubes appeared where the rock had landed.
That’s clever, Josh thought. But what am I going to do? Luna’s crash looked painful.
Josh’s quick thinking brought him to a solution. He created a gust of wind that slowed his descent and placed him gently on the ground.
“That was awesome!” Alice cried as she and Luna joined Josh. “You used a creation glyph.”
“Yeah, I did.”
“You’re pretty good with them,” Luna added. “I have to believe the powers of the earth would be too much for Ani.”
“We need to understand the limitations of glyphs against Ani,” Josh said. “If there are certain glyphs that can stop him, then we need to learn them.”
“That knowledge must be through the snow,” Luna said. “Lee told us to go there for a reason.”
“I think you’re right.”
“But we need something to get us by for now,” Alice put in. “We need Check back first.”
“Yeah. I have some ideas,” Josh announced. “First, we need a map. Then we need the gloves to the snow. Then we find and rescue Check.”
When the glyph hit Check, his vision went dark. He plummeted through blackness, freefalling down a bottomless, endless void. Whatever had happened to him had struck his mind of all thoughts. But the time he spent mindless, falling down the rabbit hole forever, ended quite suddenly.
The magic wore off to flood Check’s senses with light and sound. He writhed in pain as his body shifted between animal and human. He’d been frozen as a panther, but without his mind to keep his form, the magic of the morph glyph had been trapped as well. Now the magic tore at his substance. The morph glyph hovered about him for long minutes before finally fading away and releasing him.
Check breathed rapidly, coughing and hacking as he tried to regain his composure.
He looked around. The cell he lied in had nothing resembling an escape route. Ani knew that Check could become anything, even a tiny little mouse or bird. The room was sealed nice and tight. But the tray with stale food on the floor made Check think that the door must be opened at least once a day. And from the looks of the food, the next meal might be soon.
He decided to experiment with glyphs to see if Ani had this cell warded at all. He stood up to write a shrink glyph on the door. Glowing marks didn’t even appear on the solid metal surface.
“As expected,” he muttered. “I’ll have to take a different route here.”
Check picked up the tray of food and turned it over, letting the browned apple slices and bread hit the floor. The glass of water shattered. He attempted another shrink glyph. The sweeping lines of magic began to glow and the tray shrunk half a percent.
Check grinned mischievously while his head filled with thoughts of turning into a bear and ravaging the halls of this prison, but then he figured something else might be better.
Since he could use glyphs, he had an out, but if Ani was keeping him in the same place as Josh’s parents and Lee, then he might be able to gain some knowledge. Ani had obviously taken plenty of precaution, though the food tray was a mistake. He still expected that Ani had prepared enough to keep Check separate from the others. He really wanted to get his claws into Ani and the Thief. But he knew that would be foolish. He would lose that fight as had been proven to him when he went after Ani before.
Check wanted to know what was going on. He’d wait for the drone to come and then follow him out of the cell. First things first, he needed to create a simulacrum to fool the drone. Luckily, Josh had spent the better part of a year teaching Alice and him this Verboten Glyph. It took more thought than anything Check had ever done. He needed to build a perfect copy of himself and then have the glyph project it into space.
The simulacrum took him ten solid minutes to complete. When his finger came away from the tray, an image of himself lying on his side in the corner of the cell appeared. Then Check dropped to his knees in exhaustion.
“Wow,” he gasped. He’d never worked so hard on a glyph before. But a drone could walk in at any time, so Check needed to get into position. He placed the tray on the ground and produced the morph glyph easily.
Check perched as a tiny black bird on a small ledge created by the doorjamb.
Even though the very present desire to pay Ani back throbbed in his mind, Check’s thoughts inevitably went to his friends. Josh had become the leader. He was so smart and loyal. He was braver than Check ever thought he’d be. Luna finally showed her true colors, beautiful, fearless, sharp. She’d been hiding behind her hair for too long. And Alice. He’d grown very close to her over the past few years at Yadwiga Mansion. He cared a great deal for her. He cared for all three of his friends.
But Check was determined to turn this imprisonment into something beneficial. When the door finally opened, he slipped out behind the drone that came in.