This is weird, he thought. He fluttered up near the shadowy ceiling of a long hallway. His cell sat at one end while another door stood half open at the other end. The drone exited his room none the wiser to Check’s plan. He followed the drone down the hall, using the drone’s bulk to slip into the room behind him. Check made a mad flap for cover in the shadows of a corner, hoping nobody saw him.
The large square room had wood paneled walls, shag carpet, and a single door. In the corner opposite him, Ani sat in a very comfy-looking chair. The elder seemed tired, fatigued. An angry man stood next to him: the Thief.
“If you don’t find these stupid children,” Ani muttered with his eyes closed, “then I am going to make you very sorry.”
“I understand, sir,” the Thief said professionally in his deep, operatic voice. “They are protecting themselves from my gaze. I don’t know how.”
Thank god, Check thought. At least they’re safe for now.
“It’s that damn book!” Ani roared. “The verboten glyphs are too powerful to be in the hands of such stupid kids.”
“What are we supposed to do then, sir?”
Ani and the Thief began bickering and complaining, so Check blurred into a tiny black mouse. He scurried along the base of the wall until he faced the door. It had five knobs lining the left side. All five knobs were silver and each emblazoned with a different glyph.
Check observed. The same drone as before seemed to be doing his feed rounds. Each time he came and went, Ani conjured a tray of food for him and then he used a different doorknob. After a few minutes, Check knew that all but two knobs went to dark tunnels. And then the door open to bright light.
A new drone came in. “Sir, he’s here.”
“Send him in,” Ani said.
The drone left and Check knew the knob he needed to escape.
A man came in with a girl by his side. He was short, stout, with a fat head and a tiny face. He wore a dapper suit that fit his roundness well. A top hat adorned his head. And he held a twinkling clear orb in his hands protectively. The girl held a similar orb, but hers was pink and shined more than twinkled. She wore a similar suit as well, fit to her small frame. Her black hair was cut on a severe line right along her jaw. She looked mean.
“Do you know what I need from you?” Ani asked.
“You did tell me before,” the man replied. He spoke like Check imagined a hog might speak.
“And what did I tell you?”
“Keep an eye out for the child with the wish glyph.”
“That’s right. I hope you don’t let him get away. He’s proven more troublesome than I expected.”
The fat man drew himself up indignantly. “I hope you don’t think you can threaten me.”
Ani’s eyes narrowed. “You do know how powerful I am, don’t you?”
“We have elders of our own, you know!” the girl spouted in a screechy wail.
“Well put, my little princess,” said the fat man.
Ani growled and sneered. “I hate children, Norris. I’ve told you that before.”
“I don’t care, Ani. You see Olive, here, needs to learn the family business. She’s quite good already.”
“Oh, shut your mouth,” Ani griped. “I don’t need to hear you gush over your daughter. Just find the child I need, okay?”
“Yes, yes,” said Norris. “I can handle it.”
Norris and Olive started to leave, but paused at the door. The man had a fat smile stretched across his round face. “Pleasure doing business with you, as usual.”
Light flooded the room for a moment as they left.
Ani grumbled. “I hate that man.”
“I know you do, sir,” the Thief coddled. “What should we do now?”
Ani sighed, obviously fed up with his inability to find Josh. Check smiled inwardly. Seeing the enemy so frustrated gave him hope that they’d find a way to win this battle.
Suddenly, something hit the wall and bounced to the middle of the room. Check’s mouse eyes grew wide.
“I take it you haven’t deciphered the boy’s book yet,” the Thief observed.
“It’s impossible!” Ani shrieked. “Only a chimera can read it! It’s a waste! We might as well dispose of the child.”
The Thief gasped. “No, sir. The more we hold over Josh’s head, the more leverage we have.”
“I hate that the power of these children has stymied my own!”
Just then, the entire room shook, as if a bull had charged right into the outside wall. Ani and the Thief looked at each other suspiciously. In that moment of distraction, Check made his move. He scurried across the room, blurred into a boy to grab his book, and then bolted for the door.
“You let him escape!” Ani cried.
Check could feel the Thief coming at him, which distracted him, and when Luna came barreling through the door, the two of them fell into a heap. Sunlight poured into the room.
“Luna!” Check cried.
“Check!” Luna cried. “You’re okay!”
“For now. Look out!”
Luna’s head whipped around to regard the Thief. She quickly jumped up and floored him.
“Where are Josh and Alice?”
“Out there. Let’s go. Run!”
“Get them!” Ani shouted furiously.
Check scrambled out the door with Luna in tow. They ran down a long stone corridor toward the light. Check glanced back to find the Thief and a handful of drones on their tail.
“How are we going to get away?” he asked.
“Josh and Alice have a trap set,” Luna explained. “You’ll see.”
When they finally emerged from the tunnel, Check noticed Josh and Alice flanking the opening.
“Do it!” Luna ordered as she slowed and stopped.
A flash blinded Check for a moment. He looked down into a seemingly bottomless hole shaped in a semicircle against the tunnel mouth. A couple drones didn’t stop in time and plummeted into the void. The Thief came to the edge of the hole. He glared menacingly, but the kids only laughed.
Another flash saw the hole fill with water.
“Ah, you idiots!” the Thief jeered. “Now we’ll swim across!”
Alice clapped her hands together and a pair of giant shadows appeared in the water. “Megalodons!” she shouted. “Have fun!”
Check grinned as Alice slammed into him with a massive hug. She had her blond hair in curls, a pretty violet dress pressed nicely and tears in her eyes.
“I was so worried,” she sobbed.
Check’s eyes watered as well, this feeling of friendship building his confidence and happiness to levels he’d never experienced before. Josh approached the three of them smiling.
“Thanks for saving me,” Check said. “I know it was you who planned this.”
Josh shook his head. “We all did,” he assured him.
Alice produced a pendant and hung around Check’s neck.
“What is it?” he asked, examining the silver glyph attached to a silver chain.
“Josh made it,” Alice explained. Check noticed the same pedant hanging on all of them.
“It’s a Verboten Glyph,” Josh said. “It wards us from any intrusive glyphs. That includes the Thief’s ability to see us anywhere.”
“That’s awesome!” Check cheered. “What’s next then?”
“Back to my house. We’ll fill you in on the plan.”
“Hold on,” Josh said as he placed a glyph on the ground. The four friends stood hand in hand around the glowing magic. When Josh stepped on the glyph, the four of them were standing in a nice suburban living room.
“Oops,” Luna muttered as she caught a sleeping Josh. She placed him caringly on the couch.
“He still falls asleep if he travels too far,” Alice said.
“Where was I?” Check asked.
“Some place in Finland,” Luna explained. “It didn’t take long for Josh to locate you. But we spent two days planning the rescue.”
“I was frozen for two days!” Check grabbed at his rumbling belly. “I’m starving.”
“Let’s order some pizza,” Alice suggested.
“Can’t you conjure something?”
“We’re not using glyphs unless necessary,” Luna explained. “The pendants will keep us hidden, but if Ani concentrates hard enough, he’ll know if we use glyphs. We learned the technique from the book of Verboten Glyphs.”
“Luckily,” Alice went on, “most of the million dollars that Josh wished for before he came to the mansion is still here.”
“Oh, okay,” Check breathed. “Order me a meat lover’s.”
Josh sat up groggily. He could hear his friends chatting in the kitchen. Still, transport glyphs gave him a horrible headache. Not to mention the nausea. The smell of pizza didn’t help either.
Josh let himself enjoy the feeling of having three incredible friends. He’d never had many friends in school, so this was a treat. Plenty of times since he arrived at Yadwiga Mansion, Josh had been grateful for Alice, Check, and Luna. This situation with Ani had become severe, especially since he’d kidnapped Josh’s parents and Lee, but Josh had a very good feeling they would prevail.
He joined his friends in the kitchen. Since the nausea had subsided, he partook in the pizza and soda. He sat next to Luna.
“Did you guys fill Check in?” he asked.
“Yes,” Alice answered.
“I still think we should conjure our winter gear before we go through the door.”
Check nodded as he ravenously tore into a piece of pizza.
“Yes, Check agrees with you,” Luna said. “He convinced us.”
“Great.” Josh paused to sip some soda. “Because Ani will detect us here and then lose us when we go into the snow.”
“Yeah, we get it,” Alice snapped.
Josh huffed. “Well, I’m just saying, you guys did harass me like crazy over this.”
“Oh jeez,” Luna grumped. “Stop the crybaby stuff.”
“All right,” Alice said quickly. “Before we get into a big fight, I’m going to take Check out back and go over the glyphs we learned the last two days.” She abruptly grabbed Check’s wrist and led him out of the kitchen to the back yard.
Luna looked at Josh with a smirk. “She just wants some alone time with him.”
“I know,” Josh replied laconically.
“Eww! Who do you think you are?”
“I’m the leader. I know everything.”
Luna suddenly burst into laughter. “You…are…not…tough, mean or arrogant. Don’t try to be.”
“Oh, I forgot,” Josh exaggerated. “You are all those things.”
“Hey!” Luna gave Josh a light punch to the arm.
“Ow! Come on! You’re too strong to do that!”
Luna sniffed, feigning sadness. “Aw…poor baby.”
“I’m outta here,” Josh snapped, grumpily jumping out of his chair and heading toward the front door. Girls are so weird, he thought.
As Josh started down the street toward the elementary school where he planned to relax on the playground, Alice and Check came out of the back yard and followed him. Josh glanced back to see Luna emerging from the house as well.
He sighed. This was normal. He’d believed that his life before glyph writing had been normal. He still believed it had been. But living at the mansion had obviously been abnormal. But now, for the short time before they continued their adventure, all four of them had a chance to be normal again. Check and Luna could be normal for the first time.
Josh had never known any girls in school, so the feelings slithering around in his heart and mind were all new to him. He found himself excessively desiring Luna’s presence. Sometimes he even became sad if she was in a different room of the house for too long. Even thinking about her pitch black hair or her flashing verdant eyes gave him chills. He didn’t quite understand the feelings instilled in him by Luna’s mere existence. He did know that he would put himself in danger to keep her safe.
Josh stopped walking and turned to watch his friends catch up to him. Luna wore a bright teal dress with a white ribbon around her waist. The bow on the back of the dress matched the bow in her ponytail. Without warning, Josh stepped right up to her and wrapped her in a serious hug. She was still taller than him, though he hoped a growth spurt might remedy that soon.
Luna liked to complain, but she couldn’t complain about a hug, so she embraced Josh lovingly. After a moment, Alice and Check joined the hug.
“I love you guys,” Josh said.
“Where are we going?” Check asked.
“A playground five blocks straight that way.”
They separated as Josh pointed down the street.
“We should play a little,” he went on. “We are kids. Let’s race! On your mark, get set…” Josh took off, leaving his friends behind in protest.
While evening approached and sunlight waned, a furtive shadow lied motionless in the bushes beside a playground. Four children frolicked ignorantly about. The fox that watched them remained completely still as it had no goals save to learn about the children. Though killing these four kids would prove a pleasurable experience, the fox needed to decide which of the four were disposable and which he needed to capture. He had no choice in this matter.
The fox’s tribe needed help. They were dying. Their only option was to work for food and money. Their bloodline had failed for too many generations and now they had to work for the Ancient simply to sustain their children.
“I totally owned you,” cried the brown-haired boy.
“I never played before!” screamed the blond-haired boy.
“It’s getting late,” the blond-haired girl said. “We should get home and get some sleep. Tomorrow is the start of a long adventure.”
“Alice is right,” said the brown-haired boy. “Let’s get out of here.”
The fox watched the children leave the park. He wondered why the Ancient hadn’t given a description of the child with the wish glyph. If he knew what the child looked like, he could have just grabbed him and been done with it. The Ancient seemed to have such a high level of disdain for children that he refused to even remember what they look like.
When the children had left the playground, the fox stepped out of the shadows into the moonlight. A quick thought caused him to blur into a small black cat. If he could get close enough to the children, then he could learn all about them.
On silent paws, the small black cat scampered away.
To be continued…
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