The weeks continued to pass, and nothing inside the mansion changed among the kids. Josh still spent most of his time with Alice, playing together and studying. Some nights he joined Luna in the meadow to study with her. He never saw Check unless the two were playing games in the newly dubbed “arcade.” The only thing that changed was Josh’s resolve to learn as much as possible. Luna’s words hadn’t fallen on deaf ears. He understood the unseen threat hovering over all of them could show itself at any time.
But then something happened that gave Josh insight into the future.
Just past the five-month mark at the mansion, Lee showed signs that a conflict loomed. Sunday morning brought the normal lesson for the kids. They sat in their customary seats and waited for Lee. It wasn’t abnormal for Lee to be late. Nor was it abnormal for Lee to look exhausted. But the time Lee spent doing whatever he did during the week started to really show.
Lee arrived that morning on time for once, but absolutely bedraggled. His clothes were torn, his hair a mess, his eyes bloodshot. He looked like he’d been living in a dungeon for the past few years. But he wouldn’t let the kids ask him anything. The less they knew the better, he always said. So they didn’t ask him anything. He briskly shooed them through their demonstrations and then left in a whirl. And this became the new habit.
Each consecutive Sunday after that, Lee showed up looking just a little bit more debilitated. And each Sunday, he forced the kids through their lesson before leaving. Subsequently, Check’s demeanor began to reflect Lee’s appearance. Obviously, Check loved Lee very much, Josh knew that, and seeing Lee in such a threadbare state did not sit well with him. He became even more closed off than he had been before, growing terribly angry with each passing Sunday.
This went on for a month and a half, six weeks of the kids having to see their protector in such a disarrayed state.
And then it stopped.
The seventh Sunday after Lee began deteriorating, he didn’t show up. The kids waited in the parlor all day. They all sat there together, each of them reading on their own, until the fabricated sun stopped shining through the fake windows. Eventually, Josh, Alice, and Luna went to bed, but Check couldn’t. He stayed in the parlor until he fell asleep on his couch.
The following week was the worst week of Josh’s life. Not one of them was in the mood to talk. Alice didn’t come out of her room. Check didn’t leave the couch in the parlor. And Luna didn’t leave the meadow. Josh tried to find Mr. Tuff several times, but the man proved nowhere to be found. At the usual meal times, Mr. Tuff didn’t even bring food out to the dining room. Josh eventually resorted to raiding the kitchen himself. The cabinets and refrigerator were empty. There was no food in the house. It occurred to Josh that Mr. Tuff must conjure the food he served, so Josh sat at the kitchen counter and conjured himself a sandwich. He produced his own meals for the rest of the week.
Without Lee there didn’t seem to be a goal anymore. Even though Josh knew what this meant, it was hard to compose himself into a state focused enough to study. Josh didn’t know what to do. For the rest of that week, he wandered around aimlessly. He’d learned so much since he arrived at the mansion. He’d found so many new feelings he didn’t even know existed. He’d found the best friend he’d ever known. He even got his first crush on a girl. But without Lee, it all seemed like the pieces of a model plane without any glue. Everything just sort of scattered.
Eventually, the next Sunday rolled around. All four kids waited expectantly in the parlor. An hour into waiting, they all gathered around the front door. Desolation hovered in the air around them, like a fog of ill temper. It only worsened when again Lee didn’t show. All the kids except Check returned to their individual rooms.
The week went on like the previous week until finally Sunday came again. This time, the kids didn’t even sit in the parlor. They stood in front of the door from the moment they each woke up.
They all arrived at the door at about the same time. Josh’s heart raced with anticipation. Hours passed with no sign of Lee. Clearly, Luna was fed up with all this waiting. She didn’t stay around for long. After only a few hours, she left the front door to return to the meadow. The other three remained. They wanted so desperately to see Lee again. He was the one staple to their experience that gave them hope for the future. Without him, what kind of hope did they have of returning to a normal life?
Josh nearly vomited at the sound of the doorknob rattling. The sickness came from two things. One: just the sound of someone coming through the door was enough; two: Lee never made any sounds when he came into the mansion.
The door clicked and swung open. Darkness behind the door. And then three figures materialized out of the black. They all looked like the Thief in the fact that they all similar tattoos. One was thick and muscular. One was extremely pale-skinned, like a mime. And one was short and stocky. All three of them grinned deviously, their eyes flashing with delight.
“Split up!” Alice cried, and she charged away toward the back of the mansion. Check went into the parlor to use one of the secret passages. Josh hauled it up the main staircase. He heard heavy footsteps following almost immediately.
Josh knew the secret passages of the house as well as anybody, but he thought if he could get a quick enough start up the main stairs, then he could fool whichever drone was following him. All he needed to do was get through the door to the meadow without being seen. Not only would it give him a chance to hide without fear of being discovered, but it would also give him a chance to get Luna with him.
Racing up the stairs, Josh looked behind him every so often to keep tabs on the drone following him. He managed a glimpse of the big muscular drone huffing his way in chase. Obviously strength didn’t always mean athleticism. Josh was lucky he got this drone after him, or he might not have a chance at the secret door without being seen.
Thoughts of Alice and Check’s safety came into Josh’s mind as he reached the fifth floor hallway, but all four of them were so independent that Josh had plenty of faith they could take care of themselves. Before going down the hall, he looked over the railing, making sure the drone still trailed far behind. The brute hadn’t even made it to the fourth floor yet. With something nearing giddiness, Josh jogged down the hallway, pushed the door open, and disappeared inside.
Luna was in her regular meadow spot, lying under the willows. She wore a tangerine sundress, her hair tied up with a ribbon of the same color. She noticed Josh running full force from the balcony, and she jumped up.
“Luna! Put something on your feet!”
“What?” she muttered.
Josh nearly crashed into her. “Put on your boots,” he said through heavy breathing. “Three drones have gotten into the mansion. We need to do something.”
“Oh my god,” Luna cried. She grabbed her boots and threw them on her feet before taking Josh’s hand and running toward the balcony with him. Josh explained as they ran how he had gotten up to the meadow before the drones got him.
A moment later Luna and Josh stood at the end of the hallway, their ears pressed against the secret door to hear anything that might be happening. Heavy familiar footsteps stomped by and the two looked right at each other.
“I think I can handle him,” Josh said hesitantly. “I…yeah, I can handle him.”
Luna shook her head. “I can handle him,” she said confidently.
“What? Are you crazy? What are you going to do?”
“I was tattooed to be a drone, remember?”
“Just watch,” Luna said. She pushed the door open, fearlessly stepping out into the light of the hallway. Josh stood behind her, making sure no one sneaked up on them. The muscular drone walked like a Sasquatch down the hallway. Luna fixed Josh with her emerald green eyes.
“If I get into a scuffle,” she said, “do you think you could help out without messing me up?”
“Scuffle?” Josh said incredulously. “What are you talking about?”
“Just answer the question!” Luna cried loud enough for the drone to hear. He did indeed hear, and had turned around to face them.
“Yes, yes! I can help!”
“Good.” With that, Luna broke into a full out sprint toward the man, who hadn’t changed his hulking gait one bit. Josh wondered for a brief moment how Luna felt about fighting in a little sundress, but she didn’t seem to notice. She ran at the muscular drone, making like she was just going to barrel into him. When she was halfway down the hall, Josh took off after her, keeping his mind sharp in case he could help her in any way.
Luna lowered her shoulder to block the drone away, and the drone opened his arms as if to catch her, no doubt thinking he would squeeze the life out of her in only seconds. But when the two came together, Luna was gone. She slid down between the drone’s legs. As she passed under him, she grabbed his right ankle. With superhuman strength, Luna slid up to her feet, flipping the drone face first onto the floor. The whole mansion seemed to shake with the impact. Thinking quickly, the drone kicked out, connecting with Luna’s stomach. She stumbled backward clenching her belly as the drone jumped up.
Obviously, Ani had tattooed strength glyphs onto Luna’s arms as well as glyphs to seal her writing power. Even though she seemed to be able to handle herself, Josh still wanted to help. He crept as close to the fight as he felt comfortable doing and then went to the wall. Luna and the drone had come together in sort of a stalemate, grappling with each other. Josh quickly wrote a glyph on the wall where he stood and slapped his hand onto it to keep it active.
“Luna!” he shouted. “Get him here! Try to slam his head into this glyph!”
Luna looked over to Josh and nodded determinedly. Now that she had more of an idea of what to do to this drone, she snapped into a more offensive maneuver. Being considerably smaller than the drone, Luna twisted about, seeming to fall right into the drone’s grasp, and then slithering away from him. Flustered, the drone swung a big fist at Luna’s face. She reacted instantly, leaning backward out of the way of the punch. Then she used the drone’s momentum to guide him all the way around so he was facing away from her. Josh saw her plan and he stepped away from the wall, his glyph glowing brightly. Luna wrapped her arms around the drone’s waist and forced him forward. The drone was in such a stupor and so off balance that he ran right into the wall. His head slammed into the glyph.
“Nice job, partner,” Luna said slapping Josh a high-five. “What kind of glyph is that? I didn’t get to see it.”
“It’s an augment glyph,” Josh replied proudly. “It’s sticky.”
The drone suddenly began squealing and grunting as he tried to pull himself free of the wall. Josh’s glyph was true though, and the drone had no chance.
“We should go look for the others,” Luna said.
Josh nodded, but jumped back a few steps when the drone tore himself free from the wall. With dust flaking from the block of building material on his head, the drone recalibrated his attack toward Luna and Josh.
“Crap,” Josh muttered. “I thought that would do it. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Luna said. “That was an awesome idea. This dude is just too strong.”
“Not strong enough that you can’t take him, though,” Josh offered. “You were impressive.”
“Thanks. It’s really all I’m good for. I can’t do much else to help except fight.”
“Well, you’re the only one of the four of us who can fight.” Josh and Luna’s eyes met. They shared a moment of closeness before the drone erupted.
“Shut your mouths!” he yelled. Then he charged again.
Josh tried to get out of the way, but the drone slapped him into the wall while Luna managed to duck under his outstretched arms. Luna and the drone faced each other, the drone shaking more plaster from the chunk stuck to his head.
“I’m gonna make you suffer, little girl,” intoned the drone with ferocity.
“Whatever,” Luna retorted in the manner of pre-teens.
The drone ran at her and attempted a solid punch, but Luna acted too quickly. She stomped the drone’s foot, causing him to pull up short in his attack. Then she pummeled him with punches to the midsection before thrusting a flat palm into his chest, sending him careening down the hallway.
Luna threw a smile at Josh before she chased after the fallen drone. Josh could barely move. His entire body hurt head to toe. Being thrown into a wall without any glyphs to protect him didn’t feel very good. As a thirteen-year old, he figured he probably shouldn’t be feeling pain like this. Thirteen-year olds generally get a pass when it comes to painful danger.
Josh couldn’t help admiring Luna’s tenacity, but her streak of success against the drone was about to end. Unfortunately for her, she was only a fourteen-year old girl, and though she was extremely strong, she was still little, with little hands and limbs. The drone managed to regain his feet, but Luna’s next attack fell upon an alert and ready enemy. The drone caught Luna’s little fist easily in his own. He yanked the girl into his arms, spun around once, and launched her down the hallway toward Josh. Luna’s body hit the floor and rolled in a heap. She stopped on her side only a few feet from Josh, and he immediately sprang into action. Working through the pain, Josh wrote a glyph in the air in front of him. When it began glowing, he slapped his hand onto it, and then slapped the glyph onto Luna’s leg. She instantly sprang up.
“What was that?” she cried.
“Another augment glyph, for healing,” Josh explained. Then he slumped back against the wall, the pain too much to handle.
“Thanks,” Luna said. She turned to face the drone for a new attack, but the drone was upon her too quickly. She dodged a few barrages, taking as much damage as she doled out. Luna and the drone sparred in the middle of the hallway for what seemed like forever, each one of them exchanging blows at an even rate. The drone attempted to grab Luna on several occasions, but she proved too serpentine for him. Unless he could surprise her, he didn’t stand a chance at actually grabbing her.
The fight lasted much longer than all of the previous exchanges, but eventually the drone got the better of Luna. She was strong, and quick because of her glyph enhancements, but the drone was enhanced as well. He grabbed the upper hand. He managed to back Luna all the way down the hall to the end where only a window and a table with a flower vase sat. Luna had no escape route.
Josh pulled himself up to his knees, blocked out the pain as much as he possibly could. He saw his friend being cornered. He saw the end coming for her. He couldn’t let that happen. Luna tried to feign a move to the right and then go left, but the drone stuck out his left arm and slammed her back against the window. Luna let out painful grunts and cries that brought tears to Josh’s eyes. Kids as young as his friends and him didn’t deserve to be in positions like this. What kind of monster could send out beasts like the drones to hurt children? Ani only wanted Josh. Why couldn’t the other kids be left alone?
With anger bubbling up inside of him, Josh managed to pull himself up to his feet. He needed to help Luna. She was as important to him as Alice had become, as important as his mother and father. He couldn’t let her be hurt any more, or even worse, killed. No, Josh couldn’t let that happen.
He brought something to the forefront of his memory. He brought a thought forward. He knew it would create unnecessary attention, but it would be worth it to save Luna’s life. He looked around trying to find something to write on. But that was a problem. He could use his finger to write on the wall or the floor, or even the air in front of him, but that would be bad. Writing the glyph in the open where anyone could see it would make thing much, much worse. He had no choice. He couldn’t jump into the fight to save Luna with physical strength. He had to do it.
Josh opened his left hand, palm up. He placed his right index finger into his palm. And he drew the wish glyph.