The “X” glowed immediately, brightly, like sunlight at dawn.
Josh cried out in pain. He clutched his left wrist with his right hand and buckled over onto the ground. He screamed. He wailed. His hand burned like he had stuck into the core of the sun. Josh clenched his eyes shut as tight as he possibly could.
And then the pain was gone.
Startled, Josh sat up where he had been lying. He looked around in a daze. How long had he been lying there?
He was still in the fifth floor hallway. His friends were around him. Luna sat to his left. Alice sat to his right. Check sat in front of him. All four of them were outlined in a glowing white light. The three drones and one more man stood around them looking down contemplatively.
“Let me see that hand,” the muscular drone demanded.
“Don’t open your hand,” Luna quickly said. “Don’t worry, they can’t touch us. You used the wish glyph. They can’t put their hands on us. How about that?”
“Pretty impressive,” Alice said.
Josh looked at Alice and Check, hoping they hadn’t been harmed.
“Don’t worry, Josh,” Check assured him. “They had each of us cornered, but didn’t get their hands on us before you used the wish glyph.”
Josh sighed with relief. “Oh, thank god. I’m glad I managed to use it. Even if I did tattoo myself in the process.”
The unfamiliar fourth man glared deviously at Josh. He looked very much like the Thief, tall, thin, pointed. He didn’t resemble Lee very much. “Show me your palm, child,” he hissed. He sounded just like Josh imagined a snake to sound if it could talk. His voice oozed venomous and conniving.
But Josh swiftly resolved to not give a single inch to this man. “Not a chance, jerk,” he spat.
Check laughed. “It’s fun to talk like that because they can’t touch us.”
“I know,” Alice agreed with a chuckle. “It’s a shame we can’t be invincible all the time. We’d never have to worry about these goons again.”
Josh smiled. He remembered then that Luna still wore her dress and ponytail, that all of her tattoos were showing. “Luna, are you okay?” he asked worriedly.
The black-haired girl shook her head. “Yeah, yeah. It’s not a big deal, I guess.”
Alice waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, god. We both knew,” she said incredulously. “We’re four of the only five people that live in this house. It’s not hard to figure things out.”
Luna looked positively humiliated. “Really? No way did you guys know about the secret hallway.”
“Yeah, we did,” Check said, nodding.
“It’s not like we ever went to the meadow,” he continued. “We respected your privacy. Plus, we knew somewhat about your tattoos and your situation, so we didn’t want to –“
The fourth man’s face turned red all at once, his fury clearly boiling over. “I will destroy you!” he shouted as he raised a hand up seemingly to smite the kids.
“You’ll do no such thing,” someone said from the far end of the hallway near the staircase.
All four kids turned to look at the owner of the voice.
“I’ll dispose of all of you,” Lee spat perniciously. “Step away from the children.”
“Ah, Lee,” said the fourth man almost chidingly. “Come now.”
The drones charged. Josh watched in awe as Lee disposed of each of the drones as if the frightening men were merely lifeless scarecrows. The movements of the fight seemed almost ethereal as Lee easily handled each drone to the ground before slapping his hand on each one’s chest. He placed the same glyph on each drone, and each drone subsequently puffed into thin air. In a matter of seconds, the fourth man became the only enemy left in the mansion. But somehow, Josh knew this last man wasn’t nearly as much of a pushover as those three drones had been.
“You didn’t bring the Thief,” Lee commented.
“He’s off thieving,” replied the man. “What else would he be doing?”
“Well he’s definitely not here helping you. You obviously need it.”
“Don’t get so full of yourself, Lee.”
“I should say the same to you. You can’t take the kids. They’re protected.”
The fourth man groaned. “Yes, I know,” he complained as he childishly kicked his foot right through the translucent kids.
“So, what do you plan on doing?”
Ani rubbed his chin in thought. “I suppose the only logical thing to do would be to get rid of you. If you’re gone, then the next time I get into Yadwiga, you won’t be able to protect them.”
Lee clucked tauntingly. “Are you sure that makes a difference? It looks to me like Josh did the protecting himself.”
“Okay, I’m tired of this,” Ani said as he took off toward Lee. The two elder glyph writers came together in a mass of attacks. Ani’s momentum took the two right down the stairs and out of sight.
“Hurry!” Alice cried, jumping to her feet. “Let’s follow them!”
All four of them were up in a moment and following the fight. Lee and Ani had landed on the first floor. They were in the dining room, grappling the way Luna had done with the muscular drone. Josh figured Ani must have his share of enhancement tattoos as well in order for him to contend with Lee’s strength. The kids stood at the archway into the dining room watching with worried eyes. They didn’t want anything to happen to Lee, Check especially. But with the protection of the wish glyph around them, they couldn’t write any glyphs themselves. Their fingers passed right through the walls and floors. It seemed the only surface on their bodies still solid was the bottoms of their feet. They were no help to Lee. It was a painful realization.
The fight went back and forth, each elder seeming to have the upper hand at one point or another. Check barely watched, choosing instead to turn away. Luna, Alice, and Josh just stood still, enraptured. What else could they do? They were helpless.
Eventually, after nearly half an hour, Lee managed a maneuver that put Ani in a tight hold. Lee immediately looked to the kids.
“Listen to me,” he said through ragged breaths. “Don’t follow me. Don’t try.” Then he slapped his hand on the wall, leaving a glowing glyph behind. He wrestled with the struggling Ani, moving him inch by inch toward the front door of the mansion. Ani didn’t seem to have much energy left.
“What are you doing, Lee?” Luna asked.
“I have to get him out of here and make sure he doesn’t return.”
“How are you going to do that?” Check whimpered.
“I’m going to drag him out of here.”
“I’ll be back, children,” Ani hissed, and then Lee slapped a hand over his mouth.
“No, he won’t. Not if I have anything to do with it.”
“Lee!” Josh cried. “Let me use the wish glyph! I can banish him away forever!”
Lee shook his head as Ani jerked hard backward, slamming them both into the front door. “No, Josh. He’s too powerful. He won’t be affected. Only I could use the glyph to banish him, and I refuse to use it.”
“Enough of that! I didn’t bring you here so you could use the wish glyph and end up dead! The wish glyph brings only evil! It was banished from our minds for a reason. Try to understand, Josh. People may not want to be selfish. But having the power of a wish makes all people selfish. And that is not a good combination. The first elders knew this. A world full of endlessly powerful selfish people doesn’t last very long.”
Josh sighed and nodded. “Okay, Lee.”
“I left you a letter,” Lee said. “On the wall in dining room. Read it after I leave – ow!” Ani bit Lee’s hand.
“You will all suffer my hand!” he cried exhaustedly. “I’ll return. And I’ll take that glyph right out of your skin.”
Josh knew Ani spoke straight to him. He held no doubts that Ani just wanted him. But he also didn’t kid himself that Ani would hurt the others to get to him. Just seeing the look in the elder’s eyes told Josh the full extent of this man’s potential for unfriendly actions. It made him shiver. He was only thirteen years old and no match for an elder glyph writer. Josh had to hope and trust that Lee could handle Ani.
“Do as I say, kids!” Lee shouted over Ani’s ramblings. Lee then slapped a glyph onto the inside of the front door, threw the door open, and fell through the portal with Ani still in his arms. The door swung shut on its own with a loud slam.
“No!” Check cried. He grabbed at the doorknob, but before his hand reached the metal handle, the glyph Lee had left activated. The door shined for a moment before disappearing, the jamb, the hinges, the knob, the peephole, all of it.. At that same moment, the glow around the kids faded away.
“No!” Check screamed. “No! No!” He slammed himself backward into the door-less wall, and weeping, slumped to the ground.
Luna and Alice watched him sadly, but Josh went to the glyph Lee had left on the dining room wall. Yes, this seemed like a tragic circumstance. They were obviously not meant to ever leave the mansion. But Lee knew what he was doing. He also knew, Josh trusted, that staying in the mansion forever pretty much made them sitting ducks. If his plan was just to hole them up in here, certainly he knew that if Ani got away, then he would try to get back into the mansion. Lee had left them a letter in that glyph on the wall. It was a plan. For Josh, this finally seemed like a step forward after months of taking no steps in any direction at all.
Josh touched the glyph and a rolled letter dropped out of the wall into his hand. He read it to himself while Alice and Luna tried to get Check to his feet. Josh looked up from reading a couple of times and he found a small degree of hope in what he saw. Maybe if they could all pull together, then they would be able to brave this challenge as one. Seeing Luna so cooperative was a positive in Josh’s eyes.
Once he finished reading, he rejoined his friends.
“You guys want to read this?” he asked. They all looked up at him from where they sat on the ground.
Luna put her hand out wordlessly. Josh handed her the letter. They read it silently.
Alice sniffed resiliently.
Check made absolutely no indication that he was even literate. He simply stared at the letter, his eyes moving over and over it again and again as if he refused to believe what it said.
“This is good news,” Josh said plainly. “I believe this is progress.”
“Progress?” Alice asked. “How?”
“Now we have a goal. Let’s go find the door first.”
Josh helped each of his friends to their feet and the four of them started up the stairs. Lee said in the letter that there was a hidden door in the mansion. Another one other than the door to the meadow. He had put the door there for just this occasion. The letter explained that the door had been meant as somewhat of a last resort. Lee had hoped to subdue and imprison Ani, but it simply had not worked. Ani had become too powerful and had too many drones working for him. So now with the front door of the mansion gone, this hidden door would open once the children were ready to leave. Once they were strong enough to defend themselves, the door would take them wherever they wanted. Lee had explained that they should each go back to their homes and live their lives. If one day Ani or a drone approached them, then they would be prepared to fight, or at the very least, escape. Josh thought Lee’s plan was good enough; seriously, Lee couldn’t do much else for them. He had done his best. And Josh was content with Lee’s plans. But it was the last few lines of the letter that disconcerted him.
An uncomfortable silence had fallen over the halls of the mansion. Only the creak of the floorboards could be heard as the kids walked along. It felt like they would be able to hear anything that might be creeping around, which seemed like an advantage in case someone tried to sneak up on them. But Josh found the silence most unnerving. His imagination created worse things in his mind than were really there.
They found the anteroom off the fourth floor hallway. Josh led the group, with Alice and Luna nearly dragging Check along. The door to the anteroom looked the same as the door to the meadow hallway. The anteroom was nothing special: about six feet square with an unremarkable door on the opposite wall. The doorknob had a glyph written on it. But they also found something not mentioned in the letter.
In the corner of the room stood a lectern with a thick, leather-bound book on it. All the other books in the mansion looked old, but weren’t in nearly as bad condition as this book. It looked like it had been printed and bound thousands of years ago. And when Josh opened it up, he knew it to be thousands of years old at least.
“What’s it say?” Luna asked as Josh opened the book to the title page.
Josh took a deep breath. Just being in the presence of this book made it difficult for him to stand up straight. Power radiated from its pages.
“The Verboten Glyphs,” Josh answered in a hushed tone.
“What’s verboten mean?” Alice asked, pronouncing the second word very slowly.
“It means forbidden,” Luna sneered. “Read a dictionary.”
“Shut up, you little –“
“Cut it out,” Josh snapped. He turned the page.
The first entry of the Verboten Glyphs was a familiar one. All four of them let out a collective gasp. The entry showed no example of how to write the glyph, unlike all of the other books in the mansion. Any other glyph was clearly demonstrated on the page, but not this one.
Luna put her hand on Josh’s back. He shuddered. Her touch soothed him, but made him nervous at the same time. “Turn the page,” she said.
Josh did so.
Alice gasped alone this time. “The creation glyph,” she said. “Verboten? But why would it be in the conjuration books?”
“They didn’t think anyone would be able to use it,” Josh said.
“Lee said so himself,” Luna agreed. “Keep going.”
Josh turned the page. “The Automaton Glyph,” he read aloud.
“I know that glyph,” announced Check. The other three looked right at him with somewhat shocked expressions. They hadn’t thought he would be talking for a while. His cheeks burned red, his eyes puffy. He was in serious disrepair.
“What do you mean?” Alice asked gently.
“I’ve seen it before. On Mr. Tuff’s back, on his coat. I’ve tried to figure out what the glyph was before, but I just couldn’t find it in any book. And I’m not very good at recreating glyphs I see unless I can study them closely.”
“So what are you saying?” Luna asked.
“I’m saying Mr. Tuff is an automaton.”
“No way,” Alice jeered.
“No, no,” Josh said. “I think Check’s right. When Lee started not showing up on Sundays, I also stopped getting my meals from Mr. Tuff each day. He disappeared along with Lee. It makes sense.”
“Jeez,” Luna said with a laugh. “We were even more alone than we thought.”
“All right, guys,” Josh said seriously. “We obviously have a lot to read in this book. Why don’t we go down to the parlor and take turns reading out loud so we can all share the information in here.”
Luna threw her arms up. “Who cares what’s in there?” she cried. “None of us can use those glyphs except you, Josh.”
“So? Don’t you want to know what they are?”
She sighed. Josh smiled at her, trying to deflect the cynicism and negativity that normally saturated her thoughts. Luna still had her hair up in a little ribbon and she still had on her tangerine sundress.
“You look good in that dress, you know,” he said.
Acting as if she just noticed, Alice made a face of astonishment and said dramatically, “Oh my gosh, young lady, you are beautiful.”
“All right, all right,” Luna grumped. “Let’s go down to the parlor then.”
“No,” Check said angrily. “I want through this door right now. I don’t want to wait around for ten years until I’m too old to remember Lee. I want to save him now!”
“We can’t save him yet, Check,” Josh said. “We need to do what Lee told us to do.”
Check huffed, his cheeks growing redder by the second. “Maybe you can’t!” he cried, and then he attacked the door, grabbing the knob and twisting and tugging. The entire door seemed to almost rattle off its hinges, but after a minute of Check’s outburst, the door stood fast. As if embarrassed, Check whipped around to look at his companions.
“We’ll get through this, Check,” Alice said comfortingly.
“No, we won’t. I don’t care what it says in that stupid letter. I’ll learn everything I can. I’ll do what it takes to save Lee.”
“We all will, Check,” Josh snapped. He felt a little insulted that Check assumed they all wouldn’t want to help Lee. “Don’t get into this. Yeah, we know you’re close with Lee. And that’s fine. But don’t even think about letting your feelings take away from the task at hand. If we follow Lee’s instructions, we’ll have the power to save him.”
Josh and Check’s eyes locked together for long, tense moments. Even Luna, who wasn’t perturbed by anything at all, winced a few times in anticipation of the throttling that one of the boys was going to put on the other. Josh held his ground though. Eventually, Check backed away, lowering his eyes and sighing. Josh put his hand on Check’s shoulder.
“Come on,” he said gently. “Let’s get to understand what we need to do together. Then we can get started. I promise, Check, that we’re going to see Lee again. We’re all going to be reunited with him.”
“You promise?” Check said.
At that moment, Josh felt somewhat like his father. He was suddenly thrust back into that window of a few minutes when his parents were ushering him out of his old life. His father had promised that they would all be together again as a family. And now Josh promised the same thing to Check. Hearing his father’s voice in his head made Josh choke up. He longed to be with his parents once more. But now he had other tasks he must perform. It was because of Ani that Josh had been torn from his life and his family. It was because of Ani that they were all where they were now. And it was because of Ani that Lee’s life was in danger. So, as far as Josh could tell, it would need to be because of the four of them that everything get put back where it belonged.
“Yeah, Check,” Josh said confidently. He looked up at his three friends. “I promise.”