His mind had been fading, shutting down into a blissful state of unconsciousness so he didn’t have to feel the excruciating instant of pain when his body smacked into the ground. But everything changed in a sudden rush of intense cold and wetness.
Water engulfed him, filling his lungs as he instinctively sucked in air at the shock of impact. As he felt his feet slam into the river bottom—hard enough to almost break his legs—he sputtered and coughed, his instincts trying to prevent him from taking another breath and killing himself. The next instant, he felt a massive arm grab him around the chest and pull him through the water.
But not up—not toward air.
The arm pulled him to the side, skimming his body along the sandy river bottom.
Paul had one moment to wonder if he was dead before everything grew very dark.
Tick shot into the open air away from the castle, his blood freezing at the sight of countless fangen everywhere. The air was full of them, defying gravity as they flew with their pale, weak-looking wings. More crawled and ran across the grounds, an endless army of ants. Not knowing where to go or what to do, Tick frantically searched the sky and the ground for any glimpse of his friends.
A flash of red far below caught his eye. One of the Windbikes, in the river.
And no sign of anyone near it.
His heart sinking faster than he could ever fly, Tick slammed on the handlebars and catapulted toward the ground.
After swimming under the thick stone arch from which the slow-moving river exited the Lemon Fortress, Mothball kicked with all of her might toward the surface, dragging both Sofia and Paul in her arms. Desperate for air, she could only imagine how her two little friends were doing, if they still lived.
Her head broke through the surface with a loud splash; she sucked in the most refreshing breath of her life. Even as she did so, she pulled up with her arms, bringing Paul and Sofia’s faces above the water line.
Mothball’s heart almost leaped out of her chest when both of the kids coughed and sputtered for air. With an inexplicable laugh, she dragged them to the side of the river where she helped them climb out and onto a wide stone walkway. Paul fell over, spitting and sucking, spitting and sucking. Sofia seemed better, taking in slow, deep breaths as she looked around, her eyes wide.
They stood next to the river in a long, dark tunnel that delved in one direction for what seemed like eternity, no end in sight. On the other side, the river disappeared under a thick stone wall, flowing outside the castle wall. Next to that stood the huge wooden doors they’d seen from the outside. They were still halfway open and letting in enough light to prevent them from being in complete darkness.
“This is where those creatures came from,” Sofia whispered.
“Best be glad they’re out there, now,” Mothball muttered. She pulled the Barrier Wand out of the huge belt loop where she’d stuck it for safekeeping.
Paul had recovered enough to stand up, his chest still heaving as he fought to catch his breath. “What happened to Tick and Sato?”
As if in answer, they heard Tick shout from outside the doors. “Mothball!”
His Windbike had flown down from somewhere above; he hovered just outside, Sato on the back.
“Wait a minute,” Paul said. “I thought Sato was driving the bike.”
“Quick!” Mothball yelled, ignoring Paul. “Get in ’ere!”
She saw Tick obey immediately, shooting the Windbike through the narrow space between the half-open doors. Even as he did, Mothball grabbed the long ropes hanging on the inside of the huge slabs of wood that served as handles to pull them closed.
“Help me!” she yelled.
As the others moved to her side and pulled with her, Mothball looked outside. Just before the doors slammed shut with a loud boom, she saw the hideous sight of countless fangen charging directly for them.
The Golden Button
Mothball pulled an enormous plank of wood down into the slot that locked the double doors. “Won’t hold ’em for long, bet yer best buttons.” She looked at Tick, who’d parked the Windbike and now hugged his friends like they’d just won the Cricket tourney. “Save the celebratin’ if you don’t mind. Here.” She held up the Barrier Wand, gesturing for him to take it.
“What?” Tick stammered. “Here? Now?”
“’Less you’d be wantin’ to invite the fangen in first.”
Tick frowned. “But I thought we had to get back to the battleground.”
Something heavy slammed into the doors from the other side, followed by a thunder of heavy thumps and nerve-grinding scratches. The fangen wanted in.
“Only if we’d be wantin’ Master George to grab us in a few hours,” Mothball said. “No time for that now. It’s up to you.”
Without waiting for a response, she tossed the Wand in Tick’s direction.
Tick caught the long golden rod with both hands, scared to death he’d drop it and break it. He hefted it in his hands, surprised at how light it felt.
“So . . . I just have to adjust the controls and poof—we’re safe?” he asked Mothball.
“Be quick about it—and make no mistakes on the dials or we may end up in the wrong end of a beluga whale, we will. Once you’re set, we all need to be touchin’ it, then ya simply push the button.”
A crashing thunk made them all jump. Tick saw the head of a huge axe embedded in the wood of the right door. With an ear-piercing squeal, the huge sliver of metal was yanked back out. A second later it landed again, throwing a shower of splinters all over the stone walkway. It disappeared and a red eye peeked through the rough slit, followed by a gurgly scream.
“Uh, Tick,” Sofia said. “Maybe we should, I don’t know, hurry?” She threw every ounce of sarcasm she could muster into the last word.
“Yeah, man,” Paul agreed. “Giddyup.”
“They’re almost through . . .” Sato said, his voice taut.
“Okay,” Tick whispered as he knelt down on the stone, holding the Barrier Wand in front of him delicately, like he held in his hands the most priceless artifact of the ancient Egyptians. “Here goes nothing.”
More booms and cracks sounded from the doors. More cackles and deranged giggling. The left door started to buckle, like the fangen had just hit it with a huge battering ram.
“Take your time, Tick,” Sofia muttered.