“Uh, yeah . . . do I really have to stand up?”

Master George said nothing, but shook his head.

“Great. My name is Paul Rogers, and I’m from the U.S. of A.—Florida to be exact. I’ve been chatting with Sofia and Tick on the Internet, so it’s good to finally see you guys in person. I love surfing and playing the piano. I don’t have a clue why I’m here, but I’m busting to find out. Oh, and I’m fourteen years old—way older than these kids.” He pointed at Tick and Sofia.

“A delight, Paul, thank you. Mister Sato?” Master George nodded toward the Asian boy sitting next to Paul.

“I will say nothing,” the boy answered in a curt voice, folding his arms for dramatic effect.

“Pardon me?” Master George asked, then exchanged looks with Mothball and Rutger. Something about his expression told Tick that Sato’s actions weren’t exactly a surprise.

“I trust no one,” Sato replied. He looked around the room, pointing at each person in turn. “Not you, not you, not you, none of you. Until I know everything, I will say nothing.” He nodded as if proud of himself for being such a jerk.

Tick glanced at Sofia, who made a pig face, pushing her nose up with her index finger and sticking out her tongue. Tick had to cover his mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

“Well,” Master George struggled for words, “that’s . . . splendid.” He rubbed his hands together again. “I believe we all know my trusted friends Mothball and Rutger quite well by now, so Mister Higginbottom, please—tell us a bit about yourself before we begin our very long discussion.”

Tick shifted in his seat. “Uh, yeah, I’m Atticus Higginbottom, but everyone calls me Tick. I’m from the east side of Washington state, I’m thirteen years old, I like science and chess”—he winced inside at how nerdy that made him sound—“and I’m excited to find out why we’ve been . . . brought here.”

“Amen,” Paul chimed in.

“You better talk fast,” Sato said. “I want to know right now why you kidnapped me and brought me here.”

“Kidnap?” Mothball asked, almost spitting. “What, left yer brain in Japan, ’ave you?”

“I only followed the instructions out of curiosity. Then you kidnapped me. I demand to be taken home.”

What a jerk. He’s going to ruin everything, Tick thought. He looked at Sofia and rolled his eyes. She nodded, frowning in Sato’s direction.

“Well, then,” Master George said, his enthusiasm dampened. “Jolly good beginning this is.”

“Just ignore the kid,” Rutger said to Master George. He turned toward the disgruntled Japanese boy. “Sato, hear him out. If you don’t like it, we’ll send you right back where you came from. Now stick a sock in it.”

Sato’s face reddened, but he didn’t say anything, huffing as he leaned back in his seat.

“And on that note,” Master George said, trying his best to regain his composure, smiling broadly. “We shall begin. Rutger, would you please bring some victuals from the pantry? These good people must be famished.”

Paul clapped loudly and whistled. Sofia, then Tick, joined him.

Master George waited until Rutger had scuttled out a side door. “Let me begin by saying how proud each of you should be of your accomplishment of simply being here today. I sent letters to hundreds of young people, and you four are the only ones who made it this far. Quite an accomplishment indeed. Especially considering the dreadful things I sent to test your mettle.”

Tick perked up at this, remembering his conversation with Mothball and Rutger about how sorry Master George had been about the Alaska incident, which made it seem like he wasn’t as sorry about the other scary things that had happened—like the Gnat Rat and the Tingle Wraith. “You mean . . .” Tick began, but then stopped, wondering if he was out of line.

“Yes, Mister Higginbottom,” Master George answered, seemingly not bothered by the interruption. “It was I, er, we who sent some of the things that must’ve scared you greatly. Objects like the Gnat Rat and Tingle Wraith are much easier to wink to and fro than humans, fortunately. But none of them could or would have hurt you beyond any easy repair, mind you. But the man in Alaska—the one sent by Mistress Jane—now that was an entirely different affair, I assure you. I do apologize for that bit of trouble.”

“Wait a minute,” Paul said. “Mothball here told me my brain would turn to mush if I heard the Tingle Wraith’s Death Siren for more than thirty seconds.”

“A slight exaggeration on her part,” Master George answered with a look of chagrin. “Because of your still-developing brains, you would’ve recovered in no more than three or four weeks—albeit with a lingering headache and blurred vision. And a certain bodily odor we can’t quite figure out . . .”

“You sent those awful things to attack us?” Sofia asked. “But why?”

“Yeah, man,” Paul chimed in. “That’s just not right.”

“Finally,” Sato said. “You people are starting to see why I am so angry.”

“Why would you want to hurt us?” Tick asked, glaring at Master George, sudden confusion and hurt constricting his chest.

Paul’s face looked like someone had just kicked him in both shins. “Dude, how can we trust you now?”

“Now please,” Master George pleaded, holding up both hands in front of him. “We haven’t even been about our business yet, and already we lose our focus!” His voice rose with every word. “Must I treat you like children? Are you

no different from the hundreds who didn’t make it nearly as far as you? If so, you may all leave this instant! If you can’t handle a couple of cheap tricks like the Gnat Rat, then you’ve no place being here!”

Tick stared at Master George, surprised he could change from a nice old Englishman to an angry ogre so quickly. The others seemed as dead silent and awestruck as he felt.

“This is no game,” Master George continued, his face more flushed than before, though Tick would’ve thought it impossible. “Everything I’ve done was meant to bring to me the strongest, the bravest, the cleverest. I let no excuses lie on the table—none at all. If you couldn’t persuade your mum and dad to let you come, then you’d be off. If you couldn’t bring yourself to follow such silly instructions, then you’d be off. If you let a little thing like two days of horrendous bee stings bother you, then you’d be off. Now, you’re here and I’m ready to begin instruction. Have I made a mistake?”