“What’re you talking about?” Sofia asked as another boom sounded in the building. “Is someone bombing us?”
“I’d hardly call them bombs, my good lady, but we haven’t any more time to talk about it. Jane’s power over the mutated Chi’karda must be growing if she has enough daring to attack us here. I must send you off on your mission immediately.” He started adjusting the seven dials and switches of the Barrier Wand, his tongue pressed between his lips.
“Whoa, dude,” Paul said. “I don’t like the sound of this.”
“We don’t have time to argue,” Rutger said from where he leaned against the door. “Master George and I will stay here and protect the Command Center as best we can; we have a few tricks up our sleeve that Mistress Jane doesn’t know about. You three are going with Mothball to the Thirteenth Reality.”
“The Thirteenth—” Tick started, his stomach falling into a pit of cold ice.
“Don’t waste another moment of my time with complaints or questions!” Master George finished his flipping and turning of the Wand’s controls and looked at the four recruits. “This attack on my home shows you the urgency of your mission. Follow Mothball’s orders. She has weapons called Sound Slicers if you run into trouble. Please do me a favor and don’t point them at each other. I’d rather you not return to me with your brains turned into runny oatmeal.”
Sound Slicers? Tick wondered. He really wanted to voice a question, but the man in charge barely paused to breathe.
Master George held up a warning finger. “It is imperative you succeed in bringing back the Barrier Wand of Mistress Jane. We must seal her in the Thirteenth Reality forever. Or at least until we can properly prepare to fight against her evil magic hordes. If everything goes as planned, it should be quite, er, easy.”
Tick didn’t like the hesitancy in Master George’s voice. He already felt like a rookie paratrooper about to be pushed out of the plane for the first time over a major battlefield, under heavy fire.
“Atticus, you enjoy chess, yes?” Master George said in a tight voice.
Tick couldn’t think of a question that seemed more out of place. “Yeah.”
“Good. Come here.”
Tick moved closer to Master George, who put the Barrier Wand directly in front of his face. “It’s been my experience that chess lovers are quite good at memorization. Am I correct?”
“Uh . . .”
“Excellent! Now look at each of the controls on the Barrier Wand and memorize their position. Exactly, now—there’s no room for error, none at all.”
Tick swallowed the lump in his throat and did as he was told, scanning his eyes up and down the length of the golden Wand.
“Hurry, we only have a minute at most!” Master George said.
Pushing his panic away, Tick tried to freeze-frame the image of each dial, switch, and knob in his mind, storing it, burning it in his memory. He was still focusing on the bottom dial when Master George took it away and began switching everything again.
Master George spoke as he worked. “Mothball isn’t . . . agreeable with Barrier Wands, so it’ll be up to you, Atticus, to bring all of you back in case something happens to me.”
Tick felt like someone had just poured acid down his throat.
“Mark your watches,” Master George continued. “If I don’t wink you back here in thirty hours—precisely thirty hours—that means that Rutger and I are in serious trouble. If that happens, Atticus, you will have to use Mistress Jane’s Barrier Wand—which looks exactly like this one—in order to escape the Thirteenth Reality. Adjust it as I showed you, then hit this button on the top.” He pointed at a perfect circle cut into the top of the cylinder. “It will wink you to one of our satellite locations where you will be safe from harm. Understand?”
Tick nodded, scratching his neck through his scarf, nervous and afraid like never before. Another explosion rocked the building, throwing everyone off balance; a brick fell from the mantle of the fireplace, a poof of dust billowing out. Master George almost dropped the Barrier Wand but caught it just in time.
Paul cleared his throat. “And how’re we supposed to steal a Barrier Wand from the most evil woman in history, as you put it?”
“We have a spy named Annika in place. All you have to do is meet her and she will help you retrieve it.”
“Is that all?” Sofia said.
“Listen to me,” Master George said, all semblance of his normal, cheery, quirky self gone. “You have all shown tremendous resolve and courage in making it to me, and I am proud as buttons to know you. But you must do this one last thing before officially becoming Realitants. Show me you can do this, and a life of adventure and intrigue awaits you, I promise. Do we have an understanding?”
The building rumbled again as Tick made eye contact with Sofia, then Paul. They looked as scared as he felt, which for some sick reason made him feel better.
“Let’s do it,” Paul said.
“Yeah,” Sofia agreed. “Psycho Jane’ll be sorry once I get my hands on her.”
They both looked at Tick, waiting for his answer. “You know I’m in,” he said.
“Splendid,” Master George said. “Sato?”
Everyone looked over at the disgruntled boy on the couch. He stood up, trying to bring the scowl back to his face but failing; he was just as scared as everyone else. “I’m only going because I don’t trust Master George and I want to make sure you three don’t mess up.” He walked over and joined the small group standing around the Barrier Wand.
“Sato,” Master George said, in an unusually kind voice for someone who had just been insulted. “I know more about you than you understand, and I feel no anger. When you succeed in this mission, I hope to gain your trust, and may I daresay, to become your friend.”
Sato said nothing in reply, looking at the floor.
A horrible sound of crunching metal came from the hallway where Tick had first entered the building, followed by another rocking explosion.
“Best be gettin’ a move on, don’t ya think?” Mothball said.
“Quite right you are, my dear friend!” Master George said, holding the Barrier Wand out in front of him, his arm rigid, so the golden rod stood upright in the middle of the group. “All of you, hands on the Wand! It’ll be much easier if you’re touching it!”