Tick stared at the shiny gold ornament as Master George placed the chain over his head like he’d just won an Olympic medal. Tick studied the object hanging on his chain, bringing it close to his eyes for a better look. It was a miniature replica of a Barrier Wand, dials and all, solid and heavy.

“Be sure and wear them under your shirts,” Master George said as he stepped back in front of the group. “No need to go around advertising you’re a member of the most important society in the world. Plenty of enemies about.”

As Tick tucked the Wand pendant under his scarf and shirt, feeling the cold hardness warm up against his skin, Rutger began passing out small pieces of thick paper to each of the kids. “These are your official membership cards, so don’t lose them.”

Tick accepted his, a stiff brown card that simply said, “Atticus Higginbottom, Realitant Second Class.”

“Whoa,” Paul said. “No one will mess with us now. I’ll just whip this puppy out and they’ll run like scared dogs.”

“Very funny, young man,” Rutger said, folding his chubby arms. “You just be sure and hold onto your Wand pendant and that card—you’ve earned them both.”

“Yes, indeed,” Master George said. “And now, we must really let you be on your way. Atticus, your name begins with an A, so let’s send you off first.”

Tick’s stomach leaped into his throat. “Um, okay.” He stepped forward.

“Wait a second,” Paul said. “We need a send-off to pump us up.” He held his hand out to the middle of the circle.

Tick joined him, then Sato, then Rutger, and Mothball. Master George chuckled and put his hand out, too. Rolling her eyes, Sofia finally did as well.

“Go Realitants!” Paul yelled. He groaned at everyone else’s half-hearted attempt. “You guys need more team spirit.”

“Please tell me we don’t have to do that every time,” Sofia muttered.

“Yeah,” Tick agreed. “I think I’m with Sofia on that.”

Paul looked devastated. “She’s corrupted you.”

Tick shrugged. “It is kind of corny.” He paused, grinning. “Dude.”

Master George cleared his throat. “Time to be off. Atticus, step up here, please.”

Tick did so, adjusting the tattered and soppy scarf that clung to his neck like a frightened ferret. Mothball began the good-byes.

“Best of luck, little sir,” she said, leaning down to give him a quick hug. “Get a little older and I’ll be bringin’ ya a nice tall girlfriend from the Fifth, I will. Better than a short fat one from the Eleventh, don’t ya think?” She winked and stepped back.

“See ya, big guy,” Rutger said, reaching up to pat Tick on the elbow. “Sorry about all the rock-throwing.”

Tick laughed. “No problem.”

“Later, dude,” Paul said next. “See ya on the e-mail.”


Tick turned to Sato, who reached out and shook Tick’s hand.

“Thank you,” Sato said. “Next time I will save your life.”

“There’s a good plan,” Tick replied with a smile. He turned to face Sofia.

She looked at him, her eyes revealing that she was trying to think of a smart-aleck remark. She finally gave up and pulled Tick into a hug, squeezing tightly. “E-mail me,” she said. “Tonight.”

Tick awkwardly patted her on the back. “Remember our bet—you have to come visit me in America. And I want some more free spaghetti sauce, too.”

“Count on it.” She pulled away, not bothering to hide her tears.

Tick turned to face Master George again, relieved the good-byes were over.

“Master Atticus, my dear friend,” the old man said, his ruddy face beaming with a smile. “Your family will be so proud of you, as well they should. Quite a puzzlement you’ve given us to figure out, I must say. Busy, busy we’ll be.”

Tick nodded, not knowing what to say.

“Very good, then.” Master George held up the Barrier Wand, having already set the controls. “Put your hand on the Wand. There we are.”

“Bye everybody,” Tick said, closing his eyes, hurting inside.

Master George had one final thing to say, though, whispering in Tick’s ear. “Atticus, never forget the inherent power of the Chi’karda. Never forget the power of your choices, for good or for ill. And most importantly, never forget your courage.”

Before Tick could reply, he heard a click.

He felt the now-familiar tingle.

Then came the sounds of birds and wind.

Edgar Higginbottom sat on his favorite chair next to the window, staring at the floor, wringing his hands together as he wondered for the millionth time what had happened to Tick. He’s lucky, Edgar kept telling himself. All those times as a kid—something’s protecting him. He’ll be fine.

But it had been almost four full days since the boy vanished, and the worry ate at Edgar’s heart like a hideous disease. Lorena was no better; they could barely look at each other without bursting into tears. Even Lisa was worried.

And yet Edgar knew it had been the right thing to do. Somehow, someway, he knew. Atticus Higginbottom was out saving the world, and when he was done, he’d come back home, ready for a new game of Football 3000. But when—

Edgar heard someone shouting outside. A kid’s voice. Tick’s voice.

He looked up, his heart swelling to dangerous sizes when he saw Tick running down the street toward the house. For a second, Edgar couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, practically choking as he tried to yell for his wife. It was him. It was really him!

“Lorena!” Edgar finally managed to scream, squirming to get his big body out of the chair. “Lorena! Tick’s back! I told you he’d be back!” He found himself laughing, then crying, then laughing again as he ran for the front door.

Lorena thumped down the stairs, faster than he’d ever seen her move in his life. Kayla and Lisa bolted out of the kitchen, eyes wide in surprise.

“He’s really here?” Lorena asked, her hand on her heart as if she didn’t dare hope Edgar had been telling the truth.

“He’s back, he’s back!” Edgar yelled with delight as he ripped open the door and ran outside.

Tick ran into his dad’s arms, then, almost knocking Edgar down. They hugged each other, then parted to bring Lorena and the girls into the group. In one big tangle of arms, the Higginbottom family hugged and laughed and jumped and generally made complete fools of themselves. The world had suddenly become a very bright and cheerful place to be.