A Very Special Boy

It was all about the soulikens.

Master George sat in his study, the lights dimmed, Muffintops purring in a corner, the first light of dawn’s birth still an hour off. He stared at the wall as if the most fascinating thing in the Realities had been stapled there for him to see whenever he wished, but it was only a knot in the wood of his paneling. A knot that had two eyes and a mouth if you looked at it just right, and for some reason it reminded him of a boy named Atticus Higginbottom.

Atticus. Tick. The young man who changed everything.

The boy who’d disappeared from existence.

It was a shame. More than a shame. It was a downright tragedy. Master George had never ached in his heart so much for someone lost. Right when they’d finally begun to understand why the boy had such extraordinary powers, why he was able to harness and use Chi’karda as if he were himself a Barrier Wand—and a powerful Wand at that, even more so than Mistress Jane, who had a unique and tragic story of her own—he was gone.

But none of that really mattered anymore. It wasn’t the reason George missed Master Atticus so much. He missed him—ached for him—because the boy had become like a son to him. So innocent, yet brave. So genuine. Such a kid, but so grown up. Oh, how he missed that dear, dear boy.

He was a wonder.

Sato had completed the mission George had asked of him. He had visited each Reality and searched until he had found the same thing in each one: a grave for the Alterants of Atticus Higginbottom—the boy’s “twins” in the other twelve Realities. Never before had such an odd coincidence occurred, where only one version of a person remained throughout all the Realities. They’d never know if there was some deep cosmic reason behind it, or how it had happened.

But one thing was for certain: every one of those Alterants’ soulikens had traveled to and collected within the body of the one remaining Atticus who had lived in Reality Prime. It had changed his structure, his makeup, his quantum mechanics. He was full of Chi’karda, filled beyond measure with the powers that bound and controlled the universe. Filled beyond anything mankind could ever hope to recreate or dream about.

He was lost now, gone from existence.

There’d probably never be another quite like him, in far more ways than one.

George called for Muffintops. He needed to hug a friend.

Part 1

The Nonex

Chapter 1

A Gash in the Forest

The forest smelled of things dead, things rotting.

Jacob Gillian paid the stench no mind, walking his merry way along the narrow path that threaded through the tall oaks and pines like a dried-out stream. Of course, the reason he paid it no mind was because he’d lost his sense of smell thirty years ago in an unfortunate spice sniffing contest. His grandson, Chip, had to tell him that the place stunk like a three-week-old dead rat stuck under the pipes.

The two of them had been hiking side by side for well over an hour, knowing full well that something horrible had happened deep within the dark woods. Exactly what had happened was still a mystery, and the reason they were out there. Jacob had heard the awful sound of ripping and shredding and booming. Chip had smelled the nose-wrinkling stench. Those two things together spelled trouble, and by golly, the source behind it needed finding out.

Jacob and his grandson had moved into the boonies after Chip’s parents had been killed in a train collision near Louisville. Ever since then, they’d learned to live with little and less, loving the wild freedom and exhilaration of being smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. Their closest neighbor lived a good thirty miles down the poorly maintained state road, and the nearest town was forty miles in the other direction. But that’s just how Jacob liked it, and the life had seemed to grow on Chip as well.

One day they’d return to civilization and start learnin’ Chip on the ways of society. But for now, there was time. Time to heal, time to grow, time to enjoy. Time to have time.

“I think I see something up there, Grandpa,” Chip said, a little too enthusiastically, considering the circumstances that had brought them out into the woods.

“What is it?” Old Jacob couldn’t see much better than he could smell.

“There’s a bright patch. Seems like it goes all the way up to the sky!”

“On the path or off it?”

Chip grabbed Jacob’s hand and started hurrying down the little ribbon of beaten leaves and undergrowth. “Just to the right of it. We’re almost there!”

Jacob followed along as careful as he could while still keeping up with Chip’s eager steps. Warning bells rang inside his mind, but he did what he’d done since the day he’d stepped out into the humid fields of Korea as a soldier—he ignored them. Curiosity always won out in his book, and courage came as naturally as a nice belch after dinner.

They’d just rounded a bend, skirting past two mammoth pines that looked like brothers, when Chip suddenly pulled up short. Jacob ran right past him, almost yanking his grandson’s arm out of its socket when the boy didn’t let go. But then Jacob saw what had stopped the kid, and all he could do was stand and stare. He felt Chip’s sweaty hand slip out of his own.

Fifty yards ahead of them, a swath of the forest had been wiped from existence and replaced by a brushstroke of . . . something else. Starting deep in the ground and shooting all the way to the sky was a wide gash in reality, a window to another place. Jacob could see part of a beach, the deep blue waters of the ocean beside it, a sun where there shouldn’t be a sun. The time was almost noon, and the real ball of fire was directly overhead. It was as if someone had clawed a rip in the reality of this world and replaced it with another.

“What in the great dickens are we lookin’ at?” Jacob whispered.

“Grandpa?” was all Chip managed in reply. His voice shook with equal parts confusion and terror.

“I’ve been from one end of this world to the other,” Jacob said, not sure if he was talking to himself or to his grandson. “And I’ve never seen a thing like that in my life.”

“Let’s go home.”

“Home?” Jacob tore his eyes away from the spectacle and looked down at Chip. “Didn’t you hear what I just said? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity! Let’s go check her out.”

Jacob took Chip’s hand once again, and they started marching closer to the impossible vision of another world streaked across their own. They’d come to within twenty feet when a person appeared on the beach, stepping into the picture from the right edge of where reality had been torn apart.

It was a lady, though Jacob could only tell that from the ratty, filthy dress she wore; a hood was pulled up over her head. A red mask, seemingly made out of metal, covered her face. The expression on the mask was one of anger.

She saw them just as they saw her, and she stopped to stare, the features of the mask shifting to create an expression of absolute shock.

Jacob took a step backward before he realized what he was doing.

“Who are you?” the woman asked, her voice raw and scratchy, like it came out of a throat scarred with acid. “Do you know how this happened?”

Jacob’s mouth had turned into a bucket of dust, and he couldn’t remember how his tongue or voice box worked. He tried getting words out, but nothing came except the slightest hint of a croak.

Surprisingly, Chip spoke up. “Lots of bad sounds came from over here, and the whole place is stinky. Me and my grandpa were just trying to see what happened.”

Such bravery from the kid meant Jacob had to speak. He found his voice. “Where you from, miss? Um, if you don’t mind me asking.”

The lady’s mask melted—literally, by the looks of it—into a frown. “I’m from the Thirteenth Reality. Where are you?”

Jacob swallowed a lump the size of his big toe. “Um . . . Kentucky?”

Before the lady could respond, her image and everything around her suddenly spun into a tornado of colors that quickly merged and transformed into a mass of gray. It swirled and swirled, picking up speed and creating a wind that tore at Jacob’s clothing. And then the sound of terrible thunder seemed to come from everywhere at once, shaking the forest and splintering Jacob’s skull with pain.

When the spinning mass of gray mist expanded and took him, he had the strange thought that although he certainly wasn’t a cat, curiosity had killed him all the same.

Chapter 2

A Formidable Foe

Mistress Jane winked herself a thousand yards down the beach as soon as the first sign of trouble appeared with the strange gash into another reality. She’d been talking to an old man and his boy, just beginning to wonder if she dared try to step through and escape the Nonex, when the whole thing collapsed into a spinning vortex of gray mist. It was all gone now, the echoes of the detonating thunder that had accompanied its short but catastrophic end just now rumbling away to oblivion.

Interesting. That was all she could come up with to describe what she’d witnessed. Very, very interesting. She had the faintest spark of an idea as to what had actually happened. It gave her something to contemplate while trapped in her bizarre new world.

She turned away and resumed her long walk down the never-ending beach. The salty breeze coming off the ocean waters stirred her robe, and she wished she could take off her mask and feel the wind against her cheeks once more. But it hurt to remove the thing, and even if she did, the result would be disappointing. The nerves of her skin were mostly burned away, replaced by the particles of Chu’s Dark Infinity weapon. She felt things in a different way now. Not unpleasant, necessarily, but not the same.

Chu. Reginald Chu. Why did she have to think of the man?

She’d spent the last week with him and that upstart boy Atticus Higginbottom. In the Nonex, there was nowhere else to go. They were on an island that sometimes seemed small and other times, gigantic. Nothing made sense in this place. You could begin eating a piece of fresh fruit and have the thing turn rotten before you finished. Fish flew through the air, and birds swam underwater. Trees shifted in the night—or what passed for night. It had been three days since the sun last set below the horizon. Everything here was wrong.

Not to mention the bad company. Chu was nasty—always grumpy, always degrading in how he spoke to her, always arrogant. Atticus was nice enough, considering the three of them were bitter enemies, one to another, but he had his own kind of arrogance, as if his innocence and goodwill were tangible things that floated around his body, pointing out how everyone else wasn’t worthy to be in his presence. The boy made her ill. And angry. And thirsty for revenge.

But none of that mattered right now. None of it. They all had the same goal at the moment, and that was to get out of the blasted nowhere they currently called home.

A flicker of movement to her right caught her attention. She stopped just in time to see the boy come out from behind some trees, carrying some stray wood. He dumped it on the ground.

How sweet, she thought bitterly. He’s making a campfire. What a Boy Scout. Same team or not, they all tried to keep their distance from one another as best they could.

When Atticus noticed her, a look of sheer disappointment painted his features. This both hurt Jane and made her angry.