“Even though its size is humble,” Mordell said in a solemn voice, “we call this the Great Hall because its purpose is grand. This hallowed place is where the Ladies of Blood and Sorrow come to show our respect and devotion to Chi’karda and to renew our commitment to seek a Utopia for all mankind.” She looked at Lisa and her mom. “Your presence here is allowed by my invitation only. Please, sit.”

She motioned toward the empty spot in the circle. Lisa and her mom, holding hands, went over and sat down on the smooth surface of the black rock floor. Her mom cradled the Barrier Wand in her lap, and Lisa noticed that her finger hovered over the trigger button at the top.

Lisa took a moment to study the circle of women, all of whom were dressed in the same off-white, coarse robes that Mordell wore. The Ladies each had a meditative, almost blank look on their hooded faces. It was creepy in the scant light.

Mordell sat down next to Lisa. “We all know of the nature of this room in which we have gathered,” she began. “The Great Hall, birthed by the will of our master, Mistress Jane herself. For reasons we may never learn, the Thirteenth Reality is more focused with Chi’karda’s might, more concentrated, more plentiful in its power than any other world. And this hallowed place is the heart of that power, which is why our master built her castle on this land and carved the Great Hall in this rock. Using the methods taught to us by She Who Tamed the Fire, we will now join hands and probe the universe together. And when we find our master—and her companions, if possible—we must unite to bring them back here.”

“ ‘If possible?’ ” Lisa asked, not liking the sound of that one bit. Maybe they were using Tick as a means to an end and were planning to dump him as soon as they found Jane. And what was with all the fancy mumbo-jumbo talk?

Mordell turned to her, not looking pleased by the interruption. “You’ve spoken out of turn, girl. This is not allowed in the Great Hall.”

Lisa refused to be intimidated by this servant of the woman who’d tried to kill Tick. “I just want my brother to come back safely too. Make sure he does.”

Mordell considered her for a moment then finally nodded. “I give you my word that if it’s possible in any way to do so, we will. But understand that our master is our first priority, for the sake of you, and your children, and your children’s children.”

Lisa thought of a million nasty things that she wanted to say, but she kept her mouth shut. She could only hope now. She squeezed her mom’s arm, who gave her a nod and a look as if to say, Don’t worry. Tick can fend for himself.

Mordell returned her attention to her counterparts sitting in the circle. “We have with us today the mother of Atticus Higginbottom—yes, we know who you are—with a Barrier Wand constructed by her own hand. She has locked onto the nanolocator of her son, which will serve to benefit us in our search. The Wand’s presence alone will aid us. Now, we must all take hands, including our visitors’.”

Lisa had no problem grabbing her mom’s hand, but she was a little wary of taking one of Mordell’s. She clasped her fingers around those of the woman, which were icy cold and felt brittle, as if they’d collapse into a heap of powder if Lisa squeezed. So she didn’t.

“Let us begin,” Mordell announced. “Close your eyes. Grasp the Chi’karda that flows within this room. Reach into the Realities—reach into the universe.”

The Ladies of Blood and Sorrow began to hum. Lisa was the last to close her eyes, but before she did, a spray of orange light started to glow within the center of their circle.

Tick didn’t know how long he’d been sitting in the icy snow, next to the icy pond, feeling the icy wind. But he felt it all the way to the core of his bones, and icy was the only word to describe it.

He didn’t let it faze him. He thought, concentrated, and focused on the riddle. He knew the fabric of Reality was at his fingertips, waiting for his mind to organize a solution in the way he best understood. The complexities of the universe had been laid at his feet in the form of a riddle.

When the pieces of the puzzle finally clicked into place, the answer hovered within his thoughts, a word as clear as if it were written on a sign hung in front of his face.


He opened his eyes and whispered the word to the biting wind, which whisked it away and carried it to whatever ears needed to hear it.

A few seconds later, the world around him was ripped apart, exploding into a horrifying display of noise and light. Tick screamed, but no one heard the sound. Not even him.

Chapter 16

A Rush of Violence

Lisa was beginning to feel uncomfortable.

The rattling buzz in the room had grown to an unbearable pitch, vibrating her skull and shaking the walls and floor of the Great Hall. The rock creaked and groaned, as if the walls might burst apart and spray them with tiny fragments. It took all of Lisa’s willpower not to open her eyes or scream or run away. Even through her closed eyelids, she could sense the bright orangeness of what she knew was the power of Chi’karda.

The Ladies of Blood and Sorrow continued to hum, and Lisa heard a slight rustling, as if the women were swaying back and forth in their trancelike state. What they were doing, she had no idea, and she certainly didn’t know what she could do to help. But she felt the vibration of power inside her body, and there was definitely something big happening.

She squeezed her mom’s hand, and her mom squeezed back. Something hard and warm—almost hot—touched Lisa’s forearm. She opened her eyelids to the slightest, smallest crack to see what it was. Her mom had moved the Barrier Wand closer, wanting to show her that it was heating up for some reason.

Yes, something big was definitely going on.

Tick’s body was flying through a fog.

Lightning and thunder flashed and boomed all around him, streaks of white fire crossing the gray, misty air, barely missing his body. The horrible sounds rattled his head, pierced his ears painfully. He felt the sense of flying in his stomach and head, but there wasn’t a great rushing of wind blowing at him. His skin was cold one second and hot the next. Even his vision would go haywire—everything turning into a grayish blur then coming into focus again, the edges of the lightning bolts sharp and clear and brilliant. It was as if his senses had a loose connection to his brain.

He tried to quell the rising fear and panic that threatened to consume him. He had no idea what was happening or where he was, much less how he could use his newfound powers to help the situation. He was hurtling through a void of nothing, surrounded by an angry, powerful storm of energy.

He twisted his head left and right, trying to see any sign of Chu or Mistress Jane. They were nowhere near him, according to what his eyes told his brain, but on some deep, deep level, he felt as though he were still holding their hands. That maybe the storm was simply an illusion and nothing more.

He continued his flight. Nausea filled his belly. He tried to speak, but his voice was lost in the noise of the chaos around him. He had the horrible thought that maybe this was how he’d spend the rest of eternity—that maybe the Nonex, in the end, was nothing more than this.

Tick flew through a void of mist and thunder.

Mistress Jane didn’t understand what was going on, and nothing on earth caused her more distress than uncertainty. She was a scientist, blood and bone, to the very core of her soul and mind. A scientist. And being here, surrounded by a world of mist and lightning and sound, she didn’t have the slightest guess of what was going on. It made no logical sense. And that made her angry.

She looked to her left, though all movement was strange in this inexplicable void. Her senses told her she was moving at great speed, yet she felt no rush of wind. And her surroundings didn’t seem to shift at a pace that made sense with the movement of her head.

Reginald Chu was a few feet away from her, keeping an even pace. His eyes were still closed, and he held his hands out before him like Superman. But he didn’t look peaceful or asleep. His face was pinched, like someone waiting to jump off a bridge with a bungee cord. Sweat trickled down his brow, giving Jane even more evidence that their motion through this fog didn’t match the physical effects on their body.

Jane knew Tick had done this somehow. He had vaulted them from the Nonex and thrown them into a place that was obviously even worse. Maybe she’d made a huge mistake trusting him to help her.

She closed her eyes and reached into the void with her senses, reaching to take back her Chi’karda from Tick’s control. Surprisingly, it was there, waiting. She filled her body with the power, sucking it in, keeping it at bay until she needed it. Kept it there like a bomb waiting for a lit fuse.

The Great Hall had continued to buzz and vibrate, the Ladies humming, the orange power of Chi’karda burning the air with energy. Lisa could only sit and wait, though it was agonizing.

Mordell suddenly spoke up beside her with a voice that easily cut through the other noise in the room.

“We’ve found her! We’ve reconnected with her nanolocator! Reginald Chu is there as well. We need everyone to focus. Begin to pull them back.”

The woman paused, and Lisa didn’t dare ask the obvious question. Not because it had been forbidden, but because she was terrified of the answer. Mordell answered her anyway.

“There is, unfortunately, no sign of the boy, Atticus Higginbottom.”

Chapter 17

Finding Tick

Lorena knew something was happening with her Barrier Wand, and it wasn’t just that the Drive within it was helping pool the power of Chi’karda for the Ladies of Blood and Sorrow. Something else was at play. The metal surface was hot, almost too much to touch now, and the Wand had a hum of its own.

Mordell’s words had been like a death sentence. Lorena had suspected the truth from the start, and the people here obviously had different priorities than she did. They wanted Jane back, at any cost. Even if the cost was the life of Lorena’s son. And she didn’t plan to let that happen.

Breaking her handhold with both Lisa and the stranger to her left, Lorena opened her eyes and straightened the Barrier Wand in her lap. She quickly ran through the dials and switches, adjusting and evaluating, making educated guesses since she was in such an unprecedented situation. Sweat poured down her face.

“What are you doing?” Mordell shouted, the echo ringing along the walls and ceiling of the black, rocky room. “Rejoin hands this instant!”

Lorena gave the woman a nasty glare. “Back off, lady, or you’ll be seeing and feeling a lot of blood and sorrow today.”

A quick glance at Lisa showed that her daughter was smiling.

Tick felt something tugging on his heart.

Not like despair, or love, or missing someone. It was a literal tug, as if someone had sunk a hook into his heart and cinched it tight with a strong rope. And then the rope started pulling.

He cried out, feeling a fire ignite within him that scorched his insides with pain. He clutched his chest with both hands, gripping his shirt and pulling his fingers into tight fists, pressing on his sternum. It did no good. The pull on the rope was getting stronger.

It hurt so bad. The gray mist swirled around him; lightning bolts exploded through the air as the thunder thumped and boomed. His body continued to fly through it all.