And his insides screamed with pain.

Mistress Jane knew something had changed. She felt a presence within her, as if some other soul had joined with hers, trying to fight her for occupancy. She looked at Chu, who was still close to her, just as his eyes opened. He’d felt it, too.

He yelled something at her. His words were utterly lost in the deafening noise of the storm around them, but she could read his lips: Save me.

Jane thought of the Ladies of Blood and Sorrow and the things she’d trained them for. The endless possibilities they could accomplish within the Great Hall of her castle, where Chi’karda gathered so powerfully. And finally, something logical clicked into place for her. The Ladies had combined their efforts, pooled all their power, and had reached out for her nanolocator. Tick had pulled them out of the Nonex into some no-man’s-land barrier between it and the rest of Reality. Just close enough to reestablish contact.

Jane smiled, knowing exactly what expression was on her red mask: joy.

Chu reached out a hand to her, his mouth still moving with unheard words. Fear enveloped him, and sweat covered his face even more than before.

Jane felt ashamed for him. Embarrassed by his weakness. But she knew what the man was capable of. And they’d come so close to partnering before. So close. Until the boy Tick ruined everything, including Jane’s body.

Chu—her partner. Utopia—her mission. She twisted her body, straining to reach out with her arm.

Mistress Jane took Reginald Chu’s hand.

Lisa watched as her mom worked furiously over the Barrier Wand, adjusting the instruments, fine-tuning them with the slightest of movements. The Ladies around the circle had continued their efforts, ignoring the mutiny of Lisa and her mom. Mordell and the woman who’d been sitting next to Lisa’s mom had simply moved closer until they could reseal the ring of held hands in their magic circle. Maybe they figured they could deal with the turncoats later.

“Mom, what are you doing?” Lisa asked. She’d been scared to interrupt her mom’s concentration, but she couldn’t wait one more second.

“I’ve almost got it.” She had her tongue pinched between her lips, and sweat trickled down both sides of her face. “I can’t believe it, but his signal is there. Before it wasn’t missing so much as showing that he didn’t exist anymore. But he’s there, no doubt about it.”

“Really?” Lisa tried not to let her hopes leap to the sky.

“But it’s so weak. So weak. I’m trying to latch on, trying to pull him closer. But I don’t dare try to fully wink him in yet. His body could literally tear apart and turn into an atom soup.”

Lisa’s heart dropped. “Mom, please get him. Mom, please.” She’d never realized until that moment how much she loved that stupid brother of hers.

“We will, baby,” her mom said. “I swear it.”

The buzz and hum and orange light of Chi’karda filled the room like a nebula.

Things started to change around Tick, even as the pain inside his chest grew worse, like needles piercing his heart. His shoulders shook from the ache of trying to muffle the sobs that wanted to escape him, but he tried to push aside all the pain and focus on his surroundings.

The gray mist had thinned out, allowing his vision to reach much farther away. The bolts of white fire shooting through the air had not ceased at all, and he saw more of them than ever—a rain of lightning that continued for miles and miles. Violent sounds shook the gaseous world and continued to hurt his ears and splinter his brain with the worst headache he’d ever experienced.

And in the distance, coming straight toward him, were . . . things.

Dark objects. Huge objects. They looked like bulky chunks of broken spaceships, destroyed and shredded, hurling through empty space. There were dozens of them, flying through the gray air, rushing in. As they got closer, Tick could no longer tell if that was true or if he was actually hurtling toward them. But then he saw that they were less like spaceships, and more like floating mountains torn from their foundations—the edges rocky and broken, the centers filled with vegetation and trees.

He didn’t understand why, but he felt a weighty sense of dread, and not just from the prospect of smashing into the stony chunks of land. There was something ominous about those massive rocks, like they were alive and wanted him dead.

The nearest one was only a few hundred feet away when hundreds of vines shot out from the nooks and crannies of the rock’s craggy surface, like an army of snakes striking out at a predator. Their tips tapered to a point. The vines coiled in the air then came for Tick.

Lisa jumped when her mom suddenly cried out, a sound that was impossible to tell whether it was good or bad. She was tight-faced and sweating as she ran her hands up and down the Barrier Wand like it was some kind of musical instrument.

“What’s going on?” Lisa asked.

“I’m latched to him,” her mom responded. “I just can’t seem to wink the boy in.”

Chapter 18

Cords of Light

The vines flew through the air, coming at Tick as if they were magnetized ropes and he was a big piece of metal. He’d been sort of complacent since being pulled into the massive gray void, watching and observing, wondering what Reality was going to do to him now that he’d solved the riddle his consciousness had presented in his mind.

But the vines looked deadly, the massive structures of rock and vegetation were hurtling toward his body, and he had no more time to sit back. He’d mastered his control over Chi’karda. It was time to use it.

The ends of the first vines reached him and quickly coiled around his arms and legs. They cinched tight and jerked him forward even faster, throwing his body at the rock from which they’d emerged.

Tick struggled against the strength of the ropy chains, looked at the jagged granite chunk rushing up at him, and tried not to panic. He relaxed his arms and legs, letting his body go limp. Reaching down, deep inside his heart, he found the spark that had become so familiar to him, that burning flicker of flame that he knew he could ignite into an inferno.

Pure power exploded away from him, streaks of orange light and fire. The surge of Chi’karda slammed into the massive rock, detonating it into a million splinters of stone, which Tick whisked away with a single thought. Like a flinty cloud of smoke caught in a gust of wind, it flew to the right, gone from his vision. The vines that had imprisoned him were incinerated; not a single trace was left.

But there were dozens more of the floating mountains, and each one had more of the vines popping out of their surfaces, pointy ends focused on Tick. He took hold of his power, pulled it all back within his chest, sucking it in like a great vacuum. Then he used his eyes and mind to start destroying.

Looking this way and that, he hurled streaks of Chi’karda outward with each glance. They shot forward like streams of fire, arrows of might, smashing into each of the massive hunks of stone, dirt, and vegetation. The flying structures exploded, obliterated into dusty clouds that whipped away like the first one had. Tick barely had time to make sure he’d succeeded in destroying one before he had to look at the next threat.

Explosion after explosion, he destroyed them. Reaching with all his strength, he was able to send the Chi’karda beams farther and farther out, killing the vines as soon as they came into view.

Without warning, and just as he began to feel like he might get out of the mess, everything changed as quickly as one wink of his eye.

The endless gray sky disappeared, along with the fog of debris from the countless erupted balls of rock. Blackness replaced it, a sea of stars in the background, as if he floated in the deepest realm of outer space. His sense of movement also stopped, jarring him at first. Pulling in a deep breath, he heard the sound of his own gasp and felt his insides twist until he regained his equilibrium. All was silent as he hung there in the empty void.

Several seconds passed. Then each one of those pinpoints of light around him stretched out into a long beam of brightness, all of them pointed at Tick and moving at a blistering speed.

Lorena stood up, her mind so focused on the Barrier Wand that it felt as though she’d become one with it. The orange light of Chi’karda filled the room, blinding her vision. She couldn’t separate what the Ladies of Blood and Sorrow were doing from the power generated by her own efforts with the Wand. She’d never experienced anything like it. She wondered if this was how Tick felt when he was controlling the Chi’karda directly. She’d quit adjusting the dials and switches without even realizing it.

And then she remembered. She was in the Thirteenth Reality. Things were different here.

Lisa was at her side, keeping quiet—bless her heart—but a quick glance showed that the poor girl desperately wanted to know what was going on. Lorena went back to the business at hand, knowing she couldn’t risk breaking her concentration. She couldn’t put it into words or offer up a scientific explanation, but she had control over Chi’karda like never before, a link to Tick that she wasn’t going to let go of. She was going to bring him home.

Even if she had to die doing it.

At first the arrows of light made Tick feel as if he were in a spaceship that had shifted into warp speed, about to blast to another part of the galaxy. But he felt no sense of motion, and the angles were wrong. As he twisted and turned in the void, he saw long lines of pure whiteness stretching toward him from every direction, like strings of perfectly straight lightning. And he didn’t need a manual to know that their purpose was not to brighten his world so he could read a book.

The beams kept coming.

He could easily shift his body, even move away if he wanted to, but there was no point. The things were heading for him no matter where he looked. Unless he winked to another place, those long strings of white were going to reach him. Besides, where would he wink? Could he even wink out of the void? He felt surprisingly calm, confident he could deal with the problem.

The first needles of light reached his body.

Just like the vines, they wrapped around his arms and legs; some slipped across his chest, others slithered along his ribs and side and along his back. He fought at them by flailing and kicking out, but it did no good. The Chi’karda he’d gathered before still swelled inside of him. He lashed out with the power, but that did no good either. It was as if the ropes of light were without substance until they needed it to serve their purpose, gripping tightly to his body.

There were dozens of the ropes, then hundreds, thousands. They bled together into a brilliant display of pure white light, covering every inch of his body. Only his head remained free, and he twisted his neck to see what was happening, trying to squirm out of it.

The bindings tightened, squeezing the air out of his lungs, but curiously, Tick felt no panic. His breathing remained even. The white ropes kept coming, flying in like eels until they hit his body and wrapped around the other coils of light. He’d become nothing but a head, sticking out of a blinding ball of brilliance with tendrils of light leading away from him in every direction.

Tick knew he couldn’t let it keep going. He closed his eyes, pulled in more and more Chi’karda, filling his body and soul. He felt as if his insides were on fire. Still he kept at it, the power rushing into him like a falling deluge of scorching lava. He found himself liking it, loving the burn and surge of adrenaline, the power that filled him. He let it build, knowing he needed to unleash it but not wanting to. The earlier sensation of being tugged by a strong cable was still there, but it didn’t hurt anymore.