Two of the other women grabbed the Wand that had been lying on the ground. It was slipped under a robe and gone from sight just like that.

“Hey!” Lisa shouted. “Give that back!”

Mordell spoke in a calm voice. “You’re no longer considered enemies of our master. That’s your reward for helping us. But we have plenty of creatures outside these doors that will ensure you do as we ask. Please don’t push our hospitality. Wait here, and we’ll return for you shortly. We’ll also have food and drink brought to you.”

Tick didn’t feel like he knew enough about the situation to argue or help, but his mom was fuming, and Lisa had her arms folded and a red face.

“Mom,” Tick said, “I’m not sure what’s going on, but if we really are in Jane’s castle, we better do what they say until we figure things out. Plus, I’m dying to hear how we all got here. Just let them go for now.”

His mom visibly relaxed, as if she was relieved to have the burden of the decision taken from her shoulders. “Okay.” She turned to Mordell. “Leave us alone and let us talk. And bring us that food.” The hint of command in her voice made Tick want to hoot and holler like he was at a football game. This was his mom.

A smile crept up Mordell’s face. “I’ve already said we would do the two things you ask. All things are done under the will and might of our master. Your food will be here within the half hour.”

After a slight bow of her head, she and the other women shuffled out of the room.

They sat in a small circle as they spoke, sharing each other’s tales. When they were finished, Tick knew what had happened, but not how or why. It was all crazy.

“So that bunch of old ladies winked in Jane and Chu, but were going to let me die out there?” he asked. “I can’t believe I actually helped us get close enough to be saved, but then would’ve floated around in the outskirts of the Nonex for the rest of my life. That place wasn’t fun, let me tell ya.”

Tick’s mom shook her head, looking half sad, half angry. “Jane and Chu appeared at the same time, lying on the same spot you did. The women didn’t know that you were the one who’d opened up a doorway so they could reach them in the first place. Not that they would’ve done anything to return the favor—who knows?—but as soon as those two appeared, the almighty Ladies of Blood and Sorrow were done, totally ignoring our pleas to keep helping us so we could pull you in.”

“Where did they go?” Tick asked. “Jane and Chu.”

Lisa spoke up. “Mistress Jane marched off, her fancy red mask all scrunched up in anger. You’d think she’d have been happy after all that.”

“And Chu?”

Lisa glanced at their mom, who provided the answer. “He had a crazy look in his eyes. He said he finally knew how to ‘finish his plans.’ I think that’s how he put it. Then he disappeared, winked away before the Ladies could stop him. Maybe he had people waiting for his signal to reappear back in the Realities.”

Tick swallowed, realizing with a lump in his throat that he’d been the one who’d provided the opportunity for Reginald Chu—one of the most dangerous men in the Realities, who’d proven he wanted nothing but power at any cost—to come back from a prison he could’ve never escaped alone.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have done that,” Tick whispered.

Chapter 21

Rapping at the Door

Master George lay his head back on the pillow, almost ashamed at how good it felt. He and Rutger had been working tirelessly for hours and hours, searching through all the data and reports from Mothball and Sally. Things were looking grim. Everywhere.

But the worst of it was what they didn’t know. The disastrous results of Jane’s meddling with dark matter had done something to the Realities. Something terrible. A lasting, lingering effect that they didn’t quite understand yet. It had to do with links between the dimensions that weren’t supposed to be there—rifts in the fabric of Reality appearing out of nowhere and killing people. Reports of gray fog and lightning and terrible thunder. George could scarcely hope they’d be able to understand it, much less do anything about it.

But even the greatest minds needed rest. Even his. The lights were off, the bed soft, the pillow even softer. Muffintops—the best cat ever—was snuggled against his chest. If he could just sleep for one solid hour. That would do wonders for his—

Someone started pounding on his door, solid thumps with a squeezed fist, by the sound of it. George yelped, and Muffintops screeched, clawing him as she dug in her claws then jumped onto the ground. George’s heart was practically lodged in his throat. The knocking continued without stopping.

Of course, it could only be Rutger.

“What is it?” George yelled from his bed. “Rutger, stop that incessant pounding! This instant!”

Rutger didn’t stop, and was, in fact, saying some muffled words that George couldn’t hear over the knocking. Sighing, he flipped off his covers and headed for the door, his disappointment at missing a nap overshadowed by dread. As excitable as Rutger was, he wouldn’t be making this much fuss unless something bad had happened.

When George ripped open the door, Rutger almost fell down as his arm swung forward for another rap on the wooden door that was no longer there. He righted himself and looked up at his boss. George’s heart lifted when he saw the huge smile on the little man’s face.

“What is it?” George asked. “Goodness gracious me, you just about gave this old bear a heart attack!”

Rutger was breathing heavily, and he fought to control it. After starting and stopping several times, he finally got the words out, “Master Atticus is back! Tick is back! I’ve spotted him in the Thirteenth Reality, safe and whole and sound!”

George sucked in a gulp of air. “You’re certain? No doubt?”

“Really? You really have to ask that?” Rutger’s round face showed mock offense at first, but then he grinned.

“No, my good man, no, I don’t. So, where is he then? Why haven’t you winked him here straightaway? I want to see the boy!”

Rutger’s smile vanished. “I tried. Something’s blocking me. I think Jane must be keeping him in the Thirteenth Reality as a prisoner.”

Master George’s hands squeezed into fists at his sides. “Not this time. Jane is not going to interfere with us this time. Contact Sato. He and his army are already in that Reality.”

Rutger turned to move, but George stopped him with his hand. “And get the others, too. We need to be together. Master Atticus could provide us just the lift we need. Finally, things are looking up.”

Rutger smiled, then hurried off to follow his orders, his frantic waddle down the hall making Master George very proud indeed.

Tick, his mom, and Lisa had grown quiet, all talked out about the craziness of pulling Tick back from the Nonex. Now they sat with their backs against the black rock of the wall, the Great Hall empty and dark. A tray of dirty dishes and crumpled napkins sat on the floor next to the wall. Mordell had kept her promise to bring them something to eat. As well as her promise to keep them prisoner. Occasionally a fangen or another creature would pass by the opening to the chamber, just to make sure they knew leaving wasn’t an option unless they wanted to be ripped to shreds or eaten.

Tick had been feeling guiltier by the minute. What had he done? How could he have been so selfish? He knew he needed all the Chi’karda he could summon to break free from the Nonex, so he’d used Chu and Jane. But he hadn’t thought ahead to the fact that he’d be bringing the two worst enemies of the Realities back to their realms and giving them the opportunity to wreak havoc once again.

How could he be so stupid! He should have sacrificed himself and stayed in the Nonex, knowing those two monsters would be prisoners for the rest of their existence. He’d broken them free—or, at least helped it get started—just so he could come back, live his life, see his family again. The guilt ate away at his insides and made his stomach feel full of acid. And, of course, his mom could tell. She was a mom, after all.

“Atticus Higginbottom,” she said, breaking the silence that had grown like a living entity, filling the room with something even darker than the air. “I know what you’re thinking over there, and I want you to stop immediately. Do you understand me?”

Tick looked at her and tried to hide the despair that crawled inside of him. “What? I’m fine.”

“You’re fine, huh? And I’ve got bananas growing out of my ears. Nonsense, son. I know it’s hitting you that Jane and Chu are freed from the Nonex. But it’s not your fault. Who knows? Maybe they would’ve figured out a way to escape on their own eventually. It’s what they do, how they got to where they are. They are masterminds, deceivers, manipulators, schemers. And they would’ve left you behind. The choices they make in life are not yours to bear. You did the right thing saving them. Maybe . . . maybe they’ll change. Realize their mistakes and make them right.”

Tick laughed, shocking himself just as much as the others. “Mom, now I know you’re just trying to make me feel better. You heard for yourself what Chu said before they winked his power-hungry behind out of here. And Jane had her chance to become good. I ruined that when I melded her body to several pounds of metal. For somebody who was recruited to help the Realitants, I’ve sure done a great job of messing it all up.”

His mom’s eyes had welled up with tears, and she came over to sit next to him. She tried to pull him into her arms, and at first he resisted, but then he figured he could use some good old-fashioned mom-love and hugged her back. Fiercely.

“Listen to me,” she whispered to him. “I’m your mom. I love you more than any human has ever loved a child before. Do you understand that?”

Tick nodded but didn’t say anything. He was trying to hold back the tears.

Lisa was a few feet away, looking down as if she didn’t feel like she had a right to hear this conversation.

“You did the right thing, Atticus,” his mom continued. “Can you imagine—keeping a boy away from his mom? From his dad? From his sweet sisters? You did what you had to do to come back here, because you felt our love pulling you. You felt it across the universe and all the Realities and the barriers of the Nonex, because it’s that powerful. You had no choice, son. Love is more powerful than Chi’karda, and you had to obey its call. We need you. Your family needs you. Nothing could keep us apart. Nothing will.”

“Okay, Mom.” Tick didn’t really know what to say, but he squeezed his mom even tighter, not caring if he seemed like a two-year-old kid. “Thanks.”

“And one more thing,” she said. “You didn’t just bring back two bad guys. You brought back you. Someone who has more power over Chi’karda than anyone in history. Even Mistress Jane. The Realities need you, Atticus. They need you more than they don’t need them. Clear?”


Her words really affected him. Lying around feeling sorry for himself wasn’t going to be the answer. He needed to be ready to take action. He swore to himself that he’d be prepared. He’d study and learn and practice. And if the day came that either one of his enemies tried to hurt the worlds again, he would stop them. He swore it.