“I love you,” he whispered to his mom.

The shuffle of feet drew their attention to the entrance of the chamber. Mordell, the long and lanky Lady of Blood and Sorrow, stood with her hands folded in front of her.

“I supposed you’ve had your time to rest and eat,” the woman said. “But it’s over now. At least for Atticus. Mistress Jane would like to see you, boy. She says it’s high time you two spoke about the Fourth Dimension.”

Chapter 22

A Ribbon of Shiny Silver

Sato stood atop the rock that jutted from the hilltop, allowing himself to finally enjoy a moment to himself. The land fell away in all directions, flowing with green grasses and thorny shrubs and leafless trees. Autumn had come to this area of the Thirteenth Reality, and there was a bite to the air that made Sato shiver. Far below him was a river that cut through the valley like a shiny silver ribbon, disappearing into a forest and the mountains beyond.

Somewhere along that river was the castle of Mistress Jane.

It had taken only a couple of days for his army to clean up the few scattered creatures left behind at the evil lady’s Factory, otherwise known as the house of horrors. It was where Jane had used her frightening mix of science and magic to create mixed breeds of animals. Humans had been next on the list for her experiments, until the ones she was holding prisoner had been rescued by Sato and the Fifth Army.

All of them but ten.

Sato would never know the faces of the ten people he’d had to leave behind when the destruction became too much. Ten people left to die, crushed by stone and earth. He couldn’t blame Master George and Rutger—they’d done what needed to be done. If Sato and Mothball had stayed to rescue those last few people, there would have been twelve dead bodies instead of ten. But that didn’t change the fact that their loss haunted him day and night. If only he had been a little faster . . .

But here he was. Back in the Thirteenth again. They had hunted down any creatures of Jane’s they could find around the ruins of the Factory, and something told him that any that were left were heading for the castle. He knew he was right after having received word from headquarters that Tick was now imprisoned there, along with his mom and sister.

Tick’s sister—Lisa. Sato kind of liked that girl.

He shook his head, ashamed of himself. What a stupid thing to think at the moment. First of all, he couldn’t believe that Tick was back, safe. There was a story he was dying to hear. And second, he hated to hear the words Mistress Jane again. Hated it. She’d killed his parents, burned them alive, right in front of his young eyes. He dreamed of it every night. The only silver lining was that maybe he’d finally get his chance for payback—at his hand, not Tick’s.

A voice behind him interrupted his thoughts. “Master Sato, we’re waiting for word on what we do next.”

Sato turned to see an enormously tall man with thin features, his black hair hanging in straggles, his face gaunt, his clothes raggedy. But Sato knew that no one should ever make assumptions based on the appearance of these warriors from the Fifth Reality. They could break a man in half with two fingers.

He especially liked this one, Mothball’s very own dad. “Gather them up, Tollaseat. We’re marching for the castle. For Tick. For Mistress Jane.”

Tick didn’t put up much of a fight. With Jane’s monsters hovering around outside the Great Hall, Mordell looking as if she’d bite anyone who gave her any trouble, and—most of all—out of pure curiosity, he decided to calmly walk with the old woman to where Jane waited for him.

They’d come out into the long underground passage that went along the river, the same place where Tick had used his own power to wink himself and his friends away from the fangen attack during their first visit to the Thirteenth Reality. More of those creatures lined the wall now as he and Mordell walked past them, their thin wings folded in, their fang-filled mouths closed, their yellow eyes glaring at him. Tick felt a nauseous chill in his gut.

It wasn’t long before he began to see the extent of the castle’s destruction. Walls had caved in. Huge chunks of rock had been torn loose from the ceiling and crashed to the ground, breaking the stone floor and creating spider webs of cracks everywhere. It got worse the farther they went; soon they were walking through a maze of debris. Tick looked in horror at some spots that appeared as if one puff of breath would cause the whole structure to come tumbling down on top of them.

They eventually reached an arch that exited into a dark staircase, narrow steps spiraling up to heights Tick couldn’t see. Dust covered the steps, but the walls seemed solid enough. Mordell didn’t say a word the entire time, just led him toward the upper reaches of the castle.

Tick was out of breath when they finally came to a wooden door.

Mordell stopped and looked at him with a grave face. “These are not the usual quarters of our master. The destruction caused by”—her eyes narrowed, and Tick knew she’d been about to say that it was all his fault—“the Great Disturbance made quite an impact on our grand castle. Mistress Jane takes her place here until all can be repaired. Wait until I beckon you to enter.”

She rapped lightly on the wooden door three times. A few seconds later, it opened, and another woman in a hooded robe stared out at them. She nodded then allowed Mordell to step inside, shutting the door in Tick’s face.

Tick was tempted to knock on the door himself—or better yet, just open it up and waltz inside. He wasn’t nearly as scared of seeing Jane as he’d been in the past; his progress in the powers of Chi’karda had given him more confidence than ever before in his life. Forcing patience on himself, he stood and waited, knowing that Jane would probably make him wait awhile just to anger him.

He was right. At least fifteen minutes went by while he stood and stared at the walls and steps of the staircase. But just in case Jane was spying on him somehow, he refused to show his frustration or annoyance. He merely waited.

Finally, the door swung open. Mordell was standing there.

“In normal days, our master would disintegrate the wood, inspect you with snooper bugs, make a show of her great powers. But she says she is tired and weak, and that she expects understanding from you. Times are not as they once were.”

Tick was surprised by the woman’s words and shocked that Jane would dare show weakness, much less admit it outright. Not sure what to say, he shrugged, doing his best to act like it meant nothing to him either way.

“Then come.” Mordell swung the door wide, and Tick stepped into a small chamber that led to another opening. Beyond that was a sparsely furnished room with a couch and a few chairs, a small window looking out on the fading light of day.

Jane was lying on the couch, the hood of her yellow robe pulled up over her head, her red mask set in a blank expression. With one of her scarred, withered hands, she motioned for Tick to sit down on a chair near her. He did so, wondering anxiously what she wanted to talk to him about.

“The Fourth Dimension,” he said first, skipping the formalities. “This lady says you want to talk to me about the Fourth Dimension. Why?” His voice was naturally curt and devoid of feeling when he was around this woman. What kind of a person had he become to feel such things?

Jane sat up straighter and looked at him through the eyeholes of her mask. “You did something terrible, Atticus. Something really, really terrible.”

Chapter 23

Jane’s Talk

Tick didn’t need one more thing to feel guilty about, and for once he’d been taken by surprise. Here he was, in the castle of Mistress Jane, the woman who had planned to suck the life out of human children and use it to create monstrous creatures, and she was telling him that he’d done something terrible.

“And what exactly is it that I’ve done?” Tick asked.

Jane grunted as she swung her legs around off the couch and placed her feet on the floor, sitting upright. Her artificial face still had no expression. “My castle, Atticus. It’s not a pretty sight. My beautiful room atop the palace is now nothing more than a pile of rocks crushed on top of other rocks. My castle—other than a few spots like this one and the Great Hall—lies in ruins. Most of my servants were killed. My most faithful and trusted servant, Frazier Gunn, is nowhere to be found. My body is weak, and my mind is tired. And here I sit before you now.”

Tick didn’t see where this was going at all. “What does that have to do with me?”

“My point, Atticus Higginbottom, is that I’m not in any mood to fix the problems you’ve created for the Realities. Not in a mood at all.”

“Tell me, what horrible thing did I do again?” Tick was surprisingly curious.

Her mask melted into a frown. “When I used the Blade of Shattered Hope, Atticus, I was trying to do something that would benefit humanity in the long run. You saw only the short-term point of view—the destruction of an alternate reality—but it was a vital step forward on a journey toward a final and perfect Utopia. Eternal happiness for the rest of mankind’s existence. You did not understand!”

Tick’s anger flared. “Don’t sit there and preach to me! There’s not a rational person alive who would call anything you’ve done good. You’d have to be totally insane, which I think you are. So I guess it makes sense.”

“Insolent boy,” Jane muttered harshly, like an expelled breath of frustration.

“And you still haven’t told me what I did that was so terrible.”

“You cracked open the Fourth Dimension!” Jane yelled, standing on her feet as she did so. “You’ve unleashed a force that we hardly understand! And for all your noble talk about saving people, you’ve done the worst thing possible! The very energy that created the universe is now on the verge of exploding outward to do it all over again.”

Her red mask was pinched in vicious anger, her eyebrows slanted like crossed swords. And her scarred hands were squeezed into fists as she breathed in and out heavily. “I knew it as soon as I got back. I’ve always known there was a link between the Chi’karda here and the mysteries of the Fourth Dimension. Your battle with me, and the unprecedented amounts of Chi’karda we unleashed, broke that link, Atticus. Every single one of the Realities is in an enormous amount of trouble. All the earthquakes and tornadoes and destruction will seem like the good old days soon enough.”

Tick realized with a sinking stomach that Jane was telling him the truth.

“Look, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said. “Just sit down and relax. Neither one of us is going anywhere.”

“Sit down and relax?” Jane repeated, as if he’d told her to eat a live rat. But she sat down anyway, folding back into the soft cushions of her couch. “There’s no time for relaxation, boy. I first suspected something was wrong when we were in the Nonex and I saw the rift in the air that led to another world. Another Reality. For that rift to reach the Nonex, I knew it wasn’t as simple as a pathway between worlds. It had to be something much deeper. And then there was the incident with the earthquake and the subsequent uptick of craziness.”