Lorena pulled up short about a hundred feet from the jagged edges of the broken door, stopping Lisa with an outstretched arm. No matter how much bravery they’d found, the loss of caution would be absurd. They could see better now, and Lorena wanted to understand what they were running toward.

A mass of churning gray air hovered behind the wide opening of the doorway like clouds that boiled before unleashing torrents of rain. Streaks of lightning sliced through the grayness, illuminating the world in brilliant flashes of white fire. The thunder that pounded the air was deafening, making Lorena’s ears feel as if they were bleeding. All the fangen and their cousins had either fled or lay on the ground around the door, battered and dead. Which made her wonder what she and Lisa thought they were doing coming this close to the danger.

The booming sounds stopped so suddenly that Lorena’s ears popped, and the silence was like cotton that had been stuffed in her ears. There was the slightest buzz of electricity in the air, and the gray clouds behind the door were now full of tiny bolts of electricity, a web of white light. Lisa was about to ask something, but Lorena shushed her. Things were changing.

The churning, smoky cloud began to coalesce into sections, filtering and swirling, as if some unseen hand had begun to shape the substance like putty. Soon there were gaps in the mist, the green grass and blue sky shining through from beyond. The gray fog continued its shaping until several dozen oblong sections stood on end, scattered around like a crowd of ghosts. Then heads formed as the misty substance solidified into slick, gray skin. Arms. Legs. Eyes full of burning fire.

Oddly enough, they were roughly the shape of some of Mistress Jane’s creatures that Lorena had seen fleeing. Though these were bigger and more crudely formed.

The one closest to Lorena started walking toward her.

Chapter 25

The Voids

Sato was about a hundred yards away, Tollaseat and the rest of the Fifth Army right behind him, when the mass of fog and lightning in front of the castle started to shift and take shape. Dozens of shapes, bigger than most men, were continually refining themselves, their edges sharpening, until they looked like Mistress Jane’s creatures. Arms, legs, wings, the whole bit.

Sato realized he’d stopped without meaning to.

“What bloody kind of business is that, ya reckon?” Tollaseat asked him from behind, a deadly whisper that fit the mood.

“I have no idea,” Sato answered. “But there can’t be anything good about it. We need to get there. Come on!”

Sato burst into a sprint, and his soldiers followed, their feet pounding on the grass like the hooves of a hundred horses.

Tick rounded a bend and finally came into view of the busted door through which he’d been before, a long time ago. Outside of it, dozens of gray shapes that roughly resembled Jane’s creatures stood in the fields beyond the castle walls. He couldn’t quite compute what was happening—they looked similar to what Jane had created, but they were also bigger, and . . . different. More humanoid.

The few figures in the front were walking forward, through the door. Their eyes shone with brilliant displays of fire, as if they were windows into a furnace. Tendrils of lightning shot across the surface of their slick, colorless skin.

Then Tick saw two people standing between him and the oncoming creatures.

“Mom!” he yelled, breaking into a run to reach her. “What in the world are you doing out here?”

She turned to face him, as did Lisa, and Tick’s heart broke a little when he saw the fear in their eyes and expressions.

“We’re trying to figure out . . .” his mom began to shout, but didn’t finish. She pulled Lisa behind her and came toward Tick until they met. “It hardly matters. What are those things?” She gestured to the briskly walking gray people about fifty feet away.

Mistress Jane joined Tick, her red mask staring with a slight look of awe at the oncoming ghostly figures. The fire of their eyes reflected off the shiny, wet-looking surface of the red metal covering her hideous face.

Tick felt a shiver of panic, but he knew he had to put on a brave front for his family. “It has something to do with the Fourth Dimension breaking into our Reality. It’s pure energy, so maybe it can take things from our world and recreate them. Don’t know, though. Come on.”

He pointed down the passageway. The creatures were coming straight for them, marching with purpose. Their faces had no distinctive features—just eyes full of flame. Their arms and legs bulged with gray muscle, and their shoulders and chests were broad, but the wings—on those that had them—were misshapen and barely hanging on. Trickles of electricity continued to dance across the surface of their skin.

The Voids—that’s how Tick thought of them, no other word coming to mind—had reached them and stopped. Now fully inside the castle, they lined up in several rows that reached back dozens of feet. There had to be at least fifty of the things. Eyes of fire, gray skin charged with lines of white lightning. But they were still now, staring at Tick and the others.

Mistress Jane spoke in a whisper. “The Fourth Dimension is even more powerful than I thought. What has it done to my sweet, sweet creations?”

When the gray creatures started entering the castle, Sato’s urgency picked up even stronger. Tick was in there somewhere, and these things looked like nothing but trouble.

He sprinted harder, hearing the thumping of his soldiers at his heels. They reached the torn land where the spinning mass of gray air had churned up the soil and ruined the grass. Sato ran across it, taking care not to trip over the divots and chunks of dirt. The inside of the castle was dark, but an eerie orange light shone from somewhere. Sato wondered if it might be coming from the faces of the creatures themselves, but they all had their backs to him at the moment.

Sato stopped at the threshold of the huge entrance and held up a hand. Tollaseat and the others stopped on a dime, and not a peep came from anyone.

The gray monsters had quit walking, and they huddled close together, watching something on the other side. Sato couldn’t see over their heads.

“Come on,” he whispered.

Trying his best to make no noise, skulking on the front pads of his feet, he moved forward, approaching the back of the pack. He was about ten feet away when one of the creatures turned around sharply to face them. Sato was shocked to see that the thing had two wide eye sockets filled with flickering, hot-burning flames. It was like the inside of its head was a forge, ready to heat up some iron for sword-making.

“What in the name of—” Tollaseat started, but further movement by the gray man cut him short.

A mouth was opening in the gray face, the gap also full of fiery flames, red and orange. It expanded until the upper edge almost touched the eyeholes, an entire face looking in on an inferno. The creature’s long, thick arms ended in stumps that looked way too much like fists coiled in anger. But then the gray man stopped moving. He held that strange, menacing pose with its oven of a mouth stuck in a huge yawn.

Sato didn’t know whether he should attack. He knew nothing about this enemy, or whether it really was an enemy. And if it was, he didn’t know what kinds of power it had to fight them back. But he had to do something.

As he slowly took a few steps toward the creature, Sato’s right hand reached down inside his own pocket and fingered one of the cool, round balls that were nestled in there. He pulled one into his grip, then out of his pocket. It was a Rager, its trapped static electricity bouncing to get out and destroy things.

The gray man started to growl, like a whoosh of air had ramped up the fire in his head.

Tick had been thrilled when he noticed Sato and his Fifth Army come marching through the broken door, many of the soldiers holding Shurrics, those deadly weapons of sound. Sato disappeared from sight—he was shorter than the Voids standing outside—but the heads of people of the Fifth Reality rose above the creatures, and their faces were mixed with awe and excitement. Not much fear.

All of the Voids had opened their mouths wide, fire raging within, their faces slightly angled toward the ceiling of the passage. Their arms were rigid at their sides, stumpy fists on the ends, wilted wings hanging off their backs. A low groaning sound came from the rear of the pack, like the roar of an airplane’s engine as it started up.

The whole scene reminded Tick of a standoff in an old Western movie, and he didn’t like it one bit.

“Mistress Jane,” he said. “If you’ve got some advice, now would be a great time to share it.”

The robed woman stepped forward, seemed to assess the situation for a few seconds, then turned to face Tick. Her mask had no expression, but the roaring, growling sounds were getting louder and louder.

“I don’t know how to fight this kind of power,” Jane said. “The Fourth Dimension has obviously taken my creations and turned them into a weapon of some sort.”

She’d barely finished her sentence when one of the Voids in the front row ejected something from its mouth—a beam of pure flame, fiery and steaming, like a spout of lava shot from a hose. It flew up, then out, then came down and headed straight for Jane’s head.

Chapter 26

Ragers and Squeezers

As Tick dove forward, his shoulders smashing into the side of Jane and tackling her to the ground, somewhere in the back of his mind, he was aware that once again he was saving a person who’d devoted her life to doing evil things. No matter her intent. They crashed to the ground, and Tick felt a hot streak fly above him, almost enough to singe the hairs on the back of his neck.

He rolled off Jane in time to see the short stream of liquid fire sail past the rest of the crowd and hit the wall on the other side of the stream. Instead of splashing like lava, the fire sparked and burst into tiny explosions, crumbling some of the stone. Chips of rock rained into the water. But the weapon—or whatever it had been—left no trace, evaporating into the air with a puff of steam.

Jane and Tick jumped back to their feet, and everyone faced the Voids. Their mouths were still open in firing position, but none of them were doing anything just yet.

“Could it have been a warning?” Tick’s mom asked. “Is there any way we can talk to them? If they’re really from—”

“They are from the Fourth Dimension,” Jane interrupted. “And talking to them would surely be a waste of time. I can’t imagine they think like us, talk like us, see the universe like us. Our comprehensions of the Realities are probably as different as those of a spider and a redwood tree.”

“Or more like a human and an ant,” Tick murmured. “Maybe we’re nothing more than something they need to step on.”

Jane shook her head slowly back and forth. “We need to kill them, plain and simple. Atticus, prepare yourself. Pull in your Chi’karda, boy.”

Tick felt a rushing behind his ears, his heart thumping. He turned to Mordell and made sure he avoided eye contact with his family. “Take . . . please take my mom and sister somewhere safe. Please.”

“Atticus Higginbottom!” his mom said, planting her feet and propping her hands on her hips. “We can do just as much—”