Another one of the Voids shot a stream of flame and lava from its mouth. The fire sliced through the air toward the wall then curved, swinging around to head for Tick’s group. Everyone collapsed to the ground—Tick yanking on his mom and sister’s clothes—just as the deadly cylinder of bright red and orange flew over them and splashed into the wide stream next to the passage. Sparks and shoots of fire went everywhere as the water boiled and hissed for several seconds. Then it ended.

Tick grabbed his mom and looked her in the face. “Let me do this, Mom. You need to keep Lisa safe. Let me do this!”

Another burst of fire and lava came shooting through the air. This time it was Lisa who shoved Tick and his mom out of the way. The fiery stream slammed into the floor where they’d been lying. Sparks showered onto Tick; he swatted them off his shirt and stamped out the little fires around him.

“Mom!” he yelled. “You have to go! Jane and I can fight them off!”

There was no more argument. Mordell helped his mom and Lisa get to their feet, and then the three of them sprinted back down the passageway, heading for some place Tick hoped would protect them. Maybe the Great Hall. He turned back to the Voids in time to see another stream of fire erupting from a creature’s mouth. The lava shot forward in a violent burst, as if the thing wanted it to reach the three fleeing women.

Tick acted without thinking. He triggered something in his heart, deep within his chest, and pulled something out with his mind and soul. A spinning cloud of orange sparkles ignited into existence around his body, and he threw some of it at the flying barrage of fire and lava. They met in midair and erupted into a fireworks show, sparks dropping and dancing on the ground. But it had worked, and Lisa and his mom disappeared around the bend, with Mordell on their heels.

It was Jane and Tick now. They exchanged a glance that somehow said, Here we go again. Enemies working as allies.

They stood side by side and faced the army of gray men, the Voids from another dimension. Tick wanted to say something but kept his mouth shut and waited for the battle to begin.

Sato had pulled back his men and women, funneling them through the broken door and onto the flattened grasses outside the castle. Three of the gray men had fired spouts of flame and lava at his army, and one of the attacks had hit home, enveloping a giant woman named Erthell in fire. Two of her companions had thrown her into the river to put out the flames, and then stayed to help her back onto the bank.

Sato wasn’t running away either. Without any kind of shield to protect themselves, he wanted to fight back from cover. He and several other soldiers lined up against the wall outside the entrance to the castle, Shurrics at the ready. Even more soldiers stood right behind them, ready to jump out and throw Ragers and Squeezers—the nasty little grenades with metal hooks that contracted into whatever they hit—at the enemy to cause distraction and pain.

“Ready the volley!” Sato shouted. “As soon as they fly and ignite, we start pounding them with sound. Ready?”

“Ready!” came the roar of their reply. Tollaseat was on the other side of the broken door, and he flashed Sato a wild grin.

“Now!” Sato commanded.

Little balls full of dancing electricity and dozens of Squeezer grenades flew out of his soldiers’ hands, catapulting through the air toward the lines of gray men. At the sight of the volley, the creatures started shooting bursts of lava and fire from their mouths, squirting pure heat in all directions. Some of them hit home, incinerating the Realitant weapons on contact. But some of the weapons got through and exploded, working their magic.

A couple of Ragers hit the ground several feet in front of the first of the creatures, cracking into the rock and collecting debris like shavings to a magnet. It happened so fast, but the process never stopped wowing Sato. The little balls rolled forward in a burst until they weren’t little anymore, becoming great mounds of earth and stone that crashed into the unsuspecting gray men, throwing several to the ground and rolling over them. The ones that died seemed to explode into gray mist and were whisked up into the air, forming a small cloud. Jagged bolts of lightning crackled through the gray masses.

A few of the Squeezers made it through as well, exploding when they hit anything solid, their little metal clips flying in all directions. When they made contact with the gray skin of the creatures, the grenades’ sharp, needlelike ends contracted and squeezed. The monsters roared with pain, flames leaping out of their mouths. The entire castle rumbled from the awful sound of it. One of the creatures was hurt badly enough that it dissolved into mist and flew toward the circling cloud like its companions had done. Several clouds hovered above the castle now.

“Fire the Shurrics!” Sato yelled.

He and his fellow soldiers aimed and obeyed, shooting out blasts of pure sound waves at the creatures. The leading edges of the waves, heavy thumps that were felt instead of heard, flew forward until they slammed into a few bodies of the gray men. Most of them erupted into mist and rose to join the other lightning-laced clouds. But there were still plenty more creatures to fight, and Sato kept shooting.

He caught a glimpse of the battle raging on the other side. Streaks of sparkling orange and thick, gray bodies flew in all directions. Their screams were like the roars of a blacksmith’s forge.

Sato fired his Shurric at the enemy.

Chapter 27

Beams of Fire

The battle had begun slowly once Tick’s mom and the others were gone. The few shots of fire and lava from the mouths of the Voids were easily blocked by Jane or Tick, taking turns as if they’d done this for years. There seemed to be more action on the other side of the creatures, where Sato and his army had obviously started attacking with some of the Realitant weapons. Tick recognized the sounds of Ragers and Squeezers and that skull-rattling thump of a Shurric. And there were weird cloud shapes of gray mist hovering near the ceiling above—tiny bolts of lightning dancing within.

But then things close by changed.

The entire front row of Voids closest to Tick opened their glowing mouths even wider, and pure flame poured out, gushing with lava and brilliant yellow light. There were at least a dozen perfectly cylindrical geysers of fiery material coming at Tick and Jane like a mass of thick snakes.

Tick threw all his focus into the Chi’karda that burned within him and sent it out in waves to crash against the oncoming heat. There were spectacular explosions and sparks and hisses of flame raining to the ground, bouncing like yellow raindrops. He had to keep his eyes open against the blinding light in order to see what was coming and where to aim his powers. Spots swam in his vision, purple blotches and streaks of black.

He wiped his hands across his face and blinked hard several times. Still the streams of pure fire came at him, and he blocked them, destroyed them. Jane was doing the same, but it was taking every bit of their effort. The point at which Chi’karda and Void-fire met and exploded was getting closer and closer to where Tick stood. He needed to change tactics, shift the advantage.

With a scream and an almost violent push of Chi’karda from his body, he ran forward, blasting away at anything dangerous that came in sight. His sudden movement seemed to take the Voids by surprise; several of them quit shooting their deadly venom. Tick narrowed his eyes, focused all his energy on the bodies of the Voids, and threw his power at them. An almost solid wall of orange sparks erupted from him like a wave, flying forward until it crashed into several gray men. The orange power swarmed around the Voids, picking them up and tossing their strange forms into the air, sweeping them away like a giant with a broom. Those strange, furnacelike screams tore through the building; the ghostly sound gave Tick the creeps.

He turned to see Jane copying his method, running forward and bringing the attack to the Voids. A wave of Chi’karda shot out from her and sent even more of the gray humanlike creatures toward the ceiling like tossed bags.

Several spouts of Void-fire suddenly came shooting at Tick from the untouched creatures next to the far wall. Without time to react, he dove for the ground and rolled, feeling the impact of the fire hitting the ground near his back. Sparks and chunks of rock sprayed into his skin, needles of pain that made him roll harder and faster. As he spun, there was suddenly a drop below him—the hard floor vanished, and he was in open air. It was like time had frozen just long enough for him to realize that strange fact.

He plunged into the ice-cold waters of the castle river. The freezing liquid bit at every one of his nerves. He gasped for air as he began to right himself and swim back to the stone edge.

Something grabbed him by the ankle and pulled him under.

They were making progress.

Sato called on his soldiers to enter the castle proper, firing away with their weapons as they advanced. The enemy’s numbers had been cut in half at least, the gray bodies collapsing into a mist of smoke before swirling up to the high ceiling to form yet another lightning-laced cloud. It was like a storm had gathered in a false sky and rain would fall at any second.

Gray creatures still catapulted up from the ground left and right on the other side of the fray, and Sato began to feel confident they had turned the tide. He kept firing, slamming the sound power of his Shurric into one creature after another. Beams of molten fire continued to shoot all around him; one came straight at Sato, and he dove and rolled to avoid it. He jumped back to his feet and kept fighting, as did the rest of the Fifth.

He heard the sound of splashing to his left. He risked a quick look and saw that Tick was flailing in the water of the river, trying to make his way to the edge. He seemed disoriented, or like he’d forgotten how to swim.

“Cover me!” Sato shouted to his closest soldier.

Sweeping his weapon left and right as he ran, Sato booked it to the river’s edge, wary of any arrows of fire that might come his way from the gray men. But the battle seemed almost over—he could see that witch, Mistress Jane, using her powers to destroy the same enemy he fought. That made a million questions tear through his mind—almost made him stop running. Mistress Jane. He couldn’t possibly accept that she was on his side.


He looked down to see Tick’s face in the water, his hand reaching out for him. He was still thrashing as if he might drown.

“Tick!” Sato shouted as he got to his knees, leaning over to see if he could grab his friend’s hand. Tick was about five feet from the river’s edge. “Swim over here!” He looked behind him every couple of seconds to make sure nothing came at him that might dissolve his head in lava.

“Something’s got my foot!” Tick yelled. “A tentacle, maybe! It’s wrapped around my ankle!”

Sato leaned a little farther out and was almost able to grab Tick’s hand. “Just . . . come a little closer!”

Tick didn’t answer, just kept beating at the water with his arms. His body moved a couple of inches, but his hand was still out of reach.

Sato inched forward, his knees now extending past the edge, straining to clasp . . . those . . . fingers.

He made contact and squeezed his fist around Tick’s and pulled, snapping his friend almost a foot closer. But then Tick jerked to a stop, almost causing Sato to tumble into the water. Something definitely had hold of Tick and wasn’t letting go without a fight.