- The Void of Mist and Thunder
She’d never felt so helpless. Her only son was out there, fighting something that seemed impossible. Something that shouldn’t exist. And to add to it, he was fighting alongside the woman who’d tried to kill him and countless others. Atticus was putting his faith in a madwoman. It took every ounce of Lorena’s willpower to not run back out that door and try to help her boy—she almost itched from the desire. But she had Lisa to think about. And Edgar and Kayla back home. Atticus could take care of himself—he’d proven it over and over.
And so the battle raged on, the sounds of fire and wind increasing in volume. Lorena could do nothing but sit and hold her daughter and imagine all the awful things that might have happened, or might be happening, to her sweet, sweet son.
Everything changed again in a moment. An instant so terrible and horrifying that Lorena knew she’d never sleep again without it haunting her nightmares.
It was an eruption. A detonation. A thunderclap of sound and movement that shook the Great Hall as if it were nothing but an empty cardboard box. Lorena and Lisa both screamed as they flew across the room, smacking into Mordell and rolling another few feet before coming to a stop. The air was filled with the noise of cracks and booms, as if the entire castle had exploded and collapsed in on itself.
Lorena threw away her caution and scrambled to her feet, trying to set aside the panic that thrust itself through her nerves. She grabbed Lisa by the hand, lifted her to her feet, and ran to the exit of the Great Hall, swaying back and forth as the floor continued to tilt and pitch. She’d just stepped in front of the doorway when she stopped, her heart plummeting. Rock and stone and brick had collapsed into a heap, blocking the arched opening completely. Dust choked the air.
Mordell’s voice from behind Lorena made her jump and spin around to see the woman standing there, impossibly looking even more grave than before.
“The Great Hall has survived,” the Lady of Blood and Sorrow said. “But I’d guess nothing else has. We’re trapped.”
Sato was lying on his stomach, his hands held over his head to protect himself from the debris that had been raining down for several minutes. Every inch of his body had been battered and bruised by falling rocks, but luckily, his skull had been spared for the most part. It’d been rough going since everything went haywire inside the castle.
Not to mention the fact that he’d been thrown through the air. Twice.
First when Tick used his powers to pick him up and whip his body out of the castle. Saving him. And second when the castle suddenly exploded, a wave of pure energy erupting from its core and tossing him and the rest of his army hundreds of feet away like they were nothing but dried leaves. That had saved him again, because if he’d been any closer, he probably would’ve been crushed by larger chunks of stone from the destroyed castle.
And so, he was alive.
He pushed himself to his knees, groaning from the aches and pains that riddled his body. He was woozy too, the dusty grass beneath his knees seeming to bob up and down like the surface of the ocean. What little energy he had, drained right out of him, and he collapsed again, but at least he was able to spin himself a bit and land on his rear end. He could see the rubble that had once been the great castle of Mistress Jane, the woman who had killed his parents.
What had been half-destroyed before now lay in utter ruins. A giant heap of crumbled stone and wood and plaster. Pieces of the castle lay scattered outward from the main body all the way to where Sato sat and beyond, reaching the forest that wasn’t too far behind him. But as satisfying as it was to see the carnage, he felt a tremor in his heart for what still pulsed and throbbed in the middle of the destruction like a beating heart.
The tornado of mist still churned where it had been, with nothing but open sky above it. Except it wasn’t much of a tornado anymore.
It was a seething, roiling mass of gray, its billowing surface frothing and foaming before turning back in on itself, leaving little wisps of fog streaming out like some kind of dreary decoration. Lightning continued to flash and strike in huge bolts of brilliant white, the thunder rumbling across the ground and echoing off the wall of trees behind Sato. The mass was probably fifty feet wide and a hundred feet tall. It was still moving in a circular motion, but not as intensely as a tornado anymore. It was like a living thing, devouring the air around it and ever growing, slowly.
Members of the Fifth Army were scattered all over the field, groaning and rubbing their eyes and stiffly testing their joints, looking for injuries. Sadly, some weren’t moving, and Sato felt the heavy weight of leadership once again. He’d led people to their death.
Something caught his eye as he scanned the area—a body that lay lifeless but wasn’t as big as the others. A boy.
A blister of alarm popped in Sato’s heart as he leaped to his feet and started running, finding strength from some hidden part of his soul. He dodged and maneuvered around soldiers, his eyes focused on his friend, who wasn’t moving a muscle, not even a twitch. Sato didn’t know if he could take another death of someone so close to him. He was ashamed that he didn’t feel quite the same about his army fighters, but this was different. Tick had become not just one of his closest friends, but a symbol of everything the Realitants stood for.
Sato jumped over a prostrate woman of the Fifth then slid onto the grass like a baseball player, coming to a stop right at Tick’s head. The first thing he noticed was that his back was rising and falling, ever so slightly. Tick lay on his stomach, his arms spread out awkwardly, as if he’d landed and conked out immediately. But he wasn’t dead. Thank the Realities, he wasn’t dead.
Sato reached out and gently shook his friend’s shoulders. No response.
He grabbed him by the arm and carefully rolled him over onto his back so he could get a good look at him. His eyes were closed, his clothes ripped and filthy, his skin covered in dirt and soot. But most troubling was a huge gash on the side of his head, blood matting the hair down like dark red gel.
“Tick,” Sato whispered, trying to fight back the tears that wanted to pour out. Why? Why did everything in their lives always have to be so terrible?
“Tick,” he repeated. Then he picked him up and slung him over his shoulders, grunting under the weight. He began to walk, though he had no idea where he was going.
Paul walked through the twilit forest of the Thirteenth Reality, Sofia and Rutger to his right, Mothball, Sally, and Master George—using his Barrier Wand like a cane—to his left. No one said a word as they picked their way through the bush and bramble. The massive concussion of sound they’d heard a few minutes earlier was enough to silence anyone for a week. Paul forced his thoughts away from the terrible possible explanations for that sound and concentrated on moving forward.
Ever since he’d returned to the Realitant headquarters, he’d been dying to know what in the world the little button in the box Gretel had given them was for. Old George had sent them to Gretel for a reason, had given them a secret password for a reason, had wanted that box with nothing in it but a plastic green button for a reason. But neither he nor Gretel would tell him what it was supposed to be used for. Phrases like “a need-to-know basis” and “you’ll find out soon enough” were thrown around. But that didn’t satisfy Paul.
Not one bit.
Oh, well. They had much bigger problems on their hands. There was trouble here in the Thirteenth Reality, and any notion they’d had of getting rest and relaxation was out the window. Master George hadn’t needed to tell them that when he said they’d all be winking there to regroup with Sato and find Tick. The situation was surely dangerous.
Paul smiled. It was as if his brain was so used to bad stuff that it wasn’t allowing him to focus on the best piece of news he’d ever received in his life. Tick was alive. Tick was back. Now they just had to figure out this mess and get him home safe and sound.
The woods had slowly thinned over the last hundred yards or so, though the air up ahead seemed slightly murky, like a dust storm had passed through recently, which seemed impossible for a place so green and vibrant with life.
“Shouldn’t we pick up the pace a little?” he asked the small crowd of Realitants.
“No need for haste, my good man,” came the not- surprising reply from Master George. “Our old friend Jane might have placed a few traps along the edge of the forest. Won’t do us much good to run willy-nilly right into them and spring the things.”
Paul was annoyed. “Won’t do us much good if we show up and everyone’s dead, either.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Sofia said. “He’s going to be fine.”
Paul heard a deadness in her voice that scared him. He realized that she had already begun the process of accepting that just because Tick was back and alive didn’t mean he was okay or safe. Paul didn’t look at it that way. If their friend was back, he’d figure out a way to get out of any mess thrown his way. The guy was a freak of nature—in a good way.
“I mean it,” Sofia added.
“Sorry,” Paul muttered. “I’m just anxious to see him. Help him if he needs it.”
She nodded but didn’t say anything.
They finally reached a point where the end of the woods was visible, and all of them saw it at once. A person with a body slung over his or her shoulders, stumbling at the last line of trees. Even as Paul watched, whoever it was fell down and out of his view. For the first time, he could focus on the scene beyond. And it was like a scene out of an old war movie.
Dust-choked air. Bodies littering the ground, many moving sluggishly to get up, some not moving at all. Countless chunks of rock and wood strewn about the grassy fields. And past all of that, the closest edge barely in sight, was a big pile of ruins and rubble. Paul had been here before so he knew what it was—Mistress Jane’s castle, completely destroyed.
Sofia broke into a run, her feet crashing through the weeds and twigs of the forest floor. Before Paul could follow her, she stopped like she’d seen a big snake. Then she was yelling.
“It’s Tick and Sato!”
Tick’s head felt like the end of a stubborn nail that refused to go into the wood straight. Like a hammer had pounded on it, bent it, yanked it straight, then pounded it all over again. He was barely aware of someone picking him up, then later falling again. He tried opening his eyes, but the light was like a sunburst right in front of him, stabbing and making the ache in his skull even worse.
Now he lay face-first on a ground that was prickly with twigs and pine straw. He groaned a couple of times to make sure whoever had tried to help him knew he wasn’t dead, but even the sound of that went off in his head like clanging church bells. A sudden burst of nausea filled his gut.
Please don’t throw up, he thought to himself. Oh, please don’t throw up.
He heard noises then, shouts and the cricking and cracking of footsteps. It all became a painful blur to him, and he figured it didn’t matter much anymore. He hurt, and that was that.
Someone rolled him onto his back, and that was the last straw. He jolted to his elbows and threw up to the side. When he finished, he flopped back flat to the ground and grimaced as a fresh wave of agony punched its way through his skull and down his spine.