“Tick?” said a soft voice. A girl. It took him a few seconds to recognize Sofia’s voice, and his heart lifted. “Tick, are you okay?”

He wanted to tease her that she’d just asked him the dumbest question in history, but he figured that raising his voice—even talking at all—would hurt too much. So instead he mumbled something. Not even a real word, just an acknowledgment that he’d heard her. He still refused to open his eyes, terrified of the light.

He heard a crunch of ground covering right next to him and figured someone had knelt there.

“Master Atticus?” That was definitely George, and his heart lifted a little more. “Goodness gracious me, boy. What on earth has happened here?”

“Yeah, man. Quit napping down there and talk to us.”

Paul. The relief inside Tick was swelling more by the second. At least his friends were safe, and he wasn’t dead. Things could’ve been a lot worse.

“Really, Paul?” Sofia said. “Even now you have to be sarcastic? Look at that nasty gash on his head. We’re lucky he didn’t bleed out.”

“I’m sure he wanted to hear that,” Paul muttered back.

“Sato, what happened?” Master George asked.

Sato too? Tick thought. This was too good to be true. Maybe he was having one of those dreams where you see all your friends and loved ones before you died. That thought jolted him back to reality.

He sat up, the pain like strikes of lightning in his head. “My family. My mom. Lisa. Where . . .”

The pain and nausea were too much. He passed out again.

Lisa was starting to accept the fact that she was about to die.

It surprised her how easily the realization came. Although she felt a terrible sadness, it wasn’t really about death itself. It was more about not seeing her dad and Kayla and Tick before she went. At least she had her mom.

They’d been silent for so long now. After a couple hours of trying to move the rocks and debris that blocked their exit from the Great Hall, they’d finally given up. Almost nothing would budge, and the one chunk of stone they were able to move was instantly replaced by several more from above. There was no sign of daylight in any of the cracks. What an awful way to die. They’d either starve or suffocate.

With cheerful thoughts like those, she’d resigned herself to sit with her mom, holding each other as they waited for the inevitable.

She was just thinking how stuffy the air had become when she heard a scrabbling sound near the exit, as though an animal was trying to burrow its way through the stack of debris. Then there was a crunching, some cracks, and the hollow scrape of stone against stone. Dust billowed out from the mess as rocks began to shift and collapse. Lisa didn’t know what to think, but refused to let herself feel any hope as she waited to see what was happening.

Finally a huge section of the rubble shifted and slid away, leaving a huge gap, choked with dust. A robed figure appeared, hunched over and filthy. Mistress Jane stepped into the room, the light from the lone torch barely reflecting off her dirty red mask.

Mordell lost every ounce of her usual reserved demeanor. “Master!” she yelled. “Master, you’re alive!”

“For now,” she said in her raw, scratchy voice—it sounded weaker than ever. “Come. We have a lot of work to do.”

Chapter 31

From Head to Toe

When Tick came to his senses again, the pain in his head had lessened a bit. The tiniest, tiniest bit. But the nausea was gone, and it didn’t seem like the whole world would swim away from him at any second.

Someone—he didn’t know who—helped him sit up. Groggy and dazed, he waited a few seconds before opening his eyes. The light had faded considerably, the orange glow of sunset settling somewhere to the west beyond the trees. The others were sitting around him on the edge of the forest; they could see the long fields of grass, littered with rubble and debris, that led to the utter ruin of what had once been the mighty castle of Mistress Jane. He could just barely see the slowly spinning mass of gray mist that still churned within it. He looked away. He didn’t want to look at it or think about it.

He couldn’t believe all the people sitting around him. It was like a reunion too good to be true. Mothball, with her scraggly hair and her clothes hanging off her skin-and-bones body, her face lit up by a smile that seemed almost out of place in the gloom of their situation. Rutger, his round body nestled next to her like a fat penguin. Master George, dressed up as always, though his suit was wrinkled and dirty, with a Barrier Wand laid across his lap. Sally, sitting cross-legged in his plaid shirt and overalls like a lumberjack waiting for an order to start cutting down the trees around them.

And then Tick’s three best friends, sitting in a row, staring at him like they expected him to give a speech. Sato. Sofia. Paul. They were dressed as if they’d just gotten home from school, but worry etched lines on their faces. Tick didn’t know if it was the fading light, but they looked older. They definitely looked older.

And then an emptiness hit him again, hard. It was like he was looking at a portrait of his life, and a big chunk had been ripped out. His family.

A wave of despair almost made him pass out again. “My mom and sister,” he said, hearing the panic in his own voice. “I told Mordell to take them somewhere safe. Any idea what happened to them?”

Everyone in the group looked at one another; they didn’t need to say anything.

“We have to go look for them,” Tick said, starting to get up.

Master George reached out and put a hand on Tick’s shoulder, gently making him sit back down. “Atticus, none of us even know what happened. The castle is completely destroyed, and Sato’s army is just now recovering and counting up their losses. Before we can help you or find your family, we need to know what we’re dealing with. A few minutes more won’t change their plight. In fact, the more informed we are, the more we can help them. Do you understand?”

Tick didn’t. For some reason, he was angry. “I’ll go sift through every one of those stones by myself if I have to.”

“You mean they were inside the building when it collapsed?” Master George’s face paled.

Tick stood up. “Yes, they were inside. And if you haven’t noticed, there’s a big tornado right in the middle of all that mess. Maybe growing closer to my mom and sister right now.”

“Which is exactly why we need—”

“No!” Tick yelled. “No.”

He was lost and confused by the worry that ate away inside of him, but he didn’t care. He got to his feet and started marching toward the ruined castle, ignoring the pain that lanced through his body from his skull to the bottoms of his feet.

Lisa didn’t like what Jane had gone on to say about the Fourth Dimension and the all-consuming Void it had unleashed. She assumed that it would consume her too. But Mistress Jane had said little else—including whether or not Tick was safe. Instead she had rested for a time, eyes closed, until she was ready. Then she started using her fancy powers to move and shift more of the rubble so they could get out of the destroyed castle. Lisa watched, fascinated.

The woman’s robe was a mess, caked with grime and dust, ripped in countless places. Her hood hung off her head like a discarded flag, revealing a scarred mass where her hair should’ve been, the skin red and raw. Lisa knew she was supposed to hate Mistress Jane—the crazy lady who’d killed people and done evil, evil things—but how could you not feel sorry for someone who looked so miserable and probably felt even worse?

But nothing seemed to faze Jane. She held up her wounded hands like Moses parting the Red Sea, and sparkles of orange flew from her body in sprays of bright mist. Grinding sounds filled the air as rock and stone moved at her will, shifting and flying and breaking apart. Dust clogged the air, but she used her power to whisk that away as well, obviously needing to see what she was doing.

After several minutes of this show, Lisa was expecting to see daylight spill into the room, but it never happened. She had no clue what time it was, and her heart dropped a little to think it might be in the middle of the night. She’d never wanted to see sunshine so desperately, and she was dying to get out there and see if her brother was okay. To see if he’d survived whatever force was trying to “eat this world,” as Jane had put it.

Her mom reached out and squeezed her hand as if she’d sensed the thought. “I’m sure he’s okay. He has to be. If this witchy woman made it through, I’m sure our boy did too. Don’t you worry.”

Lisa looked at her mom and forced a smile. “Yeah, I’m sure you’re not worrying one bit. Are you?”

“Of course not.” She grinned back. “Okay, maybe a teensy tiny bit.”

Mistress Jane stopped what she was doing. The fiery orange cloud sucked back into her like something shown in reverse on video, and she lowered her hands. The woman’s shoulders slumped as if she’d used every last ounce of her energy. Now that the rock and stone had quit grinding and cracking, Lisa heard another odd sound. Like a rushing wind, with a hum and bulge of power behind it. It reminded her of the heavy thrum of machinery, as if somewhere around the corner was a manufacturing plant still trying to work its way through the landfall of a hurricane.

Mordell had stayed very quiet through the whole ordeal, but now she walked up to Mistress Jane and gently put her hands on her boss’s shoulders.

“Are you alright, Master?” she asked in a voice Lisa barely heard over the noise coming from outside. “May I help you sit down?”

Jane turned around, and her mask showed no emotion at all. “My friends. My creatures. I . . . What did the Void do to them?”

Lisa thought that was a strange thing to say and exchanged a confused look with her mom, who shrugged her shoulders slightly then spoke. “What do you mean, Jane? After everything that has happened, the abominations you created are the only thing you’re worried about? Do you even care in the slightest that my son could be out there, hurt or dead? Do you?”

Lisa’s mom had grown angrier with every word and had shouted the last question. She visibly huffed like a bullied kid on the playground.

But Jane seemed to have no reaction. Maybe she was just too weary. “I fear for your son, too, Lorena. I do. But you could never know what it’s like to stand here and not sense the presence of hundreds of your own children. The Void took them . . . transformed them somehow.”

Lisa’s mom took a furious step forward and stopped, as if she realized how crazy it would be to threaten this woman who’d done the magical things they’d just witnessed. “I could never know? You stand there and say I could never know? I have an actual child out there, and you’re talking about things that were created only to hurt and kill others.”

Lisa had never seen her mom so mad.

Unfortunately, so was Jane. Her red mask pulled back into a fierce expression. “How dare you speak about them that way! You have no inkling what you’re talking about! I won’t stand for this disrespect!”

Lisa knew her mom was about to do something stupid. She quickly grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “Who cares what she thinks, Mom? Let’s just get out of here and—”