There were several soft thuds of something landing on the ground nearby, and Lisa heard her mom gasp. She quickly turned around. Several people had jumped down from the piles of rubble to join them, and the one standing closest sent a wave of something indescribable through Lisa’s body, filling her heart and making it beat rapidly.

She and her mom ran to Tick and pulled him into a hug so tight she might have feared for his life if they all weren’t laughing and crying so hard.

Chapter 32

Talking All at Once

Tick didn’t know if he’d ever felt such a burst of pure emotion. As he hugged his mom and sister—both of them seeming to have a contest on who could squeeze him the hardest—he was crying one second then laughing the next. It was as if he’d lost his mind and all the control that went with it. But the feelings surging through his body were so strong, he didn’t quite know how to handle it.

All the things he’d been through recently flashed across his mind: being taken by the Sleeks, the ordeal with the Blade of Shattered Hope, the terrible battle with Mistress Jane at the Factory, and then the short time he’d been in the Nonex, wondering if he’d ever see his family again. When they’d first been reunited in the Great Hall, he’d been too dazed to fully appreciate what it meant to be back together again. But now—especially after thinking they might have been crushed by the collapsing castle—it had hit him all at once.

Finally, reluctantly, he pulled away and took a step back. And the first thought he had when he looked at the tear-lined faces of his mom and Lisa was that they were still missing two important pieces.

“Dad,” he said. “Kayla. I wish we were all together. Do you think they are okay?”

His mom nodded. “We left them at home, and I’m pretty sure Edgar wouldn’t dare venture out with all the problems going on. They’ve got plenty of food, and the house wasn’t hurt in the earthquakes.”

“We need to hurry and get back to them,” Tick said. “Make sure they’re okay and let them know we’re all safe.”

His mom simply nodded and smiled, fresh tears squeezing out of her eyes.

Lisa reached out and patted him on the shoulder. “Good thing you had such an awesome big sister all those years, huh? Or you’d probably still be bawling your eyes out somewhere, too chicken to save the universe.”

“Yeah, something like that.” Tick rolled his eyes, then remembered with embarrassment that there were people standing around gawking at them. Master George, Mothball, Sally, Rutger, Sato, Paul, and Sofia. Mistress Jane, her robe in terrible shape, her exposed head as bad as ever. And Mordell, who looked like she’d just drowned her own puppies in a bathtub.

George was leaning on his Barrier Wand.

“Can you wink us back to my house?” Tick asked the Realitant boss. “I could do it myself, but I’m a little spent.” He smiled wearily.

His mom spoke up. “We’ve got our own.” She stared sternly at Mordell. “What did you do with it?”

The woman shook her head.

“Lost in the rubble, I take it?” his mom responded. “Do you have any idea how long it took me to build that Wand? How much it means to me?” Her voice rose, and her face reddened.

“I’m terribly sorry,” Mordell replied.

Tick felt he should ask when and where and how his own mom had created a Barrier Wand, but nothing surprised him anymore. She could tell him all about it once they were home. He decided he had the strength after all. “It’s okay, Mom. I can wink us back. I’ve done it before, but now I know how to actually use the stuff that makes me a freak.”

“Hey,” Paul chimed in, “I’m the only one here allowed to call you that.”

“He’s not a freak,” Sofia said. “You’re just jealous.”

Everyone started talking at once, then, as if a cork had been popped off and permission had been given to converse freely. Mothball and Rutger were next to Tick, speaking over each other to say how happy they were that everyone was safe. Tick’s mom was arguing with Mordell about the lost Wand. Lisa was trying to calm their mom down. Master George and Sally were discussing their options, and Paul and Sofia wanted to butt in and have Tick to themselves, but Mothball and Rutger would have none of it. Even Sato seemed to be talking to someone, but Tick couldn’t tell what was being said or who it was.


Mistress Jane’s voice boomed throughout the room, echoing back and forth unnaturally off the carved black walls as if she’d used Chi’karda to make it happen. It sliced through everyone’s conversation instantly. The Great Hall fell quiet, the only sound that of the churning, rushing noises caused by the spinning mass of whatever had come out of the Fourth Dimension.

Tick stared at her, ashamed that he was too scared to disobey and curious about what she was going to say. He readied himself, pooling the Chi’karda within him in case the woman tried to do anything questionable.

“How can you all stand here like all is well in the world?” Mistress Jane asked, her mask covered by disappointment and disbelief. “Kissing and hugging and crying with joy? Making jokes and making plans for reunions? Am I the only one in this room who is aware of what’s happening just a few hundred feet from here? Do any of you have even the slightest inkling of what’s at stake?”

“We need no lectures from you,” Master George said. “Nor your hypocrisy. You’re the only one in this room who deliberately and maliciously tried to destroy an entire Reality—and almost destroyed all else in the process. The entire universe, according to the Haunce.”

Jane waited with a condescending look of patience on her mask until Master George was finished. “Don’t blame me, George. If you and your so-called Realitants hadn’t interfered, my Blade would’ve done its job, and we’d be on our way to creating the Utopia we so desperately need. But instead, we were put on a course that led to this. To rips in the fabric of Reality. A breach to the Fourth Dimension. Say all you want that Atticus and the Haunce saved us, but I say that all they’ve done is make things worse.”

Hearing that made Tick blister inside with anger. “Oh, really? What could possibly be worse than destroying the entire universe? Care to explain that, Jane?” He stressed her name, spitefully refusing to include her title.

She stared at him. “The universe would not have needed saving if you hadn’t tried to stop me in your arrogance, boy. And now what we have is an entity that no one truly understands—not even the Haunce. The Void will grow and strengthen. It will spread throughout my world and then the rest of the Realities. It will inflict pain and suffering the likes of which you couldn’t comprehend. Better that we had all ceased to exist at the hands of the Blade of Shattered Hope.”

Now it was Tick’s turn to stare back. If she was telling the truth, what did the past matter anyway? What did their terrible history with each other matter? He felt a sinking in his gut that almost made him sit on the black stone floor.

“I want everyone to listen to me,” Master George said. “And I want you all to listen very carefully. There’s quite a bit of anger in this room. And we stand on the ruined grounds of a castle that represents the bitterest of enemies to me and my organization.”

Mistress Jane’s mask shifted, suddenly and violently, to a look of outrage. But George held up a hand and, miraculously, Jane didn’t say anything.

“But,” the old man continued, “I’m asking each one of us to put all of that aside. Including—perhaps especially— myself. Jane, you know very well that you and I have countless reasons to despise each other. But this threat you’ve spoken of . . . I believe it’s real, and my good associates here have gathered numerous pieces of evidence. We all knew there’d be terrible destruction as a consequence of . . . recent events. But there’s something much deeper going on. And animosity toward each other will only increase our speed along this path to eternal death.”

Tick became aware that his mouth was hanging open. It’d been awhile since he’d seen Master George like this—so formal and full of speeches—but there was so much to process in the few sentences he’d spoken that Tick’s reactions couldn’t keep up with it.

The old man continued. “Jane, I don’t even need to ask my fellow Realitants this question, but I must ask you. Are you willing to put aside your grievances—and your personal aspirations—to work with us until we can solve this problem?”

Jane’s mask had smoothed back out to a neutral expression. “You insult me with every word that comes out of your mouth, George. Implying that I could actually say no to such a request. Implying that I could be so selfish as to—”

“Answer the question!” Sato suddenly screamed. He’d been still and quiet before, but now his face burned with hatred. “It was a simple yes or no question!”

Mistress Jane slowly nodded her head, and a little smile broke out on her mask as if she wanted to wound Sato by showing that she wasn’t fazed by his outburst. But when she spoke, her response was the last thing Tick had expected to hear.

“It’s not me you should all be worried about. We’re going to have a major obstacle to any plans we might have to stop this thing.”

“What are you talking about?” Master George asked.

Jane’s smile vanished completely. “Reginald Chu.”

Chapter 33

A Crossroads

Chu? What does he have to do with this Fourth Dimension problem?” Tick asked.

Mistress Jane sighed, a croak of a sound that reminded Tick of what he’d done to her throat and the rest of her body when he’d thrown the Dark Infinity substance at her in Chu’s palace. It seemed so long ago, and he never would’ve guessed that all of their lives would stay so intricately connected.

“I know him,” she said. “I know the way he thinks, and the way he lusts for power. I also know he’s a very, very smart man. I’m sure he’s back in the Fourth Reality, studying and watching and gathering data just like George has been. He’ll know about the breaches in Reality, and eventually he’ll come to the same conclusion we have made about the Fourth Dimension—that it’s been breached, unleashing the Void. And then there’s the final thing I know all too well about him: his arrogance. All of these together will spell our doom as surely as the mass of gray fog that churns atop my once-great home.”

“What do you mean?” Tick asked at the same time as at least three of the others. He exchanged quick glances with Paul and Sofia, both of whom looked as worried and as curious as he felt. Sato kept his angry gaze focused on Jane.

“You’ve witnessed yourself what Chu will want,” Jane said. “The power of the Void is massive, and Chu will see it as nothing but an opportunity. A chance to harness a new source of energy that could be the last piece to his puzzle that will allow him to rule us all. I won’t waste our time with defending my actions anymore, as noble as they are and as beyond comprehension for you as they may be, but we can all agree on Chu’s motives. He wants power, and he wants all of it. He wants to rule the rest of the Realities along with the Fourth. I find it ironic that his world is numbered the same as this . . . thing that threatens all of us. Chu will not fear it. He’ll embrace it until he figures out how to control its energy for his own use.”