For some reason, Tick thought back to one of his first experiences with the strangeness of his new life. The Gnat Rat that had been hidden in his closet. That creepy mechanical thing full of robotic gnats that had stung him and sent him to the hospital. Even though Master George had sent the robot as a test for Realitant recruits, Reginald Chu had invented the device. The man had been a thorn in Tick’s side ever since.

“I agree that we have many problems, indeed,” Master George concluded. “Jane, I won’t stand here another minute and debate morals with you. The Realitants have a job to do, and you can either work with us or against us. Make your choice.”

Jane shook her head. “I most definitely do not have a choice, and you know it. It’s my world where this entity has begun its massacre, and it’ll be my world that gets consumed first. I’ll work with whomever I need to in order to stop it. Not to mention the fact that you need me and my knowledge. You could have asked a little more humbly, but yes, I will help you.”

“More humbly?” George repeated. “Your world? The very fact that you . . . oh, goodness gracious me. Never mind. We are all in agreement then?” He looked around the room, gathering nods from his Realitants. Tick gave his when the glance came his way.

Their leader nodded. “Good. Each one of us will put our animosities aside, our grievances, our petty wishes for revenge, and work together. Though none of us truly understand what this new threat is”—he held up a hand when Jane began to protest—“some know more about it than others. And we all know it’s very, very grave. We’ll begin work immediately. No rest, I’m afraid. No vacation, no relaxation. The world leaders will have to deal with the aftershocks from our . . . most recent troubles on their own.” His eyes darted to Jane for the briefest of moments.

Tick could think only of his family. “Okay, then. I’ll take my mom and sister back home, and then I’ll meet you at the headquarters. The Grand Canyon one, I guess?”

Master George looked hesitant for some reason, fumbling with his words a bit before simply giving a quick nod of his head.

“Sounds good,” Tick replied, wondering what that had been all about. “We better leave before that tornado starts making creatures again.”

“First smart thing I’ve heard yet,” Paul agreed. “Let’s get out of this stink hole.”

Tick turned to face his mom and sister, sweating from the thought of winking them all back home. He was pretty sure he could do it, but there was always a risk. He thought about asking Master George, but the man only had Tick’s nanolocator reading, so they’d have to take the actual Wand with them when they winked. That wasn’t going to work.

“Alright,” he said, pushing everyone else and their problems out of his mind. “Let’s hold hands while we do this.”

His mom didn’t budge. “Atticus, we’re not going back home.”

“What do you mean?”

She looked annoyed, like the answer should have been obvious. “We played a big part in bringing you back from the Nonex. Am I right or wrong on that?”

Tick knew where she was going and hated it. “Definitely right.”

“I was a Realitant once. I built my own Barrier Wand. I just risked my life—and the life of my daughter—to bring you home safely. And if you think I’m going to let you out of my sight again, you’re sadly mistaken. Not to mention the fact that Lisa and I are both capable of helping out. You’re going to need every single body working on this that you can get.”

Tick looked at her for a long time. He knew he couldn’t let this happen. He couldn’t. He’d never be able to focus on what needed to be done—and not focus on how dangerous it might be—if he had his family around. He’d be able to think only of them, saving them, protecting them. He could not let them stay.

“But what about Kayla? She’s what matters most right now. I—we—need you to go back and make sure she and Dad are okay.”

His mom folded her arms together in a defiant gesture. “Your father is perfectly capable of taking care of our sweet little princess. Don’t insult him like that. Lisa and I are staying, and that’s that.”

“Mom, you—” He stopped. There was no arguing with that look in her eyes. But he also knew what needed to be done. He was racking his brain for the words to say when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He looked to see the weathered, reddened face of Master George.

“Yeah?” Tick asked.

“I, er, wondered if I might have a moment with you.”

Tick wanted to leave so badly. “Can I figure this out first?”

“Only a moment,” the old man interrupted. “I need just a few seconds of your time. Please.” He held out a hand and raised his eyebrows. “Please.” The windy, rushing sound of the Fourth Dimension cyclone was like the pulse of a rising tide on the beach.

“Okay.” He gave a look to his mom and then joined Master George over by the wall farthest from the entrance to the Great Hall.

“What’s going on?” Tick asked him. “I need to get them back safely before I can do anything else.”

The Realitant leader’s voice dropped to a whisper. “There are urgent matters at stake here, Master Atticus. Quite honestly, we don’t have the time for you to go home right now. I need you, and I need you immediately.”

“Just let me get them—”

“No.” His face was tight, his voice curt. Tick had never seen him so insistent. “There are times when you must remember that your power doesn’t put you in charge. Do you understand? You’ve sworn your services to the Realitants, and I’m giving you an order.”

Tick sighed, feeling lower than low. “Okay, then. Yes, sir.”

He turned away from his boss and looked squarely at his mom and sister, both of whom stared right back. Tick’s mind spun, calculating. He felt the gathering force within his chest.

“I’m really sorry, Mom,” he said.

Then he winked her and Lisa back to Reality Prime.

Chapter 34

Diabolical Plans Again

Reginald Chu sat in a chair, looking out a window that had no glass.

The chair was inside a structure that could barely be called that—it was nothing more than a few panels of wood nailed together with a makeshift roof of plastic thrown on top. The floor was nothing but the sodden rot of an old forest floor. And the single window existed because one of the stray pieces of wood used for the hut just so happened to have a hole in it. The air was hot and steamy, seeming to rise from the moist earth as if a pool of ancient lava rested somewhere beneath the ground.

It was a far cry from the offices he had enjoyed the last time he’d been to the Fourth Reality. This had been his home, the world he had ruled singlehandedly. Until the Realitants came. Until Mistress Jane betrayed him and helped push the Higginbottom boy to the madness that had demolished his entire headquarters, which had been shaped by the most advanced technology possible into a literal mountain of glass and steel. But Chu Industries was like the great phoenix of legend. Its shell had been destroyed, but the spirit was about to rise again from the ashes.

A surprisingly low number of people had been killed that day. Many of his top executives survived. And since that fateful day when he was catapulted to the Nonex by the unfortunate meeting with his Alterant—that slimy, weakling of a science teacher—the cogs and wheels of his great empire had been turning. Planning for his return. Putting the pieces of the puzzle back into place. Watching for the first sign of his nanolocator.

And now he was back.

But he didn’t want anyone besides his closest staff to know about it. Not yet. That was the reason he was in the middle of a forest, miles from the temporary location of Chu Industries, in a hut cobbled together by two idiots on the bottom of the payroll. Two idiots who had been taken care of as soon as their work was done. He relished the discomfort of the pitiful makeshift office they’d created for him. He needed the shack. It reminded him of how great his power had once been, and it motivated him to find that power once again.

There was a tapping—three hits—at the ugly slab of wood that served as his door. Reginald waited. Another three. Then two. Ten seconds passed. Five taps. Chu reached below his chair and pushed the button on the tiny device that had been taped there. The shack may have looked harmless, but if anyone tried to enter without his permission, they would’ve been completely incinerated by the automated lazbots hidden in the trees.

“Come in, Benson.” He knew who it was because only one person had been taught the code that had been used on the door. There was something incredibly dopey about the man, but Benson was faithful beyond anything Chu had ever witnessed. So faithful he’d almost died on several occasions.

Just as he’d been instructed, he waited until Chu repeated the command—“Come in, Benson”—before finally slipping inside the small hut of discarded wood.

“I’m ready to give you a full report,” the man said nervously, which pleased Chu. At Chu Industries, there was no room for error.

“What did you find out.” Reginald always spoke his questions as statements. They were commands for information, not requests.

“I spoke with every department head,” Benson began, his eyes cast to the floor and his hands folded before him. A servant, through and through. “In almost every way, we’re back to full strength. Everything from personnel levels to supplies to research and development. Most importantly, the underground facility is only a few weeks from completion. This time your mountain will be a real one, boss.”


“Yes, boss?”

“Don’t ever call me ‘boss’ again.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I just wanted to show some respect—show who’s the, um, boss.”

Reginald stood up. He figured there was time for one more lesson before the real data started pouring out. “Benson. I think you would agree with me that neither I, nor you, need any reminder whatsoever that I am your boss.”

“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”

Chu sat back down. “Good. I won’t interrupt you again. Tell me everything. Especially about the findings concerning the Fourth Dimension.”

Benson started talking, and as more time went by, the more quickly he spoke.

True to his word, Chu didn’t say one thing or present one inquiry. A half hour later, he knew exactly what he needed to do and how to do it.

Within six months, Chu Industries would no longer be a company. Or an empire.

It would be Reality itself.

Chapter 35

A Sight of Gray

We should never have let her go,” Rutger said. “Someone a lot bigger than me and a lot stronger should have stopped her.”

“Maybe someone a little less roly-poly, I’d say,” Mothball quipped.

They all stood on the hill that led to the forest, looking down in the early-morning light upon the ruins of the castle and the great, slowly churning mass of gray air that still raged in the middle of it all. Sato’s army was assembled nearby, observing as well. The invading, mysterious entity below hummed and buzzed and growled as it spun, crackling when tendrils of bright lightning shot through its surface. Tick watched in awe, knowing the thing had almost doubled in size since he last looked at it from a safe distance.