The Void of Mist and Thunder. Pure power, according to Mistress Jane. How could they rely on her information about what was happening? Well, that was an easy answer—they couldn’t. They needed to get back to headquarters and begin their own research.

“I’m just saying,” Rutger continued, “never in a billion years should we have trusted that woman. Not in a trillion.”

No one really argued with the butterball of a man because what he kept insisting was so obviously true. Soon after Tick had used his own hold on Chi’karda to wink away his mom and Lisa—something he’d hear about for sure in the future—Jane had used hers to wink the rest of them to this spot of temporary safety. The rumbling, machinery-like noises of the Void had grown louder and louder; the ground had begun to shake as its mass crept closer to the Great Hall. They’d needed to get away.

But then she’d gone on about how she needed to do her own part in all of this, and that she’d meet up with them soon enough, when both sides had made some progress. Master George had been furious, his usually red face growing closer to pure scarlet as he lectured her on how this problem needed all of their heads together, and then . . . she was gone. Without a word, she winked away, one second there—disheveled and scarred and exhausted—the next second, gone.

And so, a smaller group of Realitants stood in the chilly air of dawn, watching with empty bellies as an unknown force of gray fog began devouring the universe.

Typical stuff for people like us, Tick thought. Simple job. Hopefully they’d be done in time to beat rush hour tonight and get home for an early supper.

He snickered at his own lame joke.

“Telling jokes in your head over there, sport?” Paul asked him. He stood next to Sofia, and neither one of them seemed to think anything was even remotely funny about their current situation.

“No. It wasn’t that kind of laugh. It was more like the we’re-definitely-going-to-die-so-why-even-bother laugh. You know.”

Paul actually broke a smile, a genuine one, even. “Oh, yeah. Like in the movies. The bad guy always giggles before he gets pushed out a plane or something. Or right as the axe starts swinging down.”

“Uh . . . yeah,” Tick said with a sarcastic nod. “Something like that.”

“Rutger’s right,” Sato cut in, curt and abrupt. “Every single one of us was stupid to let Jane leave. We should’ve shackled her to a tree—something. Now we have three enemies to worry about—Jane, Chu, and that . . . thing down there.”

Master George sighed, looking about as weary as Tick had ever seen him. “Sato. Rutger. My good men. I understand your concern, but I assure you, there’s no way we could have stopped her. Like Master Atticus, she has herself become a Barrier Wand and has power beyond what we even think. I believe there was honor in her once, and I know she couldn’t possibly want the end of her own world—as she puts it—to come about. We’ll have to trust that she is off doing something that will truly help the cause.”

Sally suddenly spoke up. He’d been so quiet, it seemed as if he wasn’t even around, despite his huge stature and ridiculous clothes. “I trust that snicker doodle of a woman ’bout as much as a hen can toss a rooster barn. Cain’t believe she was ever one a-yorn, ole George. Just cain’t believe it nohow.”

“She was,” their leader said through another heavy sigh. “She most definitely was. And, sadly, one of the best we ever had. Who knows what might have been if she hadn’t been assigned to the Thirteenth Reality? Power corrupted her like mold condemns a building. Slowly, but certainly. As it grew inside of her.”

“So?” Sofia asked. “What do we do now? What’s first?”

Master George pulled in a deep breath, sticking his chest way out and adjusting his filthy suit. “Some of us are going back to the Grand Canyon in Prime. We need to put our thoughts together and make sure we understand everything we can. We need to understand before we can do anything to stop this madness.”

“Some of us?” Tick asked. “Who isn’t going, and what are they doing instead?”

George gave a tired look to Sato, and Tick knew he was about to ask his friend to do something dangerous. “Sato, my good man. I want you and your army to stay here. I need you to research this business about the creatures of Mistress Jane being transformed by the Void somehow. I believe there may be something extremely important to learn there. We also need someone close by to observe this . . . monstrosity and report back regularly on its progress.”

Tick expected to see a flash of disappointment in Sato’s features—he was missing out on a chance to go back to safety, shower and eat, rest up—but instead, he stood a little straighter and gave a stiff nod.

“Okay,” he said simply. “That’s what the Fifth and I will do, then.”

Tick was filled with an unexpected sadness. They’d all just been reunited. He walked over to Sato and held out a hand, fighting to make sure he didn’t let a stray tear leak out somehow.

Sato took his hand and shook it, squeezing it hard. “Glad to have you back, Tick.”

“Yeah. Good to be back. Glad to see you alive. I know you saved a lot of kids that day at the Factory.”

Sato’s hand dropped to his side; Tick felt the blood rush back in his own. “We had to leave a few behind.”

Tick didn’t know what to say to that.

“But . . . it’s good we could save the ones we did,” Sato added. He looked at Master George knowingly, as if they’d had a conversation about it countless times.

“Yeah,” Tick responded lamely. “Well, looks like there’s gonna be a lot more to save. You think we’re up for it?”

Sato smiled, something so rare that Tick almost took a step backward. “My Fifth Army will save so many people that the Realities will get sick of us. Jealous they couldn’t have done it themselves.”

Tick forced out a laugh. “I doubt that. Well, good luck, man. I’m sure we’ll all be back together soon enough, fighting this Void thing somehow. Sound good?”

“Yeah. Sounds good.”

Tick was pretty sure he’d just had the lamest conversation of his life, but he hoped that Sato knew how he felt in his heart. The others came over and said their good-byes, including a very long one between Mothball and her parents that included some very disturbing wailing along with the tears.

When everyone was done, Tick gathered with Master George, Sally, Mothball, Rutger, Paul, and Sofia. The Realitants. They used George’s Wand this time, winking away from the cyclone of the hungry Void from the Fourth Dimension.

Tick knew they’d be back.

Part 3

The Blue River

Chapter 36

A Nap on the Couch

Mistress Jane was beyond exhausted. She felt a deep, aching weariness like nothing she’d ever felt before in her life. Her arms, her legs, her chest, her bones, her nerves, her veins. Her brain and head and skull. She was just so tired. And it seemed as if every last souliken she’d ever owned had drained out of her over the last couple of days. She needed rest. Desperately. Food and sleep.

Which was exactly why she couldn’t handle another single minute with those buffoons who called themselves Realitants. She’d fed them what they wanted to hear about helping them against the Void and Chu, but she had her own ulterior motives. If it weren’t for Atticus Higginbottom, the Realitants would have absolutely no reason to even stay on her radar. But that insolent boy changed so many things. Everything.

She was in a place no one would have ever guessed. In an apartment—an ordinary, drab, dusty old thing that hadn’t been lived in for years—located in the middle of New York City, Reality Prime. It had been the first place she’d ever rented on her own, and where she’d fallen in love so long ago. Where she’d completed her studies and first dared wink herself to other realities with the Barrier Wand she’d made with her own hands. It was here, sitting on this same frumpy couch, where she’d first had the thought that the Thirteenth Reality might change her life and, eventually, all of Reality itself.

The place had been rented and paid for ever since. Cleaned every so often by a maid. Jane couldn’t bear to get rid of it, not after all the memories born within its humble walls. And, with her castle destroyed, her body depleted, and her future in doubt, she didn’t know where else to go except to this place that had once been home.

She lay back on the couch, pulling her tattered robe around her body like a blanket. As horrible as she felt, being here brought her the smallest bit of comfort.

Her life was at a crossroads. The plan she’d had to essentially destroy and rebuild the Realities from the ground up had been foiled. She’d accepted that. Perhaps it was a little easier to take since immediately afterward, there’d been the threat of spending the rest of eternity in that awful, awful Nonex. Making it back safely had been a breath of fresh air that took the stink off the failure that had led to it.

But life could be so ironic sometimes. Now there was something beyond her control that threatened to annihilate the Realities. If the Void succeeded, that may be that. Destruction with no hope of rebuilding. Although, deep down, she didn’t believe it. There was always a solution. Always a way. Everything was an opportunity. She and Chu had made a bargain in the Nonex. A plan to see both of their destinies fulfilled. The breach of the Fourth Dimension had at first seemed to put that plan on hold, but now she wasn’t so sure. Not so sure at all.

Beneath her mask, she smiled. All she needed was a little rest. The growth of the Void would take some time. She could use a couple days of eating and relaxing and healing.

A couple of days of scheming.

Mistress Jane fell asleep.

Tick waited in the conference room; he was the first one to get there. Master George had said they could take exactly thirty minutes to shower, rest, and gather their wits. Rutger was supposed to be putting together a meal for them all—something Tick couldn’t wait to get his hands on. That little guy could cook. Tick’s stomach rumbled and bounced and gurgled, desperate for anything. Even a slice of boiled cabbage sounded good right then.

He was still worried about his mom. And Lisa. And Kayla. And Dad. He should’ve ignored George’s curt command and gone home really quickly to make sure everything was okay. But then again, maybe not. If he was going to be a Realitant, then he needed to act like one. He’d have to trust that they’d—

He stopped. Suddenly and absolutely, he felt like he’d made the biggest mistake in the world. This was his family they were talking about. His family. How silly that he couldn’t just wink back to Deer Park really fast, check on everybody, then make it back here. How could his peace of mind and the safety of the four most important people in the universe—to him, anyway—be relegated to the bottom of the stack? In fact, it made him mad. How could Master George expect that of him?

Tick stood up and looked at the door. No one was even there yet. He was supposed to sit and wonder about his own family while everyone else took their time primping and relaxing. The last hour or so suddenly seemed absurd to him. He’d sent off his mom without asking her! Sent away his sister! All so Master George could rest assured that his number one weapon was close by and ready for service.