Forget that.

Tick closed his eyes, focusing and pooling his power. Then he winked himself to the woods that ran along the road to Deer Park. He winked himself home.

Rutger huffed and puffed as he carried the stacks of plates down the hallway. Why Master George didn’t buy him some kind of rolling tray to make this easier was beyond him. Of all the Realitants to be carrying heavy plates full of hot and scrumptious food down the length of hall between the kitchen and the conference room, he was the least qualified. But every time he pointed that out to the boss, the old man just said it’d probably be awhile before another event, and that next time, he’d help Rutger personally.

Of course, that never happened. The buzzard always had something more urgent to attend to until the very second. By then, Rutger was all done. Even his best friend, Mothball, would magically disappear when the time came to transport the food. And what food it was.

Savory thrice-baked potatoes. Succulent steak with mushroom sauce. Crisp, bright green asparagus soaked in butter and lemon juice. Freshly baked rolls with honey butter. He expected to hear many, many, many compliments after the meal. The anticipation almost made him forget that the entire universe was on the cusp of being devoured by a giant gray fog. Well, it wouldn’t happen today, at any rate.

Paul and Sofia were there when he brought in the first round. They offered to help, but he declined, suddenly liking the idea that he did it all himself. Sally was there the next time. Then Master George. Mothball popped in after he’d brought in the last of the meal, giving him an “Oh, would ya need some ’elp there, little man?” He just gave her a knowing look and continued about his business, making sure everything looked nice and pretty on the table. Steam rose to the ceiling, and the smells made his considerable belly ache to be fed.

When all was set, he rubbed his hands together, feeling very satisfied indeed.

“Well,” he said, “looks like we’re ready to partake. All we need is Tick.”

“Forget that,” Paul said. “He must’ve gone outside or something—he left the dorms way before I did. And I didn’t see him anywhere. Let’s dig in!”

“Absolutely not!” Rutger roared. “After all he’s done for us? I won’t hear of it. We’ll wait until he gets here.”

Paul grumbled something unintelligible and put his chin in his hands, staring longingly at the delicious, mouthwatering food—in Rutger’s humble opinion, of course.

Master George slowly stood up, then leaned forward and put his hands on the table, a grave look on his face. “Goodness gracious me,” he whispered. “I know exactly what’s happened.”

“What?” Rutger asked, hearing the whine in his own voice. He didn’t want anything to ruin this fine meal.

Their leader closed his eyes for a moment before opening them again. “I believe we have a rogue Realitant. Tick has run away, against my orders. And at such a time as this.” He puffed out his chest, his face sunken in disappointment. “I guess I can understand his decision, but I certainly hope it doesn’t come back to haunt us.”

Chapter 37

A Nice Morning Stroll

Sato couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a full night’s rest. And what a strange time to do it.

After the other Realitants had winked away, he’d led his army—now only a few dozen strong—in a full march around the perimeter of the ruins of Mistress Jane’s castle. He didn’t really know what he was looking for or wanted to find, but they’d searched all the same. And saw nothing unusual—except for the ever-present, massive gray cloud of mist and lightning that spun in the middle of the ruins, growling as it got bigger and bigger. Sato guessed by the end of the next day that it would cover every last inch of fallen stone.

It had grown dark by the end of their long walk, and he’d given his soldiers the entire evening to get some sleep. Tollaseat had seemed the most appreciative, though he never would’ve admitted it. But the way he collapsed on the ground and started snoozing said it all.

Now it was early morning, and the world was full of that purple, chill air that comes right before the sun begins to show its light. Sato had slept soundly and peacefully, and when he woke up, he’d felt refreshed and filled with strength. As he sat and stared out at the distant horizon, determined to catch the moment when the sun did pop over the edge, he thought about what Master George had said. The old man thought there was something to the fact that all the creatures of Mistress Jane had disappeared somewhere, then reappeared in some altered state out of the Void.

Sato hadn’t thought much about it at the time, but there was something weird about it. When he’d first caught sight of the castle, hordes of fangen and other nasty creatures had been crawling all over the surface of the structure and its grounds. And Sato had also seen some of them fleeing when the weird breach in Reality had first split the air. But there should’ve been more creatures. Many, many more. Where had they all gone? And why weren’t their bodies strewn all over the place if they’d been killed? There’d been some bodies inside the passageway by the stream, but none anywhere else. Had they been . . . cloned? Transformed? What?

The more Sato thought about it, the stranger it seemed. Well, it was his job to find out the truth, and he meant to do it. He was glad to have a specific task to keep himself occupied.

He stood up and stretched, allowing a big, loud yawn to escape that sounded like a demented ghost.

“Get your bones all nice and rested, you did, I ’spect?”

Sato turned to see Tollaseat, who was stretching and yawning himself. “Slept great, actually. I’ve been thinking a lot about what we’re supposed to be doing for Master George. About the creatures and how they all disappeared.”

“Been thinkin’ myself, I ’ave,” the giant man said. “Remembered you tellin’ us all about how them nasty little buggers were runnin’ toward the middle of the castle when the mess started and all. Well, mayhaps we should be lookin’ there? Only checked the roundabout yesterday night, we did.”

Tollaseat was right. Yes, they’d walked around the entire ruins of the castle, but Tick had told everyone that the fangen and all their ugly cousins had been screaming and sprinting deeper into the building. Why would they have done that with the whole thing about to come down?

“You might be on to something,” Sato said. “Why don’t you and I go take a look before everyone else wakes up?”

“Could use a nice mornin’ stroll, I could.”

The two of them set off again for the destroyed home of Mistress Jane. Sato tried to ignore the huge, churning cloud of gray fog and lightning in the middle of it, but that was one task that proved impossible.

Tick stepped out of the woods near his home just as the sun tipped over the horizon and spilled bright morning light across the old, cracked road that he’d walked down a million times before. He was still disturbed by the long swath of broken, mangled trees he’d seen in the forest. They were leftover from the time he’d let loose his powers without even realizing it. Dissolving and reconstructing mass in his panic. He’d wanted to forget those episodes, but maybe it was a good reminder that he had a vast amount of power inside him. He needed to make sure he kept learning how to control it.

As he set off down the road toward his neighborhood, he started feeling the inevitable guilt. Master George had been very stern in ordering him to return to headquarters with the other Realitants and to save this reunion for another time. But it made Tick mad. His family was the most important thing to him right now, and he needed to make sure they were safe. He’d tried to wink directly to his house, but the pull of the deep Chi’karda pool in the forest had brought him there instead—exactly where he’d first seen Mothball disappear so long ago. It felt like a lifetime ago.

So this wouldn’t quite be as quick of a trip as he’d hoped. He imagined his leader and his friends sitting in the conference room, waxing on about what a poor example Tick had shown. What a bad Realitant he was. How selfish he was. But a few hours wouldn’t matter. Plus, he was pretty sure Paul and Sofia would defend him no matter what.

Tick suddenly filled up with cheer at the thought of seeing his family again. He broke into a run down the long, straight road.

Reginald Chu was scanning through a few more of the data reports Benson had wired to his reading tablet when there was an abrupt pounding on the wooden slab he called a door in his makeshift office. He almost dropped the device from the shock of the interruption, and half of him was angry, the other half relieved no one had seen his embarrassing reaction.

It took him another second to realize that the number of knocks—as hard and frantic as they were—matched the first part of his secret code. After a pause, the knocks started again. Chu quickly reached down and deactivated the lazbots.

“Oh, come on in, already!” he shouted.

Benson slipped through the door, looking as nervous as ever; trickles of sweat ran down both sides of his face.

“What, pray tell, could be so urgent?” Chu asked sternly.

“The boy. Atticus. For some reason, he left the Realitant headquarters and is all alone. I know it’s earlier than you expected, sir, but this is too golden of an opportunity. We have him tracked and know exactly where he is! With no one around him to fight off!”

Chu stood up. “Amazing—what a fool that kid can be. But let’s not forget, he doesn’t really need an army with all that Chi’karda boiling inside his body. We’ll have to tread carefully.”

“He’s heading toward his house, sir. He might be alone for only a few more minutes.”

“Oh, please,” Chu said with a laugh. “It’ll be even easier if he’s surrounded by his family. He’ll be . . . more distracted.”

“Whatever you say, boss. I mean, sir.”

Chu hardly noticed the slip. “But maybe haste is best. Ready the Bagger. We leave immediately.”

Chapter 38

A Tense Conversation

The conference room had been silent for at least five minutes.

Paul kept fidgeting in his seat, worried about Tick and wishing he hadn’t left. All his friend wanted to do was check on his family—they all did. How could anyone blame him? Just because Tick was a freak and could actually travel on his own without a Barrier Wand didn’t make him a monster. If Paul could do that fancy trick, he’d be on a beach in the Bahamas sipping lemonade and waiting for the world to end.

Oh, forget this, he thought. Time to speak up.

“Hey, Tick will be back soon. Quit looking so sad.” Everyone in the room was staring at the table or the floor like hypnotized zombies. Sofia seemed distraught, and Mothball looked even more sullen than usual. Rutger was eating, the little stinker, but that was probably just how he dealt with things.

“You don’t understand, Master Paul,” George said. “I could see the rebellion in your friend’s eyes, and I knew he was tempted to do things that he wasn’t even thinking about yet except on a subconscious level. I knew he’d see his family, remember the horrors he’s been through, and begin to think selfish thoughts. Feel tempted to stay with them, run away, keep them safe. How can we have our Realitants run off willy-nilly when we need them the most? He shouldn’t have gone. I’m terribly sorry to say it.”