But Chu’s people had already been working on this new facility and had even picked up the pace, hoping that someday their leader would return. They were loyal and smart. Benson led the security details, but the real geniuses were Chu’s engineers and scientists and physicists. He’d gathered more brain power into one place over the last thirty years than anywhere else in all the Realities. His men shared his goals. Most of them didn’t care what the end result might be—let Chu rule the world, other worlds, whatever—as long as they kept getting the funds they needed to do the research that kept their old hearts ticking.

And now they’d built the largest research facility in history. This chamber was only a small part of it. It went on and on and on. And the most amazing thing about it was that the complex had been built entirely underground. It was simply awesome.

And it was time for Chu to finally move back in. He’d had his moments of reflection and his moments of appreciating what had been taken from him. But things were going to move, and move fast, now. Below him, his workers were finalizing the very device he planned to use to harness the immense power of the Void that had escaped the Fourth Dimension.

Right on cue, his earpiece buzzed. It was Benson.

“We got him, sir. The Bagger worked like a charm.”

“Excellent,” Chu replied. “Let Mistress Jane know at once.”

Chapter 40

A Pulsing Light

Sato picked his way along the top of the rubble, knowing that he could slip to his death at any second. The ruined stone and brick and wood and whatever else Jane had used to build the place lay stacked on top of each other like some kind of fragile toy, ready to collapse at any second. Something shifted with every step, and Sato kept thinking he couldn’t possibly feel his heart leap any stronger, but it seemed to do so every time.

The gray mass of spinning air was only a few hundred feet to his left, and that certainly wasn’t helping his nerves. Cracks of thunder shook the air and made the debris beneath his feet tremble, and as hard as he tried, he couldn’t stop himself from looking over every few seconds at the brilliant displays of lightning. The Void itself was downright creepy. It had a steady roar and a chilling movement to it that made Sato feel as if it were alive and hungry.

And it was growing steadily. Half of the castle ruins had been swallowed by the entity, and its pace of expansion seemed to be increasing. If they were going to learn anything about what had happened to Mistress Jane’s creatures, they’d need to figure it out fast.

Tollaseat tapped him on the shoulder, making him almost jump out of his skin. “What if that blimey thing decides it wants to take a bit of leapin’ at us?” Mothball’s dad asked. “Takes a fancy at throwin’ a lightning bolt or two our way?”

“Then duck,” Sato replied. “You’re welcome to go back if you want.”

Tollaseat laughed, a booming sound that drowned out the thunder and rush of wind for a few seconds. “You make a grouchy grump, you do. Or is it a grumpy grouch?”

“Just keep looking.” Sato had enjoyed the tiny reprieve from the noises of the Void, but knew he couldn’t admit it. He needed to keep his game face on now. Be a leader. “You go that way, and I’ll go this way. But not too far off. We need to be off this big pile of rocks in an hour.”

“Can’t come soon enough,” the man mumbled.

Sato turned his back to him once more and started gingerly walking over the rubble again. According to their best guess, they were currently over the section the fangen and other creatures had been running toward, but everything looked the same from the outside—broken and dusty. Keeping his arms out for balance, he walked across the crooked stacks of stones, looking through the gaps and cracks for any sign of . . . he didn’t know. Something.

A few minutes later, he spotted it. Far down below the debris, just visible through the layers of stone, he saw a glowing blue light that pulsed every two or three seconds, flashing more brilliantly before fading again to a dull glow.

“Hey!” he shouted. “Come over here and look!”

Tollaseat’s face lit up with excitement, and he started lumbering his way over to where Sato stood. The man was so much taller and bigger than an average man, and Sato feared he’d crash down in a cloud of dust and rock chips at any second. But he finally made it and raised his shoulders in question.

“Down there.” Sato pointed.

Tollaseat put a big hand on Sato’s shoulder and leaned in to take a look. Sato flexed his leg muscles to keep his knees from collapsing under the added weight.

“Well, I’ll be,” the man said, the glow from below reflecting in his large eyes. “Take me spine out and tickle ’er up and down! What in the blazes you reckon that is, sir?”

Sato looked at his friend and best soldier. “I don’t know. But this can’t be a coincidence. Those nasty things of Jane’s were running this way, and then they all seemed to vanish, only to reappear later. And now there’s a flashing blue light shining in a place that doesn’t use electricity.”

“Right, you are. Can’t be two toads bumpin’ tongues on the same fly, that’s for sure.”

“Huh?” When Tollaseat opened his mouth to answer, Sato cut him off. “Never mind. Let’s get down to that thing. Time’s running out.”

He planted his feet as firmly as he could then bent over to lift a piece of rock directly above the odd blue glow. He chucked it to the side, the crack of it hitting the rubble barely audible over the noises of the Void.

In the shadow of the huge gray funnel of mist filled with lightning and thunder, Sato and Tollaseat started digging through the ruins of Mistress Jane’s castle.

Paul was curled up in his bed—or the bed he’d been given at the Grand Canyon headquarters—staring at the wall. He’d never felt so low in all his life, and there’d been some freaky, scary moments over the last couple of years. But right that second, he just wanted to sink into the mattress, fall asleep, and never wake up again. Everything had gone so wrong.

How could the whole world—scratch that, the whole universe and every single Reality within it—be in so much trouble? Again? Mistress Jane and her fancy schmancy Blade of Shattered Hope had almost set off a chain reaction that would’ve destroyed the universe. Paul didn’t care about the specifics, but he knew that Tick had saved them all. Yeah, he’d been sucked away into the Nonex, but deep down, Paul had known the kid was okay and that he’d find his way back somehow. Or, at least, Paul had told himself that.

But now all this? Some big gray cloud called the Void from the Fourth Dimension was eating away at a planet? And then Jane said it would keep on going once that was all done. And then Tick had to make it worse by running off against Master George’s wishes. Which wasn’t so bad to Paul—what was bad was the fact that Tick hadn’t come back. And Rutger couldn’t get a lock on Tick’s nanolocator. The Realitant system kept saying that it was blocked, a thing that had obviously bewildered and bamboozled everyone listening.

Not Paul. To him, the news had just made him sick to his stomach. He’d insisted on leaving, going to his room. Sorry, so sorry, but I don’t feel so well. Which was the absolute truth. They were supposed to take care of Chu and Mistress Jane then have fun exploring other worlds for the rest of their lives. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Paul wanted to shout at the top of his lungs. Maybe pound on some walls while he was at it.

He sat up.

He had to do something. Master George and the others had talked and talked around the conference room table and had come up with absolutely nothing to show for it. Except that they were going to keep researching, keep tabs on things, blah blah blah. Paul couldn’t stand the thought of all that wasted time and energy. A big glob of fog was eating away at Reality, and his best friend had gone missing.

He had to do something, and he had to do something now, or he’d go completely nutso bat-crazy. Ignoring the ache and nausea in his belly, he slid off the bed and opened his door, stepping out into the hallway. It was right then that an image of a box popped into his head. A little metal box with a green button. And Paul knew exactly where Master George had placed it.

He started walking in that direction.

Chapter 41

Ill Reunion

When Tick opened his eyes, the face of Reginald Chu was staring back down at him. It was a face that had once meant so much to him—this terrible man was the Alterant of Tick’s beloved science teacher, one of the greatest people ever. It was crazy how two opposites could look so much alike.

Tick was surprised at how little panic he felt. The ordeal that had happened near his home had been terrible. The movement and disorientation from whatever it was that had captured him had caused him to faint. He’d eventually awakened on a gurney of steel in some kind of bright washroom, reeking. He almost gagged from his own smell. He’d barely been conscious enough to have the thought, however, before someone pricked him with something that made him doze off again. His last memory was of a big hose washing him off before the darkness took him away.

And now, here he was again. Waking up. He could feel clean, fresh clothes on his skin. He could see lights in the ceiling. And the ugly, smug face of Chu peering down at him as if he were nothing but an insect specimen.

“Don’t even think about reaching for your Chi’karda,” the man said. “Before I say anything else, I’ll warn you on that front. Do you understand?”

Tick stared at him but said nothing. His mind went back to his failed attempts to escape from that weird silver coffin that had captured him. Twice he’d tried to destroy the object and free himself by throwing out his power, only to have it rebound and practically fry his brain. He still didn’t really understand the whole strange turn of events.

Chu continued. “I can see the light of understanding in your eyes. I’m sure you remember when you and Jane came to Chu Industries, invited by yours truly. I wanted the best for my Dark Infinity project, and I knew there had to be something in place to block your Chi’karda levels. Well, obviously it didn’t work then—now did it? You destroyed my entire building and ruined Jane’s body for life.”

“Maybe I’ll do it again,” Tick responded. His confidence was returning, and he still felt no real fear, despite the situation.

“You’re missing my point. Once again your arrogance is preventing your brain from processing my words. I’m reminding you of the measures I had in place because they have been improved upon. My people are very clever, and you would be wise not to try anything. You felt what happened when you tried to use your force against the Bagger.”

“The Bagger?” Tick repeated. He lifted his head up and saw that he was lying on a small bed with several metal cords wrapped around his body, holding him down. The cords were much thinner than the one that had sprung from the long silver box and grabbed him by the waist, but seemed to be made from the same material.

“It’s an invention of Chu Industries that I have neither the time or the desire to explain. It uses technology that lies beyond terminology you would understand anyway. But the key is that it was armed with my anti-Chi’karda recoil mechanism. And it worked. Sorry to test it on you—I’m sure you don’t appreciate being the guinea pig, considering you could have died. What a pity that would’ve been.”