It surprised him how much his feelings were hurt. “I’m just trying to show some hope here. There has to be a reason for that box, right? It’s supposed to scientifically channel Karma matter. But to me, it’s Karma that we even have it in the first place. What’s wrong with a little hope? Geez.”

Sofia was suddenly at his side, pulling him into a fierce hug, crying into his shoulder and shaking with sobs. When he recovered from his shock, he hugged back, patting her uncertainly.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Somehow it’s going to be okay. Trust your old Uncle Paul.”

She pulled away and laughed over her sniffles. “Uncle Paul? Please don’t ever call yourself that again.” She wiped at her eyes and nose then cleaned her hands on her pants, which somehow made Paul like her just a little bit more.

“You can call me whatever you want.”

“Oh, man, I’m so embarrassed. I can’t remember the last time I broke down like that.”

“Please, girl,” Paul said. “You’ve been the toughest one out of all of us. Or did you forget your little jaunt through Chu’s mountain building while the whole thing was falling down, saving Tick, then pulling him out at the last second? You can cry all you want—no one’s gonna say boo.”

“It just all hit me at once.” She’d stopped crying, fully composed just like that, but with puffy red eyes to show for it. “Seems like we can’t get ahead before the next bad, awful, terrible thing happens. And now Tick’s missing. Again. And we still don’t know how to stop this stupid Void of Mist and Thunder.”

Paul had absolutely no idea what to say to make her feel better. Or how to make himself feel better. “I just . . . I don’t know. Tick can take care of himself—I’m not as worried about him anymore. Maybe he just wanted to be with his family for a while. Or if he’s in trouble, he’ll get out of it. As for our other problems . . . well, all we can do is hope for something. Right? Karma. A breakthrough. A brilliant idea. Maybe the Fourth Dimension will call and make the Void go home.”

Sofia laughed again. “I vote for that last one.”

She’d just spoken when the door opened and Master George came through, Muffintops perched on his shoulder like a parrot on an old sea pirate. Paul didn’t know if it looked creepy or hilarious. Mothball came next, then Rutger—his face red from the exertion of coming up from the canyon floor, even though it was mostly via elevator—then Sally. Finally, Sato, who had cleaned up and eaten but still looked like he’d been dragged down a mountain by a billy goat.

Sofia jumped off the couch and gave him a hug. He didn’t respond much, his eyes cast to the floor.

Man, Paul thought. That is one haunted dude. “Hey,” he said. “I’m glad you made it back safely.”

Sato gave him a weary look, and it was obvious that he wanted to say something, but he held it back and took a seat on one of the plush chairs. The others did the same as Master George went over and lit up the fire. The guy loved his fires. Then he turned to face his small group of Realitants.

“My dear friends and associates,” he announced gravely. “I’m afraid that our deepest fears regarding the Void have only skimmed the surface. It’s now time for action, and we’re all going to do our part. But there’s something we need to do together before we split up.”

“And what’s that?” Paul asked.

George looked at him for a long moment. “I believe with all of my heart that I’ve found the two people I trust most with the power of Karma. We’re going to push your favorite button, Master Paul. And we’re going to do it this very minute.”

Paul realized he was smiling.

“And then,” George continued, “I’m going to trust you and Sofia to figure out what to do with its power.”

Chapter 47

I Amaze Even Myself

A light went on, blinding Tick even though he had his eyes closed. After opening them on instinct, he had to squint until he finally got used to it. A shadow crossed his vision, then there was the scrape of a chair across a tile floor then the settling sounds of someone getting comfortable. Tick could finally see that it was Chu sitting next to his bed. Tick had to twist his neck uncomfortably to see him because of the restraints holding down his arms and legs and torso.

“What do you want?” he asked, trying to sound angry but having lost all of his spirit after being held captive in a dark room for hours. He’d been tempted to try his powers of Chi’karda, but he couldn’t quite bring up the nerve. The memory of what had happened to him the last time still scarred his thoughts.

“It’s almost time for us to act,” the man said calmly.

Tick looked back up at the ceiling so his neck wouldn’t hurt, and because he couldn’t stand the calm expression on Chu’s face right then.

“Jane will be here soon,” Chu continued.

“To act, huh?” Tick asked. “We’re just going to grab some ropes, lasso the Void from the Fourth Dimension, mix it up with some sugar in a glass, then let you drink it? Piece of cake.”

Chu remained unfazed. “That’s a very unscientific way to put it, but I guess it’s not too far from the truth. Great things, Atticus. You’re going to be a part of great things in the next couple of days.”

“You do realize this is crazy, right?”

“There have been those throughout history who have misjudged brilliance for madness. I can assure you this is not the case. Most men simply can’t comprehend the speed and level at which someone like myself utilizes the functions of my brain. It’s something I’ve grown to appreciate and admire about myself.”

Tick laughed—he couldn’t help it. “You didn’t really just say that.”

“How can anyone not admire greatness?” Chu asked in a sincerely astonished voice. “Can I help it that the greatness is within my own being? No, I can’t. I don’t deal in such things as pride and humility. I’m a scientist, and things are as they are. No more, no less.”

“You keep telling yourself that,” Tick muttered.

“If you’re done with childish discussions,” Chu said sternly, “then perhaps we can move on to the important matters at hand.”

“Do you really think I’m going to help you?” Tick asked. It really did baffle him. “I might be a little shy right now about pulling out my Chi’karda, but when push comes to shove, you know I’m going to do whatever it takes to stop you.”

“I have ways to change your mind. But I don’t think I’ll need them. By the time we’re ready, I think you’re going to do exactly what I ask. Voluntarily. You’ll want to, in fact.”

Tick decided to quit talking. It was pointless, and the man was probably trying to manipulate him anyway. Let him think whatever he wants, Tick told himself. He knew that in the end, he’d die before he let Chu follow through with his schemes.

“Silence,” the man said. “Maybe that’s the best thing for you now anyway. You can shut your mouth, but not your ears. Nothing like a . . . captive audience. There are a lot of things I need to—”


A thrumming vibration shook the air, cutting off Chu’s words.

Tick instinctively tried to sit up, but the metal cords dug into his skin, and he slammed back onto the bed again. That sound, that tingle in the air . . .


Chu had frozen, his face caught in a look of childish fear.


Tick had heard this noise before. Felt it before. He’d been walking on the road that led to his house in Deer Park when a wave of power and sound and feeling had reached him. It had been coming from his house, and when he’d run home, he’d discovered Mistress Jane in his basement, scheming very bad things.


“Does she always have to make such a grand entrance?” Chu whispered, having lost all of his bravado from a minute before. Tick thought the woman must still scare him, even though she’d obviously agreed to work with him.


The sound was getting louder, the vibration stronger. Things in the room rattled.

“It’s Jane, alright,” Tick said, seeing an opportunity. “She told the Realitants how dangerous you are. She’ll betray you the second she doesn’t need you anymore.”


This time, the entire room shook as if struck by an earthquake. A cabinet in the corner of the room fell over, tossing supplies everywhere. Chu stood with his arms outstretched, as if he could ward off the threat.

“You can’t trust her!” Tick yelled at him. “Let me go so I can help!” He almost felt ridiculous—it was obvious he’d say anything to be released.


This time the sound and vibration was followed by a hissing noise, like sand running down a metal slide. Tick looked over at the door to see it dissolving. He’d seen Jane use the power of Entropy before; he’d done it himself too. The particles of the door decayed toward chaos and vanished, leaving an empty hole. Mistress Jane stood in the hallway, wearing a new robe, its hood pulled over her head, hiding the red mask in shadow.

“Impressive,” Chu muttered under his breath.

Jane stepped into the room then reached up and pulled back her hood. The scarred tragedy of her head looked pitiful, but the mask held no expression.

“Sorry I’m late, Reginald,” she said in her raspy voice. “But I’m excited for the three of us to be working together again. And so soon after our last adventure.”

Chapter 48

Box in a Circle

For some reason, Master George had decided to sit on the floor, something Paul had never seen the old man do before. It didn’t seem proper for such a gentleman in a fancy suit, but he’d done it, and so the rest of them had followed his lead. The room was barely large enough for the group to fit between the couches and chairs—and the roaring fireplace at the head of it all.

But there they were. George, sitting with his legs crossed. Mothball next to him, her long, gangly legs somehow folded up into an impossibly small spot. Then Rutger, perched precariously as though he might roll away at the slightest push. Sally sat by him, looking like a lumberjack taking a long-needed break. Sato was next, all business. Sofia and Paul completed the circle, and Paul kept having the urge to reach out and take her hand. He fought it off, but kind of hoped she was feeling the same way.

A complete circle of Realitants, sitting on the floor.

The Karma box, with its enticing green button, sat on the carpet in the middle.

“I’m sad that Gretel couldn’t be here with us,” Master George said. “She was needed in the Third Reality. But I’ve decided to put my trust in her findings and research and . . . this invention . . . at this time of dire need. The box will channel the Karma that she so dearly loved to study, and once we have it within our grasp, I believe we’ll be able to figure out the best way to use it.”

He shot a glance at Paul, then Sofia, then at the stack of Gretel’s notes piled next to them. Paul was thrilled that the two of them were being entrusted with something so important.