- The Void of Mist and Thunder
And those sounds. Like a crowd of people with the plague, waiting on death. She wanted the sounds to end, no matter what. Being in the tight confines of the elevator car made it that much worse, the noise amplified and echoing off the walls, ceiling, and floor.
Mothball had never felt such an instant rush of happiness as when they thumped onto the bottom and the doors of the lift slid open. Sunlight spilled in, though even the brightness of it looked somehow . . . off, like everything else. As if the light was too yellow, too disproportionate to the shadows it created.
Master George slipped through the opening as soon as the elevator doors opened wide enough, holding his Barrier Wand before him like it was a weapon. On the trip down, he’d done his best to examine the device and make adjustments to the dials and switches that ran along its one side. The button at the top—the one that would initiate the Chi’karda Drive and wink them to somewhere that was hopefully a lot safer—looked so enticing to Mothball that she almost reached out and pushed the ruddy thing herself.
They filed out of the elevator and stumbled their way along a narrow section of towering red and orange rock, finally emerging into the vast expanse of the canyon floor. Things looked just as wild there, but on a grander scale. The mighty cliffs that rose up from the rugged valley wobbled and bent and bubbled just as much as the walls inside the headquarters had, but the terror of the sight was magnified. If those cliffs cracked and crumbled, it’d be the end of the Realitants. And the end of the members of the Fifth Army, who bustled about the banks of the river, looking up at the one anomaly that outshone the rest.
The long rip in Reality ran the length of the valley, disappearing at both ends, and hovering in the air at least a hundred yards above the ground. It shone with a glowing blue light that pulsed every few seconds, its luminescence flashing more brilliantly before fading again.
And what Mothball and the others had seen from the balcony was still happening—odd-looking bodies were falling from the blue gash, but none of them had reached the canyon floor yet. About halfway down, they were whisked away—as if caught in a stiff wind or the gale of a hurricane—toward the cliff walls on both sides of the canyon. They perched by the hundreds on jutting rocks or held on to crevices in the stone with gangly arms and legs.
And they weren’t human.
Tick had finally closed his eyes, unable to take one more second of the troubling sights all around him as he lay helpless, strapped to the bed. But there was nothing he could do with his ears. Unable to use his hands to cover them, he had no choice but to listen to the awful wails and moans that streaked through the air and pounded his senses. It was as if he were in some experiment run by a madman to see how much he could scar a kid’s brain for life.
He tried his best to focus his mind on other things. On the odd exchange between Jane and Chu before they’d left him alone. She’d obviously been scheming inside that head of hers and had come to a big decision—something that obviously didn’t involve him yet. He hated to admit it, but he felt as if he had to place some hope in Jane, that she might turn back to those feelings she’d expressed before to him of wanting to do good. Tick didn’t see how it was possible to survive this mess unless she joined forces with him against Chu and all the weird things going on with Reality.
But the sick feeling in his stomach told him the chances of that happening seemed awfully slim. There’d been something sinister about the way she’d been looking back and forth between him and Chu right before they left. And the words she had said—and the way she’d said them—made it sound as if she was up to no good at all. Maybe she’d finally slipped past some threshold from which she’d never come back. Maybe Mistress Jane was finally evil through and through.
The door popped open to reveal Chu. His face was draped in shadow, but there was something about the way he stood in the midst of the shaking that told Tick that the man had moved past his panic attack and was back to business. His next words, shouted over the terrible sounds, removed all doubt.
“We’re putting you back in the Bagger, boy. Time to go for a little ride.”
Sato was finally getting his spirits back. He’d been in a daze since leaving the Thirteenth Reality, trying to come to terms with everything that had happened. But ever since George had pushed the button on that weird little box and the world had turned into a freak show, he’d slowly awakened back to his normal self. And now his first concern was the army he called his own; they were in obvious danger from the nightmare that had ripped open in the sky above them.
He ran forward a few steps, squinting against the sun to look at the creatures that had flown out of the blue gash and attached themselves to the side of the canyon cliffs. They were dark and gray and gangly, almost humanoid . . .
And then it hit him. They were too far away for Sato to get the greatest of looks, but he knew what they were. The remainder of Jane’s creatures, transformed by the Fourth Dimension, were here.
Even as he had the thought, the gray monsters started scampering—and flying—toward the floor of the canyon.
Mothball didn’t like the sight of all those gray creatures descending toward them. She didn’t like it at all.
“We need to get out of here!” she yelled at Master George.
But the old man was already swinging into action, holding the Barrier Wand up with both hands as he started barking orders. “Sato! Get your army over here, and quickly! We need to pack together into a group, everyone touching someone else!”
Mothball thought Sato had seemed like a new person since taking over leadership of the soldiers from the Fifth Reality. Unshakable, a true leader. But even he hesitated, probably in awe and fear of the weirdness of it all. There was a river of blue light running through the sky, the world was shaking, monstrous creatures of the Void were descending toward them, and it sounded like a haunted house at an amusement park.
Sato sprang into action.
As he ran around, shouting and pointing and herding his people toward where Master George stood with the Wand, Mothball and Sally huddled close to the old man. The gray creatures were almost to the canyon floor now, seeming to pick up speed the closer they got.
The army almost made it to Mothball and her group. Sato was in the very back, encouraging and pushing people away from the river toward the canyon wall, when the first wave of Void creatures overran him.
Tick didn’t fight it when Chu’s lab rats wheeled him out of the small room, down a hallway, and into a large chamber that looked like a massive laboratory. He didn’t fight it when the lights started flashing and the banging, whirring noises overcame the now-constant and familiar sounds that haunted the air. He didn’t struggle when the Bagger wrapped its cords around him again.
He didn’t fight, because he wasn’t able to fight. His body was strapped down, and he couldn’t feel the slightest trickle of Chi’karda. He was helpless.
All the while, Jane and Chu marched along nearby, whispering to each other and making frantic arm gestures. Tick didn’t know what was going on and didn’t bother to ask. His heart and will were starting to give up with everything else. He needed to snap out of it, find a spark somewhere. But as with the elusive Chi’karda, he was empty.
At some point it all became too much, and, like before, when he’d been trapped inside this machine that he didn’t understand, his mind sped away to a cold and dark place.
There were no dreams in that lonely place.
Sato didn’t scream or cry out for help when the first claw dug into his shoulder. The sharp nails pierced his shirt and raked across his skin, slicing pain through his nerves, but it was the last straw to snap him out of his momentary dazed state and lunge him back into the soldier he’d become. He dove forward, curling into a ball and flipping over at the last second. He kicked out with his feet—landing a solid hit on something soft but solid—then jumped back up to see that the creature had tumbled across the ground. Even as Sato watched, the monster’s form dissolved into a swirl of mist and was whisked up toward the sky.
Sato didn’t have time to follow the path with his eyes. Dozens more of the scary things were already on him. The closest one leaped into the air—gray wings unfolding like an umbrella—then swooped in, claws reaching for his face. The unmistakable thump of a Shurric pounded the air, and the creature was ripped away before it could hurt Sato. More thumps followed from behind him. His soldiers to the rescue.
Someone threw a few Ragers at the line of fangen and other monsters, mounds of dirt and rock compacting into a giant ball of destruction before it slammed into the creatures. Most of the ones on the ground—those close to Sato, anyway—were annihilated, dissipating back to mist and swimming toward the sky in a streak of smoky haze. The fangen that leaped into the air to escape the Ragers were caught by a ruthless volley of pure sound from the Shurrics.
Sato and his army had survived the first wave of attack.
He wasted no time.
“Get to Master George!” he yelled, waving his arms to direct his soldiers. He didn’t stop until every soldier was running. “Form circles around the Realitants! Face them—a hand on the person in front of you! Quickly!”
Faithful and brave, they did exactly as he commanded.
Mothball was amazed at how quickly Sato had assembled his soldiers into a formation of circles radiating out from the center, where George and the Realitants huddled as a group. Each person in the rings placed a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. They were ready to wink away.
“Everyone closest to me!” Master George barked when the Fifth Army was settled. The madness around them continued, and more creatures were coming, but Mothball and the others were still and silent. “Put your hands on the Wand! Its power will flow through all who are connected!”
He made a quick couple of adjustments to the dials and switches as the other Realitants reached out and gripped a spot on the cool, brassy surface.
“Do we have everyone?” George bellowed out in a loud voice.
There was a chorus of assents, but no way to confirm it for sure. Mothball knew they’d just have to get on with it and hope they didn’t leave anyone behind.
“Alright, then,” George said, though Mothball could only read his lips because he spoke so quietly.
The old man pushed the button at the top of the Wand.
A Horde of Creatures
Sato had learned an amazing amount of patience since becoming the leader of an army. But it was being tested like never before now. They’d formed up; hands were on shoulders; they’d all faced the old man like he’d told them to. Why wasn’t George pushing the button already? Sato tried to look over the shoulders of the giant soldiers he called his own, but it was pointless.
The creatures were coming.
“What’s he doing up there?” Sato finally shouted, the frustration ripping through his throat, rubbing it raw. He coughed for a few seconds. There had to be something wrong. Had to be. “Report back to me! Send it up the line! I need to know what’s going on!”