- The Void of Mist and Thunder
Somehow he and Sofia had been jostled and pushed about by the much taller members of the Fifth until they found themselves along the back line. It seemed like chance, but Paul had a sneaking suspicion that the Fifths were trying to protect them, since they were young and small compared to the rest of the army. That made Paul mad—even though he couldn’t help the small part of him that was relieved. His scared side. His terrified side. He was ashamed of the feeling and swore that when they got into the heat of battle, he’d do whatever it took to prove he wasn’t a scaredy-cat chicken.
Sofia was next to him, stepping stride for stride, gripping her own weapon, staring straight ahead. She seemed too focused, or maybe even too lost in thought. Paul had the sudden urge to grab her hand and run away from the danger. Shame filled him again. What was wrong with him? He was a Realitant, for crying out loud.
The sharp bark of a man’s voice came from behind him, loud enough to be heard clearly over the rumbling sounds of thunder. Paul stumbled to a stop and turned around, even though the rest of the army kept marching. Even Sofia. A man stood about twenty feet away, dressed in shiny clothes and black boots. He was stocky and had a balding head and a red, angry face. He looked like the kind of guy you’d see in a parking lot and turn around to walk in the opposite direction. Had no one else heard him shout?
“Sofia!” Paul yelled, turning back to look at her. She stopped and saw him, then the stranger who’d appeared, her eyes widening at the sight. At least I’m not crazy, Paul thought. “Make sure someone tells Sato!”
As she grabbed at the soldier closest to her, Paul faced the visitor again, who still stood in the same spot. “Who are you?”
The man walked up to him, an arrogant smirk on his face. “I’m from the Fourth Reality. Name’s Benson. Who are you?”
“Uh . . . Paul. What . . . why are you here?” Something weird was going on, and Paul hoped Sato would send some people back quickly to help him out.
The stranger smiled, though it was full of anything but kindness. “I work for a very important man, kid. His name is Reginald Chu. Ever heard of him?”
Paul swallowed, the weirdness of the situation turning to fear. He took a step back and pointed his Shurric at the man. “Don’t move.”
Benson laughed. “No need to shoot, son. Just letting you know that my boss—he doesn’t like me to call him that, which is a shame, don’t ya think?—well, my boss said that if I don’t hear from him, I’m supposed to come in here and start attacking anything and everything I see. You understand?”
“You?” Paul asked, his finger itching at the trigger. “By yourself?”
“Yeah, me and what army, right?” Benson laughed again, but then his face suddenly creased into an angry, angry look. “Guess what, little man? I haven’t heard from the boss. Which is very bad for you.”
The man snapped his fingers like a magician, and machines started appearing behind him, dozens and dozens of machines and other contraptions, filling the fields.
Paul took a step backward in shock, then another as he scanned the area with his eyes, dazed. But he stopped when he recognized some of the objects lining up behind Benson. A nightmare from what seemed like another lifetime.
Two Different Enemies
Sato’s thoughts churned as he marched toward the Void, wind ripping at his clothes and hair.
It had taken all of his willpower not to charge after Mistress Jane when he saw her standing near Tick earlier. His anger toward her had been building for many years, and this time, something inside of him snapped as if he suddenly knew this was his last chance to seek revenge for the death of his parents. When all this was over, surely one of them—either him or Jane—would be dead. And if it was her, he wanted it to be at his hands. He had dreamed of it for years.
But something had stayed his hand. Calmed him. Brought a peace that almost didn’t make sense. Almost on a subconscious level, he made a decision. And, just like that, all the anger and the hate and the thirst for vengeance went away. Gone. He didn’t understand it, but he felt it all the same. He had a calling in the world now. And he swore to never think of Jane again after he watched her disappear into the gray mist with Chu and Tick.
A murmuring behind him interrupted his thoughts. A rumbling of whispers and movement as people talked to each other, leaning close to speak ear to ear. He looked back at his soldiers, wondering what they could be excited about. He didn’t see anything on the other side of the tall soldiers who made up his army, when he heard a different sound coming from the Void. A series of thumps and roars, like drums and wind. He quickly whipped around to take a look.
The giant wall of churning fog was only a couple hundred feet away now, and forms of mist were separating from the main cyclone. Pockets of swirling gray air popped out all over the place and coalesced into more human-shaped bodies than any Void creatures they’d encountered before. They formed in the air then dropped to the ground, landing on two feet that were suddenly solid. The ones closest started walking toward the Fifth Army.
On some level, Sato knew that these creatures were people who’d been stolen by the Void, sucked in from who knew where by the pulsing blue substance that was somehow related to the Fourth Dimension. It didn’t make sense to him, probably never would. But the Void had turned them into monsters, and now more than fifty had already been created. They were coming toward him, as if they’d zeroed in on him specifically.
He remembered all too well what those things could do.
His army would need to attack hard and fast before the beams of pure flame came shooting out of the creatures’ mouths.
He was just turning to face his army and shout commands when Tollaseat interrupted him, something he’d never done before.
“Got major trouble, we do,” the giant man said.
“Yeah, I’m pretty aware—”
“No, sir! I ’spect you don’t! Not talkin’ about the fog things! There’s an army of machines revvin’ up on the other side of us. Looks a might nasty, too.”
Sato lifted up on his toes and saw a few traces of silver and what looked like mechanical arms. He didn’t understand it at first, didn’t know what was going on. But he knew three things.
His army was small. And surrounded. By two different enemies.
Tick guessed they were about two miles into the massive storm of the Void when everything fell apart. It started with the wind, a visible, monstrous thing mixed with the gray mist. It grew to an unnatural level, so fierce and mighty that the sound of it drowned out the booming thunder. And the bubble of protection created by Mistress Jane finally became worthless.
It stayed intact, but suddenly became a victim of the wind, whipping up into the abyss of the Void with Tick and the other two still inside of it. They smacked into each other, rolled around, tossed back and forth like pebbles inside a bouncing beach ball. Chu’s cube flew out of his hands, and its corner hit Tick just above the eye, sending a sharp lance of pain through his skull. An inch lower and he might have been blinded for life. Chu called out, frantically trying to maneuver his way through the chaos to grab his precious device once again.
But movement was impossible for any of them. Tick finally curled up into a ball and quit trying to fight something he couldn’t change. He bounced up and down, wincing each time he slammed into Jane or Chu, hating the feel of chins and elbows and feet digging into his flesh and bones. The temptation to unleash his Chi’karda was overpowering, but he held back, realizing that flying around in a bubble was better than getting separated and lost, each of them swept away by the brutal winds.
The shiny orange bubble of Chi’karda hit the ground and rolled. Grunts and shouts and barks of pain filled the air as Tick closed his eyes and squeezed his arms and legs into an even tighter ball. The bouncing finally settled, and everything stopped moving. Tick, filled with nausea, looked up to see that not much was different from before. The orange sheen of the bubble was still around them, the swirling mist of the Void raging on the other side. His first thought was that maybe a particularly strong gust had caught them from underneath to throw them through the air like that.
He saw Chu crawling toward his silver cube. Jane was trying to stand up, obviously woozy, her robe in disarray and revealing her scarred hands and arms.
“We need to move,” she said in a hoarse voice that Tick barely heard. “The Void is going to keep trying to stop us. We need to move! Now!”
Tick nodded. Chu picked up his precious device. Jane pointed, making Tick wonder how in the world she could possibly know which way they’d been walking before. But he had no better ideas. They picked up where they’d left off and started moving.
They’d taken maybe ten steps when the ground exploded upward, throwing them all in different directions. The bubble vanished for good.
Benson winked away as soon as his army of machines showed up. Paul couldn’t blame him. What good would one human do when you had the kind of technological might Reginald Chu had at his disposal? The metallic machines—some boxy, some round—littered the flattened fields in front of Paul, and each one of them looked ready to kill. The only ones he recognized were the Metaspides, spherical, with long legs and nasty weapons. They had attacked him twice before; they weren’t very nice.
The other machines out there were new to Paul, but just as vicious-looking. A big, boxy robot on wheels with two arms that resembled bulldozers but had fists of steel with nasty spikes on the end. Hovering, disk-shaped metal plates that were several feet across and came to a razor-thin edge along the outer circle.
In the long pause that seemed to float through the air like an air-bound virus between when Benson winked away and when the inevitable battle would begin, Paul could see labels on the closest machines. All of Chu’s inventions were marked, starting way back with the Gnat Rats.
The bulldozer-robot was called a Denter. And the flying saucer weapons were Ranters. The phrase “Manufactured by Chu Industries” was printed on every machine.
Beautiful, Paul thought. Just beautiful. Like fighting a massive storm called the Void of Mist and Thunder from the Fourth Dimension wasn’t going to be a big enough challenge for the Realitants.
The moment felt like an eternity but couldn’t have been longer than twenty seconds.
Sofia finally broke the silence. “How did it all come to this? The smallest army ever caught between two impossible enemies.”
Paul had never heard such sadness in her voice. That’s what hit him with a rush of fear—the realization that they were probably about to die. Not seeing all the machines in front of him. Not hearing all of the terrible sounds of the Void behind him. If Sofia was feeling hopeless, they must be in bad shape.
Paul shot a glance back at the Fifth Army. They seemed confused, milling about as if deciding which front to fight first. There was a commotion on the far side, but it was hard to see over the tall bodies of the soldiers. It all added up to equal one major downer.
“We just have to fight,” he finally said. “That’s all we can do. Fight until we either win or die. Until Tick does whatever he’s going to do. Maybe Rutger will find us some more people. But all we can do—me and you—is fight.”