Sofia looked at him with something like awe, which swelled his chest up with pride. She even had the beginnings of a tear in one of her eyes.

“One of these days, I’m going to realize just how much I like you,” she said. “Maybe once you’re old enough to quit making fart jokes.”

He smiled, a ridiculous thing to do when you were about to die. But he did it anyway. “That’s a deal right there. I’m gonna hold you to it.”

She smiled back.

The machines of Chu Industries started whirring and chirping and revving, a chorus of awful sounds. Then they all moved at once.

Chapter 67

A Glimpse of Rutger

Sato barely had time to assess the situation. On one side of his army, a horde of machines were about to attack with technology far beyond a few Shurrics and the other meager weapons the Fifth had at the ready. And on the other—on his side—at least a hundred gray soldiers were marching toward him, their mouths already beginning to open up. The abyss inside matched the fiery sockets of their eyes. Pure flame and heat.

They had no time to wallow in despair or wish for better days. It was fight or die.

“Attack!” he yelled, as loud as he possibly could. “Slam them with Shurrics before they can fight back!”

A series of thumping concussions rocked the world as every one of his nearby soldiers started firing. Sato felt a quick burst of pride at seeing a dozen or so of the Void creatures obliterated into wispy trails of mist. But more came.

And beams of brilliant fire shot out of their mouths, like a volley of arrows, streaming up toward the sky then back down toward the Fifth Army.

“Take cover!” Sato shouted, but the screams had already begun.

Master George was in the middle of the fray, wondering desperately why in the name of all that was good and green on the earth he’d decided to pretend to be a soldier. He could barely hold the Shurric in his arms, and he didn’t know what to do. He stood there, looking to Mothball and Sally for direction. He’d do whatever they did.

The sky was suddenly lit up with streams of fire, coming from the direction of the Void. The sounds of revved up machinery came from the other side, where that nasty ogre Chu had sent some of his inventions. But for what purpose, George had no idea. What in the dickens was going on?

“Whichaway should we be a-fightin’?” Sally asked.

“I’m a bit bamboozled, I am,” was Mothball’s reply. “Paul and Sofia are back there.” She nodded toward where Chu’s attack was starting. “I reckon we best go that way.”

The two of them charged behind other soldiers, bringing up their weapons to take aim. Master George followed, fighting the temptation to wink himself straight out of there.

Come on, Rutger, he thought to himself. Don’t fail me now. After all these years, don’t fail me now.

Tick’s body bounced, something he didn’t think was possible for a human body to do. But he did. With the protection of Jane’s Chi’karda bubble gone, he’d flown through the air when the ground erupted from below, then landed fifty feet away and bounced. At least twice. He rolled to a stop, dazed and bruised. The winds were fierce and hard and loud around him, lightning flashing everywhere, the sounds deafening. All was a gray blur; he might as well have been blind.

He got to his knees, then tried to stand up, but the gusts ripped at his body and made him fall again. Back to his knees, he squinted his eyes against the wind. He looked in every direction, saw nothing but the mist and fog of the Void swirling and churning like boiling water.

“Jane!” he screamed, though the sound was caught up and whisked away before even his own ears heard it. “Chu!”

He tensed his leg muscles and tried to stand up once more. He’d just gotten his balance when the surface below him exploded outward again, throwing his body forward. After flipping and flailing, he bounced and rolled again. Every inch of him hurt.

Chi’karda. He needed to use his Chi’karda.

Power filled him at the thought, consumed his insides with alternating waves of hot and cold. Orange sparkles mixed in with the gray that filled his vision. With a thought, he replicated Jane’s protective bubble of air. It formed around him and cut off the wind and a lot of the sound. But there were thumps that he felt through the ground. Those eruptions were happening all over the place. And it dawned on Tick what was happening.

The Void didn’t want them to find its core, its heart, or whatever represented its essence. The Void was trying to protect itself.

Filled with the raging power of Chi’karda, Tick went in search of Jane and Chu.

Paul tried not to fall apart inside as utter chaos ruled around him. Metaspides cut across the ground with their spindly legs and jumped on top of soldiers, who had to fight with all four limbs to keep from getting hurt. The Denter machines stomped around, shaking the ground beneath them, swinging those massive, spiked arms at anything that moved. The Ranters spun and flew through the air, trying to cut a path to victory.

But the soldiers of the Fifth weren’t giving up. Not by a long shot. They fired their Shurrics and threw their Ragers and tossed their Squeezer grenades at the creations of Chu Industries. They battled with their arms and legs when their other weapons failed. It was an all-out war, and Paul found what little bravery he could and did his part.

He slowly moved forward, legs bent in a crouch, sweeping his Shurric left and right to fire at any machine that came close. A Metaspide leaped into the air, came down at him. A quick jerk of his arms, a hopeful aim, a pull of the trigger. A thump of pure sound sent the thing catapulting away.

Sofia was at his side, skipping Ragers in strategic locations. One of them balled up into a sphere of ground and rock and destroyed two Denters and a Ranter in one fell swoop.

But people were dying, getting hurt. The Fifth Army was getting smaller and smaller. How much longer could they hold out?

Paul shot a Metaspide to his left, a Ranter spinning in from the front, and then blasted a Denter to his right. Sofia threw an entire handful of Squeezers at a pack of machines that had somehow slipped behind them. Paul gave her a quick cheer.

They kept fighting.

Sato pushed out of his mind the screams that kept piercing the air and invading his thoughts. They were an army. This was a battle. People would die. All he could do was try to prevent as many deaths as possible. He ran across the fields, shooting his Shurric at the creatures of the Void, aiming for any that looked ready to open those mouths of theirs and spit out fire. The other soldiers had caught on as well, taking care to kill the monsters of mist before they sent out streams of flaming heat that were almost impossible to defend against.

A beam of fiery orange came sailing through the air, straight for Sato’s head. He dove to the ground, spinning onto his back just in time to see the terrifying flames swoop over his body and land in a patch of flattened grass. It caught fire but was soon put out by his soldiers running across it, looking for something to shoot. Some soldiers tossed Ragers, which proved very effective, often taking out five or six of the Void creatures in one destructive roll.

Sato leaped to his feet and rejoined the fray.

Master George had given up on doing much other than shooting his confounded Shurric weapon when he had a very clear shot. Otherwise he was too scared he might lop off the heads of his own people. He was no soldier, and he had begun to greatly regret thinking he could help. If anything, he felt as if he was a terrible hindrance.

Mothball and Sally fought ferociously beside him, attacking any threat that came close. He knew they were trying to protect him, and it touched his heart. Though if they died doing so, he’d never forgive himself.

The battle raged all around him, an awful experience that made his insides tremble. Beams of fire shooting through the air from Void creatures on one side, horrific machines stomping and scuttling and spinning all over the place on the other. Brave soldiers fighting with everything they had; brave soldiers dying. Shurrics pounding, Ragers smashing, Squeezers breaking apart machines, people screaming.

The battle was everywhere.

There was a squeal of metal against metal next to him, followed by a solid thump and the quake of earth at his feet. He stumbled as he turned to see what had happened then almost fell at the sight of a huge machine, silver and black with dark rubber wheels, appearing at his side. The robot had two huge mechanical arms that ended in spiked fists of steel. George looked in fright at the letters written across the chest of the beast:


Manufactured by Chu Industries

He’d barely read the last word when the robot raised an arm up into the air and swung it back down. The metal fist and its spikes dug into George’s chest, and then lifted him up and threw him through the air like a discarded piece of trash. Pain erupted through every single cell of his body, a flashing burn of hurt that made his mind want to shut down. He flailed with his arms as he flew, saw blood dripping from his skin, watched as the ground rushed up at him. He slammed down, and every last ounce of breath escaped from his lungs.

He landed in a way that turned his face to the fields beyond the battle, toward a spot that had been empty when the fighting started. But now he saw a sight that lifted his heart despite the pain that ripped through him. A short, round ball of a man, waving his little arms frantically, as if giving orders. Behind him, hundreds—maybe even thousands—of people had appeared, wielding all manner of weapons.

Rutger had done it. He’d found the other Realitants and come to the rescue.

Master George ached like the end of the world. He closed his eyes, wondering if it might be the last time he ever did so.

Chapter 68

A Dead Body

The Void was throwing everything it had at Tick. He doubted if he’d ever understand how the thing worked—if it was alive or a mindless pool of unchecked power. But it seemed to be thinking now, and it didn’t want him to take another step toward the elusive core that made up its heart.

The ground exploded all around him, like the spray from a breaching whale. The bubble he’d created with his Chi’karda did nothing against that, throwing him left and right. He’d get up only to have it happen all over again.

Great spouts of flames and lava rained down from above, like descending angels of fiery destruction. Tick had to stop and focus each time they hit, throwing his power out to keep the shield from breaking down. Lightning split the air in any direction he looked, its sound like a thousand locomotives next to his ears. His head felt numb through and through.

Balls of mist solidified, pounding on his protection like an angry kid trying to break through a piggy bank. Each wallop sent a vibration of pain through his bones, and he threw even more of his thoughts into controlling the flow of Chi’karda. All while the ground continued to explode and throw his body around, all while fire rained from the sky, all while lightning tried to strike its way into any opening it might suddenly find. All with the horrible, horrible noise of the world breaking in half. Tick was rattled, and he knew it. But he forced himself to keep his wits intact, to not let the fear and panic win over his nerves.

He dealt with the chaos, doing his best to keep moving in the general direction he thought Jane had indicated, and relying on his instincts. Relying on some inner sense that he didn’t even comprehend. He was just moving now. Moving forward, not backward. Guided by what, he didn’t know. But guided by something.