But he had learned so much.

The Chi’karda raged. It was pure power, collected into one place like a newborn star ready to explode with heat and energy. But Tick kept it at bay, probed it, felt it, soothed it in some way. The feel of it was pure and clean, like an inferno burning inside his chest.

He didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, but he had a good idea. A sense more than anything. Tick felt like someone was standing right behind him, just inches away. His eyes couldn’t see them, but he knew someone was there all the same.

The Haunce had taught him a valuable lesson. Reality spoke to you in interesting ways—not in the formulas and equations of mathematicians and scientists, nor in the dry, lengthy descriptions found in dusty old textbooks. Reality was on another level altogether, at one with our minds. It spoke to you in the best way your own self can speak back. And that’s what Tick wanted as he probed things he didn’t understand with the power of Chi’karda.

He was looking for a riddle.

Lorena Higginbottom knew her stuff.

She’d suspected from the very second they’d appeared on that rain-slicked grass that her Barrier Wand had winked her and Lisa into the Thirteenth Reality. Something about the smell and feel of the place had been her first clue. The big forest—with no signs of technology or civilization around—had been her next clue. And then, when they’d stumbled up to the top of that ridge and had seen Mistress Jane’s ruined castle, any remaining doubt had vanished.

She knew that castle because she’d been there before. Just once. But that had been enough.

Now it was a collapsed shell of its former self, broken and crumbled. Fangen and other creatures swarmed what still stood, but they were too far away to know exactly what they were doing. But if she could help it, Lorena wouldn’t take her daughter one step closer to find out.

They’d sneaked back down the hill until the castle was out of sight and entered the outskirts of the forest they’d been trying to avoid. They needed cover, and time to think. The dark depths of the woods chilled her, though, and she kept a wary eye out for intruders.

“So what are we going to do?” Lisa asked. They’d been whispering back and forth for a while now, but no solid plan had solidified yet.

“Well, like I said,” Lorena answered, “my first instinct is to get ourselves back to that place we winked into and get out of this scary Reality.”

“But?” Lisa prodded.

“But there has to be some reason we were pulled here. I was trying to isolate Atticus’s nanolocator, pushing the Chi’karda levels to the extreme, and somehow, instead of bringing him to us, it brought us here.”

“But why?”

Lorena had to refrain from giving her daughter an impatient look. “Well, dear, that’s what I think we need to figure out. If we just wink back home, we’ll never know.”

Lisa opened her mouth to answer, but she didn’t say anything as a sound came from deeper in the woods, like the whoosh of wind blowing through an open door.

Lorena searched the darkness between the trees but saw no sign of movement. The strange noise stopped after several seconds.

She and Lisa didn’t say anything—they didn’t need to. They were in the Thirteenth Reality, after all, a couple of miles from Mistress Jane’s castle. Caution had already been strong, and now things were on full alert. They both stood up, slowly and quietly, reaching out to take each other’s hand. Lorena held the Wand in her free hand, ready to club something if she had to. The Chi’karda levels weren’t quite high enough to wink away from where they were.

Something crunched up ahead. Twigs cracked on the ground. Then again. And again. There was no sign of the source of the sound, but it was coming closer.

“Just step away,” Lorena whispered. “Quickly now.”

They faced the forest as they began to walk backwards, their footsteps also crunching through the underbrush. Lisa’s hand was shaking, and sweat slicked her palm. The noises continued, but Lorena still couldn’t see who was approaching. The mystery stranger picked up its pace, heading for them. The time for caution was gone.

“Run, Lisa!” she barked. “Run!”

She turned and yanked on Lisa’s hand, pulling her along as she sprinted for the grassy hill outside the fringe of the woods.

Their pursuer picked up its pace to catch them, but then the sound of footsteps abruptly ceased, replaced by that whooshing sound again. A wind rose up into the air and over their heads, the noise of it making Lorena scream and look skyward.

When she saw what hovered above them, she cried out again and collapsed to the ground, pulling Lisa down with her. She rolled onto her back and stared at the thing that had come after them.

It was a creature with slanted, burning yellow eyes, its body made of what looked like ropes of gray smoke, coiled together to make a long body with arms and legs. It flew through the air, darting back and forth above them like a hawk examining its prey. Another smoky creature flew out of the forest to join its haunted companion. They circled, their yellow eyes leaving streaks of light in the air.

Lorena was frozen in place, squeezing her daughter’s hand and holding the Wand to her chest.

The two wispy creatures abruptly flew down to the ground and grabbed Lorena and Lisa by their arms. Gripping them strongly, they lifted them to their feet with a painful jerk. And then they started marching the two terrified ladies back toward the slope of the hill.

Back toward the castle.

Chapter 11

A Pond in the Snow

The stairs hadn’t broken when Paul walked up them, nor had the porch collapsed, potentially dropping them into a heap of spiders and snakes and rats. There’d been a lot of creaks and groans, but he and Sofia had made it to the front door and through it unscathed.

The inside of Gretel’s home looked nothing like the outside. As soon as Paul stepped through the door, he knew that the dilapidated exterior of the shack was a disguise, something to make thieves and thugs figure they might as well not bother. He and Sofia stood in a lushly carpeted living room with fancy furniture—all leather and frilly carved wood—and portraits of grim-looking people on the walls. A fire crackled in a brick fireplace, and the air smelled of cinnamon.

“Nice place you got here,” Paul said. “I’m glad you didn’t shoot us or stab us before we got a chance to check it out.”

Sofia elbowed Paul in the ribs. “Thank you for inviting us in. That’s what my rude friend meant to say.”

Gretel looked back and forth between her two visitors, her tongue cocked inside one of her cheeks as she examined them. “George and I’ve always had an arrangement. You kids understand? What I’m doing here is too important to let any jackawillie barge in here and mess with my stuff. He promised to never tell anyone that the password question was a test, and to never give it out unless it was serious business. Serious, serious business. I reckon we have things to talk about.”

Sofia nodded. “Yes, we do.”

“I don’t think we know what we’re supposed to talk about,” Paul said. “Could you help us out with that?”

The old lady grinned again, showing her gnarly teeth. “George wouldn’t have sent ya with that question unless it was something particular. The whole reason I’m here in the first place. And let me guess—you’re here because of the earthquake I had.”

“Yes!” Sofia answered.

Paul suspected that the lady didn’t know the extent of the damage to all the Realities yet; she obviously wasn’t communicating with anyone on a regular basis. “How bad was it?” he asked her.

“Shook me right out of my bed, I can tell you that. Ruined my dream about Clark Gable, too. I was half in a tizzy, grabbed my gun and shot a bullet straight through my roof. Thing still drips. Don’t listen to that nonsense about how duct tape can fix anything and everything.”

Paul was really starting to like this woman. “Who’s Clark Gable?”

“Never you mind. Now have a seat, enjoy the flames. I’ll be back with some warm milk and cookies.” She started walking toward the kitchen.

“You do know it’s really hot outside, right?” Paul asked as he and Sofia took a seat on a leather couch. They sank half a foot into the deep cushions.

Gretel turned to face them. “Yes, son. But I’m old, and old people get cold even if they’re in a desert. Plus, the things we’re going to talk about today are gonna chill us right to the bone. I think we both know that.”

She slipped into the kitchen before they could respond.

Tick was in a trance.

He felt like an oracle from ancient times, going through a ritual to call down the rain. He still held hands with Chu and Jane, but he was barely aware of it. Eyes squeezed shut, he saw only a dark swirl of orange and black in his vision, and the air hummed heavily with the power of Chi’karda. His skin prickled with chills and sweat at the same time.

He’d been at it for hours, poking the depths of Reality with his senses, looking for something to represent a way out of the Nonex. He felt like an astronaut in deep space, slinging himself from one galaxy to the next, sending out probes to see if he might capture the right data he needed. He’d been on the verge of giving up—his muscles aching, his mind exhausted—when he finally found what he’d been searching for.

A doorway. A portal in the darkness, framed by that eerie orange light.

He mentally flew towards it. The opening expanded, growing larger and larger as he approached. Everything was symbolic now, and he went with what came. His body—his conscience, his imagination, his thoughts—catapulted through the portal, and suddenly the air exploded with light. He closed his eyes. He no longer felt the hands or presence of his two partners, even though he knew they were still there. Until this was over, Tick was on his own.

His feet touched a hard surface, and within his mind, he opened his eyes again.

He stood in a field of white snow. The sky above him was a piercingly clear blue, and the sun shone down with all its power, reflecting off the whiteness with a brilliant light that he’d first felt when entering the portal that had brought him here. He turned in a circle and saw that there was absolutely nothing in any direction. Just flat land and snow as far as he could see.

If anything could symbolize the Nonex, this was it.

There was one thing. Off in the distance, maybe fifty feet away, he thought he saw something blue—a bruise on the endless sea of white. He headed that way, his feet crunching and sinking slightly in the cold stuff below him with every step. There was no wind, but the coldness of the air bit into his skin, as if someone had just flicked on his senses with a switch. He looked down at his clothes and saw them magically transform from what he’d been wearing by the fire back on the beach to a huge parka and heavy pants and boots. Gloves and a thick wool hat on his head completed the transformation. Much better.

As he got closer to the spot of blue, it grew in size, but not just because he approached it. It literally grew, expanding outward like a drop of food coloring on a paper towel. Tick stopped and watched as its leading edge came toward him, then stopped at his feet. He could see that it was frozen water, but the icy lake seemed unnatural, as if it were made up of that nasty colored stuff used to create small ponds at the miniature golf place.