Tick dropped to his knees, knowing this was what he was supposed to do. Crystals of snow plumed out from behind him, dancing across the surface of the deep blue ice. Somehow they avoided a portion of the lake, forming a perfectly white rectangular frame. Tick knew what would happen before it did.

The rectangle flickered like a television coming to life, and then a moving image appeared on the ice, replacing the blue.

Tick leaned forward, placing his hands on the outer edge of the cold, frozen lake. What he saw stopped his heart for three full seconds. His mom and his sister, marching toward a huge wall of broken stone. They were led by two creatures that he’d run into before—long, gangly things that seemed to be made from coils of solid smoke.


Chapter 12


Lisa had felt terror before. When she and Kayla had been taken to that strange house with those strange women and the earthquake had hit. The storm of lightning and thunder. That had been her first true taste of fear.

And now she was experiencing it again.

The creatures that had taken her and her mom were ruthless and brutal as they dragged the two of them down the slope and across the grass to the broken castle. Their grip was hard and their pace furious.

They walked along a stream, the rushing water sparkling and glinting in the sunlight, the sound not doing a thing to help soothe Lisa’s nerves. She remembered Tick telling the story of his first visit to the Thirteenth Reality and the battle that had been fought here with the fangen. At the time, she could never have imagined that one day she’d be in the same place, in the same kind of trouble.

“What do you want with us?” Lisa’s mom asked for the twentieth time. And for the twentieth time, the creatures said nothing.

Lisa looked at the Barrier Wand that was still in her mom’s clutches, surprised that one of the monsters hadn’t taken it from her. If she remembered Tick’s tale completely, the castle of Mistress Jane was another hotspot for Chi’karda, so her mom would need only a free minute to switch the dials and instruments and wink them out of there. They just needed the right opportunity.

Finally, they approached the ruins of the once-grand structure, the stream disappearing under a stone wall. Now that they were closer, Lisa could finally get a good look at the different types of creatures that had been crawling all over the crumpled and half-standing walls of the castle. Some matched Tick’s description of the nasty fangen: blackish skin, splotchy green hair, giant mouths full of spiked teeth, thin membranes of wings stretching out from their backs. There were others. More of the smoky-rope kind that had captured Lisa and her mom. Some that were small and hunched and charcoal gray, like grotesque statues come to life. Some that looked like a cross between an alligator and a bull, with massively strong arms. They all blended together into one display of horror.

And their purpose was obvious. They were trying to rebuild the castle, stone by stone.

Their current captors stopped them by one of the more solid sections of the ruins, about thirty feet from where the stream slipped under the wall. A huge wooden door stood next to it—or what used to be a door. Now it was mostly shredded, chunks and splinters hanging off around the edges. Darkness lurked behind the opening.

The monstrous pair threw Lisa and her mom to the ground in front of the door. The two of them immediately crawled to each other and huddled together, the Barrier Wand snuggled between them, its surface hard and cold. Lisa’s mom started slyly turning the dials and switches.

The creatures floated up into the air and flew over to the wall of the castle, their wispy figures like streams of smoke whipping through the wind. They landed on the hard stone and used their long arms and legs to crawl up its side, mixing in with the rest of the other dark and twisted creatures.

“Get us out of here,” Lisa whispered to her mom.

“I’m working on it.” Her hands slowly turned a dial until it clicked. “But I don’t want them to notice. And I’m not even sure I want us to wink out of here just yet.”

“What? Why?”

Her mom looked disappointed. “After all we went through to get here in the first place? There has to be a reason that Chi’karda and Reality pulled us here when we tried to grab Atticus. Maybe we’re on his trail or something. Or maybe we’re being guided to his nanolocator, and this is a stop along the way.”

Lisa was a little ashamed for wanting to hightail it out of there, but being dead wouldn’t help Tick much either. “Or maybe we’re about to be eaten for dinner by all of these monsters.”

“Maybe. Don’t worry your little heart, girl. I have the Wand all set, and if worse comes to worst, I’ll click the button and wink us away. We can start all over again. From the beginning. Without any hope.”

Lisa groaned and rolled her eyes. “Okay, Mom. I got your point loud and clear.”

There was movement in the darkness behind the shattered door, and a figure appeared, like a shrouded ghost. Lisa wanted to get up and run, but she kept her eyes focused on the person who approached. As the figure came into the light, Lisa could see a robe made of a coarse, off-white material, its hood pulled up and over the face, hiding it. Two hands emerged from the arms of the robe, the fingers folded together in front. Lisa had expected the hands to be gnarled and ancient, but the skin looked young and healthy.

A woman’s hands.

The robed stranger walked to where Lisa and her mom sat. She was tall and thin, and the image of her hooded head gave her a commanding presence, like an ancient oracle or druid.

“You can wink away if you wish,” the lady said, her voice a hollow ring. “But I ask only that you allow me to tell you one very important thing first.”

“What is it?” Lisa’s mom replied, cautious.

The woman reached up with those young hands of hers and pulled back the hood of her robe, revealing a homely, stoic face framed by short, black hair. She had a nose that pointed straight out like a carrot.

“We brought you here,” she said, “because you’re trying to find Atticus Higginbottom. And so are we.”

Chapter 13

Words on Ice

Tick’s heart had dropped upon seeing his mom and sister captured by Sleeks, and he almost beat his fists on the ice where their images appeared, thinking he could break through, dive through, and save them somehow. He yelled to them as they were brought to the foot of Jane’s now-broken castle and thrown to the ground, though he knew it was pointless. Full of desperation and rage, he could only sit there and shake. Helpless.

The screen—the rectangle of frozen pond—suddenly flickered, and the scene disappeared, replaced by a few lines of written words. Before he even read it, he knew it was some kind of riddle, and for some reason, it made him mad. He screamed and did hit the ice, cursing Reality for playing such ridiculous games with him. His family was in trouble, and here he was, forced to solve a silly puzzle again.

But on the other hand, he was good at it. The fabric of the universe understood his mind and was trying to help him. Was trying to form its complexities together and present to him a solution in a way he could best grasp it. Just like what had happened with the Haunce.

Tick gained control of his emotions and forced himself to read the words.

The smallest thing begins to grow

It needs no light, it needs no glow

This thing, it fears the weakest breath

And yet it cannot embrace death

The greatest man or bull or steed

Or queen or doe or stinging bee

Eats it, smells it, drinks it some

And one day it they will become

Tick sighed. He’d hoped the riddle would be easy, that the answer would jump out at him. But no. Of course not.

He started thinking.

“My name is Mordell,” the woman said to Lisa and her mom. She sat on the grass next to them, her legs folded beneath her flowing robe, her back straight, and her hands settled on her knees. “I am a Lady of Blood and Sorrow, a new order started by our master, Mistress Jane, to serve her in the quest to create a Utopia for mankind. To bring eternal happiness to humans once and for all. We bear our name of despair to teach the world that we will do anything, make any sacrifice, to bring this Utopia to pass. We are servants only.”

Lisa felt queasy as Mordell spoke. She seemed to have a blank stare as she recited her mantra, as if it had been beaten into her since she was a kid.

“Why are you looking for my son?” Lisa’s mom asked. She had the Barrier Wand gripped in one hand, the other hovering above the button on top. Lisa also had a hand on the device. They could wink away with one click.

“Because we know he is with our master,” Mordell replied. “We believe that they disrupted the fabric of Reality by using such astronomical levels of Chi’karda that they were ripped away into the Nonex.”

Mom gasped, and one of her hands flew up to her mouth.

“The Nonex?” Lisa repeated. That didn’t sound very good. “What’s that?”

Her mom looked over at her, her face somehow showing even more worry than it had before. “We don’t know much about it, but it’s a place that both exists and doesn’t exist, trapped somewhere between the dimensions of Reality. Sort of a no-man’s-land, where your mind is the only thing keeping you alive. They say it’s where you go if you ever meet one of your Alterants.”

Lisa had the thought that her mom was a true scientist, unable to stop herself from breaking it down to textbook explanations despite knowing her own son might be trapped there. But her eyes held deep love and concern still.

Mordell continued. “Mistress Jane has been training us to understand the ways of Chi’karda. It flows here in ways it does not in the other Realities. We’ve brought every one of our kind from the stations we’ve established throughout the Thirteen Realities. Even as we speak, they are gathering inside the Great Hall of the castle behind me, which by fate, survived the destruction.”

“What are they doing?” Lisa asked.

Mordell’s eyes focused on hers for the first time. “We are meditating, probing the universe, seeking any sign of Atticus or Mistress Jane. We must find their nanolocators or sense their presence. We have to be ready to snatch them if they appear, as soon as they appear. Right now, it’s as if they have been wiped from Reality.”

Lisa’s mom didn’t seem surprised, as if she’d given up doubting anything anymore. “And how did you find us? Did you wink us here?”

“We have the data on your son’s nanolocator. In our probing, we saw you looking for him. And then you were captured by the Great Disturbance that has plagued the Realities ever since our master disappeared. We rescued you from it and brought you here so that you could help us. We’re no longer enemies; we have the same purpose.”

Lisa’s mind caught on those two words: Great Disturbance. The lady had said them as if they were the name of a place or a person. She asked what it meant.

Mordell looked into her eyes once again. “We call it the Void of Mist and Thunder, and if we don’t find a way to stop it, the lives of our master and your brother, and the quest to build Utopia, won’t matter. Because every last person in the Realities will be dead.”