Tick felt himself blinking, felt tears in his eyes, felt pain coursing through every inch of his body. But still nothing—blackness.
The man wouldn’t be quiet, and his every word throbbed in Tick’s skull. “I have no idea how it happened, but I can’t say I’m not pleased. It’ll be nice to have some help. I’m sure between the three of us, we can get out of here.”
Tick kept blinking and finally saw a faint smudge of light against the darkness.
“Where . . . where are we?”
Jane. It was Jane. She sounded even worse than usual.
The man chuckled, a horribly unpleasant sound. “You’re safe and sound, Mistress. No worries. Plenty to eat around here. Plenty of everything.”
The light grew in Tick’s vision. Increased its pace of brightening. Shapes began to form.
“I . . . warned him,” Jane said, her voice filled with resignation, as if she’d just accepted a horrible truth. “I . . .” She didn’t finish.
Something clicked, and suddenly Tick could see everything. Gasping, he sat up, ignoring the bolts of pain that shot through his body. He sat on a beach with a perfect blue sky hanging overhead and crystal-clear water lapping against the white sand. An enormous and endless ocean stretched to his right, a forest of palm trees to his left. Mistress Jane lay flat on the ground, several feet away, her mask cracked and tilted.
And sitting cross-legged next to Tick was Reginald Chu. The man who’d once ruled the Fourth Reality. The man who’d tried to rule all Thirteen with his Dark Infinity. The man who’d been sent to—
“Welcome to the Nonex, Atticus,” Chu said. “I hope you’re ready to help me get the heck out of here.”
Sofia sat between Paul and Sato on the couch, her arms folded, her foot tapping. Sally and Priscilla, both of whom had been in charge of collecting and helping the children rescued from the Factory, sat across from them, both looking down and as quiet as everyone else. Mothball was on the floor, leaning back against the bricks of the fireplace.
Master George and Rutger finally entered the room, their faces grave.
“I believe we finally have our report,” Master George announced, looking down at a stack of papers clasped in his hands. “The members of Sato’s Fifth Army are mostly safe and accounted for, having lost only”—he cleared his throat—“seventeen lives in battle. It looks like Sato and Mothball rescued ninety-seven children in all, and they are currently receiving the very best in treatment from Realitant doctors.”
“We lost ten of them,” Sato mumbled under his breath. It was the first thing he’d said since winking away from the Thirteenth.
“Why . . . yes, Sato. Yes, we did.” Master George paused, his eyes showing so much love for Sato that Sofia felt tears moisten her eyes. “The damage from our latest affairs is quite catastrophic. Every single Reality has suffered, and the recovery will take years. The worst by far is the Thirteenth, where . . . the final conflict inflicted utter devastation. It will take some time to discover just how much.”
Sofia spoke up. “What happened to Tick?”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “Out with it.”
Master George nodded uncomfortably. “Yes, yes, we’re all very concerned about Master Atticus and what has become of him.” His voice squeaked on the last three words; a tear spilled down his cheek. “I’m afraid we have quite troubling—and confusing—news.”
Sofia’s heart froze; her breath stopped.
“I can’t say I understand it,” he continued, fidgeting with his papers. “His nanolocator started working again once his business with the Haunce was complete. But then . . . it just . . . well, it reported back something we’ve never seen before. Rutger, you tell them. I can’t bear to say another bloody word.” He threw the papers on the floor and stomped out of the room.
Rutger took a moment before finally speaking.
“According to our system, Atticus Higginbottom has ceased to exist.”
Lisa had just fallen asleep—after a long time of trying to do so—when she felt someone shaking her by the shoulders, gently. She opened her eyes, ready to scream out in panic, when the sight of her mom silenced it. The glow of the moon shining through the window lit up Lorena Higginbottom’s face, making it look somehow kind and fiercely determined at the same time.
Lisa knew she was up to something. “What’s going on?”
“Keep quiet and follow me,” her mom whispered. “Don’t make a peep—you know your dad will wake up at the sneeze of a mouse.”
Confused but intrigued, Lisa shook her grogginess away and got up from bed. Then the two of them tiptoed out of her room, down the hall, then down the stairs, both keeping to the silent spots as best they could. Before long, Lisa’s mom had led her all the way down to the basement.
After flicking on the light, Lisa repeated her earlier question. “What’s going on?”
Her mom walked over to a dusty corner of the large room and dragged a couple of boxes away from the wall, then crouched down. “I know both you and I have been feeling like we want to help. To finally do our part in this whole mess. Especially now that my son”—she faltered, choked back the usual cry that had come so often since Master George had sent word that Tick was missing—“is nowhere to be found. I think it’s time we took a little of our own action.”
Lisa nodded, feeling the same swell of emotion, knowing she couldn’t speak without cracking. But she agreed. Agreed wholeheartedly. She wanted to do something. She wanted to act.
Her mom gripped a panel of the unpainted wall, and to Lisa’s surprise it came loose. She lifted out a large square and placed it on the ground. Swirls of dust puffed through the air. In the dark recess behind her, an object glinted.
“You’ve been hiding something down here?” Lisa asked.
“Yes. Though I never, never, never thought I’d have to use it again.” She leaned over and reached into the secret compartment.
“What?” Lisa asked, moving closer to get a better look. “What is it?”
Her mom pulled out a long, golden tube with dials and switches running down its sides, then held it up. “It’s a Barrier Wand, sweetie. It’s gonna help us find my boy.”