Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
“We’re getting there,” says a woman’s voice in the dark.
I’m not sure who the voice belongs to. I reach out to see if I can touch someone—my mom, my brother… but my hands touch nothing. I wonder if I even have hands at this point, because when I try to reach them up and touch my face, I feel nothing.
Besides the voice, only one thing seems to exist: a pinpoint of light I see in the dark ahead of me. It might be a tiny dot close by or an immense glow a million miles away. All I know is that moments ago, I somehow stepped into a hole in a magazine. And now I am hurtling—across space, underneath space, or maybe through no space at all.
“Soon the universe will suck us back out into existence again, like being sucked through a straw,” the voice says. “Just let yourself relax. You don’t have to do a thing. It’ll feel squishy, but not painful.” The voice has just the slightest hint of a Spanish accent. Silence passes for a moment. Then, “I’m Wanda, by the way. Wanda Luna. Sorry we have to make our introductions as disembodied consciousnesses, but a mal tiempo, buena cara.”
“Disembodied whats?” another voice chimes in. I think it’s Germ.
“Oh! Here we go,” Wanda interjects. “It’s coming up. Try to squeeze yourselves together…”
“Just, you know, tuck it all in. Like you’re trying to make yourself as small as possible. Better if you’re not all dangly.”
I’m panicking now. I don’t know how to tuck myself in so that I’m not all dangly. I slurp in a deep breath as the pinprick of light grows from a dot to a softball to a sphere the size of a house, bright and blinding and beautiful.
My toes get sucked toward it first. The pull gets more and more intense as it climbs up my feet, my ankles, my legs. And then the sound becomes deafening—there’s a whooshing as the light engulfs me. Up is down and down is up, and just when I think I’m hurtling up at a spinning starry sky, I find myself hurtling down toward all-too-solid land.
I scream and a moment later hit the dirt, hard. There are several thuds around me as others make impact. Almost immediately Ebb is kneeling beside me, watching me with concern. He hasn’t hit the ground at all, since he’s a ghost.
“Rosie,” Germ breathes, sitting up on the other side of me, shivering and catching her breath. It’s chilly, the air crisp and cool.
“I feel like something’s gonna happen,” says Aria, who’s landed on her stomach, “but… no idea what.” And then she lurches forward and vomits. She wipes her mouth and says, “Okay. It happened.”
A few others wretch, and then, on shaky legs, we stand, gaping at each other.
“Everyone all right?” the woman named Wanda asks, brushing dust out of her dyed brick-red hair. We all nod, dazed.
“It’s fine. I broke my fall with my face,” says Clara dryly, adjusting her hair back into its perfect bun. We are a gathering of dazed travelers. My best friend, Germ; and Ebb, who’s dead. My mom, Annabelle; my twin brother, Wolf. Aria and her big sister, Clara; and Wanda—the last two I only met a few minutes ago in the stomach of the time whale who was helping us to flee a burgeoning black hole. We are standing on a barren, white, dusty expanse that disappears into a black horizon. I don’t know where we are, but it’s not anywhere on Earth.
“What’s that smell?” Aria asks.
“Burning stars, most likely,” Wanda answers, nodding skyward. Above, thousands of stars encircle us—burning so bright that a person could read by their glow. “If I’ve got things right, we’re on a dwarf planet called Glimmer 5 about a hundred and ten light-years from home. Still in the Milky Way, so that’s something.” Wanda brushes off her skirts, stamping dust off her wooden leg and tossing her flamboyant hair briskly. “It’s lucky you had the magazine,” she says to Germ. “There couldn’t be a better place to route ourselves, really.”
I know she’s talking about Germ’s well-worn copy of Pet Psychic: The Outer Space Issue, which we have apparently just stepped through. I know it, but it’s hard to believe it. And then, so much more comes back to me—all lost in the haze and confusion.
“We left Chompy,” I whisper. Our whale, alone and scared at the bottom of the Sea of Always. Instinctively I reach for the shoulder straps of my backpack to retrieve my Lumos flashlight, only to remember that the flashlight’s gone—and my bluebird, Little One, with it—destroyed by witches.
“We left the world,” Aria adds, her voice cracking, leaning closer to her sister.
I hear a groan, and it takes a minute to realize it’s come from me, rising out of my own chest and through my mouth.
The war against the witches on the beach.
The blanket made of nothing left behind.
The black hole opening above the earth.
We gaze at each other, in shock. Is it all gone? The sea? Our town? Countries? The world?
The more I get my bearings, the more I want to crumple up and dissolve.
Beside me Germ is ashen, her reddish freckles vanished as they only do when she turns pale. I jar her gently, but she doesn’t speak. My mom, too, is silent, and next to her my brother shivers.
“The others who came with you…,” Aria ventures, turning to Wanda, confused. And now that comes back to me too, a white-bearded man and two teenage boys who appeared on the whale but aren’t here now. Wanda tries to wipe the dust off her flushed cheeks but only manages to spread it into larger swaths.
“They could be dead, or lost in space if something went awry as they came through the hole,” she says. “It’s a hazard of this kind of travel. But hopefully they diverted somewhere safely.” She’s quiet for a moment, thinking. “We’ll have to assume we’re the only witch hunters left.”
“But how are we left?” Aria says. “How are we even here?”
Wanda only presses her lips together tightly, and then starts to walk purposefully in the direction of the empty horizon.
“I’ll catch you up on all of that,” she says. “But right now, we need to see what’s what. A mal tiempo, buena cara,” she says, repeating what she said when we were falling through the air. “In bad weather, a good face,” Wanda translates as she settles into a purposeful gait, her wooden leg thumping in a steady rhythm on the ground. I don’t know where she could be heading. I see nothing but empty gray land in every direction. And then a noise… like a whimper… comes from behind me. I turn to see my brother, thin and shivering, backing away from us.
I reach out to touch his shoulder. “It’s okay, Wolf,” I say, trying to sound more hopeful than I feel. But as I step closer, he jerks away. Then he turns, and—shoulders hunched, seeming in the moment more animal than boy—he walks and keeps walking. He doesn’t look back over his shoulder as he slinks away toward the horizon. My mom is turned toward him like she’s watching a sinking sun.
“He’ll come back,” Wanda says as we watch him go. “It’s a tiny planet, from what I’ve read. You could circle it in an hour.” My mom’s eyes stay glued to my brother as his figure gets smaller. I look at Wanda uncertainly. She only turns and keeps walking.
The gray landscape slopes ever so slightly beneath us. I soon understand that Wanda wasn’t kidding about circling it in an hour. The planet is small enough that I feel the curve of it under my feet. The only signs of life are a few straggly, parched trees with crooked trunks and pointy limbs, and some snow-white shapes in the distance, winged and waddling.
“Space geese,” Wanda explains. “They eat the moss that grows along the rocky hills. It only rains once in a blue moon here, and not much light for anything else to grow. It’s always dim, always looks like the cusp of evening. Always chilly.” She looks back at Ebb, who’s floating along beside me. “There’s no such thing as night and day. You won’t fade away, no matter how long you stay.”
This is good news. Back home, ghosts fade if they’re away from their graves too long. But Ebb only frowns, lost in his own thoughts. And I know he’s thinking about his parents, how close he was to haunting them in 1934, to seeing their lives in the past unfold. I want to hug him tight, but he’s too ephemeral for me to do it.
“You talk like you’ve been here before,” Aria says. And Wanda, glancing back at us, vigorously shakes her head.
“No, but I’ve known about Glimmer 5 most of my life. And, luckily, I had the means to get us here.” She holds out her hand, closing her fist to better display a ring on her finger. It’s a small silver circle, with the top poking up like a wing or a fin. I hadn’t noticed it when we were on Chompy, but then again, we were in a whale at the end of the world, watching a woman draw a hole in the fabric of space and time. I was a bit distracted.
Now she squints. “We landed too hard—I’ve broken it.” She wiggles the delicate metal fin with her hand, and it lists to one side crookedly. “Traveling across this much distance is not something I’ve ever attempted. And I wouldn’t have, if the world…”
She clears her throat, all business.
“Just to be clear on what you’ve told me: the world’s witches wove a blanket of nothing that turned out to be a black hole. You killed them, but the blanket remained.”
She looks around to verify this, and we vaguely nod. But to be honest, we’re still trying to grasp it ourselves.
“The Nothing King’s been imprisoned in his own black hole,” Wanda continues, “locked up there by the Moon Goddess for millennia, but now these twin black holes have been connected across the universe like a tunnel, so the Nothing King could come through it and drag Earth in… and obliterate it. If that hasn’t happened yet, I imagine it soon will.”
Wanda says all of this matter-of-factly, as if she’s talking about taxes, or dusting. Meanwhile I feel Germ sway a little beside me, clearly distraught. I’ve never known her to be quiet for so many seconds in her life.
“Unfortunately,” Wanda goes on pragmatically, “a black hole is a gaping suck of darkness that nothing can resist. Once you’re close enough, there’s no turning back from it. A speck of dust can’t survive it. Light can’t; even time can’t. Certainly Earth couldn’t. Only the Nothing King could ever survive it, since it’s what he’s made of.”
Wanda looks around at each of our faces gravely, and then brushes her hands together brusquely, as if her entire way of being is facing bad weather with a good face.
“So… what do we do?” Aria asks.
Wanda shrugs. “For now,” she says, looking beyond us at something in the distance, “we get our bearings.” We all turn and follow her gaze to see a small rocky hill made of gray stone, about fifty yards away.
“What are we looking for, Wan?” Clara asks.
“A view,” Wanda answers decisively.
With Wanda and Clara in the lead, we set off in the direction of the rocks, and crest the hill, where from the top we see nothing but empty space in every direction, stark and beautiful and gut-wrenchingly, vastly empty. Suddenly I think of the Moon Goddess. Does the moon still exist? Does she? The thought takes my breath away.
“Should we see Earth from here?” I whisper. “Is it… gone?”
Wanda taps her wooden leg nervously. “It’s not Earth we’re looking for. It’s Rufus Glimmer, the man who built the League of Witch Hunters.” And then, having seen enough to know where she’s going, she walks back down the hill, leading the way across the emptiness. We have no choice but to follow.
“A witch hunter… lives here?” I ask, gazing around at the emptiness. Wanda shakes her head.
“Not a witch hunter himself,” she answers. “Actually, he’s a bit of a coward. But if anyone in the galaxy can help us, it’s him.”