The Void of Mist and Thunder (The 13th Reality #4)(9)


by James Dashner

“Are you both ready?” the old man asked.

Paul nodded.

Sofia cleared her throat. “Of course we are. But you haven’t really told us much about what we’re supposed to do.”

Their fearless leader pursed his lips, looking as if he had a whole bunch of nasty thoughts in his head that he didn’t want to share. “The Third Reality is one we haven’t charted very well, and, given recent events, we’ve lost all other means of communication with the Realitant we originally sent there. She can be quite . . . difficult, and she’s made it clear that supervising the Third Reality is her job and her job alone. I need you to find her and ask her a very important question.”

“You said something about her wanting to eat us,” Paul said. “This chick a wolverine or something?”

“No, no, no,” Master George grumbled. “And I highly suggest you not say such things to her when you meet. And most certainly, I recommend you not call her a . . . what did you say? A chick?”

Paul shrugged. He wasn’t worried—he’d have this lady cooling her jets with some of his simple charm and good looks. No biggie.

“I think I’ll do the talking,” Sofia muttered. “Don’t worry.”

“Her name is Gretel,” Master George continued. “The woman has a nasty temper, the worst I’ve ever seen. She makes Mistress Jane look like a princess on a pony. And she’s been a bit . . . at odds with me for some time now. But she’s brilliant, and I plan to send you with full means to communicate back to me through your nanolocators. Your first task is to reach her. Make sure she is calm. And then ask the question.”

Paul thought the whole mission seemed a little strange. “What’s this big question we’re supposed to ask?”

Their leader hefted the Barrier Wand in his hands and studied it, though his gaze was distant, as though he was trying to stall for time.

“Well?” Paul pushed.

“You may not understand it, but I need you to say these exact words to her. Are you ready? Though short, I’ve taken the liberty of writing it down on pieces of paper I’ve slipped into your packs.”

“Sheesh,” Paul said. “Just spill it already.”

“Here it is,” the man said, looking very serious indeed. “Six words: May I please use your bathroom?”

Paul was still snickering about the ridiculous question when the old man winked them to the Third Reality. Master George had refused to explain any further, saying that those six words were all they needed to know. They’d be sent to a place near a path. Follow the path. Find a house. Knock on the door. Ask the question: “May I please use your bathroom?”

Easy peasy.

Well, worst-case scenario, they’d be able to utilize the facilities before heading back.

Paul and Sofia stood on a soggy, muddy trail that cut ahead of them through marshland and swamp. The air was muggy and seemed to stick in Paul’s lungs when he breathed, and the heat made it worse. They’d only been there for half a minute, and he was already sweating head to toe.

Trees rose up out of the black waters of the swamp, moss and vines hanging from their branches. There were the sounds of frogs and crickets and a million other bugs and creatures, and a fragrance that was an inch short of disgusting. Rotten eggs and burnt toast.

“Let me get this straight,” Paul said. “This lady could live pretty much anywhere in the thirteen Realities, and she chose to live here?”

Sofia had her annoyed look set firmly on her face. “Do you even listen when Master George talks? He said that she was sent here to study this Reality. That’s why she lives here.”

“And this whole world is a swamp? I’m pretty sure they have a mountain or two somewhere. A sweet forest dig. A desert would be better than this.”

“I just hope Master George didn’t send us here so we’d be out of the way.”

Paul snorted. “You kidding? He probably figured we’d drunk a ton of water, so here we are—waiting to ask if we can use this lady’s bathroom.”

“I wonder who died here, or how many,” was Sofia’s reply.

Sometimes she chose to ignore his comments as her best line of defense. Paul didn’t mind. “Maybe there was a battle or something. It sure isn’t a graveyard.”

“It looks like the path starts here and goes in that direction.” She pointed down the long trail, which wound its way through the nasty, steaming marshland.

“I bet we get bitten by mosquitos the size of my dad’s truck.”

“Probably.”

“We’ll get malaria and die.”

“Probably.”

“Okay. Let’s go.”

They reached Gretel’s house about ten minutes later.

It was the exact kind of place Paul expected would be in the middle of a swamp. Old, moss-covered wood, the sideboards of the small cottage warped from too much moisture. Faded, worn paint that used to be white. A screen door that was half off its hinges. A porch that looked like it was about to collapse. The biggest trees they’d seen yet surrounded the place.

Paul had sworn to himself that he wouldn’t make any Hansel and Gretel jokes since he’d first heard the woman’s name from Master George, but he couldn’t resist.

“We forgot to drop pieces of bread on our way here.”

Sofia gave him a fake courtesy laugh. “I was waiting for that.”

“Comedy never works when it’s obvious.”

Sofia flashed him a smile that wasn’t fake, and Paul broke out in goose bumps. He hoped she couldn’t tell. He started walking toward the porch to hide it.

When he reached the steps of the porch, he couldn’t help but hesitate. It seemed as if their feet would crash right through if they dared take one step on the old, rotten boards. But before he could take that first step, the front door tore open with a bang. The screen that had barely been hanging on fell off completely. It clanged against the porch, bent and torn.

An old, old woman stood in the doorway, a huge knife in one hand and a pistol in the other. Paul yelped and backed away. He ran into Sofia, and they both collapsed to the soggy ground.

Gretel moved forward, the boards creaking under her feet. She had gray hair springing in all directions, a face as wrinkled as a newborn pup, and a tattered dress that looked as if it hadn’t been washed in years. But her body seemed strong, solid. Especially the fingers gripped around those two weapons.