He gripped the fangen’s forearms again, kicked up with his legs. His foot connected again, and this time he threw his hands at the wings, catching one of them by the thin stretch of skin between two bones. He yanked on it with all of his weight, pulling downward.

The creature shrieked again as they both fell toward the ground once more. This time, they came within reach of two tall soldiers, who quickly dropped their weapons and grabbed the fangen, slamming it to the ground, freeing Sato. And then they took care of the beast.

Sato jumped to his feet, adrenaline screaming through his body.

An odd sound suddenly tore through the air, overpowering everything else. It wasn’t just that—all other noises seemed to cease at once, replaced by an overbearing, all- consuming sound that made everyone pause in whatever they’d been doing. Sato couldn’t help it any more than the others. He faced the open canyon that towered above him.

A tonal thrum, mixed with a sound like bending metal, rang throughout the valley, giving Sato the strange sense that his ears had been stuffed with cotton. He didn’t see anything different or unusual at first, other than both sides of the battle had stopped fighting. The soldiers of the Fifth Army had lowered their weapons, searching the sky to figure out what was going on. Most of the Void creatures had disappeared—when, Sato had no idea. But trails of mist were everywhere, all of them snaking their way toward the clouds.

His gaze lifted; he felt almost hypnotized by the warping and the bell-like sounds clanging through the valley. He was looking directly at the churning gray storm when it suddenly divided into countless tornadoes, funneling down like a hundred gray fingers.

And then Reality itself started to split at the seams.

Chapter 57

Gashes in the World

Paul’s eyes hurt from looking at so many screens in the operations center, and his stomach was queasy from the shaking—though he was getting used to it—but his heart had swelled about three sizes. They were making progress. Real progress. And he could feel the power of Karma working inside of him. His mind was filled with images that he knew didn’t originate from his own thoughts.

Sofia had worked the hardest of the three of them, searching and reading every last line of Gretel’s notes. She looked exhausted and had finally taken a seat across from Rutger and Paul.

“Karma,” Sofia said, almost reverently. She held the gray box with the pressed green button in her hands. “I thought Chi’karda was like magic. Karma’s even beyond how we thought the world worked.”

“It’s pretty cool,” Paul agreed. “I think you’re right that it’s the cause of all the weirdness around us. For some reason, Karma wants things escalated. Like maybe our window of opportunity is going to be short. Whatever it is.”

Rutger slapped his thighs. “Are we all agreed on the findings, then? Our theories about what’s happened so far, and where we think it’s leading us?”

Instead of answering, Sofia looked at Paul. “What do you see in your mind, right now?”

“The place where Jane’s castle used to be,” Paul said with a smile. They’d had this conversation a dozen times already, and the answer was always the same.

“The Thirteenth Reality,” Sofia responded. “Me too.”

“Me too,” Rutger added.

They all kept seeing the same vision in their heads. Karma was communicating with them. And they knew what it meant.

“Let’s run through our data one last time,” Sofia ordered.

Tick had jogged or walked at least a couple of miles when everything changed again. At first, it was just an odd feeling, his ears popping, the drop of his stomach. But then a sound like bells and twisting metal filled the air and everything went dead silent for a few seconds; the quiet almost made him fall down, he’d grown so used to his eardrums being pounded. But then a new noise started up, and he and Mistress Jane and Reginald Chu stopped moving and looked back toward the gaping canyon they’d left behind. There was something incredibly mesmerizing about the . . . music that floated along the wind.

“What’s going on back there?” Chu asked, his voice full of irritation as if all the crazy stuff was putting a chink in his plans. Which was true, Tick admitted.

“It’s changing,” Jane announced.

Chu scoffed. “Thank you for that scientific assessment.”

Tick ignored them both, staring at the massive disk of clouds that spun above the canyon in the distance. Lightning flashed, but no thunder rumbled away from it. The bluish light that shone out of the strange floating river—which was not visible from where he stood—reflected off the bottom of the brewing storm. A buzzy, relaxed tingling went through his body and across his skin. A part of him wanted to lie down and take a nap.

“Atticus,” Chu said, his words muffled slightly as if he were outside a bubble. As if they weren’t worthy enough to overcome the sweet sounds wafting from the canyon. “What’s that look in your eyes? What do you know about what’s happening over there?”

“Nothing,” Tick said softly, though he doubted they heard him. “Nothing.”

Things changed then, so abruptly that Tick stumbled backward, falling to the ground as his eyes widened in astonishment. The slowly spinning mass of clouds instantly transformed into countless towering funnels, the roar of the twisting tornadoes wiping out the peaceful sounds from before. The clouds dropped then, falling like arrows toward the valley floor below. Quick bursts of lightning arced through the gray mist of the funnels, and this time, the thunder was loud and cracking. When the tornadoes vanished from sight beneath the upper lips of the canyon walls, Tick readied himself to stand and pull himself together.

But another sight in the sky made him stop cold. Gashes in Reality ripped open all over the place, streaks of dark and light that tore across the air. Some were a few feet long, others in the hundreds. The ground shook, and the sounds of breaking and cracking rocked the land.

Tick pressed his hands against the hard dirt to steady himself as he focused on the gaps that littered the sky. At first he’d only noticed that they didn’t look the same, that they had varying shades of color and light, but as he got over his initial shock and peered closer, he could see that the rips in Reality were actually windows to other worlds.

Through the one closest to him, he saw buildings and cars and people—a city at night. The darkness of the scene made it hard to see much, but there seemed to be a huge traffic jam and people running down the sidewalks. Another gash nearby revealed a field of crops and a farmhouse during the brightness of day. Yet another showed a jungle or rainforest, thick with trees and vines and foliage. All the rents in the sky showed something different: a desert, a mountain peak, a neighborhood with damaged homes, people packed inside a mall—many of them huddled together as if they were cold, several views of lands with broken trees or floods.

Tick’s mind was overrun with all the information he was witnessing. He tried to process it, understand it. A blue river of light that hovered above ground, creatures from the Void, Reality looking warped and weird, churning clouds and lightning and tornadoes, rips in the air that led to other Realities, more earthquakes. His Chi’karda being held back from him somehow. What did it mean? What did it all mean?

Someone shook his shoulders and snapped him out of the trance he’d fallen into, gaping at the gashes in the air. He looked up to see Jane, her red mask pulled tightly into a look of concern.

“We need to get out of here,” she said, her scratchy voice somehow cutting through the din of terrible noises that rattled the world around them.

“What’s happening?” Tick asked. In that instant he almost forgot all the things he hated about the woman kneeling beside him and holding on to him with scarred hands.

Her mask relaxed into a neutral expression, but with her so close, Tick could see directly into her eyes behind it. And there was cold, hard fear there. She leaned in closer to whisper in his ear.

“I can sense a force here that we studied long ago. A project that I was led to believe had been abandoned because of its danger. Apparently not. And that only makes our mission more paramount.”

After a long pause, the noise and shaking and ripped seams in Reality glaring at the forefront once more, she finally spoke again. And even though Tick didn’t really know what she was talking about, the icy tone in her voice made his blood run cold.

“It’s Karma, Atticus. Karma’s been unleashed. And it’s only making things worse.”

Chapter 58

A Reason

Mothball gawked at the tornadoes and the splits in Reality—at a brief glimpse at one of the impossible gashes that showed a boy and a girl running down a beach, a moving image that hung right in the middle of the air—as she and Sally fought to protect Master George from the onslaught, taking him to the wall of the canyon.

The rents in the air—long gashes that appeared to be windows to other Realities—were all over the place, as if the world was a sheet of canvas and someone had taken a sharp knife to it, slashing uncontrollably. Behind each rip was a different scene. Forests and oceans. Cities and farms. Close-ups and faraway views. The people she saw looked frantic and scared, often running from or toward something. It was all a big nightmare.

But at least the creatures from the Void had all vanished. Sato stood nearby, his soldiers lined up behind him, facing the valley floor.

“Those tornadoes are dropping,” Sato announced. “I don’t know how to fight tornadoes.”

Mothball glanced up and saw them, dozens and dozens of spinning coils of gray air. Even as she looked, she felt their wind against her face and clothes. And it was getting stronger. They had maybe two minutes before most of them touched down.

“I don’t either,” Master George said glumly.

Jane moved surprisingly fast, saying that they had to get farther out of range. She yelled at Tick that they needed Chi’karda so they could wink away before it was too late. The three of them—Tick, Jane, and Chu—ran across the dusty land, ignoring the rents to other Realities that floated magically around them, glimpses into an endless display of worlds and settings.

Tick moved as close to Jane as possible without a risk of his legs getting tangled with her robe as it swished, swished, swished.

“What’s keeping us from Chi’karda?” he yelled at her. “We could use it just fine back at your castle!”

“It has to be Karma,” she replied without slowing or looking his way. “It’s a power that’s both unpredictable and immense. If it’s suppressing Chi’karda, then it has a reason. Either way, we need to hurry and get where we’re going. I think we’re almost far enough out.”

Tick knew exactly where they were heading. Felt it in his bones. “We’re going back to the Thirteenth Reality.”

This time, she did turn her head toward him, a look of surprise on her mask.

“Yes, Atticus. We need to go back to the source of it all. To its heart.”

They kept running.

Chapter 59

Wall of Wind

When the leading tips of the tornadoes touched down on the dusty, rocky floor of the canyon, a wild wind erupted. It ripped through the air, picking up dirt and pebbles as it went, coming at Mothball and the others like a wall. She could barely see through it or past it, but she noticed the funnels of the tornadoes joined together, creating one huge cyclone of gray.