Aesop stopped walking so suddenly that I crashed into him from behind. We were a couple miles outside of town, in the shadow of a tall, monolithic hill that completely obscured the dark orange sun.
“What now?” Ethan complained.
“What now?” Aesop echoed, raising his eyebrows. He thrust a menacing finger at the distant hill. “What now is that we’re here!”
Everybody exchanged a look. We could still hear the sirens coming from town. After almost being tomatonated back there, I wouldn’t have blamed anyone if they’d just wanted to go home. Especially Jade. The poor girl hadn’t said a word since we’d left the restaurant, and I’d had to keep my arm hooked around hers for fear that she’d wander off and do something regrettable.
It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Aesop broke into a sprint across the meadow, his bright red hair a beacon in the permanent twilight. Ethan looked at me, and I gave him a smile I didn’t quite feel.
“Race you there?” I asked.
“Hell no,” he spat, making his way across at a more reasonable speed. I followed close behind, Jade not resisting as I led her away from the road.
We caught up to Aesop at the base of the hill, where he was busy tugging on different parts of a chainlink fence. Ethan’s eyes immediately went to the big black and red Private Property sign that hung from it.
“Are we going to get in trouble for this?” he asked nervously.
I waved dismissively. “Nah! If we’re caught, I’ll just show them my Hunter badge and tell them I’m investigating something.”
“What about the rest of us?”
“You’re my cheerleaders. You three dance and sing about how awesome I am while I fight the maiams.”
A moment later, Aesop laughed when he found the loose section of fence. Ethan gave me another look, but ducked through the gap without argument. Once we were all through, Aesop turned and ran the rest of the way up the hill as fast as his stubby little legs could carry him, grinning like a madman.
“Ethan Griggs,” the young leprechaun declared, sweeping his arm dramatically in front of himself, “welcome to Feverdream Field!”
We reached the top, and all four of us stood side by side to look at our destination. Feverdream Field was a lot less impressive than the name made it sound. It stretched for miles in every direction, but all there was to see were hundreds — thousands — of dark purple clumps. A thin violet fog hung over the field.
“Great,” said Ethan. “Now will someone finally tell me what that is?”
“Just the one and only natural habitat for the somnus mushroom,” I answered, finally letting go of Jade. She wandered off to sit under a tree. “Super rare, super valuable. You can make an awesome pasta sauce out of it.”
“Oh.” Ethan took a closer look. “I guess that doesn’t sound so bad.”
“And they spray a hallucinogenic toxin when threatened.”
Ethan gave me a sharp look. “What was that last part?”
“The clown said nothing!” Aesop snapped. He pulled a baseball out of his pocket and threw it to me. “Henry, tell him what he’s got to do!”
“With pleasure!” I grinned and bounced the ball a few times in my hand. Then, throwing it up high, I drew Splatsy to her full size and swung her as hard as I could. With a loud thwack, the ball went soaring out over Feverdream Field, landing somewhere in the center with a series of machine gun-like pops from the mushrooms.
“Your job,” I said, “is to go get that ball.”
Ethan took a step back. “Uh, yeah, no. I don’t think so.”
“Aw, what’s the matter?” Aesop elbowed him in the ribs. “You scared?”
“Scared of a bunch of transdimensional mushrooms that I’m pretty sure Henry just said were poisonous?” He nodded forcefully. “Yes, yes I am.”
I grabbed him by the shoulder and gave him a little shake. “Come on, Griggs! Remember what the council said about me keeping you safe no matter what? Do you really think I’d send you down there if it was dangerous?”
“Oh, come on!” I begged. “Have a little faith.”
Ethan looked at me, then sighed. “You swear it isn’t dangerous?”
“Pinky promise,” I said, holding out my little finger.
“Just a wee harmless bit o’ fun, laddie buck!”
Ethan ignored my pinky and started down the hill. “Okay, fine. I’ll go get your stupid ball.”
Aesop and I both snickered as Ethan walked down the hill and tentatively stepped onto the field. The mushrooms gave him the famous Feverdream Field welcome, immediately spewing a cloud of toxic fumes right into his face. Ethan coughed, and then stopped in his tracks.
“And so it begins!” Aesop cackled.
“Wh- What the?” I could just make out Ethan’s voice. He looked around, staring wide eyed at something only he could see. “Is that a…whaaat?”
“I wonder what he’s seeing?” I whispered, a grin spreading across my face.
“Nothing nice,” Aesop answered. “They don’t call it Feverdream Field for nothing.”
Ethan reached out toward whatever was in front of him, and then recoiled with a yelp. Aesop and I burst out laughing.
“Uh, guys?” Ethan called. “This isn’t funny anymore. I want out!”
“You’ve got to get the ball!” Aesop yelled back.
“Hurry up,” I added. “The sooner you get done, the sooner we can leave!”
I have no idea if he heard us, but he obediently wandered farther into the field. With every step, another cloud of purple gas was launched into the air, taking him a little deeper into dreamland. He paused every few feet to go around invisible walls, occasionally asking imaginary friends for directions. The whole time, he kept glancing nervously around, like he thought something was following him.
“Look out for pink elephants!” Aesop yelled, sending me into another fit of giggles.
It wasn’t until Ethan started to cross what I assumed was an invisible tightrope, his arms held out straight on both sides, that I thought to check on Jade. She still sat where we’d left her, arms wrapped around her knees.
“Hey,” I said, sitting down next to her and putting a hand on her arm. “Are you okay?”
A tear ran down her face, and she closed her eyes.
My heart sank into my stomach. “You know that wasn’t your fault, right?”
“I could have killed us,” she said. “And everyone else there!”
“Oh, Jade,” I whispered as she broke into pitiful sobs. “I’m so sorry.”
Moving like she was in a trance, she reached into her sweatshirt and pulled out her necklace. A small jade bead, a little bit bigger than a marble, dangled at the end of a thick black cord.
“I hate myself,” she hissed through her teeth.
“Whoa, whoa!” I exclaimed, grabbing her by the shoulders and turning her to face me. “You cut that out! You are freakin’ awesome, Jade Xiwang, and you know it!”
“You have to stop worrying about things you can’t do anything about!”
“How am I supposed to do that, Henry?” she snapped. “Do you have any idea what it’s like? Worrying that somebody might say…the bad words…at any moment and you might end up killing someone? That’s there’s absolutely nothing you can do to stop it? That’s not the kind of thing you just stop worrying about!”
I looked away, cheeks turning blue with embarrassment. She was right, of course, and I was just making things worse by pretending to understand what she was going through. You’d think, having a…problem…like mine, that I’d understand how that worked by now. We didn’t say anything for a few minutes, and the only sound came from Aesop’s laughter as Ethan wandered through the field below.
“Don’t tell Ethan what I am,” Jade finally whispered.
I looked up at her in surprise. “Why not?”
“I don’t want him to try and use me.”
I snorted. “Ethan doesn’t have the guts to—”
“Everybody wants to use me!” she cut me off, a dangerous edge in her voice.
“Everybody?” I asked, leaning in closer to her.
She looked at me, then sighed. “Fine. Everybody but you and Aesop.”
“You know that keeping him in the dark is going to make things harder,” I noted. “If he doesn’t know, how are we going to explain why he can’t say…”
Her head snapped to look at me, and I shied back.
“…the, uh, bad words around you?”
Jade rested her forehead on her knees, staring down at the grass. “I don’t know. But promise me anyway, okay, Henry? He’s a little grumpy, but at least he treats me like a normal person. Even you and Aesop don’t do that.”
I opened my mouth to tell her that wasn’t true, but stopped myself. Aesop and I both loved Jade more than she probably loved herself. She was our friend. But knowing what we did about her, how could anyone not treat her a little differently, even if we didn’t mean to?
I looked out into the field for a second, and then blinked in surprise and rose to my feet.
“I don’t want that to change.” Jade asked. “And if he finds out what I am, can you promise me that it won’t?”
I wasn’t listening anymore, though.
“Uh, Aesop?” I asked. “Where’s Ethan?”
“What do you mean?” the leprechaun asked, pointing. “He went into that cloud of fog a couple minutes ago.”
“Okay, but where is he now? Did he ever come out?” Panic started to rise up in me. Already, visions of him being sucked dry by a maiam were flashing before my eyes.
Aesop shrugged. “Not that I—”
Suddenly, Ethan’s voice rang out from somewhere down below.