Ethan’s scream cut through the foggy valley like a shark fin in a kiddie pool, and I was racing down the hill with Splatsy in my hand before I even had time to think.
“Henry, wait!” Jade yelled. I ignored her.
“Ethan, say something!” I yelled as I sprinted over the edge of Feverdream Field, nearly gagging as the mushrooms welcomed me by spraying fumes into the air. Cheese and crumpets, they smelled like soy sauce farts! I held my breath, charging headlong through the field.
“M- Mom?” Ethan asked. His voice came from nearby, but I couldn’t see him anywhere. “Dad? You…You’re both alive?”
“Marmalade!” I hissed. “Ethan, don’t move! Wait for me!”
I heard a pop, and a spore cloud shot up about thirty feet to my right, so I turned to go that way.
“Idiot!” McGus said, his voice heavy with disgust. “You knew the risks. You knew the maiams would come for him! Why would you bring him somewhere like this?”
I froze, gasping in surprise. The old klaon was nowhere to be seen. But I’d heard him as clearly as if he’d been standing right beside…
“Get away from me!” Ethan screamed from somewhere behind me.
I spun around. “Ethan?”
“Henry?” he called back.
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know! Sometimes I’m at Uncle Doug’s house, sometimes I’m home with my…” He paused. “Henry, you’re not going to believe this! My parents are alive!”
“They’re not real, Ethan!” I shouted. “Whatever they say, don’t listen to them!”
I couldn’t see him anywhere. His voice sounded so close, but no matter where I looked there was nothing but mushrooms. I needed to get my bearings. I turned to look for the hill…
It was gone. So were Aesop and Jade. I was alone in an endless expanse of mushrooms and toxic clouds. I took a drag from my inhaler to calm myself — just as a shadow darted past me. I spun around, but there was nothing there. My heart started to jackhammer in my chest. Had that been real? Or was it just another—
A threatening growl came from behind me. I spun again, and Splatsy would have smashed the maiam’s head if it hadn’t jumped out of the way on its long frog-like legs. It landed twenty feet away, and I stared at it. I hadn’t even heard it sneak up on me. Did that mean it was a hallucination? But it looked so real!
A figure burst from a nearby cloud of spores, running right between me and the maiam.
“Henry, help!” Ethan screamed just before he vanished into another fog cloud.
The maiam and I exchanged a startled look — and then scrambled to chase after him. The maiam immediately gained the lead, its long legs allowing it to leap over a dozen feet at a time. Cursing, I channeled some magic into my shoes to lend me some speed, but I already knew it wasn’t going to be enough. Ethan came back into view, just a faint shadow in the swirling purple fog. With a howl, the maiam launched itself into the air. I looked up, trying to follow it with my eyes, but it was already lost in the—
It came back down like a meteor, crashing into Ethan and knocking him to the ground.
“No!” I yelled.
Ethan was pinned down, kicking and screaming. The maiam bared its sharp teeth and lowered its head toward his. I pulled Splatsy back like a baseball bat.
“Get off him!” I screamed, and swung for a grand slam.
The maiam leaped out of the way just before I fed its brains to the mushrooms. I took up a defensive stance between Ethan and it.
“It- It’s not my fault,” Ethan whimpered from the ground.
“Don’t be scared,” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my own voice. “I won’t let it hurt you.”
The maiam eyed me warily, and I pulled out my inhaler for another dose of laughter. Man, this one was ugly! Its body was short and squarish, but those legs made it a good three feet taller than me. The legs were the weak spot, I decided. Break one of its knees, and it’d be…
I turned in a slow circle, my eyes widening. One maiam…two…three…
“Five?” I squeaked.
Five maiams, all of them hungry, and all of them looking straight at me — the only thing between them and the feast of a lifetime.
I cleared my throat. “All right, then. If you’re a hallucination, please raise your hand.”
They attacked together. I spun, holding Splatsy out, and splattered the head of the first one to reach me. The second one saw what happened to its friend, and ducked to tackle me around the waist. I grunted as we both hit the ground.
I rolled, kicking the maiam off of me, and sprang back to my feet. Splatsy’s handle shoop-ed to one-handed size, and I swung her just as the maiam came in for the kill. I didn’t have enough momentum to smash its head, but I still managed to knock it down. I raised Splatsy to finish it off, but then spotted the other three closing in on Ethan. Leaving that one for now, I ran to help him.
One of them threw itself at Ethan, and I swung Splatsy like a golf club, hitting it right in the face a split second before it was too late. Its head exploded, and I followed that up with another spin. It didn’t hit anything, but it at least forced the others back a couple steps.
“No. Didn’t mean to,” Ethan mumbled, still spazzing out on the ground. “Not my fault.”
Three maiams to go. That was more than I’d ever fought at once before. They crowded around us, snarling. Maiams might be monsters, but they’re not animals. They’d work together to take me out, and then fight each other to the death over Ethan.
“Please let this just be a bad dream,” I prayed to the whoopie cushion in the sky. More and more, though, I was starting to think that this was all too real.
The maiams shared a look, seemed to come to an agreement, and then struck. The one on my right, a big ugly brute, got to me first, and I fended him off with Splatsy. That left my back exposed to the one of my left, though, and I barely dodged out of the way before it could sink its knifelike claws into my back. Splatsy knocked its feet out from under it, but the big maiam hit me on the head with a fist the size of a tire before I could finish the job. I fell, hitting the ground right next to Ethan.
“I didn’t mean…to kill you!” he gasped
“You didn’t kill me,” I whispered, standing up. Everything hurt. “If anything, I killed you.”
The maiams were lining up for another attack.
“And I’m sorry.”
There was no escape from this, I realized. Trapped in the middle of Feverdream Field with no way to tell what was real and what wasn’t, surrounded by maiams that were all too real, there was only one way this could end. I took a puff from my inhaler. If this was going to be my last fight, the least I could do was make it one that would go down in klaon history.
Lifting Splatsy, I screamed at them. They howled back in reply.
The fight began again. Deciding Muscles was the biggest threat, I swung at him first, giving him a good smack on the face. While he was stunned, I jumped onto his back, narrowly dodging a swipe from Claws, and raised Splatsy to finish him off. But then Frog came flying at me from the side, knocking me off of Muscles’ back. We hit the ground, rolled, and somehow I managed to come out on top. Frogs’ arms were wrapped around me, keeping me from getting away, so I grabbed him by the neck and slammed his head into the ground. Once. Twice. Three times, and he finally get go, gurgling in pain.
“Take this!” I yelled, raising my…empty hand?
Oh, pretzel sticks! I spun, looking for Splatsy, and spotted her about ten feet away. I must have dropped her when Frog had tackled me. Before I could run to get her, though, Frog sprang to his feet and bit my shoulder.
I screamed in pain. My right arm immediately went numb, and no matter how hard I battered Frog with my left, he wouldn’t let go. One of his long legs shot out, kicking me in the stomach, and I went flying through the air again.
I hit the ground hard enough to see stars, but Frog had unwittingly kicked me closer to Splatsy. I rolled out of the way just as Frog pounced for me again, and snatched my weapon off the ground. My right arm refused to move no matter how much I tried. I’d have to wield Splatsy one handed. Frog came for me again, and I spun with my arm held out.
For once, luck was on my side. Splatsy hit Frog right in the face, splattering his soupy black brains all over Feverdream Field.
“Ha!” I laughed. I was injured and the fight was still two-to-one, but right then I was just glad to be alive. I whirled around to confront the last two—
Just as Claws latched onto Ethan’s face.
“Ethan!” I screamed. For a second, all I could do was stand there and watch while Ethan thrashed underneath the maiam. Then I forced myself to move. He couldn’t die. If he died, I failed. I wouldn’t be the Hunter anymore. I’d be nothing. Nobody. I had to save him! I raced to save him—
And then Muscles punched me in the back of the head.
Have you ever been hit by a semi-truck? Neither have I, but I imagine that’s about what being punched by Muscles the Macho Maiam felt like. I collapsed, head spinning and vision darkening. I managed to roll onto my back and raise Splatsy in a feeble gesture. Muscles smacked her out of my hand.
Ethan had stopped moving.
“If a maiam were to consume that much laughter,” Grandpa Teddy’s voice echoed in my head. “The power it would gain is…unspeakable.”
“N- No,” I whimpered.
Muscles raised both fists, ready to finish me off the same way I had to so many of his brethren. He grinned down at me—
And then his head exploded.
I watched, mouth hanging open as the huge maiam died and began to deflate. Before I could wonder what had happened, though, I heard the clink of a chain, and an iron sledgehammer zipped over my head to hit Claws, throwing him off Ethan.
Oh no, I thought in horror as the hammer was reeled back in by its chain.
Black leather boots stepped over me like I wasn’t even there. A trench coat fluttered in the breeze, the collar popped up to frame the owner’s bright red, gumdrop shaped hairdo. A chain was wrapped around her arms, fastened to a loop at the end of her hammer. Claws roared at her, and she nonchalantly flung her hammer into his face again. His head didn’t explode, but he did go rocketing backwards like he’d been hit by a train.
Please, not this. Just let the maiams kill me.
“Hey, cuz,” said Cousin Gumdrop, turning to look at me with her lip curled in disgust. “You sure screwed up this time, didn’t you?”
Everything went dark.