Ethan flew up into the air, flipping head over heels, and crashed back down to earth with a wicked belly flop. I sighed, not because he’d failed to defend himself again — I’d just about given up on that — but because I was determined to flip him just right so that he landed on his feet on the way back down.
Hey, a girl’s got to have her hobbies.
“Sloppy!” I yelled as he got back up. “What did I tell you?”
Ethan rubbed his head. “Remind me. I think you gave me amnesia.”
“Keep your hammer up like this.” I showed him with Splatsy. “That’s your best defensive posture.”
“But you hit me on the head!” he complained. He was still using the wooden slightly-smaller-than-Splatsy hammer. “How does holding it in front of my chest protect my head?”
“If I go for your head, then you defend your head. Duh.”
“Think fast!” I swung Splatsy, and Ethan actually managed to block my first attack. I rewarded him with a quick smack to his hand, which made him drop his hammer, and then bonked him on the head.
“Dead,” I said as he collapsed. “Dead, dead, dead as a doorknob.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Come again?”
“It’s dead as a doornail, not knob.” he said, still lying on the ground.
“You’re not a knob!”
He blinked. “Uh, thank you?”
“This,” McGus declared, “is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.”
I clenched my teeth and refused to look at him. He wanted me to give up and ask for help. If I were smart, I probably would have. But nobody calls Henrietta Chaplin Rider smart and lives to tell about it, so I vented my frustrations by smacking Ethan up into the air again. I overdid it this time, as he flipped so far that he actually landed on his back.
“Up,” I snapped. “Let’s go again.”
“How am I supposed to learn anything like this?” he demanded, stubbornly remaining on the floor.
I sighed, but sat down across from him. “The same way I learned. When McGus first made me his apprentice, he would kick my butt up and down this room for five hours a day until I finally learned how to kick back.”
Ethan sat up and gave me a skeptical look. “And how long did that take?”
“More than a year,” I admitted.
He fell onto his back. “Wonderful.”
Before I could say anything else, McGus stood up. “All right, girl, you’ve played Whack-a-Mole on him enough for one day. Get out of here before I decide to do the same to you.”
“Fine by me!” Ethan said, already on his feet.
While I watched him drag his hammer back to the weapons wall, McGus came to stand beside me.
“Be honest with me, Master,” I said.
“You’re irresponsible, lazy, and you don’t take anything seriously.” I shot him a look, and his eyebrows went up. “Oh, did you mean about something specific?”
I ignored the jab and asked, “Am I doing okay with him?”
On the other side of the room, Ethan lifted the hammer to put it away, but overbalanced and ended up slamming it against the wall. He screamed and covered his head as ten more hammers fell free, thudding heavily to the floor all around him.
“You’re doing about as well as anyone could,” McGus admitted. “The problem here isn’t you, for once.”
He snorted. “To learn how to fight, you have to want to learn how to fight. That kid obviously doesn’t.”
My shoulders slumped. “What do I do, then?”
“Keep at it. You can still teach him some basic self-defense. Just don’t expect him to actually win any fights.”
“Can I get some help over here?” Ethan asked, struggling to lift a massive stone hammer.
“You made the mess, you clean it up!” McGus yelled back.
He gave me a helpless look. “Henry?”
“Hurry up,” I said, glancing at my phone. “Aesop and Jade are waiting for us.”
It took almost fifteen minutes, but eventually Ethan got all but one of the hammers put back where they belonged. I half expected McGus to hurl one of his smaller hammers at the wall, knocking even more down for him to clean up, but it looked like the old Green was done with us for the day.
Ethan made for the last hammer, lying on the floor by the edge of the sparring ring, and I frowned. It was the crystal spellhammer he’d taken an interest in a week ago. He reached for it, and I took a step forward to stop him — but then McGus attacked me.
“Defend yourself!” he yelled. I quickly raised Splatsy, and his twin hammers bounced off her handle.
I retaliated with my own attack, but he danced out of the way. Even with his limp, he somehow managed to move as gracefully as a ballerina. I raised Splatsy over my head for a powerful swing, but had to leap backwards when McGus darted in for a quicker attack.
“I thought you didn’t want to spar!” I yelled, narrowly fending him off.
“And you believed me?” he snarled and unleashed a flurry of attacks. I managed to block the first three, but then one hit me on the knee, then another on the shoulder, making my entire left arm go numb. “Would you take candy from a maiam if it told you it wasn’t poisoned?”
He swung, and I held Splatsy out, catching both his hammers on her handle.
“Well,” I grunted, trying to push him back, “seeing as how maiams can’t talk, I think that’s a moot point.”
Then, abruptly, he stopped pushing against me and I fell flat on my face.
“Bah!” he spat. “It’s a miracle you’re not dead yet, girl.”
I picked myself up. “Yeah, well I—”
“Shut up and get out already! Both of you!”
Ethan hurried to my side, holding my backpack out to me. He looked pale. Not that I blamed him. I’d rather face a hundred maiams than McGus when he’s in one of his moods. Taking my bag, I led the way out of the house and through Mauldibamm. Half an hour and one quick IW ride later, I cut a Corner — making sure to cover Ethan’s eyes — and appeared on the sidewalk outside a run-down old strip mall. This part of town was super sketchy, so I grabbed Ethan by the arm and pulled him behind me before someone trench coated stranger could try to sell us drugs, or life insurance, or something.
“Come on,” I said. “Aesop’s place is a couple blocks this way.”
“Where are we?” he asked, looking around.
“Englehop. It’s a few miles east of Burning Creek.”
“Englehop? I think I’ve heard that…” He stopped dead in his tracks. “That’s where the last kidnapping happened, isn’t it?”
I shrugged. “Was it? I try not to pay attention to that kind of stuff.”
“Well, maybe you should!” He yanked his arm out of my hand and took a step back. “The sun’s going down! What if something happens to us?”
“It won’t. And even if it did,” I patted the ping pong paddle on my belt, “I think I could handle it.”
To my surprise, that actually seemed to calm him down. I had to walk fast to keep up with him, even though I was the one who knew where we were going, but at least he wasn’t complaining anymore.
A couple minutes later, we came to an old two story brick building. A faded wood sign named it Rainbow’s End Pawn and Rental, with WE BUY GOLD! on an even bigger sign below.
“What’s this?” Ethan asked.
“Aesop’s house,” I said. “His dad runs the store, and they both live on the second floor.”
We went to the front door, where a plastic sign said the store was closed, but it opened for me anyway with a jingle. The smell of cigarette smoke wafted out to greet us. Dim lighting gave the place a dirty feel that wasn’t helped by the fact that it actually was filthy.
“He lives here?” Ethan asked, glancing around. “This place looks shady.”
“That’s because it is.”
Ethan spun with a yelp to find Aesop standing right beside him, grinning like an imp. I laughed and came to give my leprechaun pal a high five.
“Any place run by leprechauns is bound to be shady,” I told Ethan. “It’s in their blood.”
“And our blood do be as green as a four leafed clover, me boyo!” he agreed. Switching back to his American accent, he asked, “What took you so long? Jade and I were about to start without you.”
“Ethan made a mess at McGus’ house, and I had to wait for him to clean it up,” I said, elbowing Ethan in the side. He scowled at me.
Aesop raised an eyebrow. “And you couldn’t just leave him there?”
“Alone with that wrinkly old asparagus?” I laughed. “McGus would have torn him apart before I could get to the door!”
Rolling his eyes, Aesop turned to lead us upstairs.
Calling Aesop’s apartment cluttered would have been an understatement. Everywhere you looked, there was stuff. Stuff piled on top of stuff, seasoned with stuff, with an extra order of stuff on the side. Old guitars, hunting rifles, worn out paperbacks, televisions — things that Aesop’s dad wanted to sell but didn’t have room for downstairs. Ethan bumped clumsily into a stack of dvds almost as tall as he was, and I clenched my teeth as it wobbled back and forth for a second. I’d learned the hard way that the O’Gales didn’t let friendship get in the way of the you break it you buy it rule.
Jade sat on a shabby couch in front of an old TV that was so huge a whole family of hobos could have lived inside it. She had her hood down, though her bangs still covered the right side of her face. A makeshift buffet of pizza, buffalo wings, and Chinese was spread across the coffee table in front of her.
“What cursed and forgotten relic have you dredged up for us tonight?” I asked, falling backwards onto the couch.
“Gnomaggedon 5: The Revenge of Count Flamingous,” Aesop said, holding up the ancient vhs tape. “A cult classic of the highest pedigree!”
“People sell all kinds of weird stuff to Aesop’s dad,” Jade explained, noticing how utterly lost Ethan looked, “so we meet every couple weeks to dig through his pile of movies.”
I snagged a slice of pizza while Aesop flopped down on my other side. Ethan took a tentative step toward the couch, like he was still afraid he wasn’t welcome.
“Here,” I said, “Jade, move over a little so Ethan can fit.”
She glanced up at him, and I could have sworn she blushed a little. Still, she slid as far as she could to the right, trying to make room for him. I scooted to the left, accidentally elbowing Aesop in the gut.
“Ow! This is a three person couch, Henry!” he complained. “There’s no more room.”
“You don’t expect him to stand there the whole time, do you?” I demanded.
“I- I’m fine,” Ethan said, holding up his hands. “It’s—”
“See?” Aesop interrupted. “He says he’s fine.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “No, it’s not fine. You’re the host. Maybe you should offer him your spot.”
His face reddened a little. “Excuse you, lass, but Saint Patrick didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland for me to give up my seat tonight. There’s a folding chair over there. Good enough?”
Ethan went to get it without a word, and I glared at Aesop.
“What is your deal today?” I hissed.
Without looking at me, Aesop pushed play on the remote. “Can we just watch the movie already?”
I looked over at Ethan, who had found the metal — and very uncomfortable looking — chair, but his eye had been caught by all the crazy stuff that littered Aesop’s apartment.
“Hey,” he said, picking a book up off the kitchen table. “How much does your dad want for this?”
Aesop looked without getting up. “That? That’s, uh…five hundred dollars.”
I slugged him. “Come on, dude!”
“I’m serious!” he insisted, rubbing his arm. “Dad found that at a garage sale in the Evermist Dimension. Says it’s one of the rarest books he’s ever laid eyes on. Five hundred dollars.”
Looking dejected, Ethan set it back down. I didn’t know what the book was, but suddenly I felt terrible for the poor guy. Life had sucked for him over the past couple weeks, and if that book could do something to make him feel better…
“How about a trade?” I suggested.
Aesop shrugged. “If ye c’n find something me da’d be willin’ to trade ye fer, go fer it.”
The movie began. Dramatic music swelled as an old grandma was dragged screaming to her garden to be eaten alive by claymation gnomes.
“Henry,” Ethan said, setting his chair next to the couch, “you don’t have to give away your stuff for me.”
I shook my head. “It’s fine. I don’t have anything I could trade for that, but I know somebody who might.”
“Shh!” Jade hissed.
We quieted down to watch the movie, but my brain was already cranking out an idea. I smiled to myself.
It was time to pay Uncle Junk a visit.