Ethan fell to his knees beside his uncle’s corpse. His eyes were wide, but other than that I couldn’t see any trace of emotion on his face. That was fine. It would come out once the shock faded a little, and getting him to do what I wanted would be easier before he had time to process everything he’d seen.
“I have to make a call,” I said. “Just stay here and, you know…grieve or something.”
If he heard me, he didn’t show it. The poor guy just sat there on his knees, eyes glued to the teeth marks that ringed his uncle’s mouth. I looked away, the sight too much to stand. What would happen to him now? His house trashed, his guardian dead…and it was all my fault. I cringed, feeling like an icicle was being stabbed into my chest. If I had just been a little faster…if I hadn’t been born a complete and utter failure…this could all have been avoided.
I left him alone and went into the kitchen, pulling out my phone to thumb through the contacts. A pit formed in my stomach when I found the one I needed. Pop Rocks on pizza, I did not want to dial that number.
I did it anyway.
“Henry?” the gravelly voice of Wallace McGus asked from the other end.
I sighed. “Hey, Master. I—”
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING IN MEXICO?”
“Listen, there’s…” I paused. “Wait, what? Mexico?”
“You think I can’t track where my Cube’s gone? You’re supposed to be on a hunt!”
I closed my eyes, moaning. I knew I’d forgotten something.
“I’m not in Mexico,” I reassured him. “The Cube was stolen.”
“Stolen? By who?”
I gritted my teeth. “By…a raccoon?”
“You,” he said in stunned disbelief, “gave my Escher Cube to a—”
“Okay, look,” I cut him off, “that’s not important right now. I need you to call an emergency council meeting right now, all right?”
He paused. “What have you done this time?”
“Nothing!” I snapped, my cheeks burning. Cheeseburger smoothies, I did not need this right now!
“You realize it’s one thirty in the morning, right?”
“I’m aware, yes.”
He groaned. “Fine. But if it turns out you’re wasting their time, they’ll eat you alive. You know that, right?”
“Trust me,” I said, glancing toward Ethan. “This is going to blow their peanut buttering minds.”
“Fine,” he said again. “Catch an IW and be here in fifteen minutes.”
“For the love of cheese,” I complained, “it’ll take at least—”
“Fifteen minutes! And curse like an adult, damn it!”
I hung up, folding my arms on the kitchen counter and resting my head on top of them. If talking to McGus had been unpleasant, dealing with the Council of Shnoob at this time of night would be like walking barefoot over broken glass and burning Legos.
I raised my head, a glint of excitement pushing through the exhaustion. It would be worth it. As soon as the council saw Ethan — and more importantly, his hoard of laughter — their tunes would change. They would finally have to admit that I could do this. No more snide remarks about my hair color, or my magic, or my…little problem. Starting tonight, I’d be getting the respect I deserved!
I turned and marched back toward the entryway, a new fire in my heart. Tonight, Ethan was going to give me everything I’d ever wanted. I just had to get him to…
He wasn’t alone.
The newcomer’s hand whipped out faster than my eyes could see, and a long knife suddenly jutted from the wall, wobbling slightly. Searing pain lit up my face, and I spied a thin layer of blue blood coating the edge of the blade. More blood spilled from the shallow gash it had cut in my cheek.
I threw myself to the side, curling as I hit the floor to roll back to my feet with Splatsy in my hands. Splatsy’s hammer part poomph-ed out like before, but I kept the handle short for quicker swings. I spun around, anticipating the next attack, but the stranger hadn’t come for me. Instead, he calmly walked across the room and wrenched his knife out of the wall. With my heart beating in my throat, I took a second to get a good look at him. He stood a good foot and a half taller than me, his dark blue coveralls hanging from an almost skeletal frame. But it was his face that drew my eye — or, rather, what he had on over it.
Bright white skin. Neon green hair. Bulbous nose painted red. The cheap rubber clown mask was frozen in a bucktoothed grin that made my lips curl back in a snarl just looking at it.
“Okay, creep,” I growled, “do you have any idea how racist that is?”
He paused, gave me the briefest of glances, and said, “That does not concern us.”
Apparently forgetting about me, he knelt down and picked something else up off the floor. The stone amulet, I realized. I’d left it there after talking to Ethan, assuming nothing would happen to it while I called McGus. A thousand questions immediately sprang into my head. What did he want with it? How had he known there would be a maiam attack here, and why did he care? That mask couldn’t have been a coincidence, so what — and how — did he know about klaons like me?
He turned away, stepping right over Uncle Doug’s corpse to leave through the door I’d smashed earlier. Gritting my teeth, I raised Splatsy and dashed across the room. But just as I swung, he ducked, spun, and stood up so that we were face to rubber face. I froze in surprise.
“Ha,” he said.
Completely emotionless. It was more of a statement than a laugh. But all the same, a single, tiny cloud of laughter puffed out from behind his mask. My eyes widened in terror. I was seeing things, I had to be! Give me maiams any day. Give me McGus, endless lectures from the council, anything but that little cloud of laughter, no bigger than my thumb.
Because it was gray.
Trust me, you don’t understand how wrong that is. Laughter is bright and colorful, like a rainbow that‘s evaporated into a multicolored, dreamlike mist. To see it reduced to one color, and such a joyless one at that, was like cats marrying dogs, or pineapple actually tasting good on pizza. It wasn’t supposed to exist!
The shock tore a gasp from me, and that was all it took to suck the little cloud of laughter right down my throat. The effect hit me in an instant, and I doubled over in a fit of coughing. Something blossomed inside my chest, like…like…I have no idea how to describe it. Like something horrible was growing inside me — and spreading.
A shudder wracked my body, and I fell onto my back. Splatsy clattered to the floor beside me. My hands started clawing at my chest, desperate to get the terrible whatever-it-was out of me. I’d hunted more maiams than I could count and suffered injuries that would make you puke just from hearing about them, but this was worse. So much worse! I reached into my pocket, pulling out the inhaler with numb fingers, and…
My hand gave a violent twitch, throwing it across the room.
“No!” I croaked, barely able to force the words up through my throat.
That was it. It was over. With my entire body trembling, I lost the strength to hold my head up. I laid it down, staring at Ethan’s ceiling with vision that was beginning to fade. Agony flared in my chest — not from the laughter, but because I knew I’d never see my family again. My friends. Right then, I would have given anything even to have McGus there to hold my hand when I—
Something touched my lips, and I instinctively bit down on it. Power sprayed into my mouth. My eyes shot open.
I breathed it in. Not much, but it was enough. It spread through my lungs, chasing away the awful sickness. I gasped in relief. But how? Looking up, I could see Ethan kneeling over me, my inhaler in his hand and horror in his eyes.
“Hey, are you okay?” he demanded.
I forced myself to sit up, coughing. My throat burned, my head spun, but I was alive.
“You saved me?” I croaked.
Ethan shrugged. “You started choking and pulled out that inhaler. I figured you were having an asthma attack.”
I nodded. That wasn’t even close to being true, but explaining things to him right now was the last thing I wanted to do. Groaning, I looked around. The masked man was nowhere in sight.
“Where’d he go?” I asked.
Ethan’s face paled. “I don’t know. When you started choking, he just sort of turned around and…”
“Vanished?” I asked. He nodded, and I leaned my head back to groan again. “A masked psycho. Great. That’s all I need right now.”
Finally, I heaved myself up off the floor. As soon as I was on my feet, my knees threatened to buckle, and I had to lean against the wall or end up on my back again. The feeling passed, though, and I was able to stand on my own. I looked around. Sure enough, the stone talisman was gone. Taking Ethan by the hand, I made for the door.
“Come on,” I said, “it’s time to go. Now.”
Instead, he dug in his heels. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on!”
I closed my eyes. After everything I’d been through tonight, why couldn’t one freaking thing be easy?
“Fine,” I snapped, letting go of his hand. “Wait here for another maiam to show up. Not my problem.”
I stumbled toward the door, watching him from the corner of my eye. Sure enough, before I had taken three steps, he was by my side again.
“A- Another one?” he asked. “There are more?”
I nodded. “They’ll come for you, and I won’t be here to kill them next time.”
“Not unless you let me take you somewhere safe.”
Ethan paled and took a step away from me. I could see the fear in his eyes, and for a minute I actually thought he was going to refuse. Not that I could blame him, I guess. But I hadn’t been lying. Every maiam in the state, maybe even farther, would smell that laughter. He wouldn’t last a week here.
Finally, he nodded. I reached out, and he took my hand.
“All right,” I said, turning to leave, “next stop: Mauldibamm!”