I cut the Corner before Ethan could protest, and the dump materialized around me once again — along with the trash dragon. I immediately broke into a sprint while the dragon roared in outrage. The purple blob that Uncle Junk wanted was still visible, embedded up in the muck on its head. I needed to get up there, but how?
The dragon spewed another fountain of nastiness at me, and I jumped magically out of its way. Landing on top of a wall of trash, I made a mad dash in the dragon’s direction while the ground behind me was reduced to a sludgy mess. I powered up my shoes again as I ran. From up here, I was level with the dragon’s head. One more good jump, and I could snatch the purple treasure and get out of here. But it had to be this jump. There was enough laughter left in my inhaler to recharge me one last time, but that was it.
The dragon and I glared at each other. Letting my magic go, I flew toward its trash-encrusted face, and—
It opened its mouth, snatching me right out of the air.
“You suck!” I screamed as it snapped its jaws closed, plunging me into darkness.
Lying on its disgusting slimy tongue, trying not to think of all the germs I was bathing in, I stumbled to my hands and knees just as the dragon tipped its head back. A wave of greasy spit tried to wash me to the back of its mouth so it could swallow me. I desperately flung myself to the side, groping for anything to hold on to.
My fingers brushed something, and I grabbed hold. It was as thick as my arm, and as hard as stone. I had found one of its teeth. An irritated growl rose from the dragon’s throat, accompanied by a wave of stench that nearly made me…
Suddenly, I had a terrible idea.
No time for thinking. I drew Splatsy and extended her to full warhammer form. Ignoring how this was the second-to-last thing in the entire world I wanted to do (first place went to being eaten by a trash dragon) I swung Splatsy as hard as I could with one hand, holding onto the tooth with the other. I couldn’t see, but I heard the wet splat when she found the dangly thing at the back of the dragon’s throat. The dragon froze in shock, and then curled its head down and opened its mouth.
“Yes!” I yelled when sweet, beautiful sunlight flooded in. An ominous rumble came from the bottom of the dragon’s cave-like throat. I let go of the tooth, falling down the length of its mouth until I grabbed hold of another fang closer to the front. Climbing onto the dragon’s outer lip, I desperately clawed my way up its face — and not a moment too soon. The dragon gave a deep, bone shaking retch, and a waterfall of trashy vomit erupted from its mouth to splatter disgustingly on the ground below. Trying not to gag, I holstered Splatsy and clambered up its snout as fast as I could. The dragon went cross eyed to look at me, and gave an angry snarl.
I didn’t care. I could see the purple lump that Uncle Junk wanted. It was right between the dragon’s eyes, half buried in mud — or at least what I hoped was mud. The dragon thrashed its head on the end of its long neck, and I wrapped my fists around a rusty length of rebar and held on tight. If it shook me free, I’d go flying across the dump, and I’d never get back up here. I’d be forced to admit defeat and retreat back to the store — assuming I even survived.
But then a miracle happened. The dragon, entirely focused on me, set its foot down in the puddle of its own puke and slipped. Somehow I managed to hold on as it fell, hitting the ground with a crash. I stood up on its nose and dashed across its face, grabbing the treasure with both hands. Heaving upwards, I pulled as hard as I could, and it came free with a wet pop.
The dragon roared when it realized I’d stolen a piece of its precious hoard, and rose back to its feet. I was already moving, though, leaping off its nose and sprinting back toward the Corner. I didn’t pause to look when I felt its footsteps shake the ground behind me. I kept my eyes fixed directly on where I knew the Corner was. Then I crossed my fingers, spun on my toes, and—
Crashed into Ethan.
“Henry!” he yelled as we both fell to the floor. I ended up lying on top of him, dripping dragon spit and other yucky things all over the place. For a second, he just stared up at me. “Y- You’re alive!”
“Of course I am,” I said, tucking a lock of sticky blue hair behind my ear with as much dignity as I could. “Maybe I should take up dragon slaying as a side gig.”
He blinked. “Wait, you actually killed that thing?”
I snorted. “Not even close. But I did get what Uncle Junk wanted.”
“Oh, that’s, uh…that’s great!” He paused. “But could you get off me, please? You smell like you went swimming in a septic tank.”
“Oh, sorry!” I scrambled to my feet. He wasn’t too far from the truth, but I didn’t think he needed to know that. Instead, I held out my prize for him to admire. “Behold, the fruits of a day not wasted!”
For a second there was a flash of excitement in Ethan’s eyes. It quickly faded, though, and his face curled in disgust.
“You’re kidding me,” he said.
“What?” I asked, and for the first time I looked at what I was holding.
A filthy purple teddy bear.
“Why am I not surprised?” Ethan asked, leaning heavily against the wall.
“He is so not my uncle anymore,” I grumbled. “I’m disowning him for at least a week!”
I stormed past Ethan to go find my no-longer-Uncle Junk, but stopped when Ethan grabbed my hand. I looked back to see him staring at me with a bewildered expression on his face.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because he tricked me into fighting a dragon, and—”
“No!” he cut me off. “Why are you doing this for…for me?”
Looking at him like that, all wide eyed like a little lost puppy, my anger melted away.
“Ethan,” I said slowly, “the world might not care about you, but that doesn’t mean I don’t. We’re friends, and I want my friends to be happy.”
He didn’t say anything, but his grip on my hand tightened and a single tear rolled down his cheek. I smiled at him — and then I felt it. A trickle of power, like breathing in a moonbeam. It flowed into me, and I felt some of my strength return. My eyes opened wide.
It was coming from Ethan.
At first I didn’t know what to think, but then it dawned on me. Ethan couldn’t laugh — but that didn’t mean he couldn’t feel happiness. He just didn’t know how to let it out. Laughter was the universal language of happiness, I’d told him, but there were still other languages.
And he was speaking one of them now.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“No.” I shook my head. “Thank you. Now come on, I want to file a complaint with the manager.”
Two and a half hours later, it was with no small amount of satisfaction that I slammed the golden bowling ball onto the counter in front of Aesop.
Then I collapsed from exhaustion.
Turns out, a big gold ball makes the IW’s metal detector go nuts. That meant Ethan and I’d had to carry it here. It also turns out that solid gold bowling balls are really freaking heavy. After fighting the trash dragon, my arms had felt like saltwater taffy that’d been out in the sun for too long. Now, though? Now I wasn’t entirely sure I even had arms anymore. Ethan was sitting with his back against one of the display cases, gulping down air like a suffocating pufferfish.
“Hi, Henry,” Aesop said, his eyes going as wide as the ball itself. “Who, uh…who’s your friend?”
I got back to my feet with a groan. “Waiter, bring us your finest five hundred dollar book.”
He blinked and looked up at me. “Wait, seriously? You’re trading this big…beautiful…thing…” his voice trailed off as he reached up to stroke the ball like a cat.
I snapped my fingers in front of his face. “Focus, Aesop!”
He blinked. “I- I’m awake! You actually want to trade this for that moldy old book?”
I narrowed my eyes and leaned forward. “You’re not about to tell me that you lied about the book being so expensive, are you?”
“No!” he quickly said. “It’s just, I didn’t think you were into that kind of stuff.”
“Well, it’s for Ethan,” I admitted.
Aesop’s mouth fell open.
“Okay,” I said slowly. “What exactly is this book?”
Ethan popped up beside me. “It’s a girly romance novel!”
Both of us stared at him. Ethan looked at me, then Aesop, and casually put his hand on the bowling ball.
“That’s what it is,” he said to Aesop, and then rolled the ball an inch towards himself. “Right?”
“Uh, I’m…” A bead of sweat rolled down Aesop’s face. Finally, with the bowling ball reflected in his eyes, he swallowed and nodded. “Yeah. Girly romance stuff.”
I burst out laughing. “I knew it!”
“Yeah, well,” Ethan shrugged. “Looks like you caught me.”
Aesop’s eyes shifted back and forth.
“Dude, why didn’t you just tell me?” I asked.
“Too embarrassed,” Ethan said quickly. “Do me a favor and don’t tell Jade, okay?”
My smile widened. “Why not? What do you care if Jade knows you read—”
“I’ll run upstairs and grab it,” Ethan said, darting behind the counter and sprinting up the stairs. “Be right back!”
I snickered as he disappeared, but Aesop just shook his head.
“What?” I demanded.
“Sometimes you’re as dumb as a sack of hammers, Henry.”
“You shush!” I gave Splatsy a comforting pat, whispering down to her, “Don’t you listen to him. Some of the smartest people I know are hammers!”
“Got it!” Ethan bounded back down the stairs, holding a plastic shopping bag he must have found up there. I could make out the shape of something large and rectangular inside it. “Ready to go?”
I nodded. “All right. Come on, we can take the IW back this time.”
“Will they let you on smelling like that?” he asked.
I huffed as he opened the door for me. “Rude! I’ll have you know that rich people spend millions of dollars on perfume that doesn’t smell half this good!”
“No argument there, but…”
We stepped out onto the sidewalk, and his voice trailed off as a shiny black limousine pulled to a stop in front of us. The rear window reflected our stunned faces back at us for a few seconds, until it lowered itself to reveal…
“You!” I exclaimed.
“Hello, Henrietta,” said Ichabod, his condescending gaze sweeping over the two of us like roadkill. “You look like you’ve had an interesting day.”
Reflexively, I put a hand on Ethan’s shoulder, taking a step back. “What do you want?”
“I thought you might appreciate a ride home.” The door swung open. “Get in.”
I opened my mouth to tell him where he could stick his big, fancy car…okay, I wasn’t actually going to say that, but I was thinking it so hard.
“And what if we don’t want a ride home?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Then I call an emergency council meeting and tell them what you were up to in that filthy store.”
My cheeks burned. “Don’t say that about my friend’s—”
“I’m not referring to the pawnshop.”
“You…” I blinked in surprise. “What?”
“The garbage store, Henrietta.” He smirked, a nasty twinkle in his eye. “Or wherever you were when you left poor Ethan all alone there.”
I froze, ice creeping up my spine. “You’ve been following us?”
His smirk stretched into a smug grin, which was enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. “This young man represents a very valuable asset to klaon society right now. Did you really think we wouldn’t be keeping an eye on him?”
Bull donuts, I thought, reading the greedy look in his eyes. You couldn’t care less about Ethan. You’re blackmailing me!
“What do you want?” I asked in a soft growl.
Ichabod chuckled. “Step into my office and let’s talk.”
Right then, I realized something terrible: that Ichabod Hench terrified me more than an army of maiams ever could. Here was a man (klaon, whatever) who was every bit as vicious as the monsters I hunted, but had the conniving, scheming mind of a corrupt politician to back it up. He was used to getting what he wanted, whether it was through bribes, blackmail, or even violence.
And today, what he wanted was me in that car.
“Henry?” Ethan asked. “Are you okay?”
“Get in the limo,” I whispered.
He stiffened in surprise. “What?”
I was already making for the door. “Just get in the car, and don’t say anything.”