“Okay, ready?” I whispered. “Left, righ-aaaAAAAH!”
Ethan’s foot didn’t move in sync with mine, and down the stairs we went. Stars flashed in front of my eyes as what felt like every step in the neighborhood was suddenly magnetically attracted to my skull. And spine. And butt. We landed in a heap at the bottom, and I cringed, waiting for my parents to come rushing in to see us apparently having an extreme cuddling session. But when my ears stopped ringing, I realized they were still in the living room, laughing so hard at their movie that they hadn’t even heard us tumbling down the stairs. Ethan groaned beneath me, and I slapped a hand over his mouth.
“Come on,” I hissed into his ear. “Get to the door before they see us! Now!”
Together, we slid and rolled painfully across the entryway.
“Why don’t we just tell them?” Ethan asked while I used the doorknob to hoist us to our feet. “They can give us a ride to the station!”
“Sure, great idea. And when they ask how this happened, we’ll tell them you were illegally practicing magic with a stolen spellhammer!”
“I can live with…” He paused. “Wait, illegally?”
“Right. So unless you want to find out what clown prison is like, I suggest we keep this little shenanigan between us.”
Ethan’s face went as pale as mine. “C- Clown prison?”
I nodded. “Clown prison.”
I put my hand on the knob and gestured for Ethan to get ready to move. Taking a deep breath, I gave the knob a twist, threw myself forward — and ran face first into the door. It was locked!
“Ow!” Ethan yelped when our heads knocked against each other.
“Shh!” I frantically hissed, but it was too late.
“Ethan?” my mom called from the living room. “Is that you?”
I clenched my fist, fighting the urge to slam Ethan’s head into the door a few more times, and called back, “It’s us, Mom. We’re, uh, heading out for a little bit.”
“You absolutely are not!” Dad argued. “It’s past nine, and you both have school in the morning!”
“It’s, uh, council stuff. They need to see me. Like, right now.”
While I talked, my hand was fumbling blindly for the lock.
“At this time of night?” Mom asked. “They do know you’re a teenage girl, right?”
“Oh, trust me,” Ethan whispered, “I am more than aware of that right now.”
My mouth fell open, and I gave him my best I’m-going-to-strangle-you-later glare.
“Yeah, yeah,” I finally said. “But you know how it is.”
Mom still sounded hesitant. “I know, but…”
“Mom,” I said firmly, “we all knew what I was getting into when McGus offered to take me as his apprentice. This isn’t just about me. This is for all of klaonkind.”
“Well, try to be back at a reasonable time,” Dad finally gave in. “The last thing you need is for your grades to start dropping.”
“I will,” I promised, just as I managed to get the door unlocked. “Love you both! Bye!”
I heard Mom get up. “Do you need a ride to the station?”
“No!” Ethan and I yelled at the same time, followed by a mad dash…well, a mad waddle out the door. We were halfway down the driveway before I remembered to honk my N.O.S.E. and activate my disguise.
“Wait a second,” Ethan said when we got to the end of my neighborhood. “This isn’t the way to—”
“I am not,” I told him, “getting on a crowded IW like this. We’re taking the crappy one.”
“But that station’s twice as far away!”
I grabbed him by his shirt collar as best I could. “Ethan, you got us into this. That means your comfort doesn’t mean squat to me compared to my ability to show my face in public. It’s already going to be embarrassing enough walking through Mauldibamm like this. I’m not compromising my dignity any more than that! Understand?”
Eyes wide, he nodded.
He wasn’t wrong, though. The good station was less than a mile from my neighborhood, and you could get there from a Corner beside an empty stretch of road. The crappy station was over three miles away, and in the middle of a road in town, which meant you had to be absolutely sure that nobody was looking before you cut the Corner. It was the middle of the night, though, so I doubted that’d be a problem. We just had to get there.
“Is it really that bad?” Ethan asked a few minutes later.
I sighed. “It’s not you. I wouldn’t want to spend my Sunday being glued to anybody.”
“Thanks,” he said dryly, “but I meant being the Hunter.”
I stopped in my tracks. “What?”
“Back at home, when you started talking about how being the Hunter was more important than anything else in your life, you sounded sad.”
I didn’t answer. After a few seconds, I started walking again. We were about a quarter of the way there at this point, and we’d finally found a sort of rhythm to our movements that kept us from faceplanting on the pavement with every step.
“It is,” I said half a mile later, “and it isn’t.”
“You’re going to have to explain that one,” he said.
“Yes, being at the council’s beck and call all the time sucks platypus eggs. Ichabod’s an egomaniac, and Victoria’s so jealous of him I’m surprised she hasn’t changed her name to Ichabette. They’re both petty and more interested in arguing than getting any work done. The only sensible people are Patricia and my grandpa, but nobody listens to them because they never raise their voices.”
“I can’t. Being their Hunter is the only thing that…” I bit my tongue and looked away.
“The only thing that gives your life meaning?”
I went rigid and glared at him. He looked back — coming life threateningly close to kissing me again — and I swear I could see actual sympathy in his eyes.
“Yeah,” I admitted slowly. “Before I was made the Hunter, I was just…me.”
“And what’s so bad about that?”
I snorted. “If you’re a Red, a Purple, or even a Green? Nothing. But I’m a Blue.”
“Maybe you could try dyeing—”
“It doesn’t have anything to do the color, you idiot!” I shouted without meaning to. Calming myself, I said, “Sorry. This is kind of a sensitive subject for me, you know?”
“So, if it’s not the color that matters,” Ethan asked, “then what is it?”
“It’s complicated. It’s not the color of our hair, it’s what the color represents. Kind of like a class system, except…not really?” I groaned and shook my head. “Oh, forget it! You’re a human, so you wouldn’t understand anyway!”
“Then try to help me understand.”
I looked at him, a little surprised. Just a couple weeks ago, the only interest he had in my culture was whether or not we could keep maiams from sucking on his face. Asking me something like that, in a time like this, told me a lot more about him than I think he realized.
We’d been living together for less than a month, but in that time he had learned to care.
“Okay,” I said slowly. “You know that klaons need laughter to survive. But what you don’t know is that we have a special power that helps us do it.”
“You didn’t know that, did you?”
Right then, a car drove past, its headlights shining bright in the darkness, and I quickly spun to hide behind Ethan. I knew it wasn’t likely that anyone I knew would see me, but I kept having visions of going to school tomorrow to find everyone talking about how Ethan and I had been making out on the side of the road.
“We’re…well, we’re not quite psychic, but we’re pretty dang close,” I said once the car was gone. “We can’t read people’s minds, but we can read their sense of humor.”
“And what does your hair color have to do with that?”
“I’m getting to that!” I snapped. “Our hair color is tied to how strong that power is. Reds are so strong that some people think they can actually make you think something is funny. Purples are a little less powerful, but they still don’t have trouble making most people laugh. Greens have to work for it, but they can mostly get by. Then there’s the Blues, like me.”
Self-consciously, I ran a hand through my hair.
“Blues are the weakest color,” I whispered. “They struggle to get even a hint of what the other colors can see clear as day. That makes it hard for them to feed. Most of them have to rely on their own senses of humor to make people laugh. If they’re not naturally funny, they’ll starve. That’s why so many of them end up becoming…”
I didn’t finish, and I knew by the way Ethan looked away that I didn’t need to. We walked in silence for a couple minutes before he spoke up again.
“You said them. Why not us?”
I opened my mouth to tell him it was none of his business. If talking about my hair color was a sensitive subject, then that was downright personal! I didn’t, though. This whole conversation was a good thing. It meant he was finally opening up a little. I didn’t like talking about my…problem…but if it helped pull Ethan a little further out of his shell then maybe it’d be worth it.
“That’s how it is for most Blues,” I admitted reluctantly. “But I’m not like them. If being born a Blue puts you at the bottom of the klaon barrel, then I’m the little bit that leaked out of the crack and got eaten by a cockroach.”
Ethan turned to me sharply. “You shouldn’t say things like—”
“You asked me a couple weeks ago if I was dropped on my head as a baby,” I interrupted him. “The answer is yes. Yes, I was.”
Ethan’s mouth snapped shut.
“I was less than a year old,” I continued. “Grandpa Teddy was holding me. I squirmed a little too hard, and rolled right out of his arms. Landed on my head. Got taken to the hospital. Doctor said I had brain damage. Didn’t think I would live. Obviously, I did.”
For a few seconds, Ethan just gaped at me. “Henry, I didn’t…I’m sorry.”
“I recovered and grew into the stunning young lady you just glued yourself to,” I said, voice hollow. “But there was still some lasting damage. It wasn’t until I was five that my parents realized that…that…”
My voice trailed off, and I absently reached up to feel the scar on my forehead. It started in the exact center and then spiderwebbed outwards, like my head was a hardboiled egg that hadn’t been cracked all the way open. I couldn’t remember the day I’d gotten it, but if I concentrated enough I swore I could still feel it. The sudden drop, followed by the impact that had ruined my life almost before it had begun.
“That I couldn’t sense humor like everyone else could,” I finished. “No pictures, no words, nothing. Just silence. Do you understand what that’s like, Ethan? To a klaon, that’s like being born without eyes or legs. It cripples us! Even another Blue can make people laugh easier than I can!”
We weren’t moving, I realized. Telling that story had taken so much out of me that I’d forgotten to keep walking. I got us started again, my feet stamping on the ground and my arms swinging angrily by my sides, as if I could outrun those memories if Ethan and I just waddled fast enough.
“I’m sorry,” Ethan said a minute later. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s fine,” I sighed. “But now you know why being the Hunter is so important to me.”
I clenched my fists. “Because it’s my chance to do something right! Something important! To prove to the council, and the rest of Mauldibamm, that I can!”
And to myself.
I saw another car coming down the road and turned to hide my face again. Its headlights came close, and…
The car stopped.
“Great,” I whispered. Someone had recognized me after all.
“Uh, Henry?” Ethan said, suddenly sounding nervous.
“If they ask if we need a ride, just tell them no,” I said. “We’re almost there anyway.”
“I…I don’t think he’s offering us a ride.”
Something in his voice made the hair on my neck stand up. Looking around him, I saw the car parked directly across from us. They had the windows rolled up, so I couldn’t make out who was inside. Was it someone I knew, wondering if they needed to call my parents and tell them…
They opened the door, and out stepped the masked man.
“Oh crap,” Ethan whimpered, trying to back away. His legs were still glued to mine, though, and the unexpected movement sent us both tumbling to the ground. “Henry, do something!”
Rolling over so that I was on my back with Ethan on top of me, I grabbed Splatsy from my belt, but froze when a sound like faraway thunder came out of the woods. BOOM…BOOM…BOOM…A shadow slowly emerged from between the trees on the other side of the road — a massive shadow. My heart started to pound with dread. When a tree blocked its way, it reached out and uprooted it with a casual shove. An entire freaking tree!
It stepped into the beam of the car’s headlights, standing more than four feet taller than the masked man. It was a maiam. The biggest one I’d ever seen, with arms as thick as my torso and teeth the size of butcher knives. For half a second, I dared to hope that it would attack the man in the mask. Instead, it came to stand beside him, waiting like an obedient dog. A small but piercing red light glowed on its forehead, and a pit formed in my stomach when the car’s high beams illuminated it.
It was another stone amulet.