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Chapter Twenty Five

The gigantic maiam panted heavily, tasting Ethan’s laughter in the air, but didn’t move. The amulet’s blood-red light was the only splash of color on its entire body. For a long, tense minute, we faced off on opposite sides of the road. I held Splatsy out in front of me, but compared to that monster she felt about as threatening as a marshmallow on a stick.

 

“Henry?” Ethan whispered urgently. With me facing the road, he was stuck staring out into the pitch black forest behind us. “What’s happening? Why aren’t you—”

 

“Have you asked them,” the masked man said in his raspy, chain smoker voice, “about the farms?”

 

I swallowed hard. “What farms? Stop talking in riddles!”

 

He looked at me consideringly for a few seconds. “There is no time to explain. We need the boy alive. Leave your weapon here, and we will allow you to come with us. There, we will answer your questions.”

 

I paused, cocking my head. “We? Are there more of you?”

 

“We have no time,” the masked man insisted. He held out his hand. “The boy?”

 

“Is staying with me!” I raised Splatsy.

 

“Then we’re afraid we will have to kill you.”

 

He took a step back, and the maiam — to my utter disbelief — seemed to understand what he wanted. Licking its razor sharp jaws in anticipation, it lowered its head and charged at us!

 

“Oh, deep fried crocodile!” I yelled. “Ethan, jump!”

 

“Jump where?”

 

He couldn’t see, and I didn’t have time to explain, so I was forced to throw us both out of the maiam’s way. We crashed to the ground in a tangle of limbs, and a split second later the maiam thundered past, barely a foot away. It crashed into a tree, shattering it with its rock hard head.

 

“Ethan, I think we might be in trouble,” I said, getting back up as quickly as we could.

 

I raised Splatsy, but with my arms wrapped around Ethan, swinging her was going to be hard. I’d be lucky if my attacks had even half of their normal power — not even enough to bruise this monstrosity.

 

And, I realized with a lurch, I was wearing Ethan like a human shield.

 

“Think, think!” I whispered. “I can do this. I just need a plan.”

 

“I can help,” Ethan said suddenly.

 

I shook my head. “Just stay out of my…okay, you can’t stay out of the way. Try to follow my movements as best you can.”

 

“No, I can help! I just need to—”

 

The maiam roared and it charged at us a second time.

 

“Jump to the left!” I yelled. “Now!”

 

I jumped to my left — and Ethan jumped to his. Our forces canceled each other out, and we fell to the ground again. Heavy footsteps shook the forest floor, each one more than enough to crush my skull like a grape. Thinking fast, I channeled magic into my shoes and slammed my feet against the ground, launching Ethan and me into the air. The maiam passed less than a foot below us. I sighed in relief…

 

And then we hit the tree.

 

Stars flashed in front of my eyes, and a faraway voice cried out in pain. I think it was mine. I could feel twigs scratching at me, but we weren’t falling. Shaking my head to clear it, I realized we were lying on a thick branch twenty feet above the ground.

 

“Ethan?” I groaned. “You okay?”

 

“I- I think so.” He was lying on top of me, gasping for breath. I could see a couple scrapes on his face, but nothing serious.

 

The maiam howled angrily from below us, circling the tree like a wolf who knew its prey was cornered.

 

“I can’t beat it,” I whispered, my heart sinking into my stomach. “Not like this.”

 

“Let me help, then,” Ethan said.

 

Before I could say anything, the maiam raised both its fists.

 

“Hold on to something!” I yelled.

 

It punched the tree, uprooting it like a freaking dandelion, and I grabbed hold of the branch as we began to fall. With adrenaline coursing through my veins, I charged up my shoes and released the magic, blasting me and Ethan back up again. We did an awkward flip above the maiam’s head, but then crashed to the ground hard enough to knock the wind from my lungs.

 

“G-G-Get up!” I coughed. “We have…to run. That’s our only…chance!”

 

“Like this? We won’t make it ten feet! Just let me—”

 

“Here it comes!”

 

The maiam was lumbering in our direction, thick ropes of drool dangling from its mouth. Ethan was right, I realized. We couldn’t run. We could barely waddle for tapioca’s sake! With trembling hands, I raised Splatsy and stood my ground.

 

So, this was where it ended. If you had told me that a maiam was going to kill me, I’d probably have believed you. But if you’d said it would happen while I was stuck magically hugging a boy, then…

 

A soft glow came from behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, hoping against hope that help had arrived, but there was nothing there.

 

“Ethan, what’s—”

 

“Cogito et creo,” he began to chant. “Cogito et creo.”

 

Panic shot through me like white hot lightning, and I spun around to stop him. But since we were still stuck together, all I managed to do was turn him to face the maiam. The spellhammer’s glow was lighting up the forest as bright as daytime now.

 

“Where did you get that?” I demanded. “I kicked it under your bed!”

 

He ignored me. “Cogito et creo!”

 

“Stop! You’re going to get us killed!”

 

“I have to do this!” he yelled back. “Cogito et creo!”

 

The maiam charged. I fought to spin us around again, but Ethan stubbornly planted his feet.

 

“ETHAN!”

 

Cog — Henry, stop! Just this once, let me save you!”

 

The maiam was barreling toward us like a freaking freight train! Frantic, I hooked my ankle around his and pulled sharply, throwing us both off balance.

 

“COGITO ET CREO!” he bellowed one last time.

 

My brain was almost on fire with terror. If the maiam didn’t kill us, Ethan was going to blow us both to smithereens. That would be better, I supposed, since it meant the maiam wouldn’t be able to feed off of him. At the moment, though, that wasn’t very comforting.

 

But as we fell, I caught sight of the rapidly approaching maiam — and the beam of pure energy that erupted from the spellhammer with enough power to blow my hair back. It sliced straight through the maiam, instantly vaporizing its entire top half. Its legs kept trying to run for a few steps, but then fell to the ground and began to deflate. Our fall veered the laser off target, and it cut clean through half a dozen trees before blinking out of existence.

 

“How…How did you…” I stuttered as the trees crashed to the ground. Only luck kept any of them from landing on top of us. Ethan didn’t answer. I looked to see him passed out from exhaustion with his head on my chest.

 

But we weren’t out of the fire yet. Footsteps came out of the dark woods, and I could faintly see the masked man through the dark purple line that the spellhammer had burned into my vision. He picked his way toward us over the fallen trees. I struggled to stand up, but couldn’t lift both myself and Ethan off the ground. I collapsed with a gasp, pinned by the sixteen year old boy on top of me.

 

“Stay away from him!” I growled, but the masked man knelt down beside us anyway.

 

“You really do care about him,” he said. “How odd.”

 

“He’s my friend!”

 

I had Splatsy in my hand, but she was trapped underneath one of the fallen trees and I couldn’t pull her free. Quietly, hoping he wouldn’t notice, I shrank her back down to ping pong paddle form, and the transformation let me slide her out from under the tree. My heart was pounding in my chest. I would only have one shot…

 

He stepped on my hand.

 

“Hey!” I yelled, but immediately fell silent when he pressed the cold edge of his knife against my throat.

 

“If that is true,” he said, “then perhaps we share a common goal.”

 

“What’re you talking about?” I demanded.

 

“Together, we could—”

 

“Drop the knife,” growled McGus, appearing out of the darkness behind him. One of his twin hammers was resting on the masked man’s head. “Now!”

 

The masked man locked eyes with me, but didn’t move. For a few seconds, it was like the whole world had stopped — and then everything exploded into motion! The masked man ducked and rolled, McGus swung and missed, and they both spun to face each other under the eye of the thin silver moon.

 

I went pale with shock. He’d dodged McGus. He’d freaking dodged McGus! That was all I needed to see to know that he was even more dangerous than the maiam had been.

 

The two of them stared each other down, cautiously shifting their feet, both waiting for the other to make the first move. Hammers against knife. Maniac against Hunter. I thought about getting up and trying to help, but with Ethan weighing me down I knew I’d just get in the way.

 

McGus darted in for an attack, and the masked man leaped nimbly out of the way. Even in the dark, McGus never lost track of his foe. As soon as the masked man’s feet touched the ground, McGus hurled a hammer at him. My breath caught in my throat. The masked man didn’t have time to—

 

He turned on his heel and vanished.

 

McGus cursed, storming over to pick up his hammer. He’d thrown it so hard that it’d buried itself in a tree like a hatchet. He fumed for a few seconds, sheathing his weapons, and then reached out to search for the Corner the masked man had cut. I already knew he wouldn’t find it.

 

Finally, he turned back to me. “You all right?”

 

I nodded, and he helped me to my feet. Leaning against his shoulder, I was able to stand.

 

“So,” I said as he pulled out the Escher Cube, “looks like I was right after all.”

 

His expression darkened, and he didn’t say anything as he turned the Cube to warp us away.