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Chapter Twenty Six

“Jeez, did that thing sit on my head or something?” Ethan groaned.

 

We were back in McGus’ house in Mauldibamm, the two of us straddling a bench so we could rest our legs until McGus got us unstuck. Ethan had woken up a couple minutes after we’d arrived, and had spent the whole time griping about his headache. For once, I didn’t mind listening to it. The griping meant he was alive.

 

“That wasn’t the maiam, boy,” said McGus, sitting down next to us. “What you’re feeling is a magical hangover.”

 

“A hangover?” he asked, rubbing his forehead. “You mean I was drunk?”

 

“Drunk with power, maybe,” I quipped.

 

McGus looked at me, and I felt a chill run down my spine. He hadn’t seen the freaking Death Star laser Ethan had conjured, but the mess it had left was unmistakable. The crystal hammer was sitting on the table nearby, safely out of Ethan’s reach. Ethan hadn’t brought up what he’d done in the woods, and I was happy to leave it alone.

 

Because it scared me.

 

“Forget everything you think you know about magic,” McGus said, leaning towards him. “Because every bit of it is wrong.”

 

“I bought a book of spells—”

 

“And your first mistake was using it without any help!” McGus reached out and rapped him on the head. “Idiot!”

 

“Ow! Headache, remember?”

 

“And you’re lucky that’s all you got!” McGus shook his head. “You two are made for each other, you know that? You both pull ridiculous stunts without thinking about the consequences, you’re both stubborn as a donkey with its hooves stuck in cement, and you’re both just flat out stupid! I almost think I should leave you like this!”

 

“No!” Ethan and I yelled at the same time.

 

The old Green hummed in his throat, and then closed his eyes. Ethan glanced at me, and I motioned for him to wait. After a minute, McGus grimaced.

 

“You two’re wrapped up like a burrito of trouble,” he said.

 

A pit formed in my stomach. “Can you lift the curse?”

 

“Yeah, but it’ll take a while.” He pointed at something on my shoulder that I couldn’t see, then traced it down to Ethan’s hip. “It’s all one big string, which is good. If there were multiple curses knotted up with this one, I wouldn’t have the patience to even try. But one curse I should be able to break without too much trouble. Hopefully I’ll have you free by morning.”

 

“Good,” said Ethan, squirming a little. “Because I still have to pee.”

 

I paled. “Hurry, please, if you don’t mind!”

 

McGus set to work, his hands raised and fingers twitching like he was plucking an invisible harp. Every once in a while, I would feel something tug against me. I hoped that meant it was working.

 

“Once this is over,” I said a few minutes later, “I’m never hugging anyone again.”

 

“Mhmm,” Ethan said distractedly.

 

“I don’t care if I’m at a family reunion, a funeral, or my own wedding. Handshakes for everybody. Handshakes, handshakes, handshakes. From now on, call me Mrs. Handshake!”

 

“You’re not married,” Ethan mumbled. The look in his eyes said he was already a million miles away. “So, if everything I think I know about magic is wrong, then what is magic?”

 

I shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I’m terrible at it.”

 

“But I’ve seen you use it.”

 

“Yeah, but you and I are different. I don’t cast spells. I mostly just charge parts of my clothes to give me an edge in a fight.”

 

“And that’s the least of it,” McGus butted in, eyes still closed. “She couldn’t teach you magic if she wanted to. Klaon magic and human magic are different in almost every way.”

 

I felt another sharp tug, and cleared my throat. “Are you sure you should be talking while you do this?”

 

“Not if you keep distracting me!” he snapped. “So shut up! Ethan, if you’ve really seen Henry use magic, then tell me what the main difference is between hers and yours.”

 

“I don’t know. You just said everything I thought—”

 

“Think, boy! What did she do differently than you?”

 

I already knew the answer, but I didn’t say anything. This was Ethan’s lesson, and McGus would expect him to succeed or fail on his own. Just like I had. Just like I still did. More failures than successes, true, but…yeah.

 

“She doesn’t need a spellhammer,” Ethan finally answered.

 

“Right,” McGus said with a nod. “And she didn’t need a mantra either, did she?”

 

Ethan leaned forward, excitement gleaming in his eyes. “A mantra? Like meditation?”

 

“Almost exactly like it. Henry, just like me or any other klaon, is part emotion. Because of that, she has a natural connection to another dimension, and she’s able to use it to summon and channel magic without a conduit like the spellhammer.”

 

Tug, tug, tug…YANK! Ethan and I were nearly pulled out of our seats, but once the feeling went away I found that I was able to scoot a little further away from him than before. Only a couple of inches, but at least we weren’t touching anymore. I sighed with relief.

 

“But humans don’t have that connection,” McGus went on. “That places magic firmly out of your reach.”

 

“Unless I have a spellhammer,” Ethan jumped in.

 

McGus nodded. “That, or some other kind of conduit. Something that has a connection to magic just like we klaons do. That spellhammer was chiseled from the fossilized heart of a crystal hydra and bathed in the northern lights for a year and a day. It exists in two dimensions now, in two different forms: the crystal hammer you see, and a portal to our world in the magical dimension.”

 

He gave another few tugs — one of which felt like it was going to tear my eardrum out of my skull — and the space between me and Ethan widened to over a foot. If I tried to scoot any farther away than that, though, Ethan would still slide forward like I was dragging him.

 

“But magic itself isn’t what you think either,” McGus said. “You think it’s all hocus pocus, bibbidi bobbidi boo nonsense. Wave a wand, say some gibberish, and turn somebody into a frog.” He shook his head. “Humans! It always amazes me how wrong you manage to be about everything.”

 

If Ethan was offended by that, he didn’t show it. “Okay, then what is magic?”

 

For a second, McGus opened his eyes, and the gleam he had in them made me shiver.

 

“Everything,” he answered. “Magic is everything. You, me, Henry, my house, the air you’re breathing. It’s all magic. Or mana, if you want to get technical.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“There’s a simple cure for that: shut up and let me talk.” Even though they were closed, I could see the way McGus rolled his eyes. “Tell me, what is the base material that everything in the universe is made of?”

 

“Atoms,” Ethan said without hesitation.

 

“Wrong! It’s mana. Break anything down as far as it can possibly go, and you get mana. Atoms aren’t even the halfway point. The big bang. The primordial soup. Let there be light. Whatever you want to call it, mana is where everything that ever was, is, and will be came from. Make sense?”

 

“No.”

 

“Good. Then you can keep listening.”

 

McGus paused, then grabbed two big handfuls of the invisible curse string and pulled. With a yelp, Ethan and I both fell off the bench and flopped onto the floor like a couple of fish.

 

“Hmm. More left than I thought. Get up, both of you!” While we climbed awkwardly back into our seats, he continued, “Magic, put in as simple of terms as possible, is the power of creation. You pull mana into our world through the conduit, and then you mold it into whatever you want it to be. Like a fireball, or a big rock. If you know how it’s made, you can make it.”

 

“Then, what happened here?” Ethan asked, gesturing to the two of us.

 

“Magic isn’t limited to making physical things. You pull it into our world with your mind, which gives it a very dangerous connection to your thoughts and emotions. If you know what you’re doing, you can use that connection to create things like healing, intelligence — or being stuck to somebody. What were you thinking about when this happened?”

 

“I was thinking…” Ethan glanced at me, then lowered his head.

 

“Go ahead and tell him,” I said. “I think we both already know.”

 

“I was mad at Henry,” he said slowly. “She barged into my room while I was reading from the spellbook, and…I’m not sure what happened next. I remember thinking that I wanted her to stay away from me, and the next thing I knew we were stuck to each other.”

 

McGus chuckled, and I felt my cheeks turn blue.

 

“Yep, that makes sense,” he said, nodding. “If you’d known what you were doing, that stray thought would have done the opposite of this. It would have been like there was an unbreakable wall between the two of you. But you don’t know what you’re doing, so all the magic could pick up was you, Henry, and some measure of distance. You couldn’t control it, so instead of keeping you apart, it brought you together.”

 

“Hmm,” Ethan mused, leaning back with a thoughtful look in his eye. “So, how do I learn to control it better?”

 

“With practice, practice, practice!” McGus snapped. “What, you think the literal power of creation can be explained through words? The only way to learn is by doing, and the only way to do is by learning.”

 

“And not dying,” I added.

 

McGus nodded his agreement. “And not dying. That’s an important step too.”

 

“Will you teach me?” Ethan asked.

 

McGus tugged on a string, nearly unseating me and Ethan again, but then stopped without letting it go — and then he smiled. I shivered at the unnatural sight.

 

“Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve heard those words?” he asked. “Henry here hasn’t asked me to teach her anything since her second week of training. Once she was strong enough to pick up that damn hammer of hers, she thought she knew everything there was to know about fighting and hunting.”

 

I frowned. “Come on, don’t—”

 

“I’ve noticed, trust me,” Ethan interrupted.

 

I glared at him, betrayal burning my cheeks. “Yeah, let’s pick on the girl who’s keeping you from being eaten alive. That sounds like a great idea!”

 

Ethan gave me a sharp look. “I think I did that tonight.”

 

“Because of something you did!”

 

“She’s right,” McGus interjected. “For once. If you hadn’t been screwing around with that spellbook, you wouldn’t be in this situation.”

 

Ethan looked down at his lap. “Sorry.”

 

“Screw the apologies, boy! What matters is if you decide to let this be a learning experience or a Henry experience.”

 

“What does that mean?”

 

“You can either learn from this and grow because of it,” McGus answered, “or you can ignore everything I tell you and keep trying to get yourself killed.”

 

My face turned even bluer. “Seriously, guys? Grow up!”

 

 Ethan swallowed hard, eyes flicking from me to McGus.

 

“Or you can just give up,” the old klaon said with a shrug. “Nothing wrong with that. Learning magic can be as dangerous as maiam hunting. If you don’t think you have the stomach for it, tell me now so neither of us end up wasting our time.”

 

Ethan was quiet for a long time, and McGus didn’t pressure him. For the next half hour, the only sounds were me and Ethan’s grunts whenever McGus tugged a curse thread too hard.

 

Say no, I silently begged him. Please say no!

 

I already knew that was one prayer the great whoopie cushion in the sky wasn’t going to answer, though. I could tell by the look in Ethan’s eyes. Excitement. Wonder. More than anything, though, there was hunger. He was going to take McGus’ up on his offer no matter what I said, and that terrified me. Not just because it could easily wind up getting him killed, but because I had seen what Ethan was capable of in the woods. So much destructive power, all pent up inside one teenage boy. A broken teenage boy.

 

What would happen if he actually learned to control that power?

 

Finally, just like I’d known he would, Ethan looked McGus in the eye and said, “Teach me!”

 

McGus nodded solemnly. “Fine. In that case,” he gave one last tug, and I felt what was left of the curse vanish, “go home, get some sleep, and be back here after school tomorrow. Your training starts then.”

 

“Thank you!” Ethan exclaimed, but before I could say anything he was on his feet and running out of the room.

 

“Where are you going?” I demanded.

 

“Bathroom!”

 

For a minute McGus and I sat in silence.

 

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I finally asked.

 

He grunted. “Remember what I said about learning to fight?”

 

“That it’s like making a sandwich? First you—”

 

“No, you idiot! About wanting to learn to fight! He doesn’t want to learn, so trying to train him is pointless. But magic, on the other hand…” He stroked his chin in thought. “He actually cares about that. That I might just be able to teach him.”

 

I shook my head. “He only thinks it’s cool because he just found out it exists. Once it becomes a part of his daily, normal life, he’ll lose interest.”

 

“Hmm. Maybe. But I don’t think so. Either way, what he did to the forest tonight tells me that he has potential. Talent like that should never go ignored.”

 

“I guess,” I admitted reluctantly. Then I sat up straighter. “But we have something more important to talk about. You saw the masked man tonight!”

 

McGus went still, his expression as hard as stone. “Yes.”

 

I jumped to my feet. “Then you know I was telling the truth! Somehow he’s going around controlling maiams!”

 

“Yes,” he said again.

 

“Then I’ll call a council meeting.” I pulled out my phone. “I’ll tell them what happened tonight, and you can back me up! They’ll have to believe me this time!”

 

I started to dial Grandpa Teddy’s number, but McGus caught my wrist.

 

“And what happens after that?” he asked.

 

“Then we’ll…” I stopped. What did happen after that?

 

“Do we know who the masked man is, or where he’s hiding?” McGus demanded. “Do we know how he’s controlling the maiams, or why? And most importantly, do we know how we’re going to stop him?”

 

I hesitated, then shook my head.

 

“No, we don’t.” McGus walked over to his cabinet, where he got down a bottle of whiskey and poured himself a drink. “You and I together might be able to convince the old farts that you’re telling the truth, but then what? Without more information, they still can’t do anything. And worse, you’ll look like a scared little kid, always waking them up in the middle of the night because something spooked her.”

 

“I’m not spooked!” I shot back. “This is serious!”

 

McGus knocked back his drink. “That doesn’t change the facts, girl! Tell them how you’re going to stop the masked man, and they’ll listen. Tell them the masked man is real, and they’ll just ask how you’re going to stop him.”

 

I glared at him, but then sighed in defeat.

 

McGus looked at me with a rare shred of sympathy, and came over to put his hand on my shoulder. “You did good tonight. And you’re right, proving he’s real is the first step to catching him.”

 

“Will you help me?” I asked softly, hanging my head. I knew I was supposed to be the Hunter, and he was retired, but right then I felt so small and helpless it wasn’t even funny. “I…I can’t do this alone.”

 

His expression hardened, but he nodded. “Something big is happening. I can feel it in these old bones of mine. This is your hunt now, Henry, but I’ll do what I can to help.”

 

“Then where do we—”

 

“Oh, man,” Ethan exclaimed, rejoining us. “Thank God! Five more minutes, and I was going to explode!”

 

I glanced at McGus, then walked over to Ethan — and punched him in the arm.

 

“Ow!” he yelped. “What was that for?”

 

“What do you think, you moron?” I demanded. “Don’t ever scare me like that again!”

 

For a second, it looked like he was going to hurl a comeback at me, probably earning himself another punch in the process, but then he seemed to wilt under my angry glare.

 

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

 

Instantly, all my anger melted away, and I sighed. “The important thing is that you’re okay. So, are you going to tell me what was up with that comic now?”

 

Ethan instantly went rigid. “It’s nothing.”

 

I pointed a finger into his face. “Don’t lie to me, Ethan Griggs! Whatever’s going on, I want to help you!”

 

He folded his arms, fingernails digging so deep into his skin I thought he was going to cut himself. For a second I wondered if I was going to have to push him some more, but then I realized he was shaking.

 

“Ethan…” I said, reaching toward him.

 

“I killed them,” he whispered.

 

I froze. “You what?”

 

“My parents.” He closed his eyes and a wave of tears washed down his face. “I killed them.”

 

My heart sank into my stomach. Taking him gently by the hand, I led him back to the bench, where McGus was watching us in silence, and sat him down. Taking a seat opposite him, I looked him in the red, bleary eye.

 

“Tell me,” I said as gently as I could.

 

He looked up at me and, clenching his teeth, forced himself to say, “I had just gotten my learner’s permit. We were going out to eat to celebrate, and our reservations were about to expire. I tried to catch a yellow light, but it turned red, and…and…”

 

My eyes widened in horror. “Lady Magnificent and Slugthug?”

 

He nodded. “I can’t stop myself! It’s like if I tell the story in enough different ways where it isn’t my fault, maybe I’ll believe it. But I know it isn’t true. I killed them. Not the truck driver, not the stop light. Me. I…I’m a…”

 

I took his hands in my own. “Ethan, don’t say it!”

 

“I’m a murderer!”

 

With that, he broke down entirely, sobbing his poor little heart out. He didn’t seem to care that McGus and I were there watching him. Feelings are like air, and our hearts are like balloons. You can fill both up to the breaking point, but once one breaks, there’s no stopping what’s inside from getting out. The poor guy. All alone in a world that had shown the worst parts of itself to him at such a young age. No family. No friends. Just…

 

Just me.

 

Before I knew what I was doing, I wrapped him in a hug. He jumped a little, looking at me in surprise.

 

“Shh, it’s all right,” I whispered to him. The words sounded hollow and insincere. Was he really supposed to believe it was okay that he’d gotten his family killed? That was probably the last thing on earth that he wanted to hear.

 

But maybe it was what he needed to hear.

 

“You screwed up,” I told him, hugging him even closer to me. “But that shouldn’t define who you are for the rest of your life. That isn’t what your parents would want.”

 

“I have to make up for it,” he insisted. “That’s why I need to learn magic. To balance things out, to do something good so that—”

 

“You’re already doing something good! You’re being my friend.”

 

He tried to pull away from me, like he didn’t think he deserved to be hugged like this, but I just held him against me even tighter.

 

“I know it hurts,” I said. “And I can’t stop it from hurting. But I can tell you that you’re not a monster. And you’re not alone. You can come back from this, Ethan. I want to help you do that.”

 

“Why?” he asked in a small, timid voice.

 

“Because that’s what friends do!”

 

We sat there, hugging and crying, for almost ten minutes. Finally, though, Ethan looked up at me again and cracked a small smile. “I thought you were going to be Mrs. Handshake from now on.”

 

“You didn’t need a handshake, doofus,” I said, giving him one last squeeze. “You needed a hug.”

 

“Are you two finished yet?” McGus asked.

 

Ethan sniffed, rubbing his eyes dry, and nodded. “Y- Yeah, I think so. Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

 

“THEN GET OUT OF MY HOUSE ALREADY!”