“Yesterday, you compared using magic to meditating,” said McGus. “What you didn’t realize was that that’s the most apt comparison you’ll ever make.”
I was surrounded by a small army of club wielding mannequins, each supported by a spiderweb of strings coming from the ceiling. One came for me, and I swung Splatsy to block its attack. Before I could finish it off, though, a second dummy came at me from behind. I ducked and rolled out of its way, its club smashing into the floor where I’d just been, and came back up to sweep it off its feet with Splatsy.
“You’ve chosen cogito et creo as your mantra,” McGus went on. They were sitting at the arena’s edge, safely out of my way. “Latin for ‘think and create.’ Fitting. What’s the purpose of a mantra during meditation?”
The third dummy approached, swinging at my belly. I leaped back and raised Splatsy behind my head to smash its wooden skull into tiny splinters.
“To help you concentrate, I think,” Ethan said. “I’ve never meditated.”
McGus grunted. “Close enough. It’s the same idea here. I told you last night: for a human to use magic, they have to pull the mana out of its dimension and into ours. You do that with your conduit, in this case your spellhammer. But reaching between dimensions like that requires concentration, hence the mantra.”
Three dummies ganged up on me. Taking Splatsy in both hands, I swung her as hard as I could, knocking the first dummy into the second, and the second into the third, like a row of evil killer dominoes.
“Go Henry!” Aesop cheered for me. “You are Queen of the Dummied! Get it, Jade? Like, Queen of the…”
Jade ignored him, her eyes fixed on Ethan as he listened to McGus ramble on.
A loud chunk-ish sound came from above me, and I dove out of the way just as a massive wooden blade came swinging down from the ceiling. It whizzed past, continuing its arc upwards before swinging back the way it’d come like a pendulum. A few seconds later, a second one appeared.
“McGus, you jerk!” I yelled. “When did you add this?”
“Adapt, improvise, overcome!” he shouted back before returning his attention to Ethan. “There’s nothing magical about the mantra itself. It’s just to help you empty your mind of distractions, which will let you reach into the mana dimension more easily. Let’s try it.”
At his prompting, Ethan held the spellhammer out in front of himself in both hands. “But what do I do with the magic if I manage to pull some over?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Now close your eyes.”
The two pendulums swung in perfect intervals. When one swung forward, the other would swing back, missing each other by mere inches as they sliced an X shape through the air. I dodged one, rolled out of the way of the other, but then found my path blocked by the mannequins I hadn’t smashed yet. They moved forward, pushing me back into the danger zone.
“Don’t think about anything except the task at hand,” said McGus. “Let your mind go blank. There is nothing but you and the emptiness inside your head.”
“That do be the nicest way o’ calling someone brainless I’ve heard in all me life,” Aesop laughed in his fake accent. “Ow! What was that for, Jade?”
I weaved back and forth, narrowly avoiding the swinging blades. One dummy came too close, and I hit it with a glancing blow that threw it in front of an oncoming pendulum. It shattered.
That gave me an idea.
“Your words are a train travelling through the emptiness of your mind,” McGus continued. “Load any distractions you still have onto it, and let it carry them away.”
“Cogito et creo,” Ethan chanted, putting special emphasis on every syllable. “Cogito et creo. Cogito et creo.”
“Now, reach out and pull the mana into our dimension!”
“Can’t say. It’s more instinctive than anything. Just keep trying until you feel something happen.”
I charged my shoes and jumped, working out a strategy on the fly. The dummies craned their wooden heads back to watch as I flew across the arena — right toward the first pendulum!
“Cogito et creo,” Ethan chanted. “Cogito et creo. Cogi…Hey, I think I feel something!”
The spellhammer flickered once…twice…and then lit up like a flood lamp!
“Good, now hold onto it!” McGus encouraged him. “Don’t let it out, but don’t let it slip back through the portal either.”
I stretched my arm out just as I flew past the pendulum, catching the thick wooden rod with my elbow, and slid down to stand on the blade below. Even with me on it, the pendulum kept swinging. It felt like I was on the deck of a boat in the middle of a hurricane, clinging to the mast to keep from being thrown into the ocean. Only, what waited for me below was worse than pounding waves and deep water.
It was really, really angry wood.
The dummies didn’t know what to do, staring up at me as I swung back and forth just out of their reach. Keeping one arm wrapped around the pole, I held Splatsy as far out as I could, grinning when she smashed her way through a row of dummies. Then, wrapping my legs around the pole, I leaned backwards over the edge. The ground sped back and forth below me, only a couple inches away from tearing my blue haired head from my shoulders. Taking Splatsy in both hands, I slammed her onto the floor as hard as I could. The impact nearly yanked her out of my hands, but I kept hold of her as the pendulum dragged her behind us, grinding against the floor like nails on a chalkboard.
Just like I’d hoped, the pendulum screeched to a halt.
I moved as fast as I could, planting a foot on the side of the pendulum’s wooden blade and thrusting off from it. I flipped in midair, watching as the other pendulum crashed into that one, demolishing both and showering the arena with splinters. I laughed, punching the air — and then remembered I hadn’t landed yet.
Cheese and blueberry muffins, I thought just before I crashed painfully into the edge of the arena, right below where Ethan and McGus were practicing.
“Oh, jeez!” Ethan exclaimed, springing to his feet. “Are you—”
“Boy, pay attention to your magic!” McGus roared.
Ethan and I both looked at his glowing spellhammer — and the sparks that were flying out of it like a cheap firework. I rolled to my feet and sprinted the other way, ignoring the dummies I hadn’t smashed yet, while McGus dove between me and Ethan.
“Get down!” I yelled, flinging myself across the arena and tackling Aesop and Jade. The moment we hit the floor, there was a flash of light and a BOOM loud enough to shake the walls. A wave of hot air rippled through the room, and the smell of smoke filled my nose.
“Henry,” said Aesop from below me, “you really should buy a guy dinner before — mrrmmph!”
I put my hand on his face to hoist myself up, surveying the charred and blackened arena. The remaining dummies lay scattered across the floor, shattered by the explosion. Compared to them, the rest of the room didn’t look that bad. The walls were still standing, no holes in the ceiling. Just a big scorch mark where Ethan and McGus stood, both of them still clutching the spellhammer and looking like they’d been wrestling over a toaster in a bathtub.
“Hey, you guys all right?” I called, picking my way over to them.
Ethan opened his eyes and coughed a small cloud of smoke. “Peachy keen, Henry.”
“Speak for yourself.” McGus released the spellhammer and twisted around to pop his back. “You probably just took ten years off my life, boy. I told you to empty your head of distractions!”
“That’s kind of hard when my friends are falling out of the sky.”
I snorted, but McGus’ expression only darkened. “If that’s the case, then give me the spellhammer right now before you really end up killing someone.”
Ethan took a step back, clutching the crystal hammer to his chest. “No!”
“Then quit arguing with me!” the old Green snapped. “You think I’m doing this for fun? I’m trying to keep you safe here, kid. You got lucky last night, but next time you could end up turning yourself to stone, or opening a volcano beneath your feet. Is that what you want?”
“Okay, okay, I get it!”
McGus rolled his eyes. “Now you sound like Henry. Makes me think I should just take the hammer back and end this here and now.”
“Hey, Ethan!” Aesop called from the other side of the room. “Do that again!”
McGus turned to glare at them. “Henry, explain to me again why those idiots are in my house.”
“To annoy you,” I replied, then quickly added, “And because we’re grabbing lunch in town after we’re done here.”
“Well,” he grunted, “you’ll be done here when I say you’re done here, and I’ll say you’re done here when you get this mess cleaned up!”
He pointed at the charred blackness on the walls and floors, then at scattered mannequin pieces in the arena.
“Fine,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I’ll go get the—”
“Hup!” McGus held up a hand to stop me. “All four of you.”
“Wait, what?” Aesop demanded.
“You’re in my house, and I’m a grumpy old turd, so all four of you get to clean the place up today.” He glared at each of us in turn, and went to sit at the edge of the room where he could watch. “Maybe you’ll think twice about coming over uninvited next time.”
We all looked at each other, Ethan coughed another puff of smoke, and I shrugged.
“Come on, guys,” I said. “This shouldn’t take too long. Aesop, help me pick up these dummies. Ethan, go grab some wet rags from the kitchen so you can start scrubbing the walls. Jade—”
“I’ll go with Ethan,” she interrupted me. Ethan’s eyes went wide, but he didn’t object as the dark haired girl hurried up the steps after him.
“So, you’re not gonna stop that?” Aesop asked once they were gone.
I looked at him. “Why would I? Ethan’s cool once you get past the whiny nerdiness. He’ll understand.”
“Understand?” Aesop shook his head. “Understanding will just make it more dangerous!”
I paused. He had a point.
“Even so,” I said quietly, “this is good for her. Jade needs to learn how to trust other people so that—”
“So that what?” Aesop scowled at me as he dumped an armload of wooden pieces onto the pile. “So that she can make other friends? Are we not good enough for her?”
I glared at him. “You know that’s not what I was going to say. What is your—”
“So, Backfire eats the nuke because his intestines are made of unbreakitanium,” Ethan said, appearing back through the door with Jade. Aesop and I immediately went back to work as if nothing had happened. “But it explodes in his stomach and gives him radioactive gas so people turn into zombies every time he farts.”
To my complete and utter shock, Jade burst into laughter. Her face had turned as red as Ichabod’s hair, and tears ran down her face.
“That,” she gasped, “is too freaking funny! You have to let me read it sometime!”
Ethan grinned, while I shared a look with Aesop — or tried to, at least. Aesop was too busy glaring at the floor to notice me. Before I could say anything about it, though…
I froze, eyes going wide. It was just McGus’ doorbell, but the sound chilled my blood like the ominous toll of a funeral bell. Dropping the wooden head I was holding, I turned and rushed for McGus’ entryway, the old Green just a couple steps ahead of me. I knew what we would find, but my heart still pounded as hard today as it had when I’d first become his apprentice. Part of me wished that would go away.
The other part was afraid of what it would mean if it did.
An envelope was waiting on the floor for us when we reached McGus’ entryway, sitting underneath the iron mail slot that was about a hundred years out of date. The mail slot, I thought with another shiver, that only existed on the inside of the door.
McGus bent down, picked up the envelope, and held it out to me. I took it, holding my breath as I read the immaculate cursive writing inked across the front.
To They Who Bear the Title of Hunter.
“What is it?” Ethan asked from behind me.
I sighed, closing my eyes. “I’ve got work to do. Come on, let’s get going.”
He took a step toward me, but then hesitated. Jade was watching us from the door to the training room. Ethan looked back at her, then at me.
“Um, do you think I could,” he paused to clear his throat, “you know, stay here this time?”
I shook my head. “Sorry. You know what the council will do if—”
“Bah, leave him,” McGus grunted, elbowing past me with a dismissive wave. “Those idiots know better than to show their faces here.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Are you sure? You won’t, like, murder him or anything?”
“No promises,” he said as he disappeared back into the training room.
Wow. And people say miracles don’t happen.
“Just be careful, okay?” Jade said, stepping forward.
I flashed her a grin. “Aren’t I always?”
“I’m serious!” she insisted, a worried look on her face. “Something about this feels…”
She glanced at Ethan, and her voice trailed off. A shiver went down my spine.
“We still have lunch plans later, remember?” Ethan said. “If you died, that’d kinda screw up our whole day.”
I looked down at the envelope, then back up at my friends. If Jade was getting weird vibes from all this, then leaving Ethan here was probably a good idea.
“Promise me, Henry,” she said softly.
I hesitated, then nodded. “I will. I promise.”