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Chapter Twenty Eight

Snapping the last row of the Escher Cube into place, I appeared in an alleyway somewhere in North Dakota. I checked my N.O.S.E. to make sure I was properly disguised, and stowed the Cube in my pocket before stepping out onto the street.

 

Roger Talon was my target today. Forty three years old. Blue. Five feet, nine inches tall — or he had been, at least. He’d been a manager at the Wombo World here in town before it shut down three years ago, and the letter said this was the most likely place to find him. Where those letters came from and who wrote them, even McGus couldn’t say. But somehow they always knew when a klaon became a maiam, and could usually tell us where they were hiding.

 

“Hey, Ethan,” I said as I hurried across the street toward the restaurant, “think they still have any…oh, right.”

 

Wow. Just a couple weeks of dragging the dork around, and it already felt weird to go anywhere without him. I shook my head. All the more reason to get this over with quickly. That, and lunch.

 

I tried one of the doors. Locked. A quick glance around told me the area was deserted for the moment, so I drew Splatsy and smashed the door right off its hinges. I rushed inside even before all the glass had stopped falling, Splatsy raised for an attack. If the maiam was here, there was no way it hadn’t heard that. But if I made sure to keep myself between it and the exit, it would have nowhere to run except face first into—

 

The man in the clown mask.

 

I recoiled in shock, nearly tripping over my own feet as he stepped out of the abandoned kitchen. In one hand, he held the same knife he’d threatened me with last night. The blade was coated with a black liquid. In the other…

 

“Broccoli cheese ice cream,” I swore.

 

Roger Talon’s monstrous corpse hung from his fist, as limp as a dishrag. Thick black blood dripped from its throat to splatter on the floor. With an indifferent flick of his wrist, the masked man flung it across the room so that it landed right in front of me. It began to dissolve. I looked from it to the masked man, too stunned to move. He didn’t move either. For a long, tense minute, we just stood there and stared at each other.

 

Finally, he looked around. “Where is the boy?”

 

“Somewhere you’ll never find him!” I snapped, tightening my grip on Splatsy.

 

He shook his head. “Disappointing. We seem to have wasted our time, then.”

 

“What are you—”

 

“Then again,” he cocked his head in thought. “Perhaps not. Let’s use this chance to talk, Henry Rider.”

 

My heart was pounding so hard that I thought it would break my ribs. The Escher Cube’s sharp corner was poking my leg through my pocket. Nothing was stopping me from grabbing it and warping the H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks out of there. For some reason, though, I didn’t. He hadn’t attacked me yet. Maybe this was my chance to get a clue as to what was going on.

 

“Fine,” I said, trying to sound tougher than I felt. “Let’s start with this: give me one good reason why I shouldn’t break every bone in your body!”

 

He nodded to the disappearing maiam. “Consider that a peace offering.”

 

He took a sudden step forward, and I backed away, but all he did was step on the puddle of black goo that had been Roger Talon. Raising his toes, he ground his heel into it like he was crushing an annoying bug until the last few inky wisps had faded into nothingness.

 

“You and we are more alike than you know,” he said.

 

My cheeks burned. “I’m nothing like you!”

 

“You are a warrior, fighting to exterminate a terrible evil from the world.” He looked me in the eye, and I shivered. “And so are we.”

 

“You’re a murderer!” I snapped.

 

“Murder is an act of senseless violence. Unjustifiable. We have never murdered anyone.”

 

“Tell that to…” I paused.

 

“Who, Henry Rider?” he asked. “Who have we killed? And why? Will you judge us without even knowing what crimes we have committed?”

 

I didn’t know what to say to that.

 

“Do you want to know what is truly happening?” he asked a minute later.

 

Swampy dread began to creep into my heart. I couldn’t tell why, but something about the way he said that bothered me. Those words were…heavy…somehow. They carried more meaning than he was letting on.

 

Swallowing, I hesitantly said, “Fine. Tell me.”

 

The masked man slowly looked to his left, then to his right.

 

“Words are inadequate,” he said. “To understand, we will have to show you.”

 

Then he lunged for me.

 

I swung Splatsy with a yelp, but she soared harmlessly over his head. Ice filled my veins when I saw that knife coming for me. That would be the merciful way out. If he was feeling particularly cruel, he’d poison me with his laughter again. I could still remember the—

 

Instead, he grabbed me by my face.

 

“See the truth with your own eyes, Henry Rider,” he whispered, “and decide for yourself who is evil and who is innocent.”

 

He gave me a shove, sending me toppling over backwards. I hit the ground hard, striking my head against the floor. Ignoring the dizziness, I scrambled back to my feet, Splatsy held out to block his next attack. If McGus couldn’t beat him, then I didn’t have a prayer. I had to fend him off long enough to grab the Cube and…

 

I paused.

 

Where the fudge marshmallow chimichangas was I?

 

The Wombo World was gone. Where dusty windows had let in the sunlight, there were now gray concrete walls. Humming fluorescent bulbs bathed the scene in dull, lifeless illumination. It reminded me of a tornado shelter I’d been in once, only bigger. At least as big as the council chamber back at the Grand Lark. There were no windows or doors that I could see, no way in or out.

 

And no masked man, either.

 

Not sure what to think, I took a step backwards. What in Curly Howard’s holy name was going on? I’d been thrown around a Corner, that much was obvious. But a Corner to where? And why? I took another step back, and my heel bumped against something. Biting back a scream, I leaped forward, whirled around…and my mouth fell open in shock.

 

Wooden chairs — at least a dozen of them — made a ring around a massive black machine. Shaped like a cone, it came down out of the ceiling above, its point just a few inches above the floor. It was silent right now, but every few seconds a spark of electricity would arc across it. Thick wires and tubes big enough for me to crawl through snaked in and out of it.

 

I lowered my eyes, and realized with a sick lurch that I wasn’t alone. There were people sitting in those chairs, dressed in hospital gowns that didn’t look like they had been changed in weeks.  Slumped forward and unmoving, all that kept them from falling out of their seats were the leather belts wrapped around their chests, arms, and legs. Little plastic masks, like what you’d hook up to an oxygen tank, were fastened to their faces with thick rubber tubes that ran up to the black machine above. But I barely noticed any of that. My eyes were glued to their foreheads.

 

Foreheads that all bore a familiar glowing red amulet.

 

“Are you beginning to understand, Henry Rider?” asked the masked man. His voice came from behind me, but when I spun around there was nobody there.

 

“What have you done?” I demanded.

 

“Revenge.”

 

I spun again, and finally spotted him. He was standing in front of the black machine, in between two of the chairs, with his hands resting on the heads of the people sitting in them. The idea of attacking him didn’t even cross my mind. This place, that machine, those poor people…my brain was on the verge of exploding from trying to take it all in at once.

 

“What have you done to them?” I forced myself to ask.

 

The masked man cocked his head. “You still do not understand. We did not put ourselves here. We only wish to show you the truth.”

 

I stared at him, uncomprehending. Ever since I’d first encountered him at Ethan’s house, he had spoken like he thought he was more than one person. We. Us. I’d just assumed it was a product of his insanity. But now something was different. When I’d mentioned the people in the chairs, he had responded as if he…and they…were somehow…

 

No. It couldn’t be.

 

“Who…” I swallowed, hardly able to breathe. “Who are you?”

 

There was silence as the masked man contemplated his answer — and then one of the bodies spoke.

 

“We are the ones who disappeared,” he said, raising his head to look at me.

 

One by one, the others followed suit. What I had assumed were corpses fixed their cold, accusing eyes on me, and in perfect synchronization began to rise from their seats. The leather belts that restrained them slid free on their own. I backed away until I hit the wall behind me.

 

“We are Angela Dorsey.”

 

“Michael Walters.”

 

“Carlos Ramirez.”

 

“Troy Rainer.”

 

They gathered in front of the machine, and then parted to let the masked man approach me. Slowly, he reached up and pulled the rubber mask off his face. I gasped as it fell to the floor as limply as Roger Talon’s maiam, the face of my enemy revealed to me at last. Little more than flesh and bone, I could clearly make out the shape of his skull just beneath the skin. Sunken, deranged eyes. Bald except for a few wispy black hairs that stubbornly clung to his scalp.

 

And another glowing talisman.

 

“Our name is Legion,” they all said together, “for we are many.”