“This is impossible,” I whispered, clutching Splatsy in shaking hands.
“We need your help, Henry Rider,” they said in unison.
I paused. “W- What?”
They raised their hands, gesturing to the room around us. “This is a place built by evil men for an evil purpose. We were brought here. Experimented on. Harvested like animals.”
Their outstretched hands tightened into fists.
“We took back our freedom. But there are other places like this. Other people like us. We must find those places, Henry Rider. We must destroy them.”
The one who had been wearing the mask took a threatening step toward me.
“And we must kill those responsible.”
I raised Splatsy. “Stay away from me!”
They paused, their expressions unreadable. I’ll admit, right then I was so scared that if I hadn’t used the bathroom before leaving McGus’ place, I would have needed a new pair of underpants. All of this was too much for me to take in at once. The masked man…Legion…whatever he, or they, or it, was…it scrambled my brain like eggs. I couldn’t even begin to process their story, or this place, except…
Except that if they were telling the truth — and I couldn’t think of why they would lie — then that meant they weren’t bad guys.
“Help us, Henry Rider,” they said again. Their voices were mostly monotone, but I thought I could detect a hint of desperation in their words.
“What does any of this have to do with me?” I asked.
“More than you realize. You will understand soon.”
“But…” I paused and took a deep breath. “What would I have to do?”
Legion fixed their eyes on me. “Bring us the boy.”
I froze. “Why?”
“You know the power he holds inside himself.”
“Yes. With that, we can create a weapon that the ones who built this place will be defenseless against.”
Something about that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Why would they need Ethan’s laughter? What kind of weapon did they think they could make out of it? And who would they use it against? After all, it wasn’t like laughter could ever…hurt…
“No,” I whispered as horrible realization dawned on me.
Across from me, Legion’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What?”
I shook my head, pressing my back even harder against the wall. “You- You want to make Ethan’s laughter like yours! And you want to use it to kill klaons!”
Slowly, they nodded. “Yes. A weapon to destroy the evil that caused us so much pain.”
Holding Splatsy in one hand, I finally reached for the Cube with my other. “Well, forget it! I won’t help you murder my own people!”
My fingers closed around the Cube, but I froze when Legion took a step toward me — all of them.
“How disappointing,” they said with a threatening edge in their voice. “We had begun to think that you were different.”
They began to spread out, surrounding me. I gulped. With my back to the wall, I had nowhere to run.
“We thought that perhaps you actually cared for human lives, unlike your brethren.”
“St- Stay back,” I warned them, taking Splatsy in both hands again.
“But you misunderstand us. We aren’t requesting your help.”
The no-longer-masked man stepped forward, reaching into the pocket of his coveralls. I tensed up, waiting for him to draw his knife. My cheek burned with the memory of what he’d done with it last time. But it wasn’t the knife that he pulled from his pocket.
It was another glowing amulet.
“We’re demanding it.”
The small stone, only a little bigger than a quarter, bathed me in blood-red light. I stared at it in horror, the full realization of how much doodoo I was in crashing down on me. Then, as one, the Legions rushed for me. I instinctively swung Splatsy, giving one of them a solid blow to the gut, but while he fell the others crowded around me, trying to pin me against the wall. Growling, I swung for another, but the Legions behind me grabbed hold of Splatsy. They were weak, starved nearly to death, but their combined weight was still enough to nearly yank her out of my hands.
“Nobody touches my hammer!” I screamed, spinning around and kicking the closest Legion in the chest. She flew backwards, straight into the others behind her, knocking them all down like dominoes. But the others quickly moved to fill that gap keeping me from escaping.
“Do not fight it, Henry Rider,” they said, eerie voices ringing in my ears. “This is justice. Soon you will understand.”
Frantic, I found myself without an inch to move on any side. The Legions pressed in close, trapping me. The one who’d worn the mask stepped closer with the glowing stone disc in the palm of his hand.
“You will help us,” he said softly, alone.
Those eyes…they were set in a human’s face, on a human’s body, but the thing peering at me from inside them wasn’t human. Not anymore. I didn’t know what it was. I doubted there was even a word for it. And now it wanted to turn me into whatever it was.
You have no idea how much that terrified me.
“NO!” I screamed. As fast as I could, not giving Legion any time to react, I charged my shoes with magic. I was blasted up into the air, soaring across the room to land on the other side before spinning to face the freakish mob.
They came for me again, but the distance I’d created gave me a few precious seconds. I pulled the Cube out of my pocket and took it in both hands. I didn’t know where I was, and that made warping dangerous. I could accidentally teleport myself a million lightyears into space, or straight into the center of the earth. But that wouldn’t matter if I stayed here and let Legion have his way with me. I…
Too late. The first Legion lunged for me, and I narrowly dodged out of the way. Charging my shoes again, I spotted a cord hanging from the machine up above that looked like it could hold my weight. Once I was up there, out of Legion’s reach, I could take my time and warp out of here as safely as possible. I released the magic, shot up into the air, and…
Half a dozen hands wrapped around my ankles.
With a yelp, I crashed back down, smacking my head against the floor. Pain flashed through my skull. Doing my best to ignore it, I kicked behind me, trying to throw the Legions off. As weak as they were, though, they refused to let go.
A shadow fell over me, and I looked up to see the unmasked man standing there. His face betrayed no emotion as he knelt down, amulet in his hand.
“No,” I whispered, tears stinging my eyes. “Please, no!”
“We need you, Henry Rider,” he said.
“Let me go! Don’t do this!”
More Legions came to hold down my arms. So many of them that all I could do was squirm helplessly.
“You will understand,” he promised. “Once you are one of us.”
He reached out and pressed the talisman against my forehead. I screamed in horror — but it immediately died in my throat as something came rushing out of the little stone coin. Whatever it was, it had no physical form. It didn’t even truly exist in this dimension. But the amulet created a doorway for it that led from its world directly…into…me!
My eyes widened, but my body fell still. Thoughts. Living thoughts. Evil thoughts. They flooded into my brain, like a bursting dam, washing the part of me that was me farther and farther back. There was nothing I could do. No way to fight. All I could do was watch in horror as the formless entity filled me from head to toe.
The other Legions let go of me and backed away. Slowly, I stood up. Only, it wasn’t me doing it. I could still see through my eyes, feel with my skin, but they were no longer mine. It was like I was watching a movie, unable to affect what I was seeing in any way.
NOOOOO! I screamed inside my head. Legion ignored me. That’s what this was, I realized. Those thoughts were Legion in its true form. They were what was controlling all these people.
And now me, too.
Get out of my head! Let! Me! Go!
I threw myself against Legion as hard as I could — I’m not sure how to describe it, since this was all taking place inside my head — but it was like trying to move a mountain.
As I fought, things started to appear before me. Not in the real world. They were like memories, or at least echoes of somebody else’s memories. Legion’s memories. With our minds pressed together this closely, pieces of it were passing over into me. The thought made me shiver, but that didn’t stop the images from coming. I tried to ignore them, focus on the horror show that was happening in real life, but slowly they began to draw my attention.
I could see through other people’s eyes. Brief visions of them being attacked in dark alleyways, abandoned roads. Drugged to sleep, only to wake up here, connected to a terrible nightmarish machine. They were Legion. I could feel it. And yet, somehow they weren’t.
Glowing amulets were put on their heads, robbing them of control of their own bodies. Just like what it had done to me, yet different in a way I couldn’t understand. The amulets commanded them to laugh, so they laughed. And laughed. And laughed. For weeks. Months. Sitting here in this grimy prison, unable to move, rarely fed, they laughed even though there wasn’t a speck of joy in their hearts.
That laughter was captured by the masks they wore and sucked up into the machine. And still they laughed, until they either went insane or died. If they went insane, their laughter would turn gray. Workers would come, take away the bodies, and replace them with new people. Then the process would repeat itself. Never ending. Always suffering.
If I was in control of myself, I would have thrown up. Laughter is the universal language of joy. But this…this was pain and misery. The exact opposite of what laughter should have been! Who was depraved enough to do something like this? To corrupt one of the only purely good things left in the world?
The answer came, and I immediately regretted asking.
People with skin as white as snow, hair as bright as rainbows. Klaons. Of course. It was the most obvious thing in the world. These people were being harvested for their laughter. Why would anybody do such a thing unless they wanted to feed on it? But the mere thought of my people doing something so utterly heinous broke something inside of me. If I’d still had my knees, I would have fallen to them. If I’d still had my lungs, I would have screamed.
But then, one day, something had happened. They didn’t understand completely themselves. But there had been a magical malfunction. The amulets had backfired, sucking their minds — their very consciousnesses — right out of their skulls. They’d been taken to a dimension where thoughts were given form, and crushed together so hard that they’d ceased to be individual minds, and instead became one singular entity. A Frankenstein monster of twelve brains, twelve people, twelve souls.
The malfunctioning pendants had allowed Legion to reach back into this world, controlling any living thing they touched like living puppets. With all those brains put together, their intelligence had skyrocketed, allowing them to think and act faster than any mortal being. Using these new powers, they had broken free, killed everyone in the facility, and plotted how to take their revenge.
Ethan was the key to their master plan.
And I was the key to Ethan.
All of that flashed through my mind in a split second, and by the time I understood everything, my body was only just getting to its feet. With my hand, Legion squeezed my N.O.S.E., changing the disguise so that it covered the amulet on my forehead. Then it pulled the Escher Cube out of my pocket.
Please, I begged. Don’t do this! I’ll do anything! Please!
But Legion ignored me. Pulling memories from me just like I had done to it, a picture of Mauldibamm appeared in my mind. I began to turn the Cube with quick, perfect movements. The bunker, and the other Legions, vanished. I screamed so hard it shook the very core of my being, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. Legion knew where Ethan was.
And I was coming for him.