I raced out the door with Ethan in tow, one hand clamped around his wrist while the other was poised to draw Splatsy at a moment’s notice. My eyes swung back and forth with every step, trying to look everywhere at once. It was quiet out here. Maybe too quiet? It was one forty five in the morning, and Ethan’s neighborhood was at the edge of a big woods, but shouldn’t there have been, like, crickets? Owls?
Cut it out, I thought. You’re just being paranoid.
“If I’m coming with you,” Ethan finally gasped, struggling to keep pace with me, “then I want to know what’s going on.”
I snorted. “If I tried to tell you even the first tenth of what was happening here, your brain would melt.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
I turned, and the look in his eyes told me he was one wrong word away from yanking his hand out of mine and bolting. Exhausted as I was, would I be able to chase him down and stop him? I didn’t want to take the chance.
We came to the end of his neighborhood, where the road cut a line straight through the heart of the forest, and I finally stopped. Trees walled us in on both sides, the shadows too thick to see more than a couple feet in any direction. Patting Splatsy reassuringly, I began to make my way more slowly. There was a Corner leading to an IW station somewhere nearby. McGus had shown it to me on a map before I’d left. Thank chocolate turnips I’d actually paid attention this time.
“You’re not human, are you?” Ethan asked quietly.
I glanced at him. “You’re not going to try and run, are you?”
He shook his head, but still had that look in his eyes. I sighed.
“That thing that attacked your house is called a maiam,” I said. “They feed on laughter, and it’s my job to hunt them down.”
I paused, wondering if I should tell him that I fed on laughter too. I decided against it. No need to freak him out more than he already was.
“Anyway, you’ve got so much laughter inside you right now that you’re practically an all you can eat maiam buffet. Happy?”
“Not in the slightest.”
I paused, looking around. If I remembered McGus’ map right, we were getting close. I held out my free hand and walked more slowly, moving it to the left and right like I was in a dark room and fumbling for the light switch.
“Now what are you doing?” Ethan demanded.
“Looking for the Corner,” I mumbled in reply.
“The…what?” He looked at the road that stretched out in front of us in a perfectly straight line for miles. “I don’t think you’re going to find any corners out here.”
“Not a corner,” I snapped, patience wearing thin again. “Corner. Uppercase C. A gateway to an alternate — aha!”
In front of me, my hand vanished from the end of my arm. I’d found the Corner. Now for the hard part: getting Ethan through it.
“You humans live in three dimensions,” I said, pulling my hand back out before he could see. “Height, width, and depth. But there are more dimensions out there than you could possibly imagine.”
Letting go of his hand, ready to chase him if he ran, I stepped backwards so we were standing side by side.
“These dimensions are all around you, all the time. Places where they branch off from your reality are called Corners. Just like a corner in your world keeps you from seeing what’s around it, dimensional Corners keep you from seeing what’s in those other dimensions.”
“I can’t see them,” he said dryly, “but you can?”
“You already figured out I’m not human. Is that so hard to believe?”
He looked at me suspiciously. “So, if I can’t see them, how am I supposed to — HEY!”
While he was distracted, I went in for the attack. My arms went underneath his, hooking around his shoulders and reaching up to cover his eyes. Ethan screamed in panic and tried to force me away, but keeping hold of him was easy. I fight maiams for a living, after all. Wrestling a sixteen year old boy was a cakewalk, even if he was a few inches taller than me.
“What are you doing?” he yelled.
“Giving you a firsthand lesson on how Corners work!”
I hooked my ankle around his, yanking his foot out from under him, and we began to fall. Making sure to keep his eyes covered, I shifted my weight so that we spun together at an odd angle. When we landed, it wasn’t on dirt, but rock-hard concrete.
“There!” I declared, letting go and rolling off him. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Ethan was on his feet in an instant, pointing an accusing finger at me. “You! You’re trying to kill me too! This was all a…”
His voice trailed off as his brain finally caught up to what his eyes were seeing. Or maybe what they weren’t seeing. The trees, the road, the night sky, everything that had been there five seconds ago was gone. Now we were in what could only be described as a bunker. The concrete floor led to gray concrete walls, which rose to hold up a thick concrete ceiling. By far one of the most uninspiring views I had ever seen, but by the look on Ethan’s face you’d have thought he was looking down on Earth from the moon.
“Where are we?” he asked in a stunned whisper.
“An alternate dimension.”
“This alternate dimension,” he said flatly, “is a subway station?”
I scoffed. “Of course it’s not! Don’t be stupid. This is an IW station.”
Before he could ask, the floor began to shake a little. A set of metal train tracks sat at the bottom of a small ledge a few feet away, leading out of a shadowy tunnel. A light appeared in that tunnel, and out of it rolled the IW. Each car was a shiny metal sphere that rolled independently of the others, like a conga line of giant pinballs.
“That,” I told Ethan, “is an IW. An Interdimensional Wormtrain. They’re the easiest way to get from one dimension to another.”
Well, they were if you didn’t have an Escher Cube. Stupid raccoon…
Taking Ethan by the hand again, I practically had to drag him across the station. His eyes were glued to the immobile IW as if he’d never seen anything like it.
Humans, I thought, rolling my eyes. So easily impressed.
Luckily, nothing got out of the train. If it had, Ethan might have really had something to stare at. Eventually I managed to pull him over to the ticket counter, where the lady inside gave me a bored look. Before she could ask, I whipped out the badge that named me Maiam Hunter for the Council of Shnoob. Her eyes widened, looking me up and down in surprise. I knew what was going through her head. This little punk? The Hunter? She can’t even be old enough to drive! Luckily for both of us, she just nodded silently and printed out two tickets, one for me and one for Ethan. With them in hand, I made for the nearest car.
“Uh, Henry?” Ethan whispered. “That woman…”
I looked at him from the corner of my eye. “What about her?”
“She, uh…She had a beard.”
I came to a dead stop in the middle of the station.
“Body shaming is not cool, dude,” I said to him.
“But the beard was made of—”
I kept walking, leaving him behind to wallow in shame.
“…snakes,” I heard him mutter.
The car’s door slid open to admit me, with Ethan hurrying to catch up, and we stepped in. The floor of the car was built so that the spherical outer shell could roll in any direction around it without us feeling more than a weak tremor. I collapsed into a seat facing away from the door, sighing in relief. As much as I wanted to, though, I didn’t let myself relax too much. If I did, I’d have been asleep before we’d even pulled out of the station.
Ethan sat down opposite me, and the doors slid shut. Flashing my badge at the ticket lady had essentially let me hijack the train. It would drop whatever schedule it was on and take us straight to Mauldibamm. There, I could introduce Ethan to the council, let them gush over me in adoration, and then go home to put this nightmare behind me forever.
The floor vibrated a little beneath our feet as the train began to move, and Ethan whimpered a little. Whimpered! I couldn’t help but smirk at the way he stared out the window, utterly convinced that he was being eaten by some kind of giant metal caterpillar.
“Dude, chill,” I told him. “These things cut Corners like a bean addict cuts the cheese. The chances of anything attacking us here are practically nonexistent.”
While he continued to fidget, I leaned my head back against the seat and removed my N.O.S.E., sighing in relief when the red rubber ball popped off of my face. People said you couldn’t feel what they did to you, but I’d never believed it. Sure, it was the kind of thing you could forget you were wearing, like a pair of shoes, but taking it off at the end of a long day still felt—
“OH MY GOD!”
I was on my feet in an instant with Splatsy in my hand and adrenaline in my veins. Ethan had hopped right over the back of his seat and was peering over the top of it, terrified. I looked around, searching for whatever had scared him, but as far as I could tell we were still alone in the car. Maybe he’d seen something…
Why was he looking at me like that?
“You- You’re one of those things!” Ethan stammered, pointing a shaking finger at me.
I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window, and realization dawned on me. As soon as I’d removed my Nasally Operated Semblance Emitter (or N.O.S.E. for short) my human disguise had evaporated. My skin, which had been a healthy pinkish color a few seconds ago, was now as white as newly fallen snow. My long brown hair had turned a vibrant blue, a shade that was perfectly matched by my lips, the two vertical stripes that ran across my eyes, and the spiderweb-shaped scar on my forehead. Nothing else had changed — I was still the same awkward, lanky fifteen year old girl I’d been before — but I could tell just by looking that Ethan didn’t see it that way.
I held out my hand, and he fell over backwards to get farther away from me. “S- Stay away from me!”
I growled under my breath. Nice going, Henry, you cheeseburging idiot.
“Okay, look,” I said sitting back down, “I’m not a maiam. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“You saw that thing at your house!” I snapped impatiently. “If I was one of them, do you really think I would have gone to the trouble of putting you on a train if I just wanted to kill you?”
That seemed to get through to him, if only a little. Good. I needed him to feel safe around me. We didn’t have to be friends, but he at least had to be comfortable that I wouldn’t try to eat him the first time he turned his back. Otherwise I had no guarantee that he’d go along with my story once I got him in front of the council.
“What are you?” he asked in a hushed voice.
That was a fair question, I guess. This all might have been just another day at the office for me, but Ethan was probably wondering just how many drugs I’d slipped him. But, pickles on ice cream, where do I even start?
“You said it yourself,” I said after a moment’s thought, “I’m not human. I’m a klaon.”
I rolled my eyes. “No, a klaon.”
“That’s what I said.”
“You spelled it wrong,” I snapped. “Now shut up and let me—”
Before I could finish, I was jerked to the side as the IW came to a screeching halt. Blinking in surprise, I looked through the window to see the colorful lights of Mauldibamm twinkling outside.
“Huh,” I said. “Got here faster than I expected.”
The doors slid open, and another klaon stepped inside. Ethan immediately tensed, but luckily he didn’t try to run. The newcomer’s gaze swept right over him as if he weren’t there, and instead landed on me. I instinctively shrank back as his eyes narrowed. His face was as hard and sharp as jagged stone, ringed by a thin halo of dark green hair, and his eyes were like knives. Battle scars the same color as his hair crisscrossed his face, like a blind guy had tried to carve a tic-tac-toe board into him.
“Master,” I made myself say with a respectful nod of my head, “let me explain.”
“Is my watch broken?” he demanded. “I thought I told you to be here in fifteen minutes, and it’s been nearly forty!”
I cringed. “Sorry. We kind of ran into a—”
“And all this,” his eyes shot over to look at Ethan, “so you could introduce your new boyfriend to the council?”
I leaped to my feet, cheeks turning blue in embarrassment. “He’s not my—”
“I don’t give a damn who he is or why he’s here,” he cut me off. I flinched, half expecting a slap on the back of my head. “All I know is that I’m not sticking my neck out for you on this one. Whatever you’re trying to do, you’re on your own!”
Arguments immediately sprang to my tongue, but the dangerous look in his eyes made me swallow them.
He growled softly and turned on his heel. “Get him up to the Grand Lark. The council’s been waiting for you.”
With that he left, walking with a pronounced limp, and I let out the breath I’d been holding. That had gone well. Better than I’d had any right to hope for. On the other side of the car, Ethan gave me a wary look.
“Who was that?” he asked.
I sighed. “That was Wallace McGus, the council’s old Hunter, terror of Mauldibamm — and my teacher.”
Taking Ethan by the hand, I led him into the city. Even this late at night, Mauldibamm was wide awake. Strings of multicolored lights reached from building to building, blinking in mesmerizing patters over the streets. Lively music filled the air as every kind of street performer you could imagine played, danced, and juggled on the sidewalks for anyone to care to watch. Not for money — simply because they were klaons, and that was what klaons did. Despite my fatigue, I couldn’t help but want to join them.
The lights weren’t the only thing colorful out here, either. Klaons of every shape, size, and hair color packed the streets in mobs. Reds, Purples, Greens, and Blues, all together in one place, mingling together, chatting, shopping. I loved it. That wasn’t to say I didn’t like my real home, but there was something special about Mauldibamm. Being able to walk around without my N.O.S.E. on, not having to hide what I was, was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever felt.
Ethan, on the other hand, looked like he was about to have a heart attack.
“They’re everywhere!” he whispered.
I winced as his hand threatened to crush mine, his feet dangerously close to tripping me as he practically glued himself to my side. I guess I couldn’t really blame the poor guy for being so freaked out, but I’d already had a really crappy night. Having to drag him through town, flinching whenever somebody so much as looked at him, was wearing my nerves thin fast.
Finally, though, we hiked our way up to the Grand Lark.
Built on the top of a hill so tall that all of Mauldibamm was visible from it, the Grand Lark was painted with vibrant red and white stripes and topped with a conical roof that pointed to the heavens. If the city below was a circus, with its shimmering rainbow of colors, jaunty music, and echoing laughter, then the Grand Lark was the big top.
“Just how many of you…things…are there?” Ethan asked, looking across the city in flabbergastment.
That’s a word, right? I don’t care, I’m making it one.
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that,” I snapped. “Otherwise, I’d have to push you back down the hill.”
That managed to shut him up long enough for me to catch my breath. Dusting off my clothes as best I could, I turned to the two burly Purples who stood outside the Grand Lark’s entrance, eyeing us with blatant hostility.
“Ombo,” I greeted them with a smile. “Clombo. How are we this morning?”
Instead of answering, the two of them shared a look.
“Hey, Clombo,” said Ombo, “we makin’ the usual bet?”
“That she’s gonna get in trouble?” Clombo asked.
“Nah, that’s a given. How much trouble’s she gonna be in? That’s the question!”
My teeth clenched.
“Maybe they’ll paddle her,” Clombo suggested with a cruel grin.
“Send her to bed without supper!”
“Take away her…uh, what do kids play with these days?”
“Hilarious as always,” I snapped, reining in my anger. Getting into a fight here would ruin everything. “Now are you going to let me in? Or am I going to have to tell the council that I was late because their guards were too busy making bad jokes to do their jobs?”
They did as I said, stepping aside so that Ethan and I could go through the door, but the grins never left their faces. I purposefully bumped Ombo with my elbow as I passed, but that only made them laugh harder.
“Oh, Ombo,” Clombo continued to needle me when I was inside, “I think you done hurt her feelin’s!”
“Looks like she’s gonna cry,” Ombo agreed.
Tightening my grip on Splatsy, I dragged Ethan through the doors, their laughter ringing in my ears. Let them laugh. Once the council got a load of Ethan, their tunes would change. And not just Ombo and Clombo’s. Everybody’s. I could deal with their taunts and jabs for one more—
“Aw, we shouldn’t tease her like that, Clombo,” I heard Ombo say from outside. “After all, she’s only a Blue.”
I froze, my eye twitching, a strange mix of burning heat and freezing cold filling me like I just eaten a tube of IcyHot.
I spun, flinging Ethan aside. Splatsy was in my hands before I’d taken a step, fully extended to warhammer form and ready to make banana bread out of their brains. Only a Blue. Those words didn’t just sting, they burned. Ombo and Clombo were still snickering, not the least bit intimidated. They would be blue once I got done with them, and black and red and—
That voice sliced through my anger, and I stopped half a step from the grinning brothers. Shame doused my anger, and I cringed before turning. Theodore Mulch, representative for the Blues on the Council of Shnoob, stood there with his fists on his hips. The big blue paintmark that covered his mouth always made it look like he was frowning, but tonight it perfectly matched the look of disappointment in his eyes.
“What on earth are you doing?” he demanded, crossing the foyer on stumpy legs, cane gripped in one hand. “Waving your hammer around like a barbarian in the Grand Lark of all places! Have you gone mad?”
I looked down at Splatsy, still clutched in my hand, and shrank her down to ping pong paddle form again. Grandpa Teddy was a good six inches shorter than me — and I’m no giraffe myself — but when he looked at me that way he always seemed to loom taller than Ombo standing on Clombo’s shoulders.
“Sorry, Grandpa Teddy,” I muttered, hanging Splatsy from my belt.
“Sowwy, Gwampuh Teddy,” Clombo mimicked. Theodore gave him a look, and for half a second I thought he was going to snap at them too. That would have been a nice change of pace. But after a moment’s hesitation, he only shied away from the bigger, purple haired klaons. Ombo and Clombo laughed as he scurried over to help Ethan back to his feet. My cheeks burned blue again. Grandpa Teddy might have been a council member, but for all the respect anybody showed him he might as well have had a Kick Me sign taped to his face.
“Good heavens!” he exclaimed, eyes widening when he got a better look at me. “What on earth happened to you?”
Just like that, all the pain that I’d been ignoring came crashing back down on me. “Lousy hunt,” I said, wincing. “Ran out of laughter.”
“Honestly, granddaughter, sometimes I think you’re trying to give me a heart attack,” he said, running a hand through his thinning blue hair. He pulled another inhaler out of the inner pocket of his suit and handed it to me. “Here. The rest of the council is already waiting for you. Make yourself a little more presentable, and please try not to embarrass yourself. Okay?”
He turned and hobbled back through the door he’d come in from, cane tapping rhythmically against the marble floor. I sighed, anger, frustration, and guilt all dogpiling on one another for my attention. The inhaler helped a little. A few quick puffs, and energy surged through my veins, pushing back the pain as my wounds began to heal. But as tempted as I was to let it wash all my ouchies and booboos away, I quickly reined in my magic. Right now, I needed the energy more than the healing. Taking a deep breath, I followed Grandpa Teddy into the council chamber.
Somehow, I got the feeling that the hardest part of the night was still to come.