For the first time in my life, I prayed that I would die.
As the Hunter, death was like my cranky coworker. He was there on every mission, and he didn’t particularly care whose soul he walked away with — the maiam’s, or mine. I didn’t want to die, but I’d accepted the risks the day McGus first handed Splatsy to me. The way she’d felt in my twelve year old hand…the power that I had sensed inside her…nothing in the world had ever mattered more to me than claiming that power as my own.
But as the dimensions whirled around me, carrying me and my unwelcome brain-guest back to Mauldibamm, suddenly the only thing in the world I wanted was to drop dead. A heart attack would have been lovely, or a fast-acting incurable disease. Or maybe Legion could miscalculate with Escher Cube, warp us onto the New Jersey Turnpike, and we’d get creamed by a semi-truck. I didn’t care how it happened, I didn’t care how much it hurt, all that mattered was that Legion never get its hands on Ethan.
But the horrible reality of my situation refused to be ignored. Legion was on its way to Ethan right now. There was nothing I could do to stop it. And the worst part was that I was the one doing Legion’s dirty work. I tried not to imagine the look in Ethan’s eyes when I betrayed him like this.
The last row of cubes snapped into place, and McGus’ training room materialized around me. Aesop was absentmindedly kicking a mannequin’s head onto the pile, while Jade and Ethan scrubbed halfheartedly at the wall. I immediately tried to scream a warning to them. Maybe if I caught Legion by surprise, it wouldn’t be able to stop me.
No luck. My mouth stayed silent, but my eyes locked onto Ethan. Without a word, I crossed the room toward him. My heart began to beat harder, but I wasn’t sure if that was because of my fear or Legion’s excitement. Legion was practically burning with glee. Revenge was within its grasp. All it had to do was reach out and take it. So I did. I raised my hand, fingers itching with the need to wrap themselves around Ethan’s thick brown hair, and…
“Not even gonna say hello, girl?”
I froze, my hand a mere inch from Ethan’s head, and turned to see McGus watching me from his metal chair. His eyes, as sharp and keen as ever, seemed to pierce straight through me. For a second, I felt a twinge of hope that he actually could see Legion inside of me somehow. If anyone could stop the psycho in my skull, it was him. Even Legion felt a twinge of concern when it saw the look McGus was giving me.
“Thirty minutes to kill one maiam?” the old Green said without standing up. “You’re getting sloppy.”
“Sorry,” Legion said. Hearing him speak with my voice would have sent shivers down my spine if I’d been able to move at all. “I rushed in without thinking and was caught off guard.”
McGus raised his eyebrows in surprise. When was the last time I’d apologized to him so willingly? Maybe that would be what tipped him off. But even if he figured out that something was wrong, would he immediately jump to the conclusion that I was being possessed by an evil interdimensional Brainkenstein monster?
“Uh, hey there, Henry,” Ethan said in confusion. He’d finally turned around to see my hand hovering half an inch from his face. “You, uh, feeling okay?”
“Yes,” I said, my calm voice the exact opposite of the panicked screams that were echoing in my head.
ETHAN, RUN! THAT’S NOT ME! IT ISN’T ME!
I threw myself against Legion as hard as I could, but it was like being crammed in a phone booth with Ichabod — absolutely no room to move, and so hopelessly outmuscled that I couldn’t even squirm.
Jade stepped up beside Ethan, looking at me with her head cocked. “Are you sure you’re okay? You’re acting kind of weird.”
THAT’S BECAUSE I’M NOT ME, DANGIT!
“Henry? Weird?” Aesop quipped, coming to stand on Ethan’s other side. “You realize that’s her factory setting, right?”
Oh my God, Aesop, if you don’t shut up, I’m going to shove every gold coin you own up your—
“Yeah,” Jade agreed, “but right now she looks like she wants to rip Ethan’s nose off his face.”
I looked from her to Aesop, with McGus’ eyes still burning a hole in the back of my skull, and lowered my hand. Inside my head, I breathed an imaginary sigh of relief. Legion didn’t want a fight. It could easily take out my friends, maybe even McGus, but in doing so it would give itself away. Better to grab Ethan and escape without causing a scene.
“Henry, can you stop giving me that blank stare?” Ethan complained. “You’re creeping me out.”
“Come on,” I said, turning to face the door, “let’s go home.”
“Home?” Ethan echoed. “What about lunch?”
Aesop moved in front of me, arms folded. “Yeah, what gives? You can’t just bail on us like that!”
“You’re the one who’s been going on about how great this place is,” Jade agreed. “We had to make these reservations more than a month in advance!”
Legion eyed my friends, weighing the pros and cons of tearing their heads off.
Leave them alone, I begged. They have nothing to do with this!
To my surprise, Legion actually seemed to listen.
“I don’t feel good,” it made me say. “I think I might be sick.”
Jade and Aesop shared a look. “What’s—”
“I need to go home. And that means I have to bring Ethan with me.”
I reached back and grabbed Ethan by the arm, my grip so tight that he winced a little, and began to tow him toward the door.
No, you idiots! I screamed inside my head. Don’t just stand there! Stop me!
“Okay, I guess,” Jade said reluctantly. “Hope you feel better, Henry. And Ethan…” She paused and cleared her throat. “Call me tonight, okay?”
I passed the pile of broken mannequins, with nothing between me and the exit.
“This is bull,” Aesop complained. “They’re still gonna charge us for four people, Henry!”
Please, please, please, I prayed to whatever was listening, don’t let this happen!
I could hear Legion thinking. Once we were out of McGus’ house, it would pull Ethan into an alleyway, whip out the Cube, and warp us both back to its lair. There I would put another amulet on Ethan, adding him to Legion’s collection of puppets.
Ethan, with his hand still in my grasp, leaned forward to whisper to me, “Henry, what’s wrong? Something happened out there, didn’t it? Tell me what’s going on!”
Legion looked at him from the corner of my eye. “I’ll tell you when we get outside.”
He nodded, the trust in his eyes breaking my heart.
We reached the door — and McGus slammed it shut in front of me. Legion froze, one hand moving toward Splatsy, but thankfully not drawing her. Or maybe not so thankfully, since that would have been a major tip off.
The old Green towered over me, a scowl on his scarred face. “You’re forgetting something.”
I blinked. “What am I forgetting?”
“My Cube, girl.” He pointed at the box-shaped lump in my pocket. “Did you really think I was gonna let you walk out of here with that?”
That made Legion pause. The Escher Cube was its ticket to a quick escape. Without that, it would have to find an IW that ran all the way back to its lair without raising any suspicion from Ethan.
Come on, I urged it. Take a swing at him!
Instead, Legion made me reach down, pull out the Cube, and hold it out for him. McGus snatched it out of my hand. “Good. Now finish cleaning this place up!”
Legion clenched my fist in frustration and glanced back at the mess Ethan had made. Only half the scorch mark had been scrubbed off, and tons of mannequin pieces still littered the floor.
“I’m sick,” I said again. “I need to go home.”
McGus leaned in so that we were eye to eye and whispered, “The Hunter doesn’t take days off because her tummy hurts. I know you lazy Blues are always trying to get out of work, but as long as you’re my apprentice you’ll do what I say!”
If I’d had a jaw right then, it would have hit the floor with a funny cash register sound.
What…the toothpaste flavored birthday cake…did you just say to me, old man?
Legion contemplated the situation. No Cube, no quick escape. It sighed in frustration — a sound that almost perfectly matched my own — and turned to regard the mess. Twenty minutes to clean up, tops, and then—
Ethan’s eyes widened half a second before one of McGus’ hammers slammed into the back of my head.
Pain flashed through my skull, and the force of the blow sent me flying back into the center of the training room. I hit the ground and rolled to a stop.
“What are you doing?” Ethan’s voice cut through the ringing in my head.
Mother…refrigerating…ouch. Over the past three years of training with McGus, he’d never once hit me like that. Grouchy as he could be, he hadn’t wanted to actually hurt me. I should have been happy. A hit like that told me he meant business. But still…owww!
My eyes opened. Ignoring the pain and the nauseating way my head was spinning, I picked myself up off the floor. My skull had just been cracked like an egg, my brain had been rattled like a peanut in its shell. Not Legion’s. It didn’t matter how much abuse I took, Legion wouldn’t feel any of it.
McGus stood on the other side of the room, a dab of blue blood on the tip of his hammer. Ethan made to run to me, but McGus thrust his arm out to stop him. Aesop and Jade stood in the corner with horrified looks on their faces, too stunned to move.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” McGus said, making his way toward me, “but there are two things I do know.”
Legion pulled Splatsy from my belt, extending her to full size.
“One is that my apprentice would never apologize to me for anything.”
He drew his second hammer, twirling them like pistols in a corny western.
“And the other,” he narrowed his eyes, “is that Henry Rider would die before letting me insult her color.”
Everything went silent. McGus and I faced off against each other, one Hunter vs another, while Aesop and Jade scurried over to the door where Ethan still stood.
“Who are you?” McGus finally asked. “And what have you done with Henry?”
Slowly, a grin spread across my face. “Henry Rider is right here in front of you. But we’re afraid she can’t come to the phone right now.”
Don’t worry about me! I tried to yell. Kick his…my…just kick our butts!
“We’ve already explained the situation to Henry Rider,” I said. “She was gracious enough to lend us her body. But we’re afraid we don’t have time to go over it again.”
McGus’ grip tightened around his hammers. “Let…my apprentice…go!”
Legion paused. “Is she really that important to you?”
McGus gave a curt nod.
“Then we propose a trade.” My eyes slid to where Ethan was standing. “Henry Rider in exchange for—”
McGus must have thought Legion was distracted, because he threw himself at me with anger blazing in his eyes. Both of his hammers hurtled toward me almost faster than my eye could see. For a split second, I thought I was going to die. But then I dodged, weaving between his attacks like a lightspeed ballerina. It happened so quick my brain wasn’t even able to process what had happened.
But Legion could. Legion was twelve brains in one. It could think at speeds that made supercomputers look slow.
“Get Ethan to the Grand Lark!” McGus roared without taking his eyes off me. “Tell them what’s happening!”
Legion watched with a smirk as my friends flung open the door, escaping into Mauldibamm.
“That,” I said, “was a wasted effort. We’ll find him eventually. You can’t stop us.”
“Just tell me one thing. Henry,” McGus looked into my eyes, “can she hear me?”
Legion hesitated, then nodded. More emotion than I’d ever seen welled up in the old Green’s eyes.
“I can’t let Ethan’s power fall into the wrong hands,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”
If I could have gasped, I would have. Did…Did that mean he was going to…