I fell to my knees, eyes open wide as pain exploded in my chest.
“HENRY!” someone yelled, but I’m not sure who.
There was a gruesome crack, and Aesop was thrown to the ground beside me, a trail of blood leaking from the side of his head. Still not fully comprehending what was happening, I turned to see Ethan backing away with a look of terror on his face. Another figure followed him.
One wearing dark blue coveralls, and a grinning rubber mask.
“Henry, no!” Grandpa Teddy shouted, ignoring Ethan as he hobbled frantically toward me. Legion moved to block his path.
“That,” he said pointing at Teddy’s hand, “belongs to us.”
Grandpa Teddy stopped in his tracks, a mixture of fear and rage in his eyes. “Get out of my way, monster, or I’ll—”
A single cloud of gray smoke wafted from the mask, and hit my grandpa square in the face. He froze with a stunned look on his face, and then his hand went to his throat. He tried to breathe, but could only cough. Alarm replaced his anger, and he took a step back, eyes widening as his white skin began to turn a dull, ashen gray.
“G…Gr…and…pa,” I croaked, feeling my strength seeping out of me. Blood poured down my back. I tried to stand again, but my legs gave out beneath me and I landed face down on the floor.
Grandpa Teddy went down on one knee as well, the blue of his hair and paintmarks already darkening to black. I put my hand over my pocket, feeling the lump my inhaler made inside it. Laughter. Good, pure laughter. It had worked as a cure when Legion had poisoned me. I had to get to Grandpa Teddy…use the inhaler…save him. But as I did my best to drag myself across the council chamber, I realized something else.
I was dying too.
“Thank you,” Legion said, plucking the amulet out of my grandpa’s hand just as he collapsed to the floor. “And now…”
The masked villain turned toward Ethan.
“No,” I whispered, unable to raise my voice higher than that.
Ethan looked toward the door. Nothing stood between him and it.
Run, Ethan! I thought desperately. Escape!
But he didn’t. Clenching his fists, he turned toward Legion and planted his feet in grim determination.
“You’re not going to run?” Legion asked.
“What would be the point? You’ll just keep chasing me, won’t you?”
“And anyone who’s around me is just going to get hurt too.”
Ethan glared at him. “Then let’s get this over with now, so I can kick your butt and help my friends!”
Even with a knife stuck in it, my heart fluttered when I heard those words. Ethan…he had changed so much from the grumpy, self-centered little jerk I’d met less than a month ago.
“An admirable choice,” Legion said, making his way over. “Yet pointless.”
He moved faster than Ethan ever could have reacted, ramming his knee into the poor kid’s stomach. Ethan’s mouth opened like a fish gasping for air, and he fell to his knees with a wheezing groan.
“We are not a man,” said Legion. “We have become so much more than that.”
He reached down and grabbed Ethan by the throat, lifting him off the ground with one hand.
“Ethan!” I tried to scream.
“We are a force of nature. Of vengeance.”
With his other hand, he raised the amulet.
No. No, it couldn’t end like this! Not after everything we’d all been through together. At first this had been nothing but a way for me to score points with the council, but it’d become so much more to me. Ethan had become so much more to me. He was my friend, and I was his. I couldn’t just lay here and let Legion win. There had to be something I could do. Some way I could fight back!
“We are justice!”
I reached out, digging my nails into the marble floor, and dragged myself an inch closer to them.
“We are Legion!”
I reached out again, and this time I touched something. My hand wrapped around it, pulling it to me. Was that…Yes, it was! Summoning what little strength I had, I forced myself to my knees. Agony tore through my chest, but I ignored it. In just a few seconds, it wouldn’t matter. Nothing would matter except knowing Ethan was safe.
“And now, Ethan Griggs,” Legion said, “so are y—”
Legion dropped Ethan and spun to face me. “How are you not dead?”
“I’m Henry freaking Rider,” I answered. “I’m too stupid to die!”
And with that, I channeled all my remaining magic…every last drop of it…into Ethan’s spellhammer. It lit up with a brighter blue light than I had ever seen before. Legion stumbled back, shielding his eyes, while Ethan scrambled to get out of the way. Legion’s surprise only lasted for a second, and then he came for me, hand outstretched.
I closed my eyes, whispered a final goodbye, and released the magic.
Light as bright as a thousand suns pierced my eyelids. The ground shook beneath me like a living thing. My eardrums fought not to implode under an explosion so loud that I felt more than heard it. Heat washed over me, drying my skin and chapping my lips in less than a second.
My eyelids felt like they each weighed a ton, but I forced them open. What I saw baffled me for a few seconds. Hadn’t I just been inside? Because all I could see in front of me was blue sky and white clouds. I tilted my head back, and realized I was still in the Grand Lark.
I had just blown the other half to kingdom come.
Ethan lay on his back, right at the destruction’s edge, panting for breath. Jade’s necklace hung from his hand. Aesop was behind me, still unconscious. Grandpa Teddy was alive, but just barely. I gave him a minute, if that, before the poisonous laughter did its job.
A puddle of melted, colorful rubber was all that remained of Legion.
I sighed with relief and let the spellhammer tumble from my numb fingers, clinking against the soot-stained marble floor. It was all I could do to stay on my knees. If I thought I’d been tired before…this was something else entirely. An exhaustion that didn’t just affect my body, but crept down into my very soul. It smothered my thoughts and feelings, tried to pull me down into a darkness deeper than any sleep.
And I wanted to go. I would go. But first I had to finish the job.
Lurching forward, I was just barely able to flop down beside Grandpa Teddy. My head was spinning, making it almost impossible to concentrate, but I managed to dig the inhaler out of my pocket. My hand had turned as gray as a maiam’s. The hair that hung in front of my eyes was a lifeless black.
I looked at the inhaler, full of delicious, invigorating laughter. But not enough. I’d known that the minute I’d picked up the spellhammer. It would take a thousand inhalers to heal the wound Legion had given me. No point in wasting it when there was someone it could still save.
“H- Henry?” I heard Ethan ask. His voice sounded like it was miles away.
With shaking hands, I brought the inhaler to Grandpa Teddy’s mouth and pushed down. Good laughter flooded into him, chasing away the bad laughter, and he finally sucked down a breath.
Footsteps. “Henry, are you okay?”
Grandpa Teddy’s eyes flickered open, and I smiled, letting my hand fall to the floor. He was going to be fine. They would all be fine. And it was because of me. The thought was enough to make my chest swell with pride, even as I inched closer to death.
Suddenly Ethan was there, grabbing me by the shoulders and holding me up. At least I think it was him. My eyes weren’t focusing the way they should have.
“Oh…Oh no, Henry!” he sobbed, seeing the damage that had been done.
“It’s okay,” I whispered, smiling up at him.
“I can…I can fix this.” He grabbed the inhaler and thrust it into my mouth, but nothing came out. I’d given it all to Grandpa Teddy. “No, no, no!”
“I don’t mind,” I told him. “So long as you’re safe.”
A drop of water landed on my face, and then another. They were Ethan’s tears, I realized.
“Well, I do mind!” he yelled. “I don’t want you to die, Henry!”
“Too bad, so…sad…” It was getting harder to move my mouth. “Promise me…some…thing.”
“That you’ll…find a…reason…to laugh.” I looked him in the eye. He had such pretty brown eyes. “Promise me!”
The room began to grow darker. All I wanted was to sleep. Forever…and ever…and…
“After Mom and Dad died,” Ethan said, “I didn’t think I’d ever be happy again. That I didn’t deserve to be happy. But you showed me that I was wrong, Henry. There are still things in this world worth smiling for. That life is worth living. I can’t thank you enough for that. I’d have spent the rest of my life wallowing in misery if it weren’t for you.”
He pulled me closer, and my delirious brain wondered if he was about to kiss me. Somehow, I don’t think I would have minded…
“And if you think I’m going to let you die now…”
His voice was getting farther and farther away with every word.
“…then that’s the funniest joke you’ve ever told!”
He scrunched up his face, straining so hard that I could see the veins crisscrossing his face. He gritted his teeth, took a deep breath, and forced out one single word.
His laughter slammed into me. It felt like being run over by a thunderstorm. All that power, concentrated solely on me. Like I was being crushed by an avalanche made of lightning and fire. It gushed into my mouth, but didn’t stop there. I could feel it pushing its way through my skin, directly into my heart. My entire body lit up with energy. More than I ever imagined could exist. And it just…kept…coming!
Life flooded into every inch of my body, yanking be back from the darkness of death, and I gasped for air. My skin began to brighten to its healthy snow-white shade. A tingle ran through my hair as it turned blue again. Never in my life had I thought I’d be so happy to see the color blue!
The knife wound pulsed and ached, spilling fresh blue blood with every beat of my heart, but it was fading. Bit by bit, until I knew without having to look that the wound was gone, as if it had never been there at all.
And then something else happened. Something I wouldn’t have expected in a hundred million years: my forehead began to tingle. I gasped softly, my hand reaching up to feel it. The tingling spread from the very center of my skull, and slowly worked its way outwards, until…
I looked at Ethan, my eyes widening, not daring to believe it. This was a dream. A wonderful dream that would ruin my whole freaking day when I woke up from it.
“Henry?” Ethan asked, his eyes shimmering with hope. “Are…Are you…”
And then I saw it. Just vaguely, so vague that I almost thought I’d imagined it. But no, it was there. An image of Ethan, an exact duplicate of the one who knelt in front of me. Jade stood on his right, holding his hand. And I was on his left, holding the other. Ethan stood there in the center, grinning like a mad fool.
I threw my arms around Ethan, hugging him as tightly as I could. “Thank you, Ethan! Thank you!”
And then I passed out.