“YOU’RE OUT OF YOUR MIND!”
Those were the first words I heard when I rose out of my comfy, cozy coma. I’d been dreaming about being appointed chief sour cream taster in Tacoland. I sighed in disappointment. Did I have to come back to reality now?
“I did what I had to do,” said a softer voice. Was that Jade? “I don’t regret it.”
“But after everything you’ve been through,” whined the other voice. That one was Aesop. “You’re just going to throw it all away? For him?”
“Hey!” said an offended, and very Ethan-ish, sounding voice.
“It doesn’t matter what you think, Aesop,” Jade snapped. “It’s done.”
“Yeah, well, congratulations. You’re a slave again. I hope you’re happy!”
I winced, but kept my eyes closed. I understood why Aesop was so upset…assuming that what I remembered had really happened…but that was taking things too far. Nobody said anything for a long time.
Was that a heart monitor? Was I in the hospital? That would explain why the sheets were so uncomfortable. Like someone had combined cotton and sandpaper into an unholy abomination and then expected me to sleep on it. I wasn’t in any pain, though, which was a first. Usually when I woke up here, I had a broken leg, or a cracked skull.
“So, explain this all to me again,” Ethan finally said. “You’re a genie?”
“Yes,” Jade answered softly. “I’m…a living conduit, I guess you could say. This body I’m using now? It’s not me. It’s just something I made to give myself physical form. The gem on that necklace is the real me. It’s connected to the mana dimension the same way that your spellhammer is, Ethan. Except that I’m, you know, alive.”
“How?” Ethan asked.
“Nobody knows. It’s just something that happens now and then. I don’t even know where I came from. The first thing I remember is waking up thirty million years ago—”
“You’re how old?” Ethan exclaimed.
That almost made me laugh, but I held it in. This was a conversation the two of them needed to have alone.
“Thirty million, give or take a few thousand,” Jade answered.
“Wow,” Ethan said flatly. “You don’t look a day over twenty million.”
“I don’t age like people do. I don’t age at all, in fact. I can form my body however I want in order to blend into my environment. I’ve been so many people it’s hard to keep track of them all.”
Something clinked. “So, when you gave me this necklace…”
“I gave you myself. Literally. That stone is what’s called my core. Everything that I am is there in your hand.”
“I know, right?”
“What does that mean, though? Do I get, like, three wishes?”
Jade sighed. “Two now, actually. You used your first one when you asked me to stop Henry.”
“Oh.” Ethan swallowed. “Right. So, I make two more wishes, and then what?”
“And then I disappear,” Jade whispered, “and you never see me again. That’s the law.”
“Law? What law?”
“The Law of the Djinn. It’s an unbreakable spell that gets put on our cores as soon as we’re discovered. It keeps us from using our magic for ourselves, except to make physical forms like this. The only way we can use our magic is to grant wishes for the people who hold our cores. And once those wishes are granted, our core gets whisked away to some random place in some random dimension, and we stay there until somebody else finds us.”
“Because we’re too dangerous to be given freedom. Too powerful.” Jade’s voice grew softer with each word. “I’m living proof of that.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a long story. I’d need a week to tell you the whole thing. But it ends with my core somehow winding up in Aesop’s shop eleven years ago. His dad found out what I was, and he felt sorry for me. I’m…I’m not sure what he did, but he managed to unravel part of the spell. He made it so that I could make myself a body without needing a master. As long as nobody else touched my core, I was free. Or at least that’s what we thought.”
“Then why did you give it to me?” Ethan demanded. “I don’t want—”
“It’s better this way, Ethan,” Jade said. “It turns out, there’s no such thing as a free genie. Mr. O’Gale couldn’t break the Djinn’s Law spell completely. It was still there, trying to work around the hole Mr. O’Gale had cut through it. It didn’t know what to do, all it knew was that a genie must have a master. So in the end it decided that until somebody claimed my core, everyone would be my master.”
Ethan didn’t say anything.
“I tried so hard to live a normal life,” she went on. “It was all I’d ever wanted, and I thought that made the danger worth it. But every time somebody said the words I wish where I could hear them, well…”
“You had to obey,” Ethan whispered.
“The magic would burst out of me before I could stop it. I would grant their wishes, but I couldn’t control how. Bad things would happen. People would get hurt. Remember what happened at Wombo World? That was me.”
“So, it’s good that you’re my master now!” she insisted. She tried to make herself sound happy about it, but I knew her well enough to hear the pain deep inside her. “I won’t have to grant anybody’s wishes but yours, and you get two more wishes! You can ask for anything you want, Ethan! Isn’t that great?”
“But I…I don’t want to be your master!” Ethan protested. “Don’t you see how horrible that sounds? It’s like I own you!”
“I’m a genie, Ethan. That’s how—”
“I want you to be my friend, Jade! Not my slave!”
The two of them were quiet for a minute.
“Well,” Jade finally said, “nothing says you have to make your wishes right now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that you can just hang onto me for now. My core is bound to you until you make all three wishes anyway. So, we could just…you know…keep going like we have been?”
I smiled. This was good. What she’d done had bothered me at first, just like it bothered Aesop, but now I was coming to realize that she’d made the right—
“Wait a second,” Aesop exclaimed. “Henry’s smiling! You absolute turd, how long have you been awake?”
I finally opened my eyes and found myself in a room that was eerily similar to the one I’d seen in Feverdream Field. I immediately knew this one was real, though, because I was surrounded by my friends and family. Jade and Aesop stood on the right side of my bed, and Ethan stood on the left. Grandpa Teddy immediately sprang to his feet and hobbled over to me.
“Hey, guys,” I said, throat dry. “How long have I been out?”
“A little more than a day,” Teddy said, taking my hand. “How do you feel?”
“Considering I just got stabbed, pretty good.”
He squeezed my hand, his smile not reaching his eyes. I looked at Ethan, hoping for another laugh, but wasn’t too disappointed when I didn’t get one. What I did see was…well, I didn’t really see anything. But I sensed it. It was faint, like trying to watch cartoons on a TV that was more than half static, but it was there. I could sense myself. Jade. And him, too. All three of us together. Backfire defeating a giant snailtopus by playing a death ray tuba. I even caught a brief glimpse of Aesop stumbling around Feverdream Field.
“Ach, lassie, ye gave us quite a fright, there!” the real Aesop said, leaning toward me.
“Your wounds all went away,” Jade agreed. “But you still went into a coma. We weren’t sure if you were going to wake up or not.”
My smile faded as I remembered more about what happened.
“And Legion,” I said quietly. “Is he…”
“Destroyed,” Grandpa Teddy said sternly, his eyes turning cold. “And good riddance!”
A chill went down my spine. He was wrong. I couldn’t bring myself to say so, but I knew it was true. I may have destroyed the body, maybe even the amulet that Legion was using to control it. But there were more bodies. More amulets.
And they would be back.
But that was a problem for another day. Against all odds, Ethan was safe, I was alive, and Mauldibamm wasn’t a smoldering pile of ash. What followed was one of the happiest days of my life. Everyone stayed with me all day long, talking, telling jokes, and laughing. Mom and Dad showed up a couple hours later with pizza and wings, which was infinitely better than the crappy hospital food. They told me that McGus was somewhere on the floor above me. He would live, but nobody knew how much he would heal after the thrashing Legion had given him.
The doctors wanted me to stay for another couple days, just to make sure there were no lasting side effects from what I’d gone through. For once, I wasn’t in any hurry to leave. This could be like a little vacation. Lying in bed for a few days, eating ice cream and watching TV while people waited on me hand and foot? I’d just saved the whole freaking city. I think I deserved a little pampering, don’t you?
Finally, long after the sun had set, Mom, Dad, and Grandpa Teddy left. Jade, Aesop, and Ethan stayed behind, promising to take an IW home before much longer. For another hour or so, we just gabbed. Gab. Do people still use that word? Either way, yeah, we gabbed. But then I heard a sound that soured my good mood like milk on a hot summer day.
“What is this?” a loud, angry, and familiar voice ranted from further down the hallway. “Cookies and cream? I specifically demanded cookie dough! If you don’t have it here in five minutes, I’ll have you fired!”
A frightened klaon nurse went rushing down the hallway, a heaping bowl of uneaten ice cream in her hands. I narrowed my eyes and, after thinking for a second, got out of bed.
“Henry!” Jade exclaimed. “You’re not supposed to—”
“Come with me,” I said.
They didn’t argue, following quietly as I walked down the hallway. Sure enough, just a few doors down, I found Ichabod Hench lying in bed with an ugly red bump on his forehead.
He sneered when he saw me. “Well, well, well. Look who it is!”
“That knot on your head suits you,” I said. “I can make it permanent if you want.”
He scowled. “What do you want, Henrietta? You’re lucky I don’t press charges for assaulting me like—”
He froze, eyes widening. “I beg your pardon?”
“Guys, close the door,” I said.
Ethan pulled the door shut, and then joined me with Jade and Aesop by my side. Once I was sure there was nobody around the eavesdrop on us, I stepped up to the foot of his bed.
“The lab,” I said in a harsh whisper. “The machine. I know you made them.”
Ichabod’s eyes were as cold as ice. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t play stupid!” I spat. “You’ve been trying to figure out how my grandpa collects laughter for his inhalers so you could take over his business. Your laughter always came out stale. And then one of your experiments backfired in your face, didn’t it?”
Ichabod’s face was reddening.
“Henry,” Ethan muttered under his breath, “maybe don’t yell at the guy who can have us all thrown in jail?”
I ignored him. “That’s what the machine was for, wasn’t it? You’ve been kidnapping humans and using mind control magic to force them to laugh. But there was never any joy in that laughter, and that made it poisonous. Like it’d been sucked it out of them by a maiam — because that’s exactly what you were doing! But then your amulets malfunctioned, creating Legion. They escaped, and you thought the experiment was a failure. You had no idea that they would come back to bite you in the butt!”
My voice was getting louder, but I didn’t care. I was angry. Everything Ethan and I had gone through over the past few weeks was because of him. As if I needed another reason to hate this fat, ugly, arrogant Red!
“You’re a monster and a murderer!” I accused him. “I always knew you were a pig, but even I never would have thought you’d go this far just to make a quick buck. I’m going to make sure everybody hears about this. Everybody! You’ll be kicked off the council, sent to prison for the—”
“I don’t suppose,” he interrupted me, “that you have any proof?”
My mouth snapped shut.
“I didn’t think so,” he said in a dry voice. “Henrietta, these are some very serious accusations you’re making. Unless you’re able to prove them, I recommend you keep them to yourself.”
I scowled at him. “Yeah, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
With disdain in his eyes, he took the remote that controlled his bed, and adjusted it so that he was sitting up. The sight made me sick. Even when he’d been found out, he obviously thought he was the one in control.
“You don’t seem to understand the position you’re in,” he said. “Barely a day has passed since you went on a rampage through Mauldibamm. You nearly killed your mentor, assaulted the Council of Shnoob, and all but destroyed the Grand Lark!”
My cheeks burned blue. “Don’t try to make this about me!”
“Oh, but it is about you, Henrietta. You might have saved your friend, but these were all problems caused by you. How popular do you think you are with the council right now? Or with the klaon population as a whole?”
“Henry didn’t do anything!” Ethan said. “She—”
“You should learn not to speak unless spoken to, boy!” Ichabod snapped. “The fact remains that none of this would have happened if not for her.”
My heart slowly sank into my stomach. Frito chili pie, he was right…
He leaned toward me, a dangerous glint in his eyes. “Imagine what people would think if you began saying these horrible things about a council member. Things you have no way to prove. How much patience do you imagine we have left for you, Henrietta?”
I didn’t answer.
“Exactly. Now do the smart thing. Turn around, go back to your room, and keep your mouth shut. You might just make it out of this with your job if you do.”
My hand itched to draw Splatsy, but I wasn’t wearing her. Good thing, too, because I’m not sure what I would have done. Kill Ichabod? Part of me thought it’d be worth it. Without Ichabod and his greed, no more of those machines would get built. I’d go to jail, yes, but I’d have the satisfaction of knowing I’d done something good for the entire world. Would that be enough?
“Henry,” Ethan said, putting a hand on my shoulder, “let’s just go.”
No. No it would not be enough. Not so long as it meant losing friends like Ethan, Jade, and Aesop.
I gave Ichabod my darkest glare. “I’m going to find evidence. And when I do, I’m taking you down!”
He smirked at me. “Good luck with that.”
Fuming, I turned on my heel and marched back to my room, my friends following. I collapsed back on my bed, exhausted through and through.
“That,” Aesop said, “was either the bravest thing I’ve ever seen, or the stupidest.”
“Why not both?” Jade asked.
I closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have dragged you guys into this.”
“Don’t be.” Aesop plopped back into the chair Grandpa Teddy had been using. “Everything you said makes sense.”
“And if he’s the one who made that machine,” Jade agreed, “then sitting back and not doing anything would make us just as bad as he is.”
“We’re with you, Henry,” said Ethan. “All the way. Just tell us how we can help.”
I opened my eyes, looking at him, and something stirred inside me. When he stood like that, with the lighting just right and that determined expression on his face, he almost looked…
Kind of handsome.
“Of course,” Aesop butted in, “we still have to discuss our fee.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Your fee?”
“Well, sure. If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
“The only thing you’re good at,” Jade said, rolling her eyes, “is getting on our nerves.”
“A skill that I have spent years honing!” he insisted. “Can you think of anybody in the world who does it better than me?”
“Fine, fine,” I said with a smile. “What’s your fee, oh great and mighty irritator?”
He thought for a second. “Movie night. Next week. My place. You buy the food.”
My smile spread into a grin. The world had become a darker, more dangerous place almost overnight, and things were only going to get harder from here. But with friends like these, I knew I could push through it. I could rely on them, and I would make sure they could rely on me too. Because no matter what Ichabod and the rest of the council thinks, I’m not just some weak little girl with blue hair.
I’m Henry freaking Rider.
And I’m the Hunter.
TO BE CONTINUED