Reality snapped back into focus, leaving me in McGus’ training room.
“Holy jalapenos,” I whispered, a small cloud of smoke puffing out of my mouth, “I’m alive.”
“Of course you are. You’re too stupid to die.”
I turned to see McGus standing at the edge of the room, arms folded and mouth slicing a bitter frown in his face. Nothing out of the usual there. I glanced down at myself. Soot and dried mud cracked every time I moved, and a few trails of smoke rose from my blue hair.
“Just another day at the office,” I croaked, holding up the Escher Cube for him to see.
McGus just grunted, stubbornly refusing to be impressed. “Where was it?”
“Mexico. It appeared in the middle of a desert gnome colony last night, and they decided to worship it as their new god. When I showed up and tried to take it…”
Lightning. Tornadoes. Fire falling from the heavens. At least one giant man-eating duck.
“…they didn’t react well.”
That got a rare smirk out of him, which would have been encouraging if he hadn’t been laughing at me. I held out the Cube, waiting for him to take it. I’d catch an IW back to my own dimension and then walk home. With any luck, I’d be back in time to watch my Sunday morning cartoons before someone else laid claim to the TV. But instead of taking the Cube, McGus looked around and then raised his eyebrow at me.
“What?” I asked.
“Where’s the kid?”
“Huh?” I cocked my head. “Ethan? He’s at my place. Where else would he be?”
The old Green’s expression darkened. “Damn it, Henry. Are you trying to get the council to fire you?”
I jumped. “Fire me? What for?”
“For breaking the promise you made less than eight hours ago!” McGus turned acidic green eyes on me. “Do you think this is a joke?”
“I…But…” My hands waved meaningless gestures in the air. “You wanted me to bring him?”
“It doesn’t matter what I want. What matters is what you said last night.”
“It was dangerous out there!” I yelled, pointing at my face. “If this happened to me, how many pieces do you think Ethan would be in right now?”
“Until he learns to laugh again, he can stay with me.” McGus quoted. “I’ll be near him all the time to protect him from maiams.”
I held up a finger. “Okay, but hear me out: I was also told not to let a maiam get him.”
“That’s true,” McGus admitted.
“So, bringing him to the maiams is probably the last thing I’d want to do, right?”
“I didn’t make the terms for your agreement, Henry. You did. And if you want to stay the Hunter, you’ll have to abide by them.”
“He’s fine,” I insisted. “I left him with my parents.”
“And did your parents become maiam hunters while I was asleep?”
I groaned loudly, dragging my fingers down my face. Why did old people have to be so freaking critical of everything?
“What you said last night is true,” McGus said, leaning forward to tower over me. “Every maiam in the country is going to be drawn to the laughter inside him. That means that the most danger he’s ever going to be in is when the Hunter isn’t by his side.”
I shut my mouth. The old fart had a point. Not that I planned on telling him that, but still…
“I won’t tell the council that you left him behind today,” he said, turning to leave. “But only this once. Understand?”
I sighed. “Yes, Master.”
“Good.” He turned to limp away — a result of the injury that had convinced him to retire and take on an apprentice three years ago.
“Wait!” I held out the Cube. “What about—”
“Keep it for now.” Without turning around, he flicked an envelope over his shoulder. It glided across the room, and I snatched it out of the air. “You’ve got another one.”
My fingers tightened, crinkling the paper. “Already?”
McGus paused at the doorway and nodded, still not looking at me. My heart sank into my stomach. Two maiams in one weekend. I’d be lucky if I had any time to watch cartoons today.
“Take care of it,” the old Green said, “and bring the Cube back after school tomorrow.”
“Snickerdoodles!” I spat.
“And curse like an adult, damn it!”
I grabbed the Cube in both hands, twisting the top row of smaller cubes to the right. Reality shifted around me again, as if I were inside a giant glass box that mimicked everything I did to the Escher Cube. McGus’ head slid smoothly off his neck as the top part of the larger cube rotated around me until he was glaring at my back. I kept twisting the stone Cube, breaking the world into smaller and smaller pieces, until…
I stopped, and the living room of my house snapped into focus.
“Is that you, Henry?” Mom shouted from the kitchen. “Breakfast is ready!”
The sweet smell of her chocolate chip pancakes attacked my nose, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten anything since before the hunt last night. I didn’t answer her, though, instead setting down the Cube and looking at the envelope McGus had given me.
To They Who Bear the Title of Hunter was written in swirly black ink.
Sighing, I tore it open.
Name: Harriet Evinrude, it read. Age: forty seven. Color: Green. Believed to be hiding in an old entertainment center in Benton Vista, Arkansas.
That was it. All the information I was ever given before going on a hunt. Grumbling, I wadded the letter up into a ball and chucked it across the room, where it bounced off the TV. It was dark, but the remote sat tantalizingly close on the coffee table next to the Escher Cube. It was Sunday, and I’d already spent Saturday fighting maiams and dragging Ethan around. Didn’t I deserve to sit down, shovel some of Mom’s pancakes into my dang face, and rot my brain with mindless cartoons? It wasn’t like the world would end if I waited one day to go kill that maiam, would it?
Ethan’s uncle would probably disagree, my cynical side answered.
I winced. When had I gotten so good at guilt tripping myself? Sighing, I walked into the kitchen, where Ethan was sitting across the table from my parents, looking as uncomfortable as a slug in a salt mine. I doubted he’d stay that way for long, though. Mom and Dad have a way with people that I’ve never been able to copy. They’d managed to bring my brother — adopted brother, technically, but who cares? — Conrad out of his shell, and he was…special. Give them a week, and they’d have Ethan feeling like he was part of the family too, even if he obviously thought they were fattening him for dinner right now.
Mom was a Purple, the only one in our family. Grandpa Teddy and Grandmonkey Esther had both been Blues, so that had come as a bit of a shock to them. I had her round face and long straight hair, though she wore hers tied back in a bun. Dad was broad shouldered and had his green hair cut in an army crew cut, with a neat square beard framing his mouth. One Purple, one Green. It was just my rotten luck that I’d been born Blue.
“Hey,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “Can’t stick around, I have another job. And I’m bringing Ethan.”
Ethan dropped his fork into his lap with a wet syrup-y splat.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Dad asked slowly.
Ethan frantically shook his head.
I shrugged. “Council’s orders.”
Mom and Dad shared a look, and I could tell exactly what they thought of council’s orders. Still, they knew my situation well enough not to argue. If the Council of Shnoob said jump, I asked how high. If they told me to drag a defenseless teenager into mortal danger, I asked what color his body bag should be.
“Well,” Dad said finally, “you be sure to take good care of him.”
“Very good care,” Mom added.
“I will. Pinky promise!” I said, snagging a pancake with one hand and hauling Ethan out of his seat with the other.
Ethan dug in his heels. “But I don’t want to—”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I said, stuffing the pancake into his mouth, then grabbed another for myself.
“Urr drrm’t wrrntrgrbbrr!” he protested as I dragged him into the living room. Frantically chewing and swallowing, he demanded, “Where are you taking me?”
I grabbed the Escher Cube off the coffee table. Let’s see. One turn to the right to go to the Zanderzon Dimension. Then one backwards vertical turn for the Third Broccolian Empire. After that, three to the right would take us to the Polka Dimension — I’d want to get out of there as fast as possible. Hopefully I could get us where we needed to go without sending Ethan to the moon or something.
“Henry?” he asked, sounding borderline panicked. “Where are we going?”
I turned the Cube.