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Chapter Nine

“Seriously, Henry, what’s Feverdream Field?” Ethan demanded.

 

School was over, and we’d just gotten off the IW at Mauldibamm. I could have warped us here since I still had the Cube, but after the close call we’d had yesterday at Fun Lane I didn’t feel like pushing my luck again.

 

“Your initiation into my group of friends,” I answered.

 

“I picked up that much myself,” he said flatly. “But what is it?”

 

“If I told you, that would ruin the surprise.”

 

As we made our way down the streets, we passed jugglers and unicycle riders, pie shops that advertised edibility and throwability, fake magic shops, real magic shops, and a Taco Bell. Have I mentioned just how much I love Mauldibamm? It’s so bright and colorful, and something interesting is always happening no matter where you look. Not like the human world, where “interesting” usually means somebody died. I came here at least a couple times a week, either to see the council or McGus, but I never got tired of it. I’d decided years ago that I was going to move here as soon as I was old enough.

 

“And is that what you want?” Ethan asked coldly, ignoring the fish slapping demonstration going on beside him. “For us to be friends?”

 

I shrugged. “Why not? If we’re going to be stuck together, it’d be nice if we weren’t always at each other’s throats.”

 

“You don’t act like you want to be friends.”

 

“Yeah, I know. You haven’t exactly been friend material, know what I mean? Might want to work on that.”

 

His face turned red. “You’re the one who…hey, come back!”

 

I’d sprinted ahead of him, making him chase after me. Our destination was an old brick house at the very edge of town, where visitors were rare and neighbors were mythical. “Doorbell Broken! Go Away!” declared the sign hanging from the front door. Amidst Mauldibamm’s color and excitement, this boring old place stuck out like a piece of steamed broccoli on a bright pink birthday cake.

 

Now, manners and professional etiquette demanded that I treat another person’s property with respect. Whoever lived here clearly didn’t appreciate unexpected company. The right thing to do would be to knock gently and let the homeowner answer the door at his own pace.

 

So I kicked the door open.

 

“LUUUCYYYY, I’M HOOOOME!” I yelled.

 

A groan came from inside. “I knew I was having too nice a day for you not to show up and ruin it.”

 

“You told me to come over after school,” I said, leading Ethan inside, “and here I am. Funny how that works, isn’t it?”

 

I made my way down the hall with Ethan right behind me. The place smelled like old man and cigarettes, and the dusty wooden floors probably hadn’t seen a mop since before I was born. McGus’ grunts echoed through the empty hallways, and I followed them to his training room.

 

“What in the world is he doing?” Ethan asked.

 

“Shh,” I hissed. “Just watch!”

 

McGus was standing in the center of the room, surrounded by wooden dummies. In his hands he held a pair of hammers that were small enough to swing quickly, but still heavy enough to do some serious damage. The dummies moved on their own, hooked up to an elaborate web of ropes and pulleys strung around the ceiling. He was covered in sweat and breathing hard, but when one dummy came forward, he still moved like cranky green lightning. He spun, knocking the dummy’s head clean off its shoulders, before whirling back around to attack the one coming up behind him. One hammer blocked the wild flail of the dummy’s arm, and the other smashed its leg to splinters. It toppled over, and McGus shoved it into the one behind it, knocking them both down. That left two still standing. He slammed both hammers at once into another’s chest, shattering it. Meanwhile, the final dummy snuck up behind him…

 

 “Hey, Master,” I suddenly yelled, “did you miss me?”

 

He whirled, casually beheading the dummy with one hammer. The other hammer went flying across the room — straight toward me. Ethan yelped and dove for cover, but I didn’t even flinch. It came close enough to tweak my ear, and then whizzed past to crash into the wall behind me.

 

“Ha! Missed!” I said with a grin.

 

 “Next time I’ll break your jaw,” he snapped. “See if you can sass me then. Now where’s my Cube?”

 

“Hold on, I’ve got it here somewhere.” I unzipped my backpack and began to rummage through it.

 

“You were keeping it in your bag?” McGus yelled, limping over angrily to snatch it from me. “Are you stupid?”

 

“I didn’t—”

 

He reached in and grabbed it. “What would you have done if it’d activated? You and everyone around you would have been warped to who knows where!”

 

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, but it didn’t, and we weren’t.”

 

He narrowed his eyes at me, and then shoved past me to get the hammer he’d thrown. Setting the Cube on the table Ethan was still hiding beneath — “Get out of there, kid!” — he walked angrily back to the center of his training room. After kicking the dummies’ remains away to clear a space, he turned to glare at me.

 

“Henrietta Rider, draw your weapon!”

 

I shook my head. “I can’t stay. I promised my friends I’d meet them—”

 

“Your duties as Hunter are your first priority,” he snapped. “Your only priority if need be. You leave when I say you can leave, friends or no friends!”

 

He snapped his fingers, and a bright green spark leaped from them. Behind me, the door to the training room slammed shut and locked itself. Sighing, I went to join him in the sparring ring.

 

“Fine, you old cabbage butt.” I drew Splatsy and extended her to warhammer form. “I’ll just break your knees and go.”

 

He laughed humorlessly, twirling his twin hammers between his fingers. “Pay attention, kid. You’re next!”

 

“Wait, what?” Ethan and I asked at the same time.

 

In the split second that I was distracted, McGus attacked! Throwing himself at me, he swung both his hammers at once. Even with his injured leg, he was fast. I barely had time to block the first one with Splatsy, but the second hit me on the knee. My leg buckled beneath me, but I thrust Splatsy’s handle down onto the floor to push myself back up. McGus attacked again, and I raised Splatsy, our hammers smashing together hard enough to send tremors up my arms.

 

“You never think about the consequences of your actions,” McGus snarled, pushing against me. I pushed back, but could feel my feet sliding on the smooth wooden floor anyway.

 

“Sure I do,” I grunted. “I just smash them!”

 

I shoved against McGus with all my might, and managed to force him back a step. Grasping Splatsy in both hands, I swung her as hard as I could, but McGus ducked beneath it. Then he sprang back up and lashed out with both hammers. Not a me, though — at Splatsy.

 

The stone heads hooked around Splatsy’s handle, and my attack was halted midswing. Before I could get away, McGus twisted around and yanked her out of my hands. I watched in horror as she went flying across the room, sending Ethan running again. The next thing I knew, his hammers were hooked around my ankle.

 

“Actions,” he said, and pulled my foot out from under me. I hit the ground hard, and stars exploded in front of my eyes. “And consequences.”

 

Spinning his hammers, McGus holstered them in his belt like some sort of cowboy.

 

“You mouth off to the council, you end up babysitting a human. You keep the Escher Cube in your backpack, you drop half your class into a volcano in Honolulu.” He crouched beside me and gave me a withering look. “You sass me in my own house, you get the tar beaten out of you.”

 

“Okay, okay, I get it!”

 

He stared at me for a few seconds, then shook his head and walked away. “No, you don’t. You’re still just a kid.”

 

I sat up, glaring at him. “What happened to ‘I’m proud of you, Henry’?”

 

“I am. More than I should be.” He poured himself a cup of water, and then sighed. “Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I should have taken Alicia as my apprentice.”

 

“No way!” I was on my feet in an instant, storming over to him. “You can’t really think Cousin Gumdrop would be better at this than me!”

 

“She was already a master at chain-and-hammer style when she was your age. She’s a natural born warrior.” He paused and took a drink. “And she’s a Red.”

 

I gritted my teeth. That’s what it always came down to, wasn’t it? Color.

 

“That’s not what I asked,” I growled. “Would…she be…better than me?”

 

He looked me in the eyes, finished his water, then asked, “How long have you been my apprentice?”

 

My cheeks turned blue with anger. “Answer my question!”

 

“You first.”

 

“Three years,” I said grudgingly, scowling at him with as much venom as I could muster.

 

“And you’re still making mistakes I should have beaten out of you by the end of your first week!” He shook his head. “You’re capable, Henry. You’re strong. Never let anyone tell otherwise. But one of these days your carelessness is going to get you killed!”

 

“I said I get it!” I snapped. “Rub it in a little more, why don’t you?”

 

“I get it, I get it,” he mimicked me. “You’ve been saying that since your first day of training. I want you to succeed, Henry, if only so you don’t end up getting your head bitten off. But I can’t teach someone who thinks they already know everything!”

 

I groaned, but didn’t argue. These training sessions with McGus were always the same. Painful sparring, followed by a weird mixture of grudging compliments and scathing criticisms. It was why, once he’d started letting me go on hunts alone, I’d stopped coming here as much. I didn’t need him to tell me I was a pathetic little failure.

 

I already knew.

 

“Now,” he said, pointing at Ethan, “get to work!”

 

“Whoa, nuh-uh! I want no part of this!” Ethan said, backing away.

 

“Too bad,” McGus said. “You’re already a part of this. Henry here is going to make sure you stay a part of it as long as needed.”

 

“What?” I asked.

 

 “Do I have to draw a picture for you, girl? Teach the kid to fight!”

 

I looked at Ethan, who shook his head wildly. He was tall for our age, and not in bad shape, but absolutely not a fighter. I doubted he could even lift Splatsy, much less swing her.

 

“No need,” I said. “I’m protecting him, remember?”

 

“And what if a maiam gets past you?” McGus argued.

 

“It won’t.”

 

I mean, it already had. Twice. But I wasn’t going to let it happen a third time.

 

“What if it does?” McGus glowered at me. “You want him to just stand there and let it kill him?”

 

I sighed. “No.”

 

“Then teach him to fight.” He took a seat at the edge of the room. “I don’t expect you to make him the next Hunter. Just teach him some basic self-defense.”

 

I checked my watch. Almost four thirty. Jade and Aesop would already be waiting for us at Wombo World. But it was obvious McGus had made up his mind, and I knew better than to try to change it.

 

“Fine!” I grabbed Splatsy with one hand, Ethan with the other, and dragged them both into the ring with me.

 

“W- Wait!” Ethan protested, digging in his heels. “I don’t want to learn how to fight!”

 

“Really?” I asked. “You’d rather learn how to die?”

 

“Well, no, but—”

 

“Good. Then choose a weapon.”

 

I all but threw him at McGus’ collection of weapons. At a glance, you might think it was an eccentric carpenter’s shop, since everything that was hanging in front of us was some kind of hammer. Big hammers, small hammers, metal ones and wooden ones. Hammers on chains, hammers with heads on both ends, hammers with glowing symbols to ward them against certain types of enemies. Hammers were the traditional weapon of the maiam hunter, going back thousands of years in history. They were strong, solid, as much a symbol of stability and safety as the Hunters who wielded them were. Ethan reached for one—

 

I grabbed his hand. “Nope!”

 

“Why not?” he demanded. The hammer he’d been about to choose was no bigger than one you’d find in a toolbox, but it was made entirely out of clear, shimmering crystal.

 

“No, she’s right, kid,” McGus called, taking my side for once. “That’s a spellhammer. No good if you don’t know magic. Pick a different one.”

 

Ethan glared at me, like it was my fault he had the magical knowhow of a raisin, and selected a wooden hammer from the wall. I nodded my approval. It was smaller than Splatsy, but still big enough to pack a solid punch.

 

“All right, let’s get this over with,” I said, leading him back into the ring. “First, hold it up like this.”

 

“Like this?”

 

“No,” I reached out and corrected his stance, “like this. From there, you have good defensive capabilities. So what would you do if I did…this?”

 

I ducked low and swung Splatsy. Ethan didn’t even have time to flinch before she knocked his feet out from under him, and he crashed down onto the floor.

 

I blinked. Then a smile stretched across my face.

 

Maybe Jade and Aesop could wait a little bit longer.