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Chapter One

The wind carried the alluring scent of danger the night I appeared above 1157 Westwillow Drive, holding the mystical Escher Cube in both hands. My heart raced with the power of five Blue Donkey energy drinks. I was ready to…

 

Wait. Above the house?

 

I yelped, plummeting to the roof below with a magnificent bellyflop. Not my most professional entrance, I’ll admit, but at least I’d only warped myself a few feet too…aaaand I was sliding down the roof. I shot over the side like a screaming toboggan before bouncing off the plastic trash can below and crash landing on the driveway.

 

Ow.

 

A moment later, the trash can tipped over to spill a very confused raccoon out on the driveway in front of me. It saw me lying face down on the pavement and hissed, warning me away from its precious garbage…until it saw what I had in my hand. Made of polished gray stone, the Escher Cube reflected the moonlight in a way that made the raccoon’s eyes widen greedily.

 

“What are you looking at?” I demanded, my head still spinning from the fall. Then it dawned on me. “No, no, don’t even think about it, you little—”

 

Too slow. It snatched the Cube out of my hand and took off into the woods across the street.

 

“Chicken biscuits!” I cursed, giving chase. McGus was going to skin me alive if I didn’t get it back. The raccoon clambered up a nearby tree, but the weight of the Cube slowed it down. I dove for it…

 

And missed, doing my best impression of a woodpecker instead.

 

Feeling like I’d just cracked my skull to make a particularly painful omelet, I stumbled to my feet to see the stupid raccoon looking smugly down at me. Then it raised the Escher Cube, admiring its prize in the moonlight — and vanished in a flash of light.

 

“Ohhh, Kentucky fried egg rolls,” I whispered. I was going to be lucky if McGus stopped at skinning me now.

 

Thoughts of my impending doom were interrupted by a scream of terror from the house behind me. I spun, cursing, and sprinted back the way I’d come. With one hand, I drew my ping pong paddle from where it hung on my belt. A flick of my wrist elongated the handle until it was as tall as I was, and the paddle poomph-ed outwards to become a great big wooden hammer.

 

Her name is Splatsy.

 

I swung her, smashing the front door to splinters, and charged inside — where I immediately tripped on something. I hit the floor, rolled, and sprang back to my feet with Splatsy raised, ready to smash anything that thought it could take me out while I was on the ground. Nothing happened.

 

It was pitch black in here, the dim moonlight shining through the doorway all I had to see by. With it, I could faintly make out whatever I’d tripped on. Cautiously, I reached for the switch and turned the lights on.

 

It was a corpse.

 

“Crème brulee,” I hissed.

 

The owner of the house lay on his back, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling with a horrified expression on his face. What I’d tripped on turned out to be his leg. My guess is that he’d been running for the door when he’d been caught…and the teeth marks around his mouth, like he’d been french kissing a piranha, told me exactly what he’d been caught by.

 

Maiams.

 

I gritted my teeth, pushing back the wave of emotion that made me want to scream. I’d been too slow. An innocent human had died. If the council found out about this — and they always did — they would take my head.

 

Or worse, my job.

 

It’s not over yet, I reminded myself. The thing that had done this was still here somewhere. The evil it radiated was foul enough to make my blood curdle. Gripping Splatsy with both hands, I turned in a slow circle. I was in the living room, where a big flat screen tv stood surrounded by shelves of football crap. A set of stairs by the front door led to the second floor, and behind me the kitchen was swathed in darkness. So many places for it to hide. It knew I was here too, or else it would have made its escape already. One wrong step, one glance in the wrong direction, was all it would take for it to—

 

The squeak of a floorboard up above caught my attention, and I spun just in time to see a shadow dash away from the top of the stairs. I sprinted after it. As soon as I reached the top of the stairs, the door at the far end of the hallway slammed shut, followed by a click as the creature locked itself inside. If I’d been thinking clearly — or at all, McGus would probably say — the fact that a maiam had just locked a door might have made me pause. Instead, I charged down the hall, rammed my shoulder into the door to break the lock, and barged in with Splatsy raised to find…

 

A teenage boy.

 

I froze, eyes wide and blinking with surprise. The boy, who looked to be around my age, sat huddled against the wall, clearly thinking I was some kind of hammer wielding psychopath.

 

“Uh, hey,” I said, reaching up to make sure I was wearing my N.O.S.E. “You, uh, seen any monsters around here?”

 

He didn’t say anything, but his eyes met mine…and then looked behind me.

 

“Oh, gorgonzola,” I whispered.

 

I spun around, and found myself face to face with a living nightmare. Nearly ten feet tall, it looked like someone had pulled a very cheesed off gorilla out of a black and white tv, shaved it, and then applied KISS makeup with a shotgun. Its skin was a mixture of black and sickly gray. The only color to be found was the blood oozing down its long pencil-like fangs — leftovers from its first victim.

 

Then it decked me with a hand the size of my torso.

 

Flying across the room, I crashed through the closet door and collapsed like a pile of spaghetti. Outside, the maiam growled, and I looked up with eyes that wouldn’t focus to see it grinning as it reached for the boy.

 

NO!

 

I shoved the pain to the back of my mind and forced myself to my feet. Gripping Splatsy in both hands, I charged back into the room and swung her as hard as I could. She hit the brute in its big ugly face, and it staggered backwards into the hallway.

 

I sagged against the doorframe, gasping for breath while it recovered. I was pretty sure none of my bones were broken, but there was no point in taking chances. Digging my inhaler out of my pocket and holding it to my mouth, I gave it a squeeze and sighed in relief as life flowed into my lungs. Human laughter, bottled with my grandpa’s secret technique. As bright as the sun and shimmering with every color of the rainbow, it made my teeth light up inside my mouth like Christmas lights. The pain receded a little with every beat of my heart.

 

Another growl came from the hallway. I wasn’t the only one here who fed on laughter. The maiam could smell it inside my inhaler, and it was hungry!

 

“Stay here,” I said to the boy. “This’ll only take a minute.”

 

I raced toward the maiam, ducking as it lashed out at me with wickedly sharp claws. As I came back up, I swung Splatsy, delivering another solid hit to its face. It lumbered backwards, shaking the floor with each step, dazed. Seeing my chance, I began to channel magic into Splatsy, making her burst into bright blue light. I stepped forward, winding up for the killing blow, swung…

 

And missed

 

“Mothercrumpet!” I yelled as it ducked, my attack soaring right above its head. The magic I’d filled Splatsy with exploded out of her, blowing a hole in the roof big enough to drive a car through. While I tried to recover from my epic whiff, the maiam lunged forward and wrapped its meaty hand around my neck. I tried to curse again as it raised me off the floor, but it came out as a weak, “Hurghhk!”

 

Nacho smoothies! I thought, dangling helplessly while trying not to panic. I still had Splatsy, which meant this wasn’t over. If I could land a hit hard enough to…

 

What in the world was that?

 

As the maiam drew me closer, baring its teeth, I spotted something that shouldn’t have been there: a stone talisman, stuck to its forehead as if it’d been glued there. It was about as big as a silver dollar, and a rune I’d never seen before glowed with a blood-red light from its center.

 

But before I could study it more, the maiam threw me down the stairs. I hit the hardwood floor below hard enough to crack it, and I gasped in agony. Splatsy went flying out of my grip to land somewhere in the living room. My vision started to go dark, but I pushed through the pain just like McGus had taught me.

 

The ground shook as the maiam leaped downstairs to finish me off. I tried to crawl away, defenseless without Splatsy, but its cold and clammy hand came down to press my head into the floor.

 

No, no, no! I screamed inside my head. It couldn’t end like this! I still had so many things I wanted to do, with surviving until my sixteenth birthday being on top of the list. I struggled to break free, but it was no good. I may as well have had a bus parked on my head. The maiam snarled, thick strings of drool oozing from its jaws as it came in to deliver the fatal bite, and—

 

“U…Uncle Doug?”

 

Both me and the maiam froze. Opening my eyes, I saw the boy from before standing at the top of the stairs, looking down at the homeowner’s corpse in horror.

 

Uh oh.

 

The maiam immediately lost interest in me. Letting go of my head, it turned to lumber back up the stairs toward the boy — a tasty dessert after his uncle had been the main course.

 

Struggling to my feet, my head pounding so hard I could hardly think, I spotted Splatsy lying in front of the tv a few feet away. Above me, the boy had backed up against the wall, feet rooted to the ground by fear. I picked Splatsy up, but the wave of dizziness that hit me nearly put me back on the ground. I couldn’t keep fighting like this. Digging the inhaler out again, I looked upstairs. The maiam towered over the cowering young man, growling eagerly. I didn’t have enough time to heal myself and save him. Not unless…

 

I mashed the button on the inhaler five times, nearly emptying it. Power roared through my veins. I let the inhaler fall to the floor, channeling magic into my shoes the same way I had done to Splatsy before, and I jumped! The magic exploded out of my shoes, shattering the floorboards beneath me and rocketing me up the stairs in a split second. The maiam’s teeth were only inches away from the boy’s face, ready to drain his laughter just like it had done to his uncle. I raised Splatsy as I flew, praying to the whoopie cushion in the sky that I wouldn’t be too late.

 

And then the boy screamed.

 

That didn’t surprise me. Anybody with a shred of sanity would have done the same. What did surprise me was the shockwave of pure power that his scream carried with it. It was so strong that it blasted the maiam right off of him — and into me. Together, we went tumbling down the stairs until we lay in a heap on the bottom floor.

 

What…the frozen microwave burritos…had that been?

 

The answer came to me immediately: it was laughter. The same stuff that my inhaler was full of. But there was so freaking much of it! Enough to make my inhaler look like a candle next to a lighthouse. My head spun. That shouldn’t have been possible. So much laughter in one human, it…

 

The maiam growled and began to get back up.

 

Pushing those thoughts aside for now, I got to my feet, slamming Splatsy into its arm and putting it back on the floor with a howl of pain. Then I put one foot went on its neck to keep it down.

 

“William Halbert,” I said, “I end your suffering.”

 

It glared up at me, its black eyes utterly devoid of humanity.

 

“May you find joy in the next life.”

 

I brought Splatsy down, crushing its head like a water balloon. Black goo splattered everywhere, and its body writhed and thrashed as if it was still alive. I took a step back and leaned against the wall, Splatsy falling from my hand. The maiam seemed to deflate, crumbling in on itself until only a black, oily stain on the floor remained. Soon, even that began to evaporate.

 

I sighed, closing my eyes. Poor William. He had no one but himself to blame for this, but still…poor William.

 

Something caught my attention as the tarry black puddle disappeared. The small stone amulet that I’d seen on its head before. It was in pieces now, shattered from when I’d crushed its head, but the glowing red symbol still hovered in its exact center as if it’d been imprinted on the air itself. Slowly, it began to fade. I reached to pick it up, but stopped when I heard a faint whimper from the top of the stairs. Right. First things first.

 

Suddenly feeling exhausted, I trudged back up the stairs to where the boy was still sitting with his back against the wall. His skin was as white as paper, his eyes as big as lightbulbs, and he was shaking like he’d been left out in a snowstorm.

 

“Hello?” I asked, waving a hand in front of his face. “Yoohoo, anybody home?”

 

Slowly, he blinked and turned to look at me. “You…You…”

 

“Easy there, I’m on your side!” I raised my hands. “Are you okay?”

 

He shook his head. “N- No, it’s…you’re bleeding.”

 

I  blinked in surprise, then looked down at myself. A thin trickle of blood was running down my arm, leaving a drip-drop trail on the floor behind me.

 

Blood that was a deep navy blue.

 

“Don’t worry about that,” I said, hiding it behind my back. “What about you? What’s your name?”

 

“Ethan,” he said hesitantly. “Ethan Griggs.”

 

It was still there, I realized. All that laughter. I could smell it on his voice. It was less noticeable now that he wasn’t screaming, but its scent hung in the air like his mouth was a portal to Willy Wonka’s factory. It was no wonder the maiam had come here!

 

And it wouldn’t be the last. Other maiams would smell that laughter, and by morning this place would be swarming with them like sharks around a hunk of bloody meat. I realized what I would have to do before I even knew there was a choice to be made.

 

I groaned. The Council of Shnoob was going to kill me for this.

 

“What?” he asked.

 

I shook my head. “Nothing. Come on, we need to get out of here.”

 

I extended a hand to him, but he shied away from it.

 

“My name’s Henry Rider,” I said, giving him my most disarming smile. “I’m here to help you.”

 

“H…Henry?”

 

“Yes, that’s what I said. Now—”

 

“But you’re a girl!”