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Chapter Thirteen

My stomach was churning, like I had eaten a whole bag of gummy snakes, which had turned out to be real snakes, and now they were slithering around and having a big ol' snake party in my tum tum. I hated this place. All I wanted to do was whip out Splatsy and not stop swinging until there was nothing left but rubble. Just thinking about what had happened here still turned my blood to ice.


The laughter extractor hung from the ceiling in front of me. Black, cone shaped, and deathly silent. A stark contrast to the first time I had seen it, when it had been roaring hard enough to make the concrete floor shake beneath my feet.


The tip of the cone hung just a few inches above the ground, and splayed out around it, like a giant squid waiting to be chopped into calamari, were a dozen rubber tubes. I looked down at one…and then quickly looked away when a nightmarish image flashed before my eyes.


A man, rendered skeletal from starvation, strapped to a chair and forced to laugh by the glowing medallion on his head, a tube shoved down his throat to collect the laughter.


I closed my eyes, fighting the urge to throw up.


"You okay?" Ethan asked, fluttering up beside my face.


"Fine," I lied.


Come on, Henry, I thought, giving myself a couple mental slaps to the mental face. It's time to get to work.


Swallowing my emotions as best I could, I walked in a slow circle around the machine. It had been two months since I'd discovered it…or, rather, since Legion had lured me here. I'd reported it to the Council of Shnoob like a good girl, and they'd had teams of investigators in and out of here ever since. That had been two months ago, and they still hadn't found a single clue as to who had built this evil machine.


And the most frustrating thing was, I already knew who it was. Ichabod Hench, representative for the Reds on the Council of Shnoob, and the biggest creep I had ever met. Yes, an even bigger creep than Cousin Gumdrop. When Grandpa Teddy had started making laughter inhalers to help the…less comedically talented klaons…Ichabod had tried to beat him to the punch. But whatever method Grandpa Teddy was using to collect laughter, Ichabod couldn't replicate it. In the end, he'd started kidnapping innocent humans and using this contraption, and a particularly wicked type of mind control, to harvest their laughter like they were nothing but cows on a dairy farm. And when their sanity inevitably broke, corrupting the laughter, they were disposed of.


This was where Legion had been born. This was where he'd learned to hate all of klaonkind with such a fiery passion that only our complete extinction would satisfy him.


And the worst part was, I couldn't blame him one bit for it.


But none of that mattered right now. It wasn't like I could just march into the Grand Lark and accuse the most powerful klaon in Mauldibamm of all this. I needed proof.


So where the chicken giblets was it?


"If I were incriminating evidence," I said to myself, "where would I be hiding?"


"Does that machine have a butt?" Ethan asked, flying circles around my head. "Maybe you could crawl up it and look there!"


He flew away, weaving in and out of the exposed wires. I watched him for a minute. Something about this was bugging me—and for once, it didn't have anything to do with the literal torture chamber we were in. It was the way he was acting. All these pranks and jokes…


He's not laughing, I realized with a jolt. Not that that was unusual for Ethan. He was…damaged. The car crash that killed his parents had left more scars than the naked eye could see. In all the time I'd known him, he had only ever laughed one single time.


That’s the only reason I was alive right now to wonder about this.


But this also wasn't normal behavior for Ethan. Making rude jokes? Dropping things on people's heads? This was obviously the NuYu’s influence. But the fact that he was doing all of this without even a giggle…I don't know, it was a little creepy.


I guess even magic has its limits, I thought.


I shook my head, chasing away those thoughts. I was easily sidetracked at the best of times, but here…my brain was latching onto anything that would distract me from the dark, evil place I was standing in.


I did another lap around the machine, searching for anything the council's investigators had missed. That shouldn't have been hard to find, I thought. Ichabod had his filthy hands all over this investigation. Whoever was searching this place probably had orders straight from him to ignore anything that even vaguely resembled a clue.


Assuming he hadn't told them to flat out destroy it, that is…


I could feel despair clawing at the far reaches of my mind, like frost gathering at the edges of a window. Slowly creeping inwards, held at bay only by breathing really hard on the glass to heat it up, occasionally using your finger to doodle something funny in the fog, and I forgot where I was going with this analogy.


The point is, the more I thought about it, the more hopeless it all felt. I may have been the Hunter, but when put up against the council I was practically powerless. If Ichabod didn't want me to catch him, he could stop me without even batting an eye.


And that just made me hate him even more.


"Okay, scary death machine!" I said, thrusting a defiant finger at the giant black cone, "if you won't reveal your secrets to me willingly, then I'll just have to dig them out of you myself. Nurse Splatsy, prepare for surgery!”


Drawing Splatsy, I extended her to warhammer form, brought her back for a powerful swing, and…


"What on earth do you think you're doing?"


Adrenaline hit me like a bolt of lightning. It was Legion! Or Ichabod! I didn't know which was worse, but I spun on my heel anyway, ready to mash their ugly face—


It was Grandpa Teddy.


Terror filled his eyes as I struggled to divert my swing. Splatsy zoomed downwards, half an inch to his left, and smashed into the floor hard enough to send jagged bits of concrete flying everywhere. The boom echoed deafeningly in the small room for almost half a minute, and the two of us just stared at each other until the sound faded.


"Um…hi," I finally said, giving him my best innocent granddaughter smile. "Funny seeing you here, Grandpa Teddy!"


Teddy let out a long breath and wiped sweat from his forehead. "I wish I could say the same to you, Henry," he said, his voice still shaking, "but I'm afraid this joke was never funny to begin with."


Leaning against Splatsy, I looked over my shoulder at the machine. "Yeah, I know. I can still hardly believe someone—"


"I meant you coming down here!" Grandpa Teddy cut me off. "How many times do I have to tell you to let the council handle this investigation?"


"But the council isn't handling it!" I argued. "It's been two months, and nobody has found a single french frying clue!"


Grandpa Teddy's expression softened, and he put a comforting hand on my arm. "Henry, I know you're trying to help. That big, compassionate heart of yours is one of the things I'm most proud of about you! But this isn't your concern."


"How is it not my concern?" I asked, brushing his hand away and turning to look at the machine again. "I got possessed by something this…this nightmare created! It used me to try and get to Ethan. It's targeting me and my friends, Grandpa Teddy. I'm involved in this whether you want me to be or not."


"You were involved." He came to stand beside me, looking up at the machine with a heartbroken expression. "And the fact that my granddaughter was entangled in something so terrible, while I could do nothing to help her, haunts me every night. But it's over now, Henry. You did your part to expose all of this. Now let us handle the rest."


I hesitated, looking from him to the machine, and sighed. "Fine. I'll try."


Grandpa Teddy smiled and reached out to hug me. I hugged him back, his warmth a surprisingly solid anchor in the midst of all this misery. I was almost ashamed of how easily I’d given up. My brain had been scrambling for anything to take my focus off of all the death and suffering around me since I'd first gotten here. The fact that Grandpa Teddy was offering me such an easy way out…


He stepped back, a puzzled look on his face. "By the way, where is Ethan?"


My breath caught in my throat. "He's, um…"


"You didn't leave him alone, did you?" Teddy raised a disapproving eyebrow. "You know what the rest of the council will do if—"


Before he could finish, and way before I could figure out a halfway decent alibi, a bright blue speck of light came zipping out of nowhere, flying circles around me and Grandpa Teddy.


"Henry and Teddy, sitting in a tree!" it sang. "K-I-S-S-I—"


Moving faster than I'd ever seen him move in my life, Grandpa Teddy snatched Ethan out of the air, pinching his wings between his thumb and finger.


"What is this?" he asked, looking in complete bewilderment at Ethan's tiny form. "Henry? Explain yourself!"


I cursed silently inside my head and took a deep breath. "Grandpa Teddy, Ethan has been going through some…changes…lately."


"What? How?"


I cringed. "Would you believe…puberty?"


"I took a magic pill and yesterday I was soooo big!" Ethan squeaked. "But today I'm small! Tomorrow I might be a…"


He kept rambling, but Grandpa Teddy was looking at me.


"It's just a phase," I promised him. "Please, please, pleeease don't tell the rest of the council!"


Teddy gave me a hard look, the blue in his eyes suddenly looking as cold as ice, and then looked at Ethan. The intensity of that stare was enough to put the fear of the whoopie cushion in the sky into even a hyperactive fairy, and Ethan shut his mouth.


"I didn't just come here to talk," he said solemnly, letting Ethan go. Ethan fluttered up to sit on my shoulder. "There's something you need to see, Henry. Give me the Escher Cube."


Confused, I reached into my backpack and handed the Cube to him. "Okay, but how—"


"How did I know where you were? I always know where you are, granddaughter." He gave me a sharp look. "And if you're going to skip school, then you may as well spend the day doing something useful."


"Oooh, busted!" Ethan said, and I resisted the urge to flick him off my shoulder.


Grandpa Teddy began to work the Cube, twisting its rows of smaller cubes with a surprising amount of skill. Reality slid to and fro, up and down, the environment around us breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces as it mimicked the movements of the Escher Cube. I opened my mouth to ask where he'd learned to do that, but then reality snapped back into place.


I looked around and blinked in surprise. I knew where we were. This was a street in Burning Creek, my hometown! I turned around to see that I was standing in front of an old, abandoned building. I think it used to be an apartment building or something, and it was four stories tall.


"What are we doing here?" I asked.


"You'll see," said Grandpa Teddy. Without a moment's hesitation, he walked straight into the decrepit building.


Ethan and I shared an uneasy look, and I followed him inside.


Without a word, he went to the staircase and began to climb. He was breathing heavily before we'd even reached the second floor, and he had to lean against the wall for support.


I held out a hand. "Are you sure you—"


"Third floor," he interrupted me. "Room 307. I'll catch up in a minute."


Now my stomach felt like the snakes had invited their friends the butterflies over, and they were all having a full on rave. Still, I did as Grandpa Teddy said and continued up the stairs. If there was anyone in any dimension I could trust, it was Grandpa Teddy. So I climbed to the third floor, Ethan sitting silently on my shoulder, and sought out the room he'd given me.


The door stood ajar, and a faint ray of sunlight spilled through it into the dark hallway. I pushed the door open the rest of the way and, after taking a moment to steel my nerves, went inside.


Dust motes swirled around me in the weak light as I walked through the old apartment. The fixtures were still there—cabinets, sink, cupboards—but the way they sagged on their supports, not to mention the inch-thick layer of grime and mold, made it clear nobody had lived here in a very, very long time. It had probably been a nice place to live, I thought as I stepped across the living room and into the bedroom. But why would Grandpa Teddy bring me…




No, no, no!


I stumbled backwards like I'd been struck, my eyes glued to the horrible sight in front of me.


"Do you know what that is?"


I gasped and spun around, but it was just Grandpa Teddy.


"It wasn't him!" I said.


Teddy looked at me sadly and stepped into the room, going to stand by the opposite wall so that…it…was directly between us.


The corpse of a young man lay on the moldy carpet. Fresh too, not even a day old. I know it's morbid, but after being the Hunter for three years, I was able to recognize those kinds of things. But one particular thing about the corpse immediately jumped out at me: its hair.


Its bright, snow white hair.


"You know what this is, right?" Grandpa Teddy asked again in a low voice.


"Yes, but it wasn't him!"


He raised an eyebrow. "Are you saying that there's a second ghul running around Burning Creek?"


"There must be," I insisted. "He doesn't do that anymore!"


I looked down at the corpse again. Far too young to have hair like that. And his face…it was contorted even in death, an expression of pure terror permanently frozen onto his cold, unmoving form.


"A ghoul?" Ethan asked curiously.


"Ghul," I corrected him absentmindedly. "You spelled it wrong."


"You realize that you're gambling with innocent lives, don't you?" Grandpa Teddy asked. "If you're wrong, and it is him—"


"It's not!"


"—then more people are going to die. People you could have saved if you'd acted sooner."


I clenched my fist. "It! Isn't! Him!"


Grandpa Teddy studied me for a long minute, then nodded.


"Very well. For your sake, I hope you're right, Henry, because I'm placing you in charge of tracking down this ghul and killing it."


I took a step back in surprise. "M- Me? But that's not my job!"


"I'm making it your job," Teddy said sternly. "This town is your home, which means that you are its first line of defense. Your duties may begin with slaying maiams, but they most certainly do not end there."


I hesitated, then nodded. What did I have to be scared of? It wasn't him.


It wasn't!


"I'm trusting you with this, Henry," Grandpa Teddy warned me. "You can do what's necessary, can't you?"


"You know I can."


"No matter who it is?"


I paused, then turned and left. Grandpa Teddy didn't believe me. Fine! I would prove it. I'd catch this ghul and kill it, and nobody would ever say anything like this about him again!


"Who were you two talking about?" Ethan asked as we descended the stairs. "Who does Teddy think did this?"


I stopped just in front of the exit.


"He's talking," I said slowly, "about Con."

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