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Chapter Fourteen

(Three Years Ago)

 

The stench of the Quallog Dimension hung in the air like a rotten egg, dead alligator, and bird poop smoothie, but I was too tired to notice. The sun had almost set, bathing the disgusting swamp dimension in warm orange light. I walked through town, dragging Splatsy behind me. The spindly wooden walkways were all that was keeping me from taking a swamp water bath. I could have shrunk her down, making her less heavy and easier to carry, but my brain was in such a funk that it matched the green and black water below me.

 

I was only twelve years old, back when McGus had first passed on the title of Hunter to me. In fact, this was the first hunt I'd been allowed to go on without that old cabbage butt breathing down my neck.

 

It was also about a year before Grandpa Teddy had invented his laughter inhalers.

 

The fight had been a hard one. Back then, I hadn't built up the strength that lets me swing Splatsy around like it's nothing. A cut—shallow but still painful—stained my shirt sleeve with blue blood. And without an inhaler to recharge with, I was stuck that way.

 

I spotted a crowd up ahead, where a few other walkways intersected to form a kind of marketplace suspended on stilts above the swamp, and headed that way. Maybe I could score a laugh or two before I left. Just enough for me to get home before I collapsed from exhaustion.

 

I reached the edge of the crowd and tapped the nearest person on the shoulder.

 

"What do you call a Volkswagen after you flush it down the toilet?" I asked.

 

He glared at me silently.

 

"A dung beetle!" I exclaimed.

 

He didn't laugh. They never laughed. The grouchy swamp dweller turned back around, muttering something about "These damn klaons." This was one of the dimensions where I didn't have to wear my N.O.S.E., so all my klaonish glory was visible for everyone to appreciate. But just as quickly as he'd dismissed me, the grump froze and spun around to look again. This time his eyes went straight to Splatsy, and they widened.

 

"You're the…what's it called?" he sputtered.

 

Hope swelled inside me. I had his attention again!

 

"What did the spider say at the restaurant?" I asked, thinking fast.

 

"You can kill it for us!"

 

I squinted at him. "No, he said, Fly, there's a waiter in my—whoop!"

 

Before I knew what was happening, he had grabbed me by the wrist and was dragging me through the crowd. As he did, I finally noticed how many of them were holding torches. What was this, a bonfire? Maybe a barbecue? Oh, oh! Were they going to hold a feast to thank me for killing that maiam?

 

They were all gathered around a large one story building whose supports had broken and was halfway sunk into the swamp. Was that where we were having the cookout? Well, I'd eaten weirder stuff in weirder places. Come to think of it, though, these were definitely the angriest looking barbecue goers I'd ever seen. And they were chanting something too. It sounded like "Kill! Kill! Kill!" and they were holding their torches out toward the building like they wanted to…

 

Oooooh.

 

Don't ask me why, but I got barbecues and angry mobs confused a lot back then.

 

Senõr Grouchopuss hauled me to the front of the mob, where men with hammers, nails, and boards were preparing to barricade the big building's door.

 

"Stop!" he commanded them, then pointed at me. "Look, this is the klaon people's Hunter! She can kill it without us having to burn the place down!"

 

The others looked at me consideringly, and I felt a chill go down my spine.

 

"What is it?" I asked. "Another maiam?"

 

One of the men shook his head. "No. It's worse. Much worse!"

 

I looked nervously at the door, but it was so dark that I couldn't see more than a few feet inside. Gripping Splatsy in a tired fist, I tried to take a step back but found my way blocked by a wall of people—very angry people who were all holding torches.

 

"I'm a Maiam Hunter," I said quickly. "If that's not a maiam in there, then I can't—"

 

But they weren't listening. Before I could react, the man who had dragged me here and two others had grabbed me.

 

"Take care of it before it kills someone else!" said one of them.

 

"If you fail, we can still burn the place down!" said another.

 

I tried to scream at them to let me go, but they gave me a shove that sent me stumbling into the dark building. I tripped, landing flat on my face while Splatsy went sliding off into the shadows. I sprang to my feet, spun around—

 

And they slammed the door shut. Before I could even take a step, the sound of the lock clicking shut echoed ominously through the huge, empty building.

 

I admit, my heart was pounding in my throat right then. I could face maiams any day of the week with a smile on my face, but this was different. This time, I had no idea what I had been locked in here with.

 

Moving slowly, trying to let my eyes adjust to the dark, I crept forward in search of Splatsy. This place must have been a warehouse, I realized. It was odd seeing something like that in a place like this, made entirely of wood and propped up a few feet above a disgusting swamp.

 

I found Splatsy a few feet away from where I'd fallen, and breathed a small sigh of relief when I felt her comforting weight in my hands again. Whatever was in here with me, at least now I was armed.

 

Speaking of which, what was in here with me? Straining my eyes, I tried to spot it. Whatever it was, it hadn't attacked me the moment I was thrown in. That had to be a good thing, right? The entire building was silent. So silent that if I hadn’t seen the mob outside, I wouldn’t have known it was there. Maybe this was one of those "It's more scared of you than you're scared of it" situations. Slowly, trying not to make any sudden movements that would startle it, I reached into my pocket where the Escher Cube waited. I pulled it out, ready to get the lemon curd fruit spread out of here, and—

 

A pair of massive glowing eyes opened up in front of me.

 

"Oh, fartburgers," I said.

 

I dove out of the way just as the whatever-it-was lunged for me. I couldn’t see it in the darkness, but I immediately recognized the sound of a gigantic pair of jaws slamming shut. I backpedaled, trying to put as much distance between me and it as I could. The glowing eyes followed me. Just looking at them made my heart turn cold with fear. Nothing I’d ever heard of in any dimension had eyes like that…but for some reason, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen them before.

 

The eyes rose up into the air, and a CRASH echoed through the warehouse as the thing’s head went straight through the ceiling. Moonlight streamed in through the hole. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to let me see the monster I’d been locked in here with.

 

“Sweet…mother of…artichoke dip!” I whispered.

 

It was twenty feet tall. Teeth the size of my hand lined its jaws. Its scaly skin was rotten and falling off. And on its head, right between its glowing eyes, was a beautiful pearly horn.

 

“Z- Z- Z…” I stammered, unable to believe my own eyes.

 

It growled at me, a sound so deep that it rattled my bones.

 

I took a deep breath, and screamed at the top of my lungs, “ZOMBIESAURUSCORN REX!”

 

Zombiesauruscorn Rex roared, her putrid breath washing over me, and charged. My body reacted the way McGus had trained it to, and I dove out of the way again just as her unihorn gouged a hole through the wooden floor. I rolled, leaping back to my feet, and spun to look again, still struggling to come to terms with what I was seeing.

 

This couldn’t be happening. Zombiesauruscorn Rex wasn’t real! She was just the monster from that stupid movie I’d watched with Aesop and Jade yesterday!

 

There are infinite dimensions, the annoyingly logical voice in my head—which had plagued me even back then—chastised me. Who says there isn’t one where Zombiesauruscorn Rex is real?

 

Zombiesauruscorn Rex pulled her unihorn from the water, Moss and other swamp muck clung to it, but as I watched, the horn began to glow with a brilliant white light, burning the gunk off of it.

 

“Zombiesauruscorn Rex might be an unholy abomination,” I remembered someone in the movie saying, “but she is still Princess of the Pretty Pretty Kingdom, and shant tolerate not looking her best!”

 

Did I mention just how freaking stupid that movie was? Aesop, Jade, and I had spent the whole time laughing at it. But—and I would never admit this to either of them—something about Zombiesauruscorn Rex had lodged itself into my brain. I hadn’t slept well the night before, which is part of why I was so tired today. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Zombiesauruscorn Rex. And now Zombiesauruscorn Rex, Undead Dinosaur Princess of the Pretty Pretty Kingdom and Wielder of the Magic Scepter of Friendship, had decided to torment me in my waking hours too.

 

What a weird coincidence.

 

Zombiesauruscorn Rex stomped after me, each step shaking the entire warehouse. Her unihorn was glowing again. With panic chasing away my exhaustion, I charged toward her. The annoying voice in my head screamed that I was running straight into those enormous teeth, but this time I ignored it. Zombiesauruscorn Rex tilted her head down, trying to keep her eyes on me, and a beam of light shot from the tip of her unihorn!

 

I could feel the heat of her magic energy on my back, and I took a running leap in between her decaying legs. Just like I'd hoped, Zombiesauruscorn Rex couldn't crane her neck far enough to aim her unihorn at me here. The light flickered and went out like a dying light bulb, and my blood ran cold when I saw the trail of beautiful zombie flowers that had sprung up everywhere her magic had touched.

 

One touch from that light, and undead flowers would sprout from your flesh, turning you into Zombiesauruscorn Rex's friendship slave for all eternity.

 

Taking Splatsy in both hands, I raised her up and swung her with all my might at Zombiesauruscorn Rex's leg. I knew better than to think I could slay a monster like this. My only hope was to distract her long enough to escape, and then bring back someone better suited to handle such a threat.

 

Splatsy splorped into the putrid flesh of Zombiesauruscorn Rex's leg, sinking into it like a big plastic bag filled with rancid pudding. Green goop sprayed out from the wound, and I recoiled from the nasty stuff. A bit of it landed on my arm, and I let out a little scream when I felt it burning my skin.

 

Zombiesauruscorn Rex roared in anger, and while I was busy wiping her acid blood off my arm, she stepped back so that she could see me. I looked up just as she spun around—and her massive tail slammed into me.

 

The force of the strike sent me flying through the air, and I didn't stop until I crashed into the wall on the far end of the warehouse. Pain turned my vision white, but I pushed through it. I rolled onto my stomach, head pounding, and groaned as I forced myself to my feet. Splatsy, by a stroke of luck, had landed right next to me, so I picked her up and spun to face my enemy. Zombiesauruscorn Rex was still on the other side of the building, not even looking at me. In fact, judging by the way her half-decomposed head swung from side to side, searching for something, I got the strange feeling that she had forgotten all about me.

 

Well, that's just rude! I thought. What? Am I not good enough for her precious majesty to kill properly?

 

Orange light sprang into existence on the other end of the building, and I gasped. The villagers had kept their promise and lit the building on fire!

 

And then the last thing I expected to see happened: Zombiesauruscorn Rex turned to smoke. I was so surprised that I almost dropped Splatsy. The smoke, darker and thicker than what the fire was producing, swirled around like a hurricane for a few seconds before coalescing into another shape. A smaller shape.

 

A human shape.

 

Okay, not quite human. He was tall and almost abnormally thin. His skin was as white as paper, but not the same way mine was. It made him look sick. His eyes gleamed like two silver coins in dark, sunken pits. His ears stuck out almost six inches from the sides of his head, looking like he'd glued bat wings to his skull.

 

Have you ever seen that old movie Nosferatu? He looked like that, except he was dressed like a mall goth.

 

Suddenly everything made sense. I knew why an angry mob was outside, ready to burn this place down. I knew why the star of a cheesy monster movie I'd just watched had come to life. I wasn't fighting an undead dinosaur unicorn princess. I was fighting a ghul!

 

Ghuls. They were so rare that some people thought they were extinct. They were similar to klaons like me, in that they fed on emotions. But unlike klaons, they didn't feed on laughter.

 

They fed on fear.

 

Ghuls are shapeshifters, able to turn into your worst fears. They terrorize their victims, drinking up their fear until their hair turns white and they die. Literally scared to death. Wherever white haired corpses start piling up, you know that a ghul is on the hunt.

 

The fire was spreading fast, the warehouse’s old wood serving as the perfect kindling for an impromptu barbe-ghul. I approached the ghul slowly from behind, gripping Splatsy so tight my knuckles ached. It—or should I say, he—was backing away from the flames with a terrified look on his face. I'd be lying if I said that didn't make me at least a little happy. After scaring the popcorn balls out of me with Zombiesauruscorn Rex, it was nice to see him take a little bit of his own medicine before I…

 

He spun to look at me, and the tears I saw running down his cheeks took me by surprise.

 

"Wh—" I stammered. "Why are you crying?"

 

He looked me in the eye, as helpless and as frightened as a puppy. "I don't want to die."

 

I lowered Splatsy—no, it was a trick! I raised her again, ready to smash his ugly bat-face if I even thought he was going to transform again.

 

But still, that face…

 

Behind us, the fire continued to spread.

 

"Why are they after you?" I finally asked.

 

"I scared one of the townspeople," he confessed, fresh tears pouring from his eyes. "I didn’t kill him, but they had to take him to the hospital. I didn’t mean to hurt him, though! I'm just so…so hungry!"

 

He fell face down on the floor, shaking with fear and guilt—real guilt, I realized with a jolt. Part of me wanted to assume it was just an act, and he'd Zombiesauruscornize me the moment I let my guard down. But deep inside I could tell that it was genuine. He'd hurt someone, and saying he was sorry didn't fix that. But in the end, he was just a boy—only a few years older than me by the look of it—who had only wanted to make that gnawing, soul-crushing hunger go away.

 

I may not have been a ghul, but I knew what that kind of hunger felt like. Almost without realizing it, I touched my blue hair…

 

"What's your name?" I asked.

 

He looked up at me, confused, but didn't answer. I held out a hand, and he recoiled from it was a snake.

 

"I'm not going to hurt you," I said as gently as I could, trying to ignore the fire that was creeping closer and closer to us by the second. "My name's Henry."

 

"Henry? But you're—"

 

"I know I'm a girl!" I snapped, then forced myself to calm down. "It's short for Henrietta. Now are you going to let me help you or not?"

 

He narrowed his eyes at me. "You don't want to help me."

 

"As much as I'd love to have a heartfelt discussion and dramatically win your trust," I said, "we kind of have a time limit here."

 

The fire had reached the ceiling, and the entire warehouse groaned as it fought not to collapse. The ghul looked at it all, the fire reflecting in his wide, terrified eyes, and then back at me.

 

He took my hand.

 

"I'm Conrad," he said as I pulled him to his feet.

 

"Okay, Conrad," I said, pulling the Escher Cube from my pocket and hoping desperately that I wasn't making a horrible mistake, "let's get out of here!"

 

I gave the Cube a spin, and we vanished, leaving the Quallog Dimension and its burning warehouse behind.

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