Down in the Dumps
Over Four Hundred Years Later
You think it’s wired?” Sky asked, surveying the bowling alley’s broken back door from his hiding place next to the Dumpster.
A high falsetto voice sang from the bowling alley like a cat strangling another cat that was, in turn, being strangled by a man with very small hands and a personal vendetta against cats.
“I hope not,” said Andrew, dumping an armload of garbage out of the Dumpster. Sky sifted through it until he found an old soda fountain hose to replace the one on his Pounder that he’d lost to an overaggressive Barrow Hag earlier that day. He hated taking the time for it, especially while they were so close to finding the Marrowick monster they’d tracked since nightfall, but their gear was in sorry shape: Pounder hand-cannons on the fritz, low on ICE freezing solution, dead car batteries on the Shocker gloves and the Cross-Shocker crossbow that they used to electrify the ICE solution and thereby freeze the monsters; it was a wonder they’d managed to freeze anything at all recently.
They were too busy; that was the problem—too much going on. But if they didn’t take time to do some quick repairs now, they’d end up fighting the Marrowick with their bare hands, and that wouldn’t end well for anyone except the Marrowick. And maybe T-Bone, with his huge frame.
Besides, no one was in any immediate danger since the bowling alley was supposedly closed for the night. But if that were true, then who was killing those poor defenseless cats?
“If the door was wired,” Andrew continued, “the Marrowick’s already tripped it by breaking the door, which means the police will be here soon.”
“All the more reason to hurry,” T-Bone chided, attaching a few small wires to the modified car battery that powered his electrified Shocker gloves. “I’m beginning to think you like it in there, Andrew.”
Sky applied some crazy-strong adhesive to the soda fountain hose before duct-taping it on his Pounder hand-cannon. Then, acting in as nonchalant a manner as he possibly could, he scooted closer to Crystal and Hands, trying to stay out of the argument he knew was coming.
“Next time, you do the Dumpster diving,” Andrew retorted as he climbed out of the Dumpster and began sifting through the trash for spare parts. “Maybe you could search with your hands and your mouth. That would speed things up and put your mouth to good use for once.”
T-Bone chucked a soda pop can at Andrew, hitting him on the head. Andrew jumped to his feet and charged T-Bone, who, at fifteen, was two years older and more than twice his size. But before he could get there, Crystal leaped between them.
“Would you two cool it!” she exclaimed. “You’re ruining Sky’s birthday!”
Sky chuckled at the absurdity of the statement—as if his birthday wasn’t already a disaster. A fistfight with Crenshaw. Mystery fish for lunch. Detention with Malvidia. A sub for gym class. And now they’d tracked the Marrowick for nearly an hour, and they still didn’t know why it had wandered into Exile, let alone the bowling alley. He was surprised anyone remembered his birthday. Even his parents hadn’t said a word when he’d left for school that morning.
Still, as bad as it was, it beat his last birthday, when Uncle Phineas had disappeared, only to die two days later. Nothing could top that. For a time, Sky and the others had believed Phineas was still alive, that he hadn’t died in the Jack, and that he’d left them clues in his will. But after a year . . . well, Sky still hoped, but if Phineas was alive, then where was he?
“You two should be ashamed,” Hands rebuked, wagging his finger at T-Bone and Andrew. “Things were going splendidly until you started fighting. Now you’ve spoiled our picnic.”
Crystal glared at them until their smiles faded. Then she turned her glare back on Andrew and T-Bone. Andrew huffed, walked over to his equipment, and put it on while T-Bone tugged on his Core shoulder pads.
“Let’s just finish this so Hands and I can catch the end of football practice,” T-Bone grumbled. “We’ve still got a long night ahead, and tomorrow’s the homecoming game against Quindlemore.”
“Coach Blackburn is making you practice the night before the homecoming game?” Sky asked, surprised.
“Are you kidding?” Hands replied. “Coach Blackburn is making us practice the day of homecoming—right after school. He’d pull the entire team out of school and make us practice morning, noon, and night if he thought he could get away with it. The man is insane.”
Sky finished duct-taping and suited up: Core shoulder pads to control his gear, Pounder hand-cannon for freezing monsters, jetpacklike Jumpers, fog-spewing Foggers, three-second force-field–like Shimmer. Lastly, he pulled on a black cloak to hide it all. Their gear was made out of garbage; it needed to be hidden.
“Look, I know everyone’s tired,” Crystal stated, to groans and nods, “but we can’t start turning on each other. We’ve got enough enemies as it is—monsters, Malvidia and her Exile hunters, Solomon Rose, and who knows what else; we’ve got to stick together. A band of one, remember? That’s what Phineas wanted.”
Everyone nodded. Last year Phineas’s weird poem, Enof Od Naba Ban Do Fone (“A Band of One” when read from the middle out), had helped them find the three keys to the Arkhon’s prison: two funky monocles and a pocket watch. The three keys had connected together on a giant pendulum in Pimiscule Manor, allowing them to relock the prison before the Arkhon (or, really, the Hunter of Legend Solomon Rose, as they’d discovered) could escape and destroy the world. They’d lost Phineas’s monocle shortly after—how and where, they had no idea—but Sky still had the other monocle and the watch, and he kept them close at all times. They used to joke that Phineas had stolen his monocle back because he was blind without it, or that maybe he was giving them another clue that he was still alive. They didn’t joke about that anymore. Now Sky just hoped Phineas’s lost monocle hadn’t fallen into the wrong hands.
He glanced at his fellow monster hunters: Crystal, Andrew, Hands, and T-Bone. Phineas had wanted them to hunt together, to be unified, to be a band of one, but they were all broken in one way or another. Crystal’s mom was still lost, Andrew’s parents were still dead, Hands’s parents were still jerks, and T-Bone’s family was still big (and one kid bigger again since they’d found his little brother last year).
And then there was Sky, the most broken of all.
He glanced at the two separate and distinct marks on his palm: the warm white Hunter’s Mark and the cold black Eye of Legend surrounding it (or “trix” as he used to call the Eye before learning its real name). Two marks, two opposing forces—light and dark, hot and cold, unify and destroy—same boy. Was he conflicted? Yes. Was he confused? Yes. Did he hate asking himself rhetorical questions? Yes. Yes, he did.
He could talk to monsters, thanks to the Hunter’s Mark. Other than that, and a few random experiences with the Eye last year, he was clueless as to their purpose and use.
If the two puzzling marks were the extent of his childhood trauma, Sky felt he’d be okay. Weird, but okay. The real problem was how he got both marks. He started with just one—which one, he didn’t know. The other he’d acquired as a baby when a person he called “Shadow Man” turned him and another boy, Errand, into Changelings. Monsters. They’d become physically identical in every way at the moment of Change, and deeply connected thereafter.
And then, within hours of Sky discovering that Errand was real, Solomon Rose had thrown Errand over an enormous wall.
Like Phineas, Errand was simply gone, and Sky felt like part of himself was missing. Was he a monster? Was he a hunter? Had he stolen Errand’s life?
Only the Shadow Man knew.
For the last year Sky, Crystal, Andrew, Hands, and T-Bone had run themselves ragged hunting down monsters like the Marrowick that had escaped from Solomon’s prison. Now they were all tired and broken, even if they usually managed to put a good face on it.
A band of one. That’s what Phineas wanted them to be. But how could you possibly take five broken things and make something that wasn’t also broken?
“Are you sure they’re closing early tonight?” Sky asked.
“Positive,” said Hands, whose mother owned the bowling alley. “Madge should’ve left over an hour ago. Marrowicks aren’t violent, are they?”
“They’re walking wax plants,” T-Bone replied. “How violent can they be?”
“Gee, I don’t know,” Andrew responded sarcastically, “I seem to remember a certain Jack and Dovetail plant kicking our trash last summer.”
“And Solomon Rose smacked us around with his Echo branches,” Hands added. “I still have slivers in places I’d rather not mention.”
T-Bone grunted in grudging agreement. Sky understood; it was hard to admit you’d been beaten up by a plant.
They jammed the spare garbage into their duffels and T-Bone dropped everything into a nearby sewer grate while everyone else waited by the Dumpster.
“So what’s a Marrowick doing in a bowling alley in Exile? Why leave the safety of the north cemetery now after a year of hiding?” Crystal asked, staring thoughtfully at the bowling alley’s broken door.
Sky raised his hood as he stepped from hiding. The others fell in line behind him. Since he was the only one who could talk to monsters, the others had selected him to lead the charge—every charge, even though talking almost never worked and monsters invariably mauled him as a result.
T-Bone and Hands thought it was hilarious.
“No idea why it’s here,” Sky replied. “Let’s find out.”
Shockers crackled. Steam hissed. Metal creaked against metal.
Cringing against the agonizing disco beats, Sky reached for the door handle . . . at which point the door promptly exploded off its remaining hinges and hammered him into the ground.