Chapter 15 - (Dead) Animal Farm
According to Demonwall lore, no one knew what formed the poisonous gas coating the surface world, or what dangers and chemicals lurked inside . . . or why it was purple. What they did know, however, was that is was deadly to breathe.
Still, none of this prepared Nedjma and Jose for the sheep.
“Stop walking,” Nedjma hissed.
“Huh?” said Jose, a little distractedly. He’d been sulking all day.
“Nedjma, you have to speak up, I always tell you not to mumble,” Kenneth said irritably. “I can’t see anything in this fog.”
“Which affects your hearing how?” Nedjma snapped. Then she lowered her voice. “There’s something alive over there.”
“How can you tell?” asked Kenneth.
“I, ah . . .” Nedjma shuffled a little in her HCP suit. “Sensed it. Don’t ask.”
Kenneth opened his mouth, looking very much like he wanted to ask . . . but for once, he listened to his sister, and frowned instead.
“Jose, do the thing you did before,” Nedjma whispered from the corner of her mouth. “The thing is getting closer.”
“Okay, just don’t make fun of me again,” Jose answered at the same volume. He cocked his head. “You couldn’t sense stuff before, could you? You must be beefing up your –”
“My muscles? Yup,” Nedjma interrupted, shooting a one-second look at Kenneth. Then she added under her breath, “Also my senses are on freaking high alert in here.”
She shivered, much like a normal person would do in close proximity to necromantic residue.
Jose closed his eyes. He scrunched his brow, then yelled, “Repel miasma!”
A puff of magic hissed out of him like gas, and suddenly the purple smog retracted several feet.
Kenneth snorted. “Still sounds like a fart.”
“Hey!” Jose pouted. “Just be happy I didn’t say repel air this time.”
That one had sent Nedjma and Kenneth backflipping into the trees.
“Oh, I am,” said Kenneth.
The boys looked around the newly-cleared space. In seconds, they spotted what Nedjma had sensed . . . and what she was staring at, openmouthed.
It looked, at first glance, like a sheep. Fluffy, white, and a little dumb in the face. At second glance, however, some disturbing details appeared: bald patches dotting its body, oozing blood and pus. Strips of skin hanging off its flank. White strands forming spiderwebs in its blank eyes.
“Eeeew,” said Jose.
“It – it looks dead,” said Kenneth distastefully.
“It is dead,” said Nedjma.
In disbelief, she walked towards the zombie sheep. It flicked its tail and puttered a step or two away.
“Nedjma, do not touch that thing,” said Kenneth. “It definitely has worms. Or maggots or parasites or something.”
“Take a chill pill,” Nedjma retorted, but her voice was distracted. Her eyes still followed the zombie sheep.
“It’s not alone,” said Jose in wonder. He hadn’t sensed the necromantic energy like Nedjma; he hadn’t needed to. Three more sheep and a much larger form – a cow – had ambled into sight.
“How many are there?” Kenneth demanded.
“Repel miasma!” cried Jose, and with another questionable-sounding puff of air, a twenty-foot clearing appeared in the purple smog.
Kenneth and Jose yelped.
Another cow, a mastiff dog, and half a dozen chickens surrounded them. They drifted through the mist, their glassy eyes staring into the distance. However, they all seemed to be following their sheep friend . . . headed right towards Nedjma, Jose, and Kenneth.
“Let’s get moving,” said Kenneth, in a slightly squeakier voice than usual. “Now.”
“No, wait.” Nedjma shook her head, breaking out of her thoughts. “They’re just farm animals. They’re fine.”
Kenneth made a defiant sound, like, “Uu-uh!”
Nedjma ignored him. Shiftily, Jose scooted to her side and whispered, “Powers?”
“Going crazy,” Nedjma breathed back. “These animals read like necromancers . . . I don’t understand it . . .” She shook her head, looking troubled. “It’s like I can feel Verithiel here, somehow, and these guys . . . they almost feel . . . familiar.”
“Distract the Onion Lord,” Nedjma muttered. “I’m gonna summon Chanel. Maybe she can talk to them or something.”
“On it!” Jose saluted her swiftly. Then, realizing Kenneth had noticed the gesture, he quickly turned it into a casual hair flip. This might have worked if he’d been wearing anything other than an HCP suit.
Kenneth rose an eyebrow. “Keeping secrets?”
“Who? Us? Me? Nooooo.” Jose moseyed up to him, clearly shooting for chill vibes. Kenneth fixed him with a piercing look, so unlike Anti-Kenneth’s approachably empty expression. In the tall man’s intimidating shadow, Jose seemed to shrink a few inches. The vibes vanished.
Kenneth’s bangs fell over his forehead, casting jagged shadows and giving him a terrifying resemblance to his younger sister.
“Jose, I know you and Nedjma are hiding something.”
Jose shrunk another half inch. “Er – nope. Just talkin’ ’bout sheep.”
“There are gaps in your story, Jose. Unexplained moments.”
“Talkin’ ’bout sheeeeep,” Jose sang uncomfortably. “Grody sheeep . . .”
Kenneth leaned down, coming eye-level with Jose. Light caught his face in odd angles, casting more strange shadows. Jose gulped. Had the man always been so intimidating?
“Tell me the truth, Jose. Or no more homemade Lunchabunches.”
Jose gasped. “Forever?”
“Forever,” Kenneth vowed.
For a moment, Jose looked defeated. Then, with what seemed like immense pain, he said, “I . . . am . . . being honest.”
Kenneth shook his head solemnly, as if Jose had just signed his own death warrant. “Then I’m afraid you and Nedjma are packing your own lunches until the end of time.”
“I – you – well, it’s fine, because I’m almost a college student,” Jose sniffed, though he looked heartbroken. Then he tilted his head in thought. “Also, it’s not like you’re being honest with us.”
Kenneth straightened. “Says who?”
“Says anyone with eyes, man,” said Jose. “You’re no secret agent or anything. Not sneaky at all. No offense.”
Kenneth avoided Jose’s eyes, staring out into the miasma. Then he blinked.
“The heck is Nedjma holding?”
Jose jumped. “Er – nothing – reflection from the sun, maybe – uhh –”
But it was too late: Kenneth was already marching towards his sister. Jose cringed. A cow and two sheep trotted up and sniffed him.
“Nedjma!” said Kenneth when he reached his sister.
Nedjma, who’d been focusing all her attention on the newly-summoned Chanel Stamp, jolted so hard she chucked her pet rat into the air.
“Shoot!” she exclaimed.
“WHAT?” Kenneth exploded.
“Squeak!” Chanel Stamp protested.
Luckily, being a ghost, Chanel disappeared in a puff of glowing mist. Nedjma sighed in relief, then glared at her brother.
“Oh no, no no no, don’t give me that look!” All at once, Kenneth dissolved into frantic energy. “I knew it – I KNEW IT. I knew you were a necromancer!”
“Me? A necromancer?” Nedjma tried to look offended. “That’s illegal –”
“You just summoned a ghost rat!”
“Her name’s not ghost rat, it’s Chanel Stamp,” Nedjma grunted. After so many similar moments with Jose, the response seemed automatic.
“Chanel – that’s a horrible name!” said Kenneth. Insulted, Nedjma started to argue, but he cut her off: “I don’t wanna know!"
"Dude, chill out!" said Nedjma. "I already told you I was travelling with Dr. Louis, you didn't freak out then! Just because it's me –"
This, naturally, didn't help. Kenneth's manic intensity switched off like a light switch, morphing to absolute stillness.
"Dr. Louis. You were travelling with . . ." He swallowed. "I thought I remembered . . . I didn't want to remember . . . oh god. Tell me the truth – did she do this to you? Did she hurt you?”
Nedjma stared at her brother, uncomprehending. “Chanel?”
Kenneth’s arms started shaking. Nedjma blinked. Something burned in her brother’s eyes, his expression, something she didn’t seem to understand.
“Lulu would never hurt me.”
Kenneth twitched. “Lulu? You call her – you –” In frustration, he tried to grab his head; his hands thumped against the HCP suit. “No . . . no no no . . . I knew you traveled with a ghost necromancer, you said – wait.” Kenneth’s eyes lit up with fresh horror. “Ghost? Lulu was dead – and now she’s alive again – no no no no –”
“Kenneth?” Nedjma looked careful, suspicious. “You know Lulu. I remember now. You recognized her.”
Kenneth shook his head. He looked, ironically enough, like he’d just seen a ghost.
“Did she do something to your brain?” he said. “Be honest. Answer me.”
“I already told you, dummy.” Nedjma enunciated her next words like she was speaking to a baby Anti-Kenneth: “Lulu – would – not – hurt –”
“Quit calling her that!” Kenneth snapped. “Dr. Saltzman, that – that monster is Dr. Saltzman.”
Nedjma blinked several times. “Monster? She – she’s not a monster, you idiot, she’s my teacher!”
“Aah!” was all Kenneth managed, falling back a step and staring at Nedjma in revulsion.
“Look,” said Nedjma, anger filling her expression. “Fine. Cat’s out of the bag. I’m a necromancer. That bother you? I’M A NECROMANCER! I’ve been a practicing necromancy since I was, like, seven –”
“Six,” Jose interjected.
“– six!” Nedjma corrected. She nodded at Jose, who now stood at the center of all the farm animals and looked distinctly unhappy about it. The entire herd had congregated to lick and nibble his HCP suit. “Necromancy is a part of who I am, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem, not mine!”
Kenneth took a long minute to digest this.
“Nedjma, it’s just not right,” he murmured.
He might as well have slapped Nedjma. She recoiled, as if suddenly remembering that the world was not populated with Lulu Saltzmans and Jose Shanes. There was a reason necromancy was illegal. People hated it.
“Your problem,” she said in hard voice. “Not mine.”
She turned away from him, Jose, and the zombie herd, crossing her arms tight. Hesitantly, Kenneth inched up beside her.
“Look, Nedjma . . . it . . . it doesn’t bother me that you can . . . can . . . Look, what do you even do with necromancy, anyway?”
“Kill people,” Nedjma snapped, like, And what are you gonna do about it? Then the fire faded from her eyes. “And bring them back to life, I always do that. Summon Chanel Stamp. I can die and become, like, a sort-of-ghost. That was pretty much it, before Lulu . . .”
“Ah.” Kenneth considered this, pursing his lips. “Well, as long as you don’t permanently kill people . . . No twisted experiments?”
“No raising the dead?”
“No dancing skeletons?”
“No.” Nedjma elbowed her brother. “That’s fake, anyway.”
“Oh,” said Kenneth. “Well, I'll have to deal with it, I guess. Thanks for being honest, kid. And hey, maybe one day I can even introduce you to my magic,” he added.
“Your – you do magic?” Nedjma demanded, floored. “And you never TOLD me?”
Kenneth winked. “I’m a mysterious guy.”
Stunned, Nedjma studied her brother as if seeing him for the first time. A million questions pooled behind her eyes, but predictably, the first had nothing to do with this mysterious power.
“So how do you know Lulu?”
Coldness coated Kenneth’s face in an instant, transforming it into the same icy mask Nedjma often hid behind.
“Look, Nedjma. When you were a baby, when . . . when Mom and Dad got sick, I spent a lot of time in the hospital.”
A little color drained from Nedjma’s cheeks. Whatever answer she’d been expecting, it clearly hadn’t included her deceased parents.
“And?” she pressed.
Kenneth winced a little. Unlike most others, he could read Nedjma’s face – read how vitally important this information was to her. How important Lulu was to her.
Before he could go on, however, a scream shattered the moment.
Nedjma and Kenneth whirled around. “Jose!”
At once, their eyes grew wide. The entire front of Jose’s HCP suit was drenched in blood.
“It . . . bit me,” he said in a daze.
“It – oh god –” Nedjma gasped, before throwing herself at the animals. “BACK UP!”’
The ghostly wail seemed to be magnified by the miasma. A wave of power exploded out of Nedjma like a sonic boom. Zombified sheep and chickens flew in all directions. The cows tipped. The dog tumbled away, its muzzle dripping blood.
Jose collapsed to his knees. Nedjma and Kenneth scrambled to his sides.
“How deep is the bite? Where is it? Where's the pain?” Kenneth shot at him.
“Are you okay? Jose, are you okay?” Nedjma demanded, less helpfully.
Jose’s frame trembled. His hands balled into fists.
“Chest,” he managed weakly. Tears glistened in his eyes. “Took a chunk.”
Nedjma looked horrified, but she gripped Jose securely. “You’re gonna be fine. Kenneth –” her attention flashed to her brother – “tell me those years of first aid training paid off.”
Kenneth nodded, though he looked shaken. “We don’t have supplies – we’ll have to make do without disinfectant. If I could just –”
“Nedj,” Jose whimpered “It bit through.”
Nedjma didn’t take the time to register her best friend’s words. She’d already pulled open Jose’s backpack, careful not to jostle him, and started searching its contents.
“What is that?” Kenneth demanded.
Nedjma looked up. Most of the farm animals had retreated into the miasma, but one sheep remained. Nedjma’s wail had hit this one especially hard. The force had ripped its head clean off its shoulders . . . and from its decapitated neck, a hazy red form was rising into sight.
“Specter,” Nedjma realized in dawning horror. “They – they’re visible here? And the bodies – they took over – and they’re always trying to get Jose! SHOOT! I KNEW they seemed familiar!” She smacked herself in the forehead. “I’m sorry, Jose, I should’ve known. I should’ve . . .”
She cut off in disgust, then shook her head to clear it. “But we’ll get you bandaged up, okay? You’ll be alright.”
She locked eyes with Jose, forcing a reassuring smile. Tears streamed down Jose’s cheeks.
“N-Nedj, it bit through,” he said again.
This time, Nedjma registered his meaning.
Slowly, her gaze fell down to Jose’s blood-coated chest . . . to the missing chunk in his HCP suit . . .
And she could only watch as the miasma seeped inside.
Chapter 14 - Tram Time
"Will you tell me what's going on now- oof."
Anti-Anti-Kenneth put a hand over his stomach while Nedjma eyed the people around. She didn't have to reach very far in this crowded, diagonal tram car to elbow him; it seemed like with each stop down the mountain, the more people that got off, the more it filled up again. The dizzying array of neon shapes and LED sunglasses that seemed to be the latest fad on the mountain made her nauseous every time the car swayed with another turn. The increase of oxygen from the altitude would help if the pressure weren't changing just as much.
Nedjma flexed her hand in the motion that would summon chanel stamp, but never did the full flourish to make it work. She frowned, cradling her hand instead.
Kenneth looked almost out of his mind- whether from falling asleep at home and waking up on an entirely different mountain, the talk of necromancy coming from the cops earlier, his sister and her kid best friend telling him to sneak away from said cops and him being too disoriented to fight it, or the fact that neither of them would talk no matter how many times he threatened with a monster noogie. Jose's face was screwed up into a frown that looked like he didn't know whether to get angry or cry. That seemed to confuse Kenneth the most.
Their sleek, chrome mountain tram slid to a stop at the end of the track and the door slid open. A shorter, half lit, and yellowing plastic mountain tram waited for them across the platform. The last of the passengers dismounted to the platform steps, each of the bunch having to fight the current flowing to the exit to get to the other tram. Kenneth obediently followed them for now, though he towered over the two kids with a glare at everyone else and pushed people out of the way if they tried to come between them.
Now in a nearly empty tram, they had some room to breathe, though the public bathroom smell prevented much of that. Each of them climbed the stairs and fell into a seat in the back.
"Spill it," Kenneth commanded. He caught another elbow from Nedjma and eyed her. "I'm not kidding. And there's only one other man in here, and the old guy's asleep. Spill, or I'll donk you two right now." He held up a fist, one knuckle raised above the others for maximum noogie pain to illustrate.
Nedjma licked her lips and sighed through a clenched jaw, seeming to finally accept who she was really dealing with now.
"We need your help," Nedjma finally got out, after some obvious internal pep talk. Kenneth raised his eyebrows and jutted his jaw forward in an obvious, With?
"We have to get back to Demonwall."
"But we can't fly."
Kenneth jerked to face her. "What? Why the heck not?!" The old man sleeping in the front halted his snoring for half a second, and Kenneth lowered his voice, rubbing his knuckles like he was warming them up. "You're gonna have to do better than one sentence at a time, or I swear you're grounded until you're fifty. Jose too."
Jose gulped and faced the window, hugging his bag on his lap tighter, obviously wanting to stay out of it.
Nedjma took a long, deep breath, still stalling. "Okay. You wanna know what happened?" She paused before shooting their whole story out in one breath. "We met a ghost necromancer at the hospital and she needed our help with these spectres that're going to take over everyone's bodies like zombies and you died and it happened to you so we took you to Marranon mountain by plane but Jose's dad was captaining it and he caught us so we highjacked the plane a little bit and got to the castle and into the castle and stole some suits and the ghost necromancer became just a necromancer but then we got caught at the store after we escaped the castle and she got taken away and you woke up."
"You left out the part where we-" Jose started to mime jumping from the plane but cut himself off when Nedjma gave him a hard look. "Where we, uh… really taught my dad a lesson." He turned the gesture into a weak punch and gave an even weaker smile.
"That guy always was a tool." Kenneth seemed to buy it, until the rest of what Nedjma said caught up with him. He nearly blew up, or internally combusted, not caring about who else might have heard anymore. Nedjma did her best to explain what they planned to do, and a well timed digital wanted poster at the next station they stopped at helped corroborate.
Jose pulled a suit from his bag and held it out for Kenneth with timid hands as soon as they left the last stop on the tram line.
"There is no way I'm letting this happen, or getting into that tiny suit."
Kenneth grumbled, picking awkwardly at the yellow fabric. "This thing is riding up my-"
"There it is," Jose said with a gloved point to the unmanned gate, the sea of purple clouds of miasma waiting less than ten feet down the slope and behind the fence. The gate's watch house was small and long abandoned, even the digital replacement system set up looking old enough to be something in their house. A simple camera and keypad were set up next to the gate lock, but the red light on the camera was flashing erratically with a weird buzzing noise. Nedjma tried the gate, just to be sure, but no dice.
"We need a code," Nedjma said, stating the obvious, and Jose slipped inside the unlocked room without a word and started digging. Nedjma cast a worried glance at each of the two boys, both with very different flavors of worry. She opened her mouth to say something to Kenneth but thought better of it, heading inside to help Jose. Kenneth only rose an eyebrow before staring at the keypad in contemplative silence.
"Are you… doing okay?" Nedjma asked, reaching through the awkward silence between them as she searched the dusty, cobweb filled desk. Jose rifled through a rusted filing cabinet.
"Yeah, I'm okay," he answered, but his voice sounded sour.
"…Do you want a hug?" she asked, standing to face him with hands out in invitation. Jose took it without an answer, hugging her a little tighter than she expected.
"He's still out there somewhere, I know it. We'll find him again." Nedjma rubbed his back and Jose sniffed from behind her, pulling away with a shaky breath. Turning away to continue his search, he mumbled a small, "Thanks."
"Anytime," she answered softly, doing the same.
Filing cabinets? Old redacted and yellowing files on people and places that didn't matter and probably didn't exist anymore.
Desk? Dangerously old gummy worms and a scattered deck of cards.
Boxes in the corner? Repair tools and a pair of keys with no lock in sight. She took the crowbar though, tying it to her back with a length of rope.
"Might come in handy," she told Jose with a shrug.
"Why are you taking so long?" Kenneth griped, peeking through the hole in the dust covered window.
"There's no code sticky-note anywhere, just a bunch of junk," Nedjma answered. Kenneth sneered, though not at her. He disappeared toward the gate and after a moment, the sound of metal sliding unwillingly made the two jump. Nedjma and Jose shared a look before racing outside to see Kenneth walking through the gate that was, indeed, open.
"How-" Jose started.
"You just had to pull a little harder," he said in a flat voice. The two of them looked at the still-blinking keypad with smudges on some of the numbers, and then back to Kenneth. He had a look on him that almost seemed to say, Are you going to ask, or do you want me on this team?
Nedjma and Jose shared another look that ended with unsure nods, walking through the gate with mouths shut. Kenneth gave a satisfied nod himself before pulling the gate shut with a loud clang behind them.
"That's what I thought."
Written by Luna B.
Chapter 13 - It’s an Unlucky Number, Alright
Jose set his jaw. He looked just as determined as when he’d faced off against Captain Alexander.
“It’s gotta be,” he said, right as Nedjma opened her mouth to protest. “I’ve gotta stay here.”
“I . . . disagree,” said Dr. Lulu. And yet, on her face, she couldn’t hide a hint of relief. “You’re very valuable to the team, Jose –– truly an accomplished wizard, more than I gave you credit for. But . . . if you’re sure . . .”
“No, he is not sure,” said Nedjma. “He’s an airhead.”
She looked daggers at Jose. Jose looked right back, just as stubbornly.
“Clothes,” said Dr. Saltsman, interrupting the standoff. “Come on.”
She walked purposefully down the street –– or, at least, she tried to. About three steps in, she swayed into the side of a building.
“I got you,” said Nedjma, jumping forward and pulling Dr. Lulu’s arm over her shoulders.
“Thank you,” said Dr. Lulu. She grimaced. “My legs feel like gummy worms. Is that normal?”
“Not even a little bit,” said Nedjma. She scanned the nearby shops until she spotted a sparkling boutique on the corner. “Hmm . . .”
With her free arm, she reached back and smacked Jose’s shoulder.
“Grab Anti-Kenneth and follow me,” she said, nodding at the boutique. “We’re gonna have to do a heist.”
A slightly diabolical light filled Jose’s eyes. “Ooh. Fashion heist.”
“Nooo –– no no ––” Dr. Lulu waved her hand between Jose and Nedjma, breaking up the highly illegal mental picture they seemed to be sharing. “Rena’s wallet is in her pocket. We’ll use just her money.”
Nedjma and Jose’s shoulders slumped a little. “Oh . . .”
“You two . . .” Lulu shook her head.
Still looking disappointed, Jose slipped his backpack off to one side. He unzipped it, revealing two HCP suits, then excavated the third one from Anti-Kenneth’s sweatshirt and crammed it in too.
He swung the overstuffed backpack back into place and gave them all a sneaky thumbs up.
Nedjma rolled her eyes. “Master of stealth, folks.”
Jose stuck his tongue out. Then he took Anti-Kenneth by the shirtsleeve and dragged him forward. A brief moment of distaste flickered across Dr. Saltsman’s face as her deep blue eyes passed over his soulless crimson ones.
They entered the boutique. Clearly, it was high-end: Bright colors and wild patterns filled the space, along with rows of gleaming mannequins. As Nedjma and Jose goggled at the clothes, which looked much cleaner and sleeker than anything in their closets (and probably anything on Demonwall), Dr. Lulu checked a price tag.
“Oh, good,” she snorted. “Yes, Rena will not be happy with this one.”
She disentangled herself from Nedjma’s supporting arm. With difficulty, Nedjma ripped her gaze off a shimmering purple biker jacket. “Whoa –– you cool, Dr. Salts–– Lulu?”
Dr. Lulu leaned against the wall. The casual pose looked a bit off for the stuffy doctor. “I’m good. Totally, er, cool.”
Nedjma chuckled a little, which made Dr. Lulu smile. “Pick out anything you like. And Jose, you might as well get that shirt you’re staring at.”
Jose jumped slightly, then blushed. He’d been gawking at a baby blue button-up with a shiny gold pattern.
“Okay!” He grabbed a size small and dragged Anti-Kenneth towards the changing rooms. Anti-Kenneth looked unexcited. Probably because fancy clothes weren’t edible.
“I, uh . . .” Nedjma swallowed. She motioned to the purple jacket, a sparkle in her eyes Lulu had rarely seen before. “I’m just gonna . . .”
And she grabbed the jacket, along with a black t-shirt and some heavily-studded leather pants, and zoomed after Jose and Anti-Kenneth.
Lulu sighed. Alone, she let herself slump against the wall.
“Jose or Nedjma . . . humans or specters . . . or . . .”
She pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Rena . . .”
Releasing her nose, Lulu flipped through her sister’s wallet. The ID picture looked spookily like Lulu herself, though older and more stoic.
“You idiot girl,” Lulu muttered. She let her eyes wander towards the opposite end of the store, the dressing rooms. Through racks of overpriced acid-washed denim, she could just make out the others: Jose was smooshing a baseball cap onto Anti-Kenneth’s messy hair; Nedjma swatted him.
Dr. Saltsman’s expression tightened.
“Not them too,” she murmured to herself.
A jingle distracted her, as the boutique doors swung open. Dr. Lulu stifled a gasp.
The newcomer was a stranger to Lulu, but it was clear where he came from.
“Hello, sir,” said an employee –– maybe the store manager. “How can I help you today?”
The stranger adjusted his lab coat, clearing his throat.
“I’m from Marranon Castle ––”
“Oh, yes, I saw some commotion from over there. What –– I mean, is everything okay?”
“We’re asking all the stores in the area to be on alert,” said the lab coat briskly. “Apparently, our facilities have been robbed ––”
“What? That –– that’s never happened before, right?”
This was enough for Dr. Lulu. She pushed herself off of the wall and walked forward –– slowly, one step at a time. Her knees shook. Her face screwed up in concentration . . .
The lab coat’s voice floated through the racks of clothes.
“Luckily, one of our professors is almost identical to the thief. Professor Saltsman has given us a picture of herself, we’re asking all the local stores to familiarize themselves with this image. Take a look.”
“That –– huh . . . actually, it looks like ––”
Lulu didn’t wait for the end of the store manager’s sentence. She had a bad feeling it would sound something like: It looks like that woman right there!
She scrambled through a line of baggy pants. Clothes formed a circle around her, hiding her from view. As long as no one noticed her feet peeking out from underneath the fabric . . .
Her breath sounded too loud in the cramped space. Her eyes flicked uselessly side to side. She closed them.
The ghostly wail was so quiet, barely a breath. But Dr. Lulu couldn’t risk raising her voice, couldn’t risk anyone unfriendly hearing . . .
. . . which meant Nedjma couldn’t hear her either.
Behind a dressing room door, Nedjma readjusted the biker jacket. She considered herself in the floor-length mirror, totally decked out in high-end duds. Her expression shifted back and forth. Happy to nervous. Smile to frown.
“You okay in there?” she asked the wall.
“Yup,” said Jose from the other side. In his own dressing room, he was also studying his reflection, pursing his lips. He buttoned and unbuttoned the top of his shirt.
“Hey, Anti-Kenny, you can look now,” he said to Anti-Kenneth’s back. The man-baby waited in the corner, his nose pressed to the wall, the way Jose’s mom had made him stand as a kid whenever he got a time-out.
“Youuu said . . . priiiivacy,” Anti-Kenneth reminded him.
“Yeah, well, I’m done changing now,” said Jose. “Check it out.”
Slowly, Anti-Kenneth shuffled around. His blank red eyes landed on Jose, then immediately squeezed shut.
“I am not!” Jose protested. “It’s cool to leave the shirt unbuttoned! That’s how you get hot babes.”
“Hot . . . baaaabes?”
“Jose, if you teach my brother’s specter how to pick up chicks, I’ll kill you,” came Nedjma’s voice through the wall.
“I can’t help my natural charm and charisma,” Jose retorted. He looked at his reflection, then sighed. “You’re gonna be alright without me, Anti-Kenny. Promise?”
Anti-Kenneth only blinked.
“Right,” said Jose, who seemed to accept this was the best answer he’d get. “Just let Nedjma take care of you.”
More blinking. Jose sighed a second time.
“It’s . . . meee,” said Anti-Kenneth.
Anti-Kenneth winced, the way he did when struggling to string new words together. “Leave . . . me.”
Jose stared at him. “I –– what? No! You’d never survive without us! No offense,” he added quickly. “Also, you’ve got Nedjma’s brother in there too. It’d be like leaving two of us behind.”
Anti-Kenneth’s eyebrows twitched. “Kenneeeth . . .”
“And Anti-Kenneth,” said Jose. “Two friends. We can’t do that. That’s why it’s gotta be me.”
Yet again, Nedjma’s voice carried through the wall.
Back in her dressing room, Nedjma’s expression was tense. “Jose, you’re being stupid. If you stay with Lulu, there’s one necromancer and one wizard. That gives you access to the most magic. Plus, Anti-Kenneth trusts you . . . You have to go.”
Her hands formed fists at her sides.
“No way,” said Jose. “No way in absolute heck. If you get caught, it’ll ruin your chances for college!”
“And it’ll ruin yours too!”
“I’m not a necromancer!” Jose pointed out. “Your magic is illegal! Mine’s not!”
“But if you get caught, they’ll throw you back to your dad!” Nedjma snapped. “I have to stay behind! I’m your best friend, I can’t let you ––”
“No, I’m your best friend, so I can’t let you ––”
A loud clattering noise, and Nedjma and Jose shut up immediately.
“Lulu,” whispered Nedjma.
She burst out of the dressing room. Jose stumbled into sight a second later, his backpack hanging off one shoulder. He reached back into his dressing room and yanked Anti-Kenneth out too.
“What do you –– oh my god, Jose, button your shirt.” Nedjma shook her head to clear it. “What do you think that was?”
“Dunno,” said Jose. “Let’s go find Dr. Lulu, just in case.”
They headed towards the front of the boutique. As they did, a sound rose through the air –– arguing voices.
“Ma’am, stop resisting ––”
“How dare you –– I’m a respected scientist!”
“This could all be a mistake, ma’am –– we’ll just need to take you to the castle for questioning ––”
Nedjma threw out her arms, catching Jose and Anti-Kenneth in the chests. Between two mannequin displays, a concerning scene had just appeared: clothes scattered on the floor, and a rack turned sideways. A few customers gathered off to one side, looking fearful. A boutique employee holding a phone, talking rapidly into the receiver.
And a scientist from the castle, holding a struggling Lulu tight by the forearms.
“I got it,” said Nedjma. “Stay here.”
She darted forward. There was just enough time for Lulu’s eyes to widen, and the scientist to say, “Miss, please step ––”
Then Nedjma punched the scientist in the face, and he died.
“Nedjma!” exclaimed Dr. Lulu.
“Sorry,” said Nedjma, breathing a little heavily. “Got mad.”
“Or you’re still bitter you didn’t get anyone good with a book,” added Jose, dragging Anti-Kenneth forward too.
About that time, the employee screamed.
“Did you –– you –– IS HE DEAD?”
“Aw dag, more people to worry about,” Jose muttered.
“No,” said Nedjma, more loudly. “I’m just really strong.”
“He’s not breathing,” the employee managed, his voice rising in pitch. The onlooking customers began gasping and stumbling backwards. “Oh my god –– are you gonna kill me too? Uh –– take my money! Take all the money in the cash register!”
“We don’t want your money!” said Dr. Lulu impatiently. “Goodness, people get so frightened when they see a bit of necromancy.”
“Oh, shoot,” said Lulu.
The employee dropped the receiver, but the damage was done. If there had been any doubt Rena’s thieves were here, it had all just vanished.
“We have to get out of here now,” said Dr. Saltsman, her voice deadly serious. “Before it’s too late ––”
Unfortunately, at that moment, the boutique doors crashed open. A dozen bodies poured into the room, a mixture of lab coats and what looked like police officers.
“That’s her! That’s the thief!”
“Too late,” Lulu whispered.
She stood up straighter. “I am not a thief, I’m Professor Rena Saltsman and ––”
“No, you are not.”
And, from behind the scientists, the real Rena Saltsman stepped into sight.
Professor Saltsman had changed into new clothes, though it must have been a rush-job, because her pant suit was mismatched and a little crooked. Her bob haircut was disheveled, and a nasty bruise was forming over her left temple.
“Whoa,” one of the lab coats whispered to another. “I had no idea Rena had a twin.”
Nedjma and Jose stared at each other in panic. Anti-Kenneth looked at Professor Saltsman, tilting his head . . . then he closed his eyes.
“Lulu, come quietly, please. Leave these innocent people alone.”
Rena’s eyes swept over the employee, customers, Jose, and Anti-Kenneth. Her gaze lingered a moment over Nedjma’s face.
“I’m not –– I can’t ––”
Dr. Lulu looked like a caged animal –– eyes wide and breathing quickly. She threw her hands into the air; the employee, customer, and a few of the lab coats yelped.
“Don’t make me,” she said, in a shaky voice. “My magic is more powerful than yours ––”
“Lulu, that’s illegal,” said Professor Saltsman. “Please, don’t act rashly. We can work out an agreement, if only ––”
The death rattle came out forced; nothing happened.
Professor Saltsman chuckled quietly.
“The thing you’ve stolen, it’s not working quite right?”
“I didn’t steal it, you did!” Lulu threw back at her, though she sounded more terrified than harsh.
Nedjma and Jose blinked at each other. It sounded like Rena was talking about Lulu’s body . . . but if that was the “stolen” something, did Rena even know about the HCP Suits?
“Why isn’t it working?” Lulu asked, a bit desperately. “What did you do to it?”
Tension hummed in the air. Everyone –– customers and policemen and lab coats –– looked lost, but that didn’t stop them from watching Rena and Lulu like the final seconds of a baseball game.
“Nothing,” said Rena. Her eyes glinted, and she looked more like Lulu than ever. “Don’t you see? You may have spent twenty years changing, but it hasn’t. The body –– the brain –– it’s right where you left it.”
“Er, Professor Saltsman,” cut in a police officer, looking troubled. “You want us to go ahead?”
“Yes, I think so,” said Rena. She didn’t look smug or even pleased –– quite the opposite. She looked disappointed, as if she’d expected this twenty-years-awaited reunion to go a little more smoothly. “Her necromancy seems to be less of a problem than I anticipated.”
Without thinking, Nedjma opened her mouth to protest –– but by now, Lulu knew her too well.
“NO one should underestimate me,” she said, camouflaging Nedjma’s “no!” with her own. “No one should worry about me, not now or ever. Not when I’m gone. Just go home and live a good life. And know that I’m . . . I’m so sorry.”
One of the customers placed a hand on their heart, looking genuinely touched.
Rena also looked a bit taken aback. “I –– um ––”
A hand slipped into Lulu’s. Nedjma.
Something shifted in the doctor’s eyes.
This time, Lulu’s necromancy worked –– a pulse swept the room. Everything shook like one of her ghostly death rattles. Clothes and hangers clattered to the floor –– pained and terrified yells filled the room ––
Then, all at once, everyone died.
Silence fell over the boutique. Everything was still.
Lulu stood in the middle of a roomful of corpses, chest heaving. Her body shook. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“You always go too far, Lulu.”
Rena stood across the room. Somehow, she had withstood Dr. Lulu’s magic.
She gestured to the dead bodies. “You still think you’re the good one of us?”
“What else could I do?” Lulu snapped. “You backed me into a corner!”
Professor Saltsman held up her hands in a peacemaking gesture. “I tried to talk to you like a sister. You took your body and ran. You backed me in a corner.” She hesitated a long second. “Did you mean what you said?”
Dr. Lulu studied her sister’s face, calculating.
“Oh.” A smile played across Rena’s lips. “I . . . I can’t deny, this means a lot. I forgive you, Lulu. I’ve always forgiven you –– Lulu, I respect you so much. I . . .”
Rena brushed a few tears away impatiently. “Please, I know it’s so much to handle. Returning to a living body after twenty years can be . . . well, I imagine it’s so disorienting. And of course, it will take some time for you to come back to yourself.”
“Back to . . . the Lulu you knew?”
“Yes!” Rena noticed the distaste in her sister’s voice, but misinterpreted: “Don’t worry. All the power you gained these last twenty years should return soon enough. Just think of this as . . . well, your next great experiment.”
Professor Saltsman drew a deep breath. The smile on her face spread.
“Lulu, everything I do, I do for you. I’ve spent years searching for you, and finishing your work, just so ––” She pressed a fist to her mouth, holding back a surge of emotion. “Just so I could make you proud. So I could be ready for this moment.”
She held out her hand.
“Now, please . . . let me show you what I’ve done for you.”
A heartbeat passed in stillness. Then, slowly, Lulu extended both of her hands, and wrapped them around Professor Saltsman’s.
“I’ll go with you,” she said. “Just, one favor, please. For your sister.”
The light in Rena’s expression could have powered all the technology on Marranon Mountain. “Yes! Of course!”
Lulu dropped Rena’s hands and turned around. Nedjma, Jose, and Anti-Kenneth lay crumpled at her feet, so peacefully they might have been sleeping.
“As a ghost, I manipulated these three,” said Dr. Lulu. “I forced them to break the law, and lie, and help me steal. All for my benefit.”
“They’ve certainly got witnesses,” said Rena, nodding towards the dead employee and customers.
“They’re innocents,” said Lulu, her voice going hoarse. “Please, if you have the power to arrest me so quickly . . . could you protect them? Get them home?”
Professor Saltsman tilted her head, thinking.
“I’ve got an expansive network of associates,” she said at last. “I can pull a few strings, make sure these three are welcome on Marranon Mountain, as long as the lying and stealing stops. As for getting them home . . . I imagine public planes are out of the picture?”
“You heard about that?”
“News travels fast,” said Rena. “I took an educated guess.”
Silence. Lulu took the opportunity to kneel between Nedjma and Jose, hiding her face. A tear trickled down her cheek.
“There’s a car waiting outside,” said Rena. “Revive everyone, then wait for me there. I’ll explain the situation to the police. And your, ah . . . friends.”
Lulu stayed still as a statue. Her hands gripped Nedjma’s and Jose’s.
“We should hurry,” said Rena, a bit more insistently now. “Those specters you released . . . We’ve rounded up most of them, but . . .”
Blinking the moisture from her eyes, Lulu looked at her sister. Professor Saltsman nodded towards the corner of the boutique. Neither sister could see it, but with their magic, both could sense a familiar threatening presence.
“Of course,” said Lulu. She cleared her throat, stood, and walked slowly towards the door. Once she reached it, she turned back around and closed her eyes.
Another pulse. More clattering clothes and shivering mannequins. And then, slowly, the no-longer-dead bodies began to stir.
Keeping her eyes away from any familiar faces, Lulu walked through the boutique’s front doors.
Jose sat bolt upright. Disoriented, he looked around.
Bodies still crowded the boutique, though about half the people from before had gone. Of the remaining ones, some were already on their feet, talking in serious tones or scribbling onto clipboards. Others sat on the floor like Jose, looking groggy and rubbing their temples. A few were still motionless.
Nedjma lay sprawled beside Jose, eyes closed. Jose shook her shoulders.
“Nedj . . . Nedj, come on . . .”
Nedjma’s eyelids fluttered open.
“Dag . . .” She sat up, wincing. “So this is how it feels when a necromancer kills you. Remind me to quit doing this to people –– it sucks.”
Then she jumped. “Oh my god –– Jose, Lulu? Where’s Lulu?”
Miserably, Jose shook his head. “I don’t see her. I think she left.”
Nedjma looked like someone had just told her the earth was flat. “But –– but it’s probably a trick or something –– she’s hiding, so they don’t –– yeah, no, she’s got to be around –– somewhere ––”
Jose and Nedjma jumped. A huge cop stood over them, arms crossed.
“Oh dag,” Jose squeaked.
“Now, I don’t know what you do or do not remember,” said the cop, “but you three have undergone a major ordeal. Do you know where you are?”
Slowly, Jose and Nedjma exchanged a glance.
“. . . Marranon Mountain?” said Jose.
The cop opened her mouth, blinked, then shook her head. “Must’ve really done a number . . . Yes, you’re on Marranon Mountain. Specifically, you’re at Hollyhead Boutique on Prospect Street. I imagine you don’t know how you got here?”
Nedjma and Jose looked at each other again. They seemed to be sharing a silent question: What the heck?
“I’ll handle it, Officer,” said a disturbingly familiar voice.
Professor Rena Saltsman stepped around the cop. Immediately, Nedjma’s whole body went rigid, and Jose scrambled to get a tight hold on his backpack. Anti-Kenneth didn’t move, as he was still out cold. With a respectful nod, and a pitying glance at the two teens, the officer stepped away.
The professor kneeled down.
Her voice was low, serious.
“I have told the officers my sister used necromancy to manipulate you to do her bidding. I know that isn’t how it works,” she said, because Nedjma had just opened her mouth to argue. “This is enough to clear you of all charges, at least for the time being. I have convinced them not to take you to the station today. They believe you live on this mountain. You understand me so far?”
Nedjma didn’t budge. Glancing at her, and looking terrified, Jose nodded.
“I have arranged for an employee of mine, named Halcomb, to meet you at the airport at six o’clock,” said Professor Saltsman, even quieter now. “He is flying to High Council Mountain tonight. You will fly with him, under his political protection, then fly from there to Demonwall. Do nothing suspicious, and no one will question you. You understand?”
“But –– why are you doing this?” Jose asked in a fearful whisper. “What’s going on?”
“A favor to my sister,” said Rena. “Don’t waste it.”
“One last thing. Lulu told me to tell you: She’ll take care of it. And, ah, she said, ‘It’s me.’” The professor shook her head. “Maybe you know what she means . . .”
With that, Professor Saltsman strode out of Hollyhead Boutique. Gradually, other scientists, police officers, and customers started following.
Nedjma still hadn’t budged.
“So . . . she got us a way home,” Jose muttered.
“We can’t take it,” said Nedjma. She looked stunned. “Lulu’s in trouble.”
“You heard her though, right?” said Jose. “‘Go live a good life’ and stuff. She . . . she was saying goodbye, Nedj.”
Still sitting on the floor, Nedjma rounded on Jose. “She can’t do this alone. I –– don’t even know what this is –– but something is coming, Jose. And it’s bad. And if Lulu thinks we can just go home after everything we saw –– everything we know now . . .”
Nedjma shook her head.
A little smile played on Jose’s face. “So you weren’t gonna let Lulu send you home? You were gonna trick her into letting you help stop the specters?”
“I mean, yeah.” Nedjma scowled. “Why are you smiling at me like that?”
“Because I was also gonna do that,” Jose admitted. “I kinda thought I could snag another –– er, special suit –– once you guys left. And I napped for like, a week.”
A little laugh escaped Nedjma before she could stop it. “That’s what I was planning!”
Jose laughed too. For a few seconds, the two best friends just grinned at each other, and the seriousness of the moment –– and their looming future –– disappeared.
“So we agree?” said Nedjma. “We use the ‘special suits’ to head to the ––” She glanced around at the lingering cops, then whispered: “The mouth of the mountain. Demonwall, I mean.”
“You got it,” said Jose. “First, though, we should probs get Anti-Kenny up.”
“You really need to stop calling him that.”
The two turned their focus onto Anti-Kenneth. He was the last one unconscious, snoozing peacefully.
“Hey!” Jose poked his face. “Anti-Kenneth! Dude! Quit being lazy!”
“Eeeuuurgh,” he groaned, rubbing his eyes. “Uh . . . Jose? What’s happening right now?”
Jose gasped. Nedjma blinked several times.
Stiffly, the man sat up. He rubbed his stomach a few times. Then he glanced around, and his eyes popped open.
His brown, plain, human eyes.
“Kenneth,” Nedjma croaked.
“Kenneth,” Jose whispered.
“Kenneth,” said Kenneth, placing a hand on his chest. “I’m Kenneth. We’ve known each other literally all your lives. Also, where are we?”
Jose whimpered a little. He squinted around at the boutique, as if he could peer into the Kingdom of Verithiel by sheer force of will. But Nedjma, who could do just that, knew what her best friend didn’t.
Anti-Kenneth was gone.
Written by Kacie Iuvara
Chapter 12 - New Digs and Newer Dilemmas
Beep beep beep. BUZZ.
Beep beep beep beep. BUZZ.
“Did you try her birthday?” Jose asked, peering over Dr. Saltsman (the newly reanimated one)’s shoulder.
“I did! Or at least, I think that was it.”
“You don’t remember your own sister’s birthday?” Nedjma asked with a huff, sounding happy to have another thing to gripe at her about, though with much less immediate anger. She pointed her thumb to Anti-Kenneth, who was standing just behind her and staring into space. “Even I remember this big dummy’s birthday enough to buy him a cake.”
“With his own money,” Jose added, giggling at the memory and holding up a hand for a high five.
“Well, it’s not like I can make any of my own!” Nedjma pouted, but high-fived him anyway. All three of them were pushed back.
“Would you all be quiet please! Ugh, you would all make terrible lab partners,” Dr. Saltsman grumbled. She stared at her hands before shaking them off. “I canNOT get used to this “feeling” thing yet.”
More beeps. Another buzz. The sound of the elevator coming, breaths held... and then passing Rena’s office without stopping, followed by quiet sighs of relief. Chanel Stamp’s squeaks of worry from atop Jose’s head. More beeps and another buzz.
Silence. Beeps. A trill of musical notes and a mechanical lock opening. The sterilizing gas spilled from the clear containment chamber as the door swung open.
“Yes!” “You got it!” the kids cheered, Anti-Kenneth snapping awake at the sudden sound.
“What’s wrong?” Nedjma asked. The doctor hadn’t moved yet. Then Louis shook her head, snatching the much nicer HCP suit from its chamber.
“Nothing, let’s get going.” The doctor shoved the suit in a trash bag and shoved it inside Anti-Kenneth’s sweatshirt and marched for the elevator.
“There was only one suit in there?” Jose said as he turned to follow, reaching to drag Anti-Kenneth along the way.
“Unfortunately, yes.” The elevator pinged with each level it passed. Her eyes darted over the elevator door as she thought. “We’ll have to find the other three somewhere-”
“Actually Jose found two already, but then he went left them in the yard-”
“Excellent,” the doctor said, cutting off Nedjma’s oncoming nags with a finger in the air. “One more then.”
Ding. The elevator door slid open, but it also brought a few other people in labcoats waiting inside. Chanel stamp disappeared at once and Jose shivered as something scrambled under his jacket collar to sit in an inside pocket. He managed to hold whatever noise he was going to make in a badly faked smile. Nedjma jabbed him with an elbow.
“Or we’ll take what we can get,” Louis added through lips that hardly moved, then cleared her throat and straightened herself. “In you go, subjects 34A, and 62B. I’ll see you to the castle gate with this nice security lady and we can run another test next week, hm?”
Jose and Nedjma stared at her like they’d just seen a ghost. Or maybe something else spooky that they hadn’t grown used to by now.
“In you go,” the doctor ordered nearly through her teeth, pushing Nedjma into the other two. She turned to those in the elevator, her voice returned to its normal sweetness, though pitched a bit lower to sound more like her sister disguise. “Don’t worry about them, the guard is merely protocol. These subjects are harmless.”
The smart-spectacled labcoats in the elevator stared wide-eyed until they glanced at the ID card on Louis’ - Rena’s - coat, eyes darting to the walls and clipboards and anything else they could find to mind their own business. Dr. Saltsman calmly stepped into the elevator and swiveled to face the door, only then seeing the absolute mess Rena’s lab was in, but her calm smile stayed chimp glued to her face.
The labcoats all eagerly disappeared at the next floor they stopped at, despite the other buttons pressed showing it wasn’t everyone’s stop yet.
“They’re not gonna go tell on us, are they?” Jose wondered, and no one could answer.
“This is very uncomfortable.” Nedjma shifted awkwardly.
Dr. Saltsman sighed. “We can all have a heart to heart later - oh, I can say that as not a joke now that I have one...” She quickly cleared her throat. “Right. You two need to get those suits and get out, we’re already on borrowed time. I’ll stay behind just long enough to get that alarm going again and I’ll be right behind you.”
The elevator doors slid open to the main level. The hallway here was much wider and grander than the maze of tight corners and wires they were in before, though still decked out with clear panels showing off the flashing lights, wires, and circuit boards underneath. Employees were starting to file in the building to fill their posts once more.
“This is their evil lair!” Jose whispered stiffly, going quiet whenever someone passed. “Why are we alerting them on purpose?!”
“We can’t leave those spectres loose,” Nedjma answered instead, nodding to the other security guards standing at the walls and walking faster. Louis closed her mouth to give a small proud smile.
“And I’ll see you for your tests next week, same time,” the doctor declared a bit loudly, then added pointedly, “and don’t forget your belongings before you go.”
Jose took the hint and veered off to the side just outside the front door and broke into a sprint, leaving Nedjma with the drooling mess of a man who sat down to eat another fistful of fake grass.
“You could probably pass for a failed test subject.”
Jose skidded to a stop next to the still-tied-up guard to snatch his bag, pausing to tease.
“They still haven’t found you yet? You guys aren’t very good at your jobs.” He sprinted back without waiting for an answer. Najiba yelled a muffled “Hey!” after him, but it was drowned out by the first bout of “CODE COSMO” blaring once again, this time from all corners of the metal castle and its crackling loudspeakers.
The castle staff, having nearly just returned from the previous alarm, looked like a collapsing accordion as the line back inside crashed into each other and turned to rush the other way in a mild panic.
“Whoaaah!” Jose cried, dragged along by the current of people trying to flee through the gate, which, unfortunately, was not built big enough for the entire castle staff at once.
“We’re gonna get separated again!” Nedjma tried to ‘wail’ to the doctor, though she kicked herself for instinctively trying to tell Louis first.
Whether just copying the behaviors around him as usual, or from a rare spark of actual sentience, Anti-Kenneth started his own wail, balling his fists beside him and charging into the crowd. The bigger man barreled through them like a bowling ball thrown overhand instead of under. A mess of labcoats and spectacles fell to the ground on either side of him as he went, at least making a clear path for Nedjma to run after him too.
Jose’s face lit up as he saw him coming, but it slowly turned to fear when the man did not seem to be slowing down. Jose screamed as he was pushed down with the rest of the crowd, Anti-Kenneth charging down the path and straight into the city below.
“Come on,” Nedjma groaned, pulling Jose up by the front of his jacket.
Someone yelped and Jose quickly stepped off of their leg with a “Sorry!” Nedjma yanked him into a run, the two of them delving from the top down into a city neither had ever stepped foot in.
“How come you’re out of breath too?” Jose asked. Both him and Nedjma were bent over and leaning against a lamppost shining brightly with tiny, colorful LEDs, looking like an oversized kids toy.
“Well... you were all quite easy to follow... what with the path of destruction you left outside the main door...” Dr. Saltsman wheezed. “But my body hasn’t exactly been kept in.... peak physical condition in that tank.” Dr. Saltsman pointed a finger at Anti-Kenneth from her heap on the sidewalk, passersby walking around her disinterested, like she was just another fixture there. “What... is he doing?”
The man in question was peeping in and out of a metal box, looking at everyone walking by longingly in between.
“He saw a man throw away a half-eaten sandwich and has been waiting for more. It’s the only reason he stopped running.” Nedjma took a loud breath and stood up, slapping her knees, and walked over to a storefront window to look over herself. “I need some new duds. I’m getting more stares than the labcoat collapsed on the ground.”
Dr. Saltsman looked down at herself and could only nod in reluctant agreement at her own dishevelment.
“Anti-Kenny and I look fine, if not... well, usually out of place.” Jose’s plainer clothes did stand out among the array of neons and geometric shapes in smart patterns and cuts around them, but not more than a security guard for a place that isn’t the city streets. Dr. Saltsman even fit in with her lab coat now tossed in the trash, looking strikingly modern in her green pantsuit and pointy shoulder pads.
Jose whistled. “Wow, got a hot date? That’s a little fancy for a fugitive.”
Dr. Saltsman returned the joke in a dry voice. “I don’t think I have the time to catch the fancy of a lady right now, Jose.”
“Well I hope the department stores here have special suits of a certain yellow variety, because we only have three,” Nedjma basically mumbled, but the message got across loud and clear.
Jose clasped his hands behind his head. “I am NOT going back into the castle after that. Too much in and out for one day, thank you.”
“If we don’t leave the city soon, I doubt we can even do that once they put up the alert for us.” Nedjma groaned and set her head against the glass. “With a mugshot and - Ugh, Kenneth is gonna kill me when he comes back...”
Dr. Saltsman walked to pull all of them together around Anti-Kenneth’s trash can, eyeing the cameras on the street corner but never fully turning to face them. She spoke in a low voice.
“You’re both right. We have three suits, and we can’t go back to the only place that has them to get another. We have to leave quick. You,” she looked at Nedjma, “need new... clothing, is what I’m assuming ‘duds’ are. But these all lead to the biggest problem. We’re probably on the no fly list now , thanks to the earlier fiasco. We are going to have to walk back to Fer- Demonwall. So this all means...?”
Nedjma reluctantly filled in the blank space. “Someone’s going to have to stay behind.”
Written by Luna B.
Chapter 11 - We’re Bringing Bodies Back (Yeah!)
“I’m fine, Chanel!”
Nedjma stumbled down the hall in a blind daze. Her shoulders moved strangely –– convulsing, as if her ghostly form was caught between dry sobbing and shaking with shock. All around her, “CODE COSMO” blared through the intercom.
On her shoulder, Chanel squeaked insistently, like she’d done ever since Nedjma had stumbled out of the laboratory.
“She lied,” Nedjma said, staring down the hallway, not seeing it. “She lied about everything.”
Chanel huffed like, You don’t know that for sure!
“And then I left her there with Rena,” Nedjma said, still running blindly forward. “Or –– or left Rena with her –– I don’t know ––”
Overhead, the mechanical voice suddenly seemed to melt: “CODE COSssmmooooo . . .”
The alarm fell silent. Nedjma stopped a second, dancing on the spot as though debating whether to turn and run back to the lab. Who had shut off the alarm? And what did it mean for Lulu?
Distracted, Nedjma wheeled around a corner –– and skidded to a stop. A dozen specters filled the hall. Pairs of red, soulless eyes locked onto her.
“Necromaaaancer,” said one.
“Out of boooody,” observed another.
“Freeee meaaal,” a third chimed in.
“Wait!” Nedjma burst out. With wild eyes, she said, “Somebody told me that something inside Demonwall Mountain turns necromancer ghosts into –– whatever you guys are. Is that true? Is it?”
A few of the specters exchanged looks. One of them shrugged.
“We caaaame from theeere. Befooore, we were . . .”
The speaking specter hesitated. Its blank face twitched a little as it seemed to try and remember.
“. . . nothing.”
“She was telling the truth about that one,” Nedjma breathed. Then, louder, she demanded: “Who made you this way? Rena?”
All of the specters groaned in protest.
The others chimed in similar, moaning protests, until one at the back, the biggest and most imposing of the bunch, grunted: “Lulu.”
Nedjma stumbled backwards a step. “She –– she wasn’t kidding. She did do this –– ack!”
All of a sudden, Nedjma contorted in pain. Chanel squeaked in alarm.
“My body,” Nedjma spit through her spectral teeth. “I gotta get back –– arg –– I’m dying!”
She took off towards the specters, summoning black goop and lobbing it their way. Predictably, they recoiled and groaned loudly.
By the time she reached the courtyard again, pink sunlight streaked the sky. Soon it would be morning, and security cameras or not, Nedjma’s body wouldn’t stay hidden much longer ––
She collapsed onto the fake grass, shuddering.
“I’ve never been –– in Verithiel –– this long,” she managed, wincing at Chanel. “Last time –– hospital –– not even close ––”
Her body was so near, tangled in a tree ten yards away. The twunkie-yellow parachute stuck out like a neon sign between the dark leaves. But even at this distance, the black necromantic residue pouring off Nedjma’s corpse was visible –– streaming from her face, her hands, even through her clothes –– and Nedjma’s spirit couldn’t move ––
“There she is!” exclaimed a familiar, too-loud voice.
“Nooooot goooood,” commented another.
Shaking, Nedjma lifted her eyes. Jose and Anti-Kenneth had just stumbled into sight, their arms full of bulky material, and were running towards Nedjma’s body. Five specters floated hungrily behind them.
“J-Jose,” Nedjma called –– but pointlessly. Jose couldn’t hear her in the Kingdom of Verithiel, and she knew it. But what else could she do? In seconds, she would be dead.
“Dag –– she’s still in Verithiel,” said Jose. He’d reached Nedjma’s tree and was poking her limp, dangling arm.
“Noooot goood,” Anti-Kenneth said again, sniffing Nedjma’s hand. Jose swatted him (“Dude!”) but Anti-Kenneth brushed him away. “She’s . . . dyyyyyying.”
Jose’s face drained. “But –– but she’s always kinda dead ––”
“Wooorse,” Anti-Kenneth interrupted. “Almost . . . out of tiiiime.” He stiffened suddenly, looking directly at the loitering spectres. “Speeeectrees. They’re here tooo. Waaant to –– eat ––”
He seemed to be struggling to form the words –– which was understandable, since this was more than Jose or Nedjma had ever heard him speak.
“So what do we do?” Jose demanded. “How can we stop them?”
Anti-Kenneth just shook his head. He looked as aloof as ever, though an anxious crease had formed between his eyebrows.
Then, very slowly, he turned his soulless red eyes directly onto Nedjma’s spirit.
She collapsed, shuddering. Something strange was happening to her vision –– as if Verithiel’s glow was growing, blocking out the corporeal world . . .
“Ch-Chanel,” Nedjma muttered through chattering teeth. “G-g-go. I d-don’t-t w-want y-you t-to s-s-see . . .”
Dark forms blocked out Nedjma’s surroundings. A couple of specters must have drifted from the others; they loomed directly over her, swimming fuzzily in her vision. Nedjma knew enough of dark magic to know her pain would end in a moment, when her body died . . . so what were these two doing? What did they want from her?
Something big and solid dropped onto her spirit, and all at once, the pain vanished. Her eyes flew open –– her living, corporeal eyes.
“I-I-I’m back,” she stammered. “N-n-not d-dead.”
The two forms standing over her appeared in sharper focus: Jose and Anti-Kenneth. Jose looked absolutely terrified; Anti-Kenneth just seemed sulky, probably because he’d been the one to detangle Nedjma’s body from the tree and dump it onto her suffering spirit.
Jose dropped to Nedjma’s side. “Nedj? You’re okay, right? You’re okay, Nedj?”
Nedjma opened her mouth, blinked, then closed it. Her lip trembled.
“She knew this would happen,” she whispered hoarsely.
Jose glanced nervously at Anti-Kenneth, who ignored him (he’d gotten distracted by a nearby butterfly). “Er –– who knew what would happen?”
“Lulu,” said Nedjma, her voice breaking. “Jose, she lied. She lied about everything. And I think –– I think she might’ve been trying to kill me tonight.”
“What?” Jose yelped. “But she’s our friend! She’s the reason we’re here!”
“She created the specters,” Nedjma said, her voice barely a whisper.
Jose’s mouth fell open.
“I know,” said Nedjma, closing her eyes. “And there’s more . . .”
Still laying there, Nedjma detailed her last few hours to Jose: overhearing Professor Saltzman, Mr. Halcomb, and Harley’s confusing meeting; spotting the maybe-HCP suit; and finally, Lulu’s confession.
“Her sister,” Jose breathed. “Her sister killed her.”
He ran his hands through his shaggy hair. “So she’s still in there? Lulu –– she’s still with Rena?”
“She told me to leave her,” Nedjma said. Her expression had transformed during the recap –– from hurt and stunned to cold and closed-off. “She also told me to spend the night looking for the suits, even though she definitely knows a necromancer can’t be outside their body for that long.”
“Unless she could’ve done it when she was alive,” Jose pointed out. “She had a lot more practice than you –– maybe she forgot. After all, you forgot too.”
“I had a lot on my mind –– are you seriously siding with her?” Nedjma demanded, finally sitting up.
“No, I’m just trying to make it all make sense!” said Jose. “Like, why would she tell us somebody’s making a specter army to take over the Allied Peaks? And why would she want us at the mouth of the mountain? Like, what?”
“I don’t know,” Nedjma said, dropping her head into her hands. She raised her eyes a little, looking at Jose through her fingers. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do now.”
“Find Lulu,” said Jose without missing a beat. When Nedjma stiffened, he insisted, “Look, we don’t know for sure she’s bad! Maybe –– maybe she had a good reason for lying to us. But if we make her tell us the truth, then –– well, we’ll know!”
“She’s still with Rena,” Nedjma pointed out. “We can’t fight both of them off.”
“Oh, can’t we?” said Jose, raising an eyebrow. With a flourish, he reached behind his back. Then something seemed to occur to him, and he dropped his arms sheepishly.
“I may or may not have forgot I lost Basic Spells.” He paused, rubbing his chin. “Buuuut . . .”
Squeezing his eyes closed, Jose scrunched his nose and exclaimed, “Summon my backpack!”
He and Nedjma waited a few seconds. The butterfly landed on Anti-Kenneth’s nose; he sneezed it off.
Clang! Clang! CLANG!
Suddenly, a flailing figure came banging out of the castle’s nearest door, ping-ponging between two artificial trees in the process. She zoomed towards them, hanging in midair off of Jose’s levitating backpack ––
The backpack did a nosedive when it reached Nedjma, Jose, and Anti-Kenneth, swinging its passenger along with it. She smacked down into the grass in a crumpled heap.
“Niha!” Jose yelped.
“Ni-who?” said Nedjma.
Niha Sackville-Bagg untangled her limbs and scrambled to her feet. Her brown eyes darted between Nedjma, Jose, Anti-Kenneth.
“What . . . the HECK just happened?”
“Wizard magic,” said Jose feebly, opening the backpack and lifting Basic Spells for Basic Wizards.
“You’re supposed to be in a holding cell!” said Niha. “You are so not allowed to escape! And who are you?” she demanded, looking at Nedjma.
“I can explain,” said Nedjma, holding up her hands in surrender, “but this might help . . .”
Carefully, she took Basic Spells from Jose’s hands and walked towards Niha (ignoring Jose’s bewildered expression). She held out the book and pointed to a spot on the cover. “See this?”
Niha leaned in. “Uh, see wha––”
Nedjma slammed the book hard into Niha’s face.
“OUCH!” Niha stumbled backwards, clutching her nose. Jose clapped both hands over his mouth. Anti-Kenneth made a noise that could’ve been laughter, although in his droning voice, it was hard to tell.
“Oh, shoot, I thought that would knock her out,” said Nedjma.
“ARE YOU SERIOUS?” Niha bellowed.
“Well, it works in the movies,” Nedjma pointed out. She lifted a finger and stepped right up to Niha, who took the opportunity to rant: “Oh, you kids are in a MOUNTAIN of trouble, you’re gonna be A-RRES-TED, you hear me? Say goodbye to your futures, you ––”
One tap on the chest from Nedjma, and Niha died instantly.
“Baaaaad ideeaaaa,” said Anti-Kenneth. “Speecters close byyyy.”
“It’ll only be for a minute,” Nedjma told him. She hesitated, giving him a strange look. “You can see into Verithiel, can’t you?”
Anti-Kenneth nodded. Then he lunged for another butterfly.
“My hero,” Nedjma muttered, rolling her eyes. “Hey! Anti-Kenneth!” He stopped snapping at the butterfly to give her a blank look. “Watch out for the specters, okay? Warn me if they get too close.”
Anti-Kenneth blinked slowly. Then he nodded again.
Nedjma turned towards Jose. “Take out as many of the cameras as possible with magic.” She kneeled down next to Niha. Jose opened Basic Spells, hesitated, then crouched beside her.
“You know, Anti-Kenneth’s not so bad.” He glanced at the lifeless security guard between them. “What are you gonna do?”
Nedjma’s choppy black bangs had fallen over her face. When she looked at Jose, the shadows they cast resembled a jagged mountain range.
“Get to Lulu,” she said, “without using necromancy.”
Jose’s eyes widened. “Oooh. Stealth mode.”
A few minutes later, Niha stirred.
“Mmmm . . . mmmf?”
Groggily, she glanced down at herself –– and gasped. Her uniform was gone, replaced with koozebane black jeans, a stupidly edgy t-shirt, and a purple windbreaker. Her ankles and wrists were bound together, and knotted to the lowest branch of a nearby tree. Worst of all, a wad of cloth had been stuffed into her mouth like a gag.
“Mmrrrrff!” she exploded.
Wriggling and squirming, she took a closer look at the materials tying her wrists. She blinked. If she could have spoken, she would’ve said one word: “Parachute?”
“Hello . . . Top of the mountain to you –– I mean, morning . . . Uh, hi there . . .”
“You’re not convincing,” Jose hissed in Nedjma’s ear.
“Shut up,” Nedjma hissed back.
She walked briskly down the hall, leading Jose and Anti-Kenneth along by the wrists (which the two were pressing together, and giving every indication that they were handcuffed together –– only, minus the cuffs). Every once in a while, Nedjma would stop and fidget, as if trying to magically transform Niha’s crisp blue uniform back to her original clothes. Workers in labcoats had started filing into the building, scattering the halls with clacking shoes and morning chatter. Luckily, no one had seemed to notice Niha, tucked out of sight at the very edge of the courtyard.
Or at least, not yet.
Nedjma quickened her pace.
“Who ya got there?” wondered a passing man.
“Trespassers,” Nedmja called back in an uncharacteristically high and cheery voice. “Found them asleep outside –– total burnouts. Ha ha ha . . .”
The man gave her a strange look. He walked away.
Once he disappeared, Nedjma’s face sank from fakely sunny back to grim and cold. Jose watched her as she tugged him along, frowning slightly.
“We’re close,” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
Anti-Kenneth sniffed the air. “I sssseeense speee–mmmf.”
Nedjma slapped a hand over his mouth. “Shut up, stupid!”
She noticed two scientists watching her. Luckily, when Nedjma caught the closest one’s eye, she nodded like, Good work. Excellent discipline.
“Of course you sense them, the lab’s full of them,” Nedjma hissed sharply. “This whole place is ––”
A heavyset woman wheeled into sight, wearing a pair of overalls and waving a mallet over her head.
“Oh, good, a guard,” she said, spotting Nedjma. She hurried forward and slapped her free hand onto Nedjma’s shoulder. Nedjma’s eyes popped open.
“What clearance have you got?” the woman demanded.
“Uh ––” Nedjma cleared her throat one too many times. “Second Level.”
“You mean Intermediate?” said the woman. “Jeez, you people are always changing the terms. Listen –– the you-know-what suits from Project Executrix are missing. The perps might still be in the building though –– report that to head of security –– NOW.”
The woman glanced at Jose and Anti-Kenneth. “Are these ––”
“Just druggies, nothing serious,” said Nedjma swiftly. “Er –– keep telling as many people as you can about this, I’ll find my boss.”
“Hurry!” insisted the woman. She zoomed down the hall, still shouting, “ROBBERY! ROBBERY!”
“Sooooo we might know something about that,” said Jose.
Nedjma whipped around so fast she almost fell over. “You stole HCP suits?”
“Yeah! They’re outside! By . . .” Jose’s expression sunk. “By the tree we found you in.”
Nedjma cursed. She stepped backwards and forwards, apparently torn, until finally she demanded, “And you didn’t tell me?”
“Your stuff seemed more serious!” Jose said defensively. “I forgot.”
“Well, my tree was out of the way, and the cameras are still off,” Nedjma thought out loud, talking at light-speed, “which somebody is bound to notice in the next few minutes, which means we have exactly no time to get Lulu and the suits and get out of here before things get ugly, and that means we should choose the most important ––”
“We have to get Lulu,” Jose said.
Nedjma went rigid. For a heartbeat, she looked like she wanted to shout at Jose. Then she growled and started marching forward, dragging him and Anti-Kenneth along again.
When they finally slowed, the hallway was deserted. There seemed to be only one active door in this section of the castle, one that –– Nedjma knew –– concealed a very specific elevator.
Anti-Kenneth fidgeted anxiously. “Baaaad . . . baaaaaaaad . . .”
“Here’s the security key,” said Jose, handing the plastic card over. “They’re in there?”
Nedjma didn’t answer. She turned the keycard over in her hands, scowling at the wall.
“Nedj . . .” said Jose gently. “We really don’t know anything yet.”
“I know enough,” Nedjma growled. “I know she lied.”
Emotion flashed across her face like a lightning bolt. She winced.
“I know we only met her yesterday, and I shouldn’t even care, but . . . no. Forget it,” Nedjma grunted. “We don’t have time for this.”
With a tiny, evil smile, Jose lifted his hands. “Soulba––”
“NOPE.” Nedjma pressed a finger over his lips. Her cheeks muscles jumped like she was fighting her own voice, until the words tumbled out: “Look, maybe it was nice to not be the only necromancer for once –– to know someone who used their dark magic for good, and for a minute there, she made me feel like I could be good, like my magic wasn’t wrong or bad, and –– and she actually liked my magic, she wanted to teach me –– and the worst part? I was starting to want her to!”
She cut off, breathing hard. Meaningfully, Jose met her eyes. “And maybe you still have that.”
Nedjma looked back at him for a second, before turning her gaze onto the wire-coated wall. “Or maybe not.”
She tapped the keycard onto the wall, and it slid open. They stepped into the elevator. Nedjma punched the same button she’d watched Professor Saltzman choose before. A short, rattly ride passed in silence . . .
Then the elevator doors slid open again, revealing Rena’s laboratory.
Right away, Nedjma and Jose’s eyes dropped down to an unconscious figure on the ground –– Professor Saltzman. Jose gasped.
“Holy moly! That chick looks just like her!”
Then someone else gasped too.
Dr. Lulu was hovering over Rena’s desk, a disarray of papers sprawled out in front of her. Instantly, her eyes found Nedjma’s.
“You came back.”
Lulu was staring at Nedjma like she was the only thing in the world that mattered. Nedjma’s cheeks flushed –– but out of anger or embarrassment, it wasn’t clear.
“Did you kill her?” she grunted, motioning to Rena’s limp body.
“Kill her? No!” said Lulu. “I used an, ehm, alternative sedative.”
Her glowing blue eyes flicked to a large textbook sitting beside her on the desk.
“Huh. Guess that does work,” Jose remarked. He shook his head to clear it. “You have to tell us the truth, Louis. What’s going on? Why did you lie to us?”
Reluctantly, Dr.Lulu turned her attention to Jose. “I –– what you must understand –– well ––” She took a deep breath. “I had no idea Rena was behind this. But I’ve been scouring her notes, and –– ugh, that stupid girl! I knew she was a specter-loving fool, but her plan is more ludicrous than I ever could have dreamed ––”
“Dr. Saltzman,” Nedjma interrupted. “What’s your plan? The real one?”
Lulu’s face fell a little. “Ah. So we’re back to Dr. Saltzman.” She ghosted forward, right through the desk. Her hands clasped in front of her.
“What I told you . . . It wasn’t all lies. I really did believe someone was using my work to create an army and take over the Peaks –– and, in a way, I was correct. But to admit that the whole situation was my fault . . .” She shook her head. “I told you I had journeyed to Demonwall’s mouth many times over –– this is true. I saw specters emerging from the mountain in droves, but I could never enter –– or at least, not without the risk of becoming a spectre myself.
“However, I created the specters from ghosts, when I lived. They . . . they were my worst failures.”
Anti-Kenneth made an uncomfortable noise. Frowning between him and the doctor, Jose asked, “How’d you even do that? Like, what were you trying to do?”
Dr. Lulu opened her mouth, closed it again, then sighed.
“I was trying to unlock necromancy’s greatest power. A power no one had yet to unlock.”
She sighed again.
“I wanted to bring the dead back to life.”
Nedjma and Jose blinked at once.
“Like, not ghosts?” Jose asked.
“Not ghosts,” Dr. Saltzman agreed. “We tried mechanical bodies first, since our test subjects’ original bodies had decomposed. This failed on multiple occasions, so my team and I worked to create a new organic form for them –– which, obviously, failed as well. Hence, specters.”
“I thought you were a doctor,” Nedjma said darkly. “Or did you lie about that too?”
Dr. Lulu’s face creased. “Necromancy could only go so far with life-saving. I wanted to do more.”
“That’s wrong.” Nedjma shook her head, not meeting Dr. Saltzman’s eyes. “It’s unnatural and twisted ––”
“Well, I know that now!” Dr. Lulu huffed. “I promise you, my unfinished business is not completing my work. It’s fixing my mistake.”
“So it’s like you said?” Jose asked hopefully. “We’re gonna stop Rena and all the specters from taking over the world?”
“That is part of it, more or less,” Dr. Lulu agreed. “Now, we’d better destroy these papers and bug out before Rena wakes up ––”
“No, not good enough,” Nedjma interrupted. “Tell us –– simply –– what your whole plan is. Now.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” said Dr. Saltzman. She glanced at Anti-Kenneth, and a hint of that same cold disdain from yesterday –– from when she’d killed him in cold blood –– surfaced on her face.
“I’ve got to destroy all the specters. Permanently.”
A heavy pause fell between them all.
“Whaaaaaat?” said Anti-Kenneth.
“Destroy them?” Jose yelped. “But –– but what if there are nice specters?”
The doctor ignored the boys. Her ghostly blue eyes settled on Nedjma’s face yet again.
“But before anything else, there’s –– there’s something I need to do.”
She bent over Rena and withdrew a keycard from her labcoat. Then she flew past Rena’s shelves of black and red liquids, to a wall covered in large silvery squares.
“There was something else Rena told me . . . something I found in her notes as well . . .”
She scanned each square, reading little inscriptions, until finally she settled on the very last one. With a shaking ghostly hand, she tapped the keycard to the square’s surface . . . and the little silver door opened. A long metallic shelf slid out of the wall, holding a perfectly preserved body . . .
Dr. Louis Saltzman.
Nedjma and Jose actually screamed. A few seconds later, Anti-Kenneth joined in too.
“Quiet, quiet!” Lulu hissed. “Please!”
“YOU JUST SAID THIS STUFF WAS BAD!” Nedjma bellowed. “YOU LIED AGAIN!”
“I didn’t ––”
“AND YOU SAID SPECTERS ATE YOUR BODY LIKE THEY DID WITH THAT OLD MAN IN THE MORGUE, BUT YOU LIED ABOUT THAT TOO ––”
“That’s what I always thought, but Rena must have ––”
“AND NOW YOU’RE GONNA TAKE YOUR BODY BACK EVEN THOUGH YOU SAID YOU CHANGED ––”
“I’M DOING THIS FOR YOU!” Lulu exploded.
Nedjma looked like she’d been smacked with a shovel. She blinked aggressively, stumbling backwards a step.
“I don’t want to take this body, I have no idea what she’s done to keep it stable,” said Lulu, a shudder in her voice. “But if I take it, you and Jose will be able to go home. You’ll be safe.”
Nedjma kept blinking. Jose gaped at Dr. Lulu, stammering, “But –– but ––”
“But nothing,” said Lulu firmly. “I’ve dragged you into enough trouble. You both are too young, too untrained, and too valuable to risk.”
She hovered over the body. Her ethereal shoulders trembled. The expression on her face was not the careful hope of a sick person finding their cure, or the wild exhilaration of a drowning victim glimpsing the water’s surface . . . No, it was the look of an alcoholic walking into a bar. An ex-gambler stepping into a casino.
A person terrified of herself.
Nedjma stumbled forward: “Lulu, wait ––”
Too late. Dr. Saltzman dove into the corpse in a spectral blue wisp. The body shook and shuddered, and right as the last of Dr. Lulu’s ghost disappeared, it emitted a faint glowing outline.
Then it slumped, motionless.
Slowly, Nedjma and Jose exchanged a terrified look. They moved forward together until they reached the body’s sides.
“L . . . Lulu?” Nedjma whispered.
The eyes snapped open. They were dark blue.
“Eurgh,” groaned the body in Dr. Lulu’s voice. “Oh sweet science, I haven’t brushed my teeth in twenty years.”
Then she sat bolt upright.
“Oh my god, she did it.” Dr. Lulu stared wide-eyed into space. “She actually resurrected me.”
“You’re alive,” squeaked Nedjma
“You’re so . . . solid,” said Jose in awe, poking Dr. Lulu’s arm.
Dr. Lulu stared wondrously at Jose’s finger. “Oh yes . . . so that’s what living touch feels like! I’d forgotten . . .”
Jose laughed and Nedjma goggled at her. A few feet away, Anti-Kenneth waited by himself, looking uncomfortable.
“Here, let me help you,” said Nedjma, offering Lulu her arm. Blinking, Lulu smiled and took it, allowing Nejdma to help maneuver her off the metal shelf and onto her feet.
Right as she touched down, the elevator doors started sliding open.
“Shoot!” said Jose, Nedjma, and Lulu at once.
“Rena, move Rena!” Lulu hissed.
Nedjma and Jose darted towards the professor’s unconscious body. Without the support, Dr. Lulu crumpled onto the floor.
“Lulu!” said Nedjma, spinning back around. “Are you––”
“I haven’t worked out in twenty years,” Lulu said, her face half-smooshed against the floor. “Or walked, or moved –– just hide Rena!”
“On it!” said Jose, who’d run behind Rena’s desk. “Summon Rena Saltzman!”
Rena’s body lurched creepily across the ground, landing at his feet just as a newcomer stepped into the room.
“Professor Saltzman!” yelped Harley.
Nedjma’s eyes widened for a split second –– clearly she remembered Rena’s nervous, necromantic assistant.
“Ah yes, hello . . . you,” said Lulu from the floor.
“Nice to meet you,” said Nedjma, straightening her stolen uniform a little. “Professor Saltzman tells me your name is Harley.” (She shot Lulu a meaningful look.) “We were just discussing some, ah, private matters. Maybe you should come back later.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Harley asked fearfully. “I heard the Code Cosmo –– I was trying to catch all the loose specters, but –– what are you doing to Professor Saltzman?”
Nedjma and Lulu exchanged a glance. Before either could think of a good lie, a high-pitched voice from the corner yelled, “Repel!”
For a split second, Nedjma, Lulu, Harley, and even Anti-Kenneth watched the book soar through the air. The next moment, it slammed into Harley’s temple, and they crumpled to the ground.
“The book thing worked for me too!” Jose exclaimed.
“Showoff,” said Nedjma.
As Jose summoned Harley into the lab and closed the door, Nedjma hoisted Lulu onto her feet again. She pulled Lulu’s arm over her shoulder, then asked, “What now?”
Lulu grinned. “Well, Harley’s appearance was inconvenient, but it did give me an idea . . .”
She glanced down at herself. Unlike the outdated clothes Lulu’s ghost had worn, her human body sported a plain white nightgown.
“If you all wouldn’t mind closing your eyes,” she said, “I think I’d look much better in my sister’s outfit, don’t you?”
Across the room, Jose’s eyes lit up. “Stealth mode part two.”
Lulu grinned again. “If Nedjma can pass as castle security, I’m sure I could be Rena Saltzman for a few minutes. Oh, wow ––”
She laughed, the same tinkling bell-chime sound as always.
“I feel so alive!”
Chapter 10 - Rena’s Secret Success
Jose waited a long moment in uncomfortable silence, frantically looking every which way, trying his hardest to see what Anti-Kenneth saw.
"You're just joshin' me, aren't you? Yankin' my chain?"
"…souls… don’t have… chaaaaaains…" Anti-Kenneth lost his worried expression for a moment to stare at his empty palms, perplexed, grabbing at the air just to be sure.
The plain walls of the cell and the cot they sat on had nothing to move around, so as much as Jose could tell, nothing had changed.
"There's no specters here, right?" Jose asked in a laugh that betrayed his nerves. "My soul's not about to be slurped up like a slushie, right?"
"Need to kill you fiiiiirst… But they're heeeeere…" Anti-Kenneth frowned, watching the space in front of Jose, and reached a limp hand to shoo something away in a jerky motion.
"Then we're probably fine!" Jose squeaked a little bit, clearing his throat and speaking in a lower register like he had with the guards with uncomfortable names, then seemed to remember something. "Until they come back to interrogate us and lock us in real jail…" Jose got up to pace around the cell with his hands shoved in his pockets, circling the space he could walk in the span of only a few seconds.
"Do we still have to wait for the signal to leave? Can't we just leave early and come back here to meet ghost doctor later?" Jose asked, toying with the card in his pocket.
"Maybe safer heeeeere. Ghost doctor said waaaaait," Anti-Kenneth answered, still watching him. Or the space around him, it was hard to tell when the man didn't have pupils. Jose didn't seem to be put at ease by this combination of a response.
"…I'm gonna go anyway." He started for the door, pulling the security key Dr. Saltzman had slipped him from Najiba and clapping it to the metal square on the wall. The barred door clanged as the bolt slid into the wall and Jose pushed it open before Anti-Kenneth could stumble off the cot to stop him.
Jose peeked into the hallway. So did Anti-Kenneth –– or at least, he tried to. Instead, he stumbled right into Jose's back, sending the boy stumbling out of the cell and into plain sight. Annoyed, Jose spun around, socked him lightly in the gut, and shoved him back into the cell hurriedly just in time for someone to round the corner.
What the security guard found inside the cell was Jose laying halfway on the cot, rubbing his forehead and groaning.
"I think we took too many pills of the drugs this time, man…"
The guard looked from him to Anti-Kenneth still standing in the corner where Jose had shoved him. Someone standing stock still and facing the corner in silence was not something he seemed to want to deal with, so he kept walking. When the footsteps had mostly faded, Jose dragged Anti-Kenneth back out of the cell and pulled him along down the hallway in the opposite direction.
"Necromancy isn't the only way to do stealth. If I can sneak away from my dad, castle guards are nothing." Jose paused. "I know we got caught, don't say anything." From the looks of the mostly blank stare from the man behind him, it didn't look like he was going to anyway.
One of them crouch-ran down the halls back towards the elevator he was taken on while the other stumbled along at full height. The sound of several pairs of polished shoes clacked towards them from around the corner and Jose slapped the security key to the wall, dragging it along as he ran the other way, hoping to find some room to hide in.
Jose found himself dragged to a stop instead, Anti-Kenneth staring at the wall.
"No soooouuuls behind hereeee…"
Jose stopped to marvel at him for a second. "If you can see where people are, why haven't you been doing that from the beginning?" he whispered angrily, but Anti-Kenneth only licked his lips and stared into space in response. Jose huffed in annoyance and began to rub the security key all over the wall until it passed over a reader, a door sliding open for the two boys to run through.
As the clacking passed the closed door and receded behind it, Jose jumped at the loud clattering of plastic behind him. He swiveled, fully expecting to get clobbered by some scientist finding intruders, but instead finding Anti-Kenneth with his hand buried in someone's leftover fast food bag on a shelf, having knocked over a tray of broken circuit boards to reach it. It might have been just a tray of totally fine circuit boards before, but it was hard to tell now. Anti-Kenneth rummaged through the bag, frowning in disappointment when all he pulled from it was wrappers.
"I can't wait to get you back to your sister. It's about time for her turn to babysit." Jose ran a hand through his hair with a sigh. Looking around the room, they seemed to be in some kind of storage space, and judging by the solitary desk covered in wires and broken things and the peg board of tools above it, it was also some lonely repairman's office too. Anti- Kenneth went straight for the mountain of similar looking fast food bags, knocking to the floor whatever he thought was in the way . Packets of screws, a soldering iron, strips of plastic and circuit, bags of fabric –– a whole mess of things.
"Dude, you're making an even bigger mess than there was. They're gonna know we were here." Jose picked up the soldering iron, turning it over in his hand and making a stabbing motion before shaking his head and putting it back down. Anti-Kenneth groaned sadly at his failed search, and Jose rolled his eyes, piling the junk back on the desk. One last spark of hope flashed across Kenneth's face as he snatched the bag of fabric from Jose's hands, tearing open the seal. The hope was soon lost and he turned away to mope even more, dropping the shiny yellow fabric back into Jose's arms.
"Uh… thanks?" Jose said, then tried to shove it back into the torn bag and stopped at the sight of a label sewn onto it. "This is the HP…! The HDC…! The! The suit!" Jose squatted and held it out in excitement to Anti-Kenneth, who only looked back confused. Jose clutched the suit to his chest and dashed to the floor for the other sealed bags, tearing them open to find the same shiny yellow fabric.
"We got 'em!" Jose yelled, stopping to look at the door and then yelling the same thing again, but quieter. "Now we can go! Dump out that tool bag over there and shove these in! You're on bag carrying duty again."
"…M-murdered?" Rena Saltzman sputtered after having just stepped into the Kingdom of Virithiel. Nedjma's half-presence wasn't even registered, her gaze fixed on her sister.
"Get out of here and find the others, they should still be in the holding cells," Dr. Lulu Saltzman's voice wavered as she tried to regain her composure. "I'll keep them all busy. Meet you outside."
Nedjma looked dumbstruck, displacing a bit of her anger, but she still didn't move. "Whether you think it's my fault or not, we still have a mission! Go!" As she yelled the last command, a bit of the room rumbled once more, sending one or two more bottles crashing to the floor. Nedjma looked to the stuttering spectral form near tears across the room and then to the reddish, vaguely human shapes starting to drift towards her. She gave Lulu one last hard look before phasing through the door.
If ghosts could sweat, Lulu might have done that as she took in the sight for herself. As Rena recovered from her initial shock, she might have as well.
"I… murdered…? No, I…" Rena stared at her older sister until a red figure stepped into her line of vision. She blinked hard and took a breath, then held out a hand to Lulu. "Wait. Don't leave, just wait –– the alarm ––"
Rena watched the figure creep towards her as she stepped back and fell into her body again. She woke up from her heap on the chair and dashed to the other side of her desk, sending a few papers flying. She reached under it for a button, sending a siren blaring overhead.
"CODE COSMO. EVACUATE AND CONTAIN. CODE COSMO. EVACUATE AND CONTAIN."
The robotic voice now calling for help in her stead, Rena looked back where she last saw her sister's form, though it was empty now.
"I know you're still there, I can feel you now. Please, talk to me. Let me explain!" It was Rena's turn for her voice to crack in pain. Nothing happened for a moment while she waited for a response, and Rena balled her fists when her hands began to shake. "Please! I'm…" Rena lowered her head and wiped her eyes, raising it once more with an expression that made Lulu reel.
"I'm so happy you're here," Rena said through tears and a smile. "This means I can fix it! I can finally bring you back and we can ––"
"You'll what?! Bring me back?!" Louis yelled as her form shifted to the visible spectrum, momentary anger turning to hurt again. "You did this to me!"
"I –– I know, b-but it wasn't supposed to ––"
"And here you are-" Lulu pressed her fingers to her temple, setting the other hand on her hip as more tears threated to fall on her own face. "I don't even know what to say."
"I can fix it," Rena pleaded again, reaching out to touch her with trembling hands, only for them to pass through her ghostly form. "I can, you can come back!"
"I'm dead!" Louis yelled, causing even Rena to jump. "And you know as well as I do that spirits can't possess inanimate objects, so don’t even try to tell me there's another robot shell failure to–-"
"Yes! Yes, you're right!" Rena cut her off, her smile widening as she feigned holding her sister's face. "You're right, I do know. I don't need a robot body. I have yours."
Written by Luna B.
This Poem was Written by a Moth
I lived in the darkness.
Swam through it like water in the sea.
Blinking eyes so blind that the world became a blur,
And all I said was, "fine by me."
All around me everybody glowed.
Fireflies seemed so full of feeling.
But people said, "oh no, don’t get too close,
Though it may seem appealing ––
You might get burned."
Mom once said, when we hid away
In the inky endless night,
The only way anybody can survive
Is keeping far from the light.
So we sat around, blinking our blind eyes.
And that’s all we ever did . . . ever . .
Knowing everybody dies.
And then . . .
Then I saw you,
Shining so bright.
Like an island on the sea
After a long, stormy night.
You showed me
Everything we could be together ––
Made me feel like I could live forever.
You sparkled enough for the both of us.
A shining beacon of light.
So I touched you . . .
And I died.
#firstdraft #poetry #moth #mothman
(This short horror story was originally supposed to be for Prose’s monthly challenge, but clearly I didn’t read the instructions very specifically. Ah, well! Enjoy!)
My phone lit up.
I stood beside a pan of sizzling oil, chopping bell peppers on my mom’s lime green cutting board. Slicing the last pepper with satisfying shhing!, I dropped Mom’s chef’s knife and glanced at my phone.
10 Instagram Notifications
That was weird. I definitely hadn’t posted anything today. Ah, well. People probably just realized how good I looked in my old tournament photos.
I scooted the knife off to the side and started dumping enchilada sauce into a bowl of tofu. One more glance at the peppers –– hell, yeah. Now that was an aesthetic. I stopped to take a picture.
Once I’d gotten the lighting just so, and done a little editing for good measure, I opened up Instagram to post the final product.
Run like a beast, eat like a feast, I captioned it. Since track season had started last week, I had to rep my sport.
As I posted the photo, though, something caught my eye –– another post. One from today.
“Uuh . . .”
I tapped on the picture –– a photo of my house, situated at the end of the cul de sac. Posted ten minutes ago.
Okay, that was weird . . . I switched from instagram to texts, and typed a quick message to my best friend, Tam: You pranking me?
A minute later, Tam’s reply popped up on my screen: u mean instagram?
Then another: I thougt u were doing a prank
Nope, I wrote back.
I thought hard for a second. Tam was my only friend in the neighborhood –– as far as I knew, they were the only highschooler in the neighborhood. Or at least, besides . . .
u think its Hunter? Tam messaged, echoing my thoughts.
Probably, I replied. Yeah . . . yeah, that had to be it. The creep was still mad at me for telling coach he shouldn’t be one of our new sprinters –– which was totally true. Hunter didn’t exactly work well with others, or really socialize at all. Plus, he ran slow. He shouldn’t blame me for being honest.
Loud hissing distracted me from my phone. I whirled around.
I lunged for the burning vegetables and snatched the pan off the stovetop, but the damage was done. Great. I glanced at the knife and cutting board, then at the clock.
“Takeout,” I decided.
A few minutes later, I’d ordered vegan wings off a delivery app. I started to drop my phone –– but that same second, the screen lit up again.
27 Instagram Notifications
I opened the app, a little nervously. It was stupid, but Hunter’s prank was really getting to me . . . I kept trying to understand how he got my login information, and why . . .
I looked at my profile, and blinked.
Another post. My house, right out front.
I strode out of the kitchen, passing three tall windows and glancing involuntarily out each one. In the living room, I squinted out another window (my parents were super into natural lighting these days). No one there.
“Dammit, Hunter,” I muttered.
Okay –– no. I wouldn’t let him psych me out. I flipped back to instagram, snapped another picture (this time of my own face), and captioned it: So those house pics arent mine. Account got hacked?
There. Hunter wanted to play stupid games, I’d play back.
I crashed in the living room while I waited for my food, turning on Netflix to pass the time. I opted for an original comedy –– not because I was scared or anything. Just annoyed.
For a little while, I was able to zone out and forget how irritating tonight had been. The smell of burned peppers issued from the kitchen, reminding me that I’d have to do the dishes later (and probably scrape charred vegetable crust from that pan). Mom and Dad would be home from their office party soon, and yell at me for getting food with their credit card number. Normal stuff.
My phone lit up.
I glanced at the screen. Thirty notifications from instagram, along with a text from Tam: whats going on???
With a sinking feeling, I opened instagram again. Ice rolled through my chest.
A post from one minute ago –– me on my couch, watching TV. Right outside the closest window.
A shrill noise sent me stumbling to my feet –– the doorbell. Only the doorbell. I tried to slow my heartbeat down to normal speeds, but no luck. I was so freaked out, I didn’t even bother feeling embarrassed about the super unmanly shriek I’d just released.
Everything’s fine, stupid, I told myself. Calm down.
I went to the front door, sort of wishing I hadn’t opted for contact-free delivery. Seeing another person being would have reminded me I wasn’t living in a horror movie. People pulled pranks. Guys got jealous when you ran faster than them.
Creak. I slid the door open. Outside, night had fallen over the street, drenching everything in darkness. Wishing our cul de sac had streetlights, I quickly snatched the delivery bag and slammed the door shut again.
As my fingers fumbled over the lock, my phone lit up. I grabbed it off the couch’s armrest and opened instagram. My stomach backflipped.
A new picture: me, leaning out my front door to get my food.
My backflipping stomach was starting up a whole gymnastics routine. This was getting too weird. Police –– I could call the ––
My phone lit up. Another picture: Me looking at my phone, right through the window. For the first time, this one was captioned.
My hands went numb. I almost dropped my phone.
Several texts popped up on my screen in rapid succession, from Tam and other friends.
Dude, what’s wrong with you?
This isnt funy ok??
Shaking, I looked out the window where the picture had been taken. Too dark. Dammit ––
My phone lit up.
This one wasn’t me –– it was a hand holding a hammer. A huge hand, with bad calluses and chipped fingernails. The caption read: Knock Knock
Something inside me seemed to tilt. That wasn’t Hunter’s hand.
This was somebody else.
My brain kicked into red alert. Head for the garage –– no, too close to that window. Front door –– still too close –– shit ––
Out of options, I bolted up the stairs. My legs trembled underneath me and I tripped again and again, thumping my elbows against the walls, my stomach on the hard stair edges, my chin on the wood panels ––
From downstairs, a horrible noise filled the house –– shattering glass.
“No, no, no ––”
Without thinking, I ran into my bedroom and threw myself into the closet. For an instant, darkness swallowed me. Then my phone lit up. Clutching it in my hands like a lifeline, I stared at the screen.
The next picture had appeared: that same hand, now inside, holding my abandoned chef’s knife. Another caption accompanied it.
When the screen went black, I still hadn’t moved a muscle.
Everything sounded louder in the closet. My own breathing might as well have been screaming. There was another sound too, a much worse one . . . wood creaking on the stairs . . .
Footsteps . . . Down the hall . . . into my parents’ room . . .
The heavy, slow steps shuffled through the door and towards my bed. Inside the closet, I held my breath and shook. My heart thudded against my ribcage. I couldn’t see a thing –– but hopefully, this meant they couldn’t see me.
My phone lit up.
Everything inside me seemed to vanish. Numbly, I glanced at the screen –– at the dark outline of my own closet, posted with another caption.
#horror #socialmedia #Instagram #murder #spooky
The smell of snow is my anesthetic
So why does the cold burn?
When water is supposed to heal
Maybe that’s why people hate the winter
If somethings kills, can it still be good?
White snow like angel wings
Burns like hell fire
Winter wind whistles; is that holy song?
Midnight snow, all alone, all mine
Alone in an alien white world
Who can say what’s good and bad?
The smell of snow is my anesthetic
#poem #snow #winter