All Nedjma Sanders wants to do is go to college. All Jose Alexander wants to do is steal hospital supplies. And all Kacie wants to do is stop writing in third person objective. Who shall prevail?
At around three-fifteen, Nedjma Sanders’ window shattered.
Before that, Nedjma had been sprawled over her bed, her nose buried in a shabby textbook titled, The Dark Poet’s Toolkit. Other books filled the bed’s empty space like scholarly quilt.
Across the room, a battered old radio on her dresser had cranked out a warbly set of ads and talk show snippets.
“Try Dawood’s Fantastical Flu Fixer, created with a proprietary blend of herbs and magic ––”
“–– forget black market necromancy, the artificial heart will save millions of ––”
“–– Jayden-Lee agrees, listen to all Dark Magic decrees!”
A silvery, ethereal rat had fiddled with the dials, switching channel after channel to create a flickering white-noise effect.
“Am I being stupid?” Nedjma had muttered, flipping another page. “Nah. Probably not.”
Then the window blasted into a million pieces.
“SHOOT!” shouted a voice. “Sorry Nedjma!”
A figure stumbled in through the now-empty window square, his shoes crunching over glass dust.
“Jose. You have three seconds to run before I kill you with my bare hands ––”
“Wait, wait, I can fix it!” said Jose. The short, shaggy-haired young man hastily flipped open yet another book, one he’d carried in with him. Its title read, Basic Spells for Basic Wizards.
Confidently, Jose outstretched his hand and traced a symbol through the air.
A single broken shard zoomed obediently back into place.
“Aw . . .” Jose frowned, turning back to Basic Spells. “That was supposed to be totally righteous. And, like, work.”
“Obviously,” said Nedjma. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Jose, what have we talked about?”
“Windows are for emergency access only,” Jose recited, still frowning. “But this is an emergency!”
“Eat my shorts, Jose.”
Nedjma rose an eyebrow. “It better be a mad good one.”
“The hospital,” said Jose. “My mom came back from her overnight shift and said they’re out of pain meds. Like, totally out. Again.”
Nedjma didn’t say anything for a long moment. She might have been holding her breath.
“Jose, man . . . I can’t. We said we’d stop.”
“Okay, but the hospital, Nedjma!”
Nedjma threw her hands to her face in mock-horror. “Oh, no, think of the children!”
Jose scowled. He was a head shorter than Nedjma, and most people, for that matter. Still, he marched right up to her and stood his ground.
“I’m going. With or without you.”
Nedjma bent down, bringing herself to Jose’s eye level. Choppy chunks of black hair fell across her forehead, casting jagged shadows over her coppery cheeks.
“Look, man, I’m sorry. We promised we’d stop, so I’m stopping, alright? But I can’t let you go in there alone.”
With that, she snatched Basic Spells for Basic Wizards right out of his hands and raised it high over her head.
“Nedjma!” Jose complained, jumping to try and grab it. “That’s so not cool!”
He scribbled a symbol in the air and said, “Summon!” Nothing happened.
“Clearly, you need more practice if you’re gonna get into Faraday,” said Nedjma, smirking.
Jose quit jumping and scrawling symbols to cross his arms. “Well, not everyone’s naturally gifted, Nedj.”
Nedjma’s smirk fell away. Her shoulders tensed slightly.
“I don’t have a gift, Jose.” She dropped Basic Spells into his arms, putting on another, faker smile. “Just a whole lot of issues.”
Jose looked between the book and Nedjma, creasing his eyebrows a little. Then he sighed and plopped onto the bed.
“You’re still gonna major in Creative Writing, huh?” he said, lifting a thin black volume called, Haikus and You: Can They Get Deep? and wrinkling his nose. “Nedj, that’s like, the worst one.”
“No, Wizardry is the worst one,” Nedjma corrected, snatching the book. “Especially for a basic boy like you.” She paused, glancing down at her glass-covered carpet. “Speaking of which, fix my window, Mr. Wizard. Or Lord Kenneth the onion man will murder me in my sleep.”
Jose snorted. “Big bro’s still calling himself ‘Lord,’ huh?”
“Yep. Becoming Kitchen Lord in Faraday Castle really changes a man.” Nedjma rolled her eyes. “Seriously, I can’t wait to stop living with my brother.”
As Jose opened Basic Spells for Basic Wizards again, Nedjma carried on, “Which is why we need to get into Faraday, man. The University won’t take people from Ffestiniog unless we pass our practicals like ––” she snapped “–– that.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Jose waved his hand airily, which caused a few books to backflip off the bed. He looked highly impressed with himself.
He spent the next few minutes shouting, “Repair!” over and over again, willing two or three little window pieces back together at a time. About halfway through the work, when the window resembled a glossy, sideways mountain range, he asked carefully, “So . . . still not using necromancy?”
Nedjma, who’d been leaning against a corner with her arms crossed, stiffened.
“Oh . . .” Jose glanced over his shoulder. “Hey, Ghost Rat.”
The ethereal rat on the desk perked its ears in response.
Nedjma scowled. “Okay, besides the rat. Also quit calling Chanel ‘Ghost Rat,’ it’s lame ––”
“But she is a ghost rat!” Jose protested.
“No, she is Chanel Stamp, a rat who just happens to be slightly less alive than other rats ––”
“Necromancy,” Jose interrupted, as the last glass shard snuggled into place. “Nedj, you’re really good ––”
“Zzt,” Nedjma stopped him. A wave of her hand, and with an indignant squeak, the silvery rat disappeared.
“Aww!” said Jose. “Not Ghost Rat! Er –– I mean, not Chanel Stamp!”
“You were right.” Nedjma leaned back against the wall, her bangs casting dark shadows over her face again. “If I want to stop, I’ve got to stop completely. No dead pets.”
Jose frowned deeply. He walked up to Nedjma, who turned her eyes to the newly-mended window.
“Nedj . . . the hospital. We’ve got to do something. We always do something.”
“We promised we’d stop,” Nedjma reminded him. “If Faraday Medical catches us stealing, there’s no way they’ll let us into the university. I want to go to college. I need to.”
“They’ve never caught us before!” Jose insisted. “We help people, Nedj!”
“Dark magic is illegal and wrong,” Nedjma muttered. “If someone saw me . . . forget Faraday, we’d both go to jail.”
“You always took the risk before,” said Jose. “We took the risk.”
Nedjma avoided his earnest eyes by staring at her own hand. She flexed it once, and a couple spots of black ooze bubbled through her pores.
“They’re cracking down on my magic,” she murmured. “It’s never been this bad. The radio, the news . . . it’s . . .”
Jose’s shoulders slumped. “I know.”
They fell into silence a few moments. Jose broke it by adding, “Well, if we run into someone, you could always just spout your goth poetry. That’d get them running.”
“It’s not goth.” Nedjma jabbed Jose on the forehead. “It’s gritty. Unfiltered. Not flowery like Hermione Munoz or Dominic Madsen or any of those other poser poets . . .”
Nedjma turned away, hiding her face as she knotted her eyebrows.
“How many people in the hospital?” she asked.
“Eleven,” said Jose. “Two with broken bones. Mina Markham still waiting on that surgery.”
Nedjma licked her lips. She closed her eyes. Then, finally, she sighed.
“Alright, Jose. Alright.”
“You’ll do it?” Jose yelped.
“Don’t make me change my mind, man.”
“Right –– right, okay. Yesss. Sorry. Let’s go!”
“But,” Nedjma added sharply, “this is the last time. And I’m only going because . . . because I can feel Markham slipping closer to death. Come on.”
She jumped out open her window. Behind her, Jose shook his head and mouthed, Naturally gifted.
Nedjma lived on the first floor, which meant she did not immediately fall to her doom when stepping outside her window. She dropped out onto the scrappy grass, Jose a second later.
They scaled the warped, wiry fence that surrounded Nedjma and her brother’s house, Jose struggling a little, and stepped into Ffestiniog.
The roads mimicked the mountain they sat on –– slanted and unsteady. Years of disrepair had left them crumbling and potholed. A hodgepodge of stumpy structures made up the town, each looking more shambling and homemade than the next.
“Did you bring the number?” Nedjma asked.
Jose opened Basic Spells to its last page, where a chipped metal “4” sat tucked between the paper and the back title. “Got it.”
Nedjma nodded, then motioned for Jose to follow.
They spanned Ffestiniog in a matter of minutes, not an impressive feat when the town only held about a hundred struggling residents. Then they hit a patchy woods, cluttered with wrappers and other Ffestiniog trash, and started to climb.
“Mountains –– should not –– have forests,” Jose puffed after several minutes of uphill hiking.
“Dude, you say that every time,” said Nedjma, rolling her eyes. “And, like I always say, these trees are the only reason we can do this.”
“Correction,” said Jose between heavy breaths. “Mountains –– should not –– exist.”
Nearly an hour later, a new collection of structures cut the horizon. The opposite of Ffestiniog, this city sparkled with silvery turrets and skyscrapers, wreathed in clouds like a heavenly kingdom.
“Hello, Tunstead,” muttered Jose, clutching Basic Spells a little closer.
Nedjma adjusted her black-and-purple windbreaker. She ran a hand through her choppy hair, which didn’t match the teased look sweeping Tunstead’s big city headlines.
“Alright, quit gawking. Let’s bounce.”
They crept through the trees, spanning the left side of Tunstead’s borders. Building backs appeared through the trunks, complete with shiny green dumpsters and a few broken bottles.
Eventually, Nedjma and Jose slowed. In front of them sat a silvery stone building. On its face, a heavy-looking door sported the inscription:
Faraday Medical Center
Hospital and University
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
“Letter,” said Nedjma. Jose slipped the battered metal four into his hands.
“My time to shine,” he said quietly, tossing up the number and catching it by its top. The bottom had been warped and sharpened into a dented little point. He stuck it into the door handle and set to work.
Before long, a prominent click issued from the lock.
“Gnarly,” said Jose, pushing open the door with a self-satisfied smile.
Nedjma elbowed him as she passed, cracking the smallest grin. “Not even. Now shh.”
“Even!” Jose whispered, following her in and sliding the door closed.
The room slipped into total darkness.
“On it!” said Jose. “Light!”
A few more tries, and a single yellow orb appeared, hovering between them like a glowing balloon.
Stacked hospital beds filled the room. Nedjma and Jose spanned the space silently, navigating the wires and IV racks with as much ease and familiarity as Nedjma’s bedroom.
“It’s time,” said Jose, glancing up at Nedjma. In the yellow glow, he looked almost sickly.
Nedjma’s expression didn’t change. She only nodded and said, “Catch me.”
Then she promptly collapsed into Jose’s free arm.
Jose grunted under her weight, shifting so that Nedjma stood propped and unconscious against his shoulder.
“Go, Nedj!” he hissed into the darkness.
What Jose couldn’t see was Nedjma’s silvery outline stepping from her body, and entering the Kingdom of Verithiel –– the land between life and death.
For Nedjma, a ghostly screen now covered her surroundings like a second skin. The hospital beds and IV racks remained, only now they glowed colorlessly like images from an X-Ray.
She felt a light presence crawl over her shoulder.
“Hey, Chanel,” said Nedjma. The little ghost rat nibbled affectionately on Nedjma’s ethereal ear in response.
There was another presence in the room, one Nedjma sensed almost immediately.
“Hey! Get lost!” she snapped, scowling at a bloodred specter standing not two feet from Jose.
“Buuuut . . . possession,” the specter complained.
“You wouldn’t want him, just look at that bod,” said Nedjma. “Hasn’t worked out in –– well, forever.”
“Good soooouuuul,” the specter pointed out.
“You’re gonna get a good sock unless you boot on out of here,” Nedjma threatened, holding up a shimmering palm. Black goop began leaching from between her fingers.
“Fiiiiiiiiine,” the specter groaned, and sank through the floor.
Nedjma shook her head.
“That’s the problem with hospitals, Chanel,” she said. “All these ghosts thinking they can snatch a dead body just in time. That’s why necromancers get a bad rap.”
A second later, Nedjma’s lips twisted. She shook her head, then stuck it right through the wall.
The laws of physics did not apply in the Kingdom of Verithiel. Nedjma’s head and shoulders passed easily through the wall and she found herself in a long, white hallway. Doors patterned the walls. Clean-looking people in scrubs flitted between them, muttering things like, “Bandages, bandages, where are those bandages?” and “Ugh, did Asif move the needles again?”
Nedjma’s ghostly form stiffened, but she kept her eyes off the nurses’ and doctors’ faces. Instead, she scanned their scrubs, their pockets, until ––
“Aha!” she said. Chanel Stamp squeaked.
Nedjma stepped through the wall.
“Distraction time, Chanel. You get the keys, I’ll do the rest.”
Nedjma approached the nearest doctor. The woman didn’t resemble a Ffestiniog villager at all: Her hair fell in silky braids, and her ebony cheeks were brushed lightly with warm makeup. There was something else, too, something that ran deeper than the sterility of a hospital worker. This woman looked clean. Whole. Well taken care of.
Whether human or ghost, the difference between Nedjma and the doctor was glaring.
In a flash of motion, Nedjma slid across the floor on her knees, grabbing the doctor’s ankle and yanking hard.
“Ack!” the doctor yelped, smacking into the linoleum.
She stood, straightening her scrubs and spitting braids from her mouth. Nedjma raised one hand, now oozing black liquid, and moved it slowly towards the doctor’s chest . . .
From below, Chanel squeaked indignantly. During Nedjma’s attack, the rat had scampered down Nedjma’s arm and onto the doctor’s shoe.
“I know, Chanel . . .” Nedjma whispered. She licked her lips. “Just one more time, and I’ll be done . . .”
She tapped her pointer finger to the doctor’s chest.
Immediately, the doctor keeled over, dead.
A nurse sprinted over, blinking and dropping to her knees. “Dr. House? Dr. House, can you hear me?”
Nedjma bent down, tapping Dr. House on her sternum one more time. The woman stirred, already back to life.
“Ugh . . . did I burn out again?” she groaned, rubbing her head. In the Kingdom of Verithiel, black gunk bubbled and dripped down her chest.
As Dr. House and the nurse discussed symptoms (Dr. House occasionally rubbing her heart and wincing), Chanel Stamp snuck out from between them. Like Nedjma’s hands, the rat trailed black slime as she interacted with the corporeal world, dragging a single silver key across the floor.
“Thanks, Miss Stamp,” said Nedjma, allowing Chanel to clamber back up to her shoulder and giving the rat a scratch between the ears.
As she drifted towards back towards the door, Nedjma sent one last look at the doctor and nurse. Two scarlet specters had already appeared, enticed by the aura of fresh death.
“Shoo!” Nedjma shouted at them. “Get lost!”
“Possessioooooon,” pointed out the specter on the left.
The other specter pointed a hazy hand and nodded, as if to say, That.
Nedjma willed another glop of black goo into her palm. “Counter argument,” she said. “You go back where you belong, barf bag.”
The specters sank through the floor, the one on the right shooting her one last crude hand gesture.
“What a bunch of narbos,” Nedjma muttered, lifting the key. She faced the door to the hospital bed storage, and stuck the key into the lock.
Or tried to.
“What the heck?” Nedjma muttered, jiggling the key. She glanced back again, as though hoping passing hospital personal wouldn’t notice the disembodied key starting to get angry.
“Chanel, this is the key,” Nedjma said, examining it closely. “This is always the key.”
Chanel squeaked indignantly, like, Well, I know that!
“Why the . . . ? What the . . . ? When . . . ?”
Nedjma jammed the key in again, wincing as it clanged audibly against the metal door handle.
“Yeaaaaah,” said a voice from behind, causing Nedjma’s ghostly form to jump into the air. “We changed the locks.”