Nedjma and Jose meet a mysterious stranger. Someone dies. Kacie and Luna pray for the loops.
The Mortal Quarry – Chapter 3
Nedjma made it to the morgue. Jose didn’t.
Instead, he trembled and rifled feverishly through Basic Spells for Basic Wizards.
“Summoning spells, summoning spells . . . aha!”
He thrust his hand into the air and yelped, “Summon Nedjma Sanders!”
“Come on,” Jose begged. “Summon Nedjma! Summon! SUMMON . . . please?”
In the Kingdom of Verithiel, Nedjma punched him again.
“You can barely fix a window, narbo!” she said sharply. “And how would it look if my dead body started flying through the fricking hospital, bouncing off the walls like – gah!”
Her ghostly form tensing, Nedjma darted back towards the hospital, leaving Jose rubbing his twice-punched arm and scouring Basic Spells for another emergency incantation.
Nedjma followed her corpse as the nurses shunted it through the door.
“Gurney,” one nurse grunted to the other. “Hurry, Samson.”
Nurse Samson squeezed between the hospital beds, unearthed a gurney, and unfolded it. Then the nurses plopped Nedjma’s body down and wheeled the stretcher into the hall.
“Not this again,” Nedjma growled to Chanel Stamp, who had been watching and waiting in uncharacteristic silence. “The last time they caught us, I made it to the Coroner’s Office. The Coroner’s Office! Do you know how hard it is to sneak out of a freezer? And cold?”
She said this all while striding beside the rapidly-rolling stretcher, rubbing her hands like she was warming up for strangling. Jose. Or the hospital staff. Or both.
Meanwhile, more doctors and nurses flocked around her, all practically running to keep up.
“Heart’s stopped – get me a defibrillator! Stat!”
“Okay, take a red,” Nedjma grunted. She leaned over her own body, as though about to launch her spirit back inside and yell “I LIVE!”
“But they think I OD’d,” she muttered, maybe to Chanel, maybe to herself. “They’d never let a burn-out druggie into Faraday U. I’d never go to college. This sucks!”
So she watched and followed as the debrilliated her (without success, other than a few involuntary twitches from Nedjma’s spirit), pronounced her dead, and wheeled her to the morgue, murmuring things like, “Such a waste . . .”
When the doctors finally departed, Nedjma still couldn’t relax.
“Everybody, CLEAR OUT!” she bellowed.
There were only two corpses in the morgue, Nedjma’s and an elderly man’s. And yet, the room was packed – packed with those same red spectres. They looked like poorly made video game characters, red and staticky.
At the sound of Nedjma’s shout, their eyeless faces rose to survey her. The morgue (in the Kingdom of Verithiel) quickly filled with protests of, “Possession!” “Must possess!” “Old soul tastes like mothballs!”
A few spectres shot that last speaker sour looks.
“BUZZ OFF!” Nedjma thundered again.
The spectres had always listened to Nedjma. They had grumbled and complained, but they listened.
This time, though, there were more spectres than Nedjma had ever dealt with at once. And this time, they didn’t listen.
Instead, the three closest spectres latched their fingers into the old man’s neck. Immediately, his skin bubbled – not with black ooze, but with a red, viscous liquid resembling candle wax.
“Stop it!” Nedjma yelped. “That’s not – you’d better –”
But it was too late. The man’s whole body began deflating like an old balloon. Red gunk spilled from his chest and trailed up the spectres’ arms like spilled blood returning to their veins. Their crimson auras glowed clearer.
“No fair!” protested another spectre, one of the ten or eleven shuffling through the morgue.
And then, with a tiny slurp! sound, the old man completely dissolved.
“What . . . just . . . happened?” Nedjma choked. On her shoulder, Chanel Stamp squeaked in terror, as if to say, No idea, but it was totally terrifying!
All at once, the roomful of spectres turned their eyeless faces onto Nedjma’s dead body.
“Ooooh no you don’t,” said a voice.
At this, Nedjma flung herself into the wall.
Luckily, as a ghost, the impact didn’t hurt. Even so, Nedjma didn’t summon black goop or vault back into her body to fend off the spectres. She whipped around, flattening herself against the wall. Her eyes were as round as compact discs.
A second silvery figure had entered the morgue – another ghost.
Pale mist rolled from her translucent body, forming a faint, misty aura overtop her head and shoulders. The sight reminded Nedjma of the clouds swathing Tunstead’s skyscrapers and sparkling turrets. The spirit looked tall and willowy, the way little kids imagined ghosts in Ffestiniog bedtime stories. Her silky brown hair formed an elegant curly bob. Her eyes practically glowed blue.
If Nedjma had been inside her own body, she might have blushed.
The woman ignored Nedjma, studying the spectres with obvious distaste.
Then she screeched. Worse than a scream, it sounded like a million ghostly chainsaws. The sound flooded the Kingdom of Verithiel, and leached into the corporeal world – the morgue beds rattled, oozing – the spectres hunched over and wailed –
Chanel Stamp squeaked in pain.
“Agh,” groaned Nedjma, pressing her fingers over Chanel’s little ears. She squeezed her eyes shut – her shoulders turned rigid –
Finally, the sound ended.
Slowly, Nedjma opened her eyes. The spectres had all gone, and the woman was patting her hands together.
“I absolutely despise those creatures, don’t you?”
She flashed Nedjma a winning smile. Nedjma answered with a spluttering yelp.
“You – ghost – but – here?”
The woman laughed, a fluttery and high-pitched sound. Nedjma cleared her throat and licked her lips. Her face flickered, as though she was trying to pull back on her usual hard expression.
“Sorry about the Death Rattle,” the woman said. “D’you like that? I coined the term. It’s more of a shriek, but it does rattle the physical world, if you’re loud enough.”
“You’re a necromancer,” Nedjma managed, finally finding her voice. “Using necromancy. Don’t you know how illegal that is?”
“I hope you’re not missing the irony here.” The woman pursed her lips, surveying Nedjma with something like pity. “I know exactly how illegal it is, my undead friend. But I should correct you: I was a necromancer, back when I lived.”
“Back when you – w-what?” Nedjma stammered.
The woman floated towards Nedjma – not walked, like Nedjma did. She extended a hand.
“My name is Dr. Louis Saltsman. I used to work in this very hospital. And I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”
Nedjma didn’t answer for a very long moment, staring at Lulu’s hand as though running calculations on its length and width.
“Nedjma,” she said at last. “Nedjma Sanders. And I need . . . a lot of explanation.”
Dr. Saltsman nodded, her silvery face going grim. “I’ll explain. Quickly.”
She settled her vibrant blue gaze on Nedjma.
“When I lived, necromancy was not illegal. It was life-saving. To know when patients slipped closer to death, and to coax their spirits to stay, or release them in peace . . . back then, only twenty odd years ago, necromancers were invaluable.”
“But – but it’s dark magic,” Nedjma protested, blinking several times. “It’s wrong –”
“And who decided that?” Dr. Saltsman sniffed. Then her expression darkened again. “When I was alive, spectres did not exist. Have you ever seen a ghost like me?”
Nedjma opened her mouth three times before answering. “Ah . . . no. I just thought it was only animals. And, uh . . . I thought spectres were ghosts. Like, dead necromancer ghosts.”
Dr. Saltsman studied Nedjma closely. “You’ve never had a teacher of necromancy, have you?”
Nedjma bristled. “What, and get arrested? Get real. I learned what they taught us in school – which is that necromancy can twist and darken a person’s soul, and that it defies the laws of nature. That’s it.”
“Unreal,” Dr. Saltsman muttered. “And you thought using necromancy would turn you into one of those – those flakes?”
A little defensively, Nedjma nodded. “Well, what else could spectres be?”
“Oh, that I know,” said Dr. Saltsman. “But, ah, you should really bug out and get back in your body.”
Black goop poured from the pores of Nedjma’s corpse, dotting her face and arms like inky freckles. The same black splotches were building on her spectral form.
“Hurry, before you die!” Dr. Saltsman insisted. “Summon me, and I can get you out of here!”
Nedjma didn’t answer. She threw herself into her body, which jolted worse than it had under the defibrillator, then sat bolt upright.
“That was . . . way too close,” she said, wide-eyed.
Grimacing, Nedjma rubbed the slime from her hands and face. She considered the morgue – which no longer carried the white gossamer sheen of the Kingdom of Verithiel. Chanel Stamp and Dr. Saltsman had also disappeared from sight.
“No more,” Nedjma muttered to herself. She walked towards the door, hesitating a few times. “Walk out, say I got lost, say I’m a visitor, say . . .”
When her hand hit the smooth door handle, Nedjma paused. She studied her empty shoulder a long minute.
She closed her eyes, reaching her presence back into the Kingdom of Verithiel. Immediately, her senses located two cold spots, one smaller and one larger. She willed them into the land of the living.
“Thank goodness,” said Dr. Saltsman, who had just appeared as an ethereal, luminous apparition. “I thought I was going to have to haunt you.”
On Nedjma’s shoulder, Chanel squeaked indignantly, like, You were gonna leave me with the newbie?
“You’re quite good,” Dr. Saltsman noted. “I couldn’t imagine being able to conjure spirits without any teaching –”
“Stop,” said Nedjma. “It doesn’t matter how I am at necromancy. After today, I’m done with it. I’m done with all this. Okay?” She hesitated a moody second. “But also, I can’t get caught sneaking out of here. You said you can get me outside?”
“Oh, easily.” Dr. Saltsman flashed a winning smile, then swooped at Nedjma like a gust of glowing wind and lifted her into the air.
“AHHHAHAH!” A wild panic-laugh escaped Nedjma before she could clamp it down.
“Shh!” said Dr. Saltsman, clearly biting back a laugh herself. “The hospital staff might hear. Now keep calm. This might feel a bit strange in the physical world.”
Dr. Saltsman flew for the wall, holding Nedjma as if she weighed nothing. Nedjma tried to keep calm . . . and failed, when Dr. Saltsman pulled her through the wall.
Nedjma had performed a similar move countless times. She’d squeezed through nooks and crannies, grumbling about the uncomfortable sensation of her spectral form squashing to fit.
She had never gone straight through, effortlessly. And of course, she had never gone through in a living body.
“Gah!” Nedjma gasped.
“It’s quite a sensation,” Dr. Saltsman agreed. She was now holding Nedjma (who had started flailing and sucking in deep breaths) three stories in the air.
“Jose,” Nedjma managed. “My friend – take me to him – set me down!”
“Hmmm . . .” Dr. Saltsman scrunched up her nose, then nodded. “A wizard?”
“Yes,” said Nedjma with desperate impatience, as if each second she spent hovering was her new worst memory. “Probably pacing and crying and shouting spells!”
“Ah, yes, I see him.” Dr. Saltsman laughed her tinkling laugh, then plunged towards the earth, Nedjma in tow.
“Mmmmmmm!” This time, Nedjma muffled a scream by clenching her jaw. Her coppery skin flushed green.
A figure appeared below: Jose, spellbook open. As Nedjma had predicted, he was pacing, crying, and shouting spells.
“Locate! Help! Hide! Seek!”
“Jose!” Nedjma called.
Jose jumped about a foot in the air, then looked up in wonder. “Nedj . . . ?” In amazement, he started to say, “The spells worked!”
Then Nedjma and Dr. Saltsman touched down onto the grass.
“GHOST HUMAN!” Jose exclaimed.
“Shh!” said Nedjma and Dr. Saltsman at once. They glanced at each other in surprise.
Jose blinked rapidly between them. “Am I wigging out? What’s going on? How did . . . ?”
“We have to get out of here,” Nedjma and Dr. Saltsman insisted in unison. They exchanged another bewildered look.
“I’ll explain everything, but we really should move somewhere safer,” said Dr. Saltsman. She introduced herself, but Jose seemed more interested in gaping at her than actual conversation. Nedjma rolled her eyes, though she’d been in the same boat only minutes earlier.
“Come on,” she said, grabbing Jose’s and Dr. Saltsman’s hands in either of her own and dragging them deeper into the mountain forest.
Once Tunstead’s gleaming buildings had vanished from sight, Nedjma dropped them both and spun around. On her shoulder, Chanel sniffed her cheek inquisitively.
“Okay, what are the spectres?”
Nedjma’s sharp brown eyes bored into Dr. Saltsman’s ethereal blue ones.
“It . . . is difficult to explain,” Dr. Saltsman admitted. “You may not believe me.” She took a deep breath. “There is something dangerous hidden inside this mountain. Something catching ghosts like me and turning them into spectres. Something . . . something creating a veritable army of the undead.”
Nedjma and Jose shared a look, seeming to come to a common consensus: Okay, the ghost lady’s crazy. How ‘bout that grindage at the diner now?
“I know it sounds bent,” Dr. Saltsman said quickly, interpreting their expressions. “Hear me out. Necromancers have the ability to linger in the Kingdom of Verithiel when they die, if they have unfinished business. For me . . . well, my unfinished business has lasted twenty years.
“The first time I saw a spectre, it killed me.”
“What?” yelped Jose. “But – but those red dudes don’t hurt anybody. Right?”
He looked imploringly at Nedjma, who was his main source of Verithiel-based information.
“They . . . may mention possession, sometimes,” Nedjma admitted.
“They do indeed,” said Dr. Saltsman. “And, as Nedjma has just witnessed, they also feed on corpses. I was out of my body when they consumed it.”
“Yikes,” Nedjma muttered. Jose looked sick.
“You were halfway correct before, Nedjma,” said Dr. Saltsman. “The spectres were once necromancers. But this has nothing to do with their powers or choices. At one point, they were nothing but friendly ghosts. Now . . . well, they’ve been poisoned.”
“But . . . why?” Nedjma asked. “And how? And how could you not see them until you died? They’re everywhere.”
Despite her glowing sheen, Dr. Saltsman’s expression looked dark as night.
“They’re multiplying. Something is creating them. Something inside this mountain.”
Nedjma and Jose didn’t answer for a long minute.
“Well, thanks for the nightmares, but we’d really better jet,” said Nedjma. She waved a hand as though breaking apart a frightening mental image, then grabbed Jose’s arm and started dragging him through the trees.
“Wait!” Dr. Saltsman floated beside them, keeping pace easily, though looking a little miffed. “You can’t go! I need you!”
“That’s nice, but it’s really late, and we should be getting back to Ffestiniog . . .”
“You’re village people?” Dr. Saltsman asked, some not-totally-concealed disbelief in her tone.
Nedjma’s face flattened. Now that she’d finally recovered from her shock, her expression had hardened back to the same one as before, when Jose had begged her to make this whole dangerous excursion in the first place.
“Yes, we’re village people. Nice to meet you, Lulu. Goodbye forever.”
“Lulu,” Dr. Saltsman mused. “The nurses used to call me that. . . Anyway, I can’t let you go.”
“Kick rocks,” said Nedjma, quickening her pace.
“What do you need Nedj for?” Jose wondered.
“Well I’d like you too, Jose, if you’re willing,” said Dr. Saltsman. “Don’t you want to know why I want you? What the spectres’ goals is? Why they’re multiplying? How I know all this?”
“Nope,” said Nedjma.
“I’ll go in reverse order,” Dr. Saltsman decided. “I’ve traveled to the bottom of the mountain three times, to spy. The journeys almost destroyed me . . . I could never get inside, but I saw enough.
“As to why they’re multiplying, well . . . it’s complicated. From what information I’ve been able to gather, their numbers will continue to increase until they match the number of living souls on this mountain. Then they will possess all the bodies and form an unstoppable zombie army.”
Nedjma skidded to a stop so fast that Jose slipped into the dirt.
“Oh, good, you’re listening,” said Dr. Saltsman.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Nedjma rounded on the ghost. “You can’t just say something like that!”
“It’s true,” said Dr. Saltsman simply.
“It – it – it can’t be.” Nedjma shook her head. “Those spectres can’t even touch living souls. They’re terrified of necromantic residue.” She held up her hand and conjured a black bubble of ooze to demonstrate. “So maybe they talk a big talk, but if somebody’s still inside of a body –”
“Then the spectres will need lots of power,” said Dr. Saltsman, “which they garner from eating corpses, as you’ve seen. And where do we put our corpses? We bury them. Inside the mountain. Easy access for when the day comes.”
Nedjma backed up, horror creeping across her face. Jose stood and brushed off his pant legs, then considered Dr. Saltsman.
“That’s your unfinished business, isn’t it?” he guessed in a small voice.“Put a stop to the spectres, before they . . .”
“Before they turn everyone on this mountain into a mindless zombie, yes,” said Dr. Saltsman. “Which is an excellent segue into my hypothesis for their end goal –”
“Nope,” said Nedjma abruptly, and she snatched Jose and started marching down through the forest once more.
“Oh, not this again,” sniffed Dr. Saltsman. She hovered at their side. “The end goal – is world domination! Probably! Why else would someone need an army so massive?”
Nedjma didn’t answer, dragging Jose around a few trees that Dr. Saltsman ghosted easily through. Both of the living humans started huffing and puffing.
“Nedjma, please listen,” Dr. Saltsman pressed, “I said I couldn’t get into the mountain before, and that’s because I was alone. I’ve spent ten whole years searching for a necromancer, but as dark magic is now illegal on the whole mountain, I’ve had a bummer of a time –”
“Well, sorry to burst your bubble,” said Nedjma, “but like I said, I’m giving necromancy up. Starting now.”
Jose looked up at Nedjma, stumbling a little. “Maybe we should hear her out, Nedj.”
“He’s right,” said Dr. Saltsman. “And – and I could teach you, too! You could become as excellent of a necromancer I am – or, was –”
“I’m NOT a necromancer!”
Nedjma dropped Jose and rounded on Dr. Saltsman, who was so startled she froze halfway through a sapling tree.
“Yeah, so I’ve got some natural ability,” Nedjma said. “So I’ve used dark magic in the past. And today. But I – we – want to go to college at Faraday University, and I can’t do that if I’m arrested. Or traveling down this mountain with a crazy ghost,” she added sharply.
Dr. Saltsman knitted her brow. “You worry about college, and your future. But don’t you see? Neither of these will exist if you don’t help me. By my calculations . . .”
She drew a deep breath, then released it slowly.
“By my calculations, the spectres will take over in two weeks.”
“Two weeks?” said Jose in horror.
“Maybe less,” said Dr. Saltsman. “With a living necromancer and a wizard on my side, we can put a stop to this. We can figure out who’s doing it, and why, and end it before it begins.”
For a long stretch, silence fell between the three of them.
“How?” Nedjma asked. Her voice was hoarse, quiet, and full of resignation, as if she’d just been asked to sign her own death warrant. “What exactly do you need us to do?”
Dr. Saltsman studied Nedjma and Jose. Her expression was more serious than the grave.
“I need you to journey with me to the mouth of the mountain.”