A new team member is added to “The Mortal Quarry” squad – and nobody’s happy about it. Especially Kacie, because she has to do the voice. Luna has a list of critiques, and we follow it, gosh dangit. Oh, and Kacie misuses the word “reviling.”

The Mortal Quarry – Chapter 5

“YOU AIRHEADED SCUMBAG DOCTOR!”

“I have never heard those insults in my existence, but I assume they’re quite rude,” said Dr. Saltsman flatly. “We need to go. You’re packed?”

No, I’m not – REVIVE MY BROTHER!” Nedjma bellowed.

Jose stood between the ghost and his best friend, wide-eyed. Kenneth laid sprawled at their feet. His bronze skin had drained to a waxy tan color.

Dr. Saltsman huffed impatiently. “I can’t do that, Nedjma, because that is not your brother.”

Nedjma opened her mouth, but only sputtering sounds came out.

“Oh no,” Jose gasped suddenly, throwing his hands over his mouth. “Oh no, I get it . . . a specter took over Kenneth’s body?”

Finally, someone with some sense,” Dr. Saltsman sighed. 

Nedjma stuttered some more, until finally bursting out, “That – he – he was talking like Kenneth!

She released a long, hissing breath through her teeth, as though to calm herself down. It didn’t work. Her eyes still flashed dangerously.

“I know how my brother sounds,” she said, speaking each word slowly and darkly, like lines of her goth poetry. “That was my brother.”

Dr. Saltsman tapped her chin in thought. “You know, I was surprised how eloquent he sounded for a specter. But no, he was definitely a specter. And still is.”

Nedjma growled, her shoulders shaking with fury. Jose piped up quickly, “But, ah, um – how do you know? Like, if Nedj doesn’t sense it, how can you?”

“I’m dead, Jose,” said Dr. Saltsman bluntly. “And a better necromancer. And I happen to have been studying specters for over twenty years. Look, I can prove it –”

She rose her misty hand over Kenneth’s body, releasing a few drops of black gunk. As they dripped onto his chest, redness bubbled up to the surface, a goo resembling candle wax . . . and the remains of the old man in the morgue.

“I don’t care,” Nedjma growled. She was blinking very fast. “I don’t care if he’s a specter or not, just wake him up. Wake him up.”

Dr. Saltsman opened her mouth, then closed it with a sigh. When she stayed silent, Nedjma released a wordless, strangled sound, then dropped to her knees. She ran her shaking hands over Kenneth’s body, spilling black goop from her palms as she tried desperately to make her dead brother wake up.

Jose wiped a tear from his eye and looked up at Dr. Saltsman.

“Please, bring him back,” he said. “He’s all the family Nedj has left.”

Dr. Saltsman’s face, which had been hard and cold since Kenneth entered the room, softened.

“Nedjma,” she said quietly. Nedjma didn’t respond, too busy fumbling over Kenneth’s corpse. “Nedjma. I’ll wake him.”

Jose breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness.”

“About time!” Nedjma glared up at Dr. Saltsman. “Do it then!”

Still, Dr. Saltsman didn’t move. She looked at Jose. “Would you deliver that medicine to Ffestiniog’s doctor?”

“Oh – sure,” said Jose, looking between Nedjma and Dr. Saltsman. “That’s my mom, so I can also say . . .” He swallowed hard. “Say bye, I guess. Just in case we decide to . . . you know. Yeah. I should see her.”

He glanced between the ghost and his best friend one last time, before hefting the medicine over his shoulder and slipping out of Nedjma’s bedroom.

“Your brother has plenty of time,” Dr. Saltsman said gently. “It takes a full thirty minutes before a spirit moves past the point of return. Now listen to me –” her voice turned stern here, because Nedjma had just opened her mouth to interrupt. “I have never encountered a specter inside a human body before, not anywhere but – but the mountain’s mouth. And I’ve definitely never heard a specter using full sentences. I can only hypothesize that, for some reason, this specter has been living dormant inside your brother.”

Nedjma’s face contorted in disgust. “Like – like a parasite?”

“Perhaps,” said Dr. Saltsman. “Something I didn’t think possible. What this means is . . . well, they could be anyone. And they could be everywhere.”

“Oh, perfect,” said Nedjma. She looked a little green.

“Quite the opposite,” said Dr. Saltsman, confused. She shrugged it off. “So our two-week deadline may be a little closer to one week.”

“You’re just a bucket of good news, aren’t you?” Nedjma muttered. “Probably super fun at parties.”

“Says the angst-riddled necromancer poet,” Dr. Saltsman sniffed. “Perhaps you should summon your rat back. She seems to calm you down.”

Nedjma had released Chanel Stamp into the Kingdom of Verithiel an hour earlier, before they entered the diner. But Nedjma only shook her head.

“She doesn’t like it when I’m upset,” Nedjma grunted. “Ghosts are too observant.”

Dr. Saltsman’s glow flickered. Nedjma’s face twitched, as if she suddenly realized who else her words applied to.

“There’s something else, as well,” said Dr. Saltsman, moving past the uncomfortable moment. “Your brother is not – well, to be frank, not an obvious candidate for hosting a specter. Not important or powerful or connected, right?”

“Harsh,” said Nedjma, “but true.”

Dr. Saltsman nodded, sighing. “So I would have to assume that someone – whoever is behind this whole thing – already knows you are a powerful necromancer.”

Nedjma’s eyes popped open, then narrowed to slits. “How?”
“Well, you haven’t exactly been hiding it, robbing Faraday U and all that,” Dr. Saltsman pointed out, with a single, musical laugh.

“I have been hiding it!” Nedjma protested. “I’ve never been caught! I mean . . . besides today . . . and one other time!”

Shockingly, Dr. Saltsman didn’t look impressed.

“Faraday U is one of the top schools in the Allied Peaks. You think they’re not monitored by the High Council?”

Nedjma blinked. “And you think the High Council is behind this?”

“Either that, or the enemy keeps very good spies,” Dr. Saltsman said solemnly. Her glowing blue eyes dropped down to Kenneth, then met Nedjma’s brown ones. “So, what do we do?”

It was the first time Dr. Saltsman had ever offered Nedjma the lead. Nedjma stared at her a long moment, a bit of blood rising in her face.

“He comes with us,” she said at last. “He can’t tell anyone what we’re doing if we’ve got him under surveillance. And maybe you can, um . . . do some science or whatever, and help us prepare for . . . for the mouth of the mountain, and what we’ll find there.”

Dr. Saltsman’s face lit up. In fact, her whole body lit up, glowing brighter with excitement. “You’ve decided? You’ll help me?”

“They put a specter in my brother,” said Nedjma. “Now it’s personal.”

“Excellent. Thank you, Nedjma.” Louis beamed, sparkling a little, before her ethereal body dimmed back to its normal luminance. “So we wake him, and take him,” she summed up. “Oh, look, I rhymed.”

“We tell him the truth, and make him tell us everything he knows,” said Nedjma. “If he knows anything.”

Some of the truth,” Dr. Saltsman corrected. “We don’t know how well they can communicate with their mystery leader.”

“Right.” Nedjma released a long, deep sigh. “And then I get to spend some quality time with the Onion Lord.”

Dr. Saltman blinked, then broke out into a high pitched giggle. “What a title!” She swooped low over Kenneth’s body, outstretching her hand.

Then she paused.

“I’m sorry for killing him, Nedjma,” she said quietly. “I only wanted to protect you and Jose. Being dead this long, I’ve forgotten what it feels like . . . having family.”

Louis tapped Kenneth’s chest, releasing several bubbles of necromantic residue. He stirred.

“Kenneth!”

Nedjma breathed his name like a broken sigh, dropping down and shaking his shoulder. “Come on, idiot, get up!”

Then Kenneth opened his eyes, and Nedjma’s whole body froze.

His eyes were totally bloodred.

“Good soooouul,” he rasped.

“You . . . DITZ-BRAINED, DIPSTICK BARF-BAG OF A GHOST!”

“Oh no, we’re back to insults,” said Dr. Saltsman.

“What–? What’s going–? EYES!” Nedjma spluttered.

“Yes, I see . . .” Dr. Saltsman hovered over Kenneth, grabbing his chin and inspecting his face. “Hmm. Yes.”

She dropped his face and announced, “I have no idea what is happening right now.”

“Oh, TOTALLY AWESOME!” Nedjma exploded. She jumped to her feet, hurling out a very un-poetic series of curses.

Meanwhile, the specter clamored up as well. He raised his hands, flexing and sniffing them, then started clumsily inspecting the room.

“Nedjma – Nedjma – NEDJMA!” Dr. Saltsman shouted over her. “You can continue to insult me, but please do it as you pack!”

Nedjma went absolutely still a second, murder in her eyes, before doing just that: She whirled around the room, throwing books and clothes into a backpack.

“AND ANOTHER THING –” She cut off, scanning her bedroom, then grunted: “Kitchen.”

She snatched The Dark Poet’s Toolkit out of the specter’s mouth (he’d been gnawing on its corner), shoved it into her backpack, then grabbed his hand and dragged him into the hallway. Dr. Saltsman followed after, just in time to receive another barrage of top-volume complaints.

“What do we even call him? It? Him? GAH!” Nedjma said, while angrily stuffing Fruit Roll-Ems into her bag. “I’m not calling that thing Kenneth.”

“Not-Kenneth?” Dr. Saltsman suggested. “Ex-Kenneth? Oh! I particularly like Anti-Kenneth.”

Anti-Kenneth didn’t acknowledge either of them, rifling through the fridge and murmuring, “Bad foooooood . . . no souuuuls . . .”

“It’s not a joke, Saltsman!” Nedjma growled. She rounded on the ghost, as though something had just occurred to her. “Where did my brother go? Where is my brother?

“He’s in there, he’s in there!” Dr. Saltsman promised swiftly. “Can’t you sense him?”

“I can’t ‘sense’ anything, that’s not how it works,” Nedjma snapped. “I feel cold spots where dead things are, that’s it.”

“Unreal,” said Dr. Saltsman, shaking her head. “You may be gifted, but you’re still in desperate need of a teacher.”

A soda can flew through the air – and Dr. Saltsman’s head – then exploded against the kitchen wall. Anti-Kenneth looked up in mild surprise.

“Well, that was just rude,” said Dr. Saltsman.

“HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO SAY IT?” Nedjma bellowed. “I – DON’T – WANT – TO – BE – A – NECROMANCER!”

Her voice cracked several times, as though she hadn’t screamed this loud in years. Given Nedjma’s distrustful personality and her habit of grumbling, this very well may have been true.

Dr. Saltsman looked on the verge of arguing, but seemed to think better of it. “Well, regardless, your brother is alive in there. Just not in the driver’s seat, it would seem.”

“And you really can’t put him back?” Nedjma asked through gritted teeth.

“I really can’t. I have no idea what’s happening inside Kenneth’s body, but for now, we should just treat the whole situation as if Kenneth no longer exists.”

A long, still silence followed . . . and then . . .

“IF YOU WEREN’T A GHOST, I WOULD KILL YOU RIGHT NOW!”

Flying into a rage, Nedja started lobbing bottles of sauces, pickle jars, and soup cans right through Dr. Saltsman – which made Anti-Kenneth groan loudly. Then he opened the fridge and ripped into a box of Warm Pockets.

“ALL – THAT – FAMILY – GARBAGE –” with each word, Nedjma lobbed a new food product, not even flinching as they exploded against the wall “– AND – THEN – YOU – SAY – THAT?

The kitchen’s only door swung open, and Jose stepped into the room, grinning. “Hey guys! I’ve got –”

He cut off, staring at the scene: Nedjma breathless and brandishing a box of Pac-Mac cereal; foods and sodas splattered across the far wall; and a blank-faced, red-eyed Anti-Kenneth shoving four half-frozen Warm Pockets into his mouth.

“Oh . . .” Jose said weakly.

“Good news,” said Dr. Saltsman, looking (if possible) more dead-inside than usual. “Nedjma has agreed to accompany me to the mountain’s mouth – which, I assume, means you’ll also be joining us.”

Jose’s mouth fell open. He looked at Nedjma with wide-eyes, as though waiting for her to burst out, “PSYCH!”

When she didn’t, he said faintly, “Gnarly.”

“Good addition,” growled Nedjma, before rounding on Dr. Saltsman and chucking the Pac-Mac cereal. “And as for you –”

“Nedjma, if we’re going to work together, you really shouldn’t be –”

“YOU shouldn’t kill people’s BROTHERS, you ditz-faced, bimbette-brained –”

The two kept on going. Jose blinked a few times, shook his head, then approached Anti-Kenneth. The twenty-six-year-old had started gagging on the Warm Pockets.

“Uh . . . hey buddy,” said Jose timidly. “Remember me? Er, do you need . . . ?”

Anti-Kenneth interrupted him by letting the slobbery Warm Pockets slide from his mouth. They hit the floor with a wet shh-thunk.

“Good sooooul,” he wheezed, leaning so close into Jose that their noses nearly touched. Though his flat red eyes could have been looking anywhere, all his focus was, clearly, directed onto the small teenager . . .

“NEDJMA SANDERS!” Dr. Saltsman bellowed, raising her voice for the first time. She and Nedjma hadn’t noticed Jose and AntiKenneth, too busy locked in their own personal combat.

“Guys?” squeaked Jose.

The two ignored him. “I understand you’re angry. I’ve made a social faux-paus.” Louis hesitated. “I’m . . . I haven’t always . . . social interactions were not my strongpoint when I was alive, either.”

Nedjma scoffed. “Oh really?” she said, dripping with venom and sarcasm. “Could’ve fooled me.”

But this is not my fault,” Dr. Saltsman pressed on. “This is the fault of the enemy – whoever they are. I didn’t force a specter into Kenneth’s body.”

“But you killed him, and made this – this thing take over,” Nedjma threw back. “Somehow . . .”

“Guys?” said Jose.

“Somehow,” Dr. Saltsman agreed, not taking her eyes off Nedjma. “I never would have used necromancy if I’d known this would be the result. This anger . . . forgive me, but it’s misdirected. Save it. Use it.”

Nedjma clenched her fists, glaring at the floor. Then her expression sank.

“Save it. Use it,” she repeated under her breath. “But we still don’t even have a way down the mountain. It’s toxic. And the suits . . . forget what Jose said, they’re bogus.”

“Guys . . . ?” said Jose yet again.

“Well, there is a way necromancers can . . . well, let’s call it a last resort,” said Dr. Saltsman. “You keep mentioning suits. You mean High Council Protection Suits?”

“HCP Suits, yeah,” said Nedjma. “But they’re totally myths, right?”

Dr. Saltsman stroked her chin. “Well, I’ve never seen any on this mountain. But Demonwall Mountain is hardly a technological center. No, that would be –”

“Marannon Mountain,” Nedjma finished for her. “Yeah, that’s the tech and culture peak. Here, Demonwall, it’s the medical hub –”

“Who are these clarifications for? I’ve lived here for three times as long as you have,” Dr. Saltsman reminded her.

“I’m just thinking out loud,” Nedjma retorted. “But –”

“GUYS!” Jose bellowed.

Finally, the two turned. Dr. Saltsman gasped. Nedjma’s face drained.

The entire front of Jose’s shirt was drenched in blood. 

“Oh my God –”

Nedjma rushed up to him, Dr. Saltsman on her tail.

“How did this happen?” the two burst out at once.

“Are you hurt?” Nedjma demanded.

“Where are you bleeding from?” Dr. Saltsman pressed.

“I’m not!” Jose said quickly, and the two visibly relaxed. Nedjma punched his arm.

Ouch!” Jose yelped. “The blood – it’s not from me, it . . .”

Helplessly, he motioned to Anti-Kenneth. 

Nedjma’s face flushed green again. Currently, Anti-Kenneth was halfway through devouring two fistfuls of raw meat.

He noticed them looking and lifted his blood-smeared face from his right first.

“Better fooooood,” he announced. “Once held a sooooouuul.”

He considered his left fist. A steady trickle of blood poured from between his fingers.

“But not gooood food,” he corrected.

“Oh. My. God,” Nedjma gagged.

“My sentiments exactly,” Dr. Saltsman agreed, wrinkling her nose.

“I couldn’t get him to stop,” said Jose, his voice a few octaves higher than usual. He cleared his throat. “But I was trying to tell you before!”

He grabbed Nedjma’s and Dr. Saltsman’s hands in either of his own. For the first time, both seemed to notice the overstuffed backpack he was wearing.

“I told my mom the truth,” he said, his eyes suddenly shining. “The whole truth. She’s wicked – she totally believed me, and well, she gave me an idea!”

“Really?” said Dr. Saltsman. “She believed – just like that?”

“You don’t know Dr. Alexander,” Nedjma told her. “That woman believes in all her patients’ symptoms, whether or not they make sense – that’s why she’s such a good doctor.”

“Listen,” pressed Jose. “Nedj, we’re super bad about sneaking into places, right?”

Dr. Saltsman looked lost. “I would say you’re fairly good.”

“Sorry – bad means good – it’s a slang thing,” said Jose. “But Dr. Saltsman, you’re a ghost – the best at sneaking!”

He looked between them one last time, and his big brown eyes grew, if possible, even bigger. The expression could have come from excitement . . . or terror.

“There’s a plane leaving from Faraday Castle tonight, headed straight for Marranon Mountain. If anywhere’s got HCP Suits, they do.

“So . . . how’d you guys feel about being stowaways?” 

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