We’ve got a long one, folks! Two separate storylines play out: Nedjma and Chanel infiltrate Marannon Castle (with a little ghostly assistance), while Jose and Anti-Kenneth face two oddly-named adversaries. Will the gang find HCP suits? Or…will they discover something more sinister?
Nedjma celebrated her safe landing with a few colorful exclamations.
Once she’d gotten the cursing out of her system, she inspected herself: She was tangled in her parachute, and her parachute was tangled in the branches of a clearly-synthetic tree. Jose, Dr. Saltzman, and Anti-Kenneth were nowhere in sight.
“Great,” Nedjma growled. Her voice sounded hoarse, most likely from the amount of shouting, singing, and swearing she’d done in the last hour.
She scanned the area, but no one was rushing to greet or arrest her. She seemed to have landed in a huge castle courtyard, decked out with rigid artificial greenery and dozens of wires and security cameras. The moon hung overhead, its light bouncing off the plastic leaves to create a stark, almost fluorescent glow. Red, blinking little lights surrounded her like a thousand spectre eyes.
Nedjma squinted through the darkness as the closest red light, which – fittingly – issued from the top of the closest security camera. It swept left to right, but didn’t seem to capture her in its field of view. For once, Nedjma might have gotten lucky.
She sighed, yawned, then began wriggling in her parachute cocoon.
“Jose!” she hissed. “Dr. Saltsman! JOSE!”
Jose couldn’t hear her. He was too busy making an absolute ruckus in another fake tree at the opposite end of the courtyard. He wiggled and thrashed his legs – which, at the moment, were tied together by parachute cord and suspending him upside down.
“This – is – so – laaaaame!” he complained in a whisper.
“Laaaaame,” Anti-Kenneth agreed. His hat and mouth gauze had flown away in the fall, though his sunglasses miraculously survived, sitting crooked on his face. “No sooouuullls . . .”
“That’s enough outta you,” said Jose, shoving the spectre’s hungry face away. Unfortunately, Anti-Kenneth hung upside down next to Jose, so that the two resembled a poorly-made Newton’s cradle. A second later, gravity brought Anti-Kenneth swinging into Jose’s side.
“This is ridiculous,” said Dr. Saltzman, as Jose and Anti-Kenneth bounced into each other like a pair of dueling yoyos.
“I mean, you could always help,” Jose pointed out.
Dr. Saltzman opened her mouth, then snapped it shut. Her body tensed . . . and she vanished in a puff of silver mist.
“There they are!” came a voice from below.
“I got it, Niha,” said a second speaker. “Summon!”
The characteristic trill of wizard-magic hit the air, and before Jose could so much as shout, “Dag!” he and Anti-Kenneth zoomed out of the tree (and their parachute bindings) and landed in a crumpled heap.
Jose peeled his gaze up from the artificial grass. He took in two pairs of feet, two bodies, and finally two faces, both wearing matching irritated expressions.
“More trespassers, hm?” said the left one. A badge gleamed on her chest, bearing the phrase Night Guard and the name Najiba . . .
Jose blushed red. Clearly the last name – which carried a heavy innuendo – wasn’t one he felt particularly comfortable with.
“So predictable, these kids,” said the person on the right. Her title was the same, and her name, not much better: Niha Sackville-Bagg.
“Uuuhhh,” was Jose’s only response. He still seemed preoccupied with the night guards’ bizarre last names.
“Uuuhhh,” Anti-Kenneth echoed him. He straightened his sunglasses, then ripped up a fistful of fake grass and shoved it in his mouth.
Niha and Najiba exchanged a look.
“Drugs,” they decided in unison.
Without further ado, they hoisted Jose and Anti-Kenneth to their feet. Niha thumped Anti-Kenneth on the back a few times (he’d started choking on the grass), before she and Najiba slapped pairs of handcuffs onto the two young men.
“Wait, wait – we’re not on drugs!” Jose protested, finally dragging his focus back to the situation.
“Exactly what someone on drugs would say,” Najiba said keenly.
“Druuuuugs,” Anti-Kenneth groaned, rather unhelpfully.
“A confession,” said Niha. “As we suspected.”
Jose looked between the three of them in a panic. “No, that’s not – he’s not – uuugh!”
“Come on, kid, take it easy,” Najiba said, patting his shoulder. “We’ve got a nice, comfy place for you to sober up . . .”
“. . . before you tell us where you kids are getting this stuff from,” Niha finished. “And why you all think it’s funny to try and vandalize High Council property.”
“We don’t!” Jose squeaked.
“Jeez, kid, were you huffing helium?” said Niha.
“No!” Jose insisted. Then he cleared his throat and said in a noticeably deeper voice: “How – how could we be those vandal kids, anyway? We’ve got parachutes!”
Niha and Najiba exchanged another dark look, like, Well, this one’s a total burnout.
“Uh-huh, parachutes,” said Najiba, with obvious skepticism. Neither she nor Niha bothered to look up at the synthetic tree, still knotted and mangled with multicolored parachute bits.
The two dragged Jose and Anti-Kenneth away from the scene, Jose still shouting, “No, wait! Just look! Parachutes! Skydiving!”
His shouts were so loud, in fact, that they carried across the courtyard.
Nedjma looked up, but she couldn’t see anything through the darkness besides bleached reflections off the leaves.
“Dag – freaking frick –”
She got a few more choice words off her chest, before slumping in the parachute.
“Well, don’t give up now!” insisted a nasally voice.
“OHMYGOSHWHAT – oh,” Nedjma sighed, as Dr. Saltsman’s face materialized between the branches.
“Quieter, please,” Dr. Saltzman advised. “Looks like you were lucky. This place is crawling with cameras, but you seem to have fallen just out of sight.”
“Lucky,” Nedjma grunted. “Yep. Feeling fantabulous.”
“Good,” said Dr. Saltzman, who hadn’t noticed the sarcasm, “because Jose and Anti-Kenneth are currently being detained.”
“Yes, yes, it’s not ideal. Fortunately, the palace guards let slip some information.” Lulu’s ethereal blue eyes gleamed, the only color visible in the darkness. “For one, Jose and Anti-Kenneth will be safe. The guards seem to be laboring under the delusion that the two are – for lack of a better term – totally blitzed, which means they won’t be questioned or bothered until the morning.”
Nedjma yawned again. “Maybe they’re the lucky ones, then.”
Louis considered this. “Perhaps. Anyway, I’ll watch over them just in case. Secondly, they confirmed that this castle is High Council property, just like Tunstead’s ruling castle! It’s the perfect place to store HCP suits! And, as you’re not being detained, you’re free to seek out the suits’ locations – at least, if they’re real.”
“They’d better be real,” said Nedjma darkly. “Otherwise I skydove, performed in a musical number, and talked to Captain Alexander for nothing.”
She thought a second, then added, “And there’s a flaw in your plan.”
“Oh?” said Dr. Saltzman.
Nedjma fidgeted in her parachute trap. “I’m stuck.”
Dr. Saltzman actually slapped a hand to her forehead. “Are you a necromancer, or aren’t you?”
Nedjma scowled. “Wish I wasn’t. Also, if I leave my body here, they’ll totally find it!”
“Not until the sun comes out,” Dr. Saltzman countered. “Under the cover of darkness, the night guards haven’t noticed a thing. And ideally we’ll have all the information we need by morning.”
For a long minute, Nedjma mulled this over, until she finally relented. “Fine. Whatever. But if I end up in another morgue, I’m blaming you!”
Dr. Saltzman smiled. “I trust you. You’ll do wonderfully.”
Nedjma couldn’t hide a small, grudging smile. “Thanks.”
“Of course. Now, I should bug out. If you need me, just wail.”
Nedjma blinked. “Just do what now?”
“Oh, come on.” Dr. Saltzman stared at her, as if trying to spot the joke on her face. “Really? That was one of the first necromantic tricks I learned! Oh, Nedjma, you’ve been missing out –”
“Okay, okay, I know, I’m uneducated,” Nedjma grumbled.
Dr. Saltzman smiled understandingly. “Well, if you’d like to learn this trick, simply think of me, or any necromancer you know – so, again, probably just me. Search for the sense of me in the Kingdom of Verithiel, try to recognize me. Then speak to me.”
“Uh, but what’s supposed to –”
“You’ll see,” Louis interrupted, another ghostly twinkle in her eye.
Then she was gone.
Nedjma’s spirit dropped out of her body, muttering crossly, “You’ll see, ooh, my name’s Lulu, I’m so mysterious, oooooh . . .”
She looked up at her corpse, now dangling limply in the tree. A white, misty sheen had fallen over the world, the typical Verithiel glow. Helpfully, it illuminated the dark parts of the scenery, like x-rays or those new infrared devices.
“Okay, stealth,” she said to herself.
Chanel Stamp appeared on her glowing shoulder and squeaked a greeting. Nedjma scratched between the rat’s ears, then took off across the grass.
The courtyard led to the castle – an enormous skyscraper even shinier and silverier than Tunstead’s best buildings. More security cameras winked at her from the walls.
She jogged until she reached a door, which was chrome-colored and fitted with a high-tech lock.
“Shoot,” she muttered. This door was much thicker than any wall she’d ever passed through. “What if . . .”
She hesitated, then pressed her fingers against the lock. A few moments of pushing and aggressive concentrating, and her fingers slipped through the metal, much like Dr. Lulu’s whole body had done to the plane’s dashboard. A sharp pull, and the lock’s lights dimmed.
“Nice,” Nedjma muttered, though she looked a little freaked out by her own power. She swung the door open the tiniest sliver and slid inside.
Two long hallways greeted her. Wires lined the ceiling, and electrical boxes dotted the walls.
Nedjma looked left. She looked right. She took a deep breath. Then she looked at Chanel.
“Here we go.”
The differences between Ferric Mountain (or Demonwall, as the kids called it) and Marranon Mountain began with their specialties. Ferric boasted the Allied Peaks’ finest medical care, while Marranon flaunted the Peaks’ most innovative technology. True, as a neighboring mountain, Ferric’s capital city, Tunstead, did receive high-end medical tech from Marranon’s laboratories. However, there was something intrinsic about growing up on Marranon, a sort of inherent knowledge of the latest, best machines.
If Nedjma had grown up on Marranon, she might have understood the castle’s circuit-board layout. She might have understood the technical requirements of an HCP suit, if such a thing did exist, and been able to guess where such a secretive, tech-heavy project might be stored. She even could have figured out what, exactly, the HCP suits protected travelers from in the miasma, and reverse engineered her own product.
But Nedjma had not grown up on Marannon Mountain, which meant the only thing she accomplished was getting very, very lost.
“This is hopeless, Chanel,” she burst out, dropping to her ghostly knees. Three hours in, and all she’d found were hallways, hallways, and more hallways. Where were the rooms? The storage closets? The bathrooms?
Chanel didn’t squeak; she just sniffed unhappily, like, Yeah. Hopeless. Give up?
“We can’t,” said Nedjma miserably. “Jose needs us. And Lulu – er, Dr. Saltzman – and Kenneth. And all of Demonwall.”
She ran her hands through the glowy, undead version of her choppy black hair, but the action didn’t calm her stress like it did in the corporeal world. Then she sighed deeply, and closed her eyes.
She opened them, but nothing had changed.
“Ugh,” she said. “Wail. Okay.”
She hesitated, then made a weak crying noise: “AaaaAAAaaahhhh . . .”
Chanel squeaked at that one, like, Dude, you sound pathetic.
“Fine, fine.” Still on her knees, Nedjma centered herself. “Search for Saltzman . . . search for Saltzman . . .”
She closed her eyes again, slipping into a calmer state. After a few minutes, a shiver ran through her shoulders. Her eyes snapped open – and her pupils glowed Lulu’s ethereal blue.
She spoke again, but her voice sounded magnified and warped, like bats squeaking in a tunnel.
“You did it!”
A second screechy voice flickered through the Kingdom of Verithiel. It was almost unrecognizable, until it added, “And you called me Lulu again? Are we on that level?”
“Uh, sure, I guess,” said Nedjma, momentarily distracted. “What is this? Is this the wail thing?”
“Yes, it’s a method of communication between necromancers. Perhaps the easiest and most convenient necromantic power,” said Lulu’s voice. Then her tone transformed – from delighted to gravely serious in a matter of seconds. “Tell me you found what we need.”
“I can’t find anything! I can’t even find a room!” Nedjma confessed, and her own words seemed to weigh on her – her shoulders drooped.
“Well, take an elevator!” Lulu said, sounding torn between exasperation and something less easily identifiable. Was it fear? Or something worse? “We need to get out of here, and fast!”
“What?” Nedjma blinked. “I thought we had till morning. What’s going –?”
“Nothing, nothing, Jose and Kenneth are fine. It’s just – this place is closer to Faigables with Louisketree than Demonwall Mountain, correct?”
“Ugh, yeah, it’s the next mountain over,” said Nedjma, blinking again, multiple times now. She seemed taken aback by Dr. Saltzman’s question – as well as her use of the outdated, strange name of High Council Mountain. “Those two are, like, the closest peaks. You didn’t know that?”
“I did, I did!” Dr. Saltzman snapped. “I just – I didn’t think about – I didn’t think – just hurry up and find those suits so we can get out of here!”
She’d never sounded so frazzled or hostile. Nedjma seemed to consider questioning it, but she only said, “Well, can you help me find them?”
No answer. Nedjma tried the question again, but the poor connection didn’t seem to be a fault of the necromancy. Or at least, not a fault of her necromancy.
“What was going on with her?” Nedjma wondered. “Faigables of Louisketree . . .”
She shook her head, maybe to shake away the horrendous mountain name, and stood.
Someone walked through her.
“Ah!” Nedjma yelped, spiraling off to one side.
“Ugh,” shivered one of three people that had just appeared around the corner. “It’s cold in here.”
“Shh,” said another.
“Come on,” said the third.
They walked briskly down the hall, clutching clipboards to their chests. The one at the back – the one who’d walked through Nedjma, and who was also clearly the youngest – glanced around furtively, as though worried someone might catch them and their bosses sneaking around.
Nedjma raised her eyebrows.
“Well, that’s promising.”
She jogged after them.
They spanned the length of the hall and turned one more corner before stopping. The three gathered around what seemed to be an empty stretch of wall. The tallest person stepped forward, withdrawing a keycard from her lab coat and tapping it onto the silver wall.
The wall slid open, revealing a gleaming silver elevator. Nedjma’s jaw dropped, for more reasons than one.
The three of them strode into the elevator, and so did Nedjma. As the elevator puttered upwards, Nedjma maneuvered between the three until she reached the tall woman.
Slowly, Nedjma extended a hand, as if to touch the woman’s face. She looked transfixed, dazed.
“L . . . Lulu?” she whispered.
The woman was almost a perfect replica of Dr. Louis Saltzman . . . only very clearly alive.
Nedjma stared. It looked, ironically enough, like she’d just seen a ghost. Perhaps she’d never imagined Dr. Saltzman alive, the way most kids never imagined their teachers outside school. But this woman – she even matched Lulu’s mannerisms! The way she scrunched her nose, the way her dark blue eyes flitted back and forth as if running invisible calculations in the air . . .
Luckily, for the sake of Nedjma’s sanity, she also spotted some obvious differences. The height (this woman was a few inches taller, at least) . . . the hair (instead of Lulu’s old-timey teased flip hairdo, this woman sported a simple brown bob) . . . the age (where Lulu couldn’t have been out of her twenties when she died, this woman looked closer to thirty) . . .
Even so, in the dark, the two could’ve passed for one another.
“No way . . . no way no way no way . . .” Nedjma muttered, wide-eyed. She inspected the woman’s notes over her shoulder, looking for a signature, a name . . . there.
Professor Rena Saltzman.
The elevator doors slid open again. As Nedjma shuffled out with the three people, a million questions flickered behind her eyes: Who is she? What’s she doing here? Does Lulu know about her? What’s going on?
They had entered a laboratory. Dark metal ran across the walls. Vials of red and black liquids and gasses littered half-a-dozen silvery desks. A yelp ran through Nedjma when she noticed a half-dismembered uniform sprawled over a rolling chair.
“Is that – that totally looks like – HCP suit!” she said excitedly to Chanel, who squeaked happily back.
“You can speak freely here, Mr. Halcomb,” said Professor Saltzman, situating herself behind a desk at the center of the space. Even her voice perfectly matched Dr. Saltzman’s. “How is your success?”
“Oh, it’s successful,” said Mr. Halcomb, striding forward. He was the only one not wearing a lab coat, sporting a tailored suit instead. His face faltered. “I mean, uh – I’ve been successful. With my success. It’s been good.”
“Right,” said Professor Saltzman dryly. “So you called this clandestine meeting to tell me your success . . . has been successful?”
“Well, there’s more!” Mr. Halcomb protested. His grey flyaway hair wisped into the air as he turned agitated. “Councilfolk Roja, Curran, Hanson, Mayo, and Kearns are all ready for subjugation, which only leaves Fields and Rodriguez. Once we get all the mountains onboard, we’ll be ready for the Magical Cooperation Conference.”
“Still set for next week?” said Professor Saltzman.
“Yes!” Mr. Halcomb insisted. “You know, it’s not easy being covert when your boss is the Councilwoman of Faigables of Louisketree –”
“Please, do not use the full name,” Professor Saltzman interrupted. “High Council Mountain will do, or Faigables if you must.”
“Whichever,” said Mr. Halcomb, who, like Nedjma, seemed to understand the discomfort caused by the worst mountain name in all of history. “Councilwoman Fields and Councilperson Rodriguez have a meeting set for Tuesday, and I’ll prime them both then. You have the specimen?”
Professor Saltzman stood and crossed the room. She lifted a jar of red liquid from a row of shelves and handed it over.
“Uh . . . and you’re sure this is a sample?” Mr. Halcomb asked, eyeing the jar.
“Yes, as I’ve told you a thousand times,” Professor Saltzman said impatiently. “Goodness, Halcomb, use your necromancy for once. Just because you can’t see it out of Verithiel doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
Nedjma’s eyes popped open.
Halcomb muttered something about being “out of practice” and stashed the jar in his coat.
“Er, Professor Saltzman,” interjected the third person.
“Yes, Harley?” said Professor Saltzman. Her voice sounded much kinder and more Lulu-like when directed at the younger scientist.
“You wanted me to remind you about the Demonwall spectre I lost contact with, so, um . . . reminder.” They laughed awkwardly, then grimaced at themself.
Dr. Saltzman’s shoulders fell. A dark cloud passed over her face. “Ah, yes . . . thank you, Harley.” She looked at Mr. Halcomb. “You know my associates monitor our assigned spectral activity across the Allied Peaks? Well, my apprentice here received a call not two hours ago that our oldest Demonwall plant has gone rogue.”
“Ooh, the necromantic chef?” said Mr. Halcomb, grinning as if this was a favorite joke of his. He hastily composed himself. “So the man has left the his job at Faraday?”
“The spectre took over the body and ran away from home,” said Professor Saltzman, straightening to her full height and looking deadly serious. “Do you know what this means? It’s just like the old experiments. We failed him. Somehow . . .”
There was no humor on Mr. Halcomb’s face now. “But how could – it was perfect! The binding spell was flawless! I watched you perform it!”
“I . . . I don’t understand it either.”
Professor Saltzman crossed back to her desk and sank into her chair. She dropped her forehead onto her hands. “I failed him. He has a sister.”
Nedjma stared. A thousand emotions battled across her spectral face, none of them good. It looked as if her whole world had just been torn apart, then glued back together to form a new picture.
Harley hurried to Professor Saltzman’s side, hesitated, then placed a hand on the woman’s back. Professor Saltzman lifted her head, then covered Harley’s hand with her own.
“It is . . . just one failure,” Mr. Halcomb pointed out carefully. “One, compared to a hundred successes.”
Professor Saltzman’s answering glare was cold as ice. “One too many.”
The ice melted, returning her to the neutral tone she’d started the meeting with. “I tell you this so you can alert the High Council staff on each peak. Tell them to watch for this man, to detain him but treat him with care. My assistants have already been informed.”
“Sure,” said Mr. Halcomb. He smoothed his grey flyaways, straightened his tie, then added, “Well, that’s it for the update. I’ll, ah . . . show myself out?”
“Harley, would you mind?” said Professor Saltzman. Harley nodded and stepped away, ushering Mr. Halcomb out of the room.
In the silence, Nedjma couldn’t move. She just stared at Professor Saltzman, as if waiting for the woman to offer a logical explanation of her last conversation.
Instead, the professor fished something out of her desk – a framed photograph. Nedjma moved forward in a sort of trance, peering down at the picture. Of course, it was of Lulu.
“Not again,” Rena Saltzman whispered, touching the glass. “I promised you, never again.”
Nedjma knelt down, so that she and the professor were face to face. “Never again what? What happened?”
Professor Saltzman didn’t answer, of course. Nedjma let her eyes fall back to the photograph. This time, she noticed a second figure in the shot – a much younger girl with brown hair and dark blue eyes, peeking out from behind Lulu’s labcoat. Lulu had one hand on the girl’s head, midway through mussing her hair, and a seemingly empty jar in the other.
“Nedjma Sanders!” said an impatient voice.
Nedjma whirled back to her feet.
Dr. Saltzman had appeared, her hands on her hips, fixated on Nedjma. “I’m so sorry, but we need to beat feet. This mountain is unsafe – I couldn’t tell you earlier, but I sensed another necromancer in the building, a powerful one. We need to speak carefully in case they . . . they are . . . listening . . .”
At last, her glowing blue eyes fell to the figure in the chair.
“No,” breathed Dr. Saltzman. “No . . . no, no, no . . .”
“Yeah,” said Nedjma, standing and walking slowly towards her. “You have . . . a lot of explaining to do.”
Dr. Saltzman’s eyes turned huge. They flitted left and right, but no imaginary calculations could save her from the grim, jilted look on Nedjma’s face.
“But – but I –” she stammered, staggering backwards. Apparently, she had forgotten she could fly and phase through solid objects, because she stumbled right into one of those shelves stacked with red jars. Her eyes snapped to it, and she screamed – an involuntary, horrified noise.
“Explain,” said Nedjma, as dark and serious as she’d ever been. “Explain.”
Lulu didn’t even look at her. Her attention had drifted to the laboratory, a sight she only just seemed to fully absorb. Vials of black and red liquids . . .
Nedjma got sick of waiting. Anger coursed through her – not inside, but outside of her, an eerie pulse that ran over her spirit form.
“TELL ME!” she screeched. Then she jumped back, as if she’d surprised herself with the noise. But it was too late: The death rattle shook the room, shook all the shelves, all the vials –
Crash! Crash! Crash!
One by one, glass objects rolled off the shelves and shattered.
“NO!” Professor Saltzman burst out, leaping to her feet. “Halcomb! Is this you? STOP! STOP!”
“We need to run, before she enters Verithiel!” Lulu cried. “Take my hand!”
“Tell me what’s going on?” Nedjma demanded. “Who is –”
“LOOK!” Lulu bellowed miserably.
Nedjma looked. A few of the red jars had shattered, and their liquidy contents were bubbling into shapes . . . human shapes . . .
“Spectres?” Nedjma gasped.
The destroyed vials of black liquid were bubbling too, but differently. They seemed to be eating everything they touched, coating it in necromantic residue . . .
“It was me!”
Lulu’s voice rang out through the Kingdom of Verithiel, a different kind of ghostly wail.
“I started it!” she sobbed. Her hand outstretched, reaching for Nedjma. Her eyes swam with spectral tears. “It wasn’t some faceless villain, or even the High Council, it was me! My experiments led to the creation of spectres!”
Nedjma took a step back, horror creeping across her face.
“That’s your unfinished business,” she breathed. “Not stopping the spectres or saving the world . . . finishing your work.”
“No!” Dr. Saltzman insisted. Her hand still hovered suspended in the air, but Nedjma wouldn’t take it. “I – I don’t want this anymore! I didn’t realize what it would become until . . .”
She looked over Nedjma’s shoulder, just as Professor Rena Saltzman’s body toppled lifelessly to the ground. White wisps and black bubbles worked together to form a human spirit as the professor stepped into the Kingdom of Verithiel.
Lulu’s face twisted and broke.
“Until my sister murdered me!”
Several floors down, Jose and Anti-Kenneth sat together on a cot in a cell. Anti-Kenneth had started chewing on his sunglasses. Jose sighed.
“Sucks they took my backpack,” he remarked.
Anti-Kenneth slobbered down his front, then patted Jose’s hair. “Good sooooouuuul . . .”
The two stared at the cell bars, then sighed at once.
“Dang,” said Jose. “I wish we’d got as lucky as Nedj.”
Anti-Kenneth stood bolt upright, suddenly alert. His red eyes swiveled through empty air as though it had suddenly filled with a million killer bees.
“Whoa, buddy, calm down,” said Jose, grabbing onto Anti-Kenneth’s arm.
Anti-Kenneth shook him off. “This plaaaace . . . not saaaaafe . . .”
“What do you mean?” Jose asked, nervous now. “Are Niha and Najiba coming back?”
Anti-Kenneth’s head lolled down. His eyes fell onto Jose.
“Speeeeeectres. Like me. You aaare . . . in daaaaanger.”
Jose’s skin drained. “M-me? But I’m not a necromancer?”
“Raaaarer,” Anti-Kenneth told him. “Goood sooouuul.”
Jose blinked as he digested this. “So . . . what? Dr. Saltzman said we had to stay here!”
Anti-Kenneth stared at Jose for a long while. Without pupils, irises, or white scleras in those red eyes, it was nearly impossible to find anything other than emptiness and menace in the expression.
But Jose found a way.
“You . . . care?” he realized.
Anti-Kenneth hesitated. “N . . . nooooo . . .”
“Very convincing,” said Jose, smiling. Then the smile dropped away. “So, uh . . . what do we do? As long as we’re in not in the Kingdom of Verithall –”
“Veriiiithieeeel,” Anti-Kenneth corrected.
“Man, not you too,” Jose complained. “As long as we’re not in the Kingdom of Ve-ri-thi-el, I’m safe!”
“Until you diieee.”
Jose gulped. “Oh. So you guys like good souls for eating, huh?”
“They waaaant to kiiiill you,” Anti-Kenneth said, his face creasing. “Maaaybe they can. They’re strooong.”
“O-okay,” said Jose. “M-maybe I have a spell or something to help. How long till they get here?”
Anti-Kenneth looked around the cell again, at each wall, the floor, and the ceiling. When he answered, his voice was shortest and sharpest it had ever been.