Someone has to stay behind. Will it be Nedjma? Jose? Dr. Saltzman? Anti-Kenneth? And in the second half, will Luna murder Kacie for her chapter length? All important questions . . .
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. Saltzman, 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. Saltzman’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. Saltz–– 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. Saltzman’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 Saltzman 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. Saltzman, 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 Saltzman and ––”
“No, you are not.”
And, from behind the scientists, the real Rena Saltzman stepped into sight.
Professor Saltzman 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 Saltzman, 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 Saltzman. “Please, don’t act rashly. We can work out an agreement, if only ––”
The death rattle came out forced; nothing happened.
Professor Saltzman 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 Saltzman,” 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 Saltzman 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 Saltzman 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 Saltzman’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 Saltzman 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 Saltzman 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 Saltzman 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 Saltzman, 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 Saltzman 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.