The miasma. What lurks inside the toxic purple gas coating the surface world? Nedjma, Jose, and Kenneth are about to find out… On the flip side, Kacie commits a dark act, and Luna offers Kacie a proposition… Ooh. So mysterious.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN – (Dead) Animal Farm
According to Demonwall lore, no one knew what formed the poisonous gas coating the surface world, or what dangers and chemicals lurked inside . . . or why it was purple. What they did know, however, was that is was deadly to breathe.
Still, none of this prepared Nedjma and Jose for the sheep.
“Stop walking,” Nedjma hissed.
“Huh?” said Jose, a little distractedly. He’d been sulking all day.
“Nedjma, you have to speak up, I always tell you not to mumble,” Kenneth said irritably. “I can’t see anything in this fog.”
“Which affects your hearing how?” Nedjma snapped. Then she lowered her voice. “There’s something alive over there.”
“How can you tell?” asked Kenneth.
“I, ah . . .” Nedjma shuffled a little in her HCP suit. “Sensed it. Don’t ask.”
Kenneth opened his mouth, looking very much like he wanted to ask . . . but for once, he listened to his sister, and frowned instead.
“Jose, do the thing you did before,” Nedjma whispered from the corner of her mouth. “The thing is getting closer.”
“Okay, just don’t make fun of me again,” Jose answered at the same volume. He cocked his head. “You couldn’t sense stuff before, could you? You must be beefing up your –”
“My muscles? Yup,” Nedjma interrupted, shooting a one-second look at Kenneth. Then she added under her breath, “Also my senses are on freaking high alert in here.”
She shivered, much like a normal person would do in close proximity to necromantic residue.
Jose closed his eyes. He scrunched his brow, then yelled, “Repel miasma!”
A puff of magic hissed out of him like gas, and suddenly the purple smog retracted several feet.
Kenneth snorted. “Still sounds like a fart.”
“Hey!” Jose pouted. “Just be happy I didn’t say repel air this time.”
That one had sent Nedjma and Kenneth backflipping into the trees.
“Oh, I am,” said Kenneth.
The boys looked around the newly-cleared space. In seconds, they spotted what Nedjma had sensed . . . and what she was staring at, openmouthed.
It looked, at first glance, like a sheep. Fluffy, white, and a little dumb in the face. At second glance, however, some disturbing details appeared: bald patches dotting its body, oozing blood and pus. Strips of skin hanging off its flank. White strands forming spiderwebs in its blank eyes.
“Eeeew,” said Jose.
“It – it looks dead,” said Kenneth distastefully.
“It is dead,” said Nedjma.
In disbelief, she walked towards the zombie sheep. It flicked its tail and puttered a step or two away.
“Nedjma, do not touch that thing,” said Kenneth. “It definitely has worms. Or maggots or parasites or something.”
“Take a chill pill,” Nedjma retorted, but her voice was distracted. Her eyes still followed the zombie sheep.
“It’s not alone,” said Jose in wonder. He hadn’t sensed the necromantic energy like Nedjma; he hadn’t needed to. Three more sheep and a much larger form – a cow – had ambled into sight.
“How many are there?” Kenneth demanded.
“Repel miasma!” cried Jose, and with another questionable-sounding puff of air, a twenty-foot clearing appeared in the purple smog.
Kenneth and Jose yelped.
Another cow, a mastiff dog, and half a dozen chickens surrounded them. They drifted through the mist, their glassy eyes staring into the distance. However, they all seemed to be following their sheep friend . . . headed right towards Nedjma, Jose, and Kenneth.
“Let’s get moving,” said Kenneth, in a slightly squeakier voice than usual. “Now.”
“No, wait.” Nedjma shook her head, breaking out of her thoughts. “They’re just farm animals. They’re fine.”
Kenneth made a defiant sound, like, “Uu-uh!”
Nedjma ignored him. Shiftily, Jose scooted to her side and whispered, “Powers?”
“Going crazy,” Nedjma breathed back. “These animals read like necromancers . . . I don’t understand it . . .” She shook her head, looking troubled. “It’s like I can feel Verithiel here, somehow, and these guys . . . they almost feel . . . familiar.”
“Distract the Onion Lord,” Nedjma muttered. “I’m gonna summon Chanel. Maybe she can talk to them or something.”
“On it!” Jose saluted her swiftly. Then, realizing Kenneth had noticed the gesture, he quickly turned it into a casual hair flip. This might have worked if he’d been wearing anything other than an HCP suit.
Kenneth rose an eyebrow. “Keeping secrets?”
“Who? Us? Me? Nooooo.” Jose moseyed up to him, clearly shooting for chill vibes. Kenneth fixed him with a piercing look, so unlike Anti-Kenneth’s approachably empty expression. In the tall man’s intimidating shadow, Jose seemed to shrink a few inches. The vibes vanished.
Kenneth’s bangs fell over his forehead, casting jagged shadows and giving him a terrifying resemblance to his younger sister.
“Jose, I know you and Nedjma are hiding something.”
Jose shrunk another half inch. “Er – nope. Just talkin’ ‘bout sheep.”
“There are gaps in your story, Jose. Unexplained moments.”
“Talkin’ ‘bout sheeeeep,” Jose sang uncomfortably. “Grody sheeep . . .”
Kenneth leaned down, coming eye-level with Jose. Light caught his face in odd angles, casting more strange shadows. Jose gulped. Had the man always been so intimidating?
“Tell me the truth, Jose. Or no more homemade Lunchabunches.”
Jose gasped. “Forever?”
“Forever,” Kenneth vowed.
For a moment, Jose looked defeated. Then, with what seemed like immense pain, he said, “I . . . am . . . being honest.”
Kenneth shook his head solemnly, as if Jose had just signed his own death warrant. “Then I’m afraid you and Nedjma are packing your own lunches until the end of time.”
“I – you – well, it’s fine, because I’m almost a college student,” Jose sniffed, though he looked heartbroken. Then he tilted his head in thought. “Also, it’s not like you’re being honest with us.”
Kenneth straightened. “Says who?”
“Says anyone with eyes, man,” said Jose. “You’re no secret agent or anything. Not sneaky at all. No offense.”
Kenneth avoided Jose’s eyes, staring out into the miasma. Then he blinked.
“The heck is Nedjma holding?”
Jose jumped. “Er – nothing – reflection from the sun, maybe – uhh –”
But it was too late: Kenneth was already marching towards his sister. Jose cringed. A cow and two sheep trotted up and sniffed him.
“Nedjma!” said Kenneth when he reached his sister.
Nedjma, who’d been focusing all her attention on the newly-summoned Chanel Stamp, jolted so hard she chucked her pet rat into the air.
“Shoot!” she exclaimed.
“WHAT?” Kenneth exploded.
“Squeak!” Chanel Stamp protested.
Luckily, being a ghost, Chanel disappeared in a puff of glowing mist. Nedjma sighed in relief, then glared at her brother.
“Oh no, no no no, don’t give me that look!” All at once, Kenneth dissolved into frantic energy. “I knew it – I KNEW IT. I knew you were a necromancer!”
“Me? A necromancer?” Nedjma tried to look offended. “That’s illegal –”
“You just summoned a ghost rat!”
“Her name’s not ghost rat, it’s Chanel Stamp,” Nedjma grunted. After so many similar moments with Jose, the response seemed automatic.
“Chanel – that’s a horrible name!” said Kenneth. Insulted, Nedjma started to argue, but he cut her off: “I don’t wanna know!”
“Dude, chill out!” said Nedjma. “I already told you I was travelling with Dr. Louis, you didn’t freak out then! Just because it’s me –”
This, naturally, didn’t help. Kenneth’s manic intensity switched off like a light switch, morphing to absolute stillness.
“Dr. Louis. You were travelling with . . .” He swallowed. “I thought I remembered . . . I didn’t want to remember . . . oh god. Tell me the truth – did she do this to you? Did she hurt you?”
Nedjma stared at her brother, uncomprehending. “Chanel?”
Kenneth’s arms started shaking. Nedjma blinked. Something burned in her brother’s eyes, his expression, something she didn’t seem to understand.
“Lulu would never hurt me.”
Kenneth twitched. “Lulu? You call her – you –” In frustration, he tried to grab his head; his hands thumped against the HCP suit. “No . . . no no no . . . I knew you traveled with a ghost necromancer, you said – wait.” Kenneth’s eyes lit up with fresh horror. “Ghost? Lulu was dead – and now she’s alive again – no no no no –”
“Kenneth?” Nedjma looked careful, suspicious. “You know Lulu. I remember now. You recognized her.”
Kenneth shook his head. He looked, ironically enough, like he’d just seen a ghost.
“Did she do something to your brain?” he said. “Be honest. Answer me.”
“I already told you, dummy.” Nedjma enunciated her next words like she was speaking to a baby Anti-Kenneth: “Lulu – would – not – hurt –”
“Quit calling her that!” Kenneth snapped. “Dr. Saltzman, that – that monster is Dr. Saltzman.”
Nedjma blinked several times. “Monster? She – she’s not a monster, you idiot, she’s my teacher!”
“Aah!” was all Kenneth managed, falling back a step and staring at Nedjma in revulsion.
“Look,” said Nedjma, anger filling her expression. “Fine. Cat’s out of the bag. I’m a necromancer. That bother you? I’M A NECROMANCER! I’ve been a practicing necromancy since I was, like, seven –”
“Six,” Jose interjected.
“– six!” Nedjma corrected. She nodded at Jose, who now stood at the center of all the farm animals and looked distinctly unhappy about it. The entire herd had congregated to lick and nibble his HCP suit. “Necromancy is a part of who I am, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem, not mine!”
Kenneth took a long minute to digest this.
“Nedjma, it’s just not right,” he murmured.
He might as well have slapped Nedjma. She recoiled, as if suddenly remembering that the world was not populated with Lulu Saltzmans and Jose Shanes. There was a reason necromancy was illegal. People hated it.
“Your problem,” she said in hard voice. “Not mine.”
She turned away from him, Jose, and the zombie herd, crossing her arms tight. Hesitantly, Kenneth inched up beside her.
“Look, Nedjma . . . it . . . it doesn’t bother me that you can . . . can . . . Look, what do you even do with necromancy, anyway?”
“Kill people,” Nedjma snapped, like, And what are you gonna do about it? Then the fire faded from her eyes. “And bring them back to life, I always do that. Summon Chanel Stamp. I can die and become, like, a sort-of-ghost. That was pretty much it, before Lulu . . .”
“Ah.” Kenneth considered this, pursing his lips. “Well, as long as you don’t permanently kill people . . . No twisted experiments?”
“No raising the dead?”
“No dancing skeletons?”
“No.” Nedjma elbowed her brother. “That’s fake, anyway.”
“Oh,” said Kenneth. “Well, I’ll have to deal with it, I guess. Thanks for being honest, kid. And hey, maybe one day I can even introduce you to my magic,” he added.
“Your – you do magic?” Nedjma demanded, floored. “And you never TOLD me?”
Kenneth winked. “I’m a mysterious guy.”
Stunned, Nedjma studied her brother as if seeing him for the first time. A million questions pooled behind her eyes, but predictably, the first had nothing to do with this mysterious power.
“So how do you know Lulu?”
Coldness coated Kenneth’s face in an instant, transforming it into the same icy mask Nedjma often hid behind.
“Look, Nedjma. When you were a baby, when . . . when Mom and Dad got sick, I spent a lot of time in the hospital.”
A little color drained from Nedjma’s cheeks. Whatever answer she’d been expecting, it clearly hadn’t included her deceased parents.
“And?” she pressed.
Kenneth winced a little. Unlike most others, he could read Nedjma’s face – read how vitally important this information was to her. How important Lulu was to her.
Before he could go on, however, a scream shattered the moment.
Nedjma and Kenneth whirled around. “Jose!”
At once, their eyes grew wide. The entire front of Jose’s HCP suit was drenched in blood.
“It . . . bit me,” he said in a daze.
“It – oh god –” Nedjma gasped, before throwing herself at the animals. “BACK UP!”’
The ghostly wail seemed to be magnified by the miasma. A wave of power exploded out of Nedjma like a sonic boom. Zombified sheep and chickens flew in all directions. The cows tipped. The dog tumbled away, its muzzle dripping blood.
Jose collapsed to his knees. Nedjma and Kenneth scrambled to his sides.
“How deep is the bite? Where is it? Where’s the pain?” Kenneth shot at him.
“Are you okay? Jose, are you okay?” Nedjma demanded, less helpfully.
Jose’s frame trembled. His hands balled into fists.
“Chest,” he managed weakly. Tears glistened in his eyes. “Took a chunk.”
Nedjma looked horrified, but she gripped Jose securely. “You’re gonna be fine. Kenneth –” her attention flashed to her brother – “tell me those years of first aid training paid off.”
Kenneth nodded, though he looked shaken. “We don’t have supplies – we’ll have to make do without disinfectant. If I could just –”
“Nedj,” Jose whimpered “It bit through.”
Nedjma didn’t take the time to register her best friend’s words. She’d already pulled open Jose’s backpack, careful not to jostle him, and started searching its contents.
“What is that?” Kenneth demanded.
Nedjma looked up. Most of the farm animals had retreated into the miasma, but one sheep remained. Nedjma’s wail had hit this one especially hard. The force had ripped its head clean off its shoulders . . . and from its decapitated neck, a hazy red form was rising into sight.
“Specter,” Nedjma realized in dawning horror. “They – they’re visible here? And the bodies – they took over – and they’re always trying to get Jose! SHOOT! I KNEW they seemed familiar!” She smacked herself in the forehead. “I’m sorry, Jose, I should’ve known. I should’ve . . .”
She cut off in disgust, then shook her head to clear it. “But we’ll get you bandaged up, okay? You’ll be alright.”
She locked eyes with Jose, forcing a reassuring smile. Tears streamed down Jose’s cheeks.
“N-Nedj, it bit through,” he said again.
This time, Nedjma registered his meaning.
Slowly, her gaze fell down to Jose’s blood-coated chest . . . to the missing chunk in his HCP suit . . .
And she could only watch as the miasma seeped inside.