Jose is dead – or is he? Can Nedjma and Kenneth scramble to save him by doing the one thing they’re trying to avoid…killing him? Our main characters (and authors) travel deeper into the mysterious miasma in this one, uncovering a few secrets along the way.

“Repel! Repel! Repel!” Nedjma cried to Jose, jostling his shoulder as much as she dared. Tears started down her face just as fast as his. “Quickly!” 

Jose’s knees buckled. Kenneth, yelling and waving a stick around to scatter the animals, turned at the sound.  

“Okay, okay, just…” Jose held out a hand and cast his spell, but no one could laugh at the sound it made anymore. The weak gesture pushed back just enough of the miasma to keep it at bay for a few more minutes. 

Kenneth paused, arm now half buried in Jose’s bag.  

“Nedjma, I can’t believe I’m about to ask you to do this instead of threaten it myself,” he said, then took a deep breath. “Kill him.” 

Nedjma’s thoughts skidded to a halt, by the look on her face, along with her panicked breathing fogging up the mask of her suit.  

“I’m sorry, what?” She almost sounded offended, but Kenneth held up a finger.  

“Kill him and stop his heart, it’ll slow the bleeding until we can patch him up.” Nedjma lost her near-scowl and moved out of the way for her brother as he knelt beside Jose, pulling Jose’s old windbreaker out of the bag with a regretful look. He pressed it to the wound to staunch the blood still trickling out, moving Nedjma’s hands to take his place.  

“But I’ve never-” Nedjma tried, but Kenneth cut her off.  

“You can bring him back right?” Ripping one of the straps off the bag, he tied the jacket in place, and Jose cried out through gritted teeth. 

“Well yeah but-” 

Kenneth spoke with an even tone and an even steadier gaze. “Then you can. He’s gonna be alright.”  

“I better!” Jose yelled through the pain, voice breaking into more of a whimper halfway through, tears still falling. 

Nedjma looked at Jose for a few seconds and frowned before reaching a hand to poke at an uninjured part of his chest. Jose’s eyes went instantly glassy, flopping like a ragdoll to the ground. Kenneth watched in mild horror at Jose’s body, the proof of what his sister was, but Nedjma had her eyes following something he couldn’t. At least, it looked like she was trying to.  

“Jose I can feel you there, don’t freak out,” Nedjma tried comforting, throwing secrecy from her brother out the window. Nedjma’s eyes flitted around the space she guessed Jose was standing, brown eyes narrowing at the farm animals still staring from their place at the tree line. Minus the (headless) sheep, but its spectre was likely still nearby.  

“Stay back!” she wailed, and a wave shot from her in a ring, a slight fluctuation in light with no additional embarrassing sounds. The wail did sound a bit more like the usual meaning of the word this time.  

“Lulu, I wish you were here to help,” she mumbled. The rest of the zombies had finally fled into the trees, leaving only one immediate threat.  

Kenneth pulled Jose’s arm around his neck and picked his body up bridal style. Another thing that would have busted guts in another situation.  

“Kenneth, I need to keep an eye on Jose on the other side, you’re gonna have to carry us both,” Nedjma stated matter-of-factly.  

“Jose’s heavy enough! And dying and/or dead! Just keep an eye on him from here!” 

“I can’t!” 

“Figure out a way!” Kenneth commanded, ending the debate. He raced down the grown-over mountain road they had been walking along, leaving Nedjma with nothing to do but follow.  

Not able to let it go, Nedjma flicked her hand in the motion to summon Chanel Stamp, catching the little ghost rat in her hand as she ran.  

“Think you can keep an eye on him for me? Let me know what he’s saying?” she asked, holding the little figure up to face her as she spoke. Chanel gave a short squeak that Nedjma took to mean “yes” and planted her on her HCP suited shoulder, running down the mountain as fast as she could without just tumbling down. 

“Why are we going down the mountain instead of back up?” Nedjma yelled ahead. “I don’t care about the zombie uprising anymore if Jose needs help!” 

“The closest house is likely down the mountain, not up!” he answered, and for once, Nedjma looked relieved to find he was right. Against a small cliff sat an abandoned shack made from an old, huge train car, much bigger than the cars that ferried people around the mountain through tunnels. Kenneth stopped by the door and nodded to the shack, as if to order her to open it.  

At first try, it didn’t budge. Second try, not even the assistance of a leg on the doorframe could help. She danced in place in a panic, cursing the shack for not being collapsed enough to have made another way in. Kenneth groaned and kicked at the crowbar hanging from the rope tied around her. Rather than be embarrassed, she pulled it off and jammed it into the crack of the door right away, the hinges giving way with a horrible screech.  

Jose’s body lay on the filthy, debris-covered couch while Kenneth quickly rummaged through the tiny house.  

“First aid kit, alcohol, anything clean,” Kenneth ordered once again, cursing when the first aid kit rack clearly had a missing box. Nedjma ignored him and went straight to Jose.  

The boy gasped to life, then winced hard at the pain.  

“Nedj, there’s this black goo-” Jose tried to warn, but he got cut off with Nedjma covering his mouth through his suit. Symbolically, of course, since the helmets were pretty solid. 

“I know, but I need you to repel the miasma again, then you can go back.” 

“Back to being dead?!” he asked, sitting up, then nearly cutting himself off this time as he yelled in pain and collapsed back onto the couch.  

“Just for a little bit longer,” she said, and Jose looked at her like he was waiting for her to say “promise”. He noticed she wasn’t going to and started trying to calm his breath just as Kenneth came over with a mini sewing kit and a bottle of a miniscule amount of something fermented.  

“Repel miasma!” Jose yelled as much as he could, clenching his hands hard enough to turn his knuckles white to bear the pain. Kenneth couldn’t hold back his snicker at the IBS sounding wind that came from this one, at least not all of it.  Even Nedjma’s frown twitched.  

“If I really die, I’m haunting you just for laughing,” Jose threatened before he dropped dead at Nedjma’s touch once more.  

“Sorry,” she added, and it wasn’t really clear whether he didn’t hear it or his ghostly form just ignored it, because Chanel stayed quiet on his behalf.  

Kenneth got to work stitching him up, the bloody jacket sitting uselessly on Jose’s stomach now. It didn’t look great, the stitching uneven, but with Kenneth holding back gags as he sewed, it wasn’t as bad as it could be.  

“Don’t you handle dead animal bodies in the kitchen when you cook?” Nedjma chided, moving to elbow him before thinking better of it.  

“Dead people are different!” Kenneth tore a cleaner piece off the jacket to stuff inside the suit over the wound. “Hold your hand over the hole, just in case.” 

Nedjma did as she was told once more while Kenneth took a rusted knife from the kitchen, testing the sharpness on his finger.  

“I don’t know what they taught you in that first aid class, but cutting him more isn’t going to help!” Nedjma moved between her and her brother, who only looked at her like she was an idiot but he was willing to forgive her for that. Nedjma didn’t seem to agree with that sentiment.  

Instead of jamming it into Jose like she expected, he stabbed it into the couch to slice a piece of vinyl off, trying his best to clean it off. Digging out a lighter from the bag, he knelt to melt the jagged square to the suit over the hole.  

“That should be good for now.”  

“Will it still work with couch fabric? Wouldn’t everyone be able to go down the mountain if we just wore couches?” she asked, incredulous and more than a little worried still. 

“It’s just a seal. The real important part is the filter, which was not bitten through,” he said, tapping the two cylinders on both sides of the suit face. Nedjma looked at him for a long moment and Chanel stamp gave an impatient squeak, a signal from Jose to hurry it up. Nedjma brought him back with a poke to his sternum and the boy gasped to life once again. 

The usually happy-go-lucky boy groaned. “Can you kill me again? Being a ghost felt a lot better than this.” 

“No,” Nedjma said flatly, and Jose huffed in immediate acceptance. 

“Can’t you keep Jose dead until we get back to the other mountain?” Kenneth asked, wiping his bloody gloves on the jacket, tossing it to the floor in a gory heap when he was done.  

“No, he’ll die for real if he stays like that for more than like, forty-five minutes,” Nedjma answered.  

Chanel stamp squeaked in fright, and Jose shook his head at her and waved his hand in a motion to stop speaking for him.  

Kenneth remained the calmest one in the group, but that wasn’t to say he was entirely calm himself.  

“We need to get you to the hospital on demonwall. It only takes a short time to get infected by the miasma.” 

Jose gulped and looked sicker, especially as Kenneth scooped him up again, as gingerly as he could. 

“Shove that knife in the bag,” he said, pointing his suit boot at the knife he used to cut up the couch. 

“Bossy even under dire circumstances,” Nedjma mumbled, and did just that, slinging the now one-strapped bag over her crowbar, heading outside first. 

“How do you know so much about the miasma sickness?” Nedjma dared to ask. The group had been walking for a little over three hours, stopping often to give Kenneth a short break from carrying Jose. Along the way, nothing else crossed their path – no zombie farm animals, other regular animals, or even anything green that wasn’t supposed to move anyway. The most they saw in that category was some kind of stiff purple grass looking more like weeds.  

“I’ve seen a bit of it firsthand,” Kenneth answered simply, eyeing her curiously. 

“Really? On who?” 

“You were too young to remember.” 

Nedjma shut herself up for a long while.  

“Everyone said they died because they got poor man’s disease.” 

“And you believed them?” Kenneth asked, an incredulous laugh at the edge of his tone.  

“No,” she answered, defiant as always. Kenneth lost the tiny smile he had. 

“You never asked, so I just assumed you found out from someone else.” 

Nedjma’s frown turned the more proud kind of defiant and she marched down the broken pavement of the road. “No need to give those teasing jerkwads the satisfaction.” 

Kenneth nodded, looking a bit proud, himself.  

Then both of them stopped in their tracks. Though the purple fog of the miasma blocked the view of anything more than ten feet away (even in the light of day), the silence of the world around them made it easier to “see” by the sound of their footsteps echoing back. Now they echoed back a little bit too fast.  

Nedjma walked ahead and Kenneth called to her in a whisper, cautiously following. Jose had long been passed out (only sleeping), and the way Kenneth glanced at him showed he was glad for that. Nedjma marveled at the size of an abandoned house just up ahead, regardless of it being half collapsed.  

“These things are huge, everyone must’ve been rich,” she said, pushing some rubble off a beam and watching it tumble into what was probably a basement. 

“More space, bigger houses,” Kenneth said simply, voice nearly a whisper as he walked ahead. “Nedjma, don’t wander where I can’t see you.” 

From inside the doorway of a relatively preserved place, she scowled like she wanted to complain that she wasn’t a kid, but said nothing. She left Kenneth to follow, kicking through the rotted papers on the floor that littered the living room, the carpet squishing under her boots like sludge- and it kinda looked like sludge too. Chanel Stamp squeaked, as if she was complaining about it as well. 

“What do they say?” he asked quietly, wandering over.  

Nedjma shrugged. “The Old Language is an elective in college, not high school. You read it.” 

“I’ve forgotten most of mine,” Kenneth said, leaning over just enough not to wake Jose and squinting to read. He mumbled. “Somethingsomething antarctica, something ice melt, something go… high? uhhhh…… flesh virus.”  

Chanel Stamp squeaked again from Nedjma’s shoulder.  

“Yes, okay, we’ll leave the house,” Nedjma relented, turning her head to kiss the rat through her suit, instead finding something with a real, physical form against her shielded lips. 

Nedjma screamed and jumped back, turning towards the unexpected visitor, ready to crowbar another cow. 

“Not quite the welcome I was expecting, and I could have done without the scream,” a certain doctor said nonchalantly. 

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