Grotton wondered, for a brief moment, if there were a special circle of hell reserved for someone like him—or if Dante would have to cobble together an entirely new one.
“Please,” the farmer at his feet moaned. “Please.”
Other than delivering a small kick to shut the man up, Grotton ignored him and went back to his task. He had to keep his wits about him, or this would never work.
The heavy smoke had darkened the thatched roof of the farmer’s hut, but some small bits of light had begun to edge back in. Grotton picked up his scythe—a heavy stone made from lead, forged by his own two hands. The best blacksmith in the village, they’d called him, back before the rumors started.
He smiled at the irony, how the only people who were able to confirm that the rumors were true never lived long enough to tell anyone.
Case in point: the cowering, dirty wretch on the ground, worlds away from the puffed-up, righteous man he’d been up until a few moments before, as if someone had pricked him and let all the air out. Every few moments his gaze would dart to the two still lumps beside him, but he’d quickly squeeze his eyes shut and let out another whimper.
“I was only protecting our village,” he moaned. “With a demon in our midst—”
“I’m not a demon.” Grotton knew better than to engage in conversation with the brute, but the words came regardless. “I hurt no one.”
The farmer looked up at him, a swath of greasy hair falling over his eyes. “A demon,” he insisted. “Stalking through the night, taking the souls of—”
“Of people who are already dead.”
Dead and cold and filling with mold, his students liked to say. There’d certainly been no shortage of test subjects for them—the Great Plague had made sure of that. They’d called themselves reapers, which Grotton had found amusing at first—and, as their experiments continued with increased success, oddly appropriate. He was glad his students had not been identified; perhaps they’d be able to rejoin him after he fled the village.
After he’d taken care of this one loose end.
“You hurt no one?” the farmer growled. Perhaps he knew what awaited him; but then again, even Grotton did not know. They were breaking fresh ground today, the two of them—the scientist and his lab rat. “How can you say that?”
“You mistake my words,” said Grotton. “I hurt no one—until today.”
To illustrate this, he administered another kick, this time to one of the little lumps lying next to the man. That did it—whatever small amounts of bravado the man had conjured now melted away. He dissolved into sobs, putting his thick hands over his eyes to block the view of the blood seeping out of his children’s skulls in thin rivulets, draining to the sunken center of the floor.
“Please,” he said again. “Mercy.”
“Mercy?” Grotton almost laughed. “Like the kind you showed my family?” He knelt down to look the man in the eye and spoke calmly and evenly. “Setting fire to a man’s home, roasting his wife and children alive—that sort of mercy?”
“I thought you were with them . . . We needed to be rid of you, all of you, demons—”
Grotton slapped him across the face. The man went quiet.
Grotton stood back up and wiped his red-stained hands on a towel. “I already have shown you mercy.”
The man made a noise of disbelief. “How?”
“Your children,” Grotton explained in a measured voice, “are merely dead.” He walked over to another heap on the ground, this one charred and black. “Your wife did not fare as well; she is Damned, her soul in unbearable pain as we speak.”
The farmer cried out, no doubt replaying in his mind the way Grotton’s hands had squeezed her skin and set her on fire, black smoke bursting out of her body and filling the room.
“Yet neither of those fates,” Grotton finished, “are as odious as yours will be.”
By now the man could barely speak. “I—I—”
“You set the fire,” Grotton said, his voice growing thick, the taste of revenge on his tongue. “You made your choice.”
The scythe in Grotton’s hand was already black, but now an even denser shadow seemed to burst out of it, surrounding his hand—as if it were glowing, but with darkness instead of light. He raised it above his head, allowed himself one last look at the man’s terrified eyes, brought the blade down into his chest—
And the room went dark.
“So all that really happened? What you did to the farmer, all those years ago?”
Grotton nodded. “More or less.”
A pause. “Think you can do it one more time?”
“If you brought what I asked for.”
His guest emptied the requested items onto the table. They clinked and bounced, producing a sound like wind chimes. “Here.”
Grotton leaned forward, his face aglow in the light of the burning candle. “Then I believe we have a deal.”
Driggs’s hair was still wet.
That’s the odd thought that popped into Lex’s head as they ran. She and Driggs and Uncle Mort were fleeing a mob of angry villagers—in the middle of the night, through a thick forest, and in a blizzard, no less—so it wasn’t as if there weren’t other things to focus on.
Yet she couldn’t take her eyes off his hair, which had been that way since he’d died of hypothermia a few hours before. Shouldn’t it have dried a little by now? They’d stopped in Grotton’s relatively warm cabin long enough for at least some of it to have evaporated. But he still looked soaked, making his dark brown hair spikier and more chaotic than it usually was.
Appropriate, Lex thought bitterly. Drowned hair, drowned life. Just when she thought she’d stumbled upon some evidence that proved Driggs hadn’t just been turned into a ghost—those fleeting moments when he went solid, his fingers physically brushing up against hers as they ran—here was this hair thing, slapping her in the face.
Determined, Lex reached out for Driggs’s hand but grabbed only air—not because her aim was off, but because air was what his hand was made of at the moment. She slowed her sprinting pace to a jog and tried to look straight into his eyes, but the way his head was fading in and out of existence made it somewhat difficult to figure out where his eyes actually were.
But she soon caught them—the blue one first, then the brown one. He forced a grin onto his face. “Working on it,” he said, panting as he ran.
Lex swallowed and tried to look at the situation with a glass-half-full mentality. Except when your boyfriend has been turned into some type of weird part-ghost, part-human hybrid and it’s all your fault, the power of positive thinking becomes a bit of a challenge. “It’s really not that bad,” she lied through her teeth, contorting her face into something that resembled human happiness. She would be strong. She would not lose it, no matter how many creepy clown smiles she had to make. “It’s not.”
“I know,” he lied right back. Just then, he popped into tangibility, shoving his hand into Lex’s and letting out a breath. “There. Easy.”
“If the definition of easy has been changed to ‘extraordinarily strenuous,’ then yes.” He gave her another one of those awful grins. “Easy.”
And Lex’s heart broke all over again, into a million pieces, probably tearing up all her other organs in the process.
“Hurry up, you two,” Uncle Mort shouted from up ahead. “There’ll be plenty of time later for agonizing assessments of our cruel, cruel fate. That is, if we survive.” He turned back to glare at them as he ran. “Which, judging by your glacial pace, seems like something that I’m the only one trying to do.”
The spectral white figure floating just behind Uncle Mort held up a single bony finger. “Actually, if we’re to be precise, I cannot technically survive if I am already—”
“Dead?” Uncle Mort finished for him, shooting Grotton a rude sneer before surging on ahead. “Yes, we know.”
The centuries-old ghost gave him a thorny smile. “Just pointing it out.”
Lex and Driggs doubled their pace, winding through the dark trees that made up the woods surrounding Croak. Still, the mob of bloodthirsty townspeople wasn’t that far behind—Lex could hear their shouts echoing through the snow-laden trees into the cloudy night sky.
“Keep going,” Uncle Mort yelled. “We’re almost out of the—”
He stopped running so abruptly that Lex slammed into his back. Driggs’s hand was wrenched out of hers, and he instantly went transparent again, floating right past them. Grotton, meanwhile, chuckled to himself and drifted above everyone’s heads, crossing one leg over another as if patiently waiting for a train.
Lex began to rub her nose from where it had smooshed against her uncle, but she stopped as soon as she saw why he had halted. “Oh, shitballs,” she whispered.
Apparently only half of the townspeople had been pursuing them from behind. The other half had split off some time before, circled around, and were now coming at them from the other side, weapons drawn and at the ready. Norwood, the mutinous mayor, was at the front. His face was slick with sweat and loathing—unsurprising, given the fact that Lex had Damned his wife an hour prior. Standing beside him was Trumbull—the butcher who at one time had employed Zara but was now Norwood’s head goon—and Riley, she of the giant sunglasses and über-bitchery.
Uncle Mort bristled. “Shitballs is right.”
“Can we Crash yet?” Lex asked. Instantly scything out of there would be the best option, but she wasn’t sure it would work. “Are we out of range?”
“No more Crashing,” Uncle Mort said. “Norwood being granted the ability to Damn has most likely caused a huge wave of new destruction in the Afterlife. Add that to all the other Damning that’s been going on lately, and the Afterlife is probably hanging on by a thread. We can’t risk damaging it further by Crashing.”
Lex cringed. The Norwood thing had been her fault, too. She’d tried to Damn him, but had succeeded only in transferring some of her Damning power to him. And any time a Grim did something unnatural like that, a little bit more of the Afterlife eroded away.
And any time that happened, her dead twin sister, Cordy, and all the other souls in the Afterlife got one step closer to disappearing altogether.
“So . . . what’s the plan, then?” Driggs asked, the opaqueness of his body coming and going in waves now, possibly in time with his heartbeat.
“Um—” Uncle Mort winced. “Hide.”
Lex’s jaw dropped as Uncle Mort ducked behind a tree. “Hide?” she sputtered in disbelief, falling over her own feet as she tried to conceal herself. “That’s the best you can come up with?”
He gave her a look. “You got a rocket launcher in that bag of yours? No? Then hide it is. Grotton, get down!” he shouted at the ghost, who was now floating higher and seemed to be glowing more brightly.
Grotton lowered himself to the ground. “I was merely trying to provide a bit of light for your attempts at”—he let out a quiet snicker—“concealment.”
Uncle Mort, suppressing the urge to reach up and smack the everdeathing snot out of their new companion, gritted his teeth. “Next time set off some fireworks, it’ll be more subtle.”
A bang pounded through the air. Lex jumped, a fresh batch of goose bumps breaking out across her skin as she considered the possibilities of what could have made that noise. Seconds later it rang out again, followed by a series of slightly quieter staccato bursts of sound, like a machine gun. Then, oddly, a dry, wheezing noise, as if the machine gun were having an asthma attack.
Lex squinted across the dark field and finally saw it—a tall puff of smoke slowly coming toward them. The worried line of Uncle Mort’s mouth crinkled into a smirk. “That crafty old bag.”
“Crafty old what now?” Lex watched the slow-moving cloud, which was now weaving back and forth in wide, erratic curves. “What is that? A car?”
“No,” said Uncle Mort, standing up. “That, my friend, is far too fine a contraption to be called a mere car.”
“What then, a truck? A tank?”
“Is it—” Driggs stopped himself, looking embarrassed.
Lex looked at him. “Were you going to say Batmobile?”
“I was maybe going to say Batmobile. What of it?”
The townspeople didn’t seem to know what to make of the phenomenon either. They scrambled to get out of its way as it plowed toward them, some of them diving into the snow. Yet as the smoke picked up speed, something arose out of the murkiness—a glint of metal, a reflective glass surface—all the pieces eventually coming together to form something that was decidedly not even close to a Batmobile: a giant black hearse.
Uncle Mort grinned. “The Stiff.”
The death car roared on, still sending townspeople left and right. It soon chugged to a stop where Uncle Mort had been standing not two seconds before, just as he’d shoved Lex and Driggs into a bush to avoid getting hit.
The driver’s side window rolled down. “Sorry,” Pandora said. “Been a while since I drove the thing. The gearshift sticks.”
“Yeah, must be the gearshift,” said Uncle Mort, brushing himself off. “Certainly not your pristine driving skills or the fact that you haven’t been licensed in decades.”
“Is that sass? Are you sassing me?”
“I would never.”
“Dora!” Lex burst out in amazement. “I thought you were in hiding! How did you find out what’s going on?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea what’s going on!” the old coot shot back. “I saw the whole town riling themselves up like it was the second coming of Elvis, and figured that if trouble was afoot, then you three were probably smack-dab in the middle of it. So I grabbed the car, headed straight for the yelling, and lo and behold, here you are.” She smiled a toothless grin, quite pleased with herself. “Now get in before the unruly mob dents my paint job.”
Driggs headed for the back-seat door and assumed the stance of a personal chauffeur. “Well, darling,” he told Lex in a fancy voice, “here we are, dripping wet and scared and running for our lives, and yet the tricked-out ride I reserved has arrived right on schedule. Now, if we can only make it in time for the crowning of prom king and queen—”
Lex almost laughed, until the hand he was using to open the door disappeared, causing her to smack her head against the glass.
Driggs’s face went red, even in its paler-than-usual state. “Dammit. Sorry.” He turned away from Lex, but not before she caught a glimpse of his throat moving up and down as if he were trying not to cry.
She tried to grab his face between her hands, but that particular part of him wasn’t quite tangible. “Hey,” she barked instead, insistently positioning her eyes in front of his, no matter how he tried to squirm away. “I’m fine. And you’re going to be fine. This—all this—” She waved her hand around within his transparent torso. “It changes nothing. I still love you and cherish you and all that goopy shit that I will further expand upon when we’re not about to get disemboweled by a gang of pitchfork-wielding maniacs. Got that?”
He blinked back at her, resolve slowly returning to his eyes. “Okay,” he said, but in such a little-boy-lost voice that Lex’s heart, now held together by the thinnest of threads, tore itself apart yet again. Surely there couldn’t be much of it left.
Uncle Mort, who was watching all of this with a haunted expression that matched Lex’s—as opposed to Grotton, who was pretending to file his nails—shook all emotion from his face and pushed both Lex and Driggs through the door.
The car smelled like a crime scene. There was a driver’s seat and a passenger’s seat, just as in a normal car, but the back end of the vehicle’s frame stretched out into a creepy open area with no seats to speak of. In their place, pelts of some sort of animal were draped across the floor, and the spaces in between were covered in what looked like approximately thirteen decades of gunk.
“Oh, stunning,” Lex said, gagging as she eased into the space that was normally meant to be occupied by a coffin.
“Don’t you start up, missy,” Pandora scolded her. “I haven’t driven this jalopy in twenty-some-odd years! It’s bulletproof, you know—keep it only for emergencies, hidden back behind the Crypt—”
Driggs nudged Lex. “Just be thankful there’s not a body in here.”
“—and you should count yourselves lucky there’s no body in here! If you want to ride in style, call yourself a limo, because I ain’t—hey! Quit straddling my gearshift!”
Grotton, gamely continuing his campaign of unhelpfulness, was now settling comfortably in the space between Pandora and Uncle Mort. “I highly recommend you refrain from spitting on me,” he said, giving her a distasteful look. “Hag.”
“Ooh! Let’s use the secret weapon,” Uncle Mort said, rubbing his hands together, his eyes lit up like those of a child’s on Christmas morning. “Just to scare them.”
Pandora grinned. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
Thrusting her hand through the obstacle that was Grotton, she put the car back into gear, executed a perfect three-point turn, and gunned it straight for the crowd of townspeople. Lex watched her push a red button atop the dashboard.
The field was bathed in light as a great plume of fire shot out of the front of the car. The townspeople scattered.
“Whoa!” Driggs yelled.
“What the . . .” Lex trailed off.
Uncle Mort turned around in his seat and smiled at her. “Told you, kiddo.”
Lex recalled her first ride into Croak, when she’d gotten her inital glimpse of the village from atop Uncle Mort’s motorcycle. This was back before she’d learned that she was a Grim, one of the few people on earth entrusted with the task of retrieving dead people’s souls and transporting them to the Afterlife. Before she’d delved face-first into the town of Croak and befriended its citizens, then later endangered Croak and majorly pissed off its citizens by being able to Damn people, sending their souls to eternal torment instead of the serene, lovely Afterlife. Before she’d shared this talent with her former friend Zara, who then used it to terrorize the Grimsphere and Damn innocent people.
Before she’d become the royal screwup she was today.
And of course, before she’d learned for the first time what a psychopath her uncle was. She smirked back at him. “Ah yes. The flamethrower always shoots forward.”
“Bingo.” He tapped the red button a couple more times for good measure, creating a path of melted snow for them to drive through. Lex looked out the back window. Unhurt, the townspeople slowly got to their feet, muttering at one another. Some shook their fists at the departing car. Driggs, meanwhile, was still watching the flames with glee, the word “Batmobile” begging to escape from his lips. “Don’t even say it,” Lex warned.
He gave her a wry look. “Hey. I wasn’t far off.”
The car rumbled along across the field, bouncing as Dora hit divots and tree roots and probably a whole zoo’s worth of woodland creatures. “So!” she shouted, seemingly in fine spirits. “Let’s catch up! Starting with the invisible boy back there. What in tarnation happened to you, Driggsy?”
Driggs ran a hand through his cold, wet hair, inadvertently spraying Lex with small droplets. “Well—”
“Speak up, boy! And make it snappy!”
“Snappy, okay. Well, Zara kidnapped me and left me on the top of a cliff to die. And then I did die. But not really. Actually—”
“Oh, criminy,” Dora said, throwing her arms off the wheel for a second, causing everyone to grope for something to hold on to. “Like pulling teeth with this one. Lex, gimme the quick version. How’d you get sprung from the clink?”
The last thing Lex wanted to do was rehash this, but if she didn’t, Dora would yell even louder, and no one wanted that. “Zara let me out.”
“So that she could force me into doing a shift with her. Sofi helped.”
“That little lying sneak,” Pandora growled. “Never did trust her. Too many hair colors.” She made a loud spitting noise. “So a shift, eh? And the target was—”
“So she could threaten to Damn him if I didn’t give her the Wrong Book.”
“But you didn’t give it to her, judging by the presence of Sir Snottington over here.”
Grotton bristled, and Lex nodded. “Right.”
“And instead of Damning Driggs, she ghosted him?”
“Well, no. Before she could do anything she’d planned, I sort of—”
“Um, strangled her.”
Pandora turned around in her seat, making the car swerve sharply to the right. “You what?” she squawked, her voice rising above her passengers’ screeches of panic. “Zara’s dead?”
Lex’s knuckles were white against the door handle. “Yeah. But she was Culling Driggs’s soul at the time, so—”
“So he was ghosted?”
“Half ghosted,” Driggs threw in. “Or something. Grotton said he knows, but—”
Pandora blew a raspberry. “I doubt Grotton knows his ugly face from a splotch of roadkill.”
“Wait a sec,” Lex said, raising an eyebrow at the familiar way Pandora spoke about Grotton. “You knew about him too?” When Pandora dropped into an uncharacteristic silence, Lex threw up her arms. “Was I the only one in the dark about the fact that the evilest Grim of all time, thought to be dead for several centuries, was in fact alive and well and having a grand old time stalking me across the country?”
Uncle Mort turned around in his seat to look at Lex and Driggs. “Dora and I and only a couple other Grims knew about him. He’s . . . part of the plan.”
“Yeah, about that.” Lex looked warily at Grotton, who was smiling back at her in a devilish manner. “You said the only way to fix things was to destroy the one who started it all in the first place. And that I’m the one who has to dispatch him, for some reason. What is that reason?”
“Because you’re the only one who can,” Grotton said. “Doesn’t that make you feel special?”
Lex ignored him. “But that can’t be true,” she said to Uncle Mort. “I tried Damning Zara and it didn’t work. It had zero effect on her. So why would I be able to kill Grotton?”
“It’s a bit more complicated than killing. Or Damning,” Uncle Mort told her. Then, doing that infuriating thing that he always did so well, he neglected to finish his thought and instead turned back to Dora. “Just pull up in front.”
Pandora nodded. “Gotcha.”
Uncle Mort was already unbuckling his seat belt. Lex had assumed that they were headed for the outskirts of town, but she’d gotten so disoriented in the escape that she only just began to realize where Dora was parking.
“I don’t mean to nitpick,” Lex said, looking at the metallic gadgets sticking out of the windows of a house that would have fit in a lot better on a moon colony than in the heart of the Adirondacks, “but don’t you think that the first place Norwood will look for you might be . . . oh, I don’t know . . . your house?”
“Good point, Lex,” Uncle Mort said with a roll of his eyes as Pandora jolted the Stiff to a stop. “Don’t know where we’d be without that brilliant strategic mind of yours.”
“I’m just saying. After all that running and escaping and flame-broiling our fellow citizens, we’re going to just hole up in here and wait? I want to smite the bad guys!”
“Oh, there’ll be smiting, don’t you worry about that. Out of the car.” He picked up the Wrong Book and strolled toward the front door as though he’d simply run out to pick up a carton of eggs, not been dashing about on the lam for several months. “You too, Prince of Darkness,” he called back, waving the Wrong Book.
Grotton clucked his ephemeral tongue. “So we’ve resorted to childish name-calling. How—”
“Childish?” Lex deadpanned.
He gave her a rude look, then reluctantly disappeared through the windshield. What Uncle Mort had said back at the cabin must have been true: Grotton was bound to the Wrong Book and had to go wherever it went.
Lex looked at Driggs, who shrugged. “Maybe there are some pizzas left in the freezer,” he said.
Lex, who hadn’t eaten a substantial meal in weeks, clutched her gurgling stomach and scrambled out of the car after him. Pandora turned the car around so that its grill was facing outward, readied her finger over the red button should any townspeople try to overtake the house, and waited with a wily grin on her face.
“Hurry up, or I won’t hesitate to get my roast on,” she told them. “You know how much I love a good barbecue.”
They rushed into the house, but Uncle Mort had already disappeared downstairs. Lex scowled. He’d dragged them all the way over here only to make them wait while he ran down to do some work in his top-secret, no-trespassers-allowed basement?
Maybe they had time to eat after all.
Driggs’s ravenous teenage-boy brain had already reached this conclusion, and it had even propelled him into solid mode, as he was rummaging around the cabinets and pulling out every item he could get his hands on. He tossed half of the food to Lex, and the other half didn’t make it any farther than his own mouth. Dorito bags exploded into a fine orange mist, cookies were emptied out on the table, and all other food packages were destroyed on impact, their contents immediately consumed in as messily a manner as possible.
“Animals.” Grotton floated into the doorway from the basement and watched them with disgust. “Swine.”
“You’re just jealous because you can’t eat,” Lex said around the approximately seventeen cheese balls in her mouth.
Grotton picked up a cheese ball and threw it at her face.
That certainly got their attention. They both stared at him open-mouthed, a perfect orange circle now situated on Lex’s cheek.
Ghosts can’t become solid, Lex thought. Ghosts can’t throw cheese balls!
And then: That might be the weirdest sentence I’ve ever thought.
“Oh, I can eat,” Grotton said. “I just choose not to sully my innards with the manufactured slop of this day and age.”
“Hang on,” said Driggs, holding a glob of peanut butter in his bare hand. “I thought you were a ghost.”
“Afraid not. I’m a Hybrid, same as you.” His smile widened. “Though I don’t go solid very much anymore. Too risky. But that”—he pointed at Lex’s orange cheek with a snicker—“was worth it.”
Lex scowled back at him. “Risky?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Why, someone might try to stab me. Or Damn me. Or strangle me.”
Lex looked away, disquieted, even though she knew that he was pushing her buttons on purpose.
Driggs, meanwhile, seemed to have gotten some of that peanut butter stuck in his throat. “So this is it, huh?” he said quietly. “Back and forth between solid and transparent, for the rest of my—” He swallowed. “Forever?”
Grotton studied him. “If memory serves me, the transitions will be erratic at first; then, after a day or so, you may be able to control them. But before long the solidifications will be fewer and farther between, and then . . .”
When he trailed off, Driggs nodded curtly. “Mostly ghost. Got it.”
Lex saw the melancholy passing over his face and reached out to him, but he waved her away, still intent on Grotton. “You said I’m a Damning Effect Reverser, too, whatever that means. And that you know why I can unDamn.”
“Oh, my boy,” Grotton said with a grin, “you can do so much more than that.” With that, he disappeared into the basement.
Driggs scoffed. “That was helpful.”
“Seriously,” said Lex. “The guy’s a first-rate douchecrate.”
“Agreed. Shall we move on to the fridge?”
They were well on their way to eating a full spray can of whipped cream between them—one spurt for Lex, two spurts for Driggs, shake well, repeat—when Uncle Mort appeared at the basement doorway and, given the fact that neither of them had ever been allowed to set a single toe on the basement staircase, said the most surprising thing he could have uttered:
Out came the whipped cream. In a perfect spit-take, too—through both mouths and all four nostrils.
Uncle Mort grinned. “If we’re going to smite the bad guys, we’re going to need a few toys first.”