Authors: Dean Lorey
To my folks, Craig and Marilyn.
You can’t choose your parents…
so I guess I just got lucky.
I love you both.
Final exams don’t normally end in death, but Charlie Benjamin wasn’t normal, and neither was the final exam he and his friends were about to take.
“Monsters, watch out!” Theodore exclaimed as he, Charlie, and Violet gathered their gear on the deck of the pirate ship at the very top of the Nightmare Academy. “Soon as this exam’s over, we’re gonna be Noobs no more!”
In the six months they’d been training, the gigantic banyan tree that held the Academy in its mighty branches had come to feel like home—Charlie knew every weathered plank of every wrecked boat nestled there. It had been a lot of work, of course. He’d lost count of the numerous bites and scratches he’d received from the Class-1 monsters in Beginning Banishing, and having to continually summon your deepest, darkest fears to open portals in Neophyte Nethermancy was no picnic, either.
But none of that mattered, really.
For every bad time, there were three good ones—swimming in the clear, warm ocean with Violet and Theodore; playing hide-and-seek in the Academy’s crazy web of catwalks, boats, and branches; eating wild plums with sweet purple juice dripping down their chins.
It had been heaven…and it had all led to this moment.
“That final exam is toast!” Theodore shouted. “You just let me at those monsters and I will show you the true meaning of the words pest control! I am a walking, talking can of Raid!”
“Well, you’re definitely as tall and skinny as one,” Violet said with a laugh.
“And just as deadly,” Theodore shot back. “I am extra-strength Raid—do not point at face, do not use near open flame, wash hands after use!”
“I’m just glad the day is finally here,” Charlie said, grinning. “I feel like we’ve been Noobs forever.”
“Because we have!” Theodore seemed as if he were in actual physical pain at the thought. “I mean, come on, we should have been promoted to Addy, like, forever ago! After all, who rescued your mom and dad from the lair of Barakkas and Verminion?”
“You’re dang right, us, and on only our second day at the Academy! We are the A-Team! The Nether Squad! The Monster Mashers!”
“Okay, okay, calm down.” Charlie was laughing now. “Don’t worry, we’re gonna get plenty of opportunity to strut our stuff tonight.”
“You can say that again! I’ll tell you this much, I am seriously RTR!”
“Ready to roll?” Violet asked.
“No, that would be utterly ridiculous.” Theodore hated it whenever anyone guessed the meanings of his initials before he explained them. “It stands for…” He seemed to search for an answer—then his eyes lit up. “Really Truly Righteous!”
“You just made that up!”
But before Theodore could respond, a fiery purple portal snapped open next to them. Rex, Tabitha, and Pinch stepped through.
“Howdy, my eager little Noobs,” Rex said in his thick Texas drawl, a wide grin plastered across his tanned face. He was dressed in his usual outfit of faded jeans, worn boots, and a crisp cowboy hat. A lasso was loosely looped at his hip, accompanied by a gleaming short sword. “You ready for your big final?”
“More than ready,” Charlie replied. “I feel like we’ve been ready for forever.”
“Then let’s get it done. Like my daddy always said—failure is not an option.”
“We are going to destroy that final!” Theodore blurted. “Utterly annihilate it! Spank it on its—”
“Asinine,” Pinch interrupted, shaking his head. “All this boastfulness is just asinine.”
“Nothing wrong with a little confidence, Pinch,” Tabitha said, her green eyes sparkling as brilliantly as the jewels that decorated her short, red hair. “You were that eager once. Remember?”
“I try not to,” Pinch replied with a sigh. “Let’s just get on with it, shall we? The sooner we start, the sooner we finish, and I’d prefer not to spend my entire evening waiting for these Noobs to bumble their way to becoming Addys—that is, assuming they succeed.”
“We will,” Violet said, smiling. “Failure is not an option.”
“I wonder where I’ve heard that before…,” Pinch muttered.
“Dunno,” Rex replied. “From someone very wise, I suspect. And very handsome. And clever. And—”
Tabitha held up a finger to his lips, silencing him. “Why don’t we just go get those monsters, huh?”
With a wave of her hand, she opened a portal to the Nether.
The first thing Charlie noticed when he stepped back to Earth was the smell: rot. It came from the murky water of a leaf-filled swimming pool in a courtyard surrounded by several small, run-down bungalows. Many of them were boarded up, as unused as the broken Big Wheel that lay overturned on the weedy lawn. The light from the cloud-covered moon was thin and fleeting.
“We’re looking for bungalow C,” Pinch said, peering into the darkness. “Ah, there it is.”
He pointed to a weathered green bungalow. The yellow lamp on the wall next to the front door sputtered fitfully, casting dim, uncertain light.
“Looks kind of spooky,” Violet said.
“Duh!” Theodore shot back. “That’s ’cause it’s full of monsters. Hello?”
“Can I punch him?”
Charlie shook his head. “He’s too fragile. You might break him.”
“Fragile!” Theodore roared. “Did I just have a mental spasm, or did you say the girl might break me? Because that’s seriously—”
“Let’s continue, shall we?” Pinch interrupted with a roll of the eyes. “This bungalow is your target and here is your panic horn.” He handed Theodore a red airhorn, which looked like an aerosol spray can with a funnel at one end. “If you press the button, we will immediately come to your aid, but remember—”
Theodore pressed the button.
The horn blared so loudly that Charlie leaped backward into Violet, accidentally elbowing her in the face. “Oww!” she yelped.
“Never do that again!” Pinch commanded, clutching his heart as dogs barked angrily throughout the neighborhood. “It is to be used only in case of extreme emergency!”
“No problemo,” Theodore said. “Just wanted to test it out, is all—make sure it worked. Anyone with any smarts knows to COYG—check out your gear. That’s rule numero uno, which is Spanish for—”
“I know what it’s for!” Pinch snapped. He closed his eyes and stroked his beard to calm himself before continuing. “Remember, you are to use the panic horn only if absolutely necessary, because if you force us to step in and help you on your final exam, you will fail. To succeed, you must always expect—”
“A pig in a tutu?” Rex asked.
“No,” Pinch replied, glaring at him. “Not a pig in a tutu. You must always expect—”
“A juggling otter?”
“The unexpected!” Pinch snapped back.
“Hmm. Interesting. I didn’t expect you to say that.” Rex shot Charlie a friendly wink, and it was everything Charlie could do to keep from laughing.
Tabitha shook her head, clearly getting annoyed. “Can we just stop this nonsense so the kids can take their exam already?”
“Don’t you just love how she looks when she gets huffy?” Rex said with a grin. “Them little chipmunk cheeks pop out, and she gets that cute little crinkle above her nose.”
“Oooh! See how mad she’s pretending to be now? I call that her ‘I’m in love with Rex but tryin’ hard not to show it’ face.”
Tabitha’s jaw dropped. She turned to the kids with as much dignity as she could muster. “Your final exam begins now. A frightened little girl named Dora has been portaling monsters into our world during her nightmares. She and her father have absolutely no idea what’s going on. Their bungalow is infested, which means you need to find a way inside, identify the monsters there, and get rid of them. You have one hour.”
“Easy-peasy mac and cheesy,” Theodore replied. He turned to Charlie. “Am I right or am I right?”
“I have absolutely no idea what you just said, but here’s what I was thinking: We sneak around to the back of the building and look in through the windows. You know, secretly inspect the place, see what we’re dealing with. Then—”
“Or we could just do this.”
Theodore rang the doorbell.
Rex, Tabitha, and Pinch barely managed to scramble out of view before the door swung open to reveal a large man holding a large baseball bat in the hairy knuckles of his thick, sausagelike fingers.
“What do you want?” the man asked. His bat gleamed dully in the light of the wall lamp.
“Um,” Charlie replied, startled. “Well, see, we were sent here by the Nightmare Academy to investigate a suspected portaling of Nethercreatures by your daughter, Dora.”
“Huh?” the man said, leaning toward them.
“I see I’m not explaining myself very well.” Charlie backed up, his voice rising nervously. “What I mean is—”
“Look here, pal,” Theodore interrupted, getting right in the large man’s face. “You are IWM. Know what that means? Infested with monsters. We’re here to get rid of ’em.”
The large man stared down at him, then slammed the door.
“Well, that’s just great!” Charlie exclaimed. “Thanks, Theodore.”
“That wasn’t my fault! I wasn’t the one fumbling around, talking about ‘what I mean is…what I intend to say is…blah, blah, blabbety, blah, blah.’”
“I had a plan, and if you hadn’t got in the way, we’d probably be inside the house right now! You don’t just go and ring the doorbell with no warning!”
Without warning, Violet rang the doorbell.
“What are you doing?” Charlie said, aghast.
“I’ll handle this.”
The door opened and the same large man stood there with the same large bat. He glared at her.
“I know how you’re feeling,” Violet said soothingly. “You’re scared. Something’s happening inside your house—something you don’t understand—and you want to protect yourself and your family, but you don’t know how or from what. That’s why you carry around that bat, isn’t it?”
The man’s eyes narrowed but he said nothing.
“It was the same way in my house,” Violet continued. “I used to have terrible nightmares, and my parents would hear screams and growls coming from my bedroom—horrible, horrible sounds—but they never knew what was causing them. They only knew that something was wrong and that I was in trouble. Then one day some people showed up and offered to help.” She smiled warmly. “We’re those people. And we’re here to help. My name’s Violet.”
She stuck out her hand. The man looked at it for a long time.
“Name’s Barry,” he said finally, taking her hand in his. “Boy, am I glad you’re here.”
Dora was eight years old.
Her face was round and pale and her eyes, which hung like twin moons below straight, black hair, were dark and haunted. “Do you know what’s been happening to me?” she whispered.
“It’s been insane around here,” her father added. “Howls and crashes, furniture busted, carpet all ripped up—but only at night.”
“How long has it been going on?” Charlie asked, glancing around at the dimly lit bungalow. The wallpaper had pictures of fruit on it that might once have looked cheerful, but now looked old and rotten. A pot of SpaghettiOs bubbled on the ancient stove.
“I guess it all started when her mama passed,” Dora’s father said with a sigh. “That was, what, a year ago?”
“I’m so sorry.” Violet reached out and stroked Dora’s hair. “I lost my mother a long time ago, too.”
Violet nodded. “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I had terrible nightmares for months after.” She smiled gently. “What about you?”
Dora nodded. “Terrible ones.”
The lights flickered in the already dim living room. Charlie and his friends glanced knowingly at one another.
“So…can you help us?” Dora’s father asked, turning to Charlie.
“I think so. Here’s what’s been going on. Some kids have what’s called ‘the Gift’—although sometimes it feels more like a curse. When kids with the Gift have nightmares, they open portals to the Netherworld, where monsters live. Sometimes those monsters come through the portals and into our world, where they cause all kinds of problems—just like the ones you’ve been having.”
“You’re serious, huh?” Dora’s father said. “Portals? Monsters?”
Charlie nodded. “I think you’ve got a Gremlin infestation. That’s why the power is so funny in here: They like to chew on electric cables.”
The large man eyed him skeptically. “Prove it.”
Dora’s room was darker than the rest of the house, and that was with all the lights on. Stepping inside was like stepping into a tomb. Stuffed animals were scattered across her bed like sentries, a crystal unicorn collection sat on a small shelf, and night-lights were plugged into every available outlet, but no amount of light could overcome the miserable gloom.
“This is my bedroom,” Dora said softly. Charlie noticed that she was reluctant to enter. He didn’t blame her.
“No worries, kid,” Theodore exclaimed. “The A-Team is here. We’ll take care of this in a jiffy.”
Charlie crossed to the middle of the room. “All right, here we go.” He extended his right hand, closed his eyes, and began to open a portal.
Even under the best of circumstances, portaling was an incredibly difficult job. You had to identify your most personal fear, summon it, and then focus it like a laser on a specific location in your mind’s eye—only then could you open up a portal to the exact place you’d imagined. It was a bit like juggling spaghetti while doing the tango. But in the six months that Charlie had been practicing the art of Nethermancy at the Nightmare Academy, it had gotten much easier and he was now able to open portals with remarkable speed.
Almost immediately, electric purple flame began to dance across him, and a six-foot-wide portal popped open, also ringed with purple fire. Through it, everyone could see the bluish, rocky plains of the 1st ring of the Nether. It was flat and featureless, except for a strange object that sat improbably on the gritty sand—
A tall, metal cabinet with a simple handle.
“What’s that for?” Violet asked.
“You’ll see.” Charlie stepped through the portal.
Even though he’d done it hundreds of times, entering the Nether was still an odd and disorienting experience. All the angles seemed slightly wrong somehow, and he was conscious of unusual movement around him, subtle things he’d learned to identify with experience—the eerie drift of a ghost floating by or the slight buckle of a Netherworm tunneling through the sand beneath his feet.