On the other side of the door, Ms. Frizzle was taking a headcount. “One, two, three, four… hm. It seems a few of your classmates have gotten, shall we say, ‘cold feet?'” A smile lit up her face for just a flash before fading back to neutrality. “Well, they’ll be alright if they stay put, so no need to fret. Let’s continue, shall we?” Her movements were more natural now, the edge having also left her voice, but a gloom hung over the group.They now found themselves in an extravagant entryway with a double staircase leading up to a second-floor landing. To the sides were elegantly-carved pillars and archways leading to equally elegant doorways, and heavy velvet tapestries hung on every wall and covered much of the floor. Every inch of it was the deepest, richest purple any of the students had ever seen. The occasional wrought iron or onyx accent provided small details to latch on to, and the students remained illuminated by some indeterminant source, but it was nearly as impenetrable as the place they had come from. Their footsteps clicked off the single, enormous sheet of obsidian serving as the floor, but the velvet rugs and drapery suffocated nearly every other sound.
Ralphie was craning his neck around, trying to take it all in. It was so opulent, like a castle or a royal palace! He could almost imagine knights and nobles gathering here for a big feast, or maybe a tournament, if it weren’t so grim. And why was it so cold here? He bent down to touch one of the rugs, sliding his hand across its surface. His fingers sank into the plush material with a squish, pooling a clear liquid he couldn’t identify. He stood to wipe his hand on his oversized shorts when he noticed Carlos was gone. He spun around a few times, befuddled as to where his friend was. Ralphie was about to say something when he suddenly found Carlos walking just a few feet to his side, his head in his hands. “Hey Carlos. You okay, pal?”
Carlos lifted his head slightly, staring into the middle distance through splayed fingers before turning his attention to Ralphie. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? Because you seem sorta–”
“Why don’t you butt out of it?” He lifted his head more, his hands clenching into fists. “What’s your sudden interest in me, anyway, huh?”
“Nothing, I– you looked sad or something. I didn’t mean to make you mad.”
“No, you never do, do you? You never ‘mean’ to.” He scoffed. “Just leave me alone.”
“What does that–”
“Calm down, Carlos!” Dorothy chimed in. “We need to stick close and follow Ms. Frizzle, wherever it is we’re going.”
“We can be up– *hic* upset about all of this later,” added Keesha.
“Fine, okay. Fine. This place is just… it feels wrong. It makes me feel wrong.”
“Oh, you’re more right about the wrong than you might think, Carlos.” They hadn’t noticed Ms. Frizzle had walked back to them, holding a small wooden box in her palm. “And I nearly forgot! I have something for you all to use… hmm, let’s say ‘just in case.'” She opened the box, casting a sickly green glow over her face. She reached in and took whatever was inside, wincing nearly imperceptibly as her fingers closed around it, and held it out to the children. All four of them stuck their noses in as close as they could.
“What is it?” Dorothy Ann asked, wonder in her voice.
The small item was oddly shaped yet seemingly made with intention, asymmetrical and smooth. It looked like a polished gemstone thought not one any of them had ever seen before, translucent enough to see through to Ms. Frizzle’s palm quite clearly. And from its core, that pale and nauseous light. Dorothy stared in fascination and Keesha continued to scan the environment, hiccupping quietly. Carlos scowled and gritted his teeth, looked suddenly surprised, and settled on an expression of worry as he eyed the gem, his arms tight around his stomach.
Ralphie glanced at everyone’s reactions and asked, “What, exactly, does it do?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that just yet. You’ll know when the time comes. For now, just know that you should always have it close.” Having also noted everyone’s reactions, she winked at Ralphie. “I think I’ll let you take care of it. Yes, that sounds positively perfect.” She went to put it in his hand but pulled back quickly, her expression more dire than her tone implied. “Now, this is going to feel strange but you can’t let go of it, okay? It will only take a moment, and you’ll be back and bright as a buttercup!” He nodded and cupped his palms. Ms. Frizzle went to place the gem in his hand again. “I know you can do this, Ralphie. Keep it close. Don’t let go.”
Ralphie nodded once more with a gulp, and Ms. Frizzle dropped the gem into his hand. As it fell – just a few short inches – he thought he could see the light pulse, a snap of energy gleaming across the surface, and a distant howl. He thought he could see something within; a face glowing like embers; a wall of hands; a fissure splitting the moon, hatching like some lurid egg.
The gem touched his skin, tumbling in his palm. Ralphie started to say, “I don’t feel anything,” as his eyes rolled back and he crumpled on the floor.
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