image

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for and may be obtained from the Library of Congress.
ISBN 978-1-4197-2863-1
eISBN 978-1-68335-255-6

Text copyright © 2018 Sheila Grau
Illustrations copyright © 2018 Joe Sutphin

Published in 2018 by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher.

Amulet Books and Amulet Paperbacks are registered trademarks of Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Amulet Books are available at special discounts when purchased in quantity for premiums and promotions as well as fundraising or educational use. Special editions can also be created to specification. For details, contact specialsales@abramsbooks.com or the address below.

image
ABRAMS  The Art of Books
195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007
abramsbooks.com

FOR LISA AND GORDY

image

image

Images

Don’t hug zombies.
GOOD ADVICE

I don’t, as a general rule, hug zombies. Sure, the ones at school won’t attack other students, but just being close to one leaves you smelling like death for the rest of the day. And bits of rotten skin fall off when you touch them. Ew. Just thinking about it makes my shoulders twitch.

Miss Merrybench, our former school secretary and current zombie, wanted a hug. From me.

Her sad, melty zombie face tilted sideways as she held out both arms, not in the usual zombie pose, with the hands hanging limp at the end of outstretched arms. No, her hands faced upward, waiting to catch a disgusted boy who’d rather hug his ogre-man friend Boris, a guy who only bathes once a week.

I backed up, looking for an escape. She’d cornered me in the dungeon, just as I was leaving Uncle Ludwig’s secret library by the grotto entrance. Unfortunately for me, Uncle Ludwig was taking library security more seriously now that he was an official Covert Librarian, and he’d installed a coded lock on the door. I’d be wrapped in a full zombie hug before I could enter the first number.

The string of dim lightbulbs circling the underground lake illuminated the grotto just enough for me to see that I was trapped. Locked door behind me, fish monster in the water to my right, rocky dungeon wall to my left, and directly in front of me a zombie with a skull-revealing smile who wasn’t taking no for an answer.

“It’s okay, Miss Merrybench,” I said, holding up my hands in the “don’t come any closer” position. “I forgive you for trying to kill me. And for telling me my parents were here to find me when they really weren’t. We’re good.”

Miss Merrybench was in a twelve-step Afterlife Redemption Program, trying to make up for the mean things she’d done in her life. Step One was asking for forgiveness from the people she’d tried to blow up. She shuffled toward me, making small moaning noises that didn’t increase her appeal in any way.

The signs around the grotto all warned against going near the water because of the flesh-eating fish monster, but I decided to risk it. I burst forward, ducking under Miss Merrybench’s outstretched arms and stepping into the water next to her. My foot slipped on a wet rock and I fell to my hands and knees, scrambling away from the zombie and the water as fast as I could. An open passageway was in sight, but just as I thought I’d escaped, a tentacle fastened around my ankle and yanked me flat.

I screamed. Miss Merrybench screamed. I tried to kick my leg free, but the tentacle held tight, pulling me closer to the water. I desperately reached for a stalagmite and wrapped my arms around it.

image

“Clarence, no!” I yelled, because that was the fish monster’s name. He didn’t listen to me. “Miss Merrybench! The stun pole!” I pointed at the emergency box next to the warning sign. It held a long pole with electrodes at the end that would shock the fish monster into releasing me.

Miss Merrybench reached for the box, but she moved so . . . so . . . slowly. I held tight as she read the warning about the dangers of mixing electricity and water.

“Just do it!” I screamed right before I lost my grip and was pulled underwater.

I yanked the tentacle off my leg, but another one immediately took its place. This happened a few times, and I thought I heard monster giggles underwater. Clarence thought we were playing. Just as I was running out of air, something splashed into the water next to me.

A hand grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the surface. The strength of my rescuer was incredible. Not many creatures can win a tug-of-war with Clarence. I could only think of one: Frankie. I was pulled out of the water and lay on the gravel, gulping in air. Miss Merrybench stood above me and jabbed the stun pole at the tentacle still wrapped around my ankle, but she struck my shin instead.

I felt the quick, sharp sting of electricity, and I screamed again, closing my eyes and rocking back and forth. I heard an unearthly sound coming from the person who’d pulled me out, who’d also felt the jolt. I looked over and saw a small, freckle-faced girl wearing a Critchlore uniform with a first-year purple jacket.

“Sara?” I said.

Miss Merrybench looked down at the girl. In slow motion, her eyes went wide as she realized who this was: Sara, my vaskor friend. Sara was a monster, but she wore the glamour of a harmless girl. Miss Merrybench shuffled away, moaning. Even as a zombie, she was terrified of the vaskor.

Clarence, on the other hand, had a crush on Sara. His head popped out of the water and he burbled a greeting as he reached for her with a long tentacle, which she hugged, like it was a cute puppy or something.

“Sara, what are you doing here?” I asked. A large backpack lay on the ground next to her.

“Runt, I need your help,” she said. “I think I made a terrible mistake.”

But before she could say anything else, the secret door at the end of the grotto opened, and Professor Zaida stepped out.

She took one look at Sara and immediately frowned. Sara was supposed to be living at the Great Library with the rest of the vaskor, not sneaking around the dungeons here. Zaida tilted her head back toward the door.

“Both of you. Inside. Now.”

Images

Clarence was a graduation gift to Dr. Critchlore from his mother.
INTERESTING FACT

Back in the library, Professor Zaida went from mad to furious as she emptied the contents of Sara’s backpack onto a table. “One jar of black face paint. Two black beanies. Two pairs of gloves. Two Pravus Academy uniforms. One map of the Pravus Academy.”

She looked at me. “What were you planning to do?”

I had no idea. “You tell her,” I said to Sara.

“Rescue Syke,” Sara said. Her voice sounded so hoarse and deep, which was odd, coming from that little girl body. “She’s not safe.”

Syke, my best friend, had gone undercover at the school of Dr. Critchlore’s worst enemy, Dr. Pravus. She’d wanted to steal back the Top Secret Book of Minions—Translated Edition that Pravus had stolen from the Great Library, but that mission changed when she found out there were much more sinister things going on at that school. She’d been sending evidence of Pravus’s plans for weeks now.

“And you thought you could sneak in there and get her out?” Professor Zaida said, looking at me. “Something Dr. Critchlore has been trying to do for weeks. The man is worried sick. One minute he’s planning an all-out assault to rescue her, the next he’s angrily vowing to ground her for a year when she comes back.”

Syke was his ward, but I’d always known she was more to him than that.

“May we?” I asked, pointing to the dry clothes. At that moment I’d rather wear the uniform of our rival than have Uncle Ludwig catch me dripping near his precious books. She nodded, so I ducked under the table to change. Sara changed in the stacks.

“Runt, I realize it must be fun, knowing that you’re a prince with an army of vaskor you can order to do as you please,” Professor Zaida said. I nearly laughed out loud, because she had completely misread the situation. I couldn’t order Sara to do anything anymore. “You cannot make these kinds of decisions on your own. There’s too much at stake. I thought you understood that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just really worried about Syke.”

“Mistress Moira is watching the Pravus Academy with her ravens,” Professor Zaida said. “She’d tell us if Syke was in danger. You need to focus on your work here. Now, please order Sara back to the forest.”

“I will,” I said.

Sara and I left, and I wondered how I was ever going to explain to Professor Zaida that I’d freed Sara from her spell of obedience a few months ago.

“I’m not going back to the forest,” Sara said as we walked upstairs. “Syke’s been cuffed.”

“Cuffed?”

“She has to wear a bracelet. It’s impossible to remove. If Pravus doubts your loyalty, you have to wear one. That’s why I couldn’t take her out of there.”

“Because of a bracelet?” I held the cafeteria door open and followed her inside. I assumed that she was hungry, mostly because she was always hungry.

“If she tries to escape, they can activate it remotely.”

“Activate it to do what?”

“To kill her,” she said. “With poison.”

I gasped. That was so evil. “How are we going to get her out of there?”

“I thought you’d think of something,” she said. “Like how you rescued me from the dungeon here.”

The cafeteria was dark, so Sara and I snuck into the empty kitchen. I went to the pantry, where Cook kept a few clean uniforms for me. (Sometimes I showed up for meals dirtier than she liked.) I changed, stuffing the enemy clothes behind a crate in the corner.

I managed to dig up a bag of day-old doughnuts (literally, they’d been in the garbage), and Sara lit up with happiness.

“Awesome, I love doughnuts,” she said. “Dr. Pravus fed us only meat, meat, and meat. The librarians feed us vegetables. I don’t like meat. I don’t like vegetables. I like doughnuts.”

“Who doesn’t? Look, Sara, you have to go back to the librarians. You heard Professor Zaida. I’m ordering you to go back.”

“You can’t,” Sara said with a huge smile. “Runt, it’s so great. Nobody can tell me where to go, or when to go to sleep, or who to maim. I can eat all the doughnuts I want.” She stuffed another one into her mouth.

“Then what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to watch over Syke,” she said, swallowing another doughnut without chewing. “I lived at the Pravus Academy for a long time before you freed us from him. I know where to hide so I can watch her. As soon as she earns Pravus’s trust and gets that bracelet off, I will save her. I have to, she’s my best friend.”

“You’ve only known her a few months.” It’s possible I felt a little jealous. Syke was my best friend too.

“Yes, but she’s done so much for me.”

That was true. After Syke ran away from Dr. Critchlore’s to go live with the other hamadryads, I thought she hated me, so when she asked me a few months ago to free Sara from her spell of obedience, I’d done it.

I’d been ready to free all the vaskor, but Professor Zaida showed up and stopped me. She’d been furious. She told me that I didn’t know what I was doing. That Sara and the rest of her kind were the most powerful monsters alive, and there is nothing more dangerous than power without control. The spell of obedience was that control.

I’d wanted to argue with her, because I knew they weren’t dangerous. During our first encounter, Sara had told me that she was Oti. I’d found a book in the Great Library that described the Oti as gentle pacifists. They wouldn’t fight, not even to save themselves.

I knew that the vaskor were only dangerous because of the spell, because Pravus had ordered them to kill and they couldn’t refuse. But Professor Zaida had been so angry, I couldn’t explain that to her, or tell her that I’d already freed Sara.

“Sara,” I said, “be careful. You can’t run around Stull doing whatever you want. Actions have consequences. And what did you mean, you made a terrible mistake?”

“Someone saw me at the Pravus Academy,” she said. “I couldn’t let them think I was there to rescue Syke. They’d kill her. So I stole something to create a diversion.”

“What?”

“I buried it out by the new forest,” she said. “A bag of glowing green rocks.”

“Sudithium?” I felt the blood rush out of my head. That was a mistake. It was a huge mistake.

Dr. Pravus and Dr. Critchlore were trying to create an Undefeatable Minion, and one of the essential ingredients was a mineral called sudithium, which, when ingested by a living organism, makes it much, much bigger. Dr. Pravus already had the mineral, and he didn’t think we had any. Dr. Critchlore wanted to keep it that way. He said that if Dr. Pravus thought we were close to making our own Undefeatable Minion, he might do something drastic to stop us.

I sat there wondering what “something drastic” could mean.

Images

“We call them vaskor. It sounds much more intimidating than Oti.”
KING DREDGEMONT, FIRST RULER OF THE VASKOR

I barely slept that night. I knew I had to tell Dr. Critchlore what Sara had done, but I didn’t know how.

At breakfast, Professor Zaida sent a message, ordering me to report to the secret library. I asked Boris to tell Tootles that I’d be missing my mentor class. Boris worked in the stables first period, right next to Tootles’s Forest Restoration Project (FRP).

When I showed up, she asked, “Is Sara gone?”

“I ordered her back to the Great Library,” I said, which was technically true. “Did you talk to Mistress Moira about Syke? Sara told me that she’s wearing some sort of bracelet—”

“A loyalty cuff,” Professor Zaida said. “That’s what Pravus calls them. As soon as he suspects someone isn’t loyal, he puts one on them. One wrong move and they’re punished with a jolt of electricity.”

“Electricity? Are you sure?” That wasn’t what Sara had told me.

“Yes,” she said. “He told the EOs that he was testing a new training method. They like it.”

“It’s deranged.”

“That’s not the worst of it. Syke smuggled out a note using Mistress Moira’s messenger crow. She says that Pravus trains his minions to be loyal to him, not to their EOs. He’s been doing it for years. He uses the cuffs on minions he thinks might spill the beans to the EO Council.”

“He’s broken the Minion School Code?” I asked. “That’s huge. Why doesn’t the EO Council arrest him?”

“We need more evidence than Syke’s testimony to prove it,” she said. “Nobody would believe that she’s an impartial witness. She grew up as Critchlore’s ward.”

“What about Tankotto’s henchman?” I asked. “He was working for Pravus, not Tankotto, when he was trying to find the Great Library by poisoning librarians.”

“Unfortunately, Dr. Critchlore can’t tell the EOs about that. He’d be exposing the existence of the secret librarians.”

“Oh, right.”

“Imagine.” She leaned back in her chair. “Pravus has been training minions for over twenty years, and he’s placed minions in every realm except Upper Worb . . . and one other one . . .”

“The Forgotten Realm?”

“Yes, that one. All those minions, ready to turn on their EOs and fight for Pravus.”

“Add in an army of UMs, and he’ll be unstoppable,” I said.

She sighed, then leaned forward. “And that’s why we have to speed up your prince training. I thought we had more time. But I’m worried about Pravus, and I’m worried about the rebels.”

“The rebels?” I asked. “In Andirat?” I didn’t see how my home country had anything to do with Pravus. It wasn’t even on the same continent.

“Yes,” she said. “There are too many rebel groups fighting the generals. They need a leader, or at least a figurehead to unite them so they can confront the generals as one united group, rather than many small factions.”

“A leader?” I asked. “You don’t mean me?”

She nodded. “When you take your rightful place as ruler of Andirat, your armies could help us stop Pravus.”

Eight years ago, the royal family of Andirat, my family, was murdered by five generals who wanted to rule the country themselves. Somehow, I was saved from execution and smuggled across the ocean to Dr. Critchlore’s school, where I was left at the gate with no memory of my past. Since then, Andirat had fallen into civil war, because the generals couldn’t agree on who should be in charge. They split up the country and now fight against each other, and against the rebels, which meant that everyone was suffering now.

I was the last prince of Andirat. Professor Zaida had been training me so that one day I could return as its rightful leader and end all the fighting.

“I’m not ready,” I said.

“The generals are losing control, but since the many rebel groups aren’t coordinated, the generals remain in power. You are someone who could unite the entire country, and force the generals to step down.”

“I’m just a kid.”

“Say it, Runt,” Professor Zaida said. “Say what I taught you.”

I sighed. “I can do this,” I said. “I am Prince Auberon of Andirat, and I will lead my people out of their oppression.”

“Now say it like you mean it,” she said, and she made me say it five more times.

“Good,” she said, standing up. “Now come, we have a meeting to go to.”

We left the library through the grotto and headed for the dungeon hub, a giant room below the castle foyer that was filled with cubicles and offices.

Walking into the conference room was like entering the world of grown-ups. It was a serious room, so different from the classrooms I was used to. Here the table was free of graffiti and gum, and the walls weren’t covered with student projects like sabotage plans or siege dioramas.

A painting depicting the battle that had given the Valley of Fears its name hung on the wall facing the door. The other walls were taken up by a whiteboard and a giant screen for teleconferencing. Professor Zaida and I took seats beneath the painting, which was good because I didn’t want to look at it.

Dr. Frankenhammer, Coach Foley, Professors Murphy, Portry, Dunkirk, Twilk, and Vodum sat opposite us. Barry Merrybench, Dean Everest, Mrs. Gomes, and Mr. Griphold sat on our side.

“Why am I here?” I whispered to Professor Zaida.

“I requested it,” she whispered. “You need to know what’s going on in the world, so that you don’t do stupid things.”

Dr. Critchlore arrived. He held the door for Mistress Moira and then followed her in, taking his seat at the head of the table, beneath the whiteboard. He turned on the teleconferencing screen, and we all watched it flick on to reveal an enormous white-and-gold desk with fancy etchings, and an empty chair behind it.

“We’re ready,” Dr. Critchlore told the screen. “Please tell Her Charming Magnificence that we don’t have time for her usual displays of grandeur.”

The screen blasted out some peppy marching music as two seal-men took position on either side of the desk. The one on the right said, “All rise for Her Wise and Just Incredibleness, the Queen of Upper Worb.” We all stood, and waited.

After a full two minutes, Irma Trackno strode through the door and took her seat. She wore her usual white tunic-jacket with its fur-lined hood.

image

“I don’t have time to waste,” she said, shaking out her white hair and removing her white gloves. “Let’s get started.”

“Hello, Mother,” Dr. Critchlore said.

“Derek.” She nodded. Then she sighed. “You never listen to me. Once, just once, I’d like you to take heed when I warn you that your life is in danger.”

“You warned me every day of my life,” he replied. “Until you left when I was seven.”

“And I was right, wasn’t I? We have enemies who wish to destroy us.”

“Let’s stick to the emergency at hand,” Dr. Critchlore said. “We are meeting today because something happened at the Pravus Academy last night. This morning, our spies reported that there’s so much activity there, it looks like Dr. Pravus is mobilizing for war.”

Uh-oh. I tried to sink lower in my chair. I knew I should tell Dr. Critchlore that Sara had stolen sudithium from Dr. Pravus, which had apparently sent him into a panic. But I couldn’t do it. Not now, in front of everyone.

“It’s happening,” Irma said, pointing a finger at her son. “Just like I warned you.”

“Should Dr. Pravus go rogue,” Dr. Critchlore went on, “and try to use the minions he’s trained to conquer other realms, as we suspect he will, we need to warn the EO Council.”

“No,” Irma said. “You need to set up defenses at your school. You’ll be his first target.”

“That’s ridiculous. Why would he waste time with me? He knows we’re not close to making an Undefeatable Minion,” Dr. Critchlore said.

“So what?” Irma said. “The man hates you. He told me he intends to destroy your school. He doesn’t know I’m your mother. It took every ounce of self-control not to have my ice monster stomp on his smug, evil, handsome face after listening to all the names he called you. But at the time, I needed his giant gorillas.”

“Why does he hate you so much?” I asked Dr. Critchlore.

Irma laughed out loud. “Oh, the stories I could tell! Those two have been rivals since school. Pravus was a pompous twit, and Derek humiliated him again and again. I was worried at first, because Pravus comes from a very powerful family.”

“He does?”

“Yes. He’s the son of Egmont Luticus, the banished overlord of Riggen.”

Wait . . . was everyone the secret son of a powerful EO? I was beginning to feel less special about being a prince.

“His parents escaped Riggen before it fell to Fraze Coldheart. Of course I recognized the vile Luticus spawn as soon as I saw him in Derek’s class picture.

“Listen to me now,” she went on, leaning forward. “There is no more despicable creature in this world than the offspring of a tyrant. Entitled brats who have been given everything except the humility that goes with having earned things for themselves.”

“But . . . isn’t Dr. Critchlore the son of a tyrant?” I asked.

The room hushed as Irma stared at me. “Why aren’t you dead?” she asked. She must have remembered my curse. At least, I hoped that was what she meant.

“Mother,” Critchlore interrupted. “Let’s stay focused on what’s important.”

“Right. Pravus and his desire to overthrow the EOs. But wait, I want to show you all something,” Irma said. “The graduation video,” she told her assistant, snapping her fingers. “Queue it up.”

“Mother, please,” Dr. Critchlore said. “Nobody cares about your home movies.”

“Shhh, Derek. Watch this, everyone. It’s important to know your enemy.”

The video started. It was taken from the stands inside a large stadium. On the field were hundreds of students in their graduation robes, sitting in chairs arranged in an arc in front of a stage. Adults wearing fancier robes and sashes sat on the stage. A heavyset man stood at the podium.

“And now, for our most prestigious award. The top student of our graduating class in the Doctorate of Minion Studies is . . .”

Irma’s voice cut in. “Look at the lower left—Pravus actually stands up before the name is called. Ha!”

“Derek Critchlore!” the man announced. A young Dr. Critchlore rose and approached the podium as the other students clapped and whooped enthusiastically.

“Look at my Derek,” Irma’s voice-over said. “Isn’t he handsome?”

Her Derek was now leaning over the table with his head down, a hand to his forehead.

“Watch,” Irma said. “The best part is coming.”

Young Dr. Critchlore accepted his trophy, which looked like a bare tree with white and light-blue branches on a heavy marble base. He held it up shyly as his classmates cheered. Then, suddenly, another robed figure rushed the stage.

“That’s Pravus,” Irma said. “He kept screaming, ‘That’s my trophy! Mine!’ ”

“It’s true,” Dr. Critchlore said. “I knew he was extremely competitive, but have some dignity, man.”

The camera zoomed in on the action and we could see young Dr. Critchlore trying to hustle down the steps. Pravus caught up with him and grabbed the trophy, but Critchlore didn’t let go and yanked it away from him. An enraged Pravus then tackled Critchlore, but Critchlore held tight to the trophy. Pravus’s face was crimson with rage as he struggled to grab the trophy while others pried him off Dr. Critchlore.

I’d always thought Dr. Critchlore had made this story up, or at least exaggerated it.

“You need to know who you’re up against,” Irma said.

“I’ve been rivals with him for twenty-five years, Mother,” Dr. Critchlore said. “I think I know who I’m up against.”

“No, you don’t. True character comes out in times of stress. Dr. Pravus has kept that egomaniacal madman bundled up since that event. He’s charmed all the EOs. They love him. LOVE him. But as you saw, this is a man who does not accept losing.”

“Okay, he doesn’t like to lose. Neither do I,” Dr. Critchlore said, clapping his hands together for attention. “We need to stop him. Now, I can think of only one reason why he would be in such a panic right now. He must believe we are close to making our own Undefeatable Minions. His plan will be ruined if we have them too.”

“How close are you?” Irma asked.

“We’ve had the mutating virus and the sudithium for a few weeks—”

“So, make your own UMs and crush him already!”

“We can’t,” Dr. Critchlore said. “I won’t allow it.”

Images

“Earning loyalty takes time and sacrifice. My new cuffs guarantee loyalty in seconds!”
DR. PRAVUS, AT THE EO COUNCIL

“Why not?” Irma said, speaking for everyone in the room, because we were all shocked by this announcement. Wasn’t creating a UM what we’d been trying to do for the last few months?

“We’ve known that creating an Undefeatable Minion requires three things: a mutating virus to make them indestructible, sudithium to make them huge, and a spell to make them obedient. But we need a human army to start with,” Dr. Critchlore said. He was addressing the room, not his mother, which made me think that his decision was news to everyone.

“The problem is the mutating virus,” he said. “It causes the subject’s cell structure to change. Strength increases dramatically, skin hardens until it’s like steel, senses are heightened, and these are just some of the changes mentioned in the Top Secret Book of Minions.”

He paused for a second, then went on. “Dr. Frankenhammer has translated the footnotes, which contain a very serious warning. Only ten percent of a population can survive the virus. The jolt to the cells is just too powerful.”

“So, what’s the problem?” Irma asked.

“To make an army of one hundred, I’d be sentencing nine hundred people to death,” Dr. Critchlore said, looking directly at her. “I won’t do it.”

“Pravus will,” she interjected.

“I won’t do it,” Dr. Critchlore repeated. “And so we have changed our objectives. We are focusing on neutralizing Pravus’s UMs instead. Dr. Frankenhammer is working on antidotes to both the virus and the sudithium. If we can reverse those effects, it might make the Undefeatable Minions defeatable. But we need to know how much sudithium you’ve given Dr. Pravus.”

“A truck full,” Irma said.

“He must have used a lot for his giant gorillas,” Professor Murphy said.

“A drop in the bucket,” Irma said. “He’s got enough to keep an army huge for years. You have to understand, he promised me that the gorillas he sent to Wexmir Smarvy would turn on Smarvy and fight for me.”

“We get it, Mother,” Dr. Critchlore said. “You gave the most dangerous man on the continent a rare mineral because he made you a promise.”

Irma frowned. “Derek, you’ve never understood the politics of power. Of having to work with people you hate so you can achieve your objectives—”

Dr. Critchlore held up a hand. “We have a new objective: neutralize the Undefeatable Minions. I have gone to the EO Council to warn them that Dr. Pravus plans to start a war. I have shown them the evidence we’ve gotten from Syke, that he has been training his minions to be loyal to him, and not their EOs.”

“What did they say?” Professor Murphy asked.

“They didn’t believe me,” Dr. Critchlore said. “They think I’m . . .” He shook his head, unable to say the word.

“What?” Professor Zaida asked.

“They think I’m . . .” he tried again. “That I’m . . .”

“Jealous,” his mother finished for him. “They think he’s jealous of Dr. Pravus.”

Dr. Critchlore looked like he was going to throw up. “You need to convince them, Mother.”

“I really can’t help you,” she said. “In fact, I go out of my way to oppose you any chance I get.”

“Wonderful,” Dr. Critchlore said with an eye roll.

“It’s for your own good, Derek,” she went on. “If anyone discovered that I’m your mother, it would ruin you. Nobody would recruit a minion from you again. They’d all think you train them for me, so I could use them to take over the world.”

“Which is what Dr. Pravus is actually doing,” Professor Murphy muttered. Dr. Critchlore nodded.

“I can’t spare any more time,” Irma said. “You all are dismissed.” And the video cut off.

“Well, I had to try,” Dr. Critchlore told the room. “Let’s stick to the plan we have. Dr. Frankenhammer will work on the antidotes. Coach Foley, Mrs. Gomes, and Professors Portry, Murphy, and Dunkirk will begin preparations to defend the school. Pravus may attack soon, to prevent us from making progress on the Undefeatable Minions.”

“Mistress Moira could help with defenses,” Professor Zaida said. “Her crows can monitor Dr. Pravus’s minions.”

“Mistress Moira and Miss Merrybench are traveling to Skelterdam to find the witch who cursed Runt,” Dr. Critchlore said. “We all have our action items. Let’s get busy.”

He sat back down and motioned for Professor Zaida and me to come sit closer to him and Mistress Moira while the others cleared the room.

“Runt, we are in disagreement over what to do with you,” Dr. Critchlore said. “Professor Zaida’s plan has been to train you to return to Andirat. You could reestablish it as a united country with a strong army. An army that could help us fight Dr. Pravus.”

I nodded.

“With this threat from Pravus, I’m worried about your safety here. It may be time for you to join the rebels in Andirat.”

I swallowed a huge lump of fear in my throat. He wanted me to leave?

“However,” he went on. “Professor Zaida isn’t convinced that the rebels can keep you any safer. Mistress Moira also believes your life would be in danger if you left at this time.”

“Because of my tether curse?” I asked.

“No. According to my research, your curses were cast in Andirat,” Mistress Moira said. “The tether curse was cast to keep you in range of the death curse, and I believe that you triggered it when you moved north of Stull. First when you went to the Great Library, part of which lies in Burkeve, and then when you went to Polar Bay. Your tether will not be activated in Andirat, but I think you will be safer here with Dr. Critchlore, more so than if you joined a rebel group we know little about.”

I wasn’t ready to go to Andirat. Whenever I imagined going there, I always pictured Professor Zaida coming with me, and maybe Dr. Critchlore too. And my friends. Now Dr. Critchlore was talking about shipping me off to some rebels I didn’t even know. I’d be all alone.

“What do you think I should do, Dr. Critchlore?”

“I trust the opinion of these two,” he said, and I exhaled loudly with relief. “But I’m worried that if we wait too long, the opportunity to stop Dr. Pravus might be lost.”

“Because I’m cursed to die, you mean? If we wait too long, I might not be around to unite the rebel army?”

“Miss Merrybench and I will find the witch who cursed you and bring her here,” Mistress Moira said. “This type of curse can be removed two ways. First, if the witch dies. Second, if she removes it herself, which must be done in person. The witch will not risk returning to Andirat. She’s cursed too many people there. Those people know their curses will be lifted if she dies.”

“We don’t have much time,” Dr. Critchlore said. “Dr. Pravus could become too strong. Even if we neutralize his Undefeatable Minions, the man has tens of thousands of minions ready to fight for him.”

“I’ll contact the rebel leaders,” Professor Zaida said. “We’ll find someone we trust to take Runt back to Andirat after he’s curse-free. Someone who will keep him safe.”

Dr. Critchlore nodded, then got up to leave. Professor Zaida followed him out while I grabbed Mistress Moira’s arm so I could ask her a question.

“I’m worried about Syke,” I told her. “Sara says she’s wearing a bracelet that will poison her if she tries to escape.”

“Dr. Pravus keeps his minions loyal through fear,” she said, shaking her head. “Don’t worry, my ravens are watching her. I’m more concerned about you, Runt.”

“It’s just a lot of responsibility,” I said. “I’m not ready to go to Andirat.”

“And you mustn’t,” she said. “Runt, you must not leave this school under any circumstances. Do you understand?”

I nodded. Inside my head, I did a little happy dance of relief.

“Not until we remove your curses,” she added.

“Do you know why I was cursed?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No, but I have my suspicions.”

“Me too,” I said. “I escaped when my family was killed. The generals must have hired the witch to curse me, right?”

“I don’t think so,” Mistress Moira said. “If the witch was working for the generals, she wouldn’t have fled to Skelterdam. The generals would protect her. Instead, the generals have offered a huge reward for her capture—dead or alive. No, there has to be another reason.”

“Could it be a mistake?” I asked, because it had to be.

“Not likely. You really don’t remember anything?”

I shook my head. “I grew up thinking I was a werewolf, you know that. The only memories I have are of living with dogs. I don’t know why.”

“You could be blocking out painful memories,” she said. “The more I think about it, the more I believe that something happened eight years ago, and you were involved. Something more than escaping the coup that killed your family.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because if she wanted you dead, the witch could have killed you instantly.” She snapped her fingers. “But she chose a timed-death curse. Why? Because a four-year-old doesn’t understand death, doesn’t fear death.”

“But now that I’m grown, I know what I have to lose,” I said.

“That’s right,” she agreed. “This curse was done on purpose, to terrify you in the cruelest possible way. It feels like vengeance.”

That didn’t make me feel any better.

“I will find out why,” she said, then she nodded to the door. “Now, off to class.”

I tried to remember eight years ago, when I was four, but all I could remember was dogs: the smell of their fur and their doggy breath. The softness of their bodies as I fell asleep.

In the foyer, I saw Professor Murphy coming out of the cafeteria with a cup of coffee. Together we walked to his Junior Henchman class.

“Do you really think Pravus will attack here?” I asked.

“Yes. Not just because he hates Critchlore. I think his main objective would be to stop us from making our own UMs. However,” he said, raising a finger, “attacking us is against the Minion School Code and will bring the punishment forces of the EO Council down upon him. So I don’t think he’ll attack until he has his Undefeatable Minions and can fend off the EOs. We know he was still searching for a witch as recently as last week, so he must still need a spell of obedience. Without that spell, unleashing the UMs would be like tossing grenades into a tornado—he’d have no control over where they strike. We may have some time.”

“Do you think Dr. Frankenhammer can make an antidote before Pravus strikes?”

“Dr. Frankenhammer is a very skilled scientist, but we are in uncharted territory. We have to prepare for the worst.”

We entered the classroom before the rest of the students. I took my seat at the end of the row of six desks.

Janet walked in first, making my heart feel ten times bigger in my chest. She seemed a little startled to see me.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Huh? Oh, I just remembered something I forgot to do.”

“Homework?”

She laughed and rubbed my head. “No, silly.” Then she whispered, “Something important.”

Meztli and Jud came in next. They’d just found out that they were both practitioners of the ancient were-animal fighting style called Cadora, and had been hanging out together. Frieda followed, shaking the room as she sat down (she’s an ogre).

Professor Murphy didn’t wait for Rufus. He jumped right into his lecture on school defenses. Rufus showed up five minutes late, scowling. He’d gone from being a happy, popular bully to being an unhappy, friendless jerk. I almost felt bad for him, but his general jerkiness kept that from happening.

“We have to reinforce our weakest points—out by the aviary and Tootles’s new forest,” he said. “What do you kids think?”

“Surrender,” Rufus said. “This school is filled with losers. We don’t stand a chance against the Pravus Academy kids.”