“Get the hell off the wing before you damage my plane,” said the strange woman who’d emerged from the plane a moment before, nearing startling Lachlan into falling to the ground.
She was somewhere between Lachlan’s mum’s age and his grandma’s age–a bit too old to be middle-aged, but still too young to be called an elderly woman. An impressive mane of thick, silver-white hair hung halfway to her waist.
“Holy motherfuck,” said Lachlan. “Where did you come from?”
Sam gave him a stern look from where he still lay on the ground.
“Please excuse him, Mrs…?”
The woman stepped down from the wing walk to the ground.
“van Vleet. And I’m not a ‘Mrs.’ anything.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Ms. van Vleet.” Sam sat up and turned toward her. “I just assumed…”
She chuckled. “You just assumed that a woman of my age…”
“No, no,” said Sam. “That’s not what I meant.”
“That’s exactly what he meant.” Lachlan slid off the plane wing and landed on the ground. “Tut, tut, Samurai. Shame on you for calling this nice lady ‘old’.”
“Would you shut up?” said Sam. “Anyway, Ms. van Vleet, we’re sorry for intruding. We didn’t see you inside, so we didn’t know this was your plane.”
“I’ll accept your apology on the condition your friend gets the hell off my wing,” said Ms. van Vleet, “and on the condition that you call me Nancy.” She frowned at Sam. “Is that my jacket?”
“I tried to stop him,” said Lachlan, shaking his head in mock-disappointment, “but he just took it anyway.”
Sam shot him a look.
Nikola emerged from beneath the plane, and Nancy’s face lit up with an almost childlike delight that Lachlan rarely saw in people her age.
“Is that a dog?” she said.
“That is indeed a dog.”
“His name is Nikola,” said Sam.
“No, it’s not,” said Lachlan.
Nancy hardly seemed to hear them as she knelt and patted her leg. When Nikola trotted up to her, she threw her arms around him and ruffled his fur. The dog looked equal parts uncertain about being grabbed and pleased with the attention.
“I miss dogs.” Nancy’s voice broke. “I’ve missed dogs so much.”
Lachlan glanced at Sam, who had started fidgeting nervously with his magnets again.
Nancy continued petting Nikola as she looked up at Lachlan and Sam, her eyes teary.
“Sorry.” She sniffled. “You’re the first new people I’ve spoken to in years, and look at me. I guess I’ve forgotten all my social graces. I didn’t even ask you young men your names.”
‘New people’? Did that mean there were existing people trapped here that Nancy had recently spoken to?
They’d already met Mahender. Who knew how many other people were stuck in this place?
“I’m Lachlan,” said Lachlan, “and this is Sam.”
“I can introduce myself, you know,” he said. “I’m Sam.”
Nancy smiled and wiped a tear from her face, continuing to pet Nikola’s ears with her free hand.
“So how did you kids end up here? It’s nice to see some new faces. Not that I’m glad you got stuck here, obviously.”
“I heard my coworker calling for help, and when I followed her screams, it lead me to this strange device that sent me here,” said Sam. “I found this idiot tied up in one of the rooms in that creepy building. Then the dog saved us from a creature that was attacking us.”
“You stuck together,” said Nancy. “That’s smart.”
“We’re very smart,” said Lachlan.
“I had my dad for a while.” Nancy’s expression darkened. “Then the Sisters took him.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Sam.
“There’s a nice young man who stops by sometimes, about your age,” said Nancy. “No, no, probably older than you. He brings me food and supplies from the town, and he always stays to talk. Such a good kid. I’m less fond of his, um, friends, though.”
“Are these friends of the skull-squid variety?” said Lachlan.
“Mhmm.” Nancy nodded.
“I think we just met your friend, actually,” said Sam. “He mentioned a town too.”
“I haven’t been in, oh, I don’t know. Probably years. Not since I lost Dad,” said Nancy. “It’s a good place to find supplies, though. Plus, it’s a lot safer than here.”
“Let me guess,” said Sam. “More places to hide?”
“That, plus there aren’t as many monsters there. You have to be careful, though. I’ve been told things and people vanish sometimes, or get sent to strange places.”
“Did Mahender tell you that?” said Sam.
“He might have thought to mention that little tidbit to us,” said Lachlan.
Nancy shook her head.
“No, it was someone else. I can’t remember her name. It has an ‘M’ or an ‘N’ in it–Nina maybe? Something like that.” Nancy stroked Nikola’s head. “Strange woman. I don’t think she likes me very much.”
“Exactly how many people are stuck here?”
“Not counting Brothers, Sisters, or Daves, I know of two people other than myself and you kids.”
“Wait, you said people get sent to strange places,” said Sam. “Do you mean stranger places than this one?”
“I don’t know,” said Nancy. “I just know the woman looked terrified when she talked about it. I once saw her take down a fully-grown Brother without flinching, but whatever this place was, it really scared her.”
Chelsea had thought the monsters, the Italian-speaking bat, and the empty ghost town had been strange, but whatever was going on here took ‘strange’ to a whole other level.
The pendulums’ swinging grew in intensity, filling her ears with a sensation that reminded her of venturing outside without ear protection during an especially windy blizzard. The fact that the air around them was both uncomfortably hot and completely still magnified her unease exponentially.
“What should we do?” Angelina whispered not nearly quietly enough.
“There is only one thing you can do, mortal,” hissed Zogzhesh. “Await your fate as I, the mighty Zogzhesh, stand in judgement over your miserable existences.”
Angelina mumbled something in Italian under her breath, and the mocking hisses around them intensified.
“You dare disrespect the almighty decider of your fate, mortal?”
Chelsea stepped forward and bowed her head.
“My friend meant no disrespect, oh, almighty serpent of, um, justice?”
She wasn’t sure how to address the snake-man, so her improvised honorific came out as more of a question than she had intended. She wasn’t quite sure where she was going to go with this, but her tone and head bow seemed to appease the creepy hissing darkness, so she continued.
“She’s just nervous having never been in the presence of such a powerful and majestic being.”
“I am quite majestic.” Zogzhesh stroked his chin with his scepter.
“Please, your all-powerful snake-liness.” Chelsea cringed inwardly at her word choice. “She is in awe of your presence. Have mercy on her.”
The hissing grew louder again.
“Mercy?” Zogzhesh sounded almost amused. “Only the pendulums shall decide if she receives mercy.”