“Help!” Jen clawed at the fluorescent blue tendril wrapped around her body. “Naomi? Somebody?! Help!”
Until now, Jen had been thinking of the trip into the pit as a little bit exciting. Of course she was worried about Sam and Chelsea, but the sheer surrealism of the situation had made it feel like one of her video games or TV shows had come to life, and she was a plucky heroine thrust into a thrilling adventure. Only now was the gravity of the situation beginning to hit her. She was in real, mortal danger.
Being grabbed by a shrieking blue rectangular monster had a way of ripping off her rose-colored glasses.
She struggled harder as the thing lifted her higher into the air, then pulled her downward until her feet were dangling over a Venus-flytrap-like mouth lined with thousands of teeth. She squeezed her eyes shut and tensed, squeaking out a final, desperate appeal to a higher power.
“God, please, help me, help me, help me.”
Her descent stopped abruptly, and the monster’s grip on her lessened. She opened one cautious eye, then the other.
There was a sickening wet ‘thwack!’ sound, followed by the creature’s shrill shriek. Its grip relaxed even more, and she slid out of its grasp and tumbled to the floor.
Her ankle turned as she landed on it, giving way with a worrying popping sound and sending a shock wave of pain up her leg. She tried to climb to her feet, but her ankle screamed out in protest. On her hands and knees, she scurried to the corner of the room.
When she turned to look back at the creature, she saw they were no longer alone in the room. A woman squared off against the monster, twirling a pair of firefighter’s axes that looked far too heavy for her to be swinging around so deftly.
The woman was thirty-something, with amber-colored skin and sleek black hair that she had pinned neatly behind her head. She wore a bored, vaguely annoyed expression that was better suited to being stuck in traffic than it was to fighting a giant, blue rectangle monster.
“I will kill you if I have to,” said the woman. “I suggest that you get out of my way.”
Her voice was even and calm, not even the slightest bit out of breath for all her impressive ax-swinging.
The monster lashed out its tendrils at the woman, trying to disarm her, and she countered each one, swinging her axes in graceful arcs and hitting each limb with a loud thwack and severing some of them. The severed limbs regrew in seconds, the old limbs falling to the floor and thrashing like worms cut in half. One of them writhed toward Jen, and she shrunk back, nudging it away with her good foot.
The monster spoke with a rumbling voice that came from somewhere other than its gaping, toothy mouth.
“You’ll kill me?” It sounded amused. “I can’t imagine that’ll work out so well for you, sweetheart. You’re about a tenth my size.”
Jen had never met a monster before, but she had never imagined they’d be so condescending.
“I’ll only tell you once more,” said the woman. “Get out of my way.”
The monster laughed an echoing laugh that Jen could feel vibrating the wall behind her.
“Okay, then,” said the woman. “It looks like we’ll have to do this the hard way.”
The woman backed up, weaving between tendrils until she was on the far side of the room from the monster.
Then, she leapt–a graceful flying leap that would make any ballerina jealous–and landed on top of the monster’s rectangular body.
“Hey!” it said. “What are you doing?”
“You’ve delayed my schedule,” said the woman. “I don’t like being delayed.”
She wrapped her arms around the monster’s jaws, leaning backward. The monster wavered, flailing its many arms. One arm reached for the woman, trying to pry her away, and she countered it with an effortless looking side kick.
Whoever this woman was, she was pretty awesome.
Unable to balance with the woman’s added weight pulling it down, the monster toppled to its side with a screech that blasted through the room and gave Jen the urge to cover her ears. Its limbs spasmed, sticking out rigidly from its body. Its skin was see-through enough that Jen could see the outlines of its massive organs throbbing and pulsing.
“Look, lady,” said the monster. “I get it, you’re stronger than you look. Kitty’s got claws. Whatever. Just tip me back over and I’ll let you go.”
A small sneer curled at the edges of the woman’s lips as she climbed off the monster and walked around to the other side of it.
“You’ll let me go? I’m not sure why you think you have the upper hand here.”
“Please, come on,” said the monster. “I can’t move like this.”
The woman slid the axes into two sheathes attached to the expensive-looking bag she wore on her back. It looked designer, but Jen suspected the woman had modified it a bit. She couldn’t imagine Gucci had started making backpacks with built-in fire axe sheathes.
The woman reached into the bag, removed a long knife, and unsheathed it.
“What are you doing?” The monster was sounding less and less condescending by the second. “What are you doing with that?”
“You’re pathetic,” said the woman.
“Come on,” said the monster. “Let’s put that knife away. Let’s not do anything crazy.”
“Look at you,” said the woman. “You fully intended to devour me minutes ago, and I’m crazy for fighting back. You’re so much like him, it makes me sick. He really did have you made in his image, didn’t he?”
“Please,” said the monster. “Please. I won’t devour you.”
The woman scoffed.
“You’ve stolen my time,” she said. “It’s my most valuable commodity, and the only one I can never get back. You will repay me with information.”
“Wh-what kind of information?”
“I’m looking for one of the sisters.”
“That’s it? This place is crawling with them. You shouldn’t need me to–“
“I’m looking for a specific sister, you dull-witted cretin. Where is sa131?”
“What does she look like?” said the monster.
Anger flashed in the woman’s eyes, and her voice tensed as though she was trying very hard to keep it even.
“She looks. Like every other sister. You brainless. Third-rate. Abomination.”
She jabbed the monster with the knife, not quite hard enough to break its translucent neon-blue hide.
“Listen, lady, I see dozens of sisters every day. I probably eat dozens of sisters every day. I don’t remember every single number–“
The woman jabbed at the monster again, as if to remind it the knife was there. There was another, more intense flash of fury in her eyes, and this time, she couldn’t quite manage to keep her voice calm and even.
“If you have eaten sa131, I swear I will cut her out of you myself and leave you here to bleed.”
She inhaled deeply, regaining her composure.
The monster let out a shrieking roar that shook the room sent a shock wave of pain through Jen’s head. It was the type of sound that was so loud and abrasive, it overwhelmed her senses to the point where she shut her eyes on instinct. When she opened them, the woman stood as calmly as she had before.
“It’ll take more than that to paralyze me. You, on the other hand, enter a state of partial thanatosis the moment you’re tipped onto your side.” The woman sighed. “You were so poorly designed. It’s little wonder your mutated anatomy and physiology are such a mess. For example, do you know how close your thoracic aorta is to the surface of your skin?” She shifted the knife downward, towards a pulsating vein the width of a human’s arm. “Oh, look, I see it right here.”
“The largest artery in your body. Idiot,” said the woman. “If you don’t want me to sever it, I suggest you rack your tiny, useless brain and try to remember. Have you seen sa131?”
“I’m sorry, please. I honestly don’t know.”
For a moment, Jen felt bad for the monster. Then she remembered it had been trying to kill her a few minutes ago.
“Well, if you don’t know, you’re useless to me.” The woman pulled her knife back and looked at it, considering. “The question is, are you worth dirtying my favorite knife?”
“No! No, I’m not! I’m really not!”
The woman shrugged, slipping the knife back into her bag. She turned to leave.
“In that case, I think we’re done here.”
“Wait!” said the monster. “I can’t move like this! You can’t just leave me here! What if the sisters find me?”
The woman shrugged again, not turning around.
“I imagine they’ll kill you.”
“Wait! No! You can’t just leave me like this!”
Jen stood up, bracing herself against the wall. Her hurt ankle felt unsteady beneath her, but she was able to put weight on it. She hobbled after the woman.
“Hey, you!” the monster called after her. “You! Girl! Help me!”
What, so it could eat her? Yeah, right.
She still felt a little bad for it, though. Even giant rectangle monsters needed to eat.
“Hey!” Jen called to the woman. “Hey, excuse me! Wait!”
The woman did not wait.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” Jen followed the woman through a doorway that looked as though something very large had forced its way through it. “Ma’am, did you hear me?”
The woman kept walking, but turned around, looking at Jen as though she was a piece of trash the woman had just noticed lying on her freshly cleaned floor.
“I heard you very well. You’re loud.”
“Oh, um, okay, great, well, hi!” said Jen. “My name is Jen.”
The woman didn’t respond. Jen continued, trying her best to keep up with the woman.
“Well, it’s actually short for Virginia, but ‘Jen’ is so much cuter, don’t you think? For a while, I actually tried to go by J.K. in middle school, because my middle name is Kayla and I thought it’d be cool or whatever, but it didn’t really stick. People kept calling me ‘just kidding’ and asking if I wrote Harry Potter.”
The woman was silent.
“You’re a woman of few words, aren’t you?”
“When I want to be. My father always told me it was best not to talk unless you can improve upon the silence,” said the woman. “You should really take his advice to heart, because in the few seconds I’ve known you, absolutely nothing you’ve said has been preferable to silence.”
“Your dad said that? I thought that was like, a famous quote or something. Wait, is your dad famous?”
“No.” The woman looked annoyed. “He was not.”
Jen knew she was babbling, but the woman made her nervous. Her cool disapproval reminded Jen of a mean Spanish teacher she’d had in middle school. If that Spanish teacher had also been a badass action movie heroine, that is. Now, there was a strange mental image.
“Sorry,” said Jen. “Some people tell me I talk too much.”
“Maybe you should consider listening to them.”
Wow, this lady was pretty mean. Jen guessed she shouldn’t have been surprised after seeing how the woman had treated the monster, but still.
“So,” said Jen. “That was really awesome how you fought that monster back there. It was like something out of like, a show, or a video game. You saved my life!”
The woman turned to Jen, looked her up and down, and frowned.
“I did not intend to do that.”
“Um, okay, well, you still did,” said Jen, “and it was really cool! The way you fought him off with those axes and then tipped him over! How did you learn cool fighting moves like that?”
“With a combination of exceptional natural gifts and rigorous discipline,” said the woman. “It also helps to have someone worth fighting for.”
“Ooh, who’s that?” said Jen.
“Who is what?”
“Your ‘someone worth fighting for,” said Jen. “Is it like, your boyfriend or something?”
“Where I come from, children know better than to pester adults with nosy questions,” said the woman. “And no, it is not ‘my boyfriend’. I’m not one of your little high school friends.”
Child? High school? Was this lady serious?
“Um, I actually start my second year of college in the fall.”
The woman scoffed.
“I worry about the state of higher education.”
“I’m just gonna ignore that little remark and get straight to the point,” said Jen. “I was hoping you could help me. I came here with some people and we got separated. Can you help me find them?”
The woman turned to Jen, studying her intently for a few seconds with a scrutinizing glare that made her want to hide behind something. Then, the woman spoke.
“Okay?” said Jen. “Thank… you?”
“The sooner we find them, the sooner I don’t have to tolerate your company anymore,” said the woman. “Follow me.”
“I’m kinda already following you, but okay,” said Jen.
“I guess since I’m going to be enduring your presence a little longer, you should know what to call me,” said the woman. “My name is Mrs. Sharma.”