Angelina and Chelsea sat side by side on the lumpy bed with Belfry curled up at their feet. It would have been a cozy scene if not for the fact that there was a single wall separating them from a giant snake monster.
“Are you okay, C?” said Angelina.
Chelsea had no idea how to respond to that.
“I’m… fine,” she said.
“Okay!” Angelina sounded far too chipper for their current situation as she squeezed Chelsea’s arm and placed her head on her shoulder. “That’s good!”
Chelsea’s face flushed at the physical contact, and she immediately chastised herself. This was absolutely not the time to be flustered by a girl getting overly affectionate with her.
She was trying to stay focused on the danger at hand, but her mind kept going back to the moment Angelina had pulled her from the snake monster’s illusion. The kiss.
She didn’t know if it had been real or part of the illusion, and it was hard to stop over-analyzing it. If it had been part of the illusion, did that say something about her or her feelings for Angelina? If it had been real, why had Angelina done it? Maybe it had been an attempt to shock Chelsea out of the illusion, or maybe it had been out of relief that she’d started to emerge from her trance.
There was another possibility dancing at the edge of Chelsea’s mind too, but it wasn’t one she was willing to let herself entertain.
“What are you thinking about?” Angelina nudged Chelsea.
Chelsea jumped, inadvertently shaking Angelina’s head off her shoulder.
“Oh, I, um–“
“I’m sorry,” said Angelina. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No, I’m sorry,” said Chelsea. “I’m just jumpy. I’ll be relieved when we’re home again.”
Angelina pursed her lips.
“I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too,” said Chelsea.
“Will you come visit me?”
“Of course I will,” said Chelsea, “and I’ll video call you all the time.”
“Do you promise?”
Angelina turned, looking her directly in her eyes.
“Do you swear it? On your life?”
Chelsea nodded. Coming from anyone else, the intensity might have been a little strange or off-putting, but coming from Angelina, it was oddly endearing.
“I swear it on my life,” said Chelsea.
“Good.” Angelina rested her head on Chelsea’s shoulder again. “Good.”
The creature stared down at Naomi and Falcon through hundreds of empty black eyes. Falcon stared back up at it, his face contorted with confusion.
More creatures rose from the openings in the concrete, most of them vaguely human in shape and covered in pallid, gaunt faces that grew from their necks, arms, and legs. Most of them wore jumpsuits that were lumpy underneath, as though more faces were growing out of their chests and backs. Many of them had squid-like extra limbs that ended in sucker-covered clubs.
The creature that had been first to appear reached one of its limbs toward Falcon, until the club part came to rest gently on his face. The confusion on his face mingled with horror.
Falcon did a series of strange, disjointed hand signs that didn’t look like Auslan, or any other kind of sign language, for that matter. The creatures that were humanoid enough in shape to have hands responded with signs of their own.
As they stepped closer, Naomi noticed the eerie similarities between the creatures’ faces and Falcon’s. It was as though someone had taken Falcon’s face and stripped it of the facial hair, the slight pink tinge to his skin–everything that made his face look human and alive.
These things were Falcon’s brothers?
The largest creature reared back, and its squid-arms parted. Naomi stepped back, bracing herself for it to attack.
Instead, a man stepped out of the opening between the arms and flashed her a pleasant smile.
He looked to be in his mid-twenties. He was only a few inches taller than her, with light brown skin, and black hair and a beard that both desperately needed to be trimmed and combed. In his defense, barbers were probably hard to come by in this place.
“Hi!” he said.
“Hi, would you mind explaining to me what’s going on?” was what Naomi tried to say. It ended up sounding more like “Wuh-guh?”
Some of Naomi’s fear and confusion gave way to embarrassment. She always seemed to make a fool of herself when she first met people. Coincidentally, “wuh-guh” had also been the first thing she’d said to Dominic when she’d met him, which was something Lachlan still gave her shit about.
The man chuckled. He seemed to be laughing sympathetically rather than laughing at her, but the fact that he was laughing at all made her more embarrassed.
Several of the creatures went through a series of hand signs as the man spoke, as though they were translating his speech into the strange, disjointed sign language.
“That’s probably exactly how I would have reacted if I’d seen some bloke climb out of a giant skull covered in faces and squid arms,” the man said. His accent sounded Australian.
“Well, it’s not something you see everyday,” said Naomi.
The creatures moved their hands, translating for her to Falcon, who looked close to tears.
“No, definitely not,” said the man. He turned to Falcon. “Hey! I remember you! You’re looking well. I love the hair.”
Falcon lifted a shaking hand and signaled something.
“Thank you,” translated a creature wearing a jumpsuit that was torn at the chest, allowing a second face to peek out. It sounded Australian too, and had a surprisingly ordinary voice.
“Hey, are you alright, mate?” said the man to Falcon. “You look like you’ve seen a–” The man trailed off, looking back at his bizarre companions. “Oh. Oh, yeah. You haven’t seen them since… yeah.”
“Excuse me, sorry, I hate to interrupt this, uh…” Naomi paused, unsure what word to use for whatever was happening. She gestured around her. “I hate to interrupt this, but can someone please tell me what’s going on?”
Falcon did more hand signs. The creature with the face on its chest translated.
“What happened to you?”
“We don’t know,” said a creature with dozens of squid-arms growing out of its waist and spilling down around it, making it look like the creature was wearing the world’s most nightmarish old-fashioned hoop skirt. “The changes were subtle at first. We could sense thoughts and memories. We grew a little taller, a little stronger.”
“We were starving without nutrient packets,” said the creature with the face on its chest. “The more we hunted, the more we changed.”
Falcon did a hand sign that the face-chest creature translated as “Why?”
“We don’t know,” said the man. “Not really. My aunt–” He made a face as he said the word ‘aunt’. “–has some ideas, but she didn’t explain them terribly well. Something to do with the genetic whatever and the abnormal something-or-other.”
Naomi was starting to figure out the basics of what had happened. Falcon’s brothers had been thrown into the place, but instead of being killed, they’d mutated somehow.
“Again,” said Naomi. “I’m really sorry to interrupt, but I was hoping you could help us.”
She was genuinely sorry to interrupt Falcon’s reunion with his brothers, but Chelsea, Lachlan, and Jen were still in danger.
“Well, tell us what the problem is, and we’ll see what we can do,” said the man.
“Our friends are lost here, and we need to find them before something else does.”