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Sam didn’t want to let go of Lachlan until he was sure Lachlan could stand on his own, but he didn’t want to make things awkward either.

He was going to have enough awkwardness on his hands with Jen assuming they made it out alive. The last thing he needed was even more of it.

“If I let go of you, are you gonna fall?” said Sam.

“It would definitely be a possibility.”

“Then I won’t let go for now. Let me know when you’re feeling steadier on your feet.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Lachlan gave a thumbs up. His fingernails still had a slight blue tint.

“Are you okay?” said Sam. “You still look pretty blue.”

“I think I’m as fine as one would expect considering we just got sucked into a void and presumably suffocated based on how alarmingly blue my hands are looking. What happened?”

“That’s… pretty hard to explain,” said Sam.

“I believe we can provide that explanation,” said the unfamiliar human voice that had spoken to them before.

Sam looked over toward the source of the voice to see a woman. She was somewhere between Mahender and Mrs. Sharma in age, with freckles and mouse-colored hair styled into a bun with curled ringlets falling down around her shoulders. She wore an old fashioned looking dress with one of those huge skirts that puffed out in the back and a jacket-like bodice with three buttons decorated with little stars. It almost looked like a historical dress, but the deep blue material had an unearthly sheen to it.

Mrs. Sharma moved forward, stepping between the newcomer and the rest of the group.

“And who are you?”

“I am Bathsheba, wife of She-Who-Wears-the-Stellar-Crown.” Bathsheba did a little formal bow. “Might I know your names?”

Mrs. Sharma narrowed her eyes, observing the woman for a few seconds as if to check for a trap. Then she replied.

“Mona Sharma.”

The rest of the group followed her lead, each person giving their name with Mahender translating for Falcon.

“Very happy to make your acquaintance,” said Bathsheba. “I believe you’ve already met my wife.”

The globe above them flared brighter, and a glowing spot about seven feet tall appeared in the wall nearest to them. The air buzzed with energy, taking on a smell and taste that reminded Sam of right before a thunderstorm. Then a woman walked through the wall.

She was tall–taller than everyone in the group except Falcon. Her skin was a rich golden brown that almost seemed to glow from within. Her shoulder-length hair somehow seemed blacker than normal black hair, as though it absorbed most of the light that touched it. She wore a silver gemstone-encrusted crown that seemed to radiate from her head like sun rays.

Something about her felt powerful, as though she triggered some self-preserving instinct. Even if she hadn’t just opened up the sky and sucked him into it, Sam wouldn’t have wanted to mess with her.

“Met her? That’s an interesting way to say she tried to asphyxiate us.”

Lachlan’s voice was more hushed than usual. Maybe it was because he was still woozy, or maybe it was because the woman made him nervous too.

“Bow before me,” said the woman.

“Why would we do that?” said Angelina. “We don’t even know who you are.”

“I suggest you all bow,” said Bathsheba. “She really is so particular about such things.”

Sam let go of Lachlan, and everyone bowed.

“That’s more like it!” said the woman. “That wasn’t so hard now, was it?”

No one spoke.

“Well? I asked you a question! You will answer when She-Who-Wears-the-Stellar-Crown addresses you!”

“I thought it was a rhetorical question,” said Angelina. “Which of us are you even asking anyway? It’s not like we can all answer at the same time.”

Mrs. Sharma shot Angelina a silencing look.

“No. It wasn’t hard.”

“Excellent!” said She-Who-Wears-the-Stellar-Crown. “Now, onto the topic we came down here to discuss. What were you doing in my wife’s sanctuary? I’ve been kind enough to provide you with enough oxygen to sustain you. Answer carefully if you’d like to keep it that way.”

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