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Angelina sat beside Chelsea on the couch, eating cheese and crackers from a plate Chelsea had brought her. Belfry was snoring softly, curled up in the corner of the couch like a cat or dog.

Belfry had done a surprisingly good job bandaging her considering how tiny his hands were, but her bandages still felt uncomfortably loose. Luckily, the nightgown Chelsea had found for her was several sizes too large, so it didn’t rub against the bandages too much. The fabric was very thin, though. Angelina shivered, pulling her blanket up to her chin and moved closer to Chelsea.

Chelsea shifted position, moving further away from Angelina. Angelina scooted closer again and noticed that Chelsea’s face had turned pink again.

Oops, she must have been moving away because she was overheated again. Angelina mumbled an apology and moved back to the center of the couch.

It was surprising Chelsea was so overheated when Angelina was freezing. Oh well, Canada was a lot colder than Italy, she guessed.

“So we’re in a town that disappeared four years ago?” said Chelsea. “How is that possible?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” said Angelina. “Naomi wouldn’t tell me anything, but Falcon said she told Melanie about a pit between realities where CPSI can send people and stuff and it gave me an idea.”

“I think I see where this is going.”

“Yeah! Everyone thought the town was destroyed, but when I heard about the pit thing, I knew the town must be there. And here it is! And here you are!”

“Here I am.” Chelsea smiled. “I’m glad you found me.”

“Me too!”

Angelina lifted her arm to hug Chelsea, then remembered she was overheated. She patted Chelsea’s arm instead. The pat felt awkward, but if Chelsea noticed, she didn’t show it.

“I’m still a little confused, though,” said Chelsea. “A pit between realities?”

“I don’t really know what that means, if I’m being honest,” said Angelina. “I think Naomi knew, but she wouldn’t tell me.”

“What about this little guy?” Chelsea gestured to Belfry. “Did he tell you anything?”

“Not a lot about this place,” said Angelina. “He mostly talked about you. He said you saved his life, and you’re very brave and beautiful.”

“Aw,” said Chelsea. “That’s so sweet. I don’t know how brave I was, though. All I did was whack a monster with a broom.”

“I stabbed a monster with scissors,” said Angelina.

“See? That’s so much braver than my thing,” said Chelsea. “The fearless warrior, Princess Angelina, plunges her migthy sword into the beast’s heart.”

Angelina smiled. This was one of the reasons she loved Chelsea so much.

“It was one of her necks, actually, and it wasn’t really that brave and cool,” said Angelina. “Belfry seemed to think you were really brave, though. He kept calling you an angel.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.”

“It’s funny, because when I first saw you in this place, that’s what I thought too.”

“What is?”

“That you were an angel.”

“Oh, I, um…” Chelsea laughed. “Okay, wow.”

Her face turned pink again, and this time, Angelina didn’t think it was because she was overheating.

“Sorry,” said Angelina. “Was that weird? Should I not have said that? I just meant because I thought I was dead, and because you’re really pretty like an angel. But now you look embarrassed.”

Chelsea’s face went from pink to red.

Oops, maybe Angelina shouldn’t have pointed out how embarrassed Chelsea looked. People tended not to like it when she did that.

“Oh, no,” Chelsea fanned herself with her hand. “Just, um, overheated.”

“Oh, okay!” said Angelina.

Well, that was a relief. Chelsea wasn’t embarrassed after all.



“Do you see that?” said Lachlan. “That little speck on the horizon?”

“I have 20/100 vision,” said Sam. “So, no.”

“What do you think it is?” said Lachlan.

“I can’t see it,” said Sam, “so I don’t know.”

Sam’s voice sounded strained. Lachlan wasn’t sure if it was from pain or annoyance. Possibly both.

“If you want my not-so-humble opinion–“

“I absolutely never do,” interrupted Sam.

“Ahem. Incredibly rude. As I was saying, if you want my not-so-humble opinion, I think that we should head toward it.”

When Sam didn’t respond, Lachlan continued.

“And why do you think we should head toward it, Lachlan? Tell me more,” Lachlan said, mimicking an American accent. Then he switched to his normal voice. “Well, I’m glad you asked, my Samurai friend. I think we should head toward it because it’s the only thing on this featureless plane as far as we can see. Maybe it’s just a lump of concrete, maybe it’s another person–“

“Maybe it’s another monster,” said Sam.

Lachlan patted Nikola’s side. Nikola wagged his tail.

“If it’s another monster, we’ll have Niko the wonder dog here for our protection.”

“Not Niko,” said Sam. “His name is Nikola.”

“Oh, come on,” said Lachlan. “Nikola is a shit name for a dog and you know it.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“I’m shortening his name to Niko and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Nikola growled.

“See?” said Lachlan. “He hates the name Nikola as much as I do.”

Nikola growled again, his hackles bristling. He began to bark.

“I think that’s dog-ese for ‘I hate my name’,” said Lachlan.

Sam pointed at the concrete in front of them. It was splitting open, cracks splintering outward as though something massive was rising from the room beneath. Black tendrils erupted from the cracks, reaching toward them.

“No,” said Sam. “It’s dog-ese for ‘we’re in trouble’.”

The concrete burst open around Lachlan and Sam as more and more tendrils spilled forth.

Lachlan whipped around to run away, and saw more cracks in the concrete in front of him, more monstrous limbs writhing toward him.

Dozens of figures rose from the concrete–masses of skeletal faces melted together into vaguely humanoid shapes with short tendrils trailing from their lower halves.

“I hate this place,” Sam muttered. “I hate this place. I hate this place. I hate this place.”

Nikola growled, looking back and forth between the figures as though he wasn’t sure which threat to focus on.

“Hello again,” came a voice from behind him.

Lachlan felt a jolt of panic as he recognized that voice–the voice that sounded like a demon possessing a TV commentator.

“Not the fucking skull squid again,” he said.

“I’m afraid so,” said the skull squid, “and this time, I brought company.”

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The creature extended more of its tendrils past Lachlan, reaching for Sam’s unconscious body and wrapping around his arms and legs.

“Why?” said Lachlan. “Why eat Sam and not me?”

“Two reasons,” said the creature. “The first one is I have nothing to discuss with him.”

“Wh-what’s the second?”

“The second and more important reason is he deserves it.”

“Wait, what?” said Lachlan. “What do you mean he deserves it? I mean, yes, he’s a bit of a fuckhead, but I wouldn’t go that far.”

Sam stirred, his eyes twitching as he scratched at a tendril wrapped around his thigh. His head snapped around to take in the monster that was holding him. He let out a whimper.

Fuck. Poor Sam. What a time to regain consciousness.

The creature snaked a tendril up Sam’s leg, toward his waistband. The tendril wrapped around a key card that was clipped to Sam’s pants and removed it. The creature unwound the tendril from Sam and handed the key card to Lachlan.

“Read that,” said the creature.

“‘Samuel Alexander, ID number 003571, Clyde Packaging Solutions, Inc.’? So?”

“Clyde Packaging Solutions, Inc,” said the creature. “The company that created me. The company that ordered my brother’s execution because they called him defective. The company that dumped us fabrications in this pit to devour each other when we proved inconvenient.”

The company that created the creature and his brothers? The company that ordered his brother’s execution? Could that mean–?

Holy motherfuck. Falcon. Falcon is this thing’s brother. Falcon is the ‘resource’ Dominic ‘stole’ from that company.

It answered so many questions, but raised so many more. Right now, though, Lachlan had a more pressing focus–trying to talk this creature out of devouring the only human companion he had in this place.

“It’s not his fault,” said Lachlan.

“Excuse me?” said the creature.

“What happened to you and your, uh, brothers wasn’t Sam’s fault.”

“All humans working for CPSI are complicit. He could have helped us. He could have taken that risk, and he didn’t.”

“Look at him, though,” said Lachlan. “He’s not some powerful executive. He couldn’t possibly be older than 18. There’s no way he even knows about you, or your brothers, or any of the things you just said.”

The creature pulled Sam closer toward it, and Sam let out another whimper.

“Why are you protecting him?” said the creature. “You said he wasn’t your friend. You don’t even like him.”

“If I have to explain to you why I don’t just want to let you eat a person, then you don’t get it.”

The creature turned Sam upright, holding him inches from the skeletal faces between its eyes. Sam was more alert now–enough to struggle weakly against the tendrils wrapped his arms and legs.

“What do you have to say for yourself, Samuel Alexander? Do you have any last words?”

“Wha..? What…?”

“Those aren’t very good last words,” said the creature.

The creature wound more and more limbs around Sam, until the mass of black tendrils began to resemble a cocoon. Not knowing what else to do, Lachlan removed his remaining shoe and reared his arm back, preparing to throw it.

It had worked once, after all.

Before he had a chance to throw the shoe, the creature jolted backward, unwrapping several of its tendrils from around Sam.

“Stop doing that!” said the creature.

“Me?” said Lachlan. “I’m not doing anything, I don’t think.”

The creature jolted again, and more tendrils came loose from Sam’s body.

“I wasn’t talking to you!” The creature pointed a tendril beyond Lachlan, somewhere behind him. “I was talking to him!”

Lachlan lowered his shoe and turned to see who or what was behind him. He expected another monster, but what he saw was even stranger than that.

“Oh, no fucking way.”

An extremely ordinary-looking medium-sized dog, white with brown spots, stood with its teeth bared and hackles raised, staring down the creature. The dog growled, and the creature jolted again.

Lachlan sighed. There might as well be a fucking super-powered dog here. It made just as much sense as anything else in this place.

The creature reached a tendril for the dog, but the dog jostled it again, and the tendril whipped back toward the creature, striking it across its mass of faces. More tendrils unwound from Sam.

“Stop!” said the creature. “Stop that!”

The creature jolted again, and this time, it lost its grip on Sam. He fell to the ground. After a moment, he lifted himself onto his hands and knees and began to crawl away. The monster reached for him again, and the dog barked furiously and jolted it again.

Lachlan looked down at Sam. He didn’t look strong enough to stand on his own, and the dog–what was up with that anyway?–wouldn’t be able to keep protecting him forever. Lachlan wasn’t especially strong, but Sam was a bit smaller than he was. He might be able to carry him for long enough to get away from the skull-tendril-thing.

Lachlan dropped his shoe, leaned down, and grabbed Sam under his arms.

Goodbye, new sneaker I only got to wear once. You didn’t go out in a blaze of glory like your brother, but you will be missed nonetheless.

“Come on,” said Lachlan. “Let’s go. Up you come.”

Sam made a weak noise of protest, but didn’t resist as Lachlan hoisted him to his feet. Lachlan bent down, draping Sam across his shoulders and lifting him fireman-style, trying to ignore the overwhelming, sickening copper smell coming from Sam’s blood-drenched clothing.

Carrying Sam was a difficult balance, moving quickly enough to get as far from the monster as possible, but not quickly enough to end up stumbling.

Lachlan heard the monster’s annoyed shouts behind him as he trudged forward, feeling as though his legs were going to give out at any second under his and Sam’s combined weight.

This wasn’t working. The concrete stretched flat around him as far as he could see, with nowhere to hide from the monster’s line of sight. He wasn’t strong enough to hold onto Sam for much longer. He had to think of something else.

Something caught his eye about ten meters away, an indentation in the concrete. As he headed closer to it, he saw it was a ragged hole in the floor. He could see the inside of a drop ceiling a little less than a meter below, and see the light through the cracks between tiles.

Lachlan glanced back at the creature, who was still distracted, locked in bizarre, telekinetic combat with the dog.

Drop ceilings weren’t meant to hold any weight, were they? Well, now was as good a time as any to find out.

He placed Sam down, sliding him carefully down the ragged concrete toward the opening. Then, he climbed down after him. He crouched down, trying to lower Sam as carefully as possible into the ceiling.

“No,” mumbled Sam. “No.”

“No?” said Lachlan. “Where do you suggest we hide from that thing, then?”

“No.” said Sam. “Won’t… won’t hold.”

Lachlan lowered Sam onto the ceiling tiles. They sagged under his weight.

“Right now, your options are A: probably fall through a ceiling or B: definitely get eaten by a giant squid thing made of skulls. Now, this is just my humble opinion, but my strong recommendation would be A.”

Lachlan climbed into the hole, keeping his distance from Sam to ensure there wasn’t too much weight on the tiles in one place. He heard the support beams creak as they bent under him.

“Won’t hold,” said Sam again.

“Go ahead, then,” said Lachlan. “Out you climb. Run into that thing’s waiting, open tentacles like you’re the heroine in insert-generic-romantic-comedy-here.”

Sam remained lying where he was.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” said Lachlan.

In the dim light, he thought he saw Sam frown at him. They were silent for a moment, then Sam spoke, his voice still shaky.

“What now?”

“Now?” said Lachlan. “Now, all we can do is wait.”

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Before the tragedy, the Sentiero Angelica had been one of the most popular hiking trails in Italy. Now, it stretched out before Angelina, cracked and overgrown from four years of neglect. Weeds spread like tentacles from cracks in the path, and a few particularly tenacious cacti poked their heads from beneath the concrete. A long, narrow wooden sign was nailed to either side of the trail’s railings, blocking the entrance. Its letters, once an urgent red, had faded to a soft pink-brown.

Pericolo, it warned. Danger.

Angelina hopped over it.

The trail head was creepy in the way abandoned places usually were, full of everyday things untouched and left to decay. Signs on half-rotted wood posts pointed the way to a town that no longer existed.

The sun wasn’t up yet, but while she had been on the train, the sky had faded from black to a pink-tinged blue, leaving her just enough light to avoid the worst of the cracks and bumps in the path.

She heard rustling in the trees beside her and froze, thinking of the recent news reports about this place. Some thrill-seeking teenagers had tried to hike the Sentiero Angelica, lost track of the overgrown trail, and been mauled by wild animals–supposedly wolves. None of them had survived.

Slowly, carefully, she retrieved the scissors from her bag and brandished them, wishing she had armed herself better. They felt so small and flimsy.

The thing in the woods beside her stirred.

She thought of the urban legends about this place, the rumors it was haunted by the town’s old residents. The speculation that those poor teenagers had been killed by something other than wolves. After all, wolves weren’t supposed to live anywhere nearby. There weren’t supposed to be any animals around here that could tear people to pieces like that.

She thought back to a few months ago, when a friend had taken her camping. They’d been in a field a few miles from the Sentiero Angelica, and she’d been nervous enough about setting up a tent on land that was probably someone’s property. Then, her friend had told her a scary story about vicious creatures that lived in the forest nearby and devoured unsuspecting travelers. The story had seemed so outlandish, but her friend had told it with a straight face, swearing it was true.

Walking this neglected trail, the story didn’t seem so outlandish any more.

The thing in the trees chirped, then fluttered toward her.

A bird.

She lowered the scissors and placed them back into her bag, feeling silly. Her journey had barely started, and she was already jumpy.

She needed to calm her nerves.

She traced her fingers across the enamel heart on her locket pendant and felt herself relax a little. Then she removed her iPod from her bag, plugged in her earbuds, and put The Goldfish Technique’s music on shuffle.

There. Now she was ready.




A deep, inhuman voice boomed from behind Lachlan, shaking him like an explosion, and for a brief, wild moment, he wondered if the great mad scientist in the sky was answering his prayers.

It wouldn’t be the most fucked up thing that had happened that day.

“Hello,” it said again. “Aren’t you going to answer me?”

Up until now, everything he’d encountered here had spoken with an American accent, from Sam to the cannibal sisters. Even the fucking murder rectangle had been American for some reason.

This voice lacked an American accent. In fact, aside from its nightmarish, pulsating quality, it had an almost generic voice that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from an Australian newscaster or radio personality. Lachlan wasn’t sure what to make of that.

Lachlan started to turn around.

“Wait,” said the voice. “Don’t turn around yet.”

“Uh…” Lachlan stopped turning around. “Why not?”

“My appearance is strange. I don’t want to frighten you.”

“Everything here’s appearance is fucking strange. You’re not special.”

Lachlan turned all the way around.

The creature that stood behind him was as immense and terrifying as its voice. It had dozens, maybe even hundreds of faces, all of them pallid, skeletal, and rotting. The faces formed a cluster over twice Lachlan’s height, roughly the shape of a skull without a bottom jaw. Two large, black eyes stared down at him from the eye holes of the ‘skull’. Thousands of tendrils writhed beneath the clusters of faces, some of them reaching and stopping a few inches short of him.

If he’d seen that thing yesterday, he might have screamed or even passed out, but today, he’d seen enough that he was almost unfazed. Almost.

“Holy motherfuck, mate, ‘strange’ was the understatement of the millennium. You’re a walking nightmare.”

“I told you not to turn around.”

All of the creature’s mouths moved as it spoke, but the voice came from somewhere else, somewhere deeper in its core.

“And why would I listen to you? I’ve nearly been eaten twice today. That’s the sort of thing that gives a guy trust issues.”

“I’m not going to eat you.”

“Oh, sure. Anyone can say they’re not going to eat you. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“I’m not. I promise,” said the creature.

“Oh, you promise? Well, in that case, I feel all better. Completely reassured.”

“You’re being sarcastic.”

“What? Me? Being sarcastic? No, never.”

“I only want to talk.”

“Then talk.” Lachlan shrugged. “I’m not stopping you.”

As the creature fixed its large eyes on Lachlan, each of its many smaller faces shifted to look at him as well.

“Your friend doesn’t look well.”

The creature pointed a tendril in Sam’s direction.

“Oh, him?” said Lachlan. “He’s not my friend.”

“What happened to him?”

“He, uh, had his fingers eaten off.”

“Looks like you two had a run-in with the Sisters, then.”

Lachlan nodded.

“You were lucky you got away as unscathed as you did. The ones you ran into must not have been fully matured.”

“Not fully matured? The implications of that phrase are terrifying.”

“They are,” said the creature, “but I have other things to discuss with you.”

“Other things such as?”

Things about my brother. I’ll tell you in a moment. First I have to feed.”

Lachlan scooted backward away from the creature, eyeing it warily.

“You… said you weren’t going to eat me.”

The creature extended its tendrils beyond Lachlan, pointing behind him at Sam’s prone body.

I said I wouldn’t eat you,” said the creature. “I didn’t say anything about him.”

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