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Oh no. This was all Angelina’s fault. She’d made a mistake when trying to figure out how to get everyone home, and now they were being threatened by someone who could easily kill most of them in minutes.

Angelina had to straighten this out. If she just explained everything, she was sure the strange woman would understand. Well, kind of sure.

Okay, she wasn’t sure at all. But she had to try.

“Can you understand me?” Angelina asked in Italian.

The strange woman had sounded as though she was speaking Italian, but the others had been replying in English as though they understood her. Angelina figured it was one of those situations where some otherworldly being spoke in a universally intelligible way.

She wasn’t always good at getting her point across, so she thought it better to use her native language to make sure she was as clear as possible.

“I can,” said the woman. She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Whatever.

“Angelina, what are you saying to her?” said Naomi.

“It’s fine,” said Angelina. “I’m going to explain everything.”

“Okay, but–” started Naomi.

“I’m listening,” interrupted the Stellar woman. “Explain yourself.”

“We didn’t mean to come here,” said Angelina. “We got stuck in a strange place between realities, and we were trying to get home. Instead, we made a mistake and ended up here.”

“Hm,” said Stellar-whoever. “I suppose that’s plausible. You wouldn’t be the first after all.” She turned to Bathsheba. “She claims they came here by accident. What would you have me do with them, my love?”

“Why, let them go, of course!” said Bathsheba. “Stella, you know I never wish you to hurt anyone who hasn’t tried to hurt me. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“But my darling, some of these humans are different from the others before. See this one?” Stellar-lady gestured at Jen. “She was able to touch the garden gate. I couldn’t let her harm you.”

Garden gate? Was that… the circular portal so wide they couldn’t see the other side from where they stood? ‘Garden gate’ was way too mundane a name for it.

“I don’t want to harm anyone.” Jen mumbled, not looking up.

“You will look at the almighty and glorious She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Crown when you address me!” snapped the Stellar woman.

Jen lifted her head to meet the woman’s eyes.

“I don’t want to freaking harm anyone!” she snapped back. “There! Is that better?”

Angelina flinched. Was Jen okay? What could have possibly happened between the time they’d been sucked into the sky and now to make her so upset?

“You dare speak to I, the all-powerful She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Crown, in such a tone? I should destroy you where you stand!”

Bathsheba put a hand on her wife’s arm.

“Please don’t harm her, Stella. I’m sure she means no disrespect. She’s only suffering from a broken heart.”

Broken heart? Wait, had something happened with Jen and Sam? When?

“That is no excuse for such insolence!”

“Dearest,” Bathsheba’s voice was gentle. “What would you do if I left you for another?”

“Why, I would raze this reality to the ground and then rain destruction upon the earth in a blind rage.”

Oh. Yikes. Angelina hoped Bathsheba never had wandering eyes.

“Exactly. When it comes to matters of the heart, one cannot always be controlled.”

Stella-lady relaxed, the anger disappearing from her expression as quickly as it had appeared.

“Very well. I see your point. Glowing girl, you may live.” She clapped her hands. “Now! Since I’ve decided in my infinite generosity to spare your lives, I supposed I should let you go. Farewell!”

“Wait, what–” said Angelina.

Before she could finish her sentence, the strange vast tube vanished around her.

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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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