Interlude 27 — Nocturnal

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Belfry leaned over the cup of hot liquid and took a sip. The flavor and temperature were strange, but he was so thirsty. He smelled something sweet in front of him and followed his nose to an ornate glass jar filled with sugar cubes. The tall, blond man noticed him and reached over, lifting the lid and handing one of the cubes to Belfry.

“Thank you, sir!” Belfry broke off a piece and ate it, closing his eyes to savor the sweet taste.

The man patted him on the head.

The furniture everyone was sitting on was far too big for Belfry, but he didn’t mind. He’d never had furniture to fit him–in his mind, furniture was for humans, not for whatever he was.

He wasn’t really sure what he was. The first humans he’d met had called him an ‘experiment’.

He liked the humans he was with now much more than the first humans he’d met, even if these ones didn’t understand what he was saying. Some of the first humans he’d known had been kind, but lots of them had done painful, scary things to him. None of them had given him sugar cubes without making him do something first, like solve a maze, or press a button that would hurt him if he pressed it wrong.

He looked around at the humans surrounding him. He didn’t see Chelsea or Angelina, and he missed them. He hoped they were okay.

He was glad to have returned to the garden they’d been before, though. It was much less scary than the dark, windy place. This garden was nice and warm, and there were plenty of sweet cubes to eat.

He wished he could understand what everyone was saying, though.

He turned his attention to the only other non-human in the group, fluttering down to the dog that was laying at the older woman’s feet. The dog sniffed him curiously, then laid his head back down and went to sleep. Belfry decided to follow the dog’s example and curled up next to him, closing his eyes and letting himself drift off into a nap.

Maybe the others would be back when he woke up.

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Chelsea felt Belfry trembling on her shoulder and reached up to stroke his head.

Poor thing. She couldn’t blame him at all; she was pretty sure she was trembling a bit too.

“Angelina,” she said. “Can you tell Belfry everything’s okay? I think he’s shaken up from falling into another reality.”

“Nicky’s freaked out too,” said Nancy.

The dog licked his lips and let out a nervous whine.

“That’s hardly surprising,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Animals are sensitive to all kinds of things humans can’t pick up on.”

Falcon signed something. Mahender, who’d been relaying everyone’s words to Falcon, attempted to translate.

“Sorry… the Stanley fab hand signals don’t translate well to English, so it’s hard to give a word for word,” he said. “He’s asking if we should be worried about what they’re picking up on.”

“Probably,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Like I said before, we’re in a completely alien–“

“What’s that in the sky?” interrupted Angelina.

“What have I said about interrupting…” Mrs. Sharma trailed off as she looked up at the sky.

A long, black line had appeared in the sky just above the wall of greenery surrounding the garden. A breeze began to rustle the leaves around them.

Nancy’s dog whined again.

“I don’t feel so good all of a sudden,” said Sam.

At first, Chelsea thought he meant he didn’t feel good because the strange line in the sky was making him nervous. Then she realized she was starting to feel nauseous and dizzy too.

“Well,” said Lachlan. “This is unsettling.”

The breeze grew in strength, whipping Chelsea’s hair into her eyes and obscuring her view. Her ears popped.

“It’s probably some kind of alien weather phenomenon,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I think we should start looking for shelter. There’s no way of knowing what kind of–“

Mrs. Sharma never got to finish her sentence, because the breeze picked up into a roaring wind. Chelsea’s hair flew upward into her face, some of it catching in her eyes, and under her nose. A metal taste hit her mouth, and she realized her hair was getting stuck under her nose because it was bleeding. A wave of dizziness and nausea washed over her, so intense she fell into a small tree and had to hold onto the trunk for balance. Belfry’s claws dug into her shoulder as he tightened his grip.

Through the hair in her face, she could see the rest of the group wavering too, some of them grabbing onto nearby objects for balance. Angelina had fallen back into the plant she’d climbed out of, and Jen had splashed backward into the fountain and was picking herself back up again. Nancy, unable to grab anything for security without dropping her dog, started to fall backward, but Mahender caught her shoulders from behind and steadied her. Sam grabbed Lachlan’s shoulder for balance, sending both of them crashing to the ground.

It was hard to tell, but it looked like most of the group had nosebleeds too. Sam’s was the worst–bad enough that a few drops had escaped his chin and were rolling down his chest.

Lachlan was pointing at the sky, shouting something Chelsea couldn’t hear over the roaring wind.

When she looked up, it took a few seconds for her to control the hair that was whipping into her face enough to get a clear view.

The thin line had expanded into a wide gash, and it was growing by the second.

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Chelsea looked up at the shadow shifting between the two houses, suddenly glad that Angelina hadn’t let go of her hand after they’d stopped singing. She squeezed Angelina’s hand tighter.

Jen turned to Chelsea and Angelina with a bright smile.

“We’ll be fine! Look how many of these guys we have on our side.” Jen gestured toward Falcon’s brothers.

A nearby brother who still had hands gave them a thumbs up. Chelsea gave him a smile and wave that felt awkward.

Mrs. Sharma was still facing down the two sisters. Chelsea couldn’t see her face, but Mrs. Sharma’s posture was almost too rigid, to the point of making her look afraid.

“You expect me to believe that you have no idea what’s back there in the shadows?”

“Someone’s flattering herself. We don’t expect you to believe anything,” said the taller sister. “You’re not in charge of us anymore. We don’t care enough to lie to you.”

“I’m not flattering myself, and I’m not under any misconception that you care about me. You’ll lie to anyone. Whether or not you care has nothing to do with it.”

There was another movement in the shadows between the two houses. Then a humanoid figure about three meters tall rose up.

She heard Belfry sniff the air, then felt him begin to tremble.

As the figure approached, she could make out the silhouette of four massive, powerful arms.

“What the heck is that thing?” said Jen.

“That’s definitely not one of our sisters,” said the shorter sister.

“Hey,” said Angelina. “We know that guy!”

Zogzhesh walked toward them, his tongue flicking in the air.

“You know a giant snake monster?” said Lachlan.

“I’m not even gonna ask,” said Sam.

“Probably a wise decision,” said Lachlan.

Mrs. Sharma’s body grew even more rigid, folding her arms defensively in front of her. Chelsea wondered how she managed the defensive position while still holding onto the knives.

“It’s you.” Mrs. Sharma’s voice was small, with a subtle tremor.

“We meet again, Mona Sharma,” said Zogzhesh.

“What do you want with me?” she said.

“You think I’m here for you? I see you’re still as self-important as ever.” Zogzhesh stroked his chin with his scepter. “Then again, your ego was what allowed you to escape my judgement.”

“If you’re not here for me, then why are you here?”

“Angelina Bianchi stands behind you, correct?”

“One of the kids behind me is named Angelina,” said Mrs. Sharma. “She said she encountered you before, but I’m not sure why you’d be looking for her.”

“Hi!” said Angelina. “What’s up?”

Angelina let go of Chelsea’s hand and started forward, pushing her way between Naomi and Mrs. Sharma with her shoulder so she stood in front of Zogzhesh and the two sisters. Chelsea was surprised Mrs. Sharma didn’t scold Angelina for shoving her.

Chelsea wished Angelina wouldn’t stand so close to three very dangerous creatures. She wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, but the two sisters seemed to be eyeing Angelina more hungrily than Chelsea was comfortable with.

“You promised to help me return to my home,” said Zogzhesh. “It would seem you’ve forgotten your promise.”

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Naomi took a step away from Mrs. Sharma.

Being stern was one thing, but making death threats was another, even if the threats were to Sarah’s creepy sisters.

She turned back to look at Chelsea, who looked taken aback by the threat and the knives even though neither had been pointed at her.

“You wouldn’t kill us,” said one of the sisters.

“Why not?” said Mrs. Sharma. “You had no problems trying to kill me.”

“There’s a bit of a difference here, Mrs. Sharma.”

“And what difference is that?”

“We mean something to you. You don’t mean anything to us.”

“I mean something to sa131,” said Mrs. Sharma. “That’s all I care about. I don’t care about you anymore.”

“sa131 is probably dead. Gone. You’ll never see her aga–“

“Do you really want to provoke me while I’m holding you at knifepoint? I remember you all being much smarter than this,” said Mrs. Sharma. “And she’s not dead, if half these kids I’ve somehow wound up babysitting are to be believed.”

“And do you believe them?” said the taller sister.

“About sa131? I don’t have any reason not to,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Now, get out of my way. Unless you’d prefer I use these knives.”

“Why don’t you just have one of Falcon’s brothers hit them out of the way with their squid arms?” Angelina gestured toward the largest of the brothers, a massive squid-like creature with dozens of skeletal faces. “Look at that one! He’s like a… how do you say calamaro gigante in English?”

“My Italian’s a little rusty, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say ‘giant squid’,” said Lachlan.

“Giant squid! Yes! Why don’t we have the giant squid fight them?”

“Why don’t you stay quiet and mind your own business?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Because it’s a better idea than just standing there pointing knives that they don’t even care about at them,” said Angelina.

“She makes a compelling point,” said Lachlan.

“I’d be happy to help,” said the giant squid.

He had a grating, distorted voice that made Sam, Angelina, and Jen flinch.

“Wow, his voice is scary!” said Angelina. “Anyway, you keep talking about how you’re in a hurry and you have to keep a schedule, but you’re just standing here when you could have them out of your way by now.”

Mrs. Sharma gave no response other than a quick, dismissive glance backward.

In the dark space between the two houses to their right, movement caught Naomi’s eye. She waited, watching to see whether it happened again. It did.

Why did everything in this place have to hide in the dark?

Naomi looked back at her friends to see if anyone else had seen the movement. Everyone seemed focused on the stalemate between Mrs. Sharma and the two sisters.

Naomi looked back between the houses, then glanced back at Chelsea to see if she’d noticed yet.

The bat-like creature on Chelsea’s shoulder looked alert, its ears perked up and eyes wide, and its short fur fluffed out like a cat’s.

At first, Naomi thought the little creature was responding to the tense standoff between Mrs. Sharma and the sisters. Then she saw the creature’s eyes and ears flick over to the space between the houses.

Naomi was just debating how best to get Mrs. Sharma’s attention when Mrs. Sharma spoke.

“I can hear your sister shuffling around in the dark between houses over there,” she said. “Was that the plan? The two of you come up and irritate me, and then big sister in the shadows comes out and ambushes us?”

The two sisters exchanged a look.

“We don’t have another sister with us,” the shorter sister said. “It’s just the two of us.”

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“Hold on a minute,” said Mahender. “Did you say ‘finding our way out of the Pit’?”

“Yes, that’s what I said,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Congratulations. At 25 years old, you’ve finally learned how to listen and pay attention. If you were 20 years younger, I might actually be proud.”

“Well, you’re a delight as always.”

“Unfortunately, it seems you still haven’t learned not to be sarcastic to your elders.”

“You were being sarcastic to me first,” said Mahender. “Maybe I learned from your example.”

Mrs. Sharma’s fist clenched.

“You’re in my house, and you will show me proper respect.” Mrs. Sharma turned to the rest of them. “That goes for all of you, too. Is that clear?”

Lachlan noticed her directing especially pointed looks at him and Angelina.

“Yes, ma’am!” said Jen. “Crystal!”

“Good,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Now, let’s get back to the matter at hand. Finding our way home.”

“I don’t understand, though,” said Mahender. “Where’s this coming from? We’ve been here for years. I thought you’d given up on making it home? You’ve been so obsessed with finding–“

“25 years old and you still haven’t learned how not to interrupt me.”

“Oh, I’ve learned. I just choose to do it anyway.”

Mrs. Sharma’s jaw clenched so hard, Lachlan saw it from all the way across the dim room.

“You irritating, disrespectful little–“

“Ahem,” said Lachlan. “If I may interrupt–“

“You may not,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“If I may interrupt,” Lachlan continued, “the two of you clearly have some family issues you need to work through. But maybe you could consider tabling that discussion until after we all escape from the murder pit. Just a suggestion.”

“Fair enough,” said Mahender. “Sorry.”

“Fine.” Mrs. Sharma paused, looking each of them in the eye as if daring them to interrupt again. “Angelina, you somehow appear to have information that could be useful to us, and you believe you’ve discovered a way back to our plane of reality. Can you tell me what you think you’ve figured out?”

“Sure!” said Angelina.

“Excuse me,” said Mahender.

Mrs. Sharma’s jaw clenched again.

“She looks like a cartoon character, the way her vein’s popping out of her forehead like that,” Jen whispered just loudly enough for Sam and Lachlan to hear.

“What was that?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Nothing, ma’am!” said Jen.

“Really?” said Mrs. Sharma. “If it’s nothing, then why is it important enough to interrupt our discussion about getting home?”

“Um, because…”

“She said you look like a cartoon character,” said Lachlan.

Mahender huffed out a laugh into his sleeve.

“Excuse me?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Hey!” said Jen. “Tattle much?”

“I look like a what?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Well, I, um,” said Jen. “I didn’t mean–“

“She didn’t really mean you look like a cartoon character. She just meant you’re so mad right now, you look a little cartoon-ish,” supplied Sam.

“Lucky for you three idiots, I have more important things to focus on than your childish insults,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“What do you mean childish insults?” Sam protested. “I said you don’t really look like a cartoon character. How is that an insult?”

“And why am I included in the ‘three idiots’?” said Lachlan. “If you recall, unlike these two, I didn’t actually say anything about you. I’ve been a perfect little angel.”

“If anything, what I said was a compliment,” said Sam.

“I don’t really think you look like a cartoon character,” said Jen. “You look very nice.”

“I know I look nice. You’re not winning any points with me by sucking up.” Mrs. Sharma sighed. “From this point forward, I am going to ignore any further remarks from the three stooges here unless they directly pertain to our conversation.”

“If we’re talking about going home, we need to include Nancy,” said Mahender. “She should be a part of this conversation too.”

“Who’s Nancy?” whispered Jen.

“She’s an older lady who lives in an airplane,” said Sam. “She’s been trapped here for a while.”

“So you’re suggesting we leave the safety of my home and walk all the way to Nancy’s plane?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Yeah. My brothers will come with us. It’s not as dangerous as you’re making it sound.”

“That’s out of the question,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“I’m not leaving this place without her,” said Mahender. “And you wouldn’t leave here without me.”

“What makes you so sure I wouldn’t?”

“I know you. And as much as you don’t like me, I know you wouldn’t leave your family behind.”

“Really?” Mrs. Sharma shot him a dark look. “You’re going to talk to me about leaving your family behind?”

So much for tabling the discussion about family issues.

“Well, I, for one, I don’t think we should leave Nancy out,” said Sam. “We can’t just leave her here.”

“Yeah,” said Lachlan. “We should go talk to her.”

“I have an idea!” said Jen. “Why don’t we all vote on it? Everyone who thinks we should go find this lady, raise your hand.”

Everyone but Mrs. Sharma raised their hand. Even the strange little bat-like creature sitting on Angelina’s shoulder raised a hand after Angelina whispered something to it.

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As she ran at the creature, Angelina realized she had miscalculated.

She had charged at the creature before considering what she could do, or how she was going to help Chelsea. At the rate she was going, all she was going to do was ram directly into them.

She realized she needed to stop before her body remembered how. She lost her balance and swayed forward, falling directly onto Chelsea and the monster. The three of them crashed onto the cobblestones in a heap.

The creature pushed them to the side, and Angelina’s tailbone collided painfully with a protruding cobblestone as she hit the ground. It loomed over them, twisting backward, contorting its head backward and upside down at an unnatural angle.

It snapped its small, featureless mouth at them in a display that would have been comical if everything else about the creature had been less terrifying.

“You bitch,” it said.

“You’re the bitch,” Angelina said.

Beside her, Chelsea gave her a small, incredulous head shake.

“What?” said Angelina. “It attacked us. It is a bitch.”

Belfry fluttered above them, biting and scratching the creature’s shoulders. The creature lifted a hand to swat at him.

Angelina tried to slide out from under the creature, but a long, thin arm reached out to press her chest, pinning her to the ground so the cobblestones dug into her back. Stone scraped the back of her head as she turned to face Chelsea. Chelsea was pinned down too.

There were voices approaching from somewhere behind them; Angelina couldn’t make out what they were saying, but she thought they were speaking English.

Were some more monsters arriving to ambush them? That was just what they needed.

Was there one thing in this place that wasn’t going to try to eat them?

The creature twisted its head around just in time for something to collide with it with a sickening crack. It fell to one side, and Angelina could see the source of one of the voices.

“Ow, ow, crap, ow!”

A girl about Angelina’s age with blonde hair and a light dusting of freckles across her pale face stood, standing on one foot and massaging her ankle.

“Hi,” said Angelina.

“Hey!” The girl’s eyes lit up with recognition as they fell on Chelsea. “Chelsea! You’re okay!”

“Jen?” said Chelsea.

A woman with axes strapped to her back sauntered out of the shadows, stopping a few feet behind the girl and crossing her arms. She was thin, with a slight gauntness to her otherwise attractive features that would have made Angelina suspect she’d been trapped in this place for a long time if not for everything else about her appearance. Her hair was sleek, pulled up out of her face in a neat bun, and her crisp button up and slacks were pristine and unwrinkled. She even wore a subtle layer of makeup that Angelina couldn’t imagine anyone taking the time to apply in a place like this.

“That was actually impressive, Jen,” said the woman. “Maybe you’re not as hopeless as I thought you were.”

“Um, thanks?” said the girl. Jen, apparently.

Chelsea pulled herself to her feet, then reached out a hand to Angelina and helped her up. The creature lay prone beside them.

“So I take it these are the friends you were looking for?” said the woman.

“Well, I know one of them,” said Jen, “but I have no clue who the other one is.”

“I’m Angelina. Hi!”

“Hi,” said Jen. “I can’t tell you how nice it is to see another friendly face in this place!”

“I hope I’m not one of those friendly faces you’re referring to,” said the woman with the axes. “I’m certainly not friendly. Not to you, anyway.”

“Compared to that freaky dude I just kicked, you are,” said Jen. “Madam Grumpy-Pants over here is Mrs. Sharma, by the way.”

Mrs. Sharma frowned.

“Never call me Madam Grumpy-Pants again.”

“You do look kind of grumpy,” said Angelina.

“And you look like you crawled out of a ditch,” said Mrs. Sharma.

She turned her frown on Angelina, and Angelina had a sudden urge to sink back into the shadowy alley behind her. Mrs. Sharma had one of those disapproving frowns that she was used to seeing from teachers.

“My friend’s been through a lot today. I’m sure all of us have.” Chelsea stepped forward and extended a hand. “I’m Chelsea. It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Sharma.”

Mrs. Sharma’s frown softened a bit, and she accepted the handshake.

“It’s nice to see at least one of you knows some manners.”

Belfry fluttered up to perch on Chelsea’s shoulder.

Hello, signora, my name is Belfry!”

“Ah, you must be the one I’ve been seeing fluttering around. You’re Project Pteropus, aren’t you?”

Belfry cocked his head, confused.

“He doesn’t speak English,” Angelina said. “Just Italian. And his name is Belfry, not Project whatever.”

“Pteropus. It’s interesting to see him in person,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I wonder how he was able to survive the accident. He seems to have remained remarkably stable since then, too. And he’s… cuter than I expected.”

She reached out to stroke Belfry’s head, and he let out a happy chirp and leaned into her hand.

“Aw!” said Jen. “I have no clue what he is, but he sure is cute!”

“If they hadn’t ended up vaporizing themselves along with an entire town, I’d say the Italian team was far more competent than the idiots I was forced to work with,” said Mrs. Sharma.

Angelina felt herself bristle.

“Don’t talk about it so casually. A thousand people died, you know.”

“Yes, and you’re not going to bring them back by being rude.”

“I’m not being rude. You’re being rude!”

“I’m so confused right now,” said Jen.

“Okay, I’m sure we’re all pretty scared and confused right now,” said Chelsea. “Let’s not take it out on each other.”

The lying on the ground creature stirred, letting out a groan. Mrs. Sharma turned on her heel, motioning for everyone to follow.

“We should leave before it wakes up. I don’t want to have to deal with a Dave right now.”

“A Dave?” said Jen.

“That ‘freaky dude’, as you so articulately put it, is a Dave fabrication. A poorly made and unstable piece of biotechnology. They’re not dangerous in their partially mutated state, but they are really annoying. They kind of remind me of some other people I’ve met today.”

She turned around to glance between Jen and Angelina. Angelina stuck out her tongue, prompting Mrs. Sharma to turn back around with a scoff.

“Well?” said Mrs. Sharma. “Are you three just going to stand there and waste time? Follow me.”

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The can slid out of Chelsea’s hand and fell to the ground with a soft thunk. Angelina bent down and picked it up, turning it over in her hand.

“Angelina, I don’t know if it’s a good idea to touch that,” said Chelsea. “It’s probably not very sanitary.”

“It’s fine,” said Angelina. “Plus, we need to examine it. It’s evidence.”

“Evidence of what?”

Chelsea didn’t sound skeptical like most people would have, just curious.

“Someone else is here. We should look for them.”

“You’re right,” said Chelsea. “They must have left the can recently. A lot of the blood is still bright red. It must have just dried.”

“Look!” came Belfry’s squeaky voice from the ground.

He was sniffing a spot on the ground. Angelina could make out a faint, ridged pattern–red lines matching the red on the can. It took her a moment to realize it was a shoe print.

“What is it?” said Chelsea.

“Footprints!” said Angelina. “If we follow them, we’ll be able to find whoever left that can.”

“The question is,” Chelsea said, “do we want to find whoever left it?”

“What do you mean?”

“We don’t know if whoever left it is, you know, human.”

Oh. That was a good point.

Belfry sniffed the footprint again.

“Belfry,” Angelina said in Italian, “Do bats have a good sense of smell or is that just dogs?”

“It smells like a human, signorina,” said Belfry. “Like you.”

“Thank you!” said Angelina. She switched to English. “He says it smells human.”

Chelsea frowned, but it looked more like a frown of concentration than disapproval.

“Well… I guess there’s no harm in following the footprints,” said Chelsea. “Whoever it is might need help.”

Angelina skipped away from the shop, following the faint trail of red prints down the street as far as she could see it.


There was so little light in the town and the footprints were so faded it forced Angelina to slow down. She’d had to stop skipping and walk with Chelsea behind Belfry as he sniffed out the trail.

There were two people, Belfry had told them, though the second wasn’t bleeding and therefore harder to smell.

Who were these people they were looking for? How had they gotten stuck here? The soda can definitely wasn’t from Italy, so they hadn’t gotten lost on the Sentiero Angelica. Had the woman who took Chelsea taken them too? And where did CPSI fit into all this?

Chelsea stopped suddenly, and Angelina collided with her, stepping on the back of her shoe and causing them both to stumble.

Chelsea turned, fixing her with an intense look.

“I’m sorry, C–” she started.

Chelsea placed a finger to her lips.

“Why?” Angelina whispered. “What is it?”

Chelsea shook her head, as if to say ‘no, even quieter than that.’ Angelina clapped a hand over her mouth.

Chelsea pointed at an alleyway. Angelina didn’t see where Chelsea was pointing at first, but once she did, she had no idea how she’d missed it.

It was too dark to make out the details, but she could see its clear silhouette against the building wall. It was shaped like a human from the waist down, but its torso was elongated and bent backwards, with something bulging from its chest.

“Hey!” it said.

It seemed to speak with two voices, one with a drunken slur, and one with a strange, inhuman edge.

“What is that thing?” whispered Angelina.

Chelsea shook her head again.

“Hey!” said the thing again.

It didn’t sound friendly.

The creature shambled out of the alley, allowing them a better view of it. It wore a white jumpsuit that stretched and strained over its misshapen body. Its head was bent backward, looking perpetually up at the sky, and it had the face of an old statue, its features half-worn away.

Belfry fluttered up to Chelsea’s shoulder, digging his claws into the fabric on her shirt.

“We don’t want any trouble,” said Chelsea.

“I don’t care what you want,” it slurred.

It advanced on them, swiping a hand out at Chelsea.

“Run!” said Chelsea, taking off in a sprint.

Angelina followed her lead, and soon, Chelsea fell behind her. She’d run about a block before she heard Chelsea cry out.

She turned around to see the creature’s arms holding onto Chelsea as she struggled, attempting to lean down and bite at her with its strange slit of a mouth. Belfry zipped around the creature’s head, biting it repeatedly, but it hardly seemed to notice him.

“Hey!” said Angelina. “Let go of my friend!”

She let out a shout and charged at the creature.

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Chelsea and Angelina walked down the dark street past a row of shops, as Belfry fluttered along behind them. Most of the shops still had displays on the sidewalk. Some had racks of handmade clothing, and tall rotating carousels of postcards, magnets, and key chains. One had a carousel that held brightly painted mugs and vases.

It probably wasn’t a good idea for them to have left the safety of the house, but Angelina had wanted to ‘explore’, leaving Chelsea with the choice between going with her and letting her go out on her own.

Chelsea had felt a little better about it after Angelina had explained her reasoning; walking around and observing where things vanished would give her a better idea of how the mysterious patterns worked.

Besides, Chelsea told herself, what they were doing probably wasn’t that much more dangerous than being in the house with Zogzhesh.

Angelina stopped and picked up a postcard, fixing it with an intense stare.

“What’s wrong?” said Chelsea.

“Nothing new is wrong,” said Angelina. “I was just thinking. I used to see these postcards in stores all the time.”

Chelsea leaned over to peer at the postcard. It displayed a colorful town between two picturesque mountains, overlooking the ocean.

“It looks so safe between those mountains,” said Angelina. “Like they’re protecting it.”

“It must be hard for you to look at,” said Chelsea.

“Yeah,” said Angelina. “It looks so different now. The colors don’t look right in the dark.”

Chelsea wanted to reach out to Angelina, to put an arm around her or take her hand, but she wasn’t sure if that would be weird. She started to place a comforting hand on Angelina’s shoulder, but Angelina bounced away toward a rack of scarves, her sad, pensive expression lifting as suddenly as it had appeared.

Angelina selected a scarf and skipped back toward Chelsea. Angelina glanced at the postcard, hesitated, and placed it back into a slot on the metal carousel.

“Look! I found a scarf you’ll love! Don’t you love it?”

Chelsea looked down at the scarf in Angelina’s hands. It was red, with an irregular polka dot pattern that looked hand painted. It was a nice enough scarf, though she wasn’t sure what exactly about it Angelina had thought she would love.

“It’s really nice.”

“I knew you’d love it! You should have it!”

Angelina moved closed and stood up on the balls of her feet, draping the scarf around Chelsea’s neck.

“I don’t know,” said Chelsea. “It feels kind of like stealing.”

“No one is using it now. It’s not hurting anyone to take it.” Angelina’s sad expression returned. “These things are all just sitting here, alone and sad. I think it’s less sad if someone takes them. It’s like we’re rescuing it.”

“In that case,” said Chelsea. “I think it’s a beautiful scarf.”

Chelsea reached up to wrap the scarf around her neck, but Angelina got there first. She looped the scarf around Chelsea’s neck in a neat knot.

“There,” said Angelina. “That’s how Italians wear our scarves.”

Chelsea looked down at the scarf knot and smiled.

“Do you know what this type of knot is called in English?”

“No. What’s it called?”

“A Chelsea knot.”

“Really?” said Angelina. “It must be a sign then. This is the scarf you were meant to wear. It’s your scarf destiny.”

Chelsea had expected Angelina to pull away after tying the scarf, but she stayed close enough for Chelsea to feel her shivering from the cold.

Chelsea pulled away, fixing her attention on the rack of scarves.

“You’re freezing!” said Chelsea. “I think it’s my turn to find a scarf for you.”

“Cool!” said Angelina. “Find me something with hot pink! And black! Maybe something with strawberries? Or a zebra pattern? Or both!”

“I’m not sure if they’ll have strawberry zebra scarves,” said Chelsea. “I’ll see what I can find. I’ll pick you something really great, I promise.”

“If you pick it, I know it’ll be great!”

Chelsea started toward the scarf rack, but stopped as something on a display table caught her eye. She hadn’t seen it at first, jumbled among handmade trinkets and souvenirs. She picked it up.

“What’s that?” said Angelina.

Chelsea held it up. It was an empty drink can with a label proclaiming that it contained only one calorie.

An empty can was hardly an unusual thing to find, but something about the can felt off to her–maybe it was the English label, or the stray drops she could feel rolling around in the bottom when she moved it.

“It’s weird. There’s still a little bit of pop in the can, like someone just finished drinking it. But it’s all covered in rust, like it’s old.”

Chelsea looked closer at the can. Dark red marbled blotches covered it, but the aluminum beneath looked shiny and new. She noticed lines streaking through the dark red, like the lines in the palm of someone’s hand.

Belfry fluttered over and came to rest on Chelsea’s shoulder, sniffing the air.

È sangue,” he said.

Sangue. What did that mean again?

Angelina’s eyes widened as she looked at the can.

“Blood,” she said. “It’s covered in blood.”

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Chelsea stepped forward, squeezing Angelina’s hand with one hand and reaching up to her shoulder to stroke Belfry’s head with the other. She closed her eyes, and braced for something terrible to happen–for the snake man’s fangs to plunge into them, or for them to be sucked back into that awful, empty, abyss.

Nothing happened.

After a few seconds, she cautiously opened one eye.

Zogzhesh stood before them, stroking his chin contemplatively with his scepter.

“Well?” said Angelina. “Do you want our help, or not?”

Zogzhesh’s face contorted into something approximating a frown.

“And just how, may I ask, do puny mortals such as yourselves believe you can help me?”

Chelsea squeezed Angelina’s hand again, trying to communicate the message ‘be careful’.

Angelina put her free hand on her hip.

“I know you’re lost. You’re stuck here just like us. That big guy put you here with us, and now you can’t get back to your weird snake home.”

‘That big guy’? Was Angelina talking about the massive, unfathomable monster that had plucked them out of the soul-sucking void?

Honestly, though, referring to that thing as a ‘big guy’ seemed like a very Angelina thing to do.

“That hardly answers my question, mortal,” said Zogzhesh. “How could an insignificant being such as yourself possibly help me return home?”

Chelsea let herself relax a fraction. Zogzhesh was at least hearing Angelina out.

“There are certain spots in this place that can move you between different places,” said Angelina.

Zogzhesh peered down at Angelina through narrowed eyes. His skeptical expression didn’t seem to faze her.

It fazed Chelsea, and it wasn’t even directed at her.

“How did you think people fall into your creepy snake setup?” said Angelina.

Zogzhesh was silent, staring at Angelina through unblinking yellow eyes. Then, he finally spoke.

“Come closer, mortal.”

That sounded like a bad idea.

“Angelina–” started Chelsea.

Angelina was already stepping forward.

Zogzhesh stared down at her and flicked his forked tongue through the air.

“Ah, yes.” He flicked his tongue again. “I see. This explains much.”

The tongue-flicking was making Chelsea very uneasy. Wasn’t that what snakes did when they were hunting for their prey?

“You see what?” said Angelina. “What explains much?”

“You are no ordinary mortal,” said Zogzhesh. “I taste something of the terrible ones in you.”

“What does that even mean?” said Angelina.

“It means you are not the puny mortal I originally took you to be. I have only met one other like you before.”

“I still don’t get what you mean,” said Angelina. “Do you want our help or not?”

Zogzhesh stared down at Angelina, studying her.

“Very well,” he said. “I shall accept your help.”


Zogzhesh looked comically strange sitting on a floral sofa that was far too small for him. Angelina giggled at the sight, and to Chelsea’s relief, he didn’t seem to notice.

Angelina flopped into the seat beside the massive snake creature. She also looked tiny by comparison, but the effect was less comical and more scary. Chelsea wished Angelina wouldn’t sit so close to something that had tried to kill them so recently.

“Come sit, C!” said Angelina.

Chelsea reluctantly approached the couch.

“Um, excuse me, Zogzhesh?” she said. “Can you please scoot over a little? I’d like to sit next to my friend if it’s okay.”

As much as she didn’t want to sit next to this hulking snake monster, she knew she’d feel more comfortable acting as a buffer between Angelina and Zogzhesh than she would letting Angelina sit next to him alone.

“Very well,” said Zogzhesh. “It makes little difference to me.”

He shifted to the far end of the couch, leaving enough room for Chelsea to sit between him and Angelina.

Sitting between Angelina and Zogzhesh was a downright bizarre feeling. On her right, one of Zogzhesh’s four colossal arms pressed against her–massive, powerful muscle rippling beneath unsettlingly hot scales. She could smell him too–a faint alien smell that was equal parts rotten and musky. On her left, Angelina’s small, soft form provided a stark contrast.

Both were unnerving, but for two very different reasons.

She looked around the room for Belfry, her one companion who wasn’t intimidating in any way, but didn’t see him. Maybe he was hiding. She imagined that like most small mammals, he had a healthy fear of snakes.

“Look.” Angelina picked up her notebook and handed it to Zogzhesh. “See?”

He took the notebook and stared down at it, silent. The fact that his body language and expressions were so hard to read made Chelsea even more nervous. Did snakes even have facial expressions?

Angelina leaned over Chelsea, pointing to something in the notebook.

“That’s where C and I got sent to your snake place, at the corner of that house.” Angelina flipped the page. “And that’s my map of how all of this works–it’s basically like lots of layers, like these notebook pages.” She stuck her hand between two pages. “And we’re here, between the pages.”

“I see,” said Zogzhesh.

Chelsea wasn’t sure whether he looked confused, or whether she was projecting a human-like facial expression onto him.

“Now imagine if there were spots in the notebook where if I put my hand there, my hand would become part of the page, like a drawing. That’s how this place works, expect some of the places are times too.”

“I see,” said Zogzhesh again. “And where do these spots appear?”

“There’s a pattern to them, and I think I figured it out, but I thought that before and I got it way wrong.”

“You do not inspire confidence, puny one.”

“If you had any ideas on how to get home, you would have eaten us already.”

“Hm,” said Zogzhesh. “That is true.”

Chelsea shifted farther away from him.

“If my maps are right,” said Angelina, “the next spot should appear in the alley by that house in four days, twelve hours, and six minutes.”

Did that mean they would be stuck with this terrifying snake monster for four days? And what about poor Belfry? Would he be forced to cower under the sofa that whole time?

“I see,” said Zogzhesh, “and what exactly are days?”

“They’re a way of measuring time. Each one is made of 24 hours, and each hour is 60 minutes, and each minute is 60 seconds, and seconds are like this: mille e uno, mille e due, mille e tre, mille e quattro, mille e cin–

“That is quite enough, puny one.” Zogzhesh let out a hissing sigh. “Waiting for time to pass is tedious. I cannot understand how you mortals live this way.”

“Live what way?” said Angelina.

“At home, I can move freely through time as I wish. If I wanted to be four of your ‘days’ in the future or past, all I would need to do is travel there.”

“You’re a time traveler?” said Chelsea.

“You say that as though it is a profession or title, mortal. To me, it is as natural as walking forward or backward.”

“Wow,” said Angelina.

Zogzhesh fixed his eyes on Angelina and flicked his tongue at her.

Chelsea really hated when he did that. She tried to shoot him a look that said ‘don’t you dare eat my friend’, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“You find that awe-inspiring?” said Zogzhesh. “Many things about me are awe-inspiring, but this particular quality is unremarkable. I believe even you may possess the capability.”

Angelina’s eyes widened.


“As I said before, you smell of something unique and powerful.”

“I thought that was just you being weird.”

Chelsea looked at Angelina and gave her a small, please-don’t-insult-the-snake-monster head shake. Angelina smiled in return.

“I have met only one other like you before,” said Zogzhesh. “She fell into the snake room much as you did. Her wise fear of me and foolish stubbornness made her escape more difficult than yours, but like you and your mortal friend she managed to evade me with the help of the terrible ones.”

The creature that had plucked them out of that empty nothingness must have been one of these ‘terrible ones’ Zogzhesh kept mentioning.

“I’m sorry, are… you saying Angelina has something in common with that giant… thing that grabbed us?”

She looked over at Angelina, who had a spot of glittery purple gel ink on her cheek. If someone had asked Chelsea to come up with the opposite of an enormous monstrosity that lived in an abyss, she might have described Angelina.

“I can smell her power,” said Zogzhesh.

Why did he have to be so creepy?

“Who was the other person you met that was like me?” said Angelina.

“A member of your species.”

“That’s not very specific,” said Angelina.

“There were others that smelled of the terrible ones,” said Zogzhesh, “but they were not of your species. Some of them looked much like you, some looked very different. Their smell was strange, artificial. There was only one other of your species that tasted of the terrible one’s power.”

“Do you know anything other than them being a human?” said Angelina. “Because lots of people are humans.”

“She was a female, fully mature, not an adolescent as you are. I tasted many of her fears, as I did yours. She feared imperfection and failure. She feared that her offspring would mature poorly without her influence. Above all, she feared she would never be reunited with the one she cared for most,” said Zogzhesh. “She grew more powerful as she remained in this place. Between the pages, as you put it. While she could not move freely through time, she became a formidable force.”

“Do you think I’ll become a formidable force?” said Angelina.

“You outwitted me, and escaped my judgement,” said Zogzhesh. “It would seem you have already become one.”

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Angelina felt so small and limited.

She didn’t understand what had happened. The last thing she could have described in words was pulling Chelsea and Belfry off the platform, tumbling through the dark, and emerging somewhere bright and shimmering.

She hadn’t been just Angelina as she’d fallen, she’d been something far greater. She’d tapped into something greater, accessed a vast consciousness.

She held out her hands in front of her face, flexing her fingers. All that was gone now. She was plain old Angelina, in a tiny human body, sitting on the bedroom floor of the same house she and Chelsea had been in earlier.

She didn’t mind it so much, being this small. The residual bliss from the fall left her more relaxed and at peace than she’d felt in a long time.

She looked over at Chelsea, and the relaxed smile fell off her face.

Chelsea was sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees, trembling as tears streamed down her face. Angelina rushed to Chelsea’s side, knelt down, and wrapped her arms around her.

“C! What is it? What’s wrong?”

Chelsea looked up, wiping tears from her cheek.

Belfry stirred on Angelina’s shoulder. His claws dug into her skin a bit as he stretched and yawned.

“Are you okay, signorina?” he said.

“Sorry,” said Chelsea. “I’m okay. I’m going to be fine. That was pretty scary, that’s all.”

Angelina translated for Belfry, and felt him relax on her shoulder.

“Va bene, Belfry?” said Chelsea in stilted Italian.

“Yes, signorina, yes. I’m fine, thank you. I don’t remember much–I must have fallen asleep.”

How had Belfry managed to sleep through that? Had he really been sleeping, or had he passed out from the stress of Zogzhesh’s illusion?

Belfry hopped off Angelina’s shoulder and fluttered into Chelsea’s lap. He rubbed his head against her knees.

“That’s a relief.” Chelsea stroked Belfry’s head. “I’m glad he didn’t have to go through something that scary.”

“You thought it was scary?” said Angelina. “I thought it was beautiful.”

Seeing Chelsea’s confused expression, Angelina elaborated.

“I mean, the scary Zogzhesh guy wasn’t beautiful, and the creepy darkness, and the scary illusion. That was all very bad. But after that, the shining, falling place. It was beautiful.”

“Scary illusion?” said Chelsea. “I don’t remember an illusion.”

“What do you remember?” said Angelina.

Her face burned as she remembered the kiss. That was one thing she hoped Chelsea didn’t remember.

That had been so weird and stupid, and she had no idea why she’d done it. Normal people didn’t randomly kiss their friends in ordinary situations, let alone kiss them while hovering above writhing darkness and being tormented by a snake being.

“I remember that snake… man… thing appearing, and those big pendulums. Then, I remember… it was like I was unraveling, until all that was left was something cold and lonely.”

Chelsea’s tone was strangely casual considering what she was describing, but Angelina felt Chelsea shudder as she spoke. Angelina tightened her arms around Chelsea.

“It’s okay, C,” said Angelina. “That part wasn’t real.”

“It… wasn’t?” said Chelsea. “Was that the scary illusion you were talking about?”

“Yeah, it was all fake. Once I figured out the pattern, it wasn’t so hard to break out of the illusion.”

“It all seemed so real,” said Chelsea. “If you hadn’t pulled me out of it somehow, I don’t know what would have happened.”

“You would have figured it out too,” said Angelina. “You’re the smartest person ever.”

Chelsea gave a bashful laugh as she wiped away the last of her stray tears.

“I don’t know about that. I’m still not even sure I understand what there was to figure out.”

Angelina frowned. How could she even explain it?

“It’s hard to put into words. It was like… my brain knows it, but my mouth doesn’t. Does that make sense?”

“I think so,” said Chelsea.

“There were all these… ribbons of who I was as a person, and they were all moving around in this special, complicated pattern, and I thought about what you said earlier.”

“Sorry, I’m… not really sure what I said that you’re referring to.”

“About how nothing is random. Everything has a pattern, no matter how complicated it is. I saw the pattern in what the snake guy was doing to us. I didn’t really understand it, but it was enough to break out of it.”

Chelsea looked at her for a moment with an expression Angelina couldn’t read.

“What?” said Angelina.

“I hope this isn’t weird to say, but you’re kind of amazing.”

“Me? I am?” said Angelina. “Why?”

“First you saw the pattern in everything that was disappearing. Then, when we were trapped in… whatever was happening with that snake place, you saw another pattern and pulled us out of there.”

“You would have seen the patterns if I hadn’t.”

“I don’t know that I would have,” said Chelsea. “You’re really, really smart, Angelina.”

“I have a lot of teachers who would laugh at you if they heard that.”

“Most people wouldn’t have been able to figure out what you did,” said Chelsea. “It takes someone really smart to see patterns like that.”

“You’re so nice,” said Angelina. “You’re the nicest person in the world.”

“Thank you. But I’m not saying this just to be nice. I’m saying it because it’s true.”

Chelsea had stopped crying completely, the only trace of her tears being the soft flush of her face. She was so impossibly pretty, even after falling into a pit between realities, fighting with monsters, and weeping on a floor. Angelina was suddenly acutely aware of her own appearance–her messy hair, the dirt streaking her arms and legs, her shapeless nightgown and mud-caked boots.

“You’re so pretty it’s not possible,” said Angelina.

“Oh, um, wow,” Chelsea gave a soft laugh that sounded startled, amused, and embarrassed all at once. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome!”

Chelsea paused, giving Angelina another hard-to-read look before speaking.

“Can I, um, ask you something that might be kind of awkward?”

“Um, okay.”

“So, there’s something I remember, just after you pulled me out of the illusion, and I’m not sure whether it was real or not.”

Chelsea’s words sent a nervous sensation burning through Angelina’s head.

Oh no.

She remembered.

“Chelsea, I’m sorry,” she began. “I’m not sure why–“

The sound of glass shattering in the next room saved her from having to explain herself.

“What was that?” said Angelina.

Chelsea gently deposited Belfry into Angelina’s lap and stood up, a serious, intense look wiping away every trace of her embarrassed expression.

“I’m going to go see what that was. Can you stay here with Belfry?”

“No!” Angelina stood up, placing Belfry on her shoulder. “You’re not going by yourself! It might be something dangerous!”

“I’ll be fine,” said Chelsea. “I’ll be right back in a few minutes. I–“

Angelina picked up a lamp with a long, thin base, brandishing it as she pushed past Chelsea through the bedroom door.

The fearless Princess Angelina charges into battle once again.

“You’re not going alone, C.”

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