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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.
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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