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Naomi and Falcon walked across the concrete in silence. There had been no sign of Jen since they’d outrun the monster.

Naomi looked down at the silly cat pen in her hand. It stared up at her accusingly with big, goofy cartoon eyes.

If Naomi had pulled her along instead of just running away and assuming she’d follow, would Jen still be with them?

Now Jen was either dead or wandering lost and alone somewhere.

“I’m sorry I called you annoying,” Naomi mumbled to the pen.

They had two people to find now, and Naomi still didn’t have the first idea where to start looking.

She glanced at Falcon and realized he was smiling.

She shot him a glare, and his smile faded into an appropriately guilty expression. He pointed to the notepad she still held, and held out his hand.

This had better be good. There had better be a good reason he was smiling like an idiot when they were stranded in some hell dimension and had already lost a group member.

She handed him the notepad, and he took a moment writing down his explanation.

The ground shook beneath them again, and Naomi tensed, preparing to run again. Falcon put a hand on her arm, signaling her to relax. He handed her back the notepad.

‘My brothers are alive. I don’t know how I know it, but I can feel it. I can feel them. They’re here.’



Oh God.

Oh God, oh God, oh God.

What the hell? What the hell?

What had happened? What was this place?

There was an iridescent light surrounding the four tiny bodies, falling in a direction that didn’t compute. Four eyes of reality, four drops of a vast ocean in four different vessels.

Which one belonged to Chelsea Brown?

Oh, right. The second-largest body, a female human with brilliant red hair that cascaded behind them, strands shimmering in and out of existence as they fell.

Chelsea Brown’s vessel clutched another vessel, a smaller, dark-haired human. The smallest vessel clung to the dark-haired human’s shoulder. It was hard to tell where one of the three ended and the two other began.

The fourth body, larger and covered with olive scales, fell some distance away from the other three, emitting angry hisses as it faded in and out of view.

Stress hormones flooded Chelsea’s body, elevating the heart rate, priming the muscles to run or fight, though the vessel was powerless to do either. The vessel’s fear felt so limited, so infinitesimal in a way that only made the terror more intense. It was more terror than this tiny, insignificant vessel had ever experienced, and it was almost nothing.

In contrast to Chelsea’s terror, the dark-haired human wore a serene expression that didn’t make sense.

The smaller vessel’s designation was retrieved from neural circuits inside one of the four bodies. Angelina Bianchi.

The vessel called Angelina produced a series of communicative sounds that Chelsea’s brain processed into meaning. The sounds were labored, uttered with great difficulty, but their tone was soft and calm.

“It’s… okay. Don’t… scare. It’s… all okay.”

But everything was far from okay! Everything was incomprehensible! The four bodies were falling in reverse now, in a direction that couldn’t possibly exist, and it was impossible to remember.

Which one belonged to Chelsea Brown?

Did Chelsea Brown exist at all?

Did it matter? The distinctions between the four bodies, between everything, suddenly seemed to irrelevant.

The neural circuits no longer perceived the four bodies. There was only the sensation of falling, being sucked into the iridescent, swirling nothingness.

An otherworldly voice cut through the nothingness, speaking to the four lost vessels. It spoke without language, but its tone was startlingly ordinary–soothing and gently admonishing at the same time, like a kindly grandmother who’d found a litter of stray kittens hiding on her porch.

“How did you ever get in here? Come on, let’s get you back to where you belong.”

A fifth body, vastly, infinitely larger than the other four, reached out two shining tendrils to catch the falling vessels.

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The rushing in Angelina’s ears crescendoed until she was worried they might explode. The living darkness around them seemed to rise around her. Chelsea, Belfry, the platform–they all seemed more and more distant as the dark engulfed her.

She was faintly aware of Chelsea reaching out for her and reached back, taking her friend’s hand, only to feel the hand dissolve into thin ribbons that writhed between her fingers as they shrunk into nothing.

She reached for her locket and felt the pendant sublimate into nothing in her hand.

There was nothing left surrounding Angelina. There were only the pendulums.

“Chelsea!” she screamed.

Even her voice seemed to splinter into ribbons, lost in the sound of the pendulums.

Then the rest of her began to splinter away, outer layers unraveling into snaking streamers–first her body, then her identity. Her very essence, everything that made her Angelina Bianchi, abandoned her to slither away into the dark until only a kernel was left, made of the parts of her that felt shame, regret, and self-loathing.

She was concentrated self-condemnation, dark blue and pulsing with the same cold glow that had signaled the Zogzhesh’s arrival. She was reduced to the core of a dying star, a faint point of light slowly consuming itself alone in deep space.

And the pendulums continued to swing.

This was so much worse than Borgo San Severino. Next to this, that creepy ghost town was a tropical resort.

She watched the thin bands snake away, pieces of herself swallowed by the sickening darkness.

The small part of her that was still lucid thought about her conversation with Chelsea earlier. She hadn’t understood all of it, but Chelsea had said everything had a pattern. Every problem, no matter how weird, surreal, or horrifying, could be solved.

Chelsea was right about everything. Chelsea could get them out of this, if Angelina could only see her.

Angelina’s fading consciousness studied the slithering ribbons, watching and analyzing. It was impossible to say how much time it took her to see the patterns, or if time was even passing in the conventional sense at all.

It was impossibly complex, too much for her to really comprehend, but she knew enough. Maybe someone smart like Chelsea could have explained it, but Angelina couldn’t have put it into words if she had tried. Even so, she recognized it as soon as she saw it.

Her faraway mouth made a triumphant sound, and the sensation reminded of dreaming and being dimly aware she was talking in her sleep.

It was an illusion! It wasn’t real!

She focused on that dying kernel of Angelina, concentrating, trying to break free.

The kernel shattered.

For a moment, she caught a glimpse of what she really was, glowing golden, serene and warm–not a single point floating alone, stranded in frozen space, but a piece of something unfathomably vast.

Then she was small again, just Angelina, standing on a platform in muddy boots and a too-large nightgown, hyper aware of every physical sensation–Belfry’s claws digging into her shoulder, her underwear’s waistband rubbing painfully against the injuries on her hips. She could even feel her bones inside her body, which was a pretty creepy feeling that she wasn’t a fan of at all.

Chelsea stood nearby, motionless, her hand still extended, tears streaming down her face. Angelina took her outstretched hand and squeezed it.


Chelsea didn’t respond.

“C? It’s okay,” said Angelina. “It’s not real.”

Chelsea didn’t even seem to perceive her. Angelina moved closer.

“Chelsea, please. I don’t know what to do.”

What was she supposed to do? She didn’t know how to get out of this creepy snake room. She couldn’t do it on her own.

“Belfry?” she said. “Do you know what we should do?

The little creature didn’t respond. She could feel him trembling on her shoulder.

The dying blue star thing might have been an illusion, but it had gotten one thing right. She was completely alone after all.

Why wasn’t Chelsea responding? Why couldn’t she snap out of it? Couldn’t she see the illusion and wake up?

Impulsively, without thinking, Angelina closed the distance between herself and her friend, pressing her lips gently to Chelsea’s.

This was absolutely not how she had pictured her first kiss.

Chelsea stirred, blinking away tears as her eyes refocused. She was shaking a little. Angelina threw her arms around her.

“C! You’re okay!”

“What…” Chelsea brushed away a stray tear. “What…”

The mocking hisses sounded around them, but they weren’t as scary anymore. They were an only a trick.

“You dare defy the pendulums of justice, mortal?” hissed Zogzhesh. “Your defiance will cost you dearly.”

“Oh, shut up,” Angelina said.

“Angelina,” Chelsea whispered. “Don’t.”

“It’s fine,” said Angelina. “He’s nothing. He’s just some guy-snake-thing who likes to feel important.”

In the moments after she’d broken open that sad little kernel, she hadn’t just seen herself. She’d those around her too–felt her connection to all three of them, even Zogzhesh.

At his core, he was nothing more than they were. He was scary and commanding and even powerful, but he wasn’t all-powerful. He wasn’t even anything mystical or special–just a member of another sentient species, just some guy who picked on people because he wanted to feel important. It was almost funny. She’d met plenty of humans just like him, and they weren’t so scary. Why should Zogzhesh be any different?

“You dare challenge the almighty Zogzhesh, god of the pendulums of justice?”

“Oh, come on, you’re not the god of anything,” said Angelina. “You’re just some dumb snake guy.”

“Angelina,” said Chelsea, her voice trembling.

“No, C,” said Angelina. “It’s fine. Didn’t you see it? It was all a fake. The pendulums were a trick. It was all a trick!”

“Silence!” barked Zogzhesh. “The mortal mind is not strong enough to escape the judgement of the pendulums!”

“My mind just did, but okay,” said Angelina.

The pendulums’ swinging picked up again, and a far-away look began to fade into Chelsea’s eyes.

“Ha!” said Zogzhesh. “You may have broken free, but the minds of your beloved and your pet are far too weak to resist my divine judgement!”

Her beloved? The pet was obviously Belfry, but who was the beloved he was talking about? Chelsea? It had to be; there was no one else there.

Wait, did that mean this dumb snake guy was calling Chelsea weak-minded? Nuh-uh! Chelsea was the smartest person Angelina knew!

Angelina knew if she just waited a few more seconds, Chelsea would break free of Zogzhesh’s mind games. She would know exactly what to do to get them out of this. She would show that cocky snake-jerk who was weak-minded.

But Angelina didn’t want to wait a few more seconds. She didn’t want to let Chelsea and Belfry spend another minute in that indescribably lonely illusion.

She grabbed Chelsea’s hand and pulled, and Chelsea, half-lucid, followed with mechanical steps.

“Hold on tight, Belfry!” she said.

Standing on the edge of the platform, she wrapped her arms tightly around her friend’s waist. She squeezed her eyes shut and leaned backward, fighting every instinct to catch herself as her sense of equilibrium somersaulted inside her head.

Three points of golden light plummeted into the writhing, alien darkness.

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“Get the hell off the wing before you damage my plane,” said the strange woman who’d emerged from the plane a moment before, nearing startling Lachlan into falling to the ground.

She was somewhere between Lachlan’s mum’s age and his grandma’s age–a bit too old to be middle-aged, but still too young to be called an elderly woman. An impressive mane of thick, silver-white hair hung halfway to her waist.

“Holy motherfuck,” said Lachlan. “Where did you come from?”

Sam gave him a stern look from where he still lay on the ground.

“Please excuse him, Mrs…?”

The woman stepped down from the wing walk to the ground.

“van Vleet. And I’m not a ‘Mrs.’ anything.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Ms. van Vleet.” Sam sat up and turned toward her. “I just assumed…”

She chuckled. “You just assumed that a woman of my age…”

“No, no,” said Sam. “That’s not what I meant.”

“That’s exactly what he meant.” Lachlan slid off the plane wing and landed on the ground. “Tut, tut, Samurai. Shame on you for calling this nice lady ‘old’.”

“Would you shut up?” said Sam. “Anyway, Ms. van Vleet, we’re sorry for intruding. We didn’t see you inside, so we didn’t know this was your plane.”

“I’ll accept your apology on the condition your friend gets the hell off my wing,” said Ms. van Vleet, “and on the condition that you call me Nancy.” She frowned at Sam. “Is that my jacket?”

“I tried to stop him,” said Lachlan, shaking his head in mock-disappointment, “but he just took it anyway.”

Sam shot him a look.

Nikola emerged from beneath the plane, and Nancy’s face lit up with an almost childlike delight that Lachlan rarely saw in people her age.

“Is that a dog?” she said.

Lachlan nodded.

“That is indeed a dog.”

“His name is Nikola,” said Sam.

“No, it’s not,” said Lachlan.

Nancy hardly seemed to hear them as she knelt and patted her leg. When Nikola trotted up to her, she threw her arms around him and ruffled his fur. The dog looked equal parts uncertain about being grabbed and pleased with the attention.

“I miss dogs.” Nancy’s voice broke. “I’ve missed dogs so much.”

Lachlan glanced at Sam, who had started fidgeting nervously with his magnets again.

Nancy continued petting Nikola as she looked up at Lachlan and Sam, her eyes teary.

“Sorry.” She sniffled. “You’re the first new people I’ve spoken to in years, and look at me. I guess I’ve forgotten all my social graces. I didn’t even ask you young men your names.”

‘New people’? Did that mean there were existing people trapped here that Nancy had recently spoken to?

They’d already met Mahender. Who knew how many other people were stuck in this place?

“I’m Lachlan,” said Lachlan, “and this is Sam.”

Sam frowned.

“I can introduce myself, you know,” he said. “I’m Sam.”

Nancy smiled and wiped a tear from her face, continuing to pet Nikola’s ears with her free hand.

“So how did you kids end up here? It’s nice to see some new faces. Not that I’m glad you got stuck here, obviously.”

“I heard my coworker calling for help, and when I followed her screams, it lead me to this strange device that sent me here,” said Sam. “I found this idiot tied up in one of the rooms in that creepy building. Then the dog saved us from a creature that was attacking us.”

“You stuck together,” said Nancy. “That’s smart.”

“We’re very smart,” said Lachlan.

“I had my dad for a while.” Nancy’s expression darkened. “Then the Sisters took him.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Sam.

“There’s a nice young man who stops by sometimes, about your age,” said Nancy. “No, no, probably older than you. He brings me food and supplies from the town, and he always stays to talk. Such a good kid. I’m less fond of his, um, friends, though.”

“Are these friends of the skull-squid variety?” said Lachlan.

“Mhmm.” Nancy nodded.

“I think we just met your friend, actually,” said Sam. “He mentioned a town too.”

“I haven’t been in, oh, I don’t know. Probably years. Not since I lost Dad,” said Nancy. “It’s a good place to find supplies, though. Plus, it’s a lot safer than here.”

“Let me guess,” said Sam. “More places to hide?”

“That, plus there aren’t as many monsters there. You have to be careful, though. I’ve been told things and people vanish sometimes, or get sent to strange places.”

“Did Mahender tell you that?” said Sam.

“He might have thought to mention that little tidbit to us,” said Lachlan.

Nancy shook her head.

“No, it was someone else. I can’t remember her name. It has an ‘M’ or an ‘N’ in it–Nina maybe? Something like that.” Nancy stroked Nikola’s head. “Strange woman. I don’t think she likes me very much.”

“Exactly how many people are stuck here?”

“Not counting Brothers, Sisters, or Daves, I know of two people other than myself and you kids.”

“Wait, you said people get sent to strange places,” said Sam. “Do you mean stranger places than this one?”

“I don’t know,” said Nancy. “I just know the woman looked terrified when she talked about it. I once saw her take down a fully-grown Brother without flinching, but whatever this place was, it really scared her.”



Chelsea had thought the monsters, the Italian-speaking bat, and the empty ghost town had been strange, but whatever was going on here took ‘strange’ to a whole other level.

The pendulums’ swinging grew in intensity, filling her ears with a sensation that reminded her of venturing outside without ear protection during an especially windy blizzard. The fact that the air around them was both uncomfortably hot and completely still magnified her unease exponentially.

“What should we do?” Angelina whispered not nearly quietly enough.

“There is only one thing you can do, mortal,” hissed Zogzhesh. “Await your fate as I, the mighty Zogzhesh, stand in judgement over your miserable existences.”

Angelina mumbled something in Italian under her breath, and the mocking hisses around them intensified.

“You dare disrespect the almighty decider of your fate, mortal?”

Chelsea stepped forward and bowed her head.

“My friend meant no disrespect, oh, almighty serpent of, um, justice?”

She wasn’t sure how to address the snake-man, so her improvised honorific came out as more of a question than she had intended. She wasn’t quite sure where she was going to go with this, but her tone and head bow seemed to appease the creepy hissing darkness, so she continued.

“She’s just nervous having never been in the presence of such a powerful and majestic being.”

“I am quite majestic.” Zogzhesh stroked his chin with his scepter.

“Please, your all-powerful snake-liness.” Chelsea cringed inwardly at her word choice. “She is in awe of your presence. Have mercy on her.”

The hissing grew louder again.

“Mercy?” Zogzhesh sounded almost amused. “Only the pendulums shall decide if she receives mercy.”

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Angelina felt Chelsea’s arms reforming around her, then Belfry’s paws reforming on her shoulder. She opened her eyes and tried to look up at Chelsea. Even though Chelsea was close enough that Angelina could feel her breathing, it was almost too dark to make out her face.

Even in the darkness, Angelina could tell something was wrong. This darkness wasn’t normal darkness–it writhed, slithering and snaking across itself as though it was alive. It unnerved her on a primal level. Soft hissing noises resonated around them, sounding almost mocking. The way the hissing reverberated reminded her of how things sounded in a church, though these noises were far from holy-sounding.

Wherever the three of them were, they definitely weren’t home.

How could she have been so stupid? At least before, she’d had some idea where they were. Now she’d gotten herself and her friend even more hopelessly lost. Her lip shook as tears burned the corners of her eyes.

She let go of Chelsea and stepped back, away from the security of her friend’s arms. She reached for the locket hanging from her neck and clutched the pendant.

“Where are we?” she said, trying to keep her voice from trembling.

Angelina immediately regretted the question. It was a question that would have angered or annoyed a lot of people, prompting a brusque ‘How am I supposed to know?’

“I don’t know, but wherever we are, we’ll figure it out.”

Chelsea’s voice was gentle. Of course it was. It was hard to imagine her being brusque.

“Are you sure? We don’t even know where we are.”

“I didn’t know where I was in the pit place. You figured it out and found me,” said Chelsea. “We can figure this out.”

“Do you know where we are, Belfry?” Angelina asked in Italian.

“No,” he said. “No, signorina, but I don’t like this darkness at all.”

“Me either.” Angelina switched to English. “He doesn’t know where we are either.”

“Asking him was a good idea, though,” said Chelsea. She looked up at something off to the side. “That’s… weird.”

Angelina looked up. A dim, gold light glowed through the unnerving darkness, growing gradually brighter. Golden light usually made her think of warmth and sunshine, but there was nothing summery or comforting about this light. It was metallically cold, empty and distant like light from a long-dead star.

The light was bright enough she could see they stood on a featureless platform about two meters across that floated in the living darkness. Somewhere in the distance, several gold spheres hanging from pivots swung back and forth, dancing and undulating in waves. The strange, alien darkness made it impossible to judge the spheres’ sizes and distance. They could have been mere meters away and beach ball-sized; they could just as easily have been a million kilometers away and planet-sized.

“That’s really weird,” agreed Angelina. “What are they?”

“That’s a good question.” Chelsea’s voice was hushed as she stared at the spheres.

“They look like… I don’t know the English word. Pendoli.”


“Pendulums. Right. That makes sense. Pendoli. Pendulums.”

Below the pendulums, the slithering darkness began to part, and something began to rise toward them. At first, Angelina thought it was another sphere. Then, as Belfry let out a small, frightened squeak, she realized it was something far stranger.

Much like the pendulums, the creature rising from the darkness was difficult to judge in size; he could have been two meters tall, two kilometers, or even larger–though Angelina really hoped he wasn’t larger. He was roughly human shaped, but definitely not mistakable for a human. Sleek, olive gold scales covered his body, and his four arms rippled with muscle as he raised a golden serpent-headed scepter.

His head was the least human thing about him; a cobra-like hood fanned out around his face, framing his gold eyes and fanged mouth. His jaws parted, revealing his black, forked tongue, and he let out a hiss.

“Um,” Angelina said. “Hi.”

The creature fixed his eyes on them.

“Chelsea Louise Brown,” the creature said, drawing out the ‘s’ sounds in Chelsea’s first and middle names in a way that seemed very cliched for a snake-person.

His voice somehow hissed and boomed at the same time, and the almost cathedralesque acoustics of their surroundings made it even more intimidating.

“Hello,” said Chelsea, her voice small.

“Experiment 5648,” said the creature.

Belfry shrank behind Angelina’s head. She could feel him trembling.

“Angela Emilia Maria Bianchi,” said the creature.

Angelina’s full name was so rarely used that hearing it spoken aloud always weirded her out a bit. Hearing this strange, imposing snake-man say it was downright creepy.

“How do you even know my full name?” said Angelina. “No one uses my full name.”

“Silence, mortal,” said the creature.

Angelina couldn’t pinpoint what language the creature was speaking. It wasn’t English, and it definitely wasn’t Italian. It didn’t sound like any of the languages she spoke, but whatever it was, she understood it perfectly.

“Who are you?” said Angelina. “What is this place?”

The echoing hisses around them intensified, as though Angelina had somehow displeased the darkness around them.

Chelsea placed a hand on Angelina’s arm that Angelina first took for reassurance, then realized was probably also intended as a gentle ‘be quiet’ gesture.

“Do you not know me, mortals?” said the snake man.

Angelina shook her head ‘no’. The hisses in the writhing dark intensified even more.

“I am the mighty Zogzhesh, serpent of judgement,” said the snake-man. “You have entered the Snake Room. The swinging of the cosmic pendulums shall decide your fates.”

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Falcon thrust his hand out at the creature, but his invisible force barely slowed its rise. For every tendril that lost its grip on the concrete, two more seemed to appear from below.

Falcon turned to Jen and Naomi, his brow knit with effort, and mouthed a single word.


Well, he didn’t have to tell Naomi twice.

She took off running, hearing Falcon’s footsteps behind her as he caught up to her and then passed her. She couldn’t hear the creature behind her, or at least, she didn’t think she could. She wasn’t sure what something with so many gross, slithery limbs would sound like as it moved, and she really, really didn’t want to think about it.

Falcon wasn’t as far ahead of her as she would have expected given how much taller than her he was. It almost seemed like he was slowing down so she and Jen could keep up, which was kind of sweet despite being incredibly stupid.

Then again, Naomi guessed it didn’t matter how fast he was as long as he was faster than the slowest member of the group. It was like that joke about the two guys running from the bear: “I don’t have to outrun the bear–I just have to outrun you!”

Naomi noticed with a chill that there were no sounds behind her–not the creature in pursuit, nor Jen’s footsteps. Maybe Jen had just taken off in a different direction and separated from the group, Naomi told herself, trying to channel some of Jen’s earlier optimism. Maybe Jen just had very light footfalls.

Or maybe the metaphorical bear had picked off the slowest runner.



Chelsea and Angelina stood by the window together as Belfry perched on the windowsill in front of them.

They watched through the dim green light outside, waiting for another chunk of the world to appear or vanish. Angelina had scrawled some kind of diagram in a notebook she’d been carrying with her. Each time an object disappeared, she’d scramble to mark it on the map with such enthusiasm that the notebook ended up sliding from her grip more than once. Her hands were dotted purple with ink.

“You were right.” Angelina held up the notebook. “Look.”

Chelsea stared at the notebook. The diagram featured multiple layers overlapping each other, lines extending in different directions, and little doodles of things like houses, flowers, and birds. There were several scribbled-over areas when Angelina had crossed things out. Some things were labeled in Italian, others were surrounded by question marks.

“Sorry, I’m… not sure what I’m looking for.”

“The pattern. I started to see it a little bit as we were looking out the window, but it makes more sense now that I draw it,” said Angelina. “See? Look at the ‘X’s and stars.”

Chelsea looked more closely. The drawing had been so busy that she had missed it on her first look. She still wasn’t sure what exactly most of the diagram represented, but the map was dotted with ‘X’s and stars that formed a kind of intricate, incomplete spiral.

“Wow,” said Chelsea. “It’s kind of like a vortex.”

“Some of it is missing because I can’t remember most of what I saw disappear in the crater, but it’s based on that, plus the stuff that disappeared in here.”

“Angelina, this is amazing,” said Chelsea. “How did you figure this out?”

“It was really easy if you saw things disappear in the crater too.” Angelina shrugged, then turned her notebook to another page. “I made a map of where I think things should disappear soon.”

This page was a lot more straightforward than the last, depicting a street lined by pentagons that represented houses. Angelina had marked some places on the map with large stars and labels in Italian.

“When you say soon, you mean…?”

“A few minutes.”

Really? It was that easy?

Angelina turned to Belfry and spoke to him in Italian. He gave an enthusiastic response.

“He’s coming with us,” said Angelina.

“Of course he is,” said Chelsea. “We can’t just leave him here all alone.”

Angelina put down her notebook, stood up, patted her shoulder and said something else in Italian, and Belfry fluttered onto her shoulder. She headed for the door.

“Wait,” said Chelsea. “Are you going now? Just like that?”

Angelina paused in front of the door, swiveling on her heels to face Chelsea.

“Why should we wait?”

“I just think we should be careful,” said Chelsea. “Your map is amazing, but we don’t really know how this place works yet. I don’t want you to get hurt again.”

Angelina turned back toward the door.

“I won’t get hurt! Come on. Let’s go. If we stand close together by the corner of the orange house, we’ll be out of here in a few minutes.”

Angelina opened the door and stepped outside. Chelsea picked up Angelina’s backpack and notebook and started after her.

“Angelina, wait,” said Chelsea.

Angelina turned around with a smile, not breaking her brisk pace.

“Of course we’ll wait for you. We’re not leaving without–Ow!” Angelina stumbled as her foot caught on a cobblestone. She recovered her balance and kept walking. “I wouldn’t leave without you, C. Follow me!”

Angelina skipped across the street, heading for a house the color of orange sherbet. Chelsea jogged after her.

“We should probably be careful. This place is really strange. Maybe we could watch a few more things disappear before we try this, just in case it doesn’t work the way we think it does.”

Angelina walked around the side of the house and stopped, turning to face Chelsea again. Chelsea caught up with her.

“It’ll be fine,” said Angelina. “It should happen somewhere around here.”

A gruesome thought crossed Chelsea’s mind as she remembered the severed monster head she’d found next to Angelina.

“Angelina, wait!” said Chelsea. “What if this weird effect only takes parts of us? We could be cut in half or something!”

A strange, static-like smell filled the air, and a soft crackling sound began to pop around them. Chelsea reached for Angelina’s hand, to pull her away. Instead, Angelina pulled her closer, wrapping her arms around Chelsea’s waist. Angelina has surprisingly strong arms, but then, she was a drummer after all.

Chelsea might have been embarrassed at being so close to Angelina if the possible threat of being split in two wasn’t looming over them.

“What are you doing?” Chelsea called over the increasingly loud staticky noise.

“If we’re close together, there’s less chance we’ll get cut in half!”

That didn’t even make sense!

“I’m not sure that’s the best idea! We should probably get out of here before…”

Chelsea heard her own voice fade away to nothing as the crackles and pops grew louder. Their surroundings grew brighter and brighter, until the light was so intense it should have hurt her eyes, but there was no pain. She tried to cling tighter to Angelina, but the other girl’s body dissolved in her arms as though made of sand.

The light faded again, until there was nothing but heavy, intense darkness.

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Angelina lay face-down in the lumpy bed, resting her chin in her hands as Chelsea dabbed disinfectant on her wounds. Belfry had done his best, but as it turned out, bats weren’t the best at applying bandages.

Without the nightgown on, the air was cold enough to make her shiver a bit, but somehow, Chelsea’s face looked redder than before. Hopefully, she was feeling alright.

“I’m so sorry,” said Chelsea. “I should’ve done this to begin with. It’s just been such a… a weird, weird day.”

“It so has.” Angelina nodded emphatically. “This is nice, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“This. Being here with you.”

“It is nice,” said Chelsea. “Not exactly how I pictured our first meeting, but nice.”

“I always kind of hoped I’d meet you at my first Goldfish Technique show. Like, we’d see each other from across the bar and run over to each other all excited and hug in slow motion.”

“Once we get home, I’ll take you to see them.” Chelsea twisted the cap back onto the disinfectant tube and removed the bandages from the first aid kit.

That sounded like the kind of thing people said because it sounded nice, but Angelina really hoped Chelsea meant that.

“When I was 17, I took the train five hours to stand outside when they opened for The Blame Collection in Milan. I could kind of hear them. It was the most beautiful-est sound in the world.”

“You didn’t go in?”

“You had to be 18. I wanted to sneak in, but I couldn’t find a way.”

“Wow,” said Chelsea. “That’s dedicated.”

“Lachlan said I was like a crazy person,” said Angelina, “but he’s always telling me if I was a real fan, I’d have seen the band live.”

“That’s not fair. He lives in the same city as they do. He can see them all the time.”

“He says if I really loved them, I’d have found a way to see them by now.”

“It’s easy to be a fan if you’re lucky enough to see them every weekend,” said Chelsea. “You’re on another continent, and you single-handedly founded the Italian street team.”

“Lachlan said the Italian street team doesn’t count because it’s just me, you, and my sister.” Angelina sighed. “You’re not even Italian, and Martina’s only 10 and she doesn’t even like the band.”

“It counts,” said Chelsea. “How many street teams has he founded?”

“If you and I never get home, do you think Martina will carry on her big sister’s legacy and help the street team live on in my memory? Probably not, right?”

“Don’t say that,” said Chelsea. “We’ll find a way home. If there was a way here, there has to be a way back too, right?”

“Maybe not. Maybe it’s like a… space thing that sucks in planets and stars. I don’t know the English word for it. In Italian, it’s buco nero.”

“A black hole?”

“So it’s basically exactly the same words. Now I feel dumb.” Angelina pursed her lips and stared out the window at the dark silhouettes of long-empty houses. “It can’t really be like a black hole anyway. Things from here can go back to the normal world. When I was in the crater, I saw things from the town appearing, like lamps and envelopes.”

“Lamps and envelopes, huh?”

“And other stuff. It wasn’t just a field full of lamps and envelopes.” Angelina giggled at the idea. “Just an endless field full of lamps and envelopes! That would be so weird!”

Angelina tried and failed to suppress another laugh at the idea of a field of lamps and envelopes. Chelsea laughed too, which was nice, because most people probably wouldn’t have found the idea funny.

“Anyway, if lamps and envelopes–” Angelina stifled another giggle and continued. “If lamps and envelopes can come back from here, you’re probably right that we can also go back.”

“Did you notice any patterns in how the things appeared?”

“Not really,” said Angelina. “It seemed completely random. I don’t think we could predict it.”

“This might sound weird, but I’m not sure I believe randomness exists,” said Chelsea.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you know how computer programs can’t really generate truly random numbers?”

“Yeah,” Angelina lied.

“Since they have to use algorithms, the numbers can’t actually be random. They have a pattern you can predict. Then there are the random number generators that use radio noise from lightning. A lot of people say that’s completely random, but lightning can be predicted too…”

Angelina nodded, watching Chelsea’s reflection in the window as she spoke. Her red hair was falling into her face as she leaned down to apply bandages. She was so smart–she probably knew everything. She was so pretty too, even prettier in person than she’d been on video or in pictures.

“…even things like dice rolls and roulette wheels,” finished Chelsea.

Angelina realized she had missed most of what Chelsea had said.

“My point is,” said Chelsea, “it’s possible to find a way out of here. We just need to figure out the pattern.”

Angelina hoped she was right.



Naomi, Jen, and Falcon walked together across the cold, dark concrete expanse, heading for a distant ledge where the concrete appeared to drop off into nothingness.

Naomi had left her pen in the car, but fortunately, Jen had been carrying another pen in her pocket. Unfortunately, that pen had turned out to be a pink, glitter gel pen shaped like a cartoon cat. The writing it produced was barely legible, and even worse, holding the stupid thing made Naomi feel so silly and childish.

‘Have you been to this place before?’ Naomi wrote.

She passed the notepad to Falcon. For Jen’s benefit, he shook his head no instead of signing it.

So they didn’t even have a guide. Fantastic.

She held out her hand, motioning for the notepad back. He handed it to her, and she wrote another message.

‘Please, at least tell me you know something about this place.’

He wrote something on the pad and handed it back to her. Jen craned her neck over Naomi’s shoulder to see what he had written.

‘It’s dangerous. My brothers and I always thought of it as a death sentence.’

‘Thanks for the reassuring words,’ she wrote back.

Jen motioned for the notepad, and Naomi handed to her.

‘Sarah said there was dangerous stuff in here. do u know what kinda stuff?’

Falcon shook his head again.

Jen wrote another message.

‘look on the bright side! at least up here nothing can sneak up on us!’

She drew a smiley face at the end of her message, despite this being in no way a smiley face type of situation.

A strange screeching roar came from somewhere below them, causing Jen and Naomi to jump. Naomi took the notepad.

‘Something could still come after us from below. We need to be careful.’

‘we’ll be fine!’ wrote Jen. ‘we just need to stay positive!’

She added another smiley face. This girl was really something else.

How were they supposed to stay positive when they were stranded in some kind of pit between realities? When there were unknown monsters lurking below them and they didn’t know if their friends were alive or dead?

They were not going to be fine, Naomi was sure of that much. Right now, though, she had to focus on finding Chelsea. After that, there would be plenty of time to worry about how doomed they all were.

The roar sounded again, louder this time.

‘Something is roaring,’ wrote Naomi. ‘It’s getting closer.’

‘hey now we don’t know that sound is something scary!’ wrote Jen. ‘maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds!’

‘Please be less optimistic,’ wrote Naomi.

The roar came a third time, this time rumbling from almost directly below them, shaking the concrete they stood on.

Falcon looked down, concerned. He gave Naomi and Jen a questioning look, as if to ask ‘was that it?’. Naomi nodded.

Jen didn’t respond, instead staring vacantly at the horizon. It was strange–she’d been annoyingly positive moments before. Now, she looked almost paralyzed with terror.

Before Naomi could ask if Jen was okay, the concrete in front of them began to crack and splinter. Writhing tendrils erupted from the cracks, so vivid blue in color they seemed to glow in the dim light.

So much for staying positive.

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Angelina seemed to be recovering quickly; within minutes, she was sitting up in bed chattering animatedly.

“–and then I hid in this old pipe, and she had these lizard heads with these big teeth that were really scary, and she was reaching them down the pipe, but first she lifted the pipe and dropped it and that’s how I hit my face, and then–“

Chelsea nodded, trying her best to keep up with what Angelina was saying. She didn’t completely follow the story, but whatever had happened to Angelina sounded terrifying. Chelsea had seen the severed head of whatever had attacked Angelina lying in the street beside her, and its teeth had looked like saw blades.

“–but then, all of a sudden, it was like I was a giant smoothie and I thought I died, but I’m alive, and you’re here, and I actually found you!”

Angelina wrapped her arms around Chelsea’s waist, pulling her into a hug that would have caused her to lose her footing if she hadn’t managed to grab a bedpost for support. Her face flushing a little, she hesitated, then returned the hug.

Belfry fluttered off her shoulder and alighted on one of the bedposts.

Angelina released Chelsea so suddenly, she nearly flung her backward. Chelsea grabbed the bedpost again. For a moment, she wondered if she’d crossed a boundary by returning the hug.

“I’m so sorry!” said Angelina. “I forgot I was all dirty from the pipe, and I got dirt all over your clothes!”

“It’s okay,” said Chelsea. “I don’t mind, I–“

She stopped, noticing the small spots of crimson Angelina had left on her shirt.

“Angelina, you’re bleeding. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, I just got bit by the giant monster–it’s okay! I was super dizzy, and I couldn’t move, and I thought I was dead, but I feel fine now!”

Huh. That wasn’t very reassuring.

Chelsea picked up the first aid kit she’d laid on the dresser.

“I found this in a bathroom cabinet. I know you feel fine, but maybe I should look at your, um, giant monster bite anyway. Where did it bite you?”

“Uh, it was like… everywhere? Its head was really big, so its mouth was also really big, and its teeth hit kind of…” Angelina pointed to spots on her hips and ribs. “Here, here, here, and here.”

Oh, no. That made things awkward. Angelina probably needed to have someone look at the bites, but they were all under her clothing. Chelsea couldn’t exactly ask her to take her clothes off without it potentially being taken the wrong way.

But what if the bites were serious? What if they were life-threatening?

“Um, so, Angelina…” Chelsea began. “Uh…”

What was the least creepy way to phrase it? It wasn’t like she could just say ‘take your clothes off’. She would need to think carefully about how to–

Oh, wait, Angelina was already pulling her T-shirt off and throwing it onto the floor. Okay, then.

The top rows of cuts was just below Angelina’s bra band. Chelsea looked down at them, examining the wounds from a distance and hoping Angelina would know she wasn’t ogling her breasts or something.

The injuries looked like puncture marks made by something massive, with pink and red bruises forming where the skin hadn’t broken. They looked painful, but the cuts didn’t look deep, and the bleeding had almost stopped. Chelsea felt a swell of relief.

“Does it look bad?” said Angelina. “I can’t see.”

Chelsea smiled reassuringly.

“It doesn’t look serious,” she said.

Angelina pursed her lips in a pout.

“It feels serious.”

Chelsea felt a rush of concern that must have shown on her face, because Angelina quickly added, “No, no, no, it’s not serious. It’s not. I was being dramatic. I was just whining because it hurts.”

“You’re not whining,” said Chelsea. “You just got attacked by a huge monster. You must have been terrified. You’re allowed to complain.”

Angelina pushed the covers off her legs and began to shimmy out of her jeans, and Chelsea looked away, her face feeling hot again. The jeans fell to the floor in a heap at the foot of the bed.

“Sorry,” said Angelina. “I just wanted to look at the other bite marks. The ones on my hips hurt too.”

“No need to apologize,” said Chelsea.

She turned to Belfry, who was doing a dance in place on the bedpost. Good, she could focus on that instead of the half-naked girl sitting in front of her.

“It’s not bleeding,” said Angelina. “It’s really red, though, and it hurts so bad.”

“Oh, well, um, is the skin broken?” said Chelsea.

“No, not on my hips. But it is up here.”

Chelsea could only see Angelina out of the corner of her eyes, but assumed she was gesturing to the bite marks on her ribs.

Chelsea laid the first aid kit on the bed next to Angelina’s legs and opened it. She pulled out a tube of antibiotic ointment and a handful of bandages and handed them to Angelina.

“Here. There’s no water in this house to wash your bites, so you’ll want to put this on it and then bandage it up,” said Chelsea.

“Thanks, but I–” Angelina stopped suddenly. “Are you okay? Your face is really red.”

“What? I–yes, I’m fine,” said Chelsea. “It’s just–“

“Just what?”

Just that usually when Chelsea was with a cute girl who was in bed in her underwear, it was under much better circumstances.

“Just that… I’m a little overheated,” she lied.

Angelina cocked her head.

“Really? It’s so cold in here!”

Angelina reached for the covers, pulling them up to her chin and mercifully protecting her modesty again.

“I bet there’s something warm you can wear in the closet,” said Chelsea. “I’ll go find you something. I’ll be right back.”

Chelsea suppressed a sigh of relief as she turned toward the closet. This was perfect; now Angelina would have some privacy to tend to her wounds, and Chelsea would be able to escape the minefield that was an attractive straight girl obliviously stripping in front of her.

“Could you help me do the bandages and stuff first?” said Angelina. “I can’t see all the cuts.”

Damn it. So close.

“Um, well, I–“

She knew she didn’t have a choice, that she shouldn’t even be thinking about how awkward and embarrassing this was when her friend was hurt and needed her. She would need to deal with her embarrassment for Angelina’s sake, to suck it up, tread carefully, and hope that she didn’t inadvertently do anything to make Angelina uncomfortable or jeopardize their friendship.

Chelsea glanced at Belfry, who continued his little dance on the bedpost.

Wait. Angelina needed help with her bandages, but that didn’t mean Chelsea had to help her.

“Maybe Belfry can help you,” said Chelsea. “That way I can find you something nice and warm while he patches you up.”

Belfry’s ears perked up at the sound of his name. Angelina looked up, noticing Belfry for the first time, and let out a piercing squeal.

“It’s soooooo cute! What is it?! Was it here this whole time–“

Startled by the sudden, loud excitement, Belfry fluttered off the bedpost and toward Chelsea, clinging to her shirt.

“Oh no,” said Angelina. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare it.”

“Belfry, va bene,” said Chelsea. “Angelina is un aminca.

Chelsea felt Belfry relax as he turned to examine Angelina.

“Buongiorno signorina,” said Belfry.

“It talks?” Angelina’s eyes widened with delight. “It talks in Italian?”

Angelina said something to Belfry in Italian. Belfry’s ears perked up upon hearing his native language, and he let got of Chelsea’s shirt and glided toward Angelina, perching on her knee. He responded with something Chelsea didn’t understand, and Angelina looked at Chelsea, beaming.

Angelina handed the ointment and bandages to Belfry. Chelsea watched for a moment to make sure Belfry knew what he was doing; then headed into the closet, leaving Belfry and Angelina to chat happily in the bedroom.

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Naomi, Jen, and Sarah had moved from the trashed living room to the kitchen. Naomi and Jen sat at the table while Sarah brewed a fresh pot of coffee.

“I didn’t ask you to make coffee,” said Naomi.

“I’m being nice,” said Sarah. “Plus, it’s part of my biological imperative or whatever.”

“Making coffee is?”

“No. Being helpful.”

“You weren’t very helpful in the elevator,” said Naomi.

“Oh, I was,” said Sarah. “I was being real helpful to CPSI. But now I’m helping you.”

She turned to Naomi and Jen and smiled brightly.

A biological imperative to be helpful? Naomi could have maybe bought the idea if she hadn’t met Sarah’s sisters, but those vicious, sadistic women definitely hadn’t had any helpful imperatives.

“I’m not going to drink anything you make, just so you know,” said Naomi.

“Me either,” said Jen.

“Aw,” said Sarah. “Why not?”

“Um, ’cause it might be poison?” said Jen.

“All you’re doing right now is wasting my coffee,” said Naomi. “If you actually want to help, you can tell us more about the Pit.”

“Suit yourself.” Sarah dumped the coffee pot in the sink, then began rinsing it.

“Stop,” said Naomi. “You don’t have to wash it. Just sit down and tell us more about what we’re up against.”

“Fine.” Sarah sighed exaggeratedly, walked across the kitchen, and took a seat at the table. “Anything specific you want to know?”

“I have a question,” said Jen. “That hot guy said something about a device?”

“The IDLD,” said Sarah. “It basically anchors you to a specific place in our reality and pulls you out of the Pit. It’s kinda like an inter-dimensional grappling hook, hooking onto a preset location at the correct point in time.”

“Ohhh,” said Jen. “I get it. I think.”

Her expression suggested she did not get it at all.

“Hottie Hotster didn’t think there was a way out of this Pit place without one of those devices,” said Jen. “Is that true?”

‘Hottie Hotster’? Naomi resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

“Technically, no,” said Sarah, “but in practice, yeah. Pretty much.”

“What do you mean?” said Naomi.

“There are certain weak points, intersections between time and space, where our reality’s floor gets real thin.”

“I have no clue what you’re talking about,” said Jen.

“Honestly, I barely get it myself,” said Sarah. “Basically, in certain places at certain times, it becomes possible to fall in and out of the Pit without ripping a big ol’ hole in reality.”

“Is there a way to know what places and at what times?” said Naomi.

“There are certain places where there’s a lot more activity than others. The poles, the Devil’s Sea, the Bermuda Triangle, Borgo San Severino. CPSI has some kind of system that forecasts the weak points, but I’m not allowed to access it.”

“Wait. Back up,” said Jen. “The Bermuda Triangle is real? I knew it! I used to be so interested in the Bermuda Triangle, and Sam made fun of me. He said it was a manufactured pseudo-mystery perpetuated by books.”

“I mean, some of those ships probably disappear in storms and stuff,” said Sarah, “but at least a few of them ended up in the Pit.”

“Wow,” said Jen.

“I can guess what Naomi here is thinking,” said Sarah. “She’s hoping she can use one of the weak points to get in and out of the Pit without relying on me.”

“Can I?” said Naomi.

Sarah shook her head.

“Like I said, the weak points are unpredictable without the forecast system. Plus, they’re not always stable. There’s no guarantee you’d survive the ‘fall’ into the Pit even if you found one,” said Sarah. “Even if you could use the weak points, you’d want my help for another reason.”

“What’s that?” said Naomi.

“Safety in numbers. You need all the help you can get in the Pit,” said Sarah. “My sisters, the immature ones we ran into, are the least of what lives in there. I’d suggest recruiting st59 or Falcon or whatever he’s calling himself too.”

Naomi frowned.

“You’re after Falcon. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to let him anywhere near you.”

“I was after him,” said Sarah, “but not anymore. I keep trying to tell you I’m on your side now.”

“I’m still not exactly sure who Falcon is,” said Jen, “but maybe you could let him know what’s going on, and then he can decide whether he wants to help.”

Naomi nodded.

“That’s not a bad idea.”

Naomi opened her laptop, then selected Dominic’s name on her instant messenger friend list. She would give the message to Dominic and ask him to relay it to Falcon; that way, Dominic wouldn’t hold her responsible if anything happened to Falcon. She didn’t think she could handle someone she admired so much blaming her for his boyfriend getting hurt.

Before she began typing, she fixed Sarah with a hard look.

“For whatever reason, Dominic trusted me to help keep Falcon safe. If you do anything to him, I will make sure you wish you were never born, or grown in a test tube or whatever–“

“It was more like a vat or a chamber actually,” Sarah interupted cheerfully.

Whatever. My point is, I’ll make you wish you never existed.”



There wasn’t much food in the house, but Chelsea had managed to find some cheese, stale crackers and cookies, and a few jars of olives and mushrooms.

She sat on the couch with a plate of snacks on her lap. Belfry sat next to her, leaning against her side and eating an olive like it was apple.

She sighed, absently stroking Belfry’s head.

Where was she? How had she gotten here? What were the creatures that had chased her? Nothing made sense, and she had so many questions.

“Belfry,” she said.

He–was Belfry a he? She didn’t want to assume, but she wasn’t sure if it would be rude to ask–looked up from the olive and turned toward her, yellow eyes wide. He held the olive up to her with one hand, offering her a bite. She smiled and shook her head.

“No grazie.” She laughed gently. “I was wondering…”

She paused. She’d been about to ask if Belfry knew where they were, but she noticed something on the inside of his leg. A small white mark.

“What is… cos–uh… your leg?”

She didn’t know the Italian word for leg, so she pointed to the same spot on her own leg.

Belfry nodded and said something she didn’t understand. He pointed to the mark and moved his leg so she could see it better.

She could see the mark clearly now. It was the CPSI logo, tattooed in white on Belfry’s skin above a tiny bar code.

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Content Warning: Kidnapping


Chelsea ducked into a pastel pink house and locked the door behind her, the bat-creature still clinging to the front of her blouse. She collapsed onto a lumpy couch, and the creature crawled into her lap, curling its wings around its body and looking up at her with large, round eyes.

“Grazie, signorina,” it said. “Mi ha salvato la vita. Grazie mille!”

“You poor thing,” said Chelsea. “Uh… come… bene?

She was almost positive her question hadn’t been grammatically correct, but the creature seemed to understand.

“Sì! Sì!” It bobbed its head up and down. “Sto bene, grazie a lei! È così coraggiosa!”

Chelsea looked down at the creature and noticed blood on one of its wings.

“You’re hurt,” she said. “May I see your wing?”

“Non capisco,” it said. “Mi scusi.

“Your wing.” She pointed to the creature’s wing. “Mi scusi. Non parlo italiano.

“La mia ala?” The creature unfurled its wing.

“That’s right, sì. Tua… tua ala.

Chelsea took the wing gently in her hand. The wing’s thin membrane had a ragged tear a few inches long.

“I bet we can find something to help you somewhere in this house. Here, climb on.”

She patted her shoulder, and the creature hopped up, hooking its claws into her shirt. She turned into a hallway and found a bathroom on the left. She searched through drawers full of soaps, medication bottles, and half-used toothpaste tubes, hoping to find first aid supplies.

She caught a glimpse of a name on one of the prescription bottles–‘Agnese Colombo’.

It was strange, she thought. The items in the drawers belonged to someone, but the town seemed deserted, and the thick blanket of dust that coated everything in the house told her no one had lived here for a long time. Even so, she tried to place each thing back where she’d found it. This was or had been someone’s home after all, and she wanted to be as respectful as she could.

“Sorry, Agnese,” she said. “I’ll be careful with your stuff.”

She felt a chill as she wondered whether the monsters she’d encountered had anything to do with why Agnese hadn’t lived here in a while. The more optimistic part of her hoped the town’s inhabitants had evacuated and ended up someplace safer.

She didn’t want to think about the other possibility.

There were butterfly bandages in the bottom drawer, along with several ointment tubes with labels in Italian. She couldn’t read most of them, so she selected one with the word ‘antibiotica’ on it.

I guess I’m somewhere in Italy, she thought. But how did I get here? And why is it so cold?

She stood up and lowered her arm, motioning for the creature to jump down. It hopped off her shoulder and onto the bathroom counter.

“Can I see your wing? Tua ala?

The creature extended its injured wing, holding still as Chelsea dabbed ointment onto the wing with a cotton swab.

“Grazie! Grazie mille!”

She unwrapped the butterfly bandages, then carefully began placing them across the creature’s injury, first on the front of the wing, then on the back.

“There. You’re good as new. Va bene.”

“Grazie mille! Lei è un angelo, signorina!” The creature embraced her with its wings. “Un vero angelo!

“Prego.” She stroked the back of its head.

“Come si chiama, signorina?” It pushed its head into her hand the way a friendly kitten would.

Chelsea,” she said. “Mi chiamo Chelsea.

“Chel. Sea,” it repeated. “Sei la mia eroina, Chelsea.

“Come ti chiami?” asked Chelsea.

It looked up at her, then cast its eyes downward. “Non ho un nome, signorina.

“You don’t have a name? No… nome?


“Can I give you… can I give you un nome?”

The creature tilted its head.

Tuo nome… Belfry?” She pointed at the creature. “Tuo nome è Belfry. Only if you like it, though. Is that okay? Va bene?

The creature stared up at her, and for a moment, she worried that she was out of line giving it a name. Then its eyes lit up, and it began to bounce back and forth on the counter.

“Belfry! Belfry, Belfry, Belfry!” it sang. “Ho un nome! Ho un nome! Mi chiamo Belfry! Grazie, oh, grazie!”

Prego, I’m glad you like it.” Chelsea held out her arm, and Belfry danced up to her shoulder. “Now, come on, Belfry. I bet you’re hungry. I hate to ransack this person’s house, but maybe we can find something to eat in here.”



As Lachlan blinked himself awake, he tried to move his hands to rub his eyes and found them stuck behind his back.

He wasn’t in his bed, he realized. The surface he lay on was hard, and cold against his arms and the back of his head.

Had he had too much to drink and passed out somewhere? Had he just rolled out of his bed and onto the floor?

No, the daylight bombarding his eyes wasn’t coming from his bedroom window, but from the open rear doors of a windowless van. His head snapped up, and a jolt of panic ran through his body as his memories of the previous night flooded back to him.

He tried to stand, hoping to run out the door before his captors could catch him, but his legs refused to obey.

“How’s he look, Darryl? He make it through the night?” Lachlan heard a nasal voice from beside the van.

“Looks like it,” replied the man who had opened the doors–Darryl apparently. “He’s awake, but with the dose they gave him, he’s not going anywhere.”

“Shame. Would’ve been easier for him if he’d carked it already,” said the man with the nasal voice.

“Yeah. Poor kid.”

Lachlan tried to raise his voice, to ask who they were and what the hell they were doing with him, but he only managed a feeble groan.

“Shh,” Darryl grabbed Lachlan’s legs, pulling him from the van. “Just relax, mate. It’ll all be over soon.”

The words should have scared Lachlan, but they only made him feel indignant.

Of course I’m not going to relax if you keep saying ominous things like that!

Thinking of the word ominous reminded him of Naomi, of a conversation they’d had a few days before. He was never going to see her again, he realized. Not her, or his mum, or his stepdad, or his sister, or any of his friends. He would never listen to The Goldfish Technique again, or play guitar. He’d never have a serious girlfriend or boyfriend, or start his own band, or move out of his mum’s place.

Worst of all, he was going to die wearing his Chaz’s Chicken Hut uniform.

Lachlan felt one of the men grab him under his arms and hoist him from behind. He tried to struggle, but only managed a weak twitch.

The room they carried him into was massive, with clinical white walls and a glass chamber in the center. He felt himself being flung into the chamber, the door shutting behind him before he hit the floor. He heard a loud thwack as his head collided with something metal, but felt detached from it, as though he was watching someone else hit their head.

He could see the men outside the chamber, a third person with them now, manipulating some controls.

The loudest sound he had ever heard tore through his ears, and a thick green fog swallowed the room around him.

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“Hey.” Sam turned to the man sitting next to him. “Did you hear that?”

The man shrugged.

“It sounded like a woman screaming for help.”

“It’s probably nothing.” The man didn’t look up from his laptop. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“I don’t know.” Sam stood up and closed the laptop he’d just opened. “I’m going to go see what’s going on.”

The man grunted and shrugged again.

Sam left the office area and headed into the hallway in the direction from which the screaming had come. He’d been walking for less than half a minute when something bright red on the floor caught his eye.

It was a metal lunch box with a cherry pattern on it. Chelsea’s.

The lunch box lay on the floor beside a purse. The purse had tipped onto its side, and a lipstick tube and a few coins had rolled out onto the floor. The purse and lunch box sat beside a door that was slightly ajar.

The door had a key card lock, and was surrounded by red and yellow signs warning ‘Danger’ and ‘Authorized Personnel Only’, which Sam elected to ignore.

The door led into a narrow hallway with another door with a key card lock at the end. A brown-haired woman in a lab coat emerged, and Sam waved to her.

“Can you hold that, please?” he said.

She held the door for him, and he continued through, ignoring still more warning signs.

The room he entered looked like any other lab in the engineering building, except for the large chamber in the center surrounded by walls of thick glass. Inside was a loop-shaped machine that was so tall, Sam couldn’t see the top of it. More warning signs were plastered on the glass walls.

“Chelsea?” he called.

There was no response–no sign of anyone else in the room.

Sam peered into the glass chamber. A key card lay on the floor beside the machine. He walked around the chamber until he found a door, then entered and picked up the badge.

Chelsea Brown, ID # 003568.

“Chelsea?” he called again. “You there?”

Still no response.

“Chelsea? Hello?” He looked around the room. “You really shouldn’t be in here. It’s not safe.”

There was an electrical hum behind him as the machine whirred to life, then an ear-splitting sound, as though the earth was ripping in half beneath him.

A dark green fog filled the lab around him, swimming in his eyes and distorting everything around him. A wave of nausea wracked his body, and he reached out to steady himself against the glass wall. The glass dissolved beneath his hand as though it was sand washed away by an invisible tide.

The last thing he saw before the fog swallowed up his vision was a sign stuck to the glass wall.

DANGER! No strong magnets allowed. Authorized personnel only.’



Chelsea ran for her life.

She didn’t have time to wonder where she was, or what the snarling, crashing thing behind her was. She tore through door after door, not daring to look behind her and see how close the creature was.

She’d caught glimpses of its shadow. Whatever it was, it wasn’t human or animal.

She stumbled through a door and found a room with a gaping hole torn in the ceiling. She dug her hands and feet into the deep gouges in the wall and climbed.

She found herself on top of a vast concrete expanse and kept running, not stopping until she was certain she didn’t hear the thing behind her.

She collapsed onto her knees, gasping for breath. As she tried to steady her breath, she looked around, trying to make sense of what she saw.

Rough concrete extended on either side of her as far as she could see, disappearing into the dark green sky. Somewhere off to her right, an airplane sat on the ground in the distance. In front of her, she saw outlines of small buildings beyond the concrete.

She glanced behind her one more time to make sure she wasn’t being followed, then headed toward the buildings.

She let out a deep exhale, and her breath fogged up in the air. She realized it was a bit cold–too cold to be North Carolina in the summer. So where was she?

She reached a short wall at the end of the concrete and pulled herself over it. The drop was a little longer than she’d anticipated, and she stumbled on the landing, falling forward onto her knees and scraping her hands on a brick path.

There was no light source she could find, no lit windows or streetlights, but a faint dim glow lit up her surroundings just enough for her to see.

She was on a winding street lined with pastel-colored stucco shops and houses. It would have been charming had it not been so dark, quiet, and empty. It was easy to picture the sun shining overhead, children playing in the brick and stone streets, bicycles whizzing past, and shops and cafes bustling with activity.

That fact that it was almost normal made the eerie green-black sky and cold still air feel all the more wrong.

“Hello?” she called out. “Is anyone there?”

The town wasn’t just quiet, she realized. There were no birds or insects chirping, no crinkling leaves, no distant cars passing. No sound at all.

“Hello?” she called again.

A high-pitched shriek from somewhere behind her pierced the silence.

She turned around and felt a wave of relief as she saw someone sprinting toward her.

“Excuse me!” she called. “Can you please help me? I’m not sure where I am!”

As the runner drew closer, Chelsea’s relief turned to terror.

The figure was shaped almost like a woman, but the proportions were wrong. Her limbs were too long and didn’t bend in quite the right places, and her hands were unnaturally large and misshapen. As she drew closer, Chelsea could hear her laughing–a harsh, distorted crowing sound.

Chelsea heard the shriek again, louder this time, and realized it wasn’t coming from the figure.

Something small fluttered past her head, then careened through the air toward one of the stucco houses. It flapped its thin bat-like wings, banking clumsily in time to narrowly escape colliding with a window, and tumbled toward Chelsea.

She felt the flying thing collide with her chest, gripping the front of her blouse with tiny claws. It stared up at her through large, frightened eyes and spoke.

“Aiutami! Per favore aiutami!”

The inhuman figure stalked toward them, a smirk on her face.

Chelsea felt her heart leap into her throat as she realized the monstrous figure had the same face as the woman who had attacked her in Naomi’s apartment and at work.

Chelsea braced herself to be thrown against a wall or have the air sucked from her lungs, but it didn’t happen.

“Hey!” said the figure. Her voice was as harsh and unnatural as her laugh. “That’s my snack. Get your own.”

“Aiuto,” the tiny creature pleaded.

Chelsea could feel the poor creature trembling as it clung to her.

“Shh.” Chelsea stroked the creature’s head. “It’s alright. Um… vava bene. Ti… aiuto.

Chelsea wasn’t sure if her Italian was correct–she only knew what few words Angelina had taught her–but she felt the creature relax a little, nestling into her chest.

“Grazie,” squeaked the bat-creature. “Grazie mille, signorina.”

“Aw, isn’t that sweet?” The monster woman lurched forward. “Isn’t that just adorable?”

For a moment, Chelsea considered running away. She couldn’t very well leave the bat-creature to this monster, but it barely weighed anything and wouldn’t slow her down if it hitched a ride clinging to her shirt.

She looked at the steep road ahead of her, winding downward into complete darkness, and immediately rejected the idea of running.

“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” Chelsea picked up a broom that was leaning against a house wall, brandishing it handle-first at the monster-woman.

“Pick on someone your own size?” The monster-woman laughed her horrible, cawing laugh again. “Seriously? That’s such a cliche line. Oh, my god.”

The monster-woman whipped one of her long, strangely bent arms toward Chelsea, grasping for the creature clinging to her shirt, and Chelsea realized why her hands looked so misshapen.

They were halfway between hands and grotesque saurian heads, with the thumb and pinkie fused to form the lower jaw. Needle-like teeth lined the insides of the fingers.

Chelsea thrust the broom outward, and the needle-teeth bit into the wooden handle. She tugged on the handle, pulling it free, then swung the broom at the monster-woman.

Chelsea flinched as the handle collided with the monster-woman’s face with a sickening crack, but the monster hardly seemed to notice. She reached for Chelsea again, her arm distorting as she stretched her lizard-hand forward.

Chelsea blocked her again with the broom handle, then swung it again, striking the monster across her chest. Again, no reaction. She may as well have been striking one of the candy-colored stucco walls behind them.

The monster laughed, reaching out again. Chelsea shoved the broom handle out again, but she wasn’t quick enough this time. The limb wrapped around her neck, bending in ways an arm shouldn’t be able to.

“It’s my lucky day!” The monster-woman’s chipper tone was jarring combined with her warped, inhuman voice. “I wanted a snack, and now I get a snack and dinner. Yay!”

The other arm’s lizard-hand gnashed its teeth as it reached for the trembling creature clinging to Chelsea’s chest.

Chelsea thought back to when the woman–if she’d been a woman at all–had attacked her in Naomi’s apartment. She hadn’t flinched when Falcon had thrown a metal table at her with enough force to crack a wall, but Chelsea’s desperate kick had been enough to phase her.

‘She can’t feel pain,’ Chelsea realized, ‘but she can be winded.’

Chelsea thrust the broom with all the force she could muster, aiming just below the monster’s rib cage.

The limb released Chelsea’s neck, and the monster doubled over, gasping for breath through all three of her mouths.

Chelsea jabbed the monster with the broom again, aiming for the same spot. The monster fell to the ground, still gulping for air. Chelsea hit her with the broom one more time to be sure she was incapacitated, feeling a bit guilty in spite of herself for hitting something that was already down.

Correre! said the bat-creature. “Correre! Fretta!

Chelsea ran.

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