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“I have to get out of here,” Mrs. Sharma said. “I have to find her. If she’s still with CPSI…”

Angelina didn’t completely understand what was going on, but Mrs. Sharma seemed to know this Sarah, even care about her. Luckily for Mrs. Sharma, Angelina could help.

“I figured out a way out of this place, I think,” said Angelina.

Mrs. Sharma snapped back into her stern demeanor.

“Somehow, I highly doubt that,” said Mrs. Sharma.

Her tone reminded Angelina of a teacher admonishing her for not doing her homework. Few things were more frustrating than an authority figure speaking to her in that tone, and while Mrs. Sharma didn’t have any real authority over them, she certainly seemed to think she did.

“I did!” said Angelina. “I figured it all out in a notebook. It’s right–hold on…”

She shimmied one shoulder out of a backpack strap and cumbersomely shifted the bag to the front of her body, wincing as it bumped against the wounds on her ribs. She unzipped the bag, and a few grapes she’d picked while she was walking the Sentiero Angelica tumbled to the ground. Mrs. Sharma raised an eyebrow.

Angelina had never understood how some people could open backpacks and reach in, pulling out the exact item they were looking for in one fluid motion.

She stuck her hand in and felt for her notebook, but felt only pencil shavings, a crumpled piece of paper, and a couple grapes. Oops. She’d forgotten the notebook.

“Well, uh, it’s not right here. I must have left it with the snake guy. But Chelsea can tell you! Right C?”

Chelsea nodded.

“She really did figure something out,” said Chelsea. “If anyone can help us get home, it’s Angelina.”

A trace of nervousness flashed across Mrs. Sharma’s stoic face.

“What do you mean you left it with the snake guy? What snake guy?”

“We sort of… I guess fell into this really weird place,” said Chelsea. “I’m honestly not really sure what happened. There was this… snake-man creature who captured us and showed us these illusions that… well, I don’t want to get into it, but suffice to say, they weren’t very nice.”

Chelsea laughed humorlessly, an almost imperceptible shudder passing over her body.

“Zogzhesh,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I’ve encountered him.”

Hadn’t Zogzhesh mentioned meeting a human woman?

“I think he told us about you,” said Angelina. “You’re the other person who smelled like the terrible ones?”

Excuse me?”

“Wow, rude much?” said Jen.

Angelina was confused for a second, then realized how her comment had been misconstrued.

“No, that’s not what I meant!” said Angelina. “I didn’t mean you smell terrible. You smell good, actually! Especially for someone trapped in a place without showers!”

Mrs. Sharma frowned.

“My friend is referring to something Zogzhesh said,” Chelsea clarified.

“Yeah,” said Angelina, “He said he smelled the terrible ones on me, whatever that means. He said it explained why I escaped him, and why I could figure out so much about how this place works. He said he met another woman who was the same way.”

“Ah,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I understand what you mean now. I suspect he was mistaken about you, though. You don’t strike me as someone with any exceptional abilities.”

“That’s not true,” said Chelsea. “When we got trapped in Zogzhesh’s… whatever, she pulled us out somehow. And she’s figured out a lot about how this place works. She’s one of the smartest people I know.”

A slight smirk formed on Mrs. Sharma’s face.

“You must not know very many people.” She turned around and resumed walking down the street, throwing a glance over her shoulder at them without breaking her stride. “Come on. We can talk more when we get to my house. We’re wasting time standing around here, and I hate wasting time.”

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Mrs. Sharma slowed her pace when Jen mentioned the name Sarah, her head twitching almost imperceptibly as though she had wanted to whip around to face them and stopped herself.

Chelsea considered asking about Sarah, then decided against it. Mrs. Sharma had made it clear she didn’t want them to ask questions.

“Sarah?” Angelina’s eyes widened as she turned to Chelsea. “Falcon said Sarah was the one who took you.”

Mrs. Sharma’s head perked up in front of them.

“Yeah,” said Jen. “Sarah was the one who tricked me, Naomi, and Falcon. She had these cool freaky powers, and she trapped us here.”

This time, Mrs. Sharma didn’t resist the urge to whip her head around. She stopped walking so abruptly, Angelina narrowly avoided stumbling into her. Mrs. Sharma fixed Jen with an intense stare. Her expression was purposefully neutral, but with a fierce spark in her dark eyes that looked almost hopeful.

“Um, hi?” said Jen.

“What kind of cool freaky powers?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Like… telekinesis powers,” said Jen. “Like she could use her hands to do stuff without touching anything, you know?”

Mrs. Sharma’s neutral, vaguely annoyed visage slipped away almost entirely, replaced with an expression that looked almost frantic.

“And you said this Sarah works for CPSI?”

“Hey,” said Angelina. “Why are you allowed to ask us questions?”

Mrs. Sharma shot Angelina a silencing glare.

“It’s her, isn’t it?” said Jen.

“What are you talking about?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“You said you had someone worth fighting for. I take it Sarah’s your someone, right? She has to be.”

“That’s none of your business.”

Mrs. Sharma’s voice was soft, but retained some of its intense edge.

“I don’t know what Jen’s talking about, but I think that probably means yes,” said Angelina.

The comment earned her another glare.

Mrs. Sharma stopped walking and turned to face them. Angelina didn’t stop walking in time. Chelsea grabbed her arm to stop her from colliding with Mrs. Sharma.

“Tell me where she is,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“I don’t really know,” said Chelsea.

“I don’t either,” said Jen. “She tricked us into coming here, but she didn’t come here herself.”

“Where was she when you last saw her?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Well, I was at the CPSI headquarters,” said Jen. “In the engineering building.”

“Me too,” said Chelsea.

“I’ve never even seen this Sarah person before,” said Angelina.

“How is she? Is she safe? Is she alright?”

“I mean, like, I guess?” said Jen. “She was kinda…violent, but technically you could say she was safe and alright?”

“All this time,” said Mrs. Sharma. “All this time, I’ve been searching for her here, and they never sent her here.”

“Are you okay?” said Chelsea. “I’m… not really sure what’s going on, but you seem like you’re processing something big right now.”

“I think I am okay,” said Mrs. Sharma. Her voice was still soft, with none of its previous intensity. “I think I’m more okay than I’ve been in a long time, actually.”

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Interlude 13 – Straight Ahead

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Mona glanced back at the three girls to make sure they were following, then quickened her pace.

Ugh. This was just what she needed.

She had considered letting the girls go off on their own after they’d been reunited, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to do so. She couldn’t just leave three defenseless girls to get eaten, as tempting the blonde one and especially the brown-haired one were making it.

Maybe she would have felt differently if they weren’t so young. Young enough to make her think of her own kids, though these girls were at least five years older and far less polite. Young people, even the most useless ones, were still full of potential, and if she wrote these girls off as not worth saving, she would be robbing them of that potential. No one deserved that, not even a scruffy brat like that brown-haired girl.

Of course, that meant Mona was stuck with a babysitting job when she had far more important things to do.

“Um, excuse me, ma’am?” said the chatty blonde one. Jen, she’d said her name was.

“What?” said Mona.

“I think I kinda hurt my ankle?”

Oh, great. This one was a whiner.

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“Um, like, maybe slow down? Just a smidge?”

“Walk it off. Quit being a baby.”

“Maybe it would be a good idea to slow down for a bit. I’m sure we’re all pretty tired.”

The redhead, Chelsea, was speaking now. So far, she’d proven to be the most tolerable of the three.

“I’ve fought off creatures ten times my size, suffered far worse injuries, and walked for way longer than this. You’ll be fine. Just keep up.”

“Where are we even going?” said the brown-haired girl. Angelina. The worst one.

Mona had disliked Angelina at first glance, with her disheveled hair and dirty boots, and Angelina had only reinforced that dislike in the few minutes they’d known each other. Mona was tempted to ignore the question, but the girls did have a right to know where she was leading them.

“I’m leading you to my house. I was headed that way anyway, and it should give you a chance to regroup and tell me more about these friends you’re looking for. The sooner you find them, the sooner I can get you out of my hair.”

“Just out of curiosity, can I ask why you’re helping us?” said Jen.

“You’d be as good as dead if I didn’t. I can’t in good conscience leave you to fend for yourselves. Though if you keep bothering me with questions, I might reconsider.”

“When you say your house, does that mean you actually live in this Pit place?” said Jen.

“What did I just say?” said Mona.

“To stop bothering you with quest–oh. Yeah. Sorry. Yes, ma’am. No more questions.”

“I have a question,” said Angelina.

Mona stopped walking and whipped around to glare at her. Angelina seemed to shrink under her gaze. Good.

“My house isn’t much farther now,” Mona continued, answering Jen’s question before Angelina had the chance to speak. “And yes, I do live in this place. Not by choice, obviously. I was sent here against my will, like I’m guessing the three of you were. I can’t help but wonder what three kids like you could have done to piss off someone as powerful as the Clydes.”

“What? Piss off someone as powerful as the Clydes? Do you mean like, Billy and Lily Clyde?” Jen paused. “Wait, did that count as a question?”

“I’ll let it slide,” said Mona. “So you didn’t do anything to piss off the Clydes. At least, not as far as you know. So if CPSI didn’t send you here, how did you end up here?”

“I wasn’t sent here either,” said Angelina. “I came here on my own to find C. And I found her! Yay!”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” said Mona.

Angelina’s statement piqued Mona’s curiosity even more, but she wasn’t about to reward rudeness.

“Um, I came here looking for Chelsea too,” said Jen, “and my boyfriend, Sam, but I obviously still haven’t found him yet.”

“That doesn’t explain how you got here in the first place.”

“Um, it’s a long story.”

“Most things you say seem to be. Try to summarize it.”

“Um, well, long story short, I was supposed to drive my boyfriend home ’cause he can’t drive, but I couldn’t find him anywhere at work. So I was looking for him, right? And it was getting really late, and I was kinda worried, and then I saw this girl who was talking on the phone, and she said she was looking for someone–“

“How is this a ‘long story short’?”

“Right, sorry, so um, basically, she was looking for Chelsea, and this lady named Sarah came up and said she was also looking for Chelsea.”


Could it be…

No. Mona dislodged the thought with a quick shake of her head. It was a ridiculous idea. Sarah was an extremely common name. There was no reason to be sentimental about a coincidence.

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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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Angelina and Chelsea sat side by side on the lumpy bed with Belfry curled up at their feet. It would have been a cozy scene if not for the fact that there was a single wall separating them from a giant snake monster.

“Are you okay, C?” said Angelina.

Chelsea had no idea how to respond to that.

“I’m… fine,” she said.

“Okay!” Angelina sounded far too chipper for their current situation as she squeezed Chelsea’s arm and placed her head on her shoulder. “That’s good!”

Chelsea’s face flushed at the physical contact, and she immediately chastised herself. This was absolutely not the time to be flustered by a girl getting overly affectionate with her.

She was trying to stay focused on the danger at hand, but her mind kept going back to the moment Angelina had pulled her from the snake monster’s illusion. The kiss.

She didn’t know if it had been real or part of the illusion, and it was hard to stop over-analyzing it. If it had been part of the illusion, did that say something about her or her feelings for Angelina? If it had been real, why had Angelina done it? Maybe it had been an attempt to shock Chelsea out of the illusion, or maybe it had been out of relief that she’d started to emerge from her trance.

There was another possibility dancing at the edge of Chelsea’s mind too, but it wasn’t one she was willing to let herself entertain.

“What are you thinking about?” Angelina nudged Chelsea.

Chelsea jumped, inadvertently shaking Angelina’s head off her shoulder.

“Oh, I, um–“

“I’m sorry,” said Angelina. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“No, I’m sorry,” said Chelsea. “I’m just jumpy. I’ll be relieved when we’re home again.”

Angelina pursed her lips.

“I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too,” said Chelsea.

“Will you come visit me?”

“Of course I will,” said Chelsea, “and I’ll video call you all the time.”

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

Angelina turned, looking her directly in her eyes.

“Do you swear it? On your life?”

Chelsea nodded. Coming from anyone else, the intensity might have been a little strange or off-putting, but coming from Angelina, it was oddly endearing.

“I swear it on my life,” said Chelsea.

“Good.” Angelina rested her head on Chelsea’s shoulder again. “Good.”



The creature stared down at Naomi and Falcon through hundreds of empty black eyes. Falcon stared back up at it, his face contorted with confusion.

More creatures rose from the openings in the concrete, most of them vaguely human in shape and covered in pallid, gaunt faces that grew from their necks, arms, and legs. Most of them wore jumpsuits that were lumpy underneath, as though more faces were growing out of their chests and backs. Many of them had squid-like extra limbs that ended in sucker-covered clubs.

The creature that had been first to appear reached one of its limbs toward Falcon, until the club part came to rest gently on his face. The confusion on his face mingled with horror.

Falcon did a series of strange, disjointed hand signs that didn’t look like Auslan, or any other kind of sign language, for that matter. The creatures that were humanoid enough in shape to have hands responded with signs of their own.

As they stepped closer, Naomi noticed the eerie similarities between the creatures’ faces and Falcon’s. It was as though someone had taken Falcon’s face and stripped it of the facial hair, the slight pink tinge to his skin–everything that made his face look human and alive.

These things were Falcon’s brothers?

The largest creature reared back, and its squid-arms parted. Naomi stepped back, bracing herself for it to attack.

Instead, a man stepped out of the opening between the arms and flashed her a pleasant smile.

He looked to be in his mid-twenties. He was only a few inches taller than her, with light brown skin, and black hair and a beard that both desperately needed to be trimmed and combed. In his defense, barbers were probably hard to come by in this place.

“Hi!” he said.

“Hi, would you mind explaining to me what’s going on?” was what Naomi tried to say. It ended up sounding more like “Wuh-guh?”

Some of Naomi’s fear and confusion gave way to embarrassment. She always seemed to make a fool of herself when she first met people. Coincidentally, “wuh-guh” had also been the first thing she’d said to Dominic when she’d met him, which was something Lachlan still gave her shit about.

The man chuckled. He seemed to be laughing sympathetically rather than laughing at her, but the fact that he was laughing at all made her more embarrassed.

Several of the creatures went through a series of hand signs as the man spoke, as though they were translating his speech into the strange, disjointed sign language.

“That’s probably exactly how I would have reacted if I’d seen some bloke climb out of a giant skull covered in faces and squid arms,” the man said. His accent sounded Australian.

“Well, it’s not something you see everyday,” said Naomi.

The creatures moved their hands, translating for her to Falcon, who looked close to tears.

“No, definitely not,” said the man. He turned to Falcon. “Hey! I remember you! You’re looking well. I love the hair.”

Falcon lifted a shaking hand and signaled something.

“Thank you,” translated a creature wearing a jumpsuit that was torn at the chest, allowing a second face to peek out. It sounded Australian too, and had a surprisingly ordinary voice.

“Hey, are you alright, mate?” said the man to Falcon. “You look like you’ve seen a–” The man trailed off, looking back at his bizarre companions. “Oh. Oh, yeah. You haven’t seen them since… yeah.”

“Excuse me, sorry, I hate to interrupt this, uh…” Naomi paused, unsure what word to use for whatever was happening. She gestured around her. “I hate to interrupt this, but can someone please tell me what’s going on?”

Falcon did more hand signs. The creature with the face on its chest translated.

“What happened to you?”

“We don’t know,” said a creature with dozens of squid-arms growing out of its waist and spilling down around it, making it look like the creature was wearing the world’s most nightmarish old-fashioned hoop skirt. “The changes were subtle at first. We could sense thoughts and memories. We grew a little taller, a little stronger.”

“We were starving without nutrient packets,” said the creature with the face on its chest. “The more we hunted, the more we changed.”

Falcon did a hand sign that the face-chest creature translated as “Why?”

“We don’t know,” said the man. “Not really. My aunt–” He made a face as he said the word ‘aunt’. “–has some ideas, but she didn’t explain them terribly well. Something to do with the genetic whatever and the abnormal something-or-other.”

Naomi was starting to figure out the basics of what had happened. Falcon’s brothers had been thrown into the place, but instead of being killed, they’d mutated somehow.

“Again,” said Naomi. “I’m really sorry to interrupt, but I was hoping you could help us.”

She was genuinely sorry to interrupt Falcon’s reunion with his brothers, but Chelsea, Lachlan, and Jen were still in danger.

“Well, tell us what the problem is, and we’ll see what we can do,” said the man.

“Our friends are lost here, and we need to find them before something else does.”

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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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Their walk to the town had been mercifully uneventful, and by the time they arrived, they’d designed an informal experiment to test Sam’s newfound chip-catching abilities.

More accurately, they’d come up with the hypothesis that there was a positive correlation between Sam’s exposure to an alien environment and his coordination, reflexes, and visual motor skills.

They’d decided to test this by having Lachlan throw all thirteen remaining bags of chips at Sam every 15 minutes, then record how many bags Sam caught.

Lachlan looked down at the notebook in his hand. They’d been at the experiment for nearly an hour, and each time, Sam had caught more bags than the last. The first time, he’d only caught eight out of the 13. The last time, he’d caught 12.

Lachlan glanced at the time on his phone. It was 6:14 AM. Or at least, that’s what time it was back home, assuming time in this place even passed in a normal way. Almost time to throw the next set of bags, and far past his bed time.

He yawned as he reached into the tote bag, keeping an eye on the phone clock. With the much-needed lull in the danger, the adrenaline that been keeping him awake was starting to wear off. How long had it been since he’d slept? He wasn’t sure what time he’d woken up in the back of the van, and he was dubious as to whether his body had counted the drug-induced unconsciousness as proper sleep.

“Tired?” said Sam.

“I’ll have you know that it’s nearly quarter six in the morning Lachlan time.”

“I have no idea what that means,” said Sam. “I’m not judging, though. Today hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park for either of us.”

“Holy fucking understatement of the year, batman.”

Sam laughed.

“Oh? What’s this? Did I actually get a laugh out of Mr. You’re Not Funny, Lachlan?”

“I retract my laugh,” said Sam.

Lachlan looked at his phone again. 6:16. Oops, he was off by a minute. He reached into the tote bag and tossed a packet of chips. Sam snapped it out of the air.

One by one, Lachlan threw the other bags. Sam caught each one. Lachlan wrote down the results.

“Nice work, Samurai.” Lachlan yawned. “You’re 13 for 13.”

“Wow, you really are tired, aren’t you?”

“What? Tired? Nah, I’m the most awake I’ve ever been. Nothing gets my blood a-pumping like sleep deprivation, strange drugs, and mortal peril.”

“Are you physically capable of not answering a question with sarcasm?”


Sam rolled his eyes and held the chips out to Lachlan. Lachlan held the tote bag open, and Sam dropped them in.

“Maybe there’s someplace you can sleep in the town,” said Sam. “It shouldn’t be too far now.”

Lachlan looked up at the horizon. It looked closer now, and it seemed to drop off suddenly rather than fade into the distance.

“It looks like we’re almost there,” said Lachlan.



This was it. They were cornered.

Zogzhesh loomed over them, opening his mouth to let out a menacing hiss.

Chelsea looked around, scanning the alley for some means of escape she hadn’t noticed before. There wasn’t one.

“He wants to kill us,” Angelina said, her voice soft.

“It’ll be okay,” said Chelsea.

She felt a pang of guilt that what had possibly been her last words had been a lie.

“You shall stand trial before the snake room, and there, your fate shall be decided,” said Zogzhesh.

She hadn’t been completely lying, she told herself. Zogzhesh kept talking about them standing trial, and they couldn’t exactly stand trial if they were dead?

The thought of having to go back to that horrible snake room, falling through that horrible abyss and being grabbed by some immense, terrifying monster all over again made her shudder, but it would still be better than dying.

Chelsea looked up at the snake man, considering her options. Zogzhesh let out another hiss and stepped closer. His fangs were at least as long as her forearm.

She thought about charging him, distracting him so Angelina and Belfry could slip away unharmed, but she wasn’t sure there would be any point. There was no way Angelina would leave her.

Angelina stepped forward and held up her hand.

What was she doing?

Maybe Angelina had a plan. She had gotten them out of that strange snake room, though Chelsea still didn’t fully understand how or what had happened.

“Wait, wait, wait,” said Angelina.

Something like confusion crossed the snake man’s inhuman face.

“Silence. I do not answer to puny mortals.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get that,” said Angelina, “but before you open your big mouth and swallow us like eggs, I think you’ll want to listen to me.”

Zogzhesh hissed again, letting out a spray of something that might have been saliva or venom. Chelsea flinched as a few droplets hit her face.

“And why should I listen to a pathetic mortal such as yourself?”

Zogzhesh tensed, rearing his head back as though preparing to strike.

Chelsea realized with a jolt of fear that he probably had no intention of taking them to stand trial, and every intention of sinking his enormous fangs into Angelina.

Chelsea started forward. Maybe she could get between Zogzhesh and Angelina. She wouldn’t stand a chance against him, but she might be able to buy Angelina some time.

Angelina turned around and frowned at her.

“I’m handling him,” she said.

Chelsea didn’t stop. She wasn’t about to leave this giant snake monster for her friend to ‘handle’ alone.

Angelina stuck out her leg, blocking Chelsea from getting any closer. Chelsea tried to move sideways around her, and Angelina leaned to the side, obstructing her again.

“Angelina,” she said.

“It’s okay, C,” said Angelina. “Either he kills us horribly, or he doesn’t, and if he listens to me, he might not.”

Chelsea wasn’t entirely sure what Angelina meant, but she knew it definitely didn’t reassure her.

“Angelina,” said Chelsea again. “Please. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“If it happens, it happens,” said Angelina.

Angelina was really on a role with making unreassuring statements.

Angelina turned to look up at Zogzhesh now, making eye contact as though she was getting ready to address him. All there was to do now was hope Angelina did a better job convincing Zogzhesh than she did Chelsea.

“I know you’re lost,” said Angelina to Zogzhesh. “If you don’t kill us, I think I might be able to help you.”

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“Angelina, wait!” said Chelsea.

It was too late. She could head Angelina’s voice from the living room, shouting in Italian at someone or something. Whatever had crashed into the house, Angelina was already confronting it.

She ran down the hall, and her blood froze when she reached the living room.

Standing in the living room with broken glass and plaster littering the floor behind him, was the olive-scaled snake man.

He was much smaller than Chelsea had thought he’d been; before he’d seemed almost skyscraper massive, now she could see he was only about three meters tall, the top of his head resting on the ceiling. Seeing the way he towered over Angelina, it hardly mattered. He looked nearly twice her height as he loomed over her, baring his fangs as he let out an angry hiss.

Angelina looked so small as she stared up at him, defiant, brandishing the lamp as though it would be any use as a weapon against such a terrifying, powerful creature.

Chelsea didn’t see Belfry anywhere. He was probably hiding, and she couldn’t exactly blame him.

Even knowing there wasn’t much point, Chelsea ran toward Angelina and stepped in front of her. Her hands trembled as she turned and looked up at the snake man. His neck twisted to look down at her with his beady, slitted eyes.

“No one escapes the judgement of Zogzhesh, the almighty,” he said in that awful, unearthly hiss of a voice.

She glared up at him, doing her best to look defiant. She knew she was doing a very poor job of it.

“Leave her alone,” said Chelsea.

She could feel her voice shake as she spoke. What was she thinking, trying to intimidate a snake monster at least twice her size?

“It’s fine, C,” said Angelina. “I was handling him.”

As confident as Chelsea was in Angelina’s capabilities, that seemed highly unlikely.

“You are brave, mortals,” said Zogzhesh. “I shall take your courage into account when you stand trial in the snake room.”

“We’re not standing trial in any room,” said Angelina. “Go away.”

Angelina attempted to sidestep around Chelsea, and Chelsea held out an arm, motioning for her to stay back.

“C!” Angelina protested. “I was handling him!”

“I just don’t want you to get hurt again,” said Chelsea.

Chelsea looked around, surveying the room and trying to figure out their options. The path to the front door was relatively clear, and if they both ran for it, they might be able to outrun Zogzhesh. He was bigger than them, but maybe that would mean he was slower. On the other hand, she didn’t want to leave without Belfry.

“There is no escape,” said Zogzhesh. “Surrender, and embrace your fates, mortals.”

“Oh, shut up,” said Angelina.

This was very, very bad. The snake man had found them somehow, and Angelina didn’t seem to grasp the danger at all.

“Silence, mortal! Tremble before the all-powerful–“

“No!” Angelina interrupted. “You silence!”

“How dare you–“

“You’re not all powerful,” said Angelina. “You can’t even take us back to that snake place, can you? If you could, you wouldn’t just be standing here. You would have done it already.”

“Angelina–” Chelsea started.

“I’m handling him!” snapped Angelina. She turned back to Zogzhesh. “You’re pretending, just like you were in the snake room, only this trick isn’t even nearly as good.”

“How dare you question me? I am Zogzhesh, the almighty, the omnipotent–“

“If you’re so almighty, prove it. Wave that stupid cane thing around and poof us back into the snake place. Go ahead.”

Zogzhesh peered over Chelsea’s shoulder, his beady eyes fixed on Angelina, considering.

Then, he raised an enormous scaled hand and swatted at Chelsea the way one might swat at a gnat that kept flying in front of their face. The swat didn’t hurt as much as she’d expected it to, but it swept her feet from under her and sent her tumbling to the floor. She broke the fall with her hands and turned herself over, lifting herself into a half-sitting position.

Zogzhesh advanced on Angelina, raising two of his four hands with an angry hiss. Angelina swung the lamp she was holding, and it hit him with a shattering sound. Splinters of the broken light bulb slid out of the lampshade, joining the rest of the debris on the floor. Zogzhesh hardly seemed to notice.

Chelsea pulled herself to her feet, preparing to run to Angelina’s side and fight, or maybe drag Angelina out the door and make a run for it.

A tiny, dark shape swooped down from the ceiling toward Zogzhesh, clawing and scratching at his face.

Zogzhesh flailed, two of his arms smashing into an expensive looking set of dishes.

Good work, Belfry!

Chelsea took the opportunity, grabbing Angelina by the arm and pulling her toward the door. To Chelsea’s relief, Angelina dropped the lamp and followed.

They headed out the front door and ran down the street, not looking back, though Chelsea did listen for the sound of Belfry fluttering behind them.

She felt Belfry alight on her shoulder as she ran and picked up the pace.

Angelina said something between gasping breaths that sounded like “I was handling him.”

Somehow, Chelsea doubted that.

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