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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy’s dog whined again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keep Me–Interlude 24

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Nancy cracked the door of the plane to peer out, and a medium-sized brown and white dog pushed its way through, opening the door and hopping down to the ground. It barked as it spotted them, the hair on its back prickling upward as it eyed the Brothers uncertainly.

Nancy looked equally uncertain when she saw them.

“Would you all mind standing back?” Mahender said to the brothers.

He knew what Nancy had been through, and what his brothers reminded her of, so he was always careful when he visited her with them.

The Brothers backed up, except for Falcon, who stood glancing uncertainly between Nancy and Mahender. Mahender nodded at him, and he stepped forward with the humans of the group. The dog trotted forward to greet the group, heading toward Sam and Lachlan. The two boys bent down to pet the dog.

“Aw!” said Jen. “Puppy!”

She crouched down to pet it too. Its tail swung wildly back and forth at all the attention.

Mahender had seen the dog a few times, usually from a distance. Once, it had even saved him from a particularly large sister. Usually, though, it gave him and his brothers a wide berth. He couldn’t exactly blame it.

He knew from his many conversations with her that Nancy loved dogs. She’d had pet dogs all her life, and it was one of the things she missed most about home. He wasn’t sure how the two had found each other, but he was glad.

“Mahender.” Nancy’s eyes widened as she took in the large group. “And Sam, and Lachlan, and… sorry, I can’t remember your name.”

Mona Aunty frowned.

“It’s Mona, ma’am.”

“Mona, right, of course,” said Nancy, “and… a lot of new faces too.”

Jen, Angelina, Naomi, and Chelsea introduced themselves. Falcon waved.

“Do you mind if one of my brothers comes forward with the group? This is Falcon. He’s deaf and needs a translator.”

“Of course,” said Nancy. “That’s fine.”

st63, the Brother with a skirt of tentacles stepped forward. The dog tucked its tail and made its way back to the plane, turning around to eye st63 suspiciously.

“It’s nice to meet you,” signed Falcon.

“Hello again,” said Lachlan.

“I’m always happy to have visitors,” said Nancy. “But to what do I owe this large crowd? I didn’t know this many people were stuck here.”

“Most of them got here fairly recently,” said Mona Aunty. “We’re here because one of these kids thinks she knows how to get home.”

Nancy stared at them for a few seconds. Then, she finally spoke.


“Yes, home. There aren’t any guarantees, of course. But she’s explained her reasoning to me, and the logic seems solid. This is the first time I’ve come across anything resembling a real chance at getting out of here, so I think we should take it.”

“Can I ask how we get home?”

“All we have to do is stand in a specific place at a specific time,” said Angelina. “If we all scrunch together, the hole that opens in reality should take us home.”

Nancy looked beyond the group at the Brothers standing there.

“And will… everyone here be going?”

Mahender looked back at the creatures he’d come to think of as his Brothers. He’d been so excited at the prospect of going home, of seeing his mum again, that the thought hadn’t even occurred to him.

“Our home is here,” said st98.

Mahender noticed Falcon fidgeting uneasily with his sleeve.

It seemed like Mahender wasn’t the only person who was conflicted.

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The Fear–Interlude 23

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Nicky stood up from his resting spot in Nancy’s lap and barked.

Nancy startled, looking up from the word game she was playing on an old piece of paper. It was hard to entertain herself in this place. For a while, she’d passed the time by reading through the plane’s owner’s manual, until the pages had started to come lose and wear away at the corners where she’d turned them. Then, she’d met Mahender, and he’d started bringing her supplies from the town, sometimes books and even a pair of magnifying reading glasses.

She’d read through most of the books he’d brought her that were in English, so she’d devised another way of entertaining herself. She’d find lines of Italian text and try to make as many English words out of the letters as she could. It was a lot more fun than reading the airplane owner’s manual, especially with a warm dog curled up in her lap.

Nicky wasn’t curled up now; he was standing at attention, his ears pricked forward as he looked out the window. He barked again, this time a series of three quick barks–“Arf-arf-arf!”

Nancy craned her neck to look out the window. It was rarely a good sign when Nicky barked.

“What is it, buddy?” said Nancy.

Nancy removed her reading glasses and squinted out the window towards the subject of Nicky’s attention. She could make out something heading toward them, but couldn’t tell who or what it was.

As it got closer, she could see it was a large group of figures. She let herself relax a fraction. Only the creatures Mahender was friends with traveled in large groups like that, and they almost never gave her any trouble.

“It’s okay, Nicky,” she said. “You’re a silly boy. It’s just Mahender’s friends.”

She knew how responsive dogs were to tone of voice, so she tried to keep her tone relaxed and chipper.

“Aroo,” said Nicky, not taking his eyes off the window.

“You’re right,” said Nancy. “You’re not being silly. They give me the creeps too.”

She wasn’t afraid of the Brothers, exactly. She hadn’t felt real fear in a long time, and she knew on a logical level they wouldn’t hurt her. But sometimes, those horrible snaking limbs reminded her of the Sisters, and when they moved a certain way, she couldn’t help but picture them wrapping around her father’s neck.

Her father’s last moments were something she pictured a lot, so often that she was almost used to it. She’d gotten good at filing it neatly away in the back of her mind when it appeared, tucking it back into storage and moving on with her day. She didn’t think she would have been able to function otherwise.

Having Nicky made her objectively safer, and she wouldn’t have traded him for anything, but she’d almost been more on edge since those boys had given him to her. She wasn’t alone anymore, which meant now there was a risk of experiencing that awful loss all over again. Of standing there, powerless to act, screaming and screaming until her throat was raw because screaming was better than doing nothing. In that moment, her head clouded by adrenaline and horror, she’d truly believed that maybe if she was loud enough, she could scream the danger away and her father would be okay.

She filed the thought back into her brain’s storage and looked out the window again.

As the group got closer, Nancy could see the larger shapes were flanking smaller, more human-sized figures. At first, she thought the larger brothers were protecting the smaller ones. Then, she noticed the variation in the smaller figures.

As they got even closer, she started to recognize some of them. Mahender, his strange aunt, and the two boys she’d met earlier were among the group. Four girls she didn’t recognize also walked with them.

“It’s okay, Nicky.” Nancy scratched the dog’s head. “These look like friends. The question is, what are they doing here?”

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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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“How’s your hand?” said Lachlan.

Sam shrugged.

“It doesn’t really hurt anymore.”

“Numbness probably isn’t a great sign,” said Lachlan. “I should probably have another look at it.”

“You keep saying that like you have any medical expertise.”

“Well, I’ve read books about first aid, and–“

“Oh. You’ve read books about it. Well, in that case,” said Sam. “Never fear, everyone. Doctor Chicken, MD is on the case, armed with his wealth of most-likely-inaccurate, text-based knowledge.”

“Well, alrighty then. Excuse me for graciously offering my help,” said Lachlan. “Besides, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see too many actual doctors around here.”

Sam shrugged again, rubbing his hands over his arms. He’d shed his blood-drenched shirt and now wore only a thin, white singlet that was now dotted with flecks of dark red. He had to have been cold.

“It doesn’t really matter, anyway. My hand feels fine.”

“Your fingers were just eaten off. You were delirious and barely conscious less than an hour ago. Your hand can’t possibly feel fine.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, man. My hand doesn’t hurt anymore.” Sam stopped walking and squinted at something ahead of him. “Hey. What’s that?”

Lachlan looked ahead of him. They’d come much closer to the speck on the horizon he’d noticed earlier–close enough to see that it was a small white plane.

“That would appear to be an aeroplane.”

“A what?”

“An aeroplane.”

“I don’t know what that is,” said Sam.

“You… don’t?” said Lachlan. “How much blood did you lose? It’s an aeroplane. You know–it’s got wings, it flies through the air. You can’t possibly tell me that doesn’t ring any bells.”

“Are you trying to say ‘airplane’?”

Sam smirked as though Lachlan was mispronouncing the word in some hilarious way.

“Sure.” Lachlan frowned at Sam. “If you want to pronounce it wrong.”

“I knew you weren’t the sharpest, but I can’t believe even you wouldn’t know the pronunciation of the word ‘airplane’.”

“And I can’t believe a brilliant engineer such as yourself wouldn’t know that it’s pronounced ‘aeroplane’.”

“It’s an airplane,” said Sam. “It flies through the air.”

“Yes, of course,” said Lachlan. “An airplane. Flown by an air-naught, performing air-batics, designed by an air-dynamicist.”

The boys continued their debate as they headed toward the plane.


“‘Airplane’ isn’t a real word,” said Lachlan as they approached the plane.

“Is so,” said Sam.

They were near enough to make out the plane’s details now. It was about eight meters longs, with a three-bladed propeller and a V-shaped tail. It was white with a dark blue accent stripe down the side, and though the fuselage was scratched and dented, the coat of paint still gleamed in the dim light.

“Is not,” said Lachlan as he ran his hand over the top of the wing.

“Is so,” said Sam.

“Tsk, tsk,” said Lachlan. “‘Is so.’ Such petty, childish bickering.”

“You were bickering childishly too,” said Sam.

“Eh.” Lachlan shrugged.

“Besides,” said Sam, “you started it.”

“Oh, right, and your saying ‘you started it’ makes you the epitome of maturity.”

Nikola sniffed one of the plane’s wheels warily, and Lachlan noticed the tires were almost completely shredded around their metal rims. Trailing behind the plane were gouges in the concrete that curved and wavered where the plane had skidded out of control.

“Looks like someone had a rough landing,” said Lachlan. “How did this get here?”

“That’s a actually a decent question,” said Sam. “It’s not a very big plane, but there’s no way it would’ve fit in the chamber I was in before I ended up here.”

Lachlan approached the plane’s doors, preparing to step onto the wing walk area. Sam put his good hand on Lachlan’s arm, stopping him.

“What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing, dingus?” said Lachlan. “I’m going to look inside. There could be something useful in there, like a first aid kit or information that could help us get home. Or a change of clothes, because I don’t know about you, but I am fucking freezing, and in case you haven’t noticed, we’re both covered in your blood, and I am absolutely going to spew if I have to smell it for one more second.”

“There might be another monster,” said Sam. “The last time you opened a door resulted in my fingers being eaten off.”

Sam did have a point.

“I’ll look in the window first,” said Lachlan.

Lachlan climbed onto the wing walk and peered into a window. The plane looked empty except for a bundle of blankets in one of the back seats, so he opened the door to the cockpit and sat in the pilot’s seat.

“All clear. No beasties or gremlins to be found in here.” Lachlan patted the seat beside him. “Come on in and have a seat, Samurai. You can be my first officer.”

Sam stood on the wing, leaning down to look through the door.

“First officer? Yeah, right. I’d be the captain.”

“In your dreams.” Lachlan reached for a headset lying on top of the cockpit controls. “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is speedbird foxtrot-alpha-bravo. Our position is ‘fuck this,’ and our current heading is also ‘fuck this.'”

Sam climbed into the seat beside Lachlan and pulled the headset off his head.

“I thought you were getting in the plane to look for supplies, not to mess around.”

“I’ll have you know that I can do both,” said Lachlan.

He spotted a silver flask on top of the controls and reached for it.

“See? Look. Supplies.”

“Should we be concerned that we found that in the cockpit of an airplane? No wonder they crash landed,” said Sam. “That hardly counts as supplies, by the way.

“Speak for yourself.” Lachlan shrugged. “I, for one, could use a drink or 20 after the day I’ve had.”

Lachlan opened the flask and took a sip. It was a liquor he couldn’t identify, something with a pungent, bitter, herby taste. Whatever it was, the burning in his throat and chest told him it would do its job.

“Of course you’re into underage drinking,” said Sam. “That explains a lot about you.”

“Underage? I’m 18.”

“So? The legal drinking age is 21.”

“Not where I’m from, it’s not.”

Lachlan tried not to wince as he took another sip. He offered the flask to Sam, who waved it away.

“No way. That stuff will melt your brain.”

“That’s why I drink it,” said Lachlan.

“At least now I know what happened to all your brain cells,” said Sam.

“You know, it occurs to me that as much as I’d hate to waste this sweet, sweet alcohol, this would probably not do too shabby a job disinfecting your hand.”

“Disinfecting my hand is a waste?” said Sam.

“Yup,” said Lachlan, “but it’s a sacrifice I am graciously willing to make. Give me your hand.”

Sam frowned, but he held out his hand. Lachlan made a face as he unwound the blood-encrusted cloth strips from Sam’s hand, bracing himself for the grisly sight awaiting him. He stopped when he saw the skin under the makeshift bandages and congealed blood.

“What the motherfuck?”

“Uh oh,” said Sam. “Is it that bad?”

“No,” said Lachlan. “Just the opposite, in fact. Have a look for yourself.”

Sam squinted down at his hand, his brow scrunching up with confusion.

“Okay. That… is not normal.”

The stumps where his fingers had been were completely healed over, without even a trace of a scar.

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Monsters in the Dark – Interlude 1

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He stood in silence and listened. As he concentrated, the fluorescent lights’ humming gave way, and he began to hear the minds in the rooms around him.

He heard two of his brothers in the room to his right, both still small and weak, but he ignored them for the time being. He was hungry, and needed to focus on his hunt. He would share his kill with them when he was done, and they would grow more powerful. One day, if they survived long enough, they would grow as powerful as he was.

He kept listening, until he found an immature Sister in a room to his left.

She was still small like his little brothers, with just four limbs and one head of dark brown hair. She fled before he entered the room, and he slithered after her, forcing his way through the doorways.

The Sister turned a corner and he lost sight of her, so he stopped and listened. He tried focus on her and tune out other sounds, but noise buzzed around him; below him he heard more of his brothers, more of his prey, and a few others that would prey on him. Above him, he heard–

Wait. Above him? That wasn’t right. There shouldn’t be anything above. There was never anything above.

Limitless blue skies and relentless sun. Brown-green waves crashing on an empty beach, two thousand feet below. A smiling man with a white mustache. A crowd, bustling with excitement, watching little airplanes looping through the sky. A basement smelling of oil and fuel.

He shook one of his heads. The thoughts from above didn’t make any sense. They weren’t like anything else he’d heard in this place. They didn’t belong.

Falling, struggling for control. Shouting over the thumping roar of pistons. A thick, dark green fog that swallowed everything. The sound of metal against metal. An impact. Fires flaring up, then fizzling out.

His curiosity overcame his hunger. He reached up, tearing ceiling tiles loose until there was an opening large enough for him to squeeze into. Then he crawled up the wall and began to slam his limbs against the concrete roof until it gave way.

The source of the strange thoughts was standing on the roof. She stared at him, and he stared back.

She looked almost like his usual prey–small, humanoid, two arms, two legs–but something was off. With her tin-colored hair and lined face, she looked as though she had aged, but that wasn’t possible unless…

“You’re real,” he said.

“I’m human, if that’s what you mean,” she said. Her voice was raspy.

For a moment, he considered devouring her. He was still hungry, and after what her kind had done to him, tearing her limb from limb would have provided him some small comfort.

His curiosity won out again.

“Why did you come here?” he said.

“Come here? Why the hell would anyone come here?” She shook her head. “No, they sent us here. I don’t know how, but I know it was them.”

A man in a linen suit, fanning himself with one hand. A blonde woman, her clothes elegant, her face twisted in rage.

He had only seen their faces in photographs, but they were all too familiar.

“Me too,” he said.

She stared up at him. “I don’t understand.”

“Me either,” he said.

“This is the longest conversation I’ve had with one of you,” she said. “Usually by this point, you start snarling and slithering after me.”

“I still might,” he said. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Well, try to warn me first if you decide to go that route, okay? Give me a sporting chance?”

“I probably won’t.”

“I didn’t think you would.” She shrugged. “Can I ask why you haven’t tried to kill me yet?”

“I was curious,” he said. “Can I ask why you’re not more afraid?”

“Oh, I’m way past afraid.” She sighed. “I’ve been in this place for… I don’t even know how long. Months? Years? I was afraid for a while, but I’m just tired now.”

He nodded the head closest to her. “I felt the same when I first got here. Scared, then tired. If I didn’t have my brothers…”

“It must be nice to have someone,” she said.

“You’re alone?” he said.

“I had Dad for a while.”

The man with the white mustache, this time with a wild beard, his clothes in tatters. A Sister, laughing through all her mouths as she slithered at him, her limbs snaking toward him. Cold, paralyzing terror.

“You lost him,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

She smiled without humor. “Condolences from a monster?”

“I mean it.” He extended a limb toward her. “I’ve lost people too.”

She took a step backward, eyeing his limb warily, and he retracted it.

“Your brothers?” she said.

“Yes. Some of them to the Sisters. More of them to your kind.”

She looked up at him in silence for a few moments.

“I’m sorry.”

He reached out to her again, and this time, she didn’t step away.

“Oh, what the hell,” she said, extending her hand to him.

As gently as he could manage, he wrapped his limb around her outstretched hand.

“This is weird,” she said. “Really weird. But it’s nice at the same time. Since I lost Dad, the closest thing I’ve had to conversation has been those–what did you call them?–Sisters telling me all the gruesome ways they plan on ripping me apart.”

“I’ve ripped many of them apart, if it’s any consolation.”

“It’s not, really.” The woman grimaced. “But if that was your twisted way of trying to make me feel better, I do appreciate it.”

“I have a friend I think you’d like to meet,” he said. “He’s not with me now, but I think he’d want to meet you too. If he says he wants to, I might bring him to meet you sometime.”

“No offense,” said the woman, “but I’ve met friends of yours, and…”

“This one is a little different. Trust me.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” she said.

He unwrapped his tendril from her hand and pointed.

“One more thing. There’s a place if you walk that way, kind of like a…” He paused for a moment, trying to remember the word. “A village. It’s empty, but there are lots of little buildings and places to hide. You might be safer there.”

“Thanks,” she said, “but I prefer to stick around here.”

He heard the prey he’d been chasing earlier beneath him, searching for her Sisters.

“I have to go,” he said.

“So soon?” she said.

“I’m hungry, and I’m sure you’d rather I devour a Sister than come after you.”

“Yeah,” she shrugged. “I guess I would.”

“Besides, I don’t think that friend I mentioned would approve.”

He began to crawl through the hole he’d created in the ceiling. He could see the Sister now, but she hadn’t spotted him yet.

“Wait,” the woman said.

He stopped, and turned his heads toward her.

“What’s your name?” she said. “If you have one, I mean.”

He reached for her hands and felt her tense, but she didn’t resist. He arranged her hands so her fingers interlocked.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“That sign. That’s my name.” He held up some of his limbs, indicating his lack of hands. “I can’t say it anymore.”

“Do all of you monsters have names like that?”

“Not all of us, no,” he said. “What about you? I know all of your kind have names.”

“Nancy,” she said. “My name is Nancy.”

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