Interlude 17 – The Collapse

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Zogzhesh flicked his tongue out and tasted the scents–the many unremarkable human scents, the strange and artificial scents of the creatures surrounding the humans. In the midst of all those unexceptional smells, four of the humans stood out–a strange, otherworldly edge to their ape pheromones.

There were two more humans with the power of the terrible ones?

It didn’t matter. There were more urgent things to focus on than that. The mature female human had pulled something from her bag, and the metallic smell made him think it was a weapon.

She was puny, but size could be deceiving. More importantly, dozens of the artificial creatures stood behind her, some nearly as large as him.

Zogzhesh felt his mouth begin to yawn open involuntarily as the unfamiliar sensation of fear crept in.

Oh no. Not this.

He had to make his retreat. He would go back, find Angelina Bianchi before she’d accumulated the entourage, and she would help him get home. He had to get away from these dangerous creatures before–

It was too late. He felt his head bend backward, his body convulsing as he dropped to the ground.



Mona watched the snake man writhe around on his back for a few seconds, then grow still, tongue lolling out of its mouth. A few drops of blood trickled onto the cobblestones. Moments later, a rancid smell filled the air.

“Um,” said Jen. “What the heck just happened?”

“Is he okay?” said Angelina.

“I’m pretty sure he’s not,” said Sam.

One of the sisters poked the snake man with her foot.

“I think he’s dead,” she said. “Why don’t we eat him?”

“It’s no fun if he’s dead,” said the other sister. “I like my meals screaming in terror.”

Mona did her best to ignore them as she looked down at the snake man. She walked behind him, and leaned down to look at the top of his head. His eyes moved, following her as she walked around him.

“Hm,” she said. “Interesting.”

“Interesting is one word for this,” said Lachlan.

“What’s with the smell?” said Sam. “He died two seconds ago. Why does he already smell like roadkill?”

“He said he was a time traveler,” said Angelina. “Maybe it has to do with that?”

“He’s not dead,” said Mona. “He’s in a state of thanatosis.”

“I remember that word!” said Jen. “Thana-whatchamacallit. You said it to that monster right before I met you!”

“If you’re calling it ‘thana-whatchamacallit’, then you don’t remember the word,” said Mona, “but yes. The Dave fabrication you saw was in a state of partial thanatosis. This is a much more elaborate deception.”

“What is thanatosis?” said Jen.

“It’s an adaptive behavior in which animals take on the appearance of death,” said Mona.

“Oh!” said Jen. “So basically he’s playing possom.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” said Mona. “Virginia opossums do something similar.”

“Is he trying to lull us into a false sense of security?” said Jen. “Should we be like, running away?”

“No,” said Mona.

She sheathed her axes and leaned down at the snake man’s side. She pushed, rolling him over so he lay face down. Tongue still hanging from his mouth, he flopped back over onto his back.

“Um, what are you doing?” said Jen.

Heterdon platirhinos,” said Mona. “The eastern hog-nosed snake.”

“Okay then,” said Jen. “I’m still totally confused.”

“It’s a species of snake with an expandable neck, sometimes mistaken for a cobra by idiots who don’t realize cobras don’t live in North America. It’s known for its very convincing ability to play dead when threatened. It spasms, flips onto its back, and even emits a foul-smelling glandular secretion.”

“Ew,” said Jen.

“Wow,” said Sam. “That… is actually really interesting.”

“It is,” said Mona, “and pretty funny for something that claims to be all-powerful.”

“What should we do?” said Angelina.

“We do nothing,” said Mona. “We pretend he’s not even here.”

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Interlude 16 – Nightmares

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Mona had never felt smaller than she did now, staring up at this being that claimed to be a god.

He was lying, obviously. His presence felt anything but divine. Besides, a god weighing people’s sins and judging them was such a Western, Christian idea.

Mona wasn’t an expert on Christianity, but she didn’t think any part of it involved snake men and giant pendulums.

She tried to swallow her fear, to make her expression defiant as she stared up at the snake being.

“What are you?”

He spoke again in the strange language that wasn’t Hindi, English, or anything else she recognized. Somehow, she understood it.

“I’ve told you before, mortal. I am the almighty Zogzhesh, the decider of your fate.”

“You’re lying.”

“How dare you accuse the great and powerful Zogzhesh? Tremble before the mighty cosmic pendulums of justice!”

Before she could respond, the pendulums began to swing faster, and the strange rushing sensation in her ears picked up until it was loud enough to overwhelm her other senses. She couldn’t see, or feel the strange hot air on her skin. The rushing was all she could perceive.

When the rushing died down enough for her vision to return, the snake man was gone, replaced with the much smaller figure of an older man. His silhouette, the way he held his back and shoulders ramrod-straight, it was all so familiar.

It couldn’t be.

She gasped as the light hit his face.


Her father fixed his eyes on her. He’d been known for his stern expression, but his eyes had always softened when he looked at her–his favorite daughter.

They didn’t soften this time.

“I’m very disappointed in you,” he said.

“I–but why?” was the only reply she could manage.

“You failed.”

She felt the threat of tears sting the corners of her eyes.

“Your sister was always going to be a disappointment. But you? You were supposed to make your family proud.”

“I–I always tried–“

“No! What did I always tell you? You decide who you are and what you do. You decide whether to be lazy and irresponsible, or to do something with your life. You failed, and that means you didn’t try. Not enough.”

“But I–I thought–“

“You threw everything away. Your whole family. Abandoned them for her.

The tears escaped Mona’s eyes and begin to roll down her cheeks.

“I didn’t abandon them. It was CPSI. They put me here,” she said. “And I’m her family too. I was the closest thing to family she had.”

“And you failed her too, didn’t you? You failed everyone you ever cared about, and now you’re here. You have no family left. You’re nothing.”

“That’s–that’s not–“

“What do you think will become of my grandchildren, growing up without a mother?”

Images flashed before Mona’s eyes, images of her children, of Nick and Emily. They were ten years older than they’d been when she’d seen them last, but she couldn’t have mistaken them for anyone else. She saw Emily sleeping her days away, ditching class to get high, screaming at her father that she hated him. Nick, in a filthy apartment bedroom, surrounded by trash and dirty dishes, crying until his voice was hoarse. Emily sitting lethargic on a couch while her keyboard collected dust; she hadn’t played music in months. Missed tests and failed classes. The voices of professors and teachers calling her brilliant children ‘lazy’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘stupid’–

No. No, this was all wrong.

Her children would never end up that way. Her children were stronger than that.

“How dare you,” she said to the thing pretending to be her father.



Mona tried to keep her expression neutral as she faced down the creature who’d turned itself into a mockery of her father.

She wasn’t going to let her composure crack, not in front of 131’s sisters, not in front of the unruly group of college kids and Stanley fabs she’d managed to accumulate, and not in front of this thing.

“Don’t help him with anything,” Mona said to Angelina. “I don’t know what help he thinks you can give him, but he can’t be trusted.”

“I know that!” said Angelina. “But I agreed to help him get home, and he agreed not to eat me or my friends, so I kind of have to.”

The snake man fixed his cold eyes on Mona, flicking his tongue at the air.

“I see you’re still holding a grudge, mortal. You’re so full of anger. What would your father say?”

Mona sheathed her knives, placed them into her bag, and slid her axes from their holsters.

“Mention my father again and see what happens.”

“Well,” said the taller of the Sarah fabs. “This just got a little more exciting.”

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

Jen turned to Chelsea and Angelina with a bright smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not even gonna ask,” said Sam.

“Probably a wise decision,” said Lachlan.

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

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

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

“What do you want with me?” she said.

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

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

“Angelina Bianchi stands behind you, correct?”

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

“Hi!” said Angelina. “What’s up?”

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

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

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

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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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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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