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The shading was wrong. It was throwing off the whole scene. And there was still something bothering her about the anatomy, too. The whole thing just didn’t look right.
Seph took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. She was getting frustrated. She knew she was a much better artist than this. But she was having a hard time focusing. She didn’t sleep very well last night. She had that nightmare again. The one about the giant worm.
She returned her glasses to her face and yawned. She reached for her coffee, but found it empty again. How many cups had she already drunk today? She’d lost count. And they were doing nothing to help her focus. Did she need something stronger?
This wasn’t a good time for this sort of thing. There were deadlines coming up and she was behind schedule. They needed to be finished with the promotional material for Inky Net Games by the end of the week or they’d risk delaying the new Fever Island sequel. But she just couldn’t seem to get it together today.
Her mind wouldn’t stop wandering…
Mona Yenning gave her a polite smile as she walked by on her way back to her desk.
Seph watched her until she sat down in front of her computer, then she turned in her chair and looked around the office at her other coworkers, confused. What was she doing again? Wasn’t she just somewhere else?
No… Of course she wasn’t somewhere else. She’d been here all morning. What kind of odd thought was that?
Mr. Carrol, her boss, stepped into the doorway and looked out across the room. “Four o’clock tomorrow, Zeke.”
Zeke Jenfir swiveled around in his chair and pointed back at him with one of his long, bony fingers. “Okay! Thank you!”
Mr. Carrol nodded and glanced once more over the room. When his eyes met hers, he gave her his usual, friendly nod and then turned and walked away.
Seph stared through the empty doorway after him for a moment, distracted. That was weird. For a moment there, she had the most intense feeling of déjà vu…
She turned and stared at her monitor. Seriously, what was she doing? Something wasn’t right here. Where was Piper? She was just here.
That was what? She felt like she could almost remember something. It was right in the very back of her thoughts, lurking just out of reach, staring back at her from the shadows of her mind.
(…something cold and wet against her skin…)
Then, before she could quite grasp it, it was gone again.
No, Piper wasn’t here. She’d never been here before. Not here in the studio. Seph was at work, and Piper never bothered her at work.
But she would be here soon. They were going to have lunch together. In fact, when she glanced at the clock on her computer screen, she found that it was already time for lunch. Piper was probably downstairs waiting for her right now.
That was what her weary mind was most likely trying to tell her, she decided.
Lunch sounded good. She was hungry. She needed a break. And maybe she could grab a coffee or two to perk herself up. She saved her work and cleaned up the reference materials scattered across her desktop. Then she collected her purse, slipped it over her arm and made her way out into the hallway, her stubborn mind still wandering, dragging her back to Avelby for some reason, to those creepy tunnels that never seemed to go anywhere.
It wasn’t that strange. She found herself thinking of Avelby a lot, actually. She supposed it’d be weird not to, after all that had happened there last summer.
She shook it off and checked her phone. Usually Piper texted her to tell her she was here, but all she had was a message from her mom.
Maybe she was running late.
The elevator doors slid open before she could push the button. Inside, staring back at her, stood Piper. “Oh!” she chirped, cheerful as ever. “Hi! That was easy.”
Seph stared at her for a moment, surprised to see her there. Her long, blonde hair was shaped into a perfect bun. She was wearing her favorite skinny jeans, high-heel booties and a light, peach-colored, off-the-shoulder sweater. Her complexion and makeup were flawless. As usual, she was positively adorable.
Meanwhile, Seph’s hair was falling out of her ponytail, her skirt was wrinkled, she never bothered putting on any makeup that morning and she was pretty sure her cardigan was adding about thirty pounds.
Life wasn’t fair.
“What’re you doing up here?” she asked as she stepped into the car beside her and pressed the button for the ground floor. Piper usually waited for her in the lobby.
“The lady downstairs said I should just come up and find you.”
Seph frowned. “That’s odd.” They didn’t usually want any unnecessary people in the studios. Distractions were kept to a minimum.
She slipped her phone back into her purse as the elevator doors slid shut and the car began to descend. She’d message her mom back later.
“She said your boss said I was okay,” said Piper.
“I didn’t know Mr. Carrol even knew who you were.” A lot of the people in the office called him by his first name, but she’d always felt weird about that. He was, after all, the one who gave her the job, in spite of the fact that she totally botched her third job interview. (It really wasn’t her fault, but no one would ever believe the real reason she was forced to cancel that day.) She felt like she owed him more respect than to call him “Millard.”
Piper shrugged. “I didn’t either.”
She supposed it wasn’t that odd. It wasn’t unheard of for Mr. Carrol to do stuff like that. Mona’s nine-year-old son sometimes came to work with her when she couldn’t find a sitter. (He was a good kid. He pretty much just sat in the floor next to her desk with his nose in a handheld video game the whole time.) And Robert Lutzin’s wife was always stopping by to check on him because he was severely diabetic. But Mona and Robert had been working here a long time. It was fairly well-understood that they had special privileges that didn’t extend to everyone in the office.
She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes again. It didn’t matter. She didn’t have the energy to think too much about it right now. He probably just saw her and Piper together a few times and recognized her. And it probably didn’t hurt that Piper was a very attractive and super charming young woman. A lot of people took an instant liking to her. Even Mr. Carrol probably wasn’t immune to her cuteness.
“Still not sleeping well?”
Seph glanced over at her without putting her glasses back on. “Woke up at about three o’clock and couldn’t get back to sleep.”
“Yeah.” She was no stranger to nightmares, but this one was oddly unsettling, even by her standards. She woke up from it with such an overwhelming feeling of impending doom that her whole body had trembled.
“What do you think it means?” wondered Piper.
Seph returned her glasses to her face. “I’m not sure it has to mean anything. It’s just a dream. And it’s not like we don’t have any good reasons to have nightmares.”
It wasn’t even as if she’d never encountered a giant worm before.
“True,” Piper admitted. After all, she’d had her fair share of bad dreams, too. She wouldn’t admit it to just anyone, but there were more than a few nights last summer, after that awful business with the incubus, that she had to crawl into bed with Seph in the middle of the night. She just couldn’t seem to close her eyes without seeing those monstrous children closing in around her…or those hairy, alien zombie things…or the flickering men with their skeletal, screaming faces… Just thinking about it now gave her an icy shudder.
Seph did find it odd, however, that this particular dream had only been tormenting her for the past week or two. It’d been almost ten months since those horrific events in Avelby and in all that time she never saw so much as a glimpse of any of Gispuknya’s shadow monsters. Things had been quiet. The horrors had subsided.
But maybe that was just it. Maybe it was too quiet. Maybe it was because she knew that this was merely the still before the storm. The monsters were still out there. Janon Tane was still out there. Gispuknya was still out there. It was only a matter of time until one of them came looking for them.
“Where do you want to eat?” asked Piper.
“I don’t care. Where do you want to go?”
“You know what my answer to that always is.”
“Right. Anywhere with the words ‘meat-lover’s’ somewhere on the menu.”
Piper flashed her that pretty smile. She was a cute little carnivore. That much was undeniable. Seph was annoyed by a lot of things about a lot of people, but strangely enough, her roommate’s unusual obsession with meat, of all things, wasn’t one of them. In fact, for some reason she found it sort of endearing.
For one thing, it wasn’t really her fault. It wasn’t as if she just decided one day that she really loved meat and couldn’t live without it. Ever since she was a little girl, she’d had a strange condition that made her sick if she went too long without eating meat. Seph had never heard of anything like it before, but it was true. She’d seen it with her own eyes. It didn’t seem to matter how much meat she ate, or what kind of meat, but it had to be real meat. A veggie burger just wouldn’t do. It was the strangest thing. And also strangely adorable, given that she looked exactly like the sort of girl who lived off kale salad and vitamin water.
“So how’s the project going?” asked Piper.
“Okay, I guess. When I can focus for more than five minutes. How are things at Hot Topic?”
She shrugged. “Fine. My store manager seems like sort of a drama queen, but it’s fun. I like it.”
Seph kept asking her when she was going to quit bouncing around the mall like a teenager and actually find a job that utilized her hard-earned master’s degree in journalism. But she liked working at the mall. She didn’t want to be tied to one job for the rest of her life. She liked changing things up. It kept life interesting. And if she was going to be honest, the whole reason she stayed in school long enough to earn her masters was so that she had a good excuse to keep working at the mall.
She supposed she was just weird that way.
“Oh! Before I forget again, Kaitlyn texted me this morning. She wants to know if we want to get together with everyone in Madison this weekend.”
Seph shrugged. “Sure. Why not?” She didn’t have any plans. She hardly ever did. And she did enjoy getting together with Kaitlyn, Alton and Phoenix now and then. They’d been her friends since the beginning of her freshman year at college. They’d helped her through some difficult times.
“’Kay.” Her purse hung at her hip. She plucked her phone out of it and lit up the screen. “I’ll text her back and let her know.”
Everyone took a liking to Piper as soon as Seph introduced them. She’d immediately fit right into the group. Now Kaitlyn texted Piper instead of Seph when she wanted to get everyone together for these coffee dates. Probably because Piper always texted her right back, whereas Seph had a bad habit of putting it off. It wasn’t personal. She did that to everyone. She just wasn’t always in the mood to talk to other people.
Piper frowned at her phone. “No service in here. I guess I’ll wait until we get outside.”
Seph looked up at the ceiling of the car. “I guess we are in a concrete shaft.”
“Yeah…” She frowned at her phone. “You know, I haven’t heard from Meg since, like, Saturday. You didn’t reap her, did you?”
“No. You said I wasn’t allowed.”
Meg used to be Piper’s roommate, before she moved in with her boyfriend and Seph took her place. Then, when she and her boyfriend inevitably broke up, she began a nasty crusade to try to get rid of Seph and move back into her old room. The girl was kind of unstable, in Seph’s opinion. She was self-centered, hot-headed, impulsive and manipulative. Not to mention none too bright.
She never did succeed in getting rid of Seph, but she did manage to move back in. She just sort of kept moving her stuff in whenever they weren’t looking until everything she owned was there. Then she just sort of took over their living room, transforming it into a makeshift third bedroom.
Seph hated it.
“It’s odd, isn’t it?” said Piper.
“It’s suspicious. Her having the courtesy to not be home to annoy me for so long isn’t like her. She’s obviously up to something.”
“She’s not that bad,” giggled Piper as she dropped her phone back into her purse. “But yeah… It’s kind of weird her not blowing up my phone when I’m not home.”
“I know. She’s like a little kid. If she’s too quiet for too long, it’s definitely not going to end well.”
Piper laughed. The girl did get into trouble a lot. She had that dangerous combination of idiotic fearlessness and unabashed shamelessness. She was like the villain in some lame cartoon. It boggled the mind.
Just this past December, Meg took a liking to some guy she met at a bar. When she discovered that he was already dating someone, she did what Meg always did when she encountered something that upset her selfish world and shifted all the way into crisis mode. She spent most of the following week stalking the poor girl on social media and spreading vicious rumors about her in hopes that he’d dump her.
It didn’t go as she planned.
Her first mistake was assuming that this guy even had any interest in her. He didn’t. And when he caught onto what she was up to, he immediately told his girlfriend who she was. She was Meg’s second mistake. She was a lot smarter than Meg, a lot more popular, a lot more liked and a lot more plugged-in.
She never stood a chance. Within a few days, she was forced to deactivate most of her social media accounts to escape the backlash of cyber-hate. And as a bonus, she ended up banned from almost every bar in Cakwetak.
Meg still insisted that the whole thing was that other girl’s fault. It was as if she truly couldn’t comprehend the weight of her own actions.
There was something wrong with her. Seph was convinced of this.
“How about that Mexican place?” suggested Seph.
Piper’s blue eyes lit up. “Ooh! The one with those huge steak burritos?” She made a sound that was no doubt supposed to sound like “yummy” but came out strangely erotic, instead.
“Oh my god! Down, girl. It’s just a burrito.”
Piper clapped her hands over her mouth, embarrassed. “Don’t make fun of me!” she cried through her fingers.
“You’re so mean!”
“No, you’re not.”
“Fine, I’ll buy you lunch.”
Piper lowered her hands and pouted. “You already said you’d buy me lunch.”
“Then stop acting like I’m the devil. You know I love you and your weird meat fetish.”
“It’s not a fetish!”
She laughed again.
Seph looked at her watch, distracted. “Is it just me, or is this elevator taking forever?”
Piper frowned up at the display. It was showing the number one, but for some reason they were still moving. They were only going down three floors. The entire building was only five. “It didn’t take this long when I was going up.”
Seph pressed the button for the ground floor again. They weren’t stopped. She could feel the car moving. “Are we just, like, going really slow?” She pressed the button for the second floor. Then the stop button. Nothing was working.
“Is it broken?”
“I hope not. I really don’t want to spend my lunch break trapped in a bad sitcom episode.”
Now that she was thinking about it, she remembered hearing some of her coworkers complain about this elevator. She’d never noticed anything herself, but apparently it sometimes behaved erratically, taking forever to arrive and sometimes cruising right past the floor they were waiting on without even stopping.
Maybe the thing was just old and dying. It’d be just her luck to be inside it when it finally croaked.
But the elevator didn’t die. The speaker dinged and the car finally rumbled to a stop.
“Here we are,” said Piper, relieved. She didn’t usually mind confined spaces, but she didn’t care for the idea of being trapped.
The doors rumbled open. The hallway leading to the front entrance of the building lay before them, just like always.
“Huh,” said Seph. “Weird.” She made a mental note to use the stairs for a while, but otherwise dismissed the entire strange ordeal. “I’ll buy you your meat-bomb burrito, but you’re driving.”
“Fair enough,” agreed Piper.
But when they turned at the end of the hallway, Seph stopped, confused. “Wait…”
This wasn’t the lobby. In fact, this wasn’t any part of the building she’d ever seen before. Instead of the big, glass entrance and receptionist desk, they found an utterly empty space enclosed within large panes of frosted glass. The floor was naked concrete and there were no doors.
“This is the wrong floor,” observed Piper.
Seph frowned. She wasn’t wrong. This definitely wasn’t where she wanted to be. But she’d been on every floor of this building and no part of any of them had ever looked like this.
Did the Vertical Design building have a secret sub-basement she’d never seen?
She couldn’t even guess at the purpose of such a room.
“Come on. Let’s go back and try again.”
But when they turned the corner that should’ve taken them back to the elevator, they found themselves in another open space surrounded by more of those strange, frosted windows again.
“What the hell?” exclaimed Seph.
“Okay, I know we came this way,” said Piper. “What’s going on?”
Seph turned and went the other way, toward the back of the building. The logical part of her brain insisted that she was just confused. Clearly, she was doing something wrong. Maybe her sleep-deprived brain was short-circuiting on her.
Except that explanation never turned out to be the right one.
Again, they found themselves standing in another empty room, staring at those huge, frosted windows.
“Pea?” said Seph.
“Yes?” said Piper. (Nobody ever called her Piper. Not even her parents. She had no idea why.)
“Are you hearing anything right now?”
She wasn’t talking about ordinary sounds. Her ears worked just fine. She could hear for herself that everything was quiet. Eerily quiet, in fact, now that she was listening. There were none of the muffled voices or hushed footsteps that she associated with business as usual. Not even the soft hum of office electronics. But Piper had two pairs of ears. One pair was just like everyone else’s. They were on the sides of her head, just like they were supposed to be. They were pierced, with little, heart-shaped earrings in each lobe, and just as annoyingly perfect as the rest of the features on her pretty little head. They worked just like anyone else’s. But she also had another pair of ears, a pair that only Seph could see. They were on the very top of her head, poking up through her hair, spectral and transparent, a ghostly, iridescent shade of gray. They looked a little like those cat ear headbands that some girls liked to wear. They were her spirit ears. And with those, she could hear things that other people couldn’t.
Piper turned around. She cocked her head to one side and then the other. Her spirit ears twitched this way and that, searching for anything that her other ears couldn’t detect. “I don’t think so,” she replied. But it’d been a while since she’d last used them. She wasn’t entirely sure she was doing it right. “What about you?”
“I don’t see anything.” Seph didn’t have spectral ears on top of her head. Or if she did, she didn’t know it. Piper’s spirit ears didn’t show up in mirrors or on film, they were intangible to the touch and Seph simply couldn’t see the top of her own head to be sure there weren’t any up there. But she probably didn’t have any spirit ears because she couldn’t hear any of the special things that Piper heard. Instead, she had an ability called “prophet sight” that allowed her to see things no one else could see.
Like Piper’s spirit ears, for example.
She was already looking around, but like Piper, she couldn’t be certain she was using them right. It was always a little tricky. Some things took a while to see. Other things, like Piper’s ghostly ears, were always visible to her. Sometimes just walking into a place gave her a peculiar sensation that something was there and she only had to make herself see it. Other times, like now, for example, there was simply nothing.
She glanced over at Piper’s spirit ears again. It was weird. When she first awoke to her prophet sight, the first unusual thing she saw was a pair of foxlike spirit ears sitting atop the head of a barista at a coffee shop in Madison. Soon after, she saw a man on the street in Cakwetak, and not long after that she found Piper. That was three in less than a month. And yet, in all the time between then and now, she’d only caught sight of one other person, a random glimpse of a woman on a crowded street with long, rabbit-like ears sticking straight up through her hat.
How many people in the world had spirit ears? Was it strange that she’d seen so many in those first few weeks? Or was it strange that she’d seen so few since then?
Piper took a step toward the glass, squinting at it. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
She took another step closer. Was it only her imagination?
Seph turned all the way around, searching the entire room. What was even the purpose of a place like this? Given the extra time it took to get here in the elevator, she’d guess that they were underground, in some sort of sub-basement. But why would there be windows in a place like that? Where was the light coming from that was illuminating all this frosted glass?
And why were there no doors?
This place smelled funny, she realized. Not like a basement, exactly. It reminded her of the hospital where her father died. Sterile. Chemical-like. With the faint stench of something sickly.
Piper doubted very much that it was only her imagination. When she was a little girl making her dad search her room top to bottom for lurking monsters, it was only her imagination. But she wasn’t a little girl anymore. And real monsters didn’t waste their time hiding in little girls’ bedrooms. “We have to get out of here.”
“You think?” grumbled Seph.
Something slammed against one of the windows. Both of them turned to see a blurry shape standing on the other side. The silhouettes of two hands were clearly visible against the frosted glass, behind which was a hazy, indistinct shadow.
Another appeared beside it. Then a third.
Within seconds, they were surrounded.