As the Voidlings oozed into that familiar-and-unfamiliar banquet hall, I pressed my weight backward against Reese, who braced against me in turn. I could find some measure of comfort in the feel of their ropy back muscles against mine, in the knowledge that someone literally had my back. We stayed like that for several minutes, eyes fixed on our respective Voidlings. For their part, the horrible entities crept into the room and stopped just inside the doorways.
“Do they know we’re here?” I asked after a while. “They won’t move away from the exits.”
“They seem to enjoy blocking exits,” grumbled Reese. “Like cats and boxes.”
“Is there anything we can do? Distract them somehow?”
“Maybe,” Reese said, “but not without a risk that they’ll deduce where we are and feel us out. I was hoping another Resident would find us, but it seems like June is… bigger on the inside than she used to be.”
We went quiet. A few seconds passed.
“So, June,” I said.
“June,” Reese agreed.
“She’s the woman in that painting.”
“Again, not a painting, but yes.”
I frowned. “But she’s also… this place.”
“Can you, like, elaborate on that?”
“Rather not do it right now, I think?” Reese said through a clenched jaw.
“Okay, fair,” I said with a sigh, and we lapsed into another silence, slightly more awkward than the last.
Maybe my third attempt at conversation would buck the trend. “So,” I began, but Reese cut me off.
“Ssh, do you hear that?”
I fell silent and heard it. Beneath the whispering of the Voidlings thrummed a low ringing noise, like the long chime of a tibetan singing bowl. As the sound increased in volume and clarity, Reese murmured, “that’s Ingrid.”
My head started to swim, but not in an unpleasant way. Something about the sound inspired a confused euphoria in me, and when my head dipped down for a moment, Reese took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Don’t fall into the prayer. I need you here.”
“Prayer…?” I slurred. “Ingrid?”
Where I felt dazed and euphoric, the Voidlings reacted to the ethereal sound more adversely. The one I was staring at lurched into the room with us further, abandoning its post at the door in order to move away from the source of the sound.
“Her prayers don’t hurt them, but they hate the noise,” said Reese, shuffling us to the side to let the Voidling pass by. “I don’t like hanging out with her, but I like how much our chances of survival go up with Ingrid around.”
It wasn’t until both Voidlings disappeared through the far door that I dared turn and look at the woman entering the room, tall and slender and wrapped in gauzy robes. Ingrid appeared mostly human, but for the strange proportions of her head. At the end of a furless muzzle, her flat nose and subtly murmuring lips led the way for a sloped forehead, large eyes, and fluted ears between which a long mane of pitch-black hair flowed.
Around her shone an aura of white gold, which slowly faded as she ended her prayer and turned to face us.
“Praise be. We are Graced with a New Resident.” Ingrid spoke in a strong alto that threatened with each fullstop to break into a sermon. “And in Reese’s Care. I cannot imagine a Safer Companion for Our New Sister.”
“Sorry, your—”I yelped, but Reese talked over me at their full voice.
“Okay slow your roll with the sister stuff, Ingrid,” they said, “since we really don’t know if she’s a Resident or not.”
“One way or another, she is Our Sister,” Ingrid insisted, “for she Thinks, and Feels, and Speaks, and is a Part of June. What Else but a Resident could Do These Things, Reese?”
“That’s the problem! We don’t know what she is at all!”
“Excuse me!” I cut in at the top of my lungs. “Time out!”
Both of the nonplussed Residents turned to peer at me, and I asked: “Why are you calling me ‘she’?”
Ingrid was the first to react, after only a second or so. “Have We Misgendered You? I Apologize.”
“I mean, um, th-that’s not,” my face felt hot. Why did my face feel hot? Why didn’t I want to say ‘yes, I’m a guy’ to Ingrid? “I just wanted to know why, not for you to necessarily, uh. Stop doing it.”
“Well, you do, kinda, look like a girl?” Reese ventured, cautious, “that is, by societal standards. I know I can’t count on that, but, uh.”
Ingrid nodded. “Yes, My Answer is the Same as That of My Sibling.”
“I look like… a girl?” I looked down at my hands, and for the first time, I noticed how much smaller they were than I remembered them being. The hair on my arms was fine and light, barely visible. “Oh. Is. Can. Could I…”
“I Passed a Mirror in the Adjoining Hallway,” Ingrid said, and I was off like a rocket.
I stared at the girl in the mirror. The near-perfect reflection of the colors and shapes of my body were visible to my eyes for the first time since I arrived, and that reflected girl was simultaneously so familiar and foreign. I could see myself in her face, I recognized the moles on her cheek, and her irises had the same brown ring inside a green ring as mine. But I’d never seen the swell of her breasts before, nor those wide hips. The small beer belly I had in life was instead a soft curve, forming a gently generous hourglass shape.
“So I guess this is news to you, huh?” Reese rested a hand on my shoulder and smiled at me through the reflection.
“Yuh-huh,” I confirmed.
“I think so?” I touched my cheeks with my fingers. The skin was so soft. “I might be better than okay? But I also might be freaking out?”
“Praise Be to God,” intoned Ingrid, “for These Gifts, and For Our New Sister, Avery.”
“Ingrid!” Reese hissed. “Not now!”
“Now and Always, Sibling,” Ingrid replied primly.
“Um,” I said, and they both turned their attention back to me.
“Yeah?” Reese prompted me.
“I… think,” I said, lifting my hand and gently pressing my fingertips to the mirror’s surface, “I think she pronouns are okay.”
Reese smiled. “Better than okay, maybe?”
“Yeah.” I laughed, and tears gathered at the corners of my eyes. “Maybe so.”