Ansus locked her gaze on the figure behind Pahana’s shoulder. She bared her teeth and crouched, ready to spring.
‘I said move and you’re dead.’
‘I think he’s talking to you, Ansus,’ Pahana said.
The tiger growled and lashed her tail from side to side, but remained frozen in place. ‘Fool.’
‘A talking tiger, well that’s a first.’
Pahana felt pressure on her neck. The grip strengthened, guiding her backwards. She stumbled, reluctant to be taken away from Ansus. She was pulled away from the platform into the dark opening her attacker had emerged from. Once out of sight of the tiger she was twirled around and pushed against the wall. Before her stood a small man, with dark hair and skin and bright brown eyes. He held a bone knife in his hand.
‘Sorry about that,’ he said. ‘It was the only way I could get you away from that beast. Now, if you’re up for it, I think we should get out of here before more of its kind show up, as they have a habit of doing in this place.’
‘Ansus, help me,’ Pahana shouted. If the tiger leaped around the corner she should be able to knock the man down before he could raise his knife.
The man clamped his hand over Pahana’s mouth. ‘What did you do that for?’ he hissed. ‘You’ll draw those things down on us. Now come on.’ He took hold of her arm and dragged her down the corridor, away from the platform.
‘What do you want from me?’
‘Want from you? I’m trying to help you. There are a couple of us holed up back here. I was out scouting for supplies when I saw that tiger bring you out onto the platform. I waited for you to pass and made my move.’
Pahana shook her arm, trying to loosen the man’s grip. She was torn between anger at being dragged away from Ansus at knifepoint and excitement at the news that there were others like her trapped in the maze. She settled with anger. ‘If you had bothered to wait for five seconds and watch us you would have realised that the tiger and I were together. She’s helping me get out of here.’
The man looked at her out of the corner of his eyes. ‘You serious?’
Pahana tried to break free again. ‘Did I look like I was in any danger? Does Ansus look like those terrible creatures to you?’
The man let her go. He held his knife up defensively. ‘Maybe I have been stupid. I’m thinking you aren’t all that you appear to be.’
‘Is anything in this place?’
He stopped, turning back to stare at Pahana. Before he could speak again, Ansus launched out of the dark behind him, knocking him to the ground. The tiger growled, her teeth flashing in the lichen light as she lowered her head to slice through the man’s exposed throat. Winded and pinned by the weight of the beast, the man was unable to raise his knife in defence.
‘Ansus, Ansus stop.’ Pahana pulled at the tiger’s tail. ‘He wasn’t trying to hurt me.’
Ansus paused, growling at the man beneath her. ‘Is this true?’
‘I don’t have to explain myself to you,’ the man said.
‘He thought you were going to harm me. He thought he was helping me. Now let him go and we can go our separate ways without anyone coming to any harm,’ Pahana said.
Slowly the tiger withdrew from the man, keeping her body between him and Pahana. Despite withdrawing, she was still tense – her teeth bared and the fur around her neck fluffed up into a collar. ‘You’re right. He doesn’t smell of the maze. He isn’t worth my time.’
Pahana stroked the tiger’s back. ‘Thank you Ansus. I knew you would save me.’
‘Climb on my back. We have to get on the right path. Something big is coming,’ Ansus said.
Pahana straddled the tiger and did not look back as Ansus carried her back to the platform. Behind her she heard the man get up. He was gasping for breath. She wondered if Ansus had injured him badly when she knocked him to the ground.
‘Hey, wait up,’ the man called. His footsteps rang on the concrete. ‘You can’t leave. You said that beast is helping you get out of here. How about joining up and getting us all out of here?’
‘He said there were other people trapped in the maze, Ansus,’ Pahana said, tapping the tiger on the shoulder.
Ansus broke into a lope.
‘There are a lot of nasty things out there, wouldn’t it make sense if we joined forces? There are three of us. Four heads and a tiger are better than one head – and a tiger.’
Ansus growled and started to run. They shot out onto the platform. The ball of light in the tunnel had grown larger, and the smell of sulphur had got stronger. Ansus turned right and moved towards the end of the platform. Behind them the man was panting for breath as he pursued them.
‘Hey lady, you understand, don’t you? I don’t expect your pet to listen, but you’re human too. You can’t leave us here. If you have a way out you owe it to us to help. I’d do the same for you if positions were reversed.’
Pahana prodded Ansus’ neck. ‘Slow down. He has a point. Maybe we should help them.’
Ansus skidded to a halt and spun around. Pahana grabbed a handful of hair to keep from unbalancing. The man stood behind them. He brandished the knife by reflex as the tiger stalked towards him. Already bruises were forming on his face from being tackled by the tiger.
‘Rein your pussy cat in,’ he said, stepping away from Ansus.
‘I am not her pet,’ Ansus growled. ‘If you want my help you had better watch your words. Now, where are these people?’
He pointed to the doorway they had just exited. ‘They’re back there. There’s just the three of us – Ben, Lilo and me. We found a little place that the monsters don’t seem to come to so often and it’s easily defendable if they do. Easily defendable, or a death trap. I was looking for some food when I ran into you guys. It isn’t far, come on, I’ll show you.’
He moved towards the doorway but Ansus did not follow. Pahana leaned forward and whispered into the tiger’s ear. ‘Do you think it’s a trap?’
‘Doorways open and close, the maze is not static. The true path will not remain open for much longer. Something comes. Go, fetch your friends. We will wait here. We cannot chance losing the path, it’s too important,’ Ansus said.
The man rubbed his hair. ‘So I go off to get the others and when we come back you two are gone? I don’t think so.’
‘Then you must follow us now. These are your only choices.’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t buy that; there are always more than two choices. Now I say you two come with me and we all follow this ‘true path’ together.’
‘No,’ Ansus said. ‘You go and we will wait here for you to return. If you are not back in time we will go on without you. There is no need to waste more time on this.’
‘Ok, but she’s coming with me.’ He moved towards Pahana.
Ansus bared her teeth. ‘She stays with me.’
He nodded. ‘I get your number tiger, but what’s the deal with you?’ He pointed at Pahana. ‘What’s your name anyway? I’m Jed.’
‘All right, Pahana, I’m going to get Ben and Lilo. I’m counting on you to still be here when we get back. I don’t trust your furry friend, but I hope I can trust you.’ He winked and ran towards the doorway. Two steps from it the platform shock, throwing him against the wall. Ansus wheeled to face the tunnel. Orange light filled the entire tunnel now. It grew brighter as the platform trembled again. The air filled with the smell of rotten eggs and methane gas. A metallic squeal reverberated in the tunnel.
‘What the hell?’ Jed shouted, struggling to keep standing.
‘Too late,’ Ansus said.
The doorways that led onto the platform twisted in time to the shriek from the tunnel. They morphed into cruel faces, hungry skulls with sharp teeth that snapped at the three figures on the platform. Then they collapsed in upon themselves, disappearing from view and leaving an unbroken concrete wall where there had been five entrances.
‘This is not good.’ Jed turned to face the tunnel, instinctively edging closer to Ansus and Pahana.
‘Get off my back,’ Ansus said. ‘I will need to fight.’
‘What’s coming?’ Pahana asked, climbing off the tiger and hiding behind her.
‘The night train,’ Ansus said.
‘I take it that’s a bad thing?’ Jed said.
The orange light exploded out of the tunnel, momentarily blinding them on the platform. A huge armoured centipede emerged from the tunnel and stopped at the platform, its length still reaching into the tunnel behind it. Instead of eyes it had a single orb on the centre of its head, which cast the bright orange light. Its numerous legs were coated with metal and filed to a razor sharp edge. They clattered together, moving restlessly even as it stood still. Two metal plated pinchers, each larger than Ansus and Jed combined together, protruded from its face under the light. The creature clacked the pinchers together, then opened its mouth and shrieked.
‘You’re going to fight that?’ Jed said.
Ansus flicked her ears. ‘No, them.’
Segments on the side of the centipede moulded together and moved aside, forming holes. The smell got worse, billowing out of the centipede in waves. With the malodour came an assortment of small creatures issuing out of the monstrous insect. Their skin was yellow and waxy, their bodies smooth and round. On their oval faces mismatched features slipped downwards, causing them to constantly push them back into place with their podgy fists. Knives were tied to belts at their waist and some of them carried tridents with sharp, curved tines.
‘They don’t look so bad,’ Jed said.
The yellow creatures ran squealing towards the people on the platform. To Pahana they sounded excited rather than aggressive. They wobbled towards her, clinking their tridents against the concrete and rearranging their faces as they moved so that some had noses and broad grinning mouths above their eyes. There was something comical about their appearance and Pahana wanted to laugh.
Ansus obviously did not share Pahana’s humour. She roared, flicking out her claws and launching herself into the fray. The creatures did not seem particularly dangerous, but their weapons were sharp and they greatly out numbered the tiger. Jed moved closer to Pahana, his knife ready to strike.
‘I hope you’re armed,’ he said.
Ansus’ leap carried her into the first wave of the centipede riders. Her weight and motion carried her through them – not only into the heart of the creatures but also right through their flesh. Under her weight they fell apart, scattering in lumps onto the platform. Ansus slipped on the waxy substance, unable to regain her footing and skidded towards the centipede. Rebounding off the hard skin of the insect, she turned and slashed more conservatively with claws and teeth at the enemies in her path. Each swipe sliced another couple of creatures asunder but as the tiger diced her way through the army, the ones she had devastated in her initial leap drew together and reformed. Featureless, they rooted among the noses, eyes and mouths scattered across the concrete, shoving them into their heads in a haphazard manner so that several ended up with two mouths and a single eye instead of the standard. Complete once again, they picked up their weapons and converged upon Pahana.
Jed stepped forward, stabbing strongly from the shoulder. The knife sank deep into the forgiving substance, causing no damage to his victim. With difficulty, he withdrew and tried again. The second time the knife was sucked into the creature and lost.
‘Move to the edge of the platform. We can jump off and run along the tunnel,’ Jed shouted above the giggles of the army.
Pahana looked for Ansus. She could hardly see the tiger anymore. The reformed bodies of the fallen relentlessly pushed Ansus towards the jaws of the centipede. She was still fighting but each lunge left her slipping further away from Pahana on the entrails of her enemies. Pahana turned to Jed, but he too had been separated from her by the chattering mob. She was afraid of the centipede, was not sure of the safety of Jed’s plan to run into the tunnel, but she tried to make it to the edge of the platform. Greasy hands grabbed her and trident tines bit into her when she moved, the army chattering their displeasure. Prodding her on one side and pulling her with their fat hands on the other, the mob guided her towards the centipede and into one of the holes on the side of its body. She screamed for Ansus, but she could no longer see the tiger. The stench inside the insect was overpowering. She pushed against her captors, swimming helplessly into the tide of beings returning to the night train. Pahana could only watch as the side of the centipede contracted, closing the holes in its skin and plunging her into complete darkness. With a shriek and a clack of its metallic legs, the giant insect hurried forth into the tunnel carrying Pahana with it.