Something stalked the hall.
She opened her eyes. Golden autumn sunshine shone through the curtainless window at the end of the bed, fading the flickering images on the black and white television to obscurity. Curled up in bed, duvet tucked to her chin, Pahana knew she should be warm but she could not keep from shivering.
The bedroom door creaked open. Pahana flinched. Her mother’s round face peered into the room, her forehead creased with worry.
‘How are you feeling?’
Pahana smiled. ‘Tired,’ she said. ‘Cold.’
Her mother entered the small room and placed her palm on Pahana’s forehead. Flour was encrusted around her fingernails. She must have been baking. Pahana couldn’t smell any enticing odours wafting up from the kitchen.
‘You’re shivering.’ Her mother tut-tutted. ‘What would you say if I sat with you for a while and we watched some TV together?’
‘I’d like that.’
Her mother sat down on the side of the bed, her arm around Pahana’s shoulders. The bed was small; there wasn’t enough room for two. Pahana was forced against the wall. It felt icy to the touch.
‘There, that’s better,’ her mother said, swinging her legs onto the bed.
Pahana heard the footsteps again; the slow pad of a predator stalking the corridor outside her room. It stopped, and then started again, drawing nearer. She tensed.
‘What is it?’ her mother asked.
‘Can you hear it?’
The floorboards at the top of the stairs creaked as the thing crossed them. Its steps were heavy, like her father when he couldn’t sleep and paced at night.
Pahana sat up, her eyes on the door. A low growl sounded outside her room. ‘That,’ she whispered.
Her mother laughed. ‘Oh, that’s nothing. That’s just the Mubby.’
Claws scrabbled against the thin plywood door. It exploded inwards, hitting Pahana’s mother on the side of the head and knocking her unconscious. She slumped onto the floor, a trickle of blood snaking down her cheek. The door, in splinters, rained over her body. The doorway was a black hole, sucking the light out from the window. The growl sounded again. Pahana tried to press her body into the wall, willing herself to become as cold and numb as the ice of the plaster. Something, a blur of fur and scales, detached from the doorway and threw itself towards the bed.
Pahana opened her eyes. Darkness surrounded her, falling upon her eyes and ears in the sticky black threads of the night spider. She was not in bed, but the wall she lay against was as cold as the one in her bedroom. She shook her head to clear it. Something was stalking her. She could still hear it breathing. It padded closer, growling.
She tried to sit up. She was so tired she could barely move. She pressed against the damp floor and raised her body a few inches. The small movement made her head swim and the blood pound in her ears. Not a good idea, she thought, lying prone again. Maybe if I am as still as possible it won’t notice I’m here and leave me alone.
It came closer. She could smell it now. The aroma of clothes left long unwashed, the scent of a dirty litter tray and food gone bad all rolled up into one disgusting stench that made Pahana gag. She choked, and the thing pounced. It landed on her back. Heavy paws pushed her down into the stone floor, while clawed hands reached for her head and pulled it back painfully. She could feel the claws piercing her skin, delving into her cheeks and coming out inside her mouth. She bit into the claw that emerged between her teeth. It tasted of metal, its hardness making her jaw ache. Other claws punctured the skin of her forehead, scraping against bone. Blood washed her face, clotting in her eyelashes and making her skin sticky.
She couldn’t fight. She lay still, frozen in its grasp. It hurt like hell, but the thought of moving – of tearing flesh ripping free from those claws – made her more frightened of change. She heard a wet sneeze beside her ear. The creature – what had her mother called it? The Mubby – was licking its lips. Its grasping hands yanked her head back further until she thought her neck was going to break with the contortion. It would be a merciful release. She almost wished it would. The Mubby snuffled again and then she felt its jaws clamp down upon her skull. There was a moment of intense, bone liquefying pain. Pahana screamed, her voice echoing in the dark. When the sound of her voice died, she was left numb listening to the Mubby lapping at her head.
Time. How does one trace its passing when there is no light, no movement, no tick of the hands travelling on a clock face? There was no time for Pahana, only the Now. The rushing static now, where she was immovable, frozen to the floor, aware she was alive because of the timpani of her heart within her chest and the pain that traced its way through her body. Had she slept? She couldn’t tell. She knew she was alone. How had she got here? Had she ever been anywhere else? She couldn’t remember. She had memories of other times, glimpses of light and warmth, but perhaps they were illusions conjured by her mind to ease the horror of the now.
Slowly she raised her hand to feel around her face and head, assessing the damage. Her fingertips brushed against the flakes of dried blood, and then fell into the claw holes left in her cheeks. She didn’t dare explore the dull ache in the back of her skull, afraid to find out what the Mubby had done to her.
I will get out of this, Pahana whispered. Others will come looking for me.
She lay still and listened for the sounds of the creature moving in the darkness. She heard nothing. Whether it lay quietly sleeping beside her or had left, she did not know. She placed the side of her hand against the wall and slowly pulled herself forward, feeling for gaps in the wall that might lead to something other than Now, her eyes searching for a hint of far away light that might signal escape.
What if it is not dark, and my eyes have been ripped from my face? The thought struck Pahana motionless. What if the Mubby and a whole host of creatures stood over her, washed in daylight, laughing at her pitiful efforts to escape. She was too afraid to feel for her eyes, in case she was right and found the sockets empty.
She was still rocking from the thought when a speck of light ahead resolved the question. It hurt her to look at it, but if she pressed her face into the ground she could see it out of the corner of her eye without pain. Slowly she discerned colours in the pulsating cloud – blue, yellow and orange. It swayed back and forth, coming closer.
The voice was sweet, but she was afraid to answer.
Footsteps – heavy paws stalking closer. Pahana closed her eyes, shutting out the light, bracing herself for the attack. Something large and bestial approached, bringing the light with it. She could smell it’s animal scent, not unpleasant, as it stopped in front of her. Stale breath blew against her skin.
‘Pahana, open your eyes. There is no need to be afraid.’
The light was very bright now. She could see it pressing against her eyelids, turning the darkness red.
‘I am here to help you.’
A hand touched the back of her neck. The caress was soothing, unlike the grip of the Mubby. Pahana opened her eyes. The light was so bright that it stabbed into her eyes. They watered, making the colours before her run in a shower of tears. Two creatures stood before her. One stood square on four powerful paws, each as large as dinner plates, its orange fur streaked with black marks. A tiger. The other was a woman, tall and elegant clad in blue, with golden hair haloing her head. From her back sprouted fourfold wings of incredible delicacy and beauty. It was from the wings that the light emanated, widening the circle of brightness with each beat.
The woman crouched above Pahana, one hand resting on the tiger’s broad back, the other gentling touching Pahana’s head. She smiled, her soft face filled with love.
Pahana wanted to rub her eyes to make sure this was not another mirage. She wanted to touch the bare feet of the woman, rub her fingers across the furry toes of the tiger, but she was afraid that if she moved she would shatter the illusion and they would vanish, leaving her alone in the darkness once more. The night was always so much darker after the light.
‘Who are you?’ Pahana said.
‘I am Angel, and this is Ansus Khan,’ the woman said. ‘I have been looking for you for a long time.’
The tiger lowered its head and sniffed Pahana’s face. It licked her head, its tongue rasping against her skin.
‘My, you are in quite a state,’ Angel said. ‘Sit up, so I can look at you.’
‘I can’t,’ Pahana said. ‘I’m so tired, I can barely move.’
‘I know.’ Angel grasped Pahana’s shoulders and lifted her into a sitting position, her back resting against the cold wall. ‘Oh dear, they have done quite a number on you, haven’t they?’
Pahana tried to look down, but Angel caught her chin and held her head up so she couldn’t ‘t see. She caught a glimpse of a long red scar tracing a route across her chest.
‘It is better if you don’t look,’ Angel said.
The tiger moved closer, its whiskers tickling Pahana’s flesh. It sniffed her carefully from head to toe and then started to lick her hands and face.
‘Ansus is cleaning up the worst of it, but your wounds will take time to heal,’ Angel explained.
‘Can’t you heal me?’ Pahana said. ‘Haven’t you come to rescue me?’
Angel smiled. Pahana had seen such a smile before on the faces of many people. It was the expression they used just before they told you bad news, as if smiling could lessen the blow. ‘I have come to help you. I’ve been looking for you for a long time, but it has been very hard to find you. The magic around this place is very strong, and I can only penetrate it for so long before I am discovered and expelled.’
Pahana shuddered. The tiger raised its head and looked at her quizzically, its amber eyes shining with their own light independent from Angel’s wings. ‘You can’t leave me here alone, there are things here – what about the Mubby? What if it comes back?’
Angel pushed the hair away from Pahana’s face. The strands were stiff, glued together with filth. ‘Even though I cannot stay with you, I will not leave you alone. That is why I brought Ansus Khan with me. She volunteered to be your guide. She is going to help you escape when I cannot.’
Pahana looked at the tiger again. It winked at her. ‘But what is this place? Why am I here? Please don’t leave me alone in the dark again.’
‘It’s a maze,’ Angel said. ‘A labyrinth, magically constructed and home to a variety of fearsome beasts.’
‘You aren’t making me feel any better.’
‘The labyrinth is heavily disguised, its outer shell marked with many ruins, its entrances all sealed with spells. They will not detect Ansus, she will stay with you, but they will know I am here. Yes, in fact I can feel them looking for me know.’ Angel’s light flickered. For a moment she vanished and then she was back again, her warm hands wrapped around Pahana’s arms.
‘Can’t you take me away with you, the way you brought the tiger here?’
Ansus Khan stood up, swinging around to face out, her long tail thumping against the wall. A growl rumbled deep in her throat.
‘They have found me,’ Angel said. She gripped Pahana tighter and leaned close to her face, whispering rapidly. ‘I cannot take you with me. They have placed many spells upon you, chaining you to this place. It would take many powerful people to break these chains, and even if I could get them here, we would not be left in peace long enough to do the work.’
‘I’m trapped then.’ Pahana didn’t mean to shout. Ansus glared at her over her shoulder, one large paw placed on her leg to quiet her.
‘No, there are other ways you can break the spells – slower ways, but just as effective. Ansus Khan will help you. She will show you the way. I must go now, they are coming for me, and I must be gone before they find me or I will not be able to go and I will be of no use to you trapped here also – or worse. I will be back, if I can. Keep faith, Pahana, and do not be afraid.’
The tiger bowed her head to the woman and they exchanged looks. Angel squeezed Pahana’s arms one more time, and then she was gone. The ghostly image of her light bearing wings stayed on Pahana’s retinas before they too faded, leaving her at the mercy of the darkness once more.
Ansus Khan’s eyes glowed amber in the black, twin beams of orange that cast light inches in front of the tiger’s face. She turned her head, casting the lights on to Pahana. ‘They are coming,’ she growled. ‘Get ready.’