Hands caught Pahana out of the black. They cradled her, floating her downwards with gentle movement. She struggled against their grip, but they held her firm. No claws bit into her flesh, no horrible smell accompanied their movement. Light grew below her and she was folded into it. As its glow dimmed to manageable levels, Pahana looked up and saw faces gazing down at her. Two women; one with long white hair, a smooth unwrinkled face and bright blue eyes that sparkled with the light of ages, the other with rainbow hair and a round puckered face that was at once a baby’s and an old man’s, her eyes black with the knowledge of the unseen. They both smiled down at Pahana. They looked welcoming and kind. Strong hands grasped her head and shoulders, lifting her into a sitting position.
‘Welcome,’ the women said in unison.
Their voices were sweet. The sound calmed Pahana. She relaxed into their grip, allowed them to touch her face, tracing her scars with their fingers.
‘Where am I?’ Pahana asked.
‘A rest spot,’ the women said. They lifted Pahana to her feet.
‘Who are you?’
‘Moriah,’ the rainbow haired woman said. ‘Ophelia,’ the white haired woman said. ‘Friends,’ they said together. Their voices in isolation were beautiful but when they spoke together the sound harmonised, growing richer and deeper.
‘Come with us,’ they said.
Pahana looked for the casket she had taken from Lipedo’s lair. It lay on the floor near her feet. She bent to retrieve it, but Moriah and Ophelia stopped her.
‘Leave it,’ they said. ‘You will return later.’
Pahana allowed them to lead her away. She was in a strange place. She could see things clearly, she felt she was in the light, but when she looked around darkness swam at the edge of her perception. The ground under her feet was warm solid stone. The women gripping her arm felt solid yet ethereal.
A circular depression appeared in the floor ahead of her. It was filled with warm fragrant water that billowed floral scented steam into the air. Shallow steps led down into the bath. Under the water the stone shone emerald green. Moriah and Ophelia guided Pahana into the water until it reached her shoulders. It felt warm and soothing against her skin. There was something in the texture of the water that was slightly gritty, polishing her body with each wave. The women removed her dirty clothing. They produced balms and oils and proceeded to wash her hair. They took great pains to keep her head above the water. When her hair was clean and sweet smelling they gave her soap to wash her body and left her to her abolitions.
Pahana rested in the water for a while, relishing in its soothing caress that gently scrubbed the filth from her body and re-energised her aching muscles. The mould on her fingers from Lipedo’s food was washed away. As the water scoured away her pain and tiredness, she lathered the soap in her hands and began to wash. The scent of the soap reminded her of better days, of sunlight and hope, although the memories slipped out of her reach when she tried to grasp them.
When she was cleansed, Moriah and Ophelia returned. They carried a large towel between them. It was white and appeared to be made from swan feathers. They stood on the steps and held the towel up, averting their gaze as Pahana exited the pool. They wrapped her in the towel and it was warm and soft. It covered her completely, flowing from her neck to the floor. The women left Pahana once more so that she could dry herself in private. Alone, Pahana carefully polished her skin with the towel until her body shone. She sat down on the edge of the pool and gathered the ends of the towel in her hands to dry her hair. She worked the strands carefully, avoiding the ragged edges of the hole in the centre of her head. She looked at the water as she worked. Ripples in the pool spread out from the centre, washing the green stone sides in miniature waves. As Pahana watched the waves subsided and the surface of the pool became smooth. The water was clear and Pahana gazed down at the gold-flecked rock of the bottom, but as she looked upon it the water filled with silver light and grew opaque. The change did not startle Pahana; it was if she had expected it, drawing it forth from the water.
Reflected on the smooth surface of the pool, Pahana saw a familiar clearing surrounded by forest. It was nighttime in the clearing, but the starlight was bright and Pahana could see everything clearly. The door of the house in the middle of the clearing opened and the wood woman stepped out onto the grass. Pale petaled night flowers turned their faces to her as she walked across the grass. A large white-bellied owl swooped silently out of the trees and landed on the woman’s shoulder. Out of the forest came creatures of the night – the badger, the leopard, the wolf. They followed the woman as she moved into the cover of the trees and away from the clearing. It was dark beneath the trees, but Pahana had no difficulty in following the wood woman and her animals.
They walked in the woods for a while and then, through the trees, Pahana saw a light. The woman moved towards it. Among the tall, straight trunks of the trees with the high branches stood a smaller tree made out of white gold. The tree shone with moonlight in the midnight forest. On its frosted branches grew fruit in abundance. The fruit was gilded with gold. At the base of the tree, between its roots, lay a bear. As the wood woman approached, the bear stood up and Pahana realised she was mistaken. It was not a bear but a woman dressed as one. She greeted the wood woman warmly. The animals hung back as the wood woman approached the tree. The woman in the bearskin helped the wood woman as they moved around the tree, testing the fruit and checking the branches. Parts of the tree looked stunted, the leaves withered. When the women came to these parts they clipped the withered leaves from the branches and shook their heads.
After carefully examining the entire tree, the wood woman plucked one of the fruits and bit into it. Out of the forest stepped a man. He was tall and handsome. He was smiling, his face looked kind, prone to generosity and humour. He spoke to the wood woman and although no sound travelled through the pool, Pahana once more understood the words.
Bella. Pahana liked that.
The image faded. Moriah and Ophelia stepped silently up to Pahana. They carried a sapphire robe in their hands, similar in style to their own clothes. Pahana was warm and dry, her hair a fluffy halo about her face. She stood up. The two women held the garment above her head. She let the towel drop from her shoulders and held up her arms. The sapphire robe slipped over her arms and shimmered down her body. It looked shapeless when the women held it, but it fit Pahana as if it had been made for her. It glistened in a coruscation of blue tones as she moved.
Ophelia and Moriah took Pahana’s hands and led her away from the pool. Her casket still waited for her. They led her over to the casket and guided her gently to sit down beside it. They patted her head in unison.
‘He comes,’ the women said. ‘Do not be afraid.’
‘Who comes?’ Pahana asked.
‘The sage.’ The two women glittered. Their bodies shrank and changed. On Pahana’s left Ophelia morphed into a white dove, on her right Moriah transformed into a hummingbird of rainbow colours. Pahana could see the women’s smiles shining through the faces of the birds. They bowed to her and flew away. Pahana watched them until their shapes blurred and were swallowed into the shadows.
Pahana jumped. She was not alone. In front of her sat a hooded figure. She had not heard it approach, not seen it appear, it was just there.
‘Welcome.’ The figure raised its head. The hood fell back, revealing its face. It was a handsome young man.
Pahana blushed and looked down.
‘It is nice to meet you,’ the man said.
‘Who are you?’ Pahana asked.
‘I am the sage. This is the resting place. I brought you here because I have a message for you, and it is very important that you hear it.’
Pahana looked up. ‘Is it about Angel? Is she ok?’
‘She is not of consequence.’
Pahana frowned. ‘She did escape Lipedo, didn’t she?’
The sage nodded. ‘The resting place is a safe space, but it requires much energy to maintain. Every moment is precious.’
‘You come from the outside then, from the same place as Angel?’
‘Perhaps,’ the sage said. He leaned towards Pahana. ‘Your path is dark but you will succeed. You can get out of the maze, but you must hurry. The true path will not be open for much longer and when it closes, it will close for centuries.’
‘That’s very comforting,’ Pahana said. ‘If I’m going to be successful, why do I have to hurry? I’ve lost Ansus, I don’t know how to find the true path.’
The sage smiled. ‘I do not mean to alarm you, only warn you that you must work hard to escape. If you dally, you will be trapped here for a long time and there is nothing that I, or Angel, or any of us can do to open up a new path.’
‘Well, you may not have meant it but you have certainly alarmed me,’ Pahana said.
‘You were wise to take the casket. What it contains will help you with the journey ahead. I must deliver you back to the maze now. Good luck, I look forward to meeting you on the other side.’
The sage waved his hand. The darkness grew around Pahana, hemming her in. She grabbed the casket, holding on to it firmly as everything around her changed into something new. Finally all that was left was the face of the sage in front of her. He winked and the darkness absorbed him into it. Pahana felt she was falling once more. This time cold brick broke her fall, rather than gentle hands. She fell on her back with the casket clasped to her stomach.
‘Ouch,’ she said. She sat up, setting the casket on the floor in front of her and rubbing her sore spots. She was in another brick corridor with lichen growing on the walls casting an eerie glow over everything. It was dank and cold after the resting place.
She looked up. The tiger was running down the corridor towards her. ‘Ansus,’ Pahana said, holding out her arms. The tiger ran into them, rubbing her face against Pahana’s.
‘Where did you go and how did you get back here?’ the tiger asked.
‘I’m not really sure,’ Pahana said.
Ansus lay down; her large heavy paws resting on Pahana’s knees. She sniffed the silky sapphire garment that clothed Pahana, rubbed her face in Pahana’s fluffy hair and tapped the wooden casket with a claw. ‘Where did you get these things? Your dress smells of the other worlds.’
Pahana caressed the smooth material. ‘Two women gave it to me. They said they were called Ophelia and Moriah.’
The tiger grumbled in her throat. ‘Did they mention me? Were they cross that I had lost you?’
‘No, but the sage told me that I must hurry to get out of the maze as the true path will close soon and lock me inside. I met Angel too; she helped me escape from Lipedo. That’s where the night train took me. He was horrible, but I found this in his room.’ Pahana touched the casket. ‘I felt bad stealing it, but the sage said it would help me.’
Ansus stood up. ‘The sage? It is not good that he has turned up. We must move, Pahana.’
Pahana picked up the casket and stood up beside the tiger. ‘What happened to the man, Jed? I was afraid Lipedo had captured you. Did they take him on the night train too?’
‘Unfortunately, no,’ Ansus growled. She looked over her shoulder, her eye light casting an orange glow over the pale floor and walls of the corridor. ‘He has been following me like a tick and has brought his friends with him.’
Pahana looked down the corridor. Jed was walking towards them, a man and a woman a few steps behind him. He waved when he saw Pahana watching him.
‘So you came back,’ he called. ‘Perhaps the cat will stop complaining all the time now.’