Another tiny creature darted towards Jed, then a third and fourth from the shadow of the tree root. They ran fast, in short jerky movements, clucking as their eyes danced trails of red light through the air.
Jed groaned and covered his head with his arms. ‘What are they? Get them away from me.’
‘They’re chickens,’ Ben said.
Pahana squinted. The creatures did look like chickens. They had small round heads on long necks and large oval bodies. Their beaks were curved, but not powerful like an eagle, and they scratched in the dirt around Jed with their clawed feet. However, that was where the similarity ended. Their bodies were naked, completely devoid of feathers, and a deep mat black. Tiny flaps of skin protruded from the base of their necks, which they waved constantly, producing a rustling noise. Their heads zoomed side to side, one moment gazing upwards, the next pecking at the ground. Some of the chickens wore gold chains around their necks and spindly legs. Others were completely naked. All of them clucked and squawked constantly. Pahana realised she could understand their cacophony of conversation.
‘Silly man,’ they said, pecking and scratching at Jed. ‘You shouldn’t have been climbing the trees. Look, you’re all dirty. You’ve ruined your clothes. You’ve injured yourself. Lie there, rest, we’ll look after you. Don’t try to move. Lie there, we’ll keep you from harm.’
Jed flung his arms out. He hit one of the chickens in the head and it somersaulted backwards before plopping onto the dirt looking stunned. More chickens clustered around it.
‘Silly bird, shouldn’t have approached the stranger. We told you not to. Now look where it’s got you,’ the birds chattered.
‘I could do with a little help here,’ Jed said.
Ben stepped forward. The chickens swarmed about his feet, stopping him from getting to Jed.
‘Don’t move, you might fall down. Best to stay where you are, you won’t get injured that way. Sitting down would be better. Yes, you look tired. You should lie down and have a rest.’
‘Am I mistaken or are these creatures actually addressing me?’ Ben said.
Lilo wrapped her arms around her chest and wriggled from one foot to the other. ‘They’re disgusting. Get them away from me.’
‘Ansus, do something,’ Pahana said, touching the tiger’s back.
Ansus roared and scattered the chickens with her front paws.
‘Watch out,’ the chicken’s clucked. They opened to let the tiger through, and then closed the path behind her.
‘What’s this?’ the wave of creatures surged toward Pahana, where she stood pressed against the cavern wall. ‘You shouldn’t stand there dear, the wall is wet. You might catch a cold. You don’t know where that muck has been. Oh, you’ve dirtied your pretty dress.’
They rustled as they drew near, waving their skin flaps in great agitation. Pahana imagined their dry skin scraping against her feet, their scaly legs scratching at her, their red eyes peering into her own as they over powered her and knocked her off her feet. She moved away from them, terrified of their touch.
‘Keep back,’ she said. Fire ants prickled under her skin. She raised her arms defensively. Blue flame engulfed her. She burned brightly. A fireball shot out from her hand and hit the nearest chicken. It evaporated in a puff of soot. The other chickens stopped, bobbing their heads from side to side.
‘Mmm, better get Fera, yes, Fera will want to see this,’ the chickens said, withdrawing from Pahana. ‘Be careful, don’t trip, wouldn’t want to fall over and break a leg or neck on the way back. Or worse, lose your way. No, must be careful.’
Seeing the chickens move away from her, Pahana stepped from the wall and forged into their midst. They scuttled away, chirping and squawking. She waved her hands at them, scattering them, the animals crawling over each other in their haste to get away, but she did not evaporate them. She cleared a path to the others. By the time she reached Ansus and Jed, the chickens had fallen back into the shadows, only the noise of their retreat evidence of their existence.
‘Are you all right?’ Pahana offered her hand to Jed. He looked at the blue flames roaring around it and turned it down, leaning on Ansus to get to his feet.
‘We should leave before they come back,’ Pahana said.
Jed was shivering. He slapped at his torso, his eyes darting around the cavern. ‘What are those things? Where did they come from? What do they want?’
Pahana frowned. ‘It doesn’t matter. They’re gone – for the moment. Let’s take our chance. Climb back up to the ceiling and help us get out of here.’
Jed shook his head. ‘I’m not going back up there. It hurt when I fell. I could really injure myself if I went up there again. Oh no, I’m staying down here where I know where I am.’
Pahana turned to Ben. ‘Will you climb up?’
He stared at Pahana and she was afraid his eyeballs would pop out of his head. ‘I would love to oblige you, but I am older than Jed and therefore less nimble. If I fell I’d be guaranteed to break something. An arm or a leg. My hip perhaps. My back, most definitely.’
Pahana didn’t even ask Lilo. She was sitting on the ground, her arms wrapped around her knees rocking backwards and forwards.
‘Ansus, you’ll help me, won’t you?’ Pahana asked.
A growl rumbled constantly in the tiger’s throat. She walked gingerly towards the tree root. She looked unsure of every step. At the base of the root she turned to Pahana, her brow folded into one black line against her orange fur. ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t do it, it looks dangerous. I can’t put you in a position of harm.’
Pahana sighed. She grabbed the tree root and pulled herself onto its base. The flame from her body transferred onto the wood, running along the length of the root. The wood started to burn. She tried to pull the fire back into her, but she could not stop it. She climbed upwards as fast as she could, but the root was crumbling under her touch. She looked longingly up at the patch of light in the ceiling Jed had cleared. She hoped to see sky, to feel the outside air against her face, but instead she saw a large grey fungus growing in the dark earth of the ceiling.
‘It doesn’t lead out of the maze at all, it’s just a big mushroom,’ Pahana exclaimed.
‘What is?’ Jed looked around.
‘The light around the roots. They aren’t spots of sunlight; it’s coming from fungus growing with the tree. We aren’t going to be able to climb out this way. Sorry,’ Pahana said, quickly sliding down the root before it burned through.
The burning root provided brighter light than the fungus, illuminating a wider portion of the cavern. In its light Pahana could see the chickens in the distance, their red eyes bobbing up and down as they watched her. They grew out of the darkness like a black fungus clustered around the roots.
‘They’re coming back,’ she said.
Lilo screamed. ‘We’re never going to get out.’ She started to cry, her words sobs. ‘We’ll die here and the chickens will peck our meat from our bones.’
‘Don’t say that. They aren’t even very frightening. There has to be another way out of this cavern. I’ll led the way, keeping them back with my fire, and the rest of you’ll stay close to me. They don’t like the flame, so they’ll keep away from us,’ Pahana said.
‘What’s the point, Lilo’s right. We’re never going to get out of here,’ Jed said. He slumped down on the ground beside Lilo.
Pahana turned to Ansus. ‘Help me with this,’ she said.
The tiger yawned. ‘I think we should rest here first,’ she said. ‘We haven’t slept in a while. Do you know how damaging to your health that can be?’ She lay down and started to clean the muck from her face. ‘I must freshen up before I catch a cold.’
‘Ansus.’ Pahana pulled at the tiger in desperation.
‘Perhaps I can help you?’
Pahana smiled. ‘Oh thank you, Ben. At least you aren’t like the others.’
‘Excuse me.’ He carefully moved Pahana to one side and knelt down in front of Ansus. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and started to clean the mud from the tiger’s forehead.
‘Don’t spit on that old man, I don’t want to catch your germs,’ the tiger said.
‘Have no fear, I don’t intend to incur your wrath and end up in your stomach,’ Ben said.
Pahana pulled at her hair. She wanted to scream, but she was afraid that loud noise would bring dirt down from the ceiling and if the ceiling was compromised the wood planks might fall down too and then all the soil held back by them would come crushing down upon her, burying her.
She shook her head. What was she doing? She moved away from the others. It was their fault. They were doing something to her. If she stayed around them much longer she would be like Lilo and Jed, curled up in balls on the ground. If they stayed still long enough spores from the light mushrooms would start to grow on them. She didn’t want to turn into a mushroom.
‘All right, if you won’t come with me I’ll go on my own. I’m not going to stay here, I’m looking for a way out,’ she said as loudly as she dared.
‘Don’t leave, Pahana,’ Lilo stretched out her hand towards Pahana. ‘We’re safe enough here – for the moment. Things could get much worse if we left.’
‘She’s right,’ Jed said. ‘Think of those monsters that took your brain. What if we met one of those again? No, we’re better off staying here.’
The mention of the Mubby brought back memories of the dark dungeon in which it had fed upon Pahana. She whirled around; sure she could feel its cruel claws on her head. She shot out fireballs randomly into the darkness.
‘Hey, be careful. I don’t want to be crisped,’ Jed said.
‘You know, those flames really are quite dangerous. I think for the safety of the group you should refrain from using them,’ Ben said.
Ansus grumbled in agreement.
Pahana did not want to let the flames die out. It was her only protection against the dangers that surrounded her. She clutched the fire to her. Red veins snaked through the sapphire flames.
‘If you don’t want me around I’m going to look for a way out of this place,’ Pahana said, backing away but still looking over her shoulder in case something was sneaking up on her. ‘I’ll come back for you when I find one. Or I might call for you.’
‘Don’t go, you’re not up to going out there on your own,’ Lilo said.
Pahana wondered if she was right. The tree root had stopped burning, a pile of grey ash the only remains of its presence. Without the added light, the cavern did seem very dark. Their voices echoed into the vast distance. She shivered at the thought of exploring on her own.
‘Lilo’s right, you shouldn’t go on your own,’ Jed struggled to his feet. ‘I’ll come with you. We’ll be safer in pairs.’
Pahana nodded. She did feel safer with someone with her. ‘Thank you.’
‘You guys wait here. We’ll be back – if we can. If not…’ Jed shrugged.
‘I thought we could hug the walls looking for tunnels like the one that led us here,’ Pahana said, leading the way. She didn’t want to admit to Jed that she was afraid of striking out into the middle of the cavern where the darkness was thickest and she was sure she could smell a Mubby lurking in the shadows.
Jed shrugged. ‘You never told us about your memory, Pahana.’
She shivered. ‘Now’s not a good time,’ she said. The Mubby was bad enough; she didn’t want to look out for the faceless man and the shadow woman as well.
‘Was it that bad?’
‘I’m sorry. Maybe you’ll remember something nicer.’
‘I hope so,’ Pahana said, but she hoped that she wouldn’t remember anything more. She knew that she wouldn’t have nice memories like the others, that it would be more horror to plague her. It was hard enough dealing with the problems of the present without being haunted by the terrors of the past.
‘I really thought we would be able to dig our way out,’ Jed said, patting a thick tree root as they passed.
‘We’ll get out of here Jed, don’t worry.’
He shrugged. ‘Maybe. Perhaps it isn’t so bad here after all. There’s light, and I like the wood. I could make things out of it, and I’m sure those chickens wouldn’t taste too bad. You could light a fire and we could cook them over it.’
‘I bet they taste slimy.’
Jed laughed. ‘They probably do.’
It was darker near the wall, with less roots breaking through the planks to provide spotlights, but Pahana’s flame was bright enough for them to navigate by. Pahana ran her hand along the planks for a while, until she remembered that things might live behind the planks and burst out to bite her fingers. She stumbled away from the wall, knocking into Jed. He caught her shoulder, steadying her.
‘Hey, your fire doesn’t burn.’
‘Not unless I want it to,’ Pahana said, looking at her hands. ‘Jed?’
‘What do you plan to do when you get out of the maze?’
He scratched his head. ‘I guess I haven’t thought about that much. Try and find out who I was before, I suppose, and where I came from. Maybe I have a pretty young wife waiting for me like Ben.’
‘He never said she was young.’
‘What if you don’t manage to find her? What if you can’t go back and you never find out who you were?’
‘Well, in that case I guess I’d find somewhere that wasn’t too objectionable, preferably near a forest, and I’d start making things again.’
Pahana glanced at him. There was a smile on his lips. ‘I thought you’d lost the ideas of what to make.’
‘I’ll get new ones. I don’t mind waiting until they come.’
They walked in silence for a while. She could hear the chickens rustling around them but they didn’t come close enough for her to hit them with a fireball. At least, she hoped the noise and the red lights bobbing around them at a distance belonged to the chickens.
‘What are you going to do when you get out?’ Jed asked.
‘I don’t know. I don’t know if I really want to get out.’ She stopped. The wall stretched ahead, dark soil held back by strip after strip of uninterrupted wood. ‘This is hopeless; there is no exit here. Let’s go back to the others.’
They turned around. The chattering of the chickens grew louder. They were becoming bolder again, drawing in towards them. Pahana could see their scaly feet and curled beaks glinting at the edges of the fungus spotlights.
‘They sound excited,’ Jed said.
‘They are. Someone is coming.’