For a long time the whispers of the tentacle creatures followed them. Pahana tensed, waiting for a whipcord to wrap around her neck and pull her off the tiger’s back, or one of the giant’s legs to crash down in front of her, blocking her path. She relaxed when the sound of her pursuers faded behind her. She slipped into a trance, soothed by the movement of Ansus and the bobbing yellow circles of the tiger’s eyes on the grey flagstones ahead.
‘We should rest now,’ Ansus said. She slowed to a walk, padding softly for a while before stopping. Pahana slid off her back and the tiger flopped onto the cool flagstones. Pahana looked around. Water dripped down the walls and the floor was jagged and uneven, flagstones pushed up to reveal inky black earth underneath. White maggots wriggled within the dirt. Pahana moved away from them. Ansus lay against the wall panting, stretched out with her tail tip twitching.
‘I can see you,’ Pahana said. She looked around with renewed interest. She could actually see her surroundings, and not because of the tiger’s eyes. A dull glow pervaded the air, illuminating the floor and walls.
‘It’s the lake,’ Ansus said.
Pahana had not noticed a lake. She turned in a circle looking for it. Behind her the glow faded into the night she was used to, and a stale breath hinted at the larger space they had left behind. She looked at the walls again and realised it was the water dripping down them that provided the scant light. The water fell in single streams but gathered in rivulets in the grooves of the flagstones and flowed away from the Pahana. She followed the flow of the water. A few steps past Ansus the rivulets formed a circular pool, as broad as the span of Pahana’s arms from fingertip to fingertip. She had not realised it was there because, even though the glowing water was bright to her dark dampened eyes, it cast little light, only enough for her to see her immediate surroundings.
‘It’s a small lake,’ Pahana called back to Ansus.
‘Don’t drink from it,’ the tiger cautioned.
Pahana knelt down beside the pool. Because of the concentration of water, the light produced by the pool was much stronger than the drips on the wall. The pale white glow made it look cool and refreshing. Pahana wanted to run her fingers through it, to find out how deep it was. She rested her hands on her knees, in case the water was dangerous to touch as well as drink, and leaned out over the water.
The pool was brighter when viewed from above. The water was still and mirror like. Pahana looked for her reflection. A face peered back out of the pool. She studied it, curious to find out what she looked like and how much damage the Mubby had done to her. The face in the pool was round, with smooth brown skin. Hair framed the face, except Pahana wouldn’t call it hair in the traditional sense. It looked more like moss and strands of tree bark, silver brown and green shimmering in the light. What impressed her most about the face was its eyes. They shone with their own light, like Ansus’, and were a deep electric blue. At least, she thought they were, but the more that she looked at them the more they changed – phasing purple, violet, aquamarine, green, brown and ochre – until she could not tell what colour they were any more. Pleased with her appearance, she raised her hand to probe the wound on the top of her head. She could feel her hair under her fingers – it felt matted and coarse, like horsehair – but there was no corresponding movement from her reflection. The face continued to smile back at her, its eyes oscillating though the whole spectrum. Perturbed, Pahana moved her head side to side, again without a corresponding change in the pool. She wasn’t looking at her reflection; there was something in the pool looking back at her. Frightened, Pahana scuttled away from the edge of the water. No fanged jaw or clawed hand reached for her from below the smooth surface. She waited. The water continued to drip from the walls, flowing towards the pool. A few steps away Ansus lay panting, her tail tap tapping against the wall. Pahana wanted to move closer to the tiger, but she also wanted to look into the pool again. The face had not looked dangerous. It had seemed pleasant. She had been happy to call it her own.
She wiped her hands on her legs and glanced at Ansus again. The tiger was staring into space, recuperating. Surely she would have known if danger was imminent? Pahana pulled herself closer to the pool and tried to look into it slyly, however it was a smooth silver surface when viewed from the side. She could see no reflection, or anything pretending to be a reflection. She leaned further out, ready to pull back at any moment if something rose out of the lake. Slowly an image came into view once more. This time she saw a bright blue sky, laced with puffs of cloud. The sun was shining, but she could not see its golden orb. A forest came into view; the trees broad leafed, raising their branches towards the light. Within the forest there was a clearing, a small house growing out of the ground at its centre. The image was so pretty and so alien from her surroundings that Pahana wondered if it was a picture. She wanted to touch the water’s surface to see if the painting lay beneath it, but she drew her hand back when the door of the hut opened and a woman stepped out into the clearing. She was small and appeared to be formed out of knotted wood. Her slim smooth limbs were mahogany, like her face. She wore a long dress made out of grass and bird feathers. Her hair of moss and bark strips fluttered in the wind as she moved. Where she stepped on the grass flowers bloomed. The trees bowed towards her, in reverence or a desire to be near her, Pahana could not say. The woman started to dance – not in a formal way, but with light fluid movements that appeared almost as a language that was just out Pahana’s grasp to decipher. Animals, drawn by the dance, came out of the forest and gathered around the woman. Colourful birds garlanded the trees. Pahana watched, enraptured. The woman swirled faster until she seemed to fly. There was no sound with the picture, but Pahana imagined the birds providing music for the dance while the larger animals beat time. The woman twirled, leaping across the clearing. With a push from her powerful legs she reached upwards, her hands grasping for the sky. Pahana moved back, thinking the woman would leave the clearing and shoot out of the water in front of her. For a moment it seemed likely. The woman’s twig fingers reached for Pahana. She seemed so close, so easy to touch, and then her flight was cut short and she dropped, like all non-winged things, back down to earth, to the clearing and the waiting animals. The dance over, she crouched panting from her exertion, her head lifted to the sky where Pahana watched. Even though there was no sound, the woman was speaking and Pahana could understand the words.
‘Come join me. I am waiting.’
The image blinked out and the pool was just a skim of slightly greenish water across a shallow depression on the floor. Pahana shivered, missing the light from the sun, the water no longer so bright. She was breathless, panting as if she too had danced in the clearing.
Ansus padded towards her. ‘Time to go,’ she said.
Pahana looked around. How long had she been staring into the pool? She stood up, leaning on the wall for support. Even though her own wounds still wept and smarted, the puncture holes on the tiger’s neck and shoulders had faded to pale scars.
‘Your injuries,’ Pahana said, reaching out to touch the tiger.
Ansus pushed past her, taking care not to step in the pool, and stalked down the corridor. ‘I’m a quick healer,’ she said.
Pahana waddled after the tiger. Her body ached. ‘What is this place?’
‘A maze,’ Ansus said.
‘How did I get here, was I born here?’
The tiger growled. ‘You have not always been here.’
Pahana tripped over a raised flagstone, her foot plunging into the sticky black earth beside it. The white maggots squealed, wriggling towards her foot. She stepped back quickly, but not before one of the maggots had latched onto her toe. She stamped her foot to dislodge it and then tried waving it in the air. The maggot hung on, borrowing deeper into her flesh. She reached down and grasped the fat creature between thumb and forefinger. She pulled, surprised at how much force she had to exert to withdraw it. It came free with much pain and a geyser of blood. She threw it away. It crashed against the opposite wall and slid to the ground a pile of mush.
‘Who would build such a horrible place?’ Pahana said, hobbling after Ansus, who had not waited for her.
They continued walking, although Pahana took more care to avoid the patches of earth and the worm like inhabitants.
‘How far is it to the exit?’ Pahana asked. ‘I feel so tired, I don’t know if I can walk much further.’
‘When you cannot go on I will carry you,’ Ansus said. ‘The maze is very large and I do not have a map. There are many spells cast at each turn to deceive you into taking the wrong turn. I must concentrate to see through these symbols and find the true path.’
‘Oh.’ Pahana wondered if the tiger was telling her to shut up. ‘I’m so tired, can’t we rest for a little while? I don’t heal quickly like you.’
‘We can’t stop now, we are too close.’
Pahana looked behind her. ‘To those things you mean? Those things that are following us?’
‘No, it will take them a while to find us again. When Angel brought me here she left a strong residue that signalled to them where we were, but it has dissipated and I am not as bright a beacon for them to be aware of me.’
‘What are we close to then?’
Ansus growled and looked over her shoulder at Pahana. ‘Your head.’
‘We’re looking for my head?’
The tiger grimaced. ‘Of course not, not the whole of it anyway, part of it.’
Pahana felt her head. Her fingers crawled up her scalp, probing. The holes behind her ears were inflamed and sore. Hidden beneath the dirt she could feel the lumps of old scars. At the top of her head she encountered sharp edges. It hurt to touch them, stabbing pains running down her face and neck which made her want to vomit and filled her with fear that her right eye was going to bulge out of its socket. She withdrew her hand, afraid to cause more pain.
‘What happened to me?’
‘The Mubby. It took part of your head away, removed things from your brain.’
Pahana shuddered. ‘Is that why I can’t remember anything – before here, I mean?’
‘Perhaps. It is close, though, the missing part. We need to find it before we can go much further.’
Missing. Parts of her were missing. Pahana wanted to feel for the hole in her skull again, delve her fingers into it and feel the damp stickiness of her brain. She tried to quell the impulse by remembering how painful it had been to even touch the edge of the wound.
‘How is that possible? How can I move if I am missing part of my brain?’
‘Things work differently here to the outer worlds.’
If the Mubby had taken parts of brain, what other body parts had it stolen? She touched her chest, running her fingers across the long weal that dissected it. She felt tears salting the back of her throat.
‘I don’t like it here. I want to get out of here. I want to leave.’
‘There is no need to shout,’ Ansus said. The tiger’s already gruff voice sounded even sterner.
Tears trickled down Pahana’s face, making the holes in her cheeks sting. She choked on her anguish but she held her screams in.
They walked in silence. The ache in Pahana’s limbs grew stronger. She felt she was wading through custard, every step more difficult than the last. She concentrated on moving forward, even as her body begged her to stop, threatening to tear itself apart, scattering the different pieces and collapsing in a quivering heap if she continued on. She ignored it and, despite the feeling of being pulled in all directions, she managed to keep in one piece.
Ansus stopped and Pahana, focusing on each footfall, bumped into her. The tiger growled and slapped Pahana with her tail.
‘Now we must go down,’ Ansus said, moving forward.
Steps descended down into darkness. Shallow stone steps winding away endlessly. Pahana sighed and hung back.
‘They could be going up,’ Ansus said.
It was disorientating descending with darkness above and below and only a small glow of light all around. The water stopped flowing down the walls and they became dry, changing from blocks of stone to cratered concrete. Luminous lichens growing on the surface of the concrete continued to provide light for Pahana to see by. Underneath the growths she saw faded symbols and letters, pictures of things long forgotten. She peered at the pictures, but they were so faded she couldn’t make them out and she didn’t want to stop to study them because she didn’t want to lose Ansus.
The steps changed to concrete under her feet, the scuffed surface painted with black lines. The skin on her palm was scraped from trailing it along the rough surface of the wall. She felt her feet were speeding up as she descended the steps and she was afraid she would run endlessly onward until she could no longer keep up with the speed of her feet and tumble down, down into the dark. Just when she thought she could no longer take it, the steps ended in a concrete platform. On either side doorways terminated on the platform. Ahead lay a pit of darkness, leading away on either side into tunnels. Ansus stopped beside her, sniffing the air.
‘Something is coming,’ she said.
Wind blew out of the tunnel on the left, carrying sulphurous fumes on its chilling breath.
‘Where are we?’ Pahana asked.
Ansus swished her tail. ‘I don’t know.’ She stepped further out onto the platform, looking left and right. A bright orange ball appeared in the tunnel. An animal roar floated towards her.
Pahana slumped against the wall. ‘I can’t go on, I’m too tired. I need to sleep.’
Ansus growled. ‘Something is coming, we need to leave this place.’
‘You’ll have to carry me,’ Pahana said.
‘We must conceal ourselves.’ Ansus turned away from the edge of the platform and walked along its length. She paused at each doorway, examining them. Pahana stumbled after her.
‘Which one do we take?’
‘This one,’ Ansus said, choosing the doorway on the opposite end of the platform to the one that had brought them there. Pahana walked towards it. As she passed the doorway before it, a figure stepped out of the opening, wrapped its arm around Pahana’s neck and pressed something sharp against her throat. A deep voice rasped in her ear.
‘Move and you’re dead.’