The darkness hissed. Pahana could see it roiling beyond the limit of Ansus’ eyes. Voices whispered outside the reach of her understanding. She pressed her back against the wall, curling her hands into fists with difficulty.
‘We must fight,’ Ansus growled.
A shadowy tendril shot out of the darkness, snaking towards Pahana. Ansus leapt forward, sparks flashing from her jaws as her teeth sheered together. The thread dissipated in the light of her eyes, but another flew through the air from the right, causing the tiger to spin around. Again it dissolved before she could make contact, before another lured her further from the wall and Pahana.
‘Fight Pahana, follow me,’ the tiger snarled, her gruff voice growing fainter.
A feeler brushed against Pahana’s foot. She thought it was the blunt end of Ansus’ tail, but then it whipped around her ankle and tightened into her flesh like a cord. The whispers grew louder, coiling around her and rippling across her flesh.
Fight! Fight! They’re coming to get you.
Light glimmered and blossomed in front of her. Pahana blinked. She was in a schoolyard, the grey tarmac pock marked and gritty. She knelt, nose pressed against the cast iron railings that enclosed the yard, her little hands wrapped around the peeling spokes. A beetle crawled across her knuckles, making her skin itch.
‘They’re coming to get you, Pahana.’
A band of children – girls from her class – resolved into being forming a semi circle around her. Their faces, framed with pigtails and French plaits, were twisted with evil glee. Pahana shied away from them, hanging onto the rails for support. Where was Ansus? There had been a tiger in front of her a moment ago, hadn’t there? She shook her head. The hissing darkness was receding, the diluted winter sunshine of the playground growing more solid in her new reality.
‘You’re in trouble now.’ A squat red head with freckles prodded Pahana in the stomach. The pain caused by the touch was disproportionate to the size of the child’s finger.
‘They’ll beat you black and blue. They’ll mush you through the railings. They stomp on your hands and bounce on your belly.’
Pahana squeezed her eyes shut. This wasn’t real. She was with a tiger, in the cold and the dark, with creatures hissing about her. Yet the chanting sounded so real and the railings felt solid in her grasp. She opened her eyes. She was still in the playground. The girls were laughing and clapping, pointing at something that approached from the other side of the yard, out of the shadows of the beige pre-fabricated buildings. Pahana could feel the air growing thicker with the advance of her tormenters, but the ring of children hid them from view.
‘You’re not real,’ she shouted. ‘This isn’t real. I’m not here. Leave me alone.’
The girls giggled. Slowly the ones in the middle stepped back to make way for what approached. Pahana didn’t want to see, but she couldn’t look away. A group of boys, led by a tall thin girl stalked towards her. The boys grinned, but not in a good way, and the girl’s dark eyes were black holes devouring everything in her path.
‘Kill her, mush her, rip her, push her,’ the girls squealed. ‘Pancake Pahana, pancake Pahana.’
Pahana pushed her shoulder through the railings. She was small and she was sure she could fit through. There was a field beyond, and a road lined with buildings in the distance. She lifted her leg and stepped onto the grass of the field. It was wet and her foot was sucked into the ground, damp soaking through the wrinkled sock that flopped about her ankle. Next came her head. She turned away from her attackers and pushed her head through the bars. She could feel the railings moving, drawing closer together as she tried to fit through them. Her head stuck at her ears. She tried to pull back, but she was caught. The grass twined around her ankle, cutting her bare leg with its sharp blades. She screamed for help, inarticulate in her panic. In the schoolyard, hands grasped her other leg. She kicked out, and the fingers slipped, tracing searing lines across her calf.
‘We have you now. You won’t escape.’
‘Fight, Pahana, fight.’
She kicked again. Her foot felt something – not exactly solid – that wobbled against her touch and was pushed back. She wriggled her body, working hard to get through the railings and escape into the field despite the pain. She felt her ears being torn from the sides of her head, her hair being ripped from her scalp. She screamed, but she did not give up.
Bloody, she flopped onto the grass on the other side of the railings amid the angry shouts of the children she had left behind in the playground. As her hands touched the ground it disappeared and she fell forward into the earth, its dark maw closing behind her.
‘Fight it, Pahana.’
She recognised the gruff voice. Ansus Khan’s flashing teeth and claws cut through the darkness beside her. She tried to move, crawling forward on her elbows and kicking with her feet, but her legs were trapped. In the light of Ansus’ glowing eyes Pahana was able to see what held her. A large gelatinous substance pulsated on the wall behind her, whip like cords emanating from its centre. They trailed across her legs, gripping her feet and calves and wiggling towards her thighs. Welts on her arms, the blood black under Ansus’ gaze, showed the places where she had been caught and had escaped. Other blobs seemed to gather from out of the darkness, forming into gloopy lumps on the walls and floor. They lashed out at the tiger, who bit and clawed at them, before moving closer to Pahana. She could hear the voices of the blobs whispering in their grey matter, shouting and screaming in voices hideous and low. A tendril grazed her temple and for a moment she was back in the playground, before the tiger’s large paw swiped through the strand, scattering it into pieces.
‘I’ll cut you free,’ Ansus said, leaping over Pahana and ripping the tentactled mould from the wall. It fell onto the flagstones with a wet plop. ‘Prepare to run.’
‘I can’t, I can’t move,’ Pahana said.
The tiger growled. ‘I will carry you then. Climb upon my back when I say.’
Pahana kicked at the threads gripping her legs. Ansus cut through them, the substance that had formed the vines being absorbed back into the darkness under her touch leaving Pahana’s legs bleeding and raw. Freed, she pulled her legs up, rising onto her knees, her arms straightening to support her upper body. The effort made her pant, her head swirling in clouds of confusion.
‘These are just the foot soldiers,’ Ansus said.
The darkness was alive, and had many fingers. Pahana tried to brush its questing grip away when it touched her skin, each feeler a drop of acid on her flesh. She struggled to keep awake, waiting for Ansus’ word.
‘Get ready,’ the tiger growled.
Heavy feet galloped closer. Deep throated growls escaped from a larynx other than the tigers. A horrid stench alerted Pahana to the Mubby’s presence seconds before it attacked.
‘Ansus,’ she screamed.
Strong hands gripped Pahana under the chin. Her head was pressed into a hairless armpit, scaly skin scraping her cheek. The smell violated her nostrils, making the acid in her stomach boil to the back of her throat. Her feet flopped on the flagstones as the Mubby dragged her away, its speed and strength surprising. She wanted to call out again, but she was afraid to open her mouth in case the smell invaded even further. The sounds of the tiger fighting, muffled through the matted hair of the Mubby’s arm, faded and stopped. At the same time the pace of the creature slowed. It halted, dropping Pahana onto the dank floor. She gasped for breath, the fetid air pleasant after the Mubby.
‘Leave me alone,’ Pahana said, struggling to sit up. Without the tiger’s eye light she was blind. She could hear the Mubby snuffling around her, licking its lips. It sounded like it was laughing at her. Claws raked down her cheek. She hit out, her hand connecting with a scaled arm as hard as metal. The impact jarred her shoulder. She fell forward, out of the Mubby’s grasp. Its claws tapped against the flagstones and it growled. Pahana wriggled to the side and felt the movement of air brush past her face as the creature reached for her and hit empty space where her head had been a moment before. The Mubby growled again and reached for her. This time she could not move fast enough to escape. Its rough hands caught her head, its claws digging in to the soft spots behind her ears. The creature gurgled, slobbering over her. Pahana braced herself for the pain of the strike.
Roaring, teeth bared and claws unsheathed, Ansus Khan ran out of the darkness and crashed into the Mubby, knocking it clear of Pahana. Her neck ached from the violent release from the creature’s hold as Pahana crawled away from the fight. After two lengths she was exhausted and collapsed. She looked back, guided by the snarls and growls to where Ansus and the Mubby were locked in battle. By the light of the tiger’s eyes, Pahana got her first look at the creature that tortured her daily. It was huge, half again as large as Ansus, with enormous shoulders and small, tapering hips. As they fought, Pahana caught glimpses of the Mubby. A long thin tail, covered in scales. Stubby fingers ending in long thick claws, and rat’s tails of matted fur falling in a cloak from muscular shoulders, above which rested a monstrous head. Enormous fish eyes – pale, white and dead – perfect for seeing in the dark, bulged from the top of the head, leaking a pungent fluid that dripped down over the filth encrusted scales of the face. A large nose, surrounded by fleshy petals, glistened in the orange light. Below the nose a dagger sharp spear of bone protruded from the mouth, died black with blood, a narrow pink tongue curling and unfurling from the end of the spear.
Ansus reared onto her hindquarters, swinging with her front paws at the Mubby. Each blow against its armoured flesh scattered sparks of fluorescent green into the dark. The monster seemed undaunted with the tiger’s attack and swung back, its arms like clubs, its claws sinking deep into Ansus’ back and shoulders. The tiger roared in pain and lunged for the Mubby’s chest, but its flesh was as hard and invulnerable under the thick felt of its body as it was on its shoulders. The low lunge left the tiger’s head vulnerable. The Mubby reached up, grasping Ansus around the head and digging its claws in behind her ears.
‘No,’ Pahana said, afraid that the tiger would be crushed, leaving her defenceless and once more at the mercy of the Mubby.
Without the tiger to disperse them, the sticky grey threads of darkness were forming around Pahana again. The feelers were tickling her fingertips and she could hear the squelch of the gelid bodies dragging closer. Something else was approaching also, something large and slow that shook the flagstones under Pahana’s ear with each footfall.
She crawled away from the tendrils, moving closer to the tiger and the Mubby. The Mubby’s naked tail scraped across her thigh then flew above her head as Ansus shifted weight, shoving the monster off balance. Pahana found the wall and pressed her back against it. To her left the unseen creatures of the dark approached, whispering to her. On her right Ansus’ cries of pain grew shrill. The Mubby was compressing the tiger’s skull between its hands, its long claws seeking to pierce her eyes. Ansus had wedged her forepaws against the monster’s chest in an effort to push it away, but despite her great strength, the Mubby was slowly overpowering her.
‘No, Ansus,’ Pahana called to the tiger. ‘You must win, I need you, Ansus Khan.’
Pahana saw a change come over the tiger. Her cries of pain deepened to a guttural roar of rage. Her tense forelegs gave way, no longer battling her enemy but instead moving forward to embrace it. Surprised, the Mubby loosened its grip on the tiger’s skull as she fell towards it. Ansus broke free of the crushing hold, her head on a collision course with the Mubby’s pale, deathlike eyes. Pahana wanted to look away, but couldn’t, as the tiger closed her jaws around the long spear of bone that formed part of the monster’s mouth. With a loud crunch, the proboscis shattered in Ansus’ teeth. The tiger pulled back her head, ripping the spear and the Mubby’s tongue free from its face. Now it was the turn for the monster to scream in pain. Its hands reached for its face, covering the hole where its mouth once had been and which now oozed a thick dark liquid. Its fleshy nose wobbled and it drew away from Ansus. The tiger bared her teeth and lunged for one of the Mubby’s bulging eyes, but the monster had already turned and fled into the dark.
Pahana moved away from the wall. Thick tentacles moved the air above her head, seeking her out.
‘Ansus, over here.’
The tiger limped towards her, spitting out the shards of bones that had lodged between her teeth. ‘Climb on,’ she said.
‘You’re injured.’ Pahana caressed the tiger, tentatively probing her injuries. She could fit her finger into one of the holes on the tiger’s shoulder. It reminded her of the wound in her cheek.
‘It’ll be worse if we wait around here for much longer.’
Pahana grabbed a handful of fur on the tiger’s back and pulled herself up. With difficulty she straddled the cat. Despite Ansus’ size, Pahana had to stick her legs forward to keep her heels from touching the ground. The tiger’s backbone stuck into her uncomfortably. Once she was aboard, the tiger started moving – slowly at first, until Pahana got her balance, and then she broke into a fast lope.
‘Where are we going?’ Pahana asked.
‘Somewhere with a bit more light,’ Ansus said. ‘And as far away from that as possible.’
Pahana looked ahead. For a moment the tiger’s eyes illuminated a forest of legs, the surface of each covered with round, teeth filled mouths. Behind the legs an enormous bulbous body quivered, making the ground shake with each step as it was dragged along. Before she could get a better look, the tiger turned and carried Pahana away in to the darkness.