When Layla Cadogan opened her eyes it was dusty and dark. She had no idea where she was. The air smelled stale, and the surface beneath her was cold and unforgiving. Metal. She was lying on her back. Blinking rapidly she concentrated until her surroundings became more visible and her head a little clearer. Above her the roof of the cubicle (for that's what it seemed to be) was alarmingly low, leaving a space barely high enough to crouch in easily.
Her neck hurt, the lower back of her head where her spine met her skull, as if she'd fallen. A particularly nasty headache squeezed tightly around her forehead. There was a slow burn in her shoulders, gradually spreading down towards her lower back, like a slight sprain or a muscle injury. Uncomfortable, but not unbearable.
She'd been in the bathroom at the shopping centre, she suddenly remembered now, before this. Standing in front of a mirror, fixing her new ruby-red lipstick. Had there been some sort of accident? An earthquake? Was she trapped in the rubble?
Lifting a hand she rubbed at her forehead, encouraged to find that her limbs were still working. Then, slowly, she turned her head. The coldness under her face seemed to sear her cheekbone, and something rough scraped at the sensitive skin. Her throat was dry. At the periphery of her vision was something
; a mass that attracted her attention for no reason at all. Narrowing her eyes she squinted, until she could make it out in the semi-darkness.
A figure crouched a few feet from her, back turned towards her. A woman, maybe, by the leanness of the body. She seemed to be listening to something.
Frowning, Layla listened too. There was nothing beyond a persistent drip-drip-drip in the background.
Licking her dry dusty lips she called out tentatively.
The woman did not move or turn towards her. "You are awake." It was not a question, nor did it have an inflection of any kind. She had a thick accent, something sounding vaguely East European.
There was a slight tang of copper in Layla's mouth, and she wondered whether she'd bitten her lip when she fell. Shifting slightly she licked her lips again.
"What happened? Where am I?"
The woman turned her head just a little, showing her profile. She had a sharp nose and a sharp chin, barely visible by means of some faint source of light.
"You are in the pipes."
"In the pipes?" Layla's head throbbed in time with her heartbeat. "I don't understand. Was there an accident?"
"There was no accident." There was a slight lisp to her speech.
Lifting herself to her elbows Layla frowned. "What's going on? What am I doing here?"
"You are lying on the floor."
The answer earned a sharp look from Layla, but the woman showed no sign of joking. Wondering if there was a language barrier Layla tried again.
"How did I get here?"
"I took you."
The simple answer sent a rough shiver down Layla's spine. With a sense of disquiet she stared at the unmoving profile. The woman was too small to have taken her from anywhere. She was almost sure of that. And what would any terrorist want with her? Swallowing, she sat up, almost gagging at the reeling sensation it set off in her head.
"What do you mean? Do you mean you brought me here?"
"I took you and I brought you here." The woman spoke unerringly, as if she were engaging in foreign language classes and repeating a lesson.
"Why? Why did you take me?"
Layla wondered whether she could get up and run fast enough. Probably not. The roof was so low, and she had no idea where she was. Slowly she began to work her feet in under her.
"Why for you? What do you mean? What do you want with me?"
"I wanted your blood."
With one foot already almost under her, Layla froze. There was a moment of silence, with nothing but the drip-drip-drip in the background. Then she forced a coarse laugh, one that was so drenched with alarm that it would fool nobody.
"What kind of sick stupid joke is this? Is it Eddie? Trying to scare the shit out me of me? Huh? Is it Eddie??"
"I do not know your Eddie."
Somehow the flat accented words could be nothing but the truth. Pushing herself backwards a little Layla watched the woman carefully. She could feel her breath beginning to hitch and her heart begin to flutter.
The woman turned her head. In the near darkness her eyes were pools of black. Expressionless. Her gaze was so intense that Layla felt as though the woman was staring straight through her. She watched Layla, but said nothing. In the silence Layla could hear her own breathing, jagged and stuttering. Terror was creeping in.
"What the fuck is this? Who are
"I am Mahasti."
The tremors started gradually. Layla could feel her arms shaking under her, threatening to spill her onto the ground. Then the quivering slipped up her shoulders and down into her ribs. The muscles began to tremble and contract; she could feel her breath being pushed from her lungs in uneven bursts. Whether it was the fear, or the cold seeping in, or even shock, she couldn't tell.
"What do you want with me?"
"I have already told you."
"What kind of fucked up game is this?" Layla was inching backwards; her heels were drumming on the metal floor making hollow sounds, but she didn't care. The woman didn't appear to, either. Her dark gaze dropped to the source of the sound and then lifted back up again. There was no expression on her face. Somehow this was more menacing to Layla than anger would have been.
"Let me go. Please?" She had to force the plea past the lump in her throat that was threatening to suffocate her.
Mahasti cocked her head. "Where do you want to go?" Her gaze was deep and direct.
"I want to go back to where I was. Where you found me."
"You want to go back to the bathroom."
"You can go." Mahasti turned her back on Layla again. "I am not preventing you."
Disbelievingly Layla watched the narrow back with apprehension. "You won't keep me?"
"I am finished with you."
The words sent another tremor through Layla's limbs. Taking a deep breath she drew her legs in under her, ready to stand. Pins and needles suddenly flashed through them, and with a quickly hidden grimace Layla flexed her toes furtively to get rid of the painful sensation.
"You won't stop me?"
"I will not stop you." Mahasti cast a blank look over her shoulder. "You will die tomorrow."
Layla felt like crying. She had no idea of what was happening, and nothing seemed to make it any clearer. Ignoring the prickling feeling in her feet, she hoisted herself up onto them, ready to flee. "Excuse me?"
"You will die outside. Penhale will come."
Backwards, millimeter by millimeter. Careful not to make too much noise. Keep the crazy woman talking so that she won't notice the movement.
She'd forgotten. Mahasti did not answer non-specific questions. The woman shot her that blank look again, a look that took in her slowly shifting feet and then looked away without interest. Chancing a quick look over her shoulder Layla tried to gauge the route. The sight of a dead end suddenly clarified her surroundings, though it did much more to obscure any reason why or how she would be there in the first place.
The pipes. She was in a ventilation shaft. And the only way out was past Mahasti.
As if reading her thoughts the woman looked around again, casting her a blank stare.
Nervously Layla crouched down, trying to gauge her escape route. The woman had said that she would not stop her, but perhaps she was playing with her, knowing that Layla would have to get past her to get out. Perhaps if she kept talking she could find a method to get Mahasti out of her way.
"I don't know how to get out."
Mahasti turned her back on Layla. Whatever question had been implied, she had not understood. Or had chosen not to answer. Layla tried again.
"You said you wanted my ? blood."
Once again, no response from Mahasti.
"What were you going to do with it? A ritual or something?"
Now the woman's head turned slightly. "I drank it. There was not a ritual."
A shaky nervous laugh escaped from Layla's lips. "What are you, a member of some satanic cult or something?"
The simple answers were really starting to grate her nerves. Clenching her jaw Layla inched forward. "Then what? What are you supposed to be? A massive fucking bat? A vampire?"
"I have been called that."
"What - a vampire
"Vampyr." Mahasti nodded slightly. "I have been called that."
"Don't be fucking ridiculous." Fear and cold made Layla brash. "It's the product of a fucked up mind. You're just some Goth weirdo with delusions of grandeur. Vampires don't exist."
The woman looked at her steadily. "I am in front of you."
"And let me guess. You've bitten me, and now I'm one of you." With a sarcastic snicker Layla lifted her hand to her neck. "Where the hell do you?" Her hand connected with her neck, with a warm wet slick column, and as she touched it she could feel the gaping slashes where pieces of flesh had been torn away underneath the seeping liquid. A dull roar rushed through her head. With a small smothered gasp she fell backwards, her hand still on her neck.
"What the fuck did you do
"I have already told you."
"I'm going to? shit? I need a hospital? I have to have this?" Now the shock was setting in properly. Against her neck her hand started shaking, pushing at the wounds painfully.
"In an hour it will be healed."
"Like hell it will!"
"In an hour it will be healed."
Layla glared at Mahasti. "You fucking freak
! I don't know what you're playing at, but you won't get away with it. I'll bring people. I'll bring the cops, I promise you." Then she remembered that the other woman crouched squarely in her way. With an unsteady hand she pulled up the collar of her shirt and pressed it against her neck, attempting to staunch the flow of blood. "I'm going to get out of here. You're not going to stop me."
"I am not going to stop you." Mahasti repeated herself impassively. "Penhale will find you."
"What the fuck is Penhale?"
"Penhale is the other one."
"The other one like you?"
"No. You are like me..."
"I am not like you! You're a fucking crazy
The woman waited for Layla to finish, and then continued as if she had not been interrupted. "? but Penhale is unlike me. Penhale is unlike others."
Grinding her teeth Layla pushed herself up again. "You know what? I'm sick and fucking tired of this. The whole talking in riddles thing and the sick fucking Goth thing. Okay? I just want to go home."
"You can go. You will not make it. Penhale will be waiting."
"And what will this Penhale do when he or she or it finds me, you crazy druggie freak?"
"He will turn you. Zonbi.
"Oh. Right. Of course." Layla barked a brusque laugh. "This just gets better and better. I tell you what. I'm just going to go. Whatever you want to do to me you'd better do. It's better than bleeding to death up here."
There was a coldness creeping up her body. Loss of blood, probably. Shock. Her heartbeat was irregular - she could hear it thumping, missing a beat, fluttering wildly in her chest like a wounded bird. The hand clamped around her neck was cold. Her fingertips were icy. Licking her lips she forced her feet forward. They would not obey. Panic rose in her, blooming hotly in her veins. She was too cold, too shocked, and too slow. She wasn't going to make it.
When her legs folded under her she collapsed in one spot and began to sob. Mahasti glanced over her shoulder once, her dark eyes vacant, before she continued her silent vigil.
Layla lay on the cold hard metal, her fingers clamped pointlessly around the gaping gashes on her throat as she gasped and sobbed. Her tears tasted as salty to her as blood.
She must have lost consciousness. At first, again, she had no idea of where she was. Then, as memory slowly began to come back, she hoped desperately that it had been a terrible dream. She kept her eyes closed. Her throat was raw from the crying, and her hand was still clasped tightly around her neck. Loosening her fingers slowly she lifted them, noticing the stickiness under her skin, but when she probed hesitantly at her flesh there was nothing. No gashes, no gore, no lethal wounds, no pain. Intact.
Layla opened her eyes gradually, praying silently and frantically all the while. Above her, a low metal ceiling. The pipes. Choking back a sob she shifted her gaze around.
Mahasti crouched a few feet from her, back turned towards her. She seemed to be listening to something. Layla could not control the horrified cry that escaped her. Casting a glance over her shoulder, Mahasti looked at Layla wordlessly.
"Oh God. I thought I was dreaming."
"You may have been. You were sleeping."
"I thought I had dreamt you
The woman watched Layla without comment. She was not pretty by any conventional means, but certainly extremely striking. Her sharp features housed exotic slanted dark eyes and pronounced Slavic cheekbones. While she was dirty and grimy, the patches of skin that showed were pale and smooth as marble.
Shuddering at the coolness Layla sat up. "Are you going to kill me?"
"I don't believe you."
She should have known Mahasti wouldn't respond. The woman watched her, cat-like eyes blinking impassively.
"I want to go. I want to leave."
The other woman said nothing. Rocking forward in frustration Layla clenched her teeth, and then reflected for a moment before she spoke again.
"Will you show me the way to the bathroom? Where you found me?"
Mahasti watched her. She appeared to be thinking. Then, suddenly, she nodded. "Yes." When she began to move it was a startling sight. Her muscles shifted from absolute stillness to coiled lithe grace instantaneously. Even in that crouched stance she had taken six steps forward before Layla could respond.
Without comment Mahasti did just that. Struggling upright, Layla stretched her cramped thighs and rubbed her hands against her upper arms in an attempt to banish the chill before she once again noticed the stickiness with distaste. Lifting her hands she looked at them with a grimace - and was surprised to find that she could see the faint blotches of red (blood?) coating them clearly. Looking up she studied her surroundings, and then the woman waiting patiently for her. It was not as dark in the pipes as she had thought. There had to be a hidden source of light somewhere.
The pain in her cortex was still there, lingering, though the ache in her shoulders had abated. Shifting them to loosen the tightness she rose to a crouch.
Mahasti led the way, her movements graceful and wholly soundless. They took several turns, at times sliding down slightly slanted pathways or climbing up ledges where the pipes joined at different levels. The space grew, until they could stand up straight without a problem.
Finally the woman stopped. Pointing at a grate at their feet, she graced Layla with her detached stare.
Keeping one wary eye on Mahasti, Layla kneeled down and grasped the edges of the grate. It didn't seem to be fastened, but it was so heavy that she could only lift it a few centimeters off its frame before her fingers began to cramp. She tried once, and then again, with the same result. Sitting back on her haunches she exhaled sharply, feeling tears of frustration well up in her eyes. She shot a quick look at Mahasti - the other woman was patiently sitting on her haunches - and looked away, angry at herself. Finally, with an irate wipe at her eyes, she cleared her throat.
"It's too heavy for me."
Mahasti gave her a minute nod. "Yes. It is heavy."
"Will you help me lift it?" As Layla asked it, she could feel her heart clenching in her chest. If this madwoman intended to keep her here, surely she would find out now. It had seemed like the right question, but in retrospect it was probably ludicrous to ask your captor to help you escape.
The woman across from her looked down at the grate for a moment, her body completely still. Then, turning her unnervingly dark gaze back to Layla she nodded.
The shock hit Layla with such force that she gasped before she could stop herself. Mahasti did not respond to the sound, but reached down and slid her fingers below the edges of the metal square. Hurriedly Layla did the same, and then counted, feeling ridiculous for it.
She should have known that the other woman would not have any use for such social conventions. Mahasti simply lifted, and with alacrity Layla followed her example. She knew how heavy the grate had been; even with two carrying the weight it should have been weightier than it was. She knew this, and yet she did not have to strain to raise the metal. Mahasti did not seem to be exerting herself in any manner. Her dark eyes were fixed on a point beyond Layla without focus, and when she had lowered the grate to a level point beside the open hatch she simply eased it down onto the surface and resumed her position, crouched near the hatch. With a slight shake of her head Layla shook her hands and then peered down through the open square at the white tiled floor now visible about three meters below them. The stalls were off to the right, the basins to the left, but right below her there was nothing that would assist in her descent.
To her surprise, Mahasti suddenly offered guidance without being prompted. "It is not too high to jump."
"I'm afraid that I will hurt myself."
"You will not hurt yourself."
It was oddly comforting, how the woman stated everything as if it were a fact. Then, realizing that she had thought this, Layla shook her head at herself. She was a prisoner. This woman was her kidnapper. Just because the door to escape had been opened did not mean that she could afford to be complacent.
Taking a deep breath she moved forward - strangely, Mahasti shifted backwards as if she did not want to be too close to her - and, propping her hands on the edges of the hatch, lowered herself as far as she could. Then, with a clench of her teeth and a short silent prayer to whoever was listening, she let go.
Layla had never been an athletic woman. Thus, it rather surprised her when she landed perfectly on both feet. Though the shock of the landing jarred through her ankles and feet she was in one piece.
As if to dispel the very notion of the word, Mahasti suddenly appeared next to her. If hers had been a perfect landing, the other woman's was practically unearthly. Dropping low on the ground, Mahasti rose fluidly in the same motion and stretched. In the harsh glare of the fluorescent light she stood out sharply against the white tiles and the white walls - in fact, there was a very brief moment when Layla had the distinctly absurd feeling that Mahasti was some sort of human? or not human? ? black hole; that she was absorbing any light that dared to come near her. Concentrating on the woman, Layla tried to figure out what it was that had given her that impression. To her mystification the simple act of looking at Mahasti caused an odd visual effect; it was as if the woman was impossible to focus on properly. The edges of her silhouette shifted and reset themselves, causing a faint recurring blur. Nauseous from both the strain and the flickering movement, Layla screwed her eyes shut and took a deep breath.
"Open your eyes."
"What?" Scowling, she obeyed and peered at the other woman. Mahasti was not looking at her. The other woman had approached the basin and was splashing water on her face, ostensibly to remove the grime. Pausing, she looked at Layla over her shoulder.
"Do not close your eyes. You will want to know what is coming."
"Freak show." Layla couldn't stop the sour comment from slipping past her lips, but the other woman apparently didn't care. Mahasti was once again bent over the basin, wiping and scrubbing at her face.
Taking the moment, Layla studied the dark woman as carefully as she was able to. Mahasti was slightly shorter than she, wiry and lean. The outfit she was wearing was comprised of odds and ends; a black short-sleeved t-shirt with a few threadbare patches worn over a long-sleeved burgundy shirt, a pair of jeans in a dark colour probably attributed to filth rather than the actual material, and sneakers that could have been white once, but was now a dusky gray with a pair of bizarrely pink soles. A thin green artificial leather belt held up the tatty old jeans, and between their loose grip on her hips and the shifted material of the shirt a jagged design in black showed partially.
Suddenly Mahasti turned her head and Layla busied herself at the closest basin quickly, scrubbing her own hands until they were rid of the dark sticky mess that had been coating them. Blood? So she'd thought, but she had nothing to show for it. She didn't even believe in vampires. She believed in freaks and misguided weirdoes and the power of the mind when you were exhausted and scared.
Cupping her hands she gathered water from the running tap and splashed it over her face. When she looked up into the mirror it took a moment before her brain registered what was wrong.
She was flickering. Not like Mahasti - to herself she looked like one would when standing before a running projector, bright one moment and almost transparent the next. She was a mess, a blur of blood and wild untidy blonde hair and tear tracks, and she was flickering.
Jerking back, Layla turned her head away and clenched her teeth before she looked back.
Nothing but her.
With a strangled gasp she leaned forward and rested her forehead against the cool mirror. She had to get away. She would be fine when she could rest. This woman was screwing with her mind. Telling her she was a vampire? Vampires weren't supposed to have any reflection. So the books said. Rolling her forehead against the smooth surface, Layla turned her head gradually to shift her field of vision.
Mahasti had finished at the basin and was now standing in the middle of the room, watching Layla idly.
She had a reflection. Of sorts. It rolled, like static when a television wasn't exactly on the right channel, down and down, obscuring all details but a basic faint outline. Fuzzy bars of black, gray, icy pale blue.
With a cry of anguish Layla turned towards her, eyes wide with dread. Mahasti stood unmoved. "Do not look at the world through the mirror."
"Why not!? I've seen
"Not for me. For the Zonbi
. You will not see them there."
"Dear god? " With a sob Layla began to scream. "Help me! Somebody help me!" It was late. Most stores would be closed, but the security guards might hear her and come for her. Anything but this.
Mahasti watched her guardedly, and then shook her head. "You will not want to do that. You call them to you."
! I'm sick of this shit! SOMEBODY HELP ME!" With a sob Layla stumbled back against the wall and slid down with her face in her hands. "You - just leave me alone!" Her sobs echoed off the walls of the empty room, and when she lifted her head a while later, Mahasti was gone.
There was, however, a woman standing in the bathroom door. She had her head cocked to one side, with a quizzical expression on her face. The logo on the breast pocket of her steel grey jacket read "Fantom Security", with a little yellow line drawing beneath it.
"Were you calling?"
"Oh, thank God." Rising from her slump against the white tiles Layla shook her head. "I didn't think anyone would come. I didn't think anyone was still here? "
Something wasn't right. She could feel it as she rose, while she was speaking; a little filament of dread rising up through her chest and into her throat. It might have been the way the woman watched her, almost as if she were tracking the sound of Layla's voice rather than looking directly at her. Or the way that she stood so motionlessly, not even a twitch. It could have been the scent? though Layla could smell nothing out of the ordinary, and immediately dismissed the bizarre thought that entered as if from someone else's head.
"Is there a problem?" The woman's voice was mellifluous, but the inflection was just a little? wrong.
Looking around, Layla tried to find any method of escape while attempting to appear as nonchalant as possible. "I? it sounds silly, but there was someone in here with me? " Her gawk caught the mirror and she almost screamed as she realized that she could not see the woman's reflection in the doorway. Snapping her gaze back she became conscious of the fact that the woman was now approaching slowly, with a weird disembodied lurching motion. It almost looked as if someone were controlling her badly with wires, like a marionette. Over her shoulder two men were now also visible, their eyes focused on Layla as they entered the bathroom.
"I? I'm" She wanted to sound as if she was calm, but her voice was escaping in breathless gasps. They had to know that she knew. That she knew something. To hell with pretence. Layla skittered backwards until she was cringing with her back pressed against the cold wall. There was nowhere to run.
The woman approached her, stopping when there was barely a meter of space between them. Tilting her head slightly she sniffed the air. The man behind her did the same, his upturned nose twitching as he did so. Beneath his neatly clipped brown walrus moustache his mouth drooped on the left, like he'd had a stroke. Inhaling deeply he leaned forward and spoke into the woman's ear.
stink." His voice was somewhere between a hiss and a wheeze.
The woman made a humming sound in her throat. "Mm." Staring at Layla with eyes the colour of olives she smiled. "Where is your friend?"
Her breath smelled like something familiar, something sweet and cloying and dank. The smell wafted over Layla and she almost gagged. "She's not my friend. She's ? she's mad? I don't know? "
"Mmm." That same humming sound. The woman looked over her shoulder at the men behind her, and then back. "Very well, then."
There was an unpleasant grin on her face, one that showed her dirty teeth and pale gums to their fullest advantage.
It was earth that her breath smelled of.
The hand that the woman reached out was scratched in four places. A solid layer of black lay under the nails. Layla pressed back against the wall, a soft high-pitched keen escaping from her throat.