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.
It happened so quickly that Layla shouldn't have been able to see it at all; like a silly sped-up Kung-Fu movie with a frenetic electronic soundtrack in the background.
From right above them Mahasti dropped onto the woman's shoulders. Her thighs wrapped around the woman's head and then she arched herself backwards into a handstand, flinging the woman forcefully into the opposite wall with a sickening crack. Even as the woman was sliding down bonelessly, leaving a trail of blood, Mahasti had already twisted back and kicked the walrus-mustachioed man's legs from under him. He landed heavily on his back, and before he could shift she was bearing down on him. Her knee drove down on his face with a loud crunch, and then she was kneeling over what was left of his head, calmly watching the third man. A big broad guy with a blond buzz cut, he'd just realized what had happened. In the hundredths of a second that it took him to bend his knees and drop into an aggressive stance, Mahasti uncoiled from her crouched position and leapt directly into him. Her head exploded into his jaw from below, snapping his teeth together and his head back with a thump. He fell straight backwards, his tall frame hitting the ground with a dull thud, unaware of the woman who now crouched above him like a feral cat.
Mahasti turned her head to look at the bloody woman who was crumpled in the corner, her eyes glassy. Then she studied the man under her for a moment. When she was satisfied she straightened up and stretched almost casually, looking over at Layla.
"You were looking at the mirror."
"What did you just do
?" Even as she said it Layla realized that she was calm; that she was actually much too cool and rational after having faced several psychopathic killers. That awareness should have scared her more than the slaughter, but she was completely numb.
"I finished them." Leaning down, Mahasti took the scarf from the blond man's neck and used it to wipe the gory mess from her leg.
"Did you wish to do it yourself?"
"No! No." Layla watched with grim fascination as the dark woman threw the scarf into the corner, where it drifted down to drape itself over the dead woman. "They are Zonbi
." She meant it as a question, but it came out as an amazed bleak statement. As you would say a particularly nasty truth.
Leaning down, Mahasti grasped the big man's lapels, and then looked up. "I have already told you."
If Layla hadn't thought by this time that the other woman was incapable of sarcasm, she might have imagined the sentence to contain an unsaid "I told you so." As it was she had to chance a quick look just to make sure. Mahasti was hoisting a man twice her size up by his lapels without so much as a grunt. Because he was much taller than the dark woman she couldn't pick him far enough up off the ground, and so she settled for dragging him towards one of the stalls. Layla's eyes fixed on the sole of his large brown shoe scraping past her, bump-bump-bumping over a set of uneven tiles, and idly she wondered where her fear had gone. She felt cold inside. There was nothing else beyond a vague sense of false serenity. Perhaps this was the effect of being terrified for too long a period.
Propping the big man inside the stall, Mahasti returned for the walrus-mustachioed man, casually taking him by one foot and dragging him behind her. This time Layla did have to turn away from the sight of his crushed face, and when she'd finally fought down the bile and managed to get her swallowing reflex under control, Mahasti had already taken away the woman too. Closing the stall door behind her the dark woman walked to a basin and washed her hands casually.
"Were they alive? The … Zonbi
Mahasti looked up at her reflection in the mirror and wiped at a dirty spot on her cheek. "Not as you understand it."
"How then? Do they work for Penhale?"
"Yes. They work for Penhale." Mahasti yawned, and though her teeth were pristine they certainly weren't pointed. "When he takes them they become him. He owns their ears, their eyes, their limbs, and he feels through them. They have no emotions or will of their own."
"What did they … he want with me?"
"He wants your blood. The fresh ones make him strong."
It was horrible, but she had to know more. "The fresh ones? What do you mean?"
"The fresh ones." Turning her head Mahasti looked at Layla with dark eyes. "The fresh ones. It will take you one day to become. Now, you are still fresh. Your blood is between, and you are not strong enough to fight."
Frowning, Layla stepped closer. "You mean I'm like … fresh meat?"
"Yes. You are fresh meat."
"And you? What are you?"
"I am old meat." It was surprising, how close the woman got to making a joke. It would have been funny, perhaps, except that her voice was so level and that she'd just told Layla that she was live bait.
"And Penhale won't hurt you?"
"Penhale does not want me."
"So he can
Mahasti stared at Layla, her dark eyes inscrutable. Finally she shrugged minutely. "Penhale can hurt me. I can hurt Penhale. It is irrelevant. We have no interest in one another."
"Why doesn't Penhale want you?"
It almost seemed as though, behind the expressionless eyes, Mahasti was trying to work out what Layla wanted. "I am an elder. I am of more use here than I am as Zonbi
"An elder?" Layla took another step closer. "What is that?"
"I am an elder." If she wasn't mistaken, Mahasti was getting edgy. She had no idea how she knew this, because the woman was still standing motionlessly, her gaze blank. "I have lived for a long time. As long as Penhale. I am as strong as Penhale. He does not fight me if he has no reason to."
"So why are you of more use here? What do you do?"
There was a pause before Mahasti spoke. "I take one. I take what I need. I make them fresh and leave them for Penhale. He takes the blood, and then he takes them."
"So you supply … meat to him?"
"Yes. I supply to him."
"And in exchange, what does he give you?"
Mahasti's eyes flickered away from her for the barest moment. "He leaves me be."
"It doesn't sound like a fair trade to me, but maybe that's just because I'm fresh meat." Leaning against the basin Layla watched Mahasti. "So if he gets me after you're done, why did you stop the Zonbi
Returning Layla's gaze, Mahasti looked at her impassively. Then, suddenly, she snapped her stare to the door. "There will be more. It will be good for you to leave now." Without a backwards glance she crouched and then jumped. Catching the edges of the hatch with her fingertips she pulled herself up without trouble, disappearing through the dark square.
Swallowing, Layla looked at the door with trepidation, and then up at the hatch. It was much too high for her. She'd never make it.
Abruptly Mahasti's head appeared upside down, sporting its usual blank expression, and then the woman extended one hand downwards. "If you jump I will catch you."
"Bu… I can't jump that high. I can't jump that high!"
Mahasti said nothing. Letting loose a strangled nervous laugh Layla looked at the door again. Somehow the smell came back to her; that sweet and cloying and dank scent - it was earth. That's what it smelled like - and then she turned and ran and leapt. And somehow, impossibly, her hand just touched Mahasti's. Effortlessly the other woman pulled her up into the darkness of the pipes. Mahasti's hand was cold, the skin dry and smooth. Depositing her on the metal surface the woman turned around and began to walk away. Feeling her heart hammer in her throat Layla called out.
Impassively Mahasti obeyed, her back to Layla. Closing the distance between them Layla reached out to grab the other woman's arm, drawing back at the last moment. "What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go?"
"Do what you wish. Penhale comes at sunrise."
"Why did you save me?"
The dark woman moved as if to go, and this time Layla did grab her wrist. With the power Mahasti had exposed, the grip would not stop her, but she did hesitate.
did you save me?"
Finally Mahasti turned to face her. "It is not for you. I do not like the Zonbi
"You're not telling me the truth." Insistently Layla shook Mahasti's wrist. "They would have gotten me at dawn anyway. Penhale would have gotten me anyway. Do you not want him to take me?"
"It does not matter to me. You are for Penhale now. I have finished with you."
She had wanted Mahasti to say yes. She shouldn't have expected anything. And still - there was something behind the woman's eyes that pushed her to try once more.
"Mahasti." It was the first time that she'd used the name. It felt foreign on her tongue, and from the look the other woman was giving her it sounded just as strange. "Why can't I stay with you?"
Mahasti scowled. "Because you are for Penhale."
"But why? Why can't I be .. yours, and not his?"
Layla had no idea when she'd decided she'd be better off with this woman she thought completely mad, but surely it was rational to expect less trouble from someone who professed to being finished with you, rather than someone who was still supposed to take
you. Someone who considered you his fresh meat. And, after the bathroom, she was well aware that she was no longer safe. If she'd ever been.
Mahasti's gaze was direct and empty. "I have no need of you."
"So you've said!" Suddenly Layla was fed up and irritated and just plain angry. "I know of how little use
I am, thank you very much. What I am asking you is whether you don't want
him to take me! There's a difference!"
The dark woman withdrew her wrist from Layla's grip in the blink of an eye and walked away. Following her, Layla refused to give up.
"Why did you save me from the Zonbi
? It's not as easy as you not liking them! You'd left. You could have stayed gone! You didn't come back without reason. Why? Why
It was as if hearing her name flicked a switch in the other woman's head. Stopping, she stood silently for a moment before she spoke over her shoulder without looking at Layla. "You would have suffered at their hands. I do not wish that."
"But I'll suffer at Penhale's hands, right? Won't I?"
Mahasti nodded. "Yes. You will suffer at Penhale's hands."
"Then why would you save me from them only to pass me over to him?"
are minions. They have no rights here. I will not fight with Penhale. You belong to him. That is the way of the accord." Mahasti began to walk again, her feet silent on the metal. "You will not suffer long."
"You're going to hand me over to him and you're trying to comfort
me?" Barking a short laugh Layla followed Mahasti. "You turn people into you, and then you sell them out. You're a Judas."
"I have been called that."
"And you don't care." Throwing her hands in the air in frustration Layla clenched her teeth. "You know what - never mind. What am I supposed to do until sunrise?"
"You are welcome to do as you wish."
"What I want
to do is bash in your head with a pipe!"
"You are welcome to make an attempt."
Layla's mouth dropped open in astonishment. Rushing forward she tried to peer around the other woman at her face, but the space was too narrow.
"Did you just… was that sarcasm
"It is unlikely."
"You're doing it again!"
"You must be mistaken."
Stopping in her tracks, Layla watched Mahasti's narrow back suspiciously as the other woman walked away. Either the woman was warming to her (har har, her already whacked out mind helpfully supplied) or she was listening with new ears.
"Don't you dare go growing a personality on me, Mahasti."
The other woman halted, apparently waiting for Layla. "I would not dream of it."
With a shake of her head Layla began to walk again. "So I'm welcome to do whatever I want to. Except that there are apparently more homicidal maniacs wandering around inside the building looking for me. And that there's apparently a mucho homicidal maniac waiting outside for me, too."
"He is outside in the night. At dawn he will be inside," Mahasti offered in an apparent abrupt desire to be helpful.
"Yes. Thank you Sir David Attenborough."
"I am Mahasti."
." Shooting her an evil glare Layla twisted her neck. The ache at the base of it was beginning to subside. In fact, all of the discomfort she had been experiencing was seeping away slowly, leaving her feeling … lightheaded. Numb. Empty. "So what will you be doing until sunrise?"
"I am going to the roof."
"Can I come with you?"
"You are welcome to…"
"… do as I wish. Blah blah fucking blah."
They had run into a horizontal shaft, with a ladder to the right leading towards the top. At the end of the ladder there was a small gap, which led to another pipe, which led to a grate. Mahasti had reached the grate well before Layla, her movements so sure and fast that Layla could not keep up, and by the time the other woman had joined her she'd already pried the grate from the wall. The four industrial screws were still attached to the bent corners of the metal sheeting, much the worse for wear. Propping it against the side wall, Mahasti climbed through the open space and dropped from view. A little more careful, Layla extended her head to see where she was going. At first glance it was a suicide drop. They were high up in the office section of the building, perhaps on the tenth floor, and far below them there were only street lights and lazily buzzing streets. A second look revealed a ledge a few meters down. Mahasti was already moving towards her left, casually walking on the narrow ledge to where a ladder protruded from the wall.
With a smothered swear word Layla swung her body around and lowered herself by her hands. When she was hanging fully extended it was still a fairly high drop. She should have been panicking or afraid - she was petrified of heights - but instead she felt only dimly puzzled.
"Can't you help me here? I'm going to fall."
Turning around, Mahasti looked at her calmly, and then gauged the height of the drop. In the moonlight her eyes were pools of ink. "You will not fall. Let go."
Even as she thought she should argue, she loosened her grip on the edge of the grating and fell. The landing was much too easy, a soft drop onto her toes, and then she was pressed to the cold plastered bricks of the building. Her heart was hammering in her chest.
At least… it should have been.
With a glimmer of a smile Mahasti nodded and turned, then climbed up the ladder. Layla rushed to join her, amazed at her balance as she skittered across the concrete ledge. When she pulled herself up the last rung and swung across the edge of the rooftop Mahasti was already crouched on the edge a few steps away, her gaze on the ground far below. Joining her, Layla hunkered down carefully and took in the view across the city.
"What do you see?"
Mahasti pondered. "Everything."
"Do you come here every night?"
"Not every night. Sometimes there are things to be taken care of."
Mahasti ignored her. It was obviously not a question she felt needed an answer. Lowering her legs over the edge Layla sat down.
"How old are you?"
"I am very old." Apparently Mahasti could decipher the look of annoyance shot her way, because she decided to elaborate. "I do not know an exact number. After so many years it becomes all the same."
"Have you been here all this time?"
"Everywhere. After so many years it becomes all the same."
Layla's mouth twitched. "Forgive me for saying so, but your conversational skills are absolutely crap."
Though she did not look at Layla, Mahasti nodded slightly. "You are forgiven."
Layla snorted. "I very much feel like pushing you off the building."
"You are welcome to make an attempt."
"You know, Mahasti, I wish you'd stick to either having no personality or to being … quirky. This in-between garbage makes me queasy."
"I shall take that into consideration."
Exhaling loudly, Layla frowned. "Are they all like you? Is Penhale like you?"
"No. I have already told you."
"I don't mean like that. I mean, like personality."
Mahasti looked at her impassively over her shoulder. "You wish to know if his conversational skills are absolutely crap." In her exotic, slightly slurred accent the words sounded out of place, like an opera singer breaking into rap.
"Stop messing with me. And yes, that's what I meant."
"Penhale is not like me. Penhale has social graces. He entertains
." She turned her gaze back to the view. "Penhale likes people."
Layla snickered. "Funny. But then I suppose you wouldn't know. So you don't like people?"
"I do not spend much time amongst them. I have no need of them, bar the obvious."
Bar the obvious. Sinking her teeth into people and then throwing them in the lion's cage.
"But surely you spend time with those you take before … before sunrise?"
"It is rare." Mahasti graced Layla with a look that might have conveyed amusement, had it come from anyone else. "They do not usually wish to speak with me. They wish to run away. I do not stop them."
Leaning forward Layla watched Mahasti carefully. "Has anyone ever escaped?"
"From me? All who have tried. I do not care to keep them. From Penhale, they do not. If they run, he tracks them down. If it is not sunrise, it is another night."
"Is it possible to escape from Penhale?" Layla was searching Mahasti's face for any clue, however small. Something that might help her.
"Not for you." The problem was that Mahasti's face held no expression. It also seemed to hold no secrets, which meant that she probably wasn't lying.
"And for you?"
Dark eyes met hers sharply. "I have no need to escape from Penhale. I am not held by Penhale."
"Are you free to leave?"
"I have no reason to leave."
"And if you wanted to? Could you?"
Mahasti's silence was icy. Sensing an impasse Layla tried again.
"You work for him, right? Is he the boss?"
"I do not work for Penhale. I have no … boss." This time there was a definite edge to Mahasti's cool voice.
"You're buying his favour with gifts so he'll leave you alone."
"I have no need to buy his favour."
"You said if you supply the fresh ones he leaves you be."
"I know what I have said." If ever an outwardly emotionless, unruffled and still creature could be agitated, this must have been it. Mahasti watched Layla with hostile dark eyes before she turned her head away. "What is it that you want?"
Swiveling on the edge so that she could look at Mahasti, Layla leaned forward. "I want to know why you do what you're doing? Why would you pander to this Penhale character? If you're as strong as he is, why are you doing his work for him?"
"You wish to manipulate me, because in doing so you wish to save your own life."
Layla balked as visibly as possible. "Nonsense."
"You imagine that I hold information that will help you with that."
"Fuck. Fine." Shrugging, Layla sniffed crossly. "You see right through me. So?"
Mahasti glanced at her briefly. "I have no reason to help you."
"What about because I'm begging
The dark eyes were blank and unreadable, and they held absolutely no grace. Clenching her teeth, Layla faced forward again and propped her elbows on her knees. "All right. I get it. It's every freak for herself. So can you just humour me and let me talk to you until … sunrise?"
"You are welcome to do as you wish."
"Yeah. Sure." Layla watched the night pass by.
Mahasti never moved. She was as still as a statue, her pale expressionless face reinforcing the image.
"Where do you go?"
That pale face turned towards Layla, the features blank. "I do not understand your question."
"You say that sometimes you don't come up here, because you have things to do. Where do you go?"
"I go nowhere. My concerns are within this building."
"Why? Is it on a burial site or something?"
There was a flash of amusement in Mahasti's eyes. "I would not know. "
"Right." Layla mentally chastised herself. "I probably saw one too many vampire movies. Sorry. So why do you stay in this building?"
"Because it is my place." Place. Not meant like slang: pad
, or hangout
, or home
. Meant like … consignment. Relegation. Where one belongs.
"So you never leave?"
"It is my place."
"And you never feel like you'd want
"I have no need of it."
Shaking her head Layla raised an eyebrow. "You don't seem to think you need anything."
Apparently Mahasti was done with responding to non-questions. Layla watched her for a moment as she watched the ground below them, and then continued with her frustrating, one-sided conversation. For the moment it was all she had.
"Could you leave, if you wanted to?"
She wasn't sure how she knew it, but the look Mahasti graced her with was full of 'I have no need of it
' before the other woman decided to answer. "No."
Layla had expected … something. Anger, maybe. Irritation. Or a lie. Well, Mahasti didn't seem to lie… but it was never as easy as this. Was it? Swallowing, she considered the dark woman's answer. Insomuch as that she got a straight answer it was good. Now that she knew Mahasti was a prisoner herself, of sorts, and probably unable to help in any way… that part wasn't so great. In fact, that revelation downright sucked.
"Does Penhale keep you here?"
"Penhale does not physically keep me here." Mahasti looked away. "However, the Zonbi
patrol the streets around this building at night. During the day I cannot go out. If I were to leave he would be aware of this, and would without a doubt he would take an … active interest in my whereabouts and my wellbeing."
"But why? Surely his zonbi
can provide fresh ones for him?"
Mahasti did not make a sound, but Layla got the distinct impression of an amused laugh. "Zonbi
are without wits. They are puppets to Penhale's mind. He dominates their actions and most of their thoughts. They are not entirely empty, however. If Penhale sends them to do his bidding and find fresh ones, their own simple minds and lust for flesh would override his control for but a moment and they would finish the prey. They are … " Mahasti paused to search for the proper words, "dogs who would steal the scraps from their Master's table." Her dark eyes turned to Layla, pinning the other woman with an intense look. "It is not to do with what I bring. I am an elder - one of few. I have much power. I can kill Penhale as he can kill me. It is only expected that he would wish to know of my whereabouts."
"So if you can kill him, why don't you just walk out of here?"
"Penhale would not face me himself. The Zonbi
would be dispatched. I can kill Zonbi
, but there are many. They would exhaust me, and then the sunrise would come. Or Penhale would come."
"Why haven't you started turning your own? Like an army?"
"He takes them." Mahasti turned her gaze away. "And I have no need of an army."
"But they could help you, if you wanted to escape!" Gesturing wildly to the view around them Layla shook her head in exasperation. "Surely you want to see new places? Not be held to this building by what essentially boils down to a big bad bully? Especially if you could beat him! Why don't you wait for him to come at sunrise and … take him out?"
"There is no reason for this." The dark woman was infuriatingly implacable. "A fight with Penhale will result in certain death."
"But I thought you said you could kill him?"
The dire subject matter didn't seem to distress Mahasti. "I can kill Penhale as he can kill me. My blood is … toxic to him, as his is to me. It will not cause death - in fact, it will enhance the victor's bloodline immeasurably in time - yet initially it causes blood trauma. It is like going into shock, as humans would say. It is as two nuclear bombs meeting in mid-flight. I can fight Penhale, and I can injure him, but in return he will injure me also. And while we are both debilitated, he will call the Zonbi
to him. I will be vulnerable to a counter attack. The odds are not in my favour. I will not fight Penhale."
"Oh." Layla thought frantically. "Can't you sneak up on him or something?"
"No. He knows where I am as surely as I know of his whereabouts. We sense one another, and we are wary when we are close." She leaned back to look at the moon, barely a crescent above them.
"And my blood? Technically I have some of you in me, right? Doesn't that mean…?"
"In the equation of two nuclear bombs you are barely a spark of static electricity. Layla
She had not said the name, did not know it to use it, but Layla could hear the intention.
"There will be no fight. It is not my business. You
are not my business."