The soft, pleading bark of her favorite fuzzball echoed on the webbed ramp. The journey was, as Malia imagined, like traipsing through a bloody crime scene and Mal was missing a shoe. The near-congealed floor soaked warmth into her sock while it suckled at the rubber boot sole till there was a film on each foot and every step was just returning home to recoat and overall it made the descent quiet. She tried not to look too closely at the walls narrowing on her, the ceiling sloping faster than the floors. She could feel it.
If there’d be any victory or pride tonight, it’d be saving Beagsley.
He’d been the highlight of this trip to the mountains. Everyone scoffing about bringing a pup to the frozen wilderness, but Tony assured them the little mascot would keep them safe and he had. Chasing away squirrels and snowflakes. The shadows. He’d done his damnedest. Now it was her turn.
The bark came again.
She heard other noises, too. Rustling in the wall. The sound of liquid rushing through. Gulps. Shuffling footsteps behind her. But when she turned, there was no one and nowhere to hide. She had enough insecurities before tonight that she knew not to trust the lies in her mind.
When she came to an intersection, however, she paused to peek around. No one. And no sign post, written in ink or blood, leading her to her goal.
“Say something, boy,” she called quiet enough that if someone were there, they wouldn’t hear.
She heard them, though. Those gulps, again. Three directions to go and behind and it came from all of them, sticking in her mind the image of Sunny dislodging her jaw to swallow the dog whole, the skin of her cheeks tearing to reveal thick black connecting strands beneath the skin stretching till they were thin and Mal could see the fearful dog go down trembling. And afterwards, another gulp.
Another lie in her mind.
It had to be.
She assured herself it was when suddenly, Beagsley cried out in a prolonged panicked whimper and Mal froze till the dog went silent. It had come from the right.
It was dark down that hall. Ahead, behind, to the right, all dark.
To the left, light. A little. A child’s plug-in nightlight lighting the way. And the way echoes worked, it was possible… She convinced herself to go left.
The halls branched again. She saw two lit passages. She chose one. She hurried now. No more hesitant steps or peeking round the bend, but power-walking, and when at a corner Beagsley cried out again, this wild pained wailing coming from ahead, she ran the other way.
It was too late for him.
It wasn’t for her.
Faster she went. Running now. Not stopping to look at each intersection, just going for the quietest lit path and booking it.
She almost tripped over herself trying to stop.
Almost tripped over him.
Beagsley, lying on the floor, head between his paws, ears flopped on the sticky surface. Eyelids open except that third gross one dogs have when they’re sleeping. Dreaming.
The poor boy was having a nightmare. She almost abandoned him over a nightmare.
“I’m so glad I finally found you,” she whispered hugging him. He almost bit her. But the quiet scent of humanity on her, and the strong stench of fear, told him he could trust her and the bared teeth opened so he could lick her cheek.
She sprinted away. She left a trail of footprints in the floor and almost tripped at the corner but caught the wall with her shoulder. The Beags took the impact, too. There was no time to coo apologies to him. This wasn’t Christmas feast prep where he got treats after a crushed tail more often than the from clumsy fingers. This was a dead sprint out of here because if she stopped, Sunny would get her. Them.
Before, there were constant four-way intersections; now, everything diverged into Ts then forks and then a straight, long, unending corridor and there were no more breadcrumbs to follow. The footprints she’d pounded into the floor had smoothed out. The lights only pointed behind her and to follow it would lead her into the dislocated jaws of that thing and thus she could only run the spectrum of darkness till there was no wall or floor visible and--god, please no more turns. Her nose could not take more crashes.
But she couldn’t slow down.
She could only go as fast as her feet took her.
She tried going faster.
And she tripped.
Beagsley flew out of her arms.
Mal stayed down catching her breath and feeling the floor cling to her cheek. It was warm. She could melt into it if she just let go and let sleep finally come. God knew she needed it after the normal nights awake till sunrise then everyone banging about for breakfast while she tried napping on the couch.
When her eyes popped open, though, she got up and fled faster than even before.
She ran back toward Sunny, because how long since she’d seen it in that form? She ran away from Glenn, who was right there, missing the skin on his hand. And with her arms unburdened, she could really go.
She came upon the intersections again. The forks. The Ts. The four-ways. And she didn’t remember which she’d taken to lose Sunny and so she guessed. The chances she’d guess the same as before had to be slim to none in this anthill labyrinth. She needed to find an outside wall. Going down would just lead her further and the lowest possible floor was hell, but there was a ceiling to this place. The mountain didn’t rise forever. If she went up, if she went straight, eventually she would find something to claw through.
Instead, she found another straight, long, unending corridor.
Instead, she found Beagsley, just lying there. The curly fur on his underbelly was stuck to the floor.
Lifting him, she felt her fingers sink into the goo clinging to him. There must have been a lot because, like earlier when she tripped, she could feel the possibility of melting. It was freaking her out enough that she stopped moving to wipe off a layer, but when she flipped him over, him an obedient boy in her hand that did nothing to resist being cradled, his fur was curly and clean. No sludge. No goo. Nothing on her fingers either.
She set him down.
But in these winding halls, whether they split, whether she took the path untraveled, they led back to Beagsley. Off she’d go again. Three times. Four times. More. Knowing it was useless, she would not stop.
Until finally, he was done with this game.
Having run till her sweat soaked through her shirt and the back of hers hands were black with eyeliner, she saw him once again on the floor waiting for her but behind him was a wall and behind her was another.
He leaped into her arms. They could’ve melted into him giving him a belly rub, but instead, a tendril slipped out and dug very painlessly into her gut and wrapped itself around a rib. Nothing had ever touched her bones before. She did not know they could feel. But the rib it wrapped itself around and the one above and below that were glanced felt every sticky, pulsating sensation of that tendril.
She was ready.
After Beagsley steered her through the the corridors, after she saw them shift in front of her at his will, after many, many steps when they reached an outer wall that opened to the dazzling mid-afternoon sun glancing off the melting ice crystals, Malia was ready.
She stepped right up to that threshold between the light and darkness and took a deep breath. Then she yanked at the tendril inserted into her gut. It went a few inches before snagging on her rib but she pulled still even if it’d snap the bone out too. The hold she had on it went soft and it was soaked around her hands. The flesh on her palms tore off. The skin was so thin you could study physiology. But still she persisted. Beagsley hung at her knees, then dipped into the floor, then there was slack piling around him coil by coil and there was so much pain inside her, but Mal with a grunt ripped that final wriggling inch out. It came with a pump of blood and the blood kept oozing but slowly after that initial burst and Mal let it so it’d wash out every drop of that parasite.
With the dog at her feet, still in the dark where the overhead sun didn’t cut into, she walked out and it didn’t follow.
For whatever reason, she was free.
Blood loss made her dizzy weak. There was a trail leading right to her.
And the thing tracking her by it was so loud, this chopping, inhuman thing moving so fast that there would be no escape and so when she collapsed, she let them take her.
She woke up connected to an IV drip of blood. That chopping sound still suffocating her louder than ever. The light was dim. Her shirt had been cut away. The cold air of the high altitude stung her skin. And a man in a face mask and headset looming over her put a lot of pressure on her stomach.
She couldn’t move her neck, but she saw out the door the blades whirling about. She’d never been in a helicopter before.
Then blocking her view outside was Roger.
He was chattering furiously at her but she couldn’t understand most of it, still being woozy and also the loudness and he didn’t get it until the medic stitching her gut said something and Roger reached for the other guy’s headset but he shook him off and so he leaned real close and screamed at Mal and her head hurt but she was so glad. Even after Rosie, she was so glad.
He was asking about her side of the story and telling his about this doctor they’d met and these soldiers and he didn’t say anything about the others but she understood in the way his jubilance surged when he got to the part where they met.
Malia sat up. The medic didn’t want her to and she had to undo some straps but she did.
They were flying over the ski resort just a few peaks over. It was packed at this hour. Happy dots slaloming and tumbling and on their butts and just generally unaware of what was probably still coming for them. Every one of them, the bright dots to the dark ones, they were a threat. The medic was. The pilot was. Even Roger now that she could think about it was.
“And look,” he yelled. He opened the backpack. “Must be going deaf in this thing but don’t worry, buddy, we’ll land soon.”
Mal grabbed the backpack and jumped out. Her and Beagsley plummeted back to the mountain.