A fist of flame seared through Liam’s right thigh, sending a hot knife of pain through his leg, and causing his toes to rattle violently at the end of his shaking foot. His spine felt as though it had been lined with pitch and a flaming torch set to one end of it as a wave of fiery agony raced along it. Liam jolted awake, screaming.
A long beastly face the colour of a hot tomato with a squashed hooked nose and a wicked grin bore down on him from above. Liam continued to scream. The creature’s shimmering face just shook as a man’s gruff laughter rocked it like a baby’s rattle. The burning scarlet swirled over his face like currents in a stream and slid down, like treacle off a hot knife, as he lowered the flickering lantern to his right. The fiery light shuddered within its cold iron cage, as much a prisoner, behind the thick Arabian patterns, as the cast iron case, grasped by three long black pointed talons. The bird-like claws fidgeted as they curled and unfurled loosely, in a serpent-like fashion, around the large metal hoop attached to the top of the swaying lantern. Something warm tickled the inside of Liam’s leg and he jerked, twisting his body to the side and wafting a hot sickly sweet scent into the air. The heat spread down past his knee and down towards his ankle, where it met the end of his light grey trouser leg, and splashed mercilessly onto the floor.
The inhuman beast had stopped shaking and was now hovering over him, his broad shoulders transforming him into a hunchback gargoyle. His body was inert, save for the steady sway in his thick-boned figure as the air lifted the wide expanse of his chest and his solid shoulders as it entered his body; and dropped them heavily as the air escaped his large frame, the way an athlete drops his weights at the end of a contest. The exchange of air in and out of his lungs was laboured and there was a slight thunderous rumble under his breath as he respired. The sound transported Liam to the steaming barnyard full of damp, browning straw he had once stumbled into after a petty squabble with one of his friends. There had been an equally inhuman huffing and puffing emanating from the corner. His muddied trainers had slipped and slid on the clammy wooden stable gate, leaving large black marks, as he eagerly clambered up the splintering frame.
He had envisioned a giant green dragon with a pink belly, a goofy smile and big watery eyes, waiting for him, like in Pete’s Dragon; but he had been in for a shock: His small, child-like nose had poked over the top of the wooden wall and his playfully sparkling blue eyes had widened into large pools of fear; his thin brown eyebrows had leapt up on his peeping forehead. The sound of air being sucked into the vacuum his mouth had created had rung loudly in his ears; he remembered his fingers slipping against the moist surface of the dirty pine.
His incredible dream of a beautiful dragon had been shattered by a dark shaggy mass with fierce pink eyes. The creature had been huge and his unkempt matted fur had given him a spiky outline. The greying horns on either side of his head had been stained with yellow marks; they both curved accusatorily upwards and ended in a terrible point. Behind his horns, his hairy triangulated ears had flicked irritably back and forth – the same way his mother’s lips twitched when she was angry with his father, about what Liam could never understand. The beast had growled or he thought it had growled as the air reverberated darkly and the gate rumbled threateningly beneath his grasp. The beast had lifted a long leg, thick with strong muscles beneath his wild hair, and stamped a solid blackened shoe with a resounding thump, on the ground. His forefingers had slid suddenly from the edge of the gate as Liam had battled to maintain his slipping grasp.
The last Liam had seen was the fearsome beast opening his mouth wide; from within the dark red cavern, a cacophonous trumpeting of an untuned horn erupted; at that moment, Liam’s weak hold was finally shaken from the gate and he crashed painfully into the stone floor beneath, his fall barely cushioned by the meagre scattering of dead straw on the ground. He had lain there stunned and without breath, panicking that these were his last moments and he would die alone, until his breath had slowly returned, and he instead had to worry about how to explain to his mother the terrible state of his dirt stained polo shirt, and the torn knee in his new grey trousers.
For a moment, Liam was still lying on that cold stone floor, choking, as he desperately sought to suck in the air that refused to enter his lungs; his heart hammered in his chest and the blood pumped fiercely under his skin as his mind saw the menacing pink eyes staring into his skull and the dark red gullet that glowed angrily back at him, just like the fluttering red lamp now searing through his eyeballs.
Liam blinked rapidly, a wet residue leaking over the edges of his eyelids. He coughed and spluttered, spraying saliva over his chin. Shamefully aware of his lack of composure, he weakly croaked as he vainly sought to catch his breath:
“Who…What…Where am I…?”
The figure towering over him jerked back slightly as a small chuckle escaped from his eerily unmoving lips. He snorted, not unlike a hog asserting his dominion.
“Want to talk?” He snorted again. All the muscles in Liam’s body tensed as he tried to decipher whether his comment had caused disgust or amusement.
“Where…am I?” Liam continued to stumble over his words, still a little breathless and uncertain of whether to continue. He turned his head around the room, repeatedly, but failed to pick any sensible shape out of the gloom. He turned back towards his assailant who had now crouched down beside him. Liam recoiled as their noses almost touched. This close-up, he could see that the creature’s face was made entirely of reflective glass which picked up any colour or image close by and bounced it back at the viewer. It was smooth – there was not a single crack or break in the surface so it must be all one piece, Liam thought as he stared at it; where there should have eyes, there were a neatly etched pair of closed eyelids glimmering eerily in their place; it was disconcerting, almost as disturbing as the image of Liam’s own face thrown back at him as his eyes struggled to understand the picture of his own pale and frozen features: the boiled-egg whites of his eyes flashed wildly around the outside of his huge black pupils, swollen like a pig’s bladder, in the centre; in the hot glowing lamplight, he could even make out the streaks of indigo underlining his bottom lids.
“You’re in Hell.” His unfriendly companion spat out, somewhat unexpectedly, after several moments had passed while Liam had been studying his reflection. Liam caught the bitter and stagnant flavour of sour ale spiced with the overpowering stench of over-peppered meat as the monstrous creature’s breath punched the sensitive hairs in his nostrils. Liam’s stomach gurgled, even though he was usually a vegetarian by choice, and preferred rich wines, with fruity notes, to malted barley drinks; his tongue cried out to lick the salt from a smoked rasher of bacon. He couldn’t recall how long exactly it had been since he had last eaten. Time had become twisted and warped, and completely unfathomable, in this endless night. Slowly, the groans of his empty stomach quietened, allowing his weakened mind to process his imprisoner’s words; Liam’s brow furrowed as he struggled to find a logical conclusion from it.
“Yes, you’re dead.” There was a smugness to the short statement and the wavering candlelight glinted minaciously over the fixed grimace on his imprisoner’s face. He seemed enjoy the initial dismay he had caused and the later distress that would evidently chew at his victim once this conversation was over.
For a moment, Liam was breathless and he babbled soundlessly, patting air with his lips as he opened and closed them, as if he were a fish breathing underwater for the first time. His eyes, wide with horror, blurred over as puddles of water spread like an ocean of confusion over their surface. He remembered, with agony, watching the beloved paper yacht that he had spent many hours designing and creating, under his grandfather’s watchful supervision, being rapidly sucked under by the merciless currents of the fast-flowing river in the park. He had screamed as the water had rushed over the sides of the delicate craft and pressed it down heavily beneath the surface. He had rushed in to save his dying vessel, splashing into the deep, icy water; he had toppled and nearly been dragged away by the strong current himself, until his grandfather had waded in and heaved him out of the rushing water.
He had scolded his grandson rather harshly and told him not to be so foolish over a silly paper boat – probably so afraid of the nearly-realised loss of his grandson that his sympathy for the boy’s distress had been somewhat lacking. Liam had bawled his eyes out all the way home, not even consoled by the prospect of a Mr. Whippy cone with a flake. His grandfather had frowned with concern but Liam had barely noticed it or even bothered about his dripping beige shorts (by then a grey elephant skin colour) and the soaked edges of his bright red “I heart dragons” T-shirt – until, of course, his mother had paled and screamed at him and his grandfather upon opening the door. His “escapade” had cost him dinner as well as further trips to the park with Grandad. His grandfather had been rushed to hospital the following week and he had always blamed himself for his grandfather’s death, telling himself that, had he been a better grandson, his dear Grandad would have lived. The same old feelings of guilt and pain bubbled to the surface, chewing agonisingly at his gut; his cheeks began to be worn by the miserable path of tiny estuaries dribbling down from his eyes.
Liam yelped as a sharp sensation bit into his kidney and he looked up to see a crackling line of turquoise flashing between two silver pincers attached to a long metal pole; His imprisoner, now standing, loomed in the background behind this strange device, the darkness having once again swallowed up the shape of his body. Only able to watch the jiggling rouge face of his oppressor, he listened to his attacker’s laugh – the same rough throaty cachinnation as at the start of their conversation:
“You’re in Hell – to be punished.” There was a slight pause between the word Hell and the next comment, as if it were an after-thought, something Liam’s imprisoner had added to give his statement more weight; but it was hardly needed for the torturous crack that echoed through Liam’s eardrums, followed by his own high-pitched scream, relayed the message with perfect clarity. Liam told himself that it was the smoke and the foul stench of seared cloth and flesh that pinched at his eyeballs, but he stopped caring as his face sunk beneath a wave of tears.