n the hours that passed after the others had gone, the women watched TV. The professor had sternly instructed them not to leave the pentacle again, and they were adhering to his orders. Their memories of what happened in Winnie's room last night were far too vivid for either of them to underestimate the danger they were in.
By half eleven, though, they had both become weary of the television, and Marian nipped outside the pentacle to switch it off. As soon as she had done it she hastened back to the pentacle, her heart racing in her chest. She stared at Winnie for a moment, then burst into giggling laughter. Winnie watched her, white-faced, then she started to laugh as well. Hysteria lurked near the edge of their laughter, as they were both too well aware. Yet they laughed till tears began to stream from their eyes, and they clung to each other like two young girls in a dormitory frolic.
"A few weeks ago and we would have laughed our sides out, seeing us here, out of our wits with fear," Marian said, when some of their laughter had died away.
Winnie nodded, though she would have given anything to exchange that for the fear that gripped so tight to her heart, giving it a squeeze now and then out of viciousness as if to remind her that it was still there, waiting to show itself again. She wiped her face with the back of her hand and stared round the room.
"Marian," she whispered softly - too softly for Marian to hear. "Marian," she repeated, louder this time, some of her fear showing itself in her voice. "Is it my eyes, or is the light growing dim?"
"Growing dim?" Marian gazed round the room. She narrowed her eyes as if to pierce the greyness that seemed to be flowing into it, like a mist whose presence could only be detected by a lessening brilliance of the light.
Within several minutes neither of them had any doubt that the room was growing darker. Shadows lengthened. The harsh glare of the light bulbs became pale and sickly. While the air became chill. Icily chill. Winnie clamped her arms about her, and shuddered as she breathed.
"Marian, it's starting - it's starting again - like last night," she whispered. The women clung together again, silent now as they stared into the grey shadows drawing in about them.
"We're safe within the pentacle," Marian said in a shaky voice that lacked conviction. Her plump face mirrored this as she held onto Winnie. "We're safe," she repeated.
The shadows thickened in the air as the light grew dimmer, as if gaseous grey tendrils of darkness were reaching out, coiling about each other into an interwoven network of gathering greyness that blurred what light there was as it seeped across the floor. As the gloom drew up to the thin lines of the pentacle, so there developed a distinction now between the colour of the floor within the star and that outside. Instinctively the women drew even nearer the centre, their arms wrapped tight about each other as their bodies shivered at the intensifying coldness of the air and the fear they felt building inside them. Winnie's face, its urbane sophistication long since drained away from it, was drawn with terror. Thin lines, cut deep into her flesh like long-worn wrinkles, marked the edges of her mouth as she strained against the scream she felt coiled inside her throat. Her hair hung dishevelled about her shoulders, tangled with sweat. Her finger nails tightened into Marian's shoulders, drawn to a hair-trigger tenseness.
"Marian," she whispered, "you'll not let it come - not again - not here..."
Marian brushed a hand through Winnie's hair as she pressed her head to her shoulders, her own fears smothered for the moment as she concentrated on her friend's distress.
"We're safe here, Winnie; trust in what the professor told us. He knows what he's doing. We're safe. Quite safe. Stay here with me and whatever happens out there can't hurt us. Can't hurt us at all."
They rocked back and forth in each other's arms as the cold grew dank, like the damp chill deep inside a disused sewer. A smell of decay drew about them, rancid and foul. The thickening darkness rose on every angle of the pentacle, pressed tight against it, as if it was trying to crush it inwards. Higher and higher the gloom began to weave itself, and to their eyes, as they watched, it was as if a dense layer of spiders' webs was being built all around them. Soon most of the room was hidden behind it, and its density, as it piled up higher and higher, increased with it, as if it was adding inches to its thickness as it rose, foot by foot from the floor.
For maybe an hour it coalesced, rigidly mirroring the geometric lines of the pentacle, so that it seemed, after a time, as if the network of webs was part of the pentacle's protective walls, paradoxically adding to their appearance of security, and Marian could feel Winnie's tension gradually subside. She relaxed her own grip as their fears started to fade.
"Do you feel better?" she asked, and Winnie nodded, not trusting herself to speak, her throat too dry. Marian peered at the webs of darkness - they looked solid, as if she could reach out and feel them, like matted lengths of hair, thick and grey.
Gradually, she eased herself from Winnie's arms and stood. The cold was still as severe as before, and her fingers and toes were becoming numb from it. The air misted before her mouth as she breathed.
"Some air conditioning this place has!" she muttered to herself in an attempt at humour. With a sudden stab of determination she took two steps towards the pentacle walls and stared at the webs - or whatever they really were, she thought, repelled by their coarseness. If they were real webs, they were old ones, heavy with dust. Nearer to, they were more like hair, tangled, unwashed, knotted hair woven into mats. Reinforcing this image, she noticed thousands upon thousands of small insects crawling through them. She squeezed her eyes with the knuckles of her hands and looked again. There they were: minute insects, round, white, hump-backed bodies and wriggling rows of almost invisible legs. Mites - or lice. Like head lice. Hair - she felt almost tempted for some insane reason to test the reality of the stuff surrounding them, despite the thousands of mites swarming across it. Her fingers twitched, and she had to make a conscious effort to restrain her hand from touching it - the professor's words came back to her, and she knew if she touched the strands her fingers would have passed beyond the protection of the pentacle. She held back and took a deliberate step away from it. Winnie stood close by beside her.
"What is it?" Winnie asked. Her voice trembled even now, though Marian felt calmer, reassured by the inability of the grey fibres to pass beyond the thin protective lines of salt.
"Something they've sent against us," Marian answered. "What it's supposed to do to us, I don't know. It looks harmless enough, despite those disgusting creatures crawling through it, but looks don't mean anything, I don't suppose."
The cold grew worse - impossibly worse. And Marian wished they had thought to bring extra clothes with them inside the pentacle, but the earlier warmth of the hotel's air conditioning had lulled them.
"Something else must be happening," Winnie said. Her eyes seemed to open unnaturally wide, till their whites could be seen all around them. "This cold - something else is here - something worse." Her memories of the thing at the window last night, beckoning her with the leprous remnants of its fingers, rolled back across her mind, and she shuddered. Her knees felt weak and she had an overwhelming urge to urinate.
Something stirred behind the webs in front of them. First one, then two gaps were ripped through them. Fingers - dead fingers - curled into them, bunching them into balls that were tugged back and violently scattered to the side. More hands - more dead hands - joined in the work. Larger gaps were torn in the webs, as if this barrier, separating them from whatever horror had crept into the room, was being destroyed so whatever was there could reach and attack them.
"It's getting through!" Winnie screamed. She pulled herself from Marian. "It's getting through!"
Marian glanced from Winnie to the webs. Rotten fingers, their nails like chewed-up claws, tore down the webs. Only half-seen, leprous, swollen faces peered at them. She felt her stomach muscles tighten, and she knew one glimpse more and she would throw up.
"They're coming through!" Winnie cried. Through her nausea, Marian realized that Winnie was in a state of hysteria. She tugged her eyes away from the creatures tearing at the webs.
"We're safe," she said to Winnie, but the woman wouldn't listen.
"They're coming through, I tell you. They're coming through!" She grovelled before them, mewling through trembling, bloodless lips.
"They're not! We're safe."
Winnie screamed. She jumped to her feet in panic.
"We've got to get out of here. They'll trap us. Kill us!" She punched Marian's hands away from her and ran across the pentacle to where the webs still stood as a solid, implacable barrier between them and the rest of the room. "We've got to get out of this place!" Winnie shrieked.
She reached for the untouched webs.
"For God's sake, stop!" Marian screamed out to her.
But her hands were already at the webs. For a moment Winnie ripped into them, then her screams rose even higher into an ear-splitting shriek of terror. Hands, like the decaying claws of a score of lepers, fastened themselves to her arms. Thick fingernails scratched, then caught in her skin. There was blood from the wounds they gouged into her. Blood that dripped onto the floor. Winnie shook her head violently from side to side as she desperately tried to tug her arms back inside the pentacle, but more hands gripped her, tugging her to them with a hard, relentless strength that dragged her feet, scrabbling uselessly, across the floor.
"Marian! Help! Help me, please!"
Marian leapt to her. She hooked her fingers in the belt around her jeans and pulled. Bent double, she tried to use all her weight to slow her, to stop her, to pull her back into safety again, but it was no use. Her own feet slithered on the floor, unable to gain a purchase as she saw the webs being torn apart in front of them, and more dead faces stared at them. Hands, held back by the pentacle, hung poised in the air, splintered fingernails, like blackened shards of splintered wood, ready to reach out and grab them once they were past the pentacle.
Her stomach felt as if it was going to burst as she tugged and tugged at Winnie's belt, all her strength concentrated in the grim effort. It hurt. It hurt bad. And her teeth were ground into a grimace as she strained to hold on, to pull her friend back, to keep her feet from being dragged across the floor. Winnie's shrieks rose even higher as she writhed and twisted her lithe body in an effort to wrench herself free of the hands. But it was no use. Marian saw this - felt this - as her hands reached the edge of the pentacle. She hung on even now, unwilling to give up, to let her friend be dragged from her grasp. Then the pain hit her arms as nails scraped and gouged thick grooves into her flesh. She saw her blood flow to her elbows as the fingers scratched her arms. She strained, opened her mouth in a last minute protest of despair as she felt her grasp start to weaken, releasing the belt. She kicked herself backwards. The fingers made a grab for her arms, and her hands were torn as she rolled into a sobbing, huddled ball in the centre of the pentacle. She clutched her hands to her and felt the hot wetness of her blood as it soaked through her jumper. A howling, shrieking Bedlam of hysteria swirled around the room beyond the pentacle, but she screwed her eyes shut against what was there. She doubled up till her knees were pushed against her chin and her eyes were pressed into the damp, dark heat of her hands.
"Oh, Lord have mercy," she mumbled to herself, as if this and only this could save her sanity from whatever was going on around her. "Oh, Lord have mercy, have mercy. Oh, Lord have mercy."
It was the beginning of the longest night of her life.