"I must've fallen asleep . . . nothing was the same. . . ."
|I sat in the car in the parking lot of the DMV waiting for my friend Arlene to come out from registering her car. I must have fallen asleep. When I opened my eyes, the only thing I recognized was the glass building that had at one time housed the Motor Vehicle Department and other government offices.
“What in the Hell?” fell from my lips as I leaned over toward the driver side window to roll it all the way down. As if that might somehow change what I was seeing. But the window wouldn’t budge. So I continued to gaze through it at the unchanging sight.
The squat, square, glass building was . . . in a word: destroyed. It looked as if it’d been firebombed, every window broken or blown out, every visible surface darkened with soot. Some vaguely unpleasant weed, like dull, olive-covered ivy, crawled its way all over the building. The normally pristine grassy patches in front of the building were overgrown almost knee-high, and sparkling in the late afternoon sun with broken glass and other metallic detritus.
Beyond the DMV, in any direction, not a single other building stood higher than one story. They were all broken, all sheared off-looking. As if some great leveling machine had flown through and mowed off the tops of all the buildings and trees.
Gaping, I hurriedly sat back in the passenger seat and tried to slow my breathing. I was starting to have a full-blown panic attack.
This is not real, a Voice told me, and I closed my eyes on the burnt-out landscape of what had once been—no, still was—Fair Street. This is just a hallucination. You always get those when you don’t take your meds as scheduled, Andrews, and you haven’t been taking them at all over the past few days, have you?
It was yet another Voice in my head. Not a new one, but definitely different from the usual Voices I heard when I was off meds. This Voice never held conversations or told me interesting—crazy—things. This Voice usually only ever told me one thing.
I shook my head and quickly shifted my thoughts. The last thing I needed at the moment was to hear the Voices at all, let alone the one that normally scared me most.
Opening my eyes, I peered out the windshield again onto the same barren, burnt-out landscape.
If this was a hallucination, it was certainly the most complete and real one I’d ever had. And I never hallucinated whole landscapes. Only ever people, animals, and Voices. Living things, that were real for me, if for no one else.
Sighing, I debated whether or not I should drive off of Fair Street—I somehow strongly doubted Arlene was still there—but when I climbed into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition, the car wouldn’t start. In fact, it wouldn’t even turn on.
The battery was dead.
“Fuck!” I took the keys out of the ignition, angry, now, as I opened the car door (and it groaned and whined like it’d gone a thousand years without oiling) and got out. I slammed the noisy door shut and the BOOM of it echoed loudly in the pervasive silence.
I shuddered, my anger fading as suddenly as it’d come on. I backed away from the car—which, unlike the shiny, clean, cherry-red Charger I remember, was now a rusted, dusty, anonymous hulk—then turned in a nervous circle, looking around.
Nothing had changed in the seconds since I’d gotten out of the car. Everything was still burnt-out and falling down. There were no people on the streets and sidewalks. In fact, there was nothing moving, no noises whatsoever—not even birds, bugs, or animals—except the slow-fading echo of the slammed door.
I wanted to shout: “Hello! Anyone here?” but was suddenly overtaken by a certainty: I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Bad enough I’d slammed the car door, but that hollow BOOM could’ve been anything—a piece of building falling down, maybe. But a person shouting could only be what it was, and it would pinpoint where and what I was. That in this new world of no visible people, there was suddenly one visible person.
And that, I was quite irrationally sure, was not a smart move.
I began walking up Fair Street, in the direction of home. My footsteps seemed loud in the grit and dust on the ground. I tried to walk more quietly, watching where I stepped in between gazing around me in horror.
The houses which’d once lined Fair Street were also burnt-out or sheared-off or falling down, as were most of the trees. Everywhere was grit, glass, and piles of dust. Of ash, it turned out to be, upon closer inspection.
And nothing, whatsoever, moved.
I sniffed the air as I went along, but caught no scent of burning. Whatever had happened to Fair Street—and from the look of it, most of Uptown Kingston—had happened a long time ago, it seemed.
How long had I slept, I wondered, frightened and stunned. How long was I in that car, while this was going on?
“A long fucking time,” I murmured, answering my own question, “I’m freaking Rip van Winkle.”
But surely it was impossible . . . surely no one could sleep through . . . what? The Apocalypse? Armageddon? Or had I traveled through time to the distant future, somehow? Or was this another dimension?
Or, was this all yet a new level of hallucination?
I was leaning toward that last. That this was all a hallucination. But after growing up on the Matrix movies, I knew better than to live life as if it was a dream from which I was waiting to wake up. If I did, with my luck, this would all turn out to be real, after all. And I’d wind up—
Just then, I was grabbed from behind, a big, gloved hand clamped over my mouth as I struggled and flailed fruitlessly, my muffled shouts loud in my own ears.
“Be still!” A harsh, low, slightly-muffled voice sounded in my ear—complete with harsh, humid, slightly-muffled breaths—as I was dragged off the sidewalk and up the littered driveway of the foundation of what used to be an A-frame house. “Be still, or you’ll bring the Beast down upon us!”
The iron-strong arm that was wound around my own arms and waist tightened as we moved into the shadows behind the ruined house.
“I’ll not harm you, but you must. Be. Still!” The harsh voice hissed. “The Beast is about and it is hungry. Do you understand me? You must not draw its attention!”
Finally my captor’s words sunk in and I stilled, ceasing my flailing and attempts to shout. I nodded once, to show I understood, and was promptly let go.
I stumbled a few feet away, breathing hard, then turned to face my captor. . . .
He was a big man, both tall and built—like a wall of muscle—and dressed in clothes seemingly made entirely of different brown, grey, and green leather patches. He was probably far too warm for the late summer day. His shirt—or maybe it was a jerkin, for it seemed to be more jacket than shirt, but it was a pullover garment—was dusty and dirty, as were his trousers, as if he’d been scrabbling around in the dirt and dust that seemed to be all that was left of Uptown. On his feet were a pair of brown boots that looked old and broken-in, but sturdy, nonetheless. On his hands were a pair of grey leather gloves. Over his face, he wore a brown and grey leather mask that came down to his collarbone like a hood. There were two wide eyeholes, from which pale grey eyes—practically silver—glared, surrounded by some sort of dark, sooty eye-black, like a baseball player. Or a soldier.
I took in this strange person and shook my head. He wasn’t a hallucination. At least like any of the ones I’d ever had before. None of them had ever touched me. None of them had smelled of sweat and soil and leaves.
And certainly none of them had spoken of a Beast.
“Who—who are you?” I asked in a small voice, taking a few steps back as he advanced towards me, reaching up to pull off his mask-hood-thing. The face that was revealed was square and ridiculously perfect, like a movie cowboy, all dramatic cheekbones; cleft chin; sexy stubble; unsmiling, but mobile mouth, and ten thousand-yard stare. That tan, improbably handsome face was topped by platinum hair that was obviously finger-combed back from his clear, high brow, and fell straight and shining to his jaw—at least where it wasn’t sticking up because of the removed mask.
He was freaking gorgeous—an instant stiffener—and he took my breath away.
“I am called Praetorius,” he said just as quietly, stopping when he was but a foot away from me, his striking eyes scanning me unabashedly before meeting my gaze solemnly. “Warden of this Sector and Guardian of the Katrine Safehold. What are you doing walking about in the open, so oddly dressed? Know you not the Beast is about?”
Still feeling his attractiveness like a punch to the gut by a fist made of handsome, I shook my head again. “I—I don’t understand? What Beast? What’s going on? I fell asleep in my friend’s car and when I woke up, everything was burned down or falling down. What happened? Where is everybody?”
Praetorius frowned and looked me over once more. “How are you called, lad?”
“Devante. Devante Andrews,” I said, and Praetorius’ nodded.
“And what day, month, and year do you think it is, Devante Andrews?”
Going cold all over, I hesitated, then told him, and he nodded again, the strong planes of his face softening as he sighed. He reached out and put a hand on my shoulder, heavy and steadying.
“I cannot explain everything to here and now, for it is not safe, here. The Beast dens nearby, in yon edifice.” And Praetorius pointed back the way I’d come, at the glass building that, at a mere three stories, still stood higher than anything around for at least half a mile. I shuddered again, not knowing what this Beast was, but knowing that I’d been so near to it—had made so much noise near it—that whatever it was, it could have gotten me easily, settled a cold ball of lead in my stomach. “Suffice it to say for now, that it is not the year you suppose it is. It is some ten centuries beyond that point.”
My jaw dropped and I gaped. Praetorius went on heavily. “We don’t know why it happened, but many humans who were sleeping or otherwise unconscious during the moment Faery came to Earth, disappeared and slept an enchanted sleep, then, for ten, twenty, one hundred, five hundred years, even, after that moment. Only to reappear and awaken to a . . . changed world. No one I know of has heard of a Ripper—”
“A what?” I interrupted, and Praetorius blinked.
“A Ripper. Our name for the sleepers who reappear after Faery-come. It’s short for Rip van Winkle.”
Taken aback, I could only gape again, recalling my own earlier thought about that same legend. Praetorius, however, went on quickly.
“No one has heard of a Ripper appearing within the past three hundred and fifty years at least. And you are the first Ripper I’ve ever seen in person, so soon after their reappearance.” And with that I got another once over, curious and a bit confused. Much like I felt.
“Faery? As in . . . the place where all the fairies and elves and sprites come from?”
Praetorius nodded. “Yes. Thought to be merely the stuff of myth and legend, Faery existed alongside Earth since its beginning, only to come together with Earth in a spectacular crash ten centuries ago.”
Shaking my head once more, I laughed, slightly hysterically. “This is—I’m sorry, this is all totally unbelievable. Even for me, and I’m clinically batshit. Either you’re crazy, too, or this is all a hoax or something.”
Praetorius didn’t take offense, merely nodded and smiled fleetingly. “So I’ve been told most Rippers say upon stumbling into a Safehold or being collected by Wardens,” he said almost kindly, then reached up to run a hand through his hair, straightening it, and tucking it behind one of his ears.
It took a few moments for me to really notice what was suddenly different about Praetorius, but notice, I did, and when I did, I gasped.
Praetorius’ ear was . . . not a human ear. It were long and pointed, rising gracefully from the side of his head like a small sky-scraper. And in that moment, I also recalled Praetorius saying, not two minutes ago, that humans who were sleeping or unconscious when Faery came to Earth, had then slept for years after.
He’d said human as if he wasn’t one, and I hadn’t really noticed at the time, but I was noticing it, now.
“What . . . are you?” I asked, doing some scanning of my own. Other than the ear, Praetorius didn’t look, despite his almost unearthly good looks, different from any other human being.
Praetorius’ hand dropped from my shoulder, and I immediately missed the warmth and weight of it, despite being more than mildly freaked out by the not-human thing. “I am half-sidhe, half-human. My mother was a human woman, a Warden of the Eastern Sector, as I am. My father is one of the seleighe sidhe, an elf, and a Guardian of the Light.” This said, he suddenly bowed to me, one hand over his heart, the other extended to the side in a gesture of welcome. “It is my duty, as a Warden, to escort you to the nearest Safehold, so that everything that’s happened may be explained to you in full.”
I stared at Praetorius as if he’d gone mad, when in fact I was certain I was the one who’d gone mad. “What makes you think I buy any of this shit? That I’d go anywhere with someone who did? That—”
And just then, a roar, loud, angry, hungry, and ear-splitting went up from back the way I’d come.
Praetorius and I looked back that way, then looked at each other, wide-eyed and frightened. Then he was pulling on his mask once more, and taking my hand, leading me through the overgrown backyard, toward the fallen-down fence that lead into the next yard.
“Where are we going?” I hissed as we ducked under some tall bushes. I could only hope like hell that none of the stuff we were going through was poison ivy.
“To the Katrine Safehold,” Praetorius shot back in clipped, terse tones, squeezing my hand. “It is but a few miles away, but we must be quick, and we must be quiet. And it is imperative that we reach it by nightfall. Now, save your questions for later and your breath for running.”
That roar went up again behind us, killing anything I might have said in reply to Praetorius’ admonition. And I ran, trying to be as stealthy and quiet as Praetorius, the half-elven Warden, was. I mostly failed. As I crashed through underbrush like a bull in a china shop, those roars went up sporadically, always seeming to be the same distance away from us, as if whatever was making those roars was keeping a steady pace behind us.
And sometimes, just sometimes, the roars were . . . closer. . . .
Those were the times Praetorius stopped us and bade me be as silent as possible. And I would, trying not to hyperventilate or breathe as loudly as it seemed I was. But I couldn’t seem to catch my breath, even when still.
Once, the Beast, whatever it was, was so close to us, its roar nearly deafened me, and I could smell something rank and unpleasant, and not as faint as I’d have liked. It was like the world’s largest, dirtiest iguana tank, scorched iron, and carrion.
Praetorius and I eyed each other once more. He had his hands over his ears and I had my fingers in my ears. For all the good that it did us.
What is it? I mouthed to him, and he blinked and mouthed back:
My hopes that this was all a hallucination were dying a quick and merciless death.