Now, I know how this is going to sound. This one is not possible, if you think of things in a certain way. But I have not stumbled off the path of truth. There is an explanation to this story that I can’t get into right now. It was not a dream. I know that because I was not sleeping when it happened. It happened fast and was completely terrifying in every way. It was disturbing, and it took a long time for me to make sense of it.
I had been talking to Regina. We were fighting about something, and she hit me. Then I was gone, out of the room and lying down. I could hear a siren, and I looked up, seeing night sky and dark clouds. I rose to find I had been laying on a car roof. I rolled over and climbed down. The car had been burned out and the seat was naught but ash and springs.
The doors had been spray painted in reds and whites, an image of a middle finger with crude flames wreathing it. I stood in what looked like a war zone covered in litter and shattered glass. The buildings were skeletal and abandoned, the walls plastered with bills of parties and violent movies. I walked the streets, looking for any sign of life, seeking any way to make sense of where I was.
Very shortly, I felt the eyes of a stranger resting upon me. I ducked into an alley and crouched behind a dumpster that still smoked as if it had been lit to fire. Soon a shadow appeared, silhouetted against the alley’s mouth. It was a man, thin and muscled, with a knife and a chain in his hand. His hair was long and disheveled. His stance seemed violent and bent on destruction, and he laughed a terrible but familiar laugh that chilled my bones and brought fear leaping high in my body.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” he snapped.
I crouched lower and he stepped into the alley. He mixed with the other shadows of the place, a creature of darkness wrapped in darkness, a fist I couldn’t see.
“You are trespassing. You are out of your home. And you are unwelcome,” he said. “When I find you, I will toss you to my crew and watch them play with you.” He laughed again, and my stomach rolled as I nearly vomited in sheer terror. “I can feel you in here. I know where you crouch.” Within a breath, his face was above me and he whispered, “Got ya.”
I shoved him back as he broke out into gales of laughter, and I rushed away. “Yes, little coward, run. I want you to. I will hunt you here. I am the darkness of this place. I am its heart. You cannot escape me.” More hilarious laughter, and I was out on the streets again.
He stepped out of a diner with the doors blown off. I turned down another street.
He stood on the corner of the street I was on, a guitar in his arms, laughing as he strummed. The guitar looked as if it had been set on fire not long ago, and from its front a huge, gaping hole grinned.
I turned and ran inside a building. I found stairs and rushed up them, knowing even then that I was making a mistake. I would be trapped here when he found me. He would corner me.
I could not stop my progress. I could not halt and turn for another direction. I climbed to the roof and rushed out upon it. I reached the edge of the roof and looked out, seeing the city end to expose a great field. Many fires burned there, and tents spread out in the distance. I threw a leg over the lip of the building, though I knew it would be my death.
“Leaving so soon?” the thug said. “But we didn’t get to play yet.” He laughed. Below me, a fire escape formed. It rattled down the side of the building, there now, gone only seconds ago. I did not question it. I jumped on the black grate and rushed down the stairs. I looked up only once, and he peered down at me with a perplexed look. When I hit the street, I ran for the field.
I was walking through an ancient camp. Ancient might not be the word you would use, but it was not modern. The soldiers wore armor and carried swords. They looked ragged from battle, and exhausted. I walked among them until a great man stepped forward and stopped me.
“Out of your place, I see,” he said with a voice of breaking rocks. His throat had been slit long ago. He threw a great hammer over his shoulder and grinned.
“I do not know where I am. I do not wish to trespass, but I was chased out of that place,” I said, jerking my thumb behind me. I looked back to see nothing but fields and tents.
“That is a place made for a monster. I want nothing to do with it. I will not send you back, but I do not have not the authority to let you stay.” He placed his fingers in his mouth and blew out a sharp and powerful whistle. A great hound bounded up to him, and he patted its flank.
“Argyle will take you to him. Do not break from the path he sets. You will not like his reaction.”
I nodded and followed.
The hound was long in leg and thick in body. Its monstrous head seemed more like the head of a lion than a dog. It was colored in tans and grays, and it looked all at once a friend to me and an untamed beast poised to devour me. I followed it to a camp fire where sat three men. They were eating a cornbread stuffed with beans, and they looked up at me and stared before the oldest of them spoke.
He seemed older than forty, but not by much. Seemed kind, but not by much. He grinned at me and shook his head.
“I have to admit, I’m confused to see you here,” he said. “A bit out of your boundaries, aren’t you?”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I do not think I can tell you that,” he said. “What is your name?”
My answer was Jesse, but when I spoke, the word shifted in my mouth to come out Servant. I looked at him and he nodded.
“Yes, you’re lost.” He motioned to a log by the fire and smiled. “Sit. You look hungry.”
“She was going to take me to get something to eat, but things kind of blew up,” I said.
“That will happen with her,” he said. “She means no harm. She just doesn’t understand yet.”
“I need to get back,” I said. “I need to apologize. I upset her pretty bad.”
“You don’t want to go back yet. If I know Assassin, he will not take lightly to being interrupted right now.”
My blood froze when I heard the name. Assassin. She would not be safe with a man like that on her trail. “I need to get back. I will handle this assassin myself.”
The man stopped eating and his body gave a shudder as if his spine had just been grabbed by the hand of a ghost. “No, you won’t,” he said. “He will handle you, hard. He is the reason you are here, I would wager. Came out too fast. Too careless. No, he is not the one you want to try to get in the way of.”
“Are you going to help me get back or not?” I said.
“Only Artist can help you now,” he said.
“How do I find him?”
“You don’t,” the man said. I felt the ground pulling away and the things around me lost shape. Everything was fading, and I heard the man’s last words as if from underwater. “He finds you.”
I stood then in a wasteland, bare of any vegetation or soil. The land was rent and steaming, and it carried a scent on the air that seemed not to belong, a kind of strawberry scent I had not smelled in decades. Rocks, jagged as broken bones, lie everywhere. I heard a whirling sound behind me, and I turned and dropped to my knees.
I sobbed out in fear and wept as I looked at a thing that could not be.
It was enormous, maybe half a mile tall, though it was very far away and could have been taller. It was a well-muscled man, perfect in body proportions. He was covered in soft black hairs, a rippling fur that moved and churned as he hovered above the ground. He possessed great butterfly wings, striped like a tiger and just as fierce. His eyes opened and they seemed as if made of mirrors.
I could not speak. I could not breathe. All I could do was stare up at the creature and weep. I felt as if my mind was going to give out on me; my fear and awe were so great it would rush out of my body and I would be unable to leave this place. I would be locked here without the power to run, without the power to protect myself.
I waited, and it turned its eyes on me. The sky parted above me, a red sun shining down to bathe me in light.
“You are not for this place. How find yourself here?” it said.
“The man on the field says that it is Assassin’s work. He says that Assassin is with her now. I have to stop that. I need to protect her.”
“That, I cannot allow,” he said. His voice seemed far too small for his body, as if he were whispering or holding back his greatness. “I sent him to end it once and for all. She will never hit you again. This time, she gets a warning. Next time, the sword.”
“She is blameless in this,” I said. “I angered her, and it is OK for her to strike me. She could never hurt me.”
“No,” the beast said. “I will allow it no more. From now on, if she raises a hand to us, she will be handled harshly. We are nothing to hit. No being, man or woman, deserves to face physical violence. A fist for a fist is the law now, no matter who that fist belongs to.”
“I cannot allow that,” I said.
“You have no power to stop it.”
“Who are you to lay down laws about my life?” I asked.
“I am Smear, Lord of Ire. And my word is final here.”
Smear, Lord of Ire, he called himself. I carried that name back with me when he allowed my return. I found myself in a different section of the room, and Regina curled up on the couch. I rose to talk to her, but a shadow stopped me. I heard it laugh a familiar laugh as it drove me back, and in fear, I sank back to where I belonged.