It was dark beneath the trees. At least, I think it was. My eyes had gone all funny. The world seemed hazy and tinted, as though it were a slowly developing Polaroid.
All I know is that the man now half dragged, half carried me through the dusky trees. My legs felt like bundles of elastics, stretching and writhing uselessly beneath me. My voice tried to croak something, but acrid dust swirled down my throat and I started coughing. A hand covered my mouth to silence me.
Finally, we stopped moving. I was dropped against the stony roots of a blackened tree. In the dim light, all I could see was a shadowy hole under his hood. My head was spinning. The wails of that horrific monster splintered in my ears, bouncing around inside my skull like shards of iron. I opened my mouth to say something, but the man shook his head and touched a finger to my lips.
I imagined I heard someone, or perhaps another something, tramping through the trees nearby. We waited while the noises whispered away and were swallowed up by distant throbs of thunder. Only after a full minute of silence did the stranger finally speak.
"Are you well?"
I wasn't prepared to answer that question yet. Was I well? I didn't think so, but I couldn't say what exactly was most wrong. My mind scrolled through everything that had just happened and tried to make sense of it all. I rather failed in that regard.
"Who the hell are you?" was all I could think to say. My voice sounded separate from my body. My words sounded foreign. The man reached up and slid his hood back from his face.
He was a pale man, with dark eyes that crouched back in deep sockets. His face was pockmarked by an impressive array of scars, the largest of which curled down from the corner of his eye like a teardrop. His skin had an ashen cast to it, as though it had not encountered sunlight for a very long time.
"I'm your guide." He paused for a moment, then said, "You may as well call me Aaron. That's what they used to call me."
"Used to?" I mumbled.
"Hold still a moment," said Aaron, bending over me. He tilted my chin up with a finger and peered into my face. Stretched my eyelid to examine my pupil. Under normal circumstances I would have protested. Obviously, these weren't normal circumstances.
"You're coming along nicely," Aaron said after a minute. I wasn't sure what that meant.
There was a noise from the trees. Aaron snapped his head around and gazed intently through the grasping branches for a moment, but appeared to determine there was no imminent threat. He turned back to me.
"Are you feeling stronger?"
I had the curious feeling that my body was solidifying, as though I were a Jell-O mold being set out to chill. I don't know how much stronger that made me feel, but it did make everything feel less dreamlike.
"Hackney Road," I suddenly remembered. "Is that where you found me? What happened? What's going on?"
It was as though my brain were finally waking up and I did not much like what it was discovering. My hand drifted toward the ribs on my left side, but I felt no wound. It was as though my skin had been magically stitched back together.
"I know you have plenty of questions, but we haven't the time to discuss them now," said Aaron. "Are you well enough to walk?"
Suddenly it was all coming back. Hackney Road. The men. The knife, flashing like a polished mirror in the moonlight. Why was I not injured? Why was I not dead? Why was I here? More and more, I had the feeling that this was not a dream after all. But then, what the hell was it?
Aaron was heaving me to my feet. My legs, I noted, felt a little less like rubber bands. They held me. For the most part.
Aaron was now gripping my shoulders, his face very close to mine.
"You must stay close to me at all times, no matter what happens," he said in almost a whisper. "And you must try not to die. Do you understand?"
I didn't understand much, but I could understand that much. I nodded.
"Good," said Aaron, "because the hunters are here."
Between the trees, my adjusting eyes glimpsed shadows wavering liquidly. Eyes glowing like candle flames. The hunters were certainly here.