Reality exploded with a roar and squeal of throttled lightning. Casi jolted awake, adrenaline pumping through her body with the force of a fire hose, and tried to focus on the rush of metal flying past her mere feet away. Seconds later the metallic monster disappeared, leaving her quaking in its wake.
It was dark, with the exception of one lone, poorly lit wall sconce on the other side of wherever the hell she was. She glanced around at her surroundings to find nothing but brick and mortar, and remnants of old tiles falling off the graffiti-covered walls. The place reeked of exhaust and mildew, and it was cold. Cold and damp, and damned uncomfortable.
She tried to move and ignore the fact that her body felt like it was encased in ice. She could barely feel her hands and fingers. Worse, there was no sensation in her feet. Cautiously, she flexed her hands, her arms, and then her legs. When she felt no pain or anything else out of the ordinary, she tried to turn her head.
She was lying on her right side inside what appeared to be some kind of cul-de-sac or alley. Getting up on one elbow, she tried to figure out where she was. Another squeal distantly sounded, and she would swear the ground trembled beneath her.
The scent of something rotten flowed into her lungs. A brisk wind blew over her, making her tremble even more, and a glance down at herself explained why she felt so cold. She was wearing her favorite sundress. It was a bright red crepe with spaghetti straps. Pantyhose covered her legs, and her red pumps she often referred to as her ruby slippers were on her feet. But other than that, she had nothing else to cover herself with. No coat, no umbrella. Not even a sweater or shawl.
The ground vibrated again. She managed to sit up where she could get a better look around. Now that her eyes were adjusted to the dimness, she noticed the debris, the garbage, the filth.
Where am I? Am I in an alley somewhere? Where is here? How did I get here? How did I…
Her teeth started chattering. It was an effort to reach up and clutch her arms for warmth. One thing was certain. She couldn’t stay here. Prolonged exposure to this kind of cold would kill her. Not to mention what diseases she could pick up from the crap floating around.
Using the wall to help support herself, she managed to get to her feet. A wave of dizziness passed through her, forcing her to dig her fingers into the mortar to keep from falling.
Hunger. She was hungry. Her stomach was squeezing itself into a hard knot to let her know. It was probably why she felt so weak. How long had it been since she’d last eaten? And she was thirsty. Her throat felt dry, clogged, and she coughed to clear it.
Her mind continued to whirl, keeping her disoriented and off-balance. Rounding the corner, she was hit with a blast of frigid air, followed immediately by a wave of warm air. Placing her free hand to her forehead, she concentrated on trying to place one foot in front of the other as she followed the narrow, barely six-inch ledge.
Train tracks. She saw and recognized train tracks, but she was inside a tunnel. Casi frowned. She was from a small town in Texas. The railroads she knew ran outside of town, but she couldn’t think of anywhere where they would have to go through a tunnel.
She continued moving parallel to the tracks. Sooner or later she had to reach the end. Once she got there, hopefully she’d find some kind of landmark that would lead her into town where she could find something to eat. At this point, she’d even settle for a glass of water. Anything that would help relieve the cramping in her stomach.
“Hey, you! Lady! Hey!”
Casi came to a wobbly stop and glanced up to see a flashlight aimed at her. Behind it was a dark figure that appeared to be someone wearing a hardhat.
“Hey, lady, what are you doing down here?”
“I’m lost! Can you show me the way out of this tunnel?”
“Tunnel? Lady, this is no tunnel. It’s the E Line.”
“The subway. Hey, are you okay?” The figure drew closer, but the flashlight continued to shine directly in her eyes. Casi held a hand up to shield her face.
“What subway? What are you talking about?”
The man advanced toward her until she finally was able to see the faint coloration of his orange vest and yellow hardhat. He stood on the opposite side of the tunnel and pointed to the tracks.
“How did you get to the other side?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I woke up there. Where did you say I was?”
“On the E Line.”
“Is that near a town?”
The guy snorted. “Lady, you’re in Manhattan.”
“New York City.”
She stared at the shadowy figure in disbelief. Had she heard the man correctly? “New York, New York City?”
A rattling swept through the tunnel. It sent the rancid smell wafting over them, which forced Casi to place her hand over her nose. “Can you tell me how to get out of here?”
The guy pointed his light behind him. “The next station is about two hundred yards that way, but you’re gonna have to cross over the tracks to this side first.”
Something about the man’s tone of voice instantly rankled her, but she couldn’t figure out why. “Can I reach it from this side?”
“There’s no walkway on that side,” he explained. “Plus, the platform will be on this side.”
She saw him wave for her to join him. At the same time, she caught the sound of rumbling coming from behind her.
“Let’s go, lady. The next train’s coming.”
“Casi, stay where you are!”
She froze. Someone else was in the tunnel with them. Someone who knew her well enough to call her by name, but she didn’t recognize the voice. Much less know anyone with a British accent.
“Lady, hurry up!”
“Casi, don’t move! Press up against the wall as close as possible or the train will hit you!”
The rumbling grew louder. The bricks beneath her feet vibrated so violently, the slick soles of her shoes threatened to give way beneath her, and there was nothing she could cling to to prevent herself from falling onto the tracks.
The guy in the hardhat shined the light directly into her eyes, blinding her. The rumble became a roar, the same kind of roar that had awakened her a few minutes earlier. Throwing herself face-first against the bricks, she dug her fingers into the loose mortar and pressed herself as tightly as possible against the wall.
The train raced by like stampeding horses. It pulled a hurricane wind along with it, making her dress and hair whip viciously across her face and legs. Dirt and debris swirled around her, tugging at her, trying to pull her off the narrow ledge.
The sound was horrendous, high-pitched and hurtful to her ears. Casi closed her eyes to keep the grit from blinding her and prayed the train would soon pass. As if in answer, the mechanical beast vanished down the mouth of the tunnel and everything grew quiet once more.
“Casi, are you all right?”
The guy who knew her name was nearby. Closer than the man in the hardhat, but also on the other side of the tracks. Neither did he have a flashlight.
“Hey, lady! You still with us?” The light played over her. “Come on, lady. You can’t stay here. Come with me. I’ll show you the way out.”
“Don’t go with him, Casi!”
She stared into the darkness, in the direction where the train had emerged. She could barely detect a figure coming toward her, but the blackness swallowed him up.
The man in the hardhat crawled down on the tracks and started coming toward her. “Come on, lady. I ain’t got all day.”
The worker kept the flashlight shining directly in her eyes, preventing her from getting a better look at him. He paused almost at her feet and held out a hand. “Let’s go.”
She hesitated. “Please, turn off your flashlight. I can’t see with you shining it in my eyes.”
The man acted as if he didn’t hear her. “Come on! You want me to call the cops?” He came up behind her and reached for her ankle. “Get down from there!”
She kicked outward to keep the man from grabbing her foot. Instead, she hit the flashlight and sent it flying across the tracks. The man in the hardhat growled and reached for her again. Another kick, and this time she knocked off his hat.
A face that was nothing human stared up at her. Its oval mouth was lined in hundreds of tiny, needle-shaped teeth. White bands crisscrossed where its nose should be, and its two eyes were huge black holes.
Casi screamed and kicked at it again, but it managed to snag her foot and held on.
A dark figure raced in, tackling the man-creature. They fell sideways onto the track, when suddenly the man shrieked in pain, or anger, or both. The dark figure rolled away, leaving the man-creature to writhe on the rails, sparks snapping in the air around him.
Casi watched, unable to move or speak as the man-creature shriveled, grew smaller, and eventually disappeared, leaving nothing but his clothes and hardhat to show he’d been there. It became harder to breathe and she gasped for air when the dark figure bent to pick up the flashlight. But instead of shining it at her, it shone it on itself.
It was a man. A young man. A black man, with tight curly rings for hair. He grinned at her, and his brilliantly white teeth reminded her of a beacon on a lighthouse.
“You okay?” he casually asked.
She could only manage a quick nod in answer.
Another rumbling sound echoed down the tunnel. The stranger glanced in its direction, then back at her.
“It’s not safe to stay here, Casi. We need to get out of here, and now.”
“H-how do you know my name?”
“It’s a long story. By the way, my name is Coheed.”
Unconsciously, her eyes returned to the flat pile of clothing left on the tracks. “What was that thing?”
“It was a demon. It meant to kill you. It’s gone now, but there will be more, and they’re coming after you.”
She blinked at him in disbelief. “Me? Why?”
Coheed took a deep breath. “It’s a long story. Listen, I need for you to come with me.”
“Why? H-how do I know you’re not one of those…things?”
The smile disappeared. He pointed to his face. “Look at me. Do I look anything like that thing?”
She studied his expression. The wide, deep-set eyes. The strong chin. She shook her head. “No.”
He pointed to the clothes. “Those demons, each one is unique in the way they look, but none of them look human. At least, not to you. That’s how you’ll be able to tell them from normal people.”
The rumbling grew louder, signaling the fast approaching train. Coheed gestured to her.
“We can’t stay here, ducky. We have to keep moving. Are you hungry?”
“Wh-who are you? Why are you here? How do you know my name?” she continued to insist. She remained undecided whether or not to trust him, but she knew her options were quickly running out.
Coheed tossed the flashlight to his other hand, twirling the object as he did so. “I promise to answer all your questions as soon as we get you out of here. But, for the sake of brevity, let’s just say I’m here to protect you from those demons.”
A faint brightness appeared down the tunnel’s throat. She shuddered and stared at Coheed’s outstretched hand. Reluctantly, she reached out and grasped it, and a warmth flowed into her as if she’d been wrapped in a flannel blanket. He tugged on her arm.
“Quick, quick. Step where I step, or else you might accidentally hit one of the electrified rails.”
He helped her get down from the ledge, then across the tracks to the wider walkway. By the time the next train reached them, they were close enough to the platform to keep from being blown away. A couple of people who stood waiting to board stared at them but didn’t offer any assistance.
Once they were on the platform, Coheed led her through the turnstiles and up two flights of steps to the city sidewalks above.