The Morning After
Zulf woke, groggy and confused. His head throbbed with the thunderous beating noise in his ears. At first, he thought the Masons had gone to work early, but then he realized the sound was the pounding pulse of his own heartbeat. He sat up, one hand going to his head as the ache spiked across his temples. The rest of him seemed to be healthy and uninjured, but for the crick in his neck and the fact that his left leg was asleep; but that happened when one slept on a stone floor in a drunken stupor.
The man did a double-take, looking at his surroundings for the first time. He was underground— he had not expected that. There was no mistaking he was in an Ura den, from the sparse furnishings to the lack of windows. The glowing crystals his people used when they were too far underground for firesmoke glowed in the place of candles and lanterns on the rough walls. These were old, too dim to light more than a few inches of space, but it was still light. It almost felt like home, but in an eerie, unsettling way.
Where was he?
Gathering himself and his wits, Zulf picked himself up and headed for the only tunnel leading out. There was light at the end, dull and grey and dreary, and he realized that the den must have been much, much closer to the surface than he had thought. He reached the end and came upon a door; even in the poor light he could tell it was Caelondian and not Ura. Even more confused, he felt for the lath. His physical state made it hard to operate the simple mechanism, but finally his fumbling fingers found purchase and the door swung outward.
The light blinded him instantly, and Zulf yelped in pain as the sudden brightness made his head pound harder. He squeezed his eyes shut as he staggered through the door, feeling the door frame and then the outer wall of his shelter. After a moment, when the shock had worn off, it became suddenly apparent how silent the world was. There should have been voices, the sound of birds and people and machines; the sounds of life. The only thing he heard was the rustle of the wind, a slight breathy thing that barely ruffled his unkempt hair and brought with it the stale smell of ash. With a chill growing in the pit of his stomach, Zulf risked another peek. He immediately wished he hadn't.
He was standing in front of the old war memorial, which actually explained quite a bit. From here, he could see the hall where his closest friends had thrown him his bachelor party the night before, just down the lane on the opposite side of the street. But the location wasn't what made his blood run cold. Not just his blood; the young man felt as if he had wandered into the depths of the Terminals, his body was so rigid with cold; he stood in stark frozen horror as he took in the scene with an uncontrollable tremble.
The world, at least as he knew it, was gone. Bits and pieces were still there, looking almost as if they had been untouched, but other sections were not so lucky. It was not as if they had been destroyed— they simply were not there at all. Whole buildings, sections of road, monuments and street signs and even some of the trees had simply vanished. What was worse, in their places,there existed nothing but empty space. Carefully, though he was absolutely terrified, Zulf picked his way through the strange stillness toward a gap in the lane. He poured over the edge, and whatever color had been left in his face fled in terror. Beneath him, so far as the eye could see, was open air. The ground below was too far away to see with the naked eye— if, Zulf realized with a shudder, it still existed at all.
Well, that explained much, but not everything. Where were all the people? Even in the face of such a calamity, the city should still be alive and kicking, even if that meant being in a state of panic. He had neither seen nor heard anyone since he had climbed up out of the den. That, more than anything, made him uneasy. His curiosity slowly, finally, overcame his fear, and he set a path directly toward the hall. He had to know what was happening.
The door was unlocked when he arrived. Zulf warily poked his head inside, peering into the dark. He called out, hearing his voice echo back to him; it was the only reply he received, so Zulf did not mind letting himself in. The arrangements were as he remembered, if perhaps a bit more trashed than when he had last seen them. Still, everything looked relatively normal for a typical Caelondian party— but for, of course, the absence of the guests. One of the windows was open, letting in a small amount of light and breeze. A mix of ashes and confetti swirled around his feet as he walked. The ash was a mystery he could not solve; there were no signs of charring, no burnt smell in the air. That drastically narrowed the possibilities, and Zulf finally came to the conclusion that he did not want to know where all the soot had come from.
But there was one more thing he had to check. As he left the hall at a run, he decided that the mystery of this strange silent world could wait. Actually, he realized, he did not really care, so long as she was safe. Nothing else was more important to him. Zulf ran, his robes flying behind him and threatening to tangle his feet as he sprinted across town. The scholar was not much of an athlete, and the air was thick with the ash, but he pressed on even as his body ached in acute protest. He was almost there now— just a few more blocks—
Her house came into view and Zulf felt a small measure of relief. He had been beginning to think he would never make it, but here he was, almost at the finish. With an extra boost of adrenaline and urgency, Zulf raced up the steps and tried the door.
Thank the gods he knew where the key was. Slipping a hand under her welcome mat, he fumbled with the key in the knob. His hands were shaking so badly it took him five tries just to get it into the lock, but finally the knob turned with a click and he was inside, rushing around in a breathless frenzy, calling her name with cracking voice. The house looked the same as before, not a dust mote out of place, but that was no comfort to him. Forgoing propriety for the sake of emergency, Zulf forced himself to bound up the stairs to her bedroom. He opened every door, discovering two closets and a washroom before stumbling upon her personal quarters.
He knocked only once, waiting but a few moments before barging in, hoping she would forgive the intrusion. Zulf's eyes darted across the room, finally resting on her bed by the window. There, sleeping in peaceful oblivion, was his love. Relief swept over him, and in two strides he had crossed the room to be by her side. Her skin looked grey-ish in the ashen light, but otherwise she looked as normal as he, and far more beautiful, even dreaming. Zulf smiled, kneeling beside her bed. He whispered to her gently, trying to wake her without startling her, but she didn't respond. He took her hand, bringing it to his lips; then the most unthinkable thing happened. Her hand broke apart in his fingers, sifting between them like gray sand and falling onto the bed sheets with a soft hiss.
Zulf froze, his eyes wide. No. Gods, no. No no no no NO NO NO. He touched her again, afeather-light touch, and a dent appeared in the shoulder of his sleeping lover. He pulled his hand back as if he had been bitten, clutching it to his chest and staring in abject horror as she slowly began to fall apart. With a cry he tried to scoop her up, to put her back together, to mold her back into the person she had been; but there was no life left in those ashes, even if Zulf had been a master sculptor. Zulf had solved the mystery of the ash, and it was the worst moment of discovery he had ever been witness to. She was never coming back. No one was. He was completely and utterly alone.
Pain, so sharp and cold and solid that it felt like a blow to the head knocked him reeling to the floor. He gasped for air, fighting against the pain and clutching his chest. His heart felt as though it was being squeezed, some invisible hand crushing it in its grip. Zulf could barely see straight, the pain was so intense; the world swum before his eyes, blurry and grey, and he realized he was crying. Not crying— sobbing, wailing, great shuddering gasps between streams of tears.
Alone. He had been alone before, and it had been terrifying. Now, after he had found a happiness that surpassed anything he had ever known before, was he truly forced to face that again? He would never hear her laugh or sing, never see her smile, never hold her or dance with her or be with her. They would never be married, never raise a family, never grow old together. All of his plans were nothing now. She was gone. Everything was gone. His reason for living, his life's work, his love— what good were they now?
Anger, anger and despair and hopelessness all tried to win over his mind. Zulf lay on the floor, convulsing with his sobs, pounding the floor in rage and then pawing at it as if it could somehow forgive and comfort him; he did not know what to feel, did not know how to react. Why had this happened? How had this happened? Who or what could he blame? What was he to do now?
It was hours later that he found himself in the Hanging Gardens, with hardly a clear memory of how he had gotten there and still without any answers. He had given up all hope that this was some outrageous nightmare. This was his reality now, and he looked out across the vast expanse of nothingness and despaired. If this was to be his world, he wanted no part of it. He could not handle it— not the loneliness, not the hopelessness, not the ever-growing hole in his chest. Darkness, the same darkness that lurked under and around this strange new world, threatened to swallow him whole. He was ready and willing to let it take him.
Zulf turned his vision skyward, sure his prayers were falling on deaf ears. He was ready to meet his end, he decided. He was ready to come home.
Then he heard a voice.