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That night Morgan dreamed of the prison again.

This time he was strapped to a bed and a Reader was standing over him talking to him.

“Mr. Bishop, we’re – ”

“I told you, my name is Morgan, not Mr. Bishop!”

“We’re going to take you down the hall,” the lady continued, ignoring his comment. “We’re going to be doing a procedure that we feel might help you.”

Morgan strained against the leather straps and continued to scream at the Reader. Two men came in and then they began to push the bed, which was on wheels, out into the hallway. Morgan continued to struggle but he still managed to notice that long lights adorned the ceiling and everything appeared so white and sterile.

At one point he turned and saw above a doorway letters that said RATHBONE ASYLUM. The realization that he actually saw and understood the meaning of the letters was overwhelming. He quit struggling and tried to understand the nature of the act of reading the letters and how it was that he was able to perform such magic.

As he lay pondering all this, the Readers attached things to his body and placed a thick, hard device into his teeth. Morgan took all of this without struggle because he was still wrestling with the notion of being able to read.

Suddenly, a sharp pain lanced through his head and made him arch his back and bite down on the thing in his mouth.

Morgan awoke with tears streaming down his face.

It was just after 8 o’clock in the morning when Morgan and Pegan left the protection of the city walls and began trudging up the huge sand hill. The desert morning was already heating up.

The boy had never been beyond the wall and he looked around this new world as if in a daze. Morgan was used to this reaction. “Hurry up, kid!” Morgan called back to the boy. “Stay close to me or else we’ll never get there.”

The boy mumbled something that sounded like a “yes” and shuffled faster to catch up.

By 9 o’clock they had reached an area of red rock formations. Morgan chose a path that he knew like the back of his hand. The path led to the edge of a cliff that overlooked a canyon. As they approached the edge of the canyon Morgan halted and pulled the boy close.

“Alright, kid, listen up,” Morgan said in a low voice. “Down in that canyon are the ruins of a Pre-Cataclysmic city. Sometimes creatures roam the canyon and lurk in the old buildings. These creatures are very dangerous. They’ll kill you as soon look at you. You need to stay right beside me and not go off into the ruins no matter how curious they might look. You got me?”

The kid shook his head.

Morgan stood at the edge of the cliff and surveyed the canyon for several minutes. Nothing in the canyon stirred. “Let’s go, Pegan,” he said and the two headed down a trail that switched back and forth as it descended into the canyon.

By 10:30 the two had navigated through the canyon, the old city, and emerged back into open desert. Before they left the canyon, however, they stopped in the shadow of a rock to rest and rehydrate before tackling the vast expanse of sand dunes that would bring them to the city of Kishmurg.

It was a long, slow, hot walk in the burning sun. Morgan had to teach the boy how to wear his clothes properly to protect his skin. He also had to keep pushing the boy to walk faster as the sand harried his tired feet.

It was around 12 o’clock when the city finally appeared in the distance. Unlike Dolmrung, which was made of the detritus of a lost civilization thrown together against the rocks, Kishmurg was built of the stones of the desert out in the open. It looked more natural than Dolmrung and blended with the ocean of sand all about it.

Morgan and Pegan arrived at the large stone entryway to the city at half past 12 and were let in just as easily as Morgan was let into Dolmrung – the guards knew him by sight all too well.

Once inside the city they made their way underground. Most of the city of Kishmurg was subterranean. Morgan led the boy to a room where a swarthy looking, muscular man was waiting. He rose when the two entered and greeted Morgan. “Let’s have a look at today’s child,” he said eyeing the boy.

“His name is Pegan,” Morgan said. “Good luck, boy. And good day to you, Rorick, I must be on my way.”

“Of course, Morgan,” the man said, but he was busy looking the boy over as if he were inspecting a thoroughbred.

Morgan made faster speed on the return journey because he wasn’t slowed down by any child. Morgan knew many routes home and it was the return journey when he took time for exploring; but today yielded nothing.

His day ended as most of his days did.

The Council House was the largest building in Dolmrung. It was a large concrete building that had been repaired multiple times over the years; but since the knowledge of concrete construction had fallen into the distant past, the building appeared a mottled hulk and was crumbling in places. The front of the building had many windows but the other three sides were devoid of such niceties. Morgan made his way to a side door and navigated his way to the room where he would retrieve the child.

When he walked into the room two men were in the process of pouring buckets of water on the naked child in the corner. The small boy was only 9 or 10 and he cowered in the corner spluttering as soap and water were liberally dumped upon him. The men then began to scrub him with two large scrub brushes.

Morgan took a seat in a chair and waited. Shortly thereafter, a woman entered the room. She was an older woman but still possessed an energy and attraction that marked her as a natural leader. “Good morning, Morgan”, she announced as she took a seat beside Morgan.

“Good morning, Maggie,” Morgan said.

“The boy’s name is Pegan. How are you on weapons?”

Morgan took a quick inventory of his arrows and grenades. “I’m good,” he said.

“How were things out there yesterday?” Maggie said turning from the cleansing to look at Morgan. “Did you see any Peepskins or Derrydrugs?”

“No. And, frankly, it concerns me. It’s been a little too quiet out there of late.”

“Quiet is good, though. Maybe they have migrated to new territories. Or maybe a sickness has hit them. Who knows? But it’s better than their numbers growing,” Maggie offered.

“Yeah, maybe. Still, I like to know what they’re up to. When I know what they’re doing, I can avoid them. It’s the not knowing that puts me on edge. It’s like the calm before a sandstorm.”

“Morgan, this is why you are the best escort in the Wasteland. You are like a taut string ready to release. A complacent escort is as good as a dead escort, no?”

Morgan turned to look at Maggie and let a small smirk touch the corner of his mouth. “And this is why you make such a good politician. The words pour from you like sweet milk.”

Maggie feigned insult and said, “I am not a politician, Morgan. I am just a servant of The Council just like you.”

By this time the child had been cleaned and dried and the men were assisting him in dressing for the desert. Maggie rose and spoke to the child. “Pegan, this man is Morgan and he will be taking you to Kishmurg. You are to stick to him like a shadow and heed his every instruction if you want to survive the Wasteland; do you understand, child?”

The boy Pegan was in a state of shock. He had been plucked from the Skutter where he had likely never had a bath or descent clothes before. He was still marveling at the clothes. Maggie grabbed his jaw in her hand and wrenched his face to look at her. “Did you hear me, boy? If you don’t listen to this man today you may die!”

The boy’s eyes widened in fear and he shook his head in comprehension. Morgan stepped up and took the boy by the shoulder. “Come on, boy, we have a Wasteland to cross.”

Morgan awoke at his usual time and made his way down to breakfast. The morning always began with him eating a light breakfast supplied by Caspus as well as stuffing enough supplies in his backpack for the day’s journey to Kishmurg and back to Dolmrung. These were only supplies of sustenance; The Council provided the supplies of weaponry. Morgan had a slender sword slung across his back and a bow. The Council strictly regulated the number of arrows that were given out to the citizens of the city. More importantly, The Council also regulated the grenades that Morgan was allowed to carry into the Wasteland. This was mainly because the ingredients were hard to come by and only the Alchemists held the knowledge of their manufacture.

On his way to the Council House, Morgan would stop by the Shadow Church if he had the time – and most every day he did. He liked to go receive a blessing from Brother Humphrey before going into the Wasteland.

Church wasn’t in service at this early hour, but Brother Humphrey was always up preparing the church for the day’s services.

“Good morning, Morgan!” Brother Humphrey called from the front as Morgan entered the sanctuary.

“Good Morning, Brother,” Morgan returned.

“Any ill’s for the day?”

“No, Brother. Just a blessing for the road, please.” By this time Morgan had made his way to the front. Brother Humphrey poured water into two glasses and handed one to Morgan.

“Very well, a toast to hydration and to shadow!” the priest said and they tapped their glasses together and drank. Having finished the drink, they both began to recite an old prayer that was only known these days through oral memory:

“And he gathered them all together and spake saying, ‘I say unto thee children of the shadows, behold the Sun. For the Sun doth scorch thine land, thine skin, and thine eyes. It is because of the Sun that this land is barren and bleached. It is because of the Sun that only the strangest of plants live in the desert. It is because of the Sun that only the sneakiest of animals live in the desert. It is because of the Sun that only the stupidest of people live in the desert. But I cometh to deliver thee from thine ignorance. Behold thine enemy the Sun!’ And the savior spread his arms and said, ‘Now make a wish!’ And then he blew out the Sun. Nightshade chapter 13, verse 7. Amen.”

“Thank you, Brother,” Morgan said handing the glass back.

“You’re welcome, Morgan. May the Prophet Nightshade bless your day’s journey and deliver the child unharmed,” he said smiling.

Morgan smiled politely back and left the church to head over to the Council House.

Morgan lay in bed and fought the exhaustion from the day as it washed over him. His nights were always a battle of will: physical exhaustion from the Wasteland fought against his mind’s will to escape the recurring nightmares. Inevitably, though, the body won. And then the nightmare came. It was always the same – or at least similar enough to be the same theme.

Mostly, Morgan dreamed he was a prisoner in an alien place. He was held in a room with cushioned walls on three sides and large mirror on the fourth wall. He knew, somehow, that there were Readers on the other side of the mirror watching him. If he pushed his face against the mirror he could see their shapes on the other side; not anything definite, just the vague shapes of them. He assumed they were the wizard Readers of the Pre-Cataclysm because he sensed it. There was no proof, just an impression of knowledge.

He was helpless to struggle or attempt to free himself because they had him bound in a strange coat whose sleeves buckled behind him. He was left with the only option to scream and cry and plead and wail. And that’s how most nightmares transpired.

Every so often, there were other versions. Versions that were not as horrible as this common one. Sometimes, his nightmare took him to a room in the same prison where he was tied to a bed. Sometimes the Readers walked into the room in their white robes and told him strange things that he didn’t understand. These things infuriated him. He didn’t know why but they did. These nightmares usually ended with him gnashing his teeth at them and cursing them as he struggled to free his bound arms and legs.

This particular night was different. In this nightmare he was tied to a chair in a room with several other prisoners. One of the wizards stood beside him silently while Morgan watched the other prisoners. For some reason he couldn’t speak or summon the strength to move. He tried desperately to speak to the other inmates, but it was useless. His mouth just wouldn’t cooperate. Every ounce of effort only yielded a slurred mumble.

Morgan woke suddenly and said to the darkness, “Why am I here?”

As part of Morgan’s agreement with The Council he had a room at the Mumford Inn paid for so long as he was an escort in The Council’s service. This included an evening meal, too. Caspus threw in a couple of mugs of mead at no extra charge.

Most evenings, Morgan sat quietly and drank his mead until dinner was served. After dinner he headed over to the bath house to clean away the day’s grime from the Wasteland before heading up to his room. Today was no different.

The room was tiny but it was Morgan’s haven. Growing up he had lived amongst the children and young adults in the Skutter like rats. Each night was a scramble for the choicest nooks to sleep in and there was no place to remotely call a space of your own. Compared to that, his small room in the corner attic of the Mumford Inn was like a palace. Barely eight-by-ten, but those 80 square feet were his throne room. Morgan sat down on the bed cushion – for he had no bed frame – and pulled his backpack across over between his legs.

Rummaging through it, he pulled out another prize he had found in the Wasteland earlier that day. It was a book; a thick, hardbound book that was still in fair condition. Morgan ran his finger over the raised letters on the cover and then opened it to flip through page upon page of the magical symbols printed row upon row of each page.

Morgan couldn’t read. The Readers had died out hundreds of years ago and, as far as Morgan knew, those magicians were extinct. But still, he was fascinated by the old books and parchments that still existed. They were very rare and most people didn’t hold the same interest in them like Morgan did. Pointless was the main opinion expressed by most when the topic arose. A dead magic that had disappeared from the world.

Morgan held the book for several minutes as he flipped through it and studied the lettering. How did the magic work? What sort of knowledge was contained within those magic runes of old?

Having finished inspecting his knew treasure, he placed it beside the three other books on the small, make-shift shelf beside his bed. Of the four, this one was by far the best preserved. One book was barely a book any more, having been burned and mutilated, it now was only a quarter of its original girth. One was a paperback book that had deteriorated so bad that the letters were barely present any more. The third one was his favorite. It was a torn, thin book, but it had pictures on the few remaining pages. From these pictures Morgan was able to venture guesses as to the meaning of the runes. One picture showed a Pre-Cataclysm woman running. Morgan guessed that the knowledge conveyed through the runes were a magic spell for speed. In reality, it was a magazine ad for running shoes; but Morgan had no concept of any of this.

The guards of the gate knew Morgan by sight and, after so long, just let him pass without so much as a pause. Morgan returned their nods and passed into Dolmrung. He made his way straight to the Mumford Inn. Caspus, the proprietor, greeted him upon entry and proceeded to pour Morgan a cup of mead.

“How’s things out there today, Morgan?” Caspus said indicating the general direction of the Wasteland. It was the same routine every evening – more of a greeting than a genuine question.

“Not much happening out there today, Caspus,” Morgan returned. Morgan took a long draw off of the mug and then remembered something.

“Oh, I almost forgot. I did come across something you might be interested in.” Caspus wiped his hands on a bar towel and came closer. It wasn’t often that Morgan brought the old innkeeper treasures from his ranging. To most of the people who lived in Dolmrung, journeys outside the city were a novelty. Most people imagined a dangerous world out there, but with treasure to be found in all the nooks and crannies of the ruins. Of course, this was the romantic version of Morgan’s treacherous life. But still, occasionally, Morgan did come across artifacts from a bygone era.

Morgan reached into his bag and produced a wad of cloth. Carefully unwrapping the cloth soon revealed a shiny, golden Christmas tree star. It was dusty and the gold had flecked off in many places, but it still drew a gasp from Caspus. Several patrons close by also craned to see it.

“It’s gorgeous!” Caspus exclaimed. “What is it, though?”

“I have no idea besides a gold star. I mean, I don’t know what it was used for other than maybe decoration,” Morgan ventured. “It’s hollow inside. When I saw it I thought it would look great atop the bar.” Morgan pointed to a spot on the top shelf behind the bar. The shelf was decorated with other odd items: a toy car, a bowling trophy, a pie tin, a Monopoly board, and an egg beater. All things that these people assumed were meant for display but no one quite knew what their original purpose might be.

“Cool my hide and bless you, Morgan!” Caspus said as he took it gingerly in his hands to inspect closer. “It’ll go perfect on the shelf.”

Every afternoon Morgan played the same game as he crested the last hill that led down to the gates of Dolmrung. From atop the sandy hilltop the view of Dolmrung actually betrayed the squalor of the city. From this vantage point, the city looked almost majestic. From this far away the motley juxtaposition of scrap metal, wood, and various other flotsam and jetsam of a decayed society blended together to form an impressive walled city sheltered to the west by the looming cliffs of the Malaheim Desert. Beyond that, nothing thrived.

Morgan stopped and had a small celebration of another successful crossing of the Wasteland by wiping the sweat from his face and finishing the last of his water in one, large celebratory chug. Having thus been satiated, the game ensued.

The sun was blazing – as usual. The weather out in the Wasteland never varied. It was always a blistering hell. From atop the hill Morgan looked at the shadow cast by the large walls with an almost palpable hunger. Its shade was a welcome oasis. And then he said a number aloud to no one in particular: “Five hundred and three.”

And then he began to walk and count each step aloud that it would take to reach the wall’s shadow. It was a game that he had gotten pretty damn good at. Not good enough to hit the number exactly every time, but good enough to be within ten almost like clockwork. On the few occasions that he did hit it, the celebration was really no different than when he missed his mark, for Morgan was a loner in a broken world.

“Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”

~ Zhuangzi

 

“Every night, I, Morgan, dream I am a prisoner in an asylum, ambling hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a prisoner. I was conscious only of my misery as a prisoner, unaware that I was Morgan. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man having a nightmare that I was a prisoner, or whether I am now a prisoner, having a nightmare that I am a mercenary of the Wasteland.”

~ Morgan the Escort

For those writers and bloggers who have steadfastly followed the last two stories I’ve posted, I would like to say thank you for reading them. After I published my collection of short stories in 2010 I decided to take some time away from writing and figure out a new direction. Finally, I decided to write a novella that was a Lovecraftian, Cthulhu Mythos story – The Scourge of Wetumpka. That took some time to write but turned out quite well. Coming off of that I began writing Psychological Horror short stories. When I use the term Psychological, I am using it in the true sense of the term as having to do with Psychology. I have a Master’s in Psychology and I really enjoy Psychological thrillers with horror or dark fantasy overtones. The first couple of stories were “Alone” and “Shockley House”. I was very pleased with “Shockley House” but wound up re-writing “Alone” in order to make it deliver the right effect. After those two stories, I began to get interested in the use of Symbolism and the techniques used in Impressionism. The last two stories, “The Land of Nod” and “The Murklor”, explore using those techniques in writing weird tales. What makes them really work on a blog is that each day (or every couple of days) a new glimpse or vignette is added to the overall impression of the piece. In “The Land of Nod” I tried to do that by adding more bits of symbolism to the canvass of the story. In “The Murklor”, I tried to do that by adding new vantage points – usually in the form of different writing techniques. Overall, I’m really liking this new direction of Impressionistic Weird Fiction. It’s fun and offers so much freedom.

BTW, I can’t take credit for inventing it. Here’s a really good interview about what I’m trying to achieve in my writing:

The Insomniac Propagandist

One final note – the ciphers in the story “The Murklor” are very much real. They aren’t just thrown together to make the story weirder than it already is. Each one was methodically designed and does have a real solution.

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