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“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

__________________________________________

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.

****

The guards at 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.”

****

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.

****

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?”

****

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.

****

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.”

****

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.

****

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.

****

The next morning Morgan arrived at the Council House room before the child was brought in. He sat waiting for several minutes until the door swung open and Maggie, the two guards, and the child came through. The child was struggling and demanding that she be let go. It was the first time Morgan had ever seen a child put up such a resistance. It was nothing new that she was a girl – those came in fairly equal measure with the boys; but, a girl with such spirit was unheard of coming out of the Skutter.

The two men ignored her demands and proceeded to strip her and douse her with soap and water. Maggie came over to Morgan and sat down.

“This feisty little kitten is named Aja. Good luck with her.”

Morgan watched the proceedings with curiosity and said, “What if she flees?”

“Then she’ll probably die,” came her curt response.

After the girl was bathed and dressed, she stood before Morgan and Maggie in a defiant pose. “Aja,” Maggie said. “This is Morgan and he will be escorting you across the Wasteland today.”

“The Wasteland?” she said haughtily. “I don’t want to go out there.”

“Well, you have no choice, child. And if you try and run, then Morgan won’t be able to protect you and you’ll most assuredly die out there. Do you understand?”

“But where are you taking me?”

“To the city of Kishmurg.”

“What is –“

“Aja! Quiet! The Council has decreed that you be taken to Kishmurg and that Morgan escort you there. No more questions and no more resistance. If you try and flee, you’re dead. Now, Morgan, take her out.” Maggie was halfway out of the door by the time she finished and the two guards followed her leaving Morgan and Aja staring each other down.

Morgan, not so much as making a sound, grabbed the back of her arm and began to walk her to the exit.

****

As Morgan and Aja trudged up the great sand hill outside of the gates the girl began to chatter again.

“How long will it take to get to this town of Kishmurg?”

“Four hours,” Morgan said.

“What are you going to do with me there?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“A man named Rorick will take you and then I’ll leave, so I don’t know what you’re going to do.”

“You don’t know. Are you kidding me? You seriously don’t have any idea why you’re taking me just to hand me over to some guy?” she said incredulously. “What if he’s going to hurt me or feed me to some monster or something?”

Morgan glanced at the girl in annoyance and said, “Well, that’s none of my business.”

“None of your business?” she cried. “What kind of horrible, mindless stooge are you?”

At this Morgan stopped and turned to the girl. “Look, I have a job to do and it’s none of my concern what The Council does. As long as they are keeping me equipped, fed, and housed, I’m happy to escort you little brats across this stretch of rock and sand with no questions asked. So why don’t you just shut up and keep up with me?”

Aja looked into Morgan’s eyes and there was a tense moment of silence before she said, “You’re a bad man who has no honor.”

“What?” Morgan said perplexed.

“You are a coward, aren’t you?”

“I am not a coward, little girl,” Morgan retorted and began to walk again.

Aja hurried to catch up and continued to badger him with questions and comments while Morgan tried to ignore her with cold silence.

At the top of the great sand hill Morgan stopped and surveyed the sky. Aja was in the middle of rattling on about running away when Morgan said, “Sandstorm.”

“Huh?” Aja said thinking he was answering her comments.

“There’s a sandstorm coming. Hopefully, we’ll make the old city in the canyon before it hits.”

Aja turned her gaze to the distant sky and beheld the storm in the distance. A vast blob of darkness obscured the horizon. “Why don’t we just go back to Dolmrung?” she said gesturing back down the hill to the city.

“That’s not an option. Come on.” Morgan said grabbing her arm and starting to walk again.

“Why isn’t that an option? Because your master Council says so and you’re too much of a coward to disobey?”

Morgan tried his best to ignore the yipping girl, but she was relentless.

****

By the time they reached the canyon lip the wind had begun to intensify. Aja actually was quiet as the sand was beginning to become an irritation to their faces and she was forced to close her mouth and shield her face from the stinging wind.

Morgan led them down into the rocks and by the time they reached the first traces of the old buildings, the storm was beginning to roll over them. Morgan took out a coil of rope and tied one end around Aja’s waist and then fed the other end around his own waist.

By the time they reached a structure that was mostly intact, visibility was virtually gone. The wind was howling down the canyon and Aja clung to Morgan’s back using him as a shield.

They entered the building and were instantly relieved from the assault of the wind and sand. Morgan struck a torch and they looked about them surveying the old building.

“How long will the storm last?” Aja said.

“Several hours, probably,” Morgan replied.

A quarter of an hour later they sat in a basement room made of concrete and Morgan hauled scraps of wood and metal to barricade the door.

“Why are you doing that? It’s not like the storm can reach us here.” Aja observed.

Morgan continued to work and merely said, “There’s more out here than just sandstorms.”

“Like what?”

Morgan stopped exasperated and looked at the girl. “You’re a real piece of work, you know? All the children I’ve escorted for all these years and you’re the first I’ve ever known to ask so many damn questions. I’m surprised no one didn’t kill you in the Skutter a long time ago.”

“Maybe that’s because I didn’t come from the Skutter,” she retorted.

Morgan arched his eyebrows in surprise and said, “Then where did you come from?”

“Oh, so now who’s the curious one?”

Morgan huffed in amusement and turned back to his work of barricading the door.

“Was that a smirk? Why, curiosity and humor; there might just be a real human in there after all,” she said chiding him.

Morgan finished his job and came over to sit by the light. “We can’t leave the torch burning in this enclosed space; we’ll have to just wait out the storm in the dark. I’ll make a deal with you, jabbermouth, I’ll answer your questions if you answer mine. Deal?”

“You gotta deal,” she said triumphantly smiling.

****

And so they sat in the dark for a couple of hours talking while the sandstorm raged outside in the canyon. Aja told Morgan of how she was orphaned as an infant and was taken in by a kind couple in the town of Mandabrun. Morgan had never heard of such a town, though. But then the town was attacked by ruffians and wastelanders and her adoptive guardians were slaughtered. She had been enslaved to the raiders and sold in another town that she had forgotten the name of. Passed from one abuser to another thug over and over until she had lost track of them all. Eventually she escaped when one of the caged caravan wagons she was on was assaulted and overturned. She managed to slip out and hide in the rocks for days.

Those days in hiding in the desert took their toll on her and she finally collapsed from lack of water and food, famished and weak, she was sure she was as good as dead. But someone had found her and brought her to Dolmrung. She was nursed back to health by people in the Council House but she still had gaps in her memory.

Morgan told Aja about his childhood in the Skutter and how the children lived like vermin in filthy packs, scavenging whatever they could find to survive. It was a constant struggle of survival of the fittest and constant fighting and scraping to establish alliances and dominance over the various packs of marauding children. Finally, Morgan had positioned himself as a captain of a ruffian faction through his cunning, his age, and his fighting prowess. He had actually staged a bold raid into the higher city and this had caught the attention of The Council.

His faction was soundly put down by the more organized and better equipped soldiers of The Council, but his life was spared. They saw in him a purpose that made him stick out from the other children. He was brought to the Council House for re-education and given the offer to become an escort of the children.

“You really don’t care to know why The Council sends one child to Kishmurg every day?” Aja asked after Morgan had explained his daily duty to her.

“No. It’s not my business to care. Hell, I figure it can’t be any worse than the Skutter for them.”

“Yeah, but aren’t you just a little bit curious?” she pressed.

“Nope.”

“This is all you want out of life? The same thing day in and day out, over and over until you die? Don’t you have any dreams? Don’t you want to do what you want to do?”

“The only dream I have is the same nightmare I have every night,” Morgan retorted.

“Wait a minute. Are you serious? You have the exact same dream every night?”

Morgan hadn’t expected her to seize on his confession with any seriousness, but now that she had, he was caught off guard. He tried to steer the conversation in another direction but she was relentless. Finally, Morgan broke down and told her all about the dreams and his experience of being captive as a Mr. Bishop.

“Have you ever tried to just go with it?” she said.

“What?”

“Instead of resisting; why don’t you just accept your fate and go along with what they want you to do? You know, be Mr. Bishop.”

Morgan started to protest but stopped as he thought about it.

Aja continued saying, “After all, it is just a dream. What’s the harm of it?”

The storm no longer raged outside but their conversation was suddenly interrupted by the sound of grating metal.

“What the hell -” Aja started to say but Morgan cut her off.

“Hush,” Morgan barked. Then whispering he said, “Shut up and don’t move.”

****

They sat quietly in the dark listening to the scraping outside of the makeshift barrier that Morgan had erected. Morgan realized that there was no use trying to wait them out. Somehow, the creatures knew that Morgan and Aja were inside.

Morgan struck the flair and light stabbed their eyes causing Aja to cry out. She realized that it was just Morgan lighting the torch and not the creatures attacking.

“It’s okay,” Morgan said. “There’s no point in cowering in the dark; we’re going to have to make a break for it.”

“What the hell are they?” Aja said as she crawled closer to Morgan. The sounds of clicking and metal on metal were quite distressing.

“They’re Peepskins and Derrydrugs,” Morgan explained.

“And what does that mean?” she said now clinging to his back.

“Peepskins are like giant, metal sand spiders with long needles and Derrydrugs are their riders. After the Peepskins inject you with their venom, the Derrydrugs latch onto your face and fill your insides with poison.”

“Seriously! How in the name of Nightshade are we going to get past them?”

“We bomb the bastards and then we run like hell. They don’t like direct sunlight; they keep to shadow and darkness. If we can get back outside and if the storm has completely passed, then we should be able to get away.”

“Geez, Morgan! That’s way too many if’s for me to feel like this is going to work. Is that the best you got?”

Morgan pulled one of the grenades from his bag and handed the torch and the grenade to Aja. “Kid, that’s all I got. I’m going to pull the debris from the door and when I tell you to, you have to use the torch to light the fuse. Don’t let the flame light too much of the fuse, though. Just touch the tip to the flame and then you toss it through the hole I make. Make sure you get it out there and not in here. Got it?”

Aja nodded her head as she looked warily at the flame in one hand and the round bomb in the other.

Morgan took a deep breath and said, “After the bomb is dropped out there, get against the wall over there. The explosion is gonna be huge and you don’t want the debris hitting you. But right after the explosion, we’ve got to run like hell. You stay between me and the wall all the way up.”

Aja’s face was etched with fear. Morgan placed his hand behind her head and kissed her forehead. “Don’t worry, Aja, just keep the torch in your hand and they won’t attack you,” Morgan said. It was a lie but he needed her to believe that there was a fighting chance of getting out.

****

Morgan worked at freeing debris from a small section. It was nerve-wracking work as the Peepskins and Derrydrugs continued to scour the room beyond trying to find a way into the small room. Time was running short and Morgan feared they would breach the room before he could put his plan into play.

Finally, Morgan removed a slab of metal big enough to reveal a hole. Immediately a sharp, metallic claw filled the hole and Morgan barely withdrew his arm in time.

“Now, Aja! Now!”

Aja stepped up and placed the bomb’s fuse close to the flame. It took a tense moment but the fuse erupted into a hissing glow of sparks. Aja hesitated a moment not wanting to approach the hole with the claws frantically scraping for purchase through the opening. Morgan seized upon her hesitation and grabbed the bomb from her hand and violently shoved it through the hole forcing the claw back. He withdrew his hand and a stream of blood ran down his arm.

“Take cover!” he shouted jerking Aja by her shirt and forcing her under him against the wall. A moment later the blast rocked through the building. The debris obstructing the door was blown clear and slammed into the back wall of the room. The concussion assaulted Aja and Morgan’s senses leaving their ears ringing. Morgan was pulling Aja to her feet and yelling for her to run but she couldn’t hear him. It didn’t matter, though. Aja knew that she had to run.

As they burst from the room the chaos of the bomb’s destruction was everywhere. Aja caught glimpses of fire and wreckage all around. Here a mangled spider-like creature that she knew to be a Peepskin by Morgan’s description, there a charred, ape-like body of a Derrydrug. Even though the face was burned, there was still the sight of the proboscis where the mouth should be. Aja didn’t have to use too much imagination to know that it was what Morgan said would snake down its victim’s throat after they had been paralyzed by the Peepskin’s venom.

They ran like mad and Aja was relieved to see that none of the creatures seemed to be able to give chase. Apparently, they had all been just outside the room when the bomb went off. Up and up they clambered until they arrived on the main floor. Aja and Morgan navigated debris making for the entrance.

And then Morgan was falling. With a hard crash a Peepskin landed atop Morgan just several yards from the entrance. Aja turned back in horror to see the creature’s long tail tipped with a huge needle bearing down on Morgan. Morgan struggled to get free but it was no use. Aja ran to help Morgan but he screamed at her, “Don’t, Aja! Go and save yourself! Go!”

As he was yelling this Aja watched the long needle sink into Morgan’s chest.

“Noooooooo!” she cried.

Then the Derrydrug raised its head from somewhere atop the Peepskin’s back. It made a hideous cackle and began to climb down onto Morgan.

Tears were streaming down Aja’s face as she backed away from the melee. All she could manage to say through the sobs was, “Oh, Morgan. Oh, Morgan.” Over and over again. 

The last thing she saw before running out into the wasteland was Morgan looking her in the eye’s, raising his arms, and saying, “I’m not Morgan; I’m Mr. Bishop. Now make a wish!”

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