We all turned to see a boy with dark, curly hair standing in the doorway. He looked no older than ten, and wore filthy, threadbare clothes. A network of ugly scars worked their way up over his neck and face.
"Who the frig are you?" Bob demanded.
The boy took a cautious step backwards, "Those belong to the Night Walkers."
"Night Walkers?" I looked back to the suits, "Who are the Night Walkers?"
"The suits" was the boy's only answer.
Bob drew closer, "How do you know that?"
"They take the people away . . . "
Now Rose was on her feet, "There are other people here?"
The boy shook his head.
"How come they . . ." Bob's voice became an angry growl as the boy turned and ran. The older man dived, catching him in a rough tackle. They rolled across the watery floor. I was about to intervene when Bob started screaming.
The boy kicked free and scrambled out the door. I went after him, 2x4 in hand. A backwards glance showed Bob sitting straight up, a shocked look on his face and a dark circle of blood welling up on his right cheek, marking where he had been bitten. Rose was at his side, trying to help him.
A moment later I was out in the hall, chasing after the boy.
The boy led me on a frantic twisting journey through the halls. I managed to keep up but it cost me most of the skin on the soles of my feet and at least one toenail. Finally he made a mistake and found himself in a corridor that lead to nothing but a boarded-up window.
"Go away!" the boy reached down and began throwing chunks of debris at me.
"Hey! Hey!" I slowed my limping gait.
"Leave me alone!"
"I don't want to hurt you!"
I had to keep a hand raised to swat away the flying chunks of plaster and wood, "I want to get out of here same as you do."
"Bull!" he shouted, "You're jus' like all the others!"
"What do you mean?"
"They think that since I knows about the Night Walkers that I'm in with 'em! Well I ain't!"
The thought had occurred to me, and doubtlessly had also occurred to Bob and Rose. I cursed myself for letting paranoia get the better of me.
I dropped the 2x4, "I'm sorry I scared you."
The boy stopped throwing, "You mean that?"
"I can't save you."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm small for my age, I can slip through the gates that separates one wing from another."
"You know where we are?"
I carefully drew closer, "Where?"
He kept his gaze locked with mine, "This's the Citadel of the Hierophant."
As we found our way back to where we had left my two companions, I questioned the boy. He told me little more than his age -- twelve, and his name -- Ralph MacMadden. The name alone was enough to trouble me.
Bob -- short for Robert -- Murdzik.
And now Ralph MacMadden.
A pattern was emerging but I was hard pressed to understand it. Four different people with the same initials had been brought here. One of the few nuggets of information I got from the boy was that all the people that had been brought here have had the initials R.M.
But for what possible reason?
What could we have done to bring down the wrath of these so-called Night Walkers down upon us?
"So who is this Heirophant?" I asked, hobbling next to him.
Ralph answered, "He lives upstairs. He rules from the seashore to the mountains. He's getting ready for some kind of a war, I guess."
"Do the Night Walkers work for him?"
"He makes the Night Walkers."
That was interesting. "How?"
The boy looked straight ahead, "I . . . I think I know, but I can't tell you."
When we reached the wide, waterlogged chamber, Rose and Bob were no longer there. I cursed under my breath. Had they set off looking for me? Or had they been taken by the Night Walkers? I shuddered at the thought.
The stagnant water began to sting my feet. I spun in place trying to find some clue as to where they had gone. Ralph tugged my arm, "Let's go."
"What?" I asked, "What's wrong?"
"Look." he pointed to the center of the room.
The suit Rose had knocked to the floor had been re-hung with care, not only that, someone had taken it in, shortening the arms and legs. It looked like it would be just the right size for a child.
Or for a twelve-year old boy that was small for his size. I shuddered and allowed Ralph to lead me out of the room.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"I'm gonna take you back to your friends, least that way you can be w ith 'em when . . . when it happens." he took me along a route I had not yet explored.
"What do you mean?"
"When the Night Walkers come for you."
I stopped in the hallway, "How do you know so much?"
"What does it matter?" he snapped back angrily, "I can't save you."
"So you say," I leaned against the wall, raised one foot and began to pick out splinters, "but how can you be so sure?"
He watched me cleaning my wound for a few moments before speaking again, "I've been here almost two weeks, I've gone from one part of the Citadel to another and no matter what I do, it's always the same."
I set the one foot down and went to work on the other, "What happens now?"
"In every wing, there's one room that has food, a fireplace and all kinds of stuff. You all find your way there sooner or later." His features and voice were pinched with guilt as he spoke, "You eat. You drink. You stop bein' scared. Then the sprinklers go off. That's the signal. They take you upstairs. No one ever comes back."
We started walking again, "What happens upstairs?"
He shook his head, "I don' know and I don' want to ever find out. That's why I'm gonna get you back to your friends and then I'm leavin'. Way I reckon it we got a few hours left yet."
After that Ralph just stopped talking, replying to all my questions and comments with a noncommittal shrug. In a way I could understand. After all, in his opinion I was going to die. Why risk growing attached?
I had other ideas. Hopefully once I got back together with Rose and Bob, we could formulate a plan. We might not be able to slip through the gaps in the gates like Ralph, but between the three of us we might be able to tear one off its hinges. Perhaps if we found more prisoners, we could wrest control of the Citadel from this Heirophant character.
There was a rattling squeal and the sprinklers burst to life, dousing us. Ralph screamed, "No!" into the artificial downpour. I was about to ask him what was wrong when I heard the sound of countless deadbolts clicking back.
The doors on either side of us swung open and Night Walkers were upon us.
Ralph tried to run and I tried to fight. Unfortunately I had neglected to pick my makeshift club back up and soon found myself being tossed around like rag doll.
They must have caught Ralph -- I could hear his howls of terror. They goaded me into further struggles but it was no use, there were four of them on me now. I felt their greasy hands everywhere.
They tore at my clothes. I found myself naked before I even had time to utter a cry of protest. The circle of Night Walkers surrounding me loosened, the majority retreated back to their rooms. I watched, shivering and wet. Ralph was at the other end of the hall, his clothes and sneakers reduced to a sopping pile of rags at his feet. I could see that the scars on his face and neck also raked his back and stomach.
Only two Night Walkers remained in the corridor, one for the boy and one for myself. Their clammy hands were on the backs of our necks, holding us down on all fours.
We waited there, the sprinklers continuing to pour down on us. I blinked the water from my eyes and tried to think of some way out. But all I could do was wish that back in my fiancée's bed, that this was a nightmare. If only I could wake up beside her, I thought. If only I could wake up beside her I'd take back everything.
A strange howling began to fill the air; it was a phlegmy, alien sound. The Night Walkers holding us down began to bay as well, answering the call. They let go of us and straightened.
My muscles tensed -- to run or fight, I don't know which. Then my Night Walker struck me with its open hand across my back. I winced at the stinging pain on my unprotected flesh. I heard Ralph yowl with pain as well.
Another blow landed on me, and another, driving me forward.
We were being herded, like cattle.
They ran us hard and fast over the biting debris, goading us to continue with a torrent of sharp blows. Any time we tried to straighten or raise our heads, we were beaten back down with a closed fist. A few minutes of this and my hands began to resemble my feet. I wondered what they were driving us towards. Visions of primitive sacrifice danced through my head. Or perhaps they would just keep doing this until we dropped.
Two more Night Walkers joined us, savagely driving Rose and Bob before them. Both of them were stripped and bleeding. Rose was panting and sobbing, Bob punctuated every breath with a curse. They steered us through a thick iron door and we found ourselves on a darkened stairwell.
Bob made a break for it, hurdling over the railing and on to the next landing. His keeper was on him in moments. The battle was brief and one-sided. I closed my eyes and tried not to listen as he was pummeled into submission.
After he was returned, the Night Walkers began driving us up the stairs. I tried to judge how far we were going but after the first few flights, we were in pitch darkness and I had to submit completely to my keeper's blows and shoves for navigation.
It seemed as though the climb would never end. I wondered if my joke had been correct and that this was indeed Hell and this was all I would ever know again.
Finally, we were urged through a second iron door into a room that was warm and well lit. Our captors grabbed hold of the backs of our necks and forced us down until we were lying on our stomachs. My Night Walker kept firm hold of me, not that it needed to, my every muscle felt like lead.
Slowly the blood roaring in my ears subsided and I began to hear the sound of classical music. Stravinsky, I think.
Hea vy footsteps approached, I found myself staring at a dress boot.
The Night Walkers hoisted us to our feet, stood behind us and took hold of our arms. The room we were in was wide and mahogany-paneled, warm light filtered in through the stained glass windows. A long desk covered with blueprints and prisms dominated the far wall. Beside it was an antique chair, a tattered yellow cloak was draped over the back. The music was coming from the battered Victrola in the corner. A tall man wearing a dark gray uniform of a type I'd never seen before surveyed us, he was shuffling a deck of oversize cards. He wore a pallid mask similar in design to his minions but it was much more streamlined and hugged his face like a second skin. The eyepieces were clear, revealing cool dusky eyes.
It was Heirophant.
It had to be Heirophant.
He paused in front of Ralph, "Let this be a lesson to you Fool, routines are established so the cattle may be easily collected."
"What the fuck are you talkin' about?" Bob shouted, his nose was broken and he was missing teeth, "Where do you get off thinkin' you can do this to people?"
Heirophant stopped shuffling and rounded on him, they were inches apart, "Where do you get off thinking you matter? You think God cares for you? Then why isn't he here? Why hasn't he sent down an army of angels to save you? You're nothing. You delude yourself with hope."
Bob replied with a litany of curses, crimson spittle flying from his mouth to speckle Heirophant's uniform and mask. When he was done, Heirophant selected a card from the deck and slowly drew the thin edge of it against Bob's face, splitting the skin.
After the first cry I looked away, staring down at my ravaged feet.
Once Bob had been reduced to a silence marked only by slurred weeping, the Heirophant spoke again. "It may be of some comfort to you in your final moments to know that I do not do this out of malice or dementia. You were destined for this, and I am merely fate's instrument."
Rose's voice was merely a whisper, "What are you going to do with us?"
"In life. you were so little . . . but in death . . . in death, you will f ound an empire. "
"Why?" she begged, "Why are you doing this?"
He shook his head sadly, "I could no more explain my aspirations to you, than you could explain yours to an earthworm."
With that our audience with Heirophant was over and we were half-dragged, half-thrown through a nearby doorway. The tile floor was cold and scuffed. I pulled myself to my feet and looked to my companions. Rose and Bob were cradling each other, Ralph was lying on the floor, curled into a fetal position, his eyes shut tight. I wasn't going to give up yet, they would take me kicking and screaming.
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