Submitted by Albert Bruno III (

The room we were in was long with a high-domed ceiling, diffuse light filtered in through the tinted skylights. There were windows here, but they were almost opaque with dirt and grime. What little I could see was disturbing enough: a dark, twisted skyline, streets clogged with bowed, shuffling figures and a sky tinged pink with foulness. I turned my attention back to the room, every few feet there was a stone pot holding a diseased-ridden tree. I wondered what kind of a weapon one of the trees would make if I uprooted it.

No, I thought with a frown, that might work against and ordinary man . . . but a Night Walker?

Behind one of the rows of trees, there was a vent that fed warm air into the room. Realizing I had nothing left to lose, I sat down and began working at the grating in front of the vent, trying to loosen the bolts that held it place. I had no tools save for my bare hands but I didn't think one more cut would matter at this point.

A furtive grunting reached my ears and I looked up to see Rose and Bob in each other's arms. I turned away almost immediately but the image of Rose, her features curled into an animalistic snarl, cradling Bob's ruined, bloody face to her bosom lingered in my mind.

Luckily for me the decay that had taken it's toll on the lower levels was also in effect here, the first of the four bolts came up more easily than I expected. Before I could share my victory with anyone the door opened and a pair of Night Walkers shambled in. They pulled Rose roughly away from her wounded lover and dragged her out of the room. Bob wailed with anguish and flung himself at the door only to have it slammed in his face.

I set my sights on the remaining bolts with renewed fervor.

Bob was taken sometime between my removal of the second and third bolt, either he didn't make a sound or I was too engrossed to notice. The work had reduced my fingertips to shreds but I pressed on, having no idea when the Night Walkers would return.

When the fourth bolt was lying on the floor beside me I removed the grate. What I found made me want to cry.

The vent was a little less than two feet in diameter. The only way I would get through, I mused downheartedly, was if I could get Ralph to saw one of my arms off.

That thought spurred another, and I crawled over to Ralph. I called his name but he didn't respond. I slapped his face but he didn't flinch. In spite of the room's oppressive humidity I began to shiver. Any moment now they would be coming for one of us.

I leaned in to Ralph and whispered to him, "The Night Walkers are coming for you next Ralph. I can hear them at the door, they saved you for last."

Suddenly my problem was no longer how to awaken him but how to keep him from my throat. I held his flailing hands and tried to make him hear, "I found a way out! Listen to me! You can get away!"

Eventually he did and I led him to the vent. He looked questioningly at me, "Where does it go?"

"I don't know but it's the only chance you've got."

"What about you?"

I tried to keep my voice steady, "I can't fit though there, you'll have to go alone."

He regarded me sadly, "Don't you know what they're gonna do to you?"

"They're gonna do it to you too if you don't stop farting around." I nudged him towards the vent.

Without another word, Ralph crawled into the vent, the last thing I saw of him was the bottoms of his feet. "Good luck." I whispered as I hastily replaced the grate.

Then I stood before the door and waited. If they found and took me first, it would buy the boy more time. I tried not to think about what was coming. I wondered if Ralph was ever going to find his way out or die trapped in the walls of this nightmarish place.

&ldots;they come for me eventually. I try to stay calm and go nobly to my fate, but in the end I beg and plead, my fingers scrabbling for handholds on the floor as they drag me to the sterile white room.

Held down, held fast, I wail as the Heirophant kneels over me, a scalpel in his hand. With practiced ease he peels away my flesh. He listens intently, knowing that as I die, prophesies will spill from my skinned lips.

When my breaths have stopped, the Night Walkers ease my body into its new skin. I shudder with understanding.

At long last . . . understanding.

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