Stinger Prologue

The motorcycle roared out of Bordertown, carrying the blond boy and dark-haired girl away from the horror behind them.

Smoke and dust whirled into the boy's face; he smelled blood and his own scared sweat, and the girl trembled as she clung to him. The bridge was ahead of them, but the motorcycle's headlight was smashed out and the boy was steering by the dim violet glow that filtered through the smoke clouds. The air was hot, heavy, and smelled burnt: the odor of a battleground.

The tires gave a slight bump. They were on the bridge, the boy knew. He cut his speed slightly as the bridge's concrete sides narrowed, and swerved to avoid a hubcap that must have fallen off one of the cars that had just raced to the Inferno side. The thing that both he and the girl had just seen still clawed at their minds, and the girl looked back with tears in her eyes and her brother's name on her lips.

almost across, the boy thought. We're gonna make it! We're gonna -  Something rose up from the smoke directly in front of them.

The boy instinctively hit the brakes, started to swerve the machine, but knew there wasn't enough time. The motorcycle smacked into the figure, then skidded out of control. The boy lost his grip, felt the girl go off the motorcycle too, and then he seemed to turn head over heels in midair and slid in a fury of friction burns.

He lay curled up, gasping for breath. Must've been the Mumbler, he thought as he struggled to stay conscious. The Mumbler... crawled up on the bridge... and gave us a whack.

He tried to sit up. Not enough strength yet. His left arm was hurting, but he could move the fingers and that was a good sign. His ribs felt like splintered razors, and he wanted to sleep, just close his eyes and let go... but if he did that, he was sure he would never awaken again.

He smelled gasoline. Motor's tank ruptured, he realized. about two seconds later there was a whump! of fire and orange light flickered. Pieces of metal clattered down around him. He got up on his knees, his lungs hitching, and in the firelight could see the girl lying on her back about six feet away, her arms and legs splayed like those of a broken doll. He crawled to her. There was blood on her mouth from a split lower lip and a blue bruise on the side of her face. But she was breathing, and when he spoke her name her eyelids fluttered. He tried to cradle her head, but his fingers found a lump on her skull and he thought he'd better not move her.

and then he heard footsteps - two boots: one clacking, one sliding.

He looked up, his heart hammering. Someone was lurching toward them from the Bordertown side. Rivulets of gasoline burned on the bridge, and the thing strode on through the streams of flame, the cuffs of its jeans catching fire. It was hunchbacked, a grotesque mockery of a human being, and as it got nearer the boy could see a grin of needles.

He crouched protectively over the girl. The clacking boot and dragging boot closed in. The boy started to rise to fight it off, but pain shot through his ribs, stole his breath, and hobbled him. He fell back to his side, wheezing for air.

The hunchbacked, grinning thing reached them, and stood staring down. Then it bent lower, and a hand with metal, saw-edged fingernails slid over the girl's face.

The boy's strength was gone. The metal nails were about to crush the girl's head, about to rip the flesh off her skull. It would happen in a heartbeat, and the boy knew that on this long night of horror there was only one chance to save her life...