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Fiction: Conquistador de la Noche by Carrie Vaughn

His life was becoming a trail of blood.

 

Ricardo de Avila fired his crossbow at the crowd of natives. The bolt struck the chest of a Zuni warrior, a man no older than his own nineteen years. The native fell back, the dark of his blood splashing, along with dozens of others. The army’s few arquebuses fired, the sulfur stink clouding the air. The horses danced, tearing up the grass and raising walls of dust. Between keeping control of his horse and trying to breathe, Ricardo could not winch back his crossbow for another shot.

 

Not that he needed to fire again. The general was already calling for a cease fire, and the few remaining Zuni, running hard and shouting in their own language, were fleeing back to their city.

 

City. Rather, a few baked buildings clustered on the hillside. The expedition had become a farce. Cíbola did not exist—at least, not as it did in the stories the first hapless explorers had brought back. So many leagues of travel, wasted. Dead men and horses, wasted. The land itself was not even worth much. It had little water and was cut through with unforgiving mountains and canyons. The Spanish should turn around and leave it to the natives.

 

But the friars who traveled with Coronado were adamant. Even if they found no sign of treasure, it was their duty as Christians to save the souls of these poor heathens.

 

They had believed that Coronado would be a new Cortés, opening new lands and treasures for the glory of Spain. The New World was more vast than any in Europe had comprehended. Naturally they assumed the entire continent held the same great riches Spain had found in Mexico. As quickly as Spain was eating through that treasure, it would need to find more.

 

Coronado tried to keep up a good face for his men. His armor remained brightly polished, gleaming in the harsh sun, and he sat a tall figure in his horse. But with the lack of good food, his face had become sunken, and when he looked across the despoblado, the bleak lands they would have to cross to reach the rumored Cities of Gold, the shine in his eyes revealed despair.

 

This expedition should have made the fortune of a third son of a minor nobleman like Ricardo. Now, though, he was thirsty, near to starving, and had just killed a boy who had come at him with nothing but a stone club. His dark beard had grown unkempt, his hair long and ratted. Sand had marred the finish of his helmet and cuirass. No amount of wealth seemed worth the price of this journey. Rather, the price he was paying had become so steep, it would have taken streets paved with gold in truth to restore the balance. What was left, then? When you had already paid too much in return for nothing?

 

Ricardo had sold himself for a mouthful of dust.

 

#

 

Ten years passed.

 

It was dark when Ricardo rode into the main plaza at Zacatecas. Lamps hung outside the church and Governor’s buildings, and the last of the market vendors had departed. A small caravan of a dozen horses and mules from the mine was picketed, awaiting stabling. The place was hot and dusty, though a cool wind from the mountains brought some refreshment. Ricardo stopped to water his horse and stretch his legs before making his way to the fort.

 

At the corner of the garrison road, a man stepped from the shadows to block his path. His horse snorted and planted its feet. Ricardo’s night vision was good, but he had trouble making out the figure.

 

“Don Ricardo? I was told you were due to return today,” the man said.

 

Ricardo recognized the voice, though it had been a long time since he’d heard it. “Diego?”

 

“Ah, you do remember!”

 

He’d met Diego in Mexico City, where they’d both listened to the stories of Cíbola and joined Coronado’s expedition. Side by side they’d ridden those thousands of miles. They’d both grown skinny and shaggy, and, on their return, Diego had broken away from the party early to seek his own fortune. Ricardo hadn’t seen him since.

 

“Where have you been? Come into the light, let me look at you!”

 

A lamp shone over the doorway on the brick building on the corner. Ricardo touched Diego’s shoulder and urged him over. His old compatriot turned, but didn’t move from the spot. Ricardo squinted to see him better. Diego had not changed much in the last decade. If anything, he seemed more robust. He had a brightness to him, a sly smile, as if he had come into some fortune, discovering what the rest of them had failed to attain. His clothing, a leather doublet, breeches, and sturdy boots, were worn but well made. His hair and beard were well kept. He wore a gold ring in one ear and must have seemed dashing.

 

“You look very well, Diego,” Ricardo said finally.

 

“And you look tired, my friend.”

 

“Only because I have ridden fifteen miles today over hard country.”

 

Diego grimaced. “Yes, playing courier for the garrisons along the road to Mexico City. How do you come to do such hard labor? It’s not fit for one of your station.”

 

Typical hidalgo attitude. Ricardo was used to the reaction. Smiling, he ducked his gaze. “The work suits me, and it won’t be forever.”

 

“Hoping to earn your way to a land grant? A silver mine of your very own, with a fine estancia and a well-bred girl from Spain to marry and give you many sons? So you can return to Spain a made man?” Diego spoke with a mocking edge.

 

“Isn’t that the dream of us all?” Ricardo said, spreading his arms and making a joke of it. He really was that transparent, he supposed. Not dignified enough to lead the life of dissolute nobility like so many others of his class. Too proud and restless to wait for his fortune to find him. But the secret that he told no one was that he didn’t want to leave and take his fortune back to Spain. He had come to love this land, the wide desert spaces, hot sun and cold nights, green valleys ringed by brown mountains. He wanted to be at home here.

 

Diego stepped close and put a hand on Ricardo’s arm. “I have a better idea. A great opportunity. I was hoping to find you, because I know no one as honest and deserving as you.”

 

The schemes to easy wealth were as common in this country as cactus and mountains. Ricardo sounded skeptical. “You have found some secret silver lode, is that it? You need someone in the government to push through the claim, and you’ll give me a percentage.”

 

Diego’s smile thinned. “There is a village a day’s ride away, deep in the western hills. The land is rich, and the natives are agreeable. A Franciscan has started a church there, but he needs men to lead. To make their mark upon the land.” He pressed a folded square of paper into Ricardo’s hand. A map, directions. “You are a good, honest man, Ricardo. Come and help us make a respectable town out of this place. And reap the rewards for doing so.”

 

Such a village should have fallen under the Governor of Zacatecas’ jurisdiction. Ricardo would have heard of a priest in that region. Something wasn’t right.

 

“I still dream of gold, Ricardo,” Diego said. “Do you?”

 

“The Cities of Gold never existed.”

 

“Not as a place. But as a symbol—this whole continent is a Cíbola, waiting for us to claim it.”

 

“Just as we did the last time?” Ricardo said, scowling.

 

“But you’ll come to this village. I’ll wait for you.”

 

Diego patted Ricardo on the shoulder, then slipped back into shadows. Ricardo didn’t even hear him go. Thoughtful, worried, Ricardo made his way to the fort for the evening.

 

#

 

Ricardo followed Diego’s map into the hills, not because he was lured by the promise of easy wealth, but because he wanted to discover what was wrong with the story.

 

The day was hot, and he traveled slowly, keeping to shade when he could and resting his horse by dismounting and climbing up steep hills alongside it. He followed the ridge of mountains and hoped he had not lost the way.

 

Then he climbed a rise that opened into a valley, as Diego had described. A large pond, probably filled by a spring, provided water, and fruit trees grew thickly. A meadow covered the valley floor, and Ricardo could imagine sheep or goats grazing here, or crops growing. Much could be done with land like this.

 

A small village sat a hundred yards or so from the pond. The Franciscan’s church was little more than a square cottage made of adobe brick, with a narrow tower. Wood and grass-thatched huts gathered around a dusty square.

 

No people were visible, no hearth fires burned. Not so much as a chicken scratched in the dirt. Four horses grazed in the meadow beyond the village. They glanced at Ricardo, then continued grazing. Riding into the village, he shouted a hail, which fell flat, as if the empty settlement absorbed sound. Dismounting, he left his horse by a trough that was dry.

 

A smarter man might have traveled with a troop of guards, or at least servants to ease his way. He had thought it easier to travel alone, learn what he could, and return as quickly as possible to report this to the Governor. Now, the skin of his neck crawled, and he wondered if he might need a squad of soldiers before the day was through. He kept his hand on the hilt of his sword, slung on his belt.

 

He went into the chapel.

 

The place might have been new. A few benches lined up before a simple altar. The wood was freshly cut, but they seemed to have been poorly built: rickety legs slotted into flat boards. Those seated would have to be careful if they didn’t want to tumble to the dirt floor.

 

In front, the wood altar was bare, without even a cloth to cover it. No cross hung on the wall. The place had the sickly beeswax candle smell that imbued churches everywhere. At least that much was familiar. Nothing else was. He almost hoped to find signs of violence, because then he’d have some idea of what had happened here. But this…nothing…was inexplicable.

 

“Hola!” he called, cringing at his own raised voice. He had the urge to speak in a whisper, if at all.

 

A door in the back of the chapel opened. A small body in a gray robe looked out. “Who is it?”

 

A shiver crawled up Ricardo’s spine, as if a ghost had stepped through the wall. He peered at the door, squinting, but the man was hidden in shadow.

 

“I am Captain Ricardo de Avila. Diego Ruiz asked me to come.”

 

“Ah, yes! He told me of you.” He straightened, shedding the air of suspicion. “Come inside, let us speak,” the friar said, opening the door a little wider. Ricardo went to the back room as the friar indicated.

 

Like the chapel, this room had no windows. There was a table with a lit candle on it, several chairs, and a small, dirty portrait of the Blessed Virgin. There was a trapdoor in the floor, with a big iron ring to lift it. Ricardo wondered what was in the cellar.

 

“Take a seat. I have some wine,” the friar said, going to a cabinet in the corner. “Would you like some?”

 

“Yes, please.” Ricardo sat in the chair closest to the door.

 

The friar put one pewter cup on the table, poured from an earthenware jug, and indicated that Ricardo should take it. He took a sip; it was weak, sour. But his mouth was dry, and the liquid helped.

 

The friar didn’t pour a drink for himself. Sitting on the opposite side of the table, he regarded Ricardo as if they were two men in a plaza tavern, not two dusty, weary colonials in a dark room lit by a candle. The man was pale, as if he spent all his time indoors. His hands, resting on the table, were thin, bony. Under his robes, his entire body might have been skeletal. He had dark hair trimmed in a tonsure and a thin beard. He was a stereotype of a friar who had been relegated to the outer edges of the colony for too long.

 

“I am Fray Juan,” the man said, spreading his hands. “And this is my village.”

 

Ricardo couldn’t hide confusion. “Forgive me, Fray Juan, but Señor Ruiz told me this was a rich village. I expected to see farmers and shepherds at work. Women in the courtyard, weaving and grinding corn.”

 

“Oh, but this is a prosperous village. You must take my word that appearances here aren’t everything.” His lips turned in a smile.

 

“Then what is going on here?” He had started to make guesses: Fray Juan was smuggling something through the village, he’d failed utterly at converting the natives and putting them to useful work and refused to admit it, or everyone had died of disease. But even then there ought to be some evidence. Bodies, graves, something.

 

Juan studied him with cold eyes, blue and hard as stones. Ricardo wanted to hold the stare, but something made him glance away. His heart was pounding. He wanted to flee.

 

The friar said, “You rode with Coronado, didn’t you? The expedition to find Cíbola?”

 

Surviving that trip at all gave one a certain reputation. “Yes, I did. Along with Ruiz.”

 

“Even if he hadn’t told me I would have guessed. You have that look. A weariness, like nothing will ever surprise you again.”

 

Ricardo chuckled. “Is that what it is? Something different than the usual cynicism?”

 

“I see that you are not a youth, but you are also not an old man. Not old enough to have the usual cynicism. Therefore, you’ve lived through something difficult. You’re the right age for it.”

 

A restless caballero wandering the northern provinces? He supposed there were a few of that kind. “You’ve changed the subject. Where is Ruiz?”

 

“He will be here,” Frey Juan said, soothing. “Captain, look at me for a moment.” Ricardo did. Those eyes gleamed in the candlelight until they seemed fill the room. The man was all eyes, shining organs in a face of shadows. “Stay here tonight. It’s almost dusk, far too late to start back for Zacatecas. There are no other settlements within an hour’s ride of here. Take the clean bed in the house next door, sleep tonight, and in the morning you’ll see that all here is well.”

 

They regarded one another, and Ricardo could never recall what passed through his mind during those moments. The Franciscan wouldn’t lie to him, surely. So all must be well, despite his misgivings.

 

And Frey Juan was right; Ricardo must stay the night in any case. “When will Ruiz return?”

 

“Rest, Captain. He’ll be at your side when you wake.”

 

Ricardo found himself lulled by the friar’s voice. The look in his eyes was very calming.

 

A moment later, he was sitting at the edge of a rope cot in a house so poorly made he could see through the cracks in the walls. He didn’t remember coming here. Had he been sleepwalking? Was he so weary that a trance had taken him? For all his miles of travel, that had never happened before. He hadn’t eaten supper. He wondered how much of the night had passed.

 

His horse—He didn’t remember caring for his horse; he’d left the animal tacked up near the trough. That jolted him to awareness. It was the first lesson of this vast country, take care of your horse before yourself, because you’d need the animal if you hoped to survive the great distances between settlements.

 

Rushing outside, he found his bay mare grazing peacefully, chewing grass around its bit while dragging the reins. He caught the reins, removed the saddle and bridle, rubbed the animal down, and picketed it to a sturdy tree that had access to good grazing, since no cut hay or grain seemed available.

 

Fully awake now, studying the valley under the light of a three quarters moon, Ricardo’s suspicions renewed. This village was dead. He should have questioned the friar more forcefully about what had happened here. Nothing about this place felt right, and Fray Juan’s calm assurances meant nothing.

 

Ricardo had reason to doubt the word of a man of God. It was a friar, another man of God, who brought back the story of Cíbola, of a land covered in lush pastures and rich fields, of cities with wealth that made the Aztec Empire seem as dust. Coronado had believed those stories. They all had, until they reached the edge of that vast and rocky wasteland to the north. They had whispered to each other, is this it?

 

Ricardo de Avila would find Diego Ruiz and learn what had happened here.

 

The wind spoke strangely here, crackling through cottonwoods, skittering sand across the mud-patched walls of the buildings. In the first hut, where he’d been directed to stay, he found a lantern and lit it using his own flint. With the light, he examined the abandoned village.

 

If disease had struck, he’d have expected to see graves. If there had been an attack, a raid by some of the untamed native tribes in the mountain, he would have seen signs of violence—shattered pottery, interrupted chores. He’d have found bodies and carrion animals. But there was not so much as a drop of blood shed.

 

The huts were tidy, dirt floors swept and spread with straw, clay pots empty, water skins dry. The hearths were cold, the coals scattered. He found old bread, wrapped and moldy, and signs that mice had gnawed at sacks of musty grain.

 

In one of the huts, the blankets of a bed—little more than a straw mat in the corner—had been shoved away, the bed torn apart. It was the first sign of violence rather than abandonment. He picked up the blanket, thinking perhaps to find blood, some sure sign that ill had happened.

 

A cross dropped away from the folds of the cloth. It had been wrapped and hidden away, unable to protect its owner. The thought saddened him.

 

Perhaps the villagers had fled. He went out a little ways to try to find tracks, to determine what direction the villagers might have gone. Behind the church, he found a narrow path in the grass, like a shepherd might use leading sheep or goats into the hills. Ricardo followed it. He shuttered the lantern and allowed his vision to adjust to moonlight, to better see into the distance.

 

He was part way across the valley, the village and its church a hundred paces behind him, when he saw a figure sitting at the foot of a juniper. A piece of clothing, the tail of a shirt perhaps, fluttered in the slight breeze that hushed through the valley.

“Hola,” Ricardo called quietly. He got no answer and approached cautiously, hand on his sword.

The body of a child, a boy, lay against the tree. Telling his age was impossible because it had desiccated. The skin was blackened and stretched over the bones. His face was gaunt, a leathery mask drawn over a skull, and chipped teeth grinned. Dark pits marked the eye sockets. It might have been part of the roots and branches. Ricardo might have walked right by it and not noticed, if not for the piece of rotted cloth that had moved.

The child had dried out, baked in the desert like pottery. It looked like something ancient. Moreover, he could not tell what had killed it. Perhaps only hunger.

But his instincts told him something terrible had happened here. Fray Juan had to know something of what had killed this boy, and the entire village. Ricardo must find out what, then report this to the Governor, then get word to the Bishop in Mexico City. This land and its people must be brought under proper jurisdiction, if for no other reason than to protect them from people like Fray Juan.

He rushed back to the village, went to the church and marched inside, shouting, “Fray Juan! Talk to me! Tell me what’s happened here! Explain yourself!”

But no one answered. The chapel echoed, and no doors cracked open even a little to greet him. Softly now, he went through the strange decrepit chapel with no cross. The door to the friar’s chamber was unlocked, but the room was empty. Not even a lamp lit. The whole place seemed abandoned. He tried the trapdoor, lifting the iron ring—the door didn’t move. Locked from the other side. He pounded on the door with his boot heel, a useless gesture. So, Fray Juan was hiding. No matter. He’d report to the Governor, and Ricardo would return with a squad to burn the place to the ground to flush the man out. He wouldn’t even wait until daylight to set out. He didn’t want to sleep out the night in this haunted valley.

When he went to retrieve his horse, a man stood in his way.

In the moonlight, he was a shadow, but Ricardo could see the smile on his face: Diego Ruiz.

“Amigo,” he called, his voice light, amused. “You came. I wasn’t sure you would.”

“Diego, what’s happened here? What’s this about?”

“I told you, Ricardo. This land is rich. We are looking for men to help us reap those riches.”

“I see nothing here but a wasted village,” Ricardo said.

A new voice spoke, “You need to see with different eyes.”

Ricardo turned, for the voice had come from behind him. He had not heard the man approach—he must have been hiding in one of the huts. Two more came with him, so that together the four circled Ricardo. He could not flee without confronting them. He turned, looking back and forth, trying to keep them all in view, unwilling to turn his back on any of them.

The four were very much like Ricardo—young men with pure Spanish features, wearing the clothing of gentlemen. Others who had swarmed to New Spain seeking fortunes, failing, and turning dissolute.

Ricardo drew his sword. One of them he could fight. But not four. Not when they had every advantage. How had they taken him by surprise? He should have heard them coming. “You’ve turned bandit. You think to recruit more to run wild with you? No, Diego. I have no reason to join you.”

“You do not have a choice, amigo. I brought you here because we can use a man like you. Someone with connections.”

Ricardo smiled wryly. “No one will pay my ransom.”

They laughed, four caballeros in high spirits. “He thinks we’ll ask for ransom,” another said.

Ricardo swallowed back panic and remained calm. Whatever they planned for him, he would not make it easy. He’d fight.

“Señor, be at ease,” spoke a third. “We won’t hold you for ransom. We have a gift for you.”

Ricardo chuckled. “I don’t think so.”

“Oh, yes. We’ll bring you to serve our Master. It’s a great honor.”

“I will not. You all are evil.”

The men did not argue.

They began to circle him, jackals moving close for a kill. They watched him, and their eyes were fire. He had to run, grab his horse and fly from here, warn to the Governor of this madness.

It was madness, for Diego lunged at him, weaponless, with nothing but outstretched arms and a wild leer. Ricardo held out his sword, blade level and unwavering, and Diego skewered himself on the point, through the gut. Ricardo expected him to cry out and fall. He expected to have to fight off the others for killing one of their own. But the other three laughed, and Diego kept smiling.

Ricardo held fast to the grip out of habit. Diego stood, arms spread, displaying what he’d done. No blood ran from the wound.

Ricardo pulled the sword back just as Diego wrenched himself off the blade. Still, the man didn’t make a sound of pain. Didn’t fall. Wasn’t bothered at all. Ricardo resisted an urge to make the sign of the cross. Holy God, what was this?

“This is why we follow Fray Juan,” Diego breathed. “Now, will you join us?”

Ricardo cried out a denial and charged again. These were demons, and he must flee. He crouched, grabbed a handful of dirt with his left hand. If he could not cut them, perhaps he could blind them. He flung it at the man behind him, who must be moving to attack. In the same motion he whirled, slashing with his blade, keeping some distance around him, enough to clear a space so he might reach his horse. He did not wait to see what happened, did not even think. Only acted. Like those old days of battle, fighting the natives with Coronado’s company. That had been a strange, alien world. Like this.

He’d have sworn that his sword met flesh several times, but the men stood firm, unflinching. Ricardo might as well have been a child throwing a tantrum. They closed on him without effort.

Two grabbed his arms, bracing them straight out, holding him still. A third wrenched his sword from him. His captors bent back his arms until his back strained, and presented him to Diego.

Ricardo struggled on principle, with no hope. His boots kicked at the dirt.

Diego regarded him with a look of amusement. He ran a gloved hand along Ricardo’s chin, scraping his rough beard. Ricardo flinched back, but his captors held him steady. “You should know that you never had a chance against us. Perhaps you might take comfort in that fact.”

“I take no comfort,” Ricardo said, his words spitting.

“Good. You will have none.” He opened his mouth. They all opened their mouths and came at him. They had the teeth of wild dogs. Of lions. Sharp teeth meant to rend flesh.

And they began to rend his.

#

He couldn’t move. He’d been on a very long journey, and his limbs had turned to iron, chilled iron, that had been left out on a winter’s night and was now rimed with frost. That image of himself—stiff flesh mounted on a skeleton of frosted iron, a red body fringed with white—struck him as oddly beautiful. It was an image of death, sunk into his bones. Memory recalled the ambush, arms clinging to him, breath leaving him, and the teeth. Demonic teeth, puncturing his flesh, draining his blood, his life. So he had died.

 

His next thought: what had he done to find himself relegated to hell? What else could this be? Like Dante’s ninth circle, where the damned lay frozen solid in a lake, he was left to feel his body turning to frost, piece by piece. He tried to cry out, but he had no breath.

 

A hand rested on his forehead. If possible, it felt even colder, burning against Ricardo’s skin like ice.

 

“Ricardo de Avila,” the Devil said. “You hear me, yes?”

 

Nothing would melt his body; he could not even nod. Struggling to speak, he felt his lips move, but nothing else.

 

“I will tell you what your life is now. You will never again see the daylight. To touch the sun is to burn. You are no longer a son of the Church. The holy cross and baptismal water are poison to you. From now on you are a creature of darkness. But these small sacrifices are nothing to the reward: from now on might be a very long time. You belong to me. You are my son. With your brothers you will rule the night.”

 

Ricardo choked on a breath that tasted stale, as if he had not drawn breath in a very long time. His mouth tasted sour. He said, “Is this hell?”

 

The Devil sounded wry. “Not necessarily. In this life, you make or escape your own hell.”

 

“Who are you?”

 

“You know me, Ricardo. I am Fray Juan, and I am your Master.”

 

He shook his head. It wasn’t that the numbness was fading. Rather, he was getting used to the cold. This body made of iron could move. “The Governor…the King…I am loyal…”

 

“You are beyond them now. Open your eyes.”

 

His lids creaked and cracked, like the skin was breaking, but he opened them.

 

He lay on a bed in a dark room. A few lanterns hung from hooks on the walls, casting circles of light and flickering shadows. Fray Juan sat at the edge of the bed. Arrayed elsewhere stood four men, fierce-looking. The demons.

 

He felt trapped by the shadows that had invaded his dreams. They would destroy him. In a panic, he waited for the jolt of blood, the racing heartbeat that would drive him from the bed, allow him some chance of fighting and escaping. But he felt nothing. He put his hand around his neck and felt…nothing. No pulse. He wanted to sigh—but he had not drawn breath. He had only taken in enough air to speak. Now, the panic rose. This could not be, this was impossible, dead and yet not—

 

This was hell, and the demon with Frey Juan’s shape was lying to him.

 

“Diego, bring the chalice,” Juan said, not with the voice of a sympathetic confessor, but with the edge of a commander.

 

A figure moved at the far end of the room. Even as Ricardo prayed, his ears strained to learn what was happening, his muscles tensed to defend himself.

 

“Hold him,” Juan said, and hands took him, hauled him into a sitting position, and wrenched back his arms so he could not struggle. Another set of hands pinned his legs.

 

His eyes opened wide. Three of the caballeros braced him in a sitting position. The fourth—Diego, his old comrade Diego—brought forward a Eucharistic chalice made of pewter. He balanced it in a way that suggested it was full of liquid.

 

Ricardo drew back, pressing against his captors. “You wear Fray Juan’s face, but you are not a priest. You can’t do this, this is no time for communion.”

 

Juan smiled, but that did not comfort. “This isn’t what you think. What is wine, after the holy sacrament of communion?”

 

“The blood of Christ,” Ricardo said.

 

“This is better,” he said, taking the chalice from Diego.

Ricardo cried out. Tried to deny it. Turned his head, clamped shut his mouth. But Juan was ready for him, putting a hand over his face, digging his thumb between Ricardo’s lips and prying open his jaw, as if trying to slide a bit in the mouth of a stubborn horse.

 

Juan was stronger than he looked. Ricardo screamed, a noise that came out breathless and wheezy. The chalice tipped against his lips.

 

The liquid smelled metallic. When it struck his tongue—a thick stream sliding down his throat, leaving a sticky trail—it tasted of wine and copper. With the taste of it came knowledge and instinct. Human blood, it could be no other. Even as his mind rebelled with the obscenity of it, his tongue reached for more, and his throat swallowed, greedy for the sustenance. Its thickness flowed like fire through his own veins, and something in him rose up and sang in delight at its flavor.

 

The battle was no longer with the demons holding him fast; it was with the demon rising up inside of him. The creature that drank the blood and wanted more. A strange joy accompanied the feeling, a strength in his body he’d never felt before. Weariness, the aches of travel, fell away. He was reborn. He was invincible.

 

And it was false and wrong.

 

Roaring, he shoved at his captors, throwing himself out of their grasp. He batted away the chalice of blood. They lunged for him again, and Fray Juan cried, “No, let him go.”

 

Ricardo pushed away from them. He pressed his back to the wall and couldn’t go further. He could smell the blood soaking into the blanket at his feet. He covered his face with his hands; he could smell the blood on his breath. He wiped his mouth, but could still taste blood on his lips, as if it had soaked into his skin.

 

He had an urge to lick the drops of blood that had spilled onto his hand. He pressed his face harder and moaned, an expression of despair welling from him.

 

“You see what you are now?” Juan said, without sympathy. “You are the blood, and it will feed you through the centuries. You are deathless.”

 

Ricardo stared at him. The blood flowing through his veins now was not his own. He could feel it warming his body, like sunlight on skin. Sunlight, which he would never see again, if Juan spoke true.

 

He drew a breath and said, “You are a devil.”

 

“We all are.”

 

“No! I don’t know what you’ve done to me, but I am not one of you. I would rather die!”

 

Juan, a pale face in lamp-lit shadows, nodded to his four henchmen, who backed toward the ladder, which lead to the trap door in the ceiling. One by one, they slipped out, watching Ricardo with glittering, knowing eyes. In a moment, Juan and Ricardo were alone.

 

“This is a new life,” Juan said. “I know it is hard to accept. But remember: you have received a gift.”

 

Then he, too, left the room. The door closed, and a bolt slid home.

 

Ricardo rushed to the door, and tried to open it, rattling the handle. They had locked him in this hole. A damp chill from the walls pressed against him.

 

#

 

Ricardo lay back on the bed, hands resting on his chest. Eventually, the lamp’s wick burned down. The light grew dim, until it was coin-sized, burnished gold, then vanished. Even in the dark, he could see the ceiling. He should not have been able to see anything in the pitch dark of this underground cell. But it was like he could feel the walls closing in. He waited for panic to take him. He waited for his heart to start racing. But he touched his ribs and could not feel his heart at all.

 

Hours had passed, though the time moved strangely. Even in the darkness, he could see shadows move across the ceiling, like stars arcing overhead. It was nighttime outside, he knew this in his bones. The night passed, the moon rose—past full now, waning. The way the air moved over his face told him this. Eventually, near dawn, he fell asleep.

 

#

 

He started awake when the trapdoor opened. His senses lurched and rolled, like a galleon in deep swells. He knew—again, without looking, without seeing—that Juan and his four caballeros had returned. They had a warmth coursing through them, tinged with metal and rot, the scent of spilled blood. The thing inside him stirred, a hunger that cramped his heart instead of his belly. His mouth watered. He licked his lips, hoping for the taste of it.

 

Shutting his eyes, he turned his face away.

 

Another, a sixth being, entered the room with them. This one was different—warm, burning with heat, a flame in the dark, rich and beautiful. Alive. A heartbeat thudded, the footfalls of an army marching double-time. A living person who was afraid.

 

“Ricardo. Look.” Juan stood at the foot of the bed and raised a lantern.

Ricardo sat up, pressed against the wall. Two of the caballeros dragged between them a child, a boy seven or eight years old, very thin. The boy met his gaze with dark eyes, shining with fear. He whimpered, pulling back from the caballeros’ grasp, but they held fast, their fingers digging into his skin.

Juan said, “This is one of the things you must learn, to take your place among my knights.”

“No.” But the new sensations, the new way of looking at the world, wanted this child. Wanted the warm blood that gave this child life. The caballeros hauled the boy forward, and Ricardo shook his head even as he reached for the child. “No, no—”

“You cannot stop it,” Juan said.

The child screamed before Ricardo even touched him.

It was not him. It did not feel like his body. Something else moved his limbs and filled his mind with lust. His mouth closed over the artery in the child’s neck as if he kissed his flesh. His teeth—he had sharp teeth now—tore the skin, and the blood flowed. The sensation of wet blood on tongue burned through him, wind and fire. His vision was gone, his mind was gone.

This was not him.

The blood, life-giving and terrible, filled him until he seemed likely to break out of his own skin. With enough blood, he could expand to fill the world. When they pulled the dead child away, he was drunk, insensible, his hands too weak to clutch at the body. He sat at the edge of the bed, his arms fallen to his sides, limp, his face turned up, ecstatic. He licked his lips with a blood-coated tongue. But it was not him. His eyes stung with tears. He could not open them to look at the horror he’d wrought.

#

He was not so cold anymore. Either he was used to it, or he could no longer feel at all. That was a possibility. That was most likely best. Even if this were not hell, what they had forced him to do would surely send him to hell when he did die.

 

If he did.

 

“It is incentive to live forever, is it not? Knowing what awaits you for these terrible crimes,” Diego said with the smile of a wolf.

 

The friar had shown him what horrors this life held for him: he brought Ricardo a cross made of pressed gold. He kept it wrapped in silk, did not touch it himself. When Ricardo touched it, his skin burned. He could never touch a holy cross again. Holy water burned him the same. He could never go into a church. His baptism had been burned away from him. The Mother Church was poison to him now. God had rejected him.

 

But I do not reject God, Ricardo thought helplessly.

 

There were rewards. Juan kept calling them rewards. Mortal weapons could not kill him. Stabs and slashes with a sword, arquebus shot, falls, cracked bones, nothing would kill him. Only beheading, only a shaft of wood driven through the heart. He was immortal.

 

You call this reward? Ricardo had shouted. To be forever shut out of God’s heavenly kingdom? Then he realized the truth: this was no tragedy for Juan, because the friar did not believe in God or heaven.

 

“Did you ever believe?” Ricardo whispered at him. “Before you became this thing, did you believe?”

 

Juan smiled. “Perhaps it is not that I don’t believe, but that I chose to join the other side of this war between heaven and hell.”

 

Which was somehow even more awful.

 

#

 

Ricardo stood at the church wall one night. The moon waxed again, past new. Half a month, he’d been here. He didn’t know what to do next—what he could do. They held him captive. He belonged with them now, because where else could he go?

 

They told him that the blood should taste sweet on his tongue, and it did. He still hated it.

 

Perhaps he looked for rescue. When he did not report to the Governor, wouldn’t a party come for him? A troop of soldiers would come to learn what had happened, and Ricardo would intercept them, tell them the truth, and he would help them raze the church to the ground, destroy Juan and his caballeros.

 

And then they would destroy him, stake his heart, drag him into the sunlight, for being one of them. So perhaps Ricardo wouldn’t help them, but would hide.

 

Did he love existence more than life, then? More than heaven?

 

A jingling of bridles sounded behind him. Ricardo did not have to look; he sensed the four men approaching with the horses.

 

“Brother Ricardo, it’s good you’ve finally come into the air. It’s not good to be cooped up all the time.”

 

“I’m not your brother,” he said. His voice scratched, weak and out of practice. He had taken breathing for granted, and had to relearn how to speak.

 

Diego laughed. “We’re all you have, now. You’ll understand soon enough.”

 

“He has lots of time to learn,” said Octavio, one of the four demons who had once been men, who followed Juan. Rafael and Esteban were the others.

 

Diego said, “Ride with us. We hunt tonight, and you’ll learn at our side.” It was a command, not a request.

 

He followed, because what else could he do? Except perhaps stand in the open when the sun rose and let it burn him. But suicide was a sin. Even now, he believed it. He would show that he did not forsake God. He would ask for forgiveness every moment of his existence.

 

#

 

Diego seemed to be Fray Juan’s lieutenant; he had been the first of them turned to this demon life, years ago now. That was why he looked no older than he had when they returned from Coronado’s expedition.

 

He explained what they did here. “Each of us is as strong as a dozen men. But there are still those who know how to kill us. Those who would recognize certain signs and hunt us down.”

 

“Who?” Ricardo asked. “What signs?”

 

“Secret members of the Inquisition for one. And what signs? Why, bodies. Too many bodies, all drained of blood!” They all laughed.

 

“New Spain is the perfect place for us. There are thousands of peasants dying by the score in mines, on campaigns, of disease. Out here on the borders, no one is even looking much. If a whole village dies, we say a plague struck. We take all the blood we need and no one notices.”

 

At the mention of blood, Ricardo’s mouth watered. A hunger woke in him, like a creature writhing in his belly. Each time Diego said the word, his vision clouded. He shook himself to remain focused on the hills before them.

 

“I know how it is with you,” Diego said. “We all went through this.”

 

“Though the rest of us were perhaps not so holy to start with.” Again they laughed, like young men riding to a night of revelry. That was what they looked like, what anyone who saw them would think. Not that anyone would see them out here. That was the point, to feed on as much blood as they wished without notice. A land of riches. Diego had not lied.

 

“It’s eating away inside of me,” Ricardo said under his breath.

 

“The blood will still that,” said Rafael. “The blood will keep you sane.”

 

“Ironic,” Ricardo said. “That you must become a monster to keep from going mad.”

 

“Ha. I never thought of it like that,” Diego said.

 

He is already mad, Ricardo thought.

 

They rode for hours. They could not go far—half the night, he thought. Then they must go back, to take shelter before dawn. He could feel the night slipping away in his bones. It was the same part of him that now called out for blood.

 

Rafael said, “The villages nearby know of us. They go to the hills to hide, but we find them. Look toward the hills, take the air into your lungs. You can sense them, can’t you?”

 

The air smelled of dust, heat, sunlight that had baked into the land during the day and now rose into the chill of night, lost in the darkness. The breeze spoke of emptiness, of a vast plain where nothing larger than coyotes lived. When he turned toward the hills, though, he smelled something else. The warmth had a different flavor to it: life.

 

When they brought him the child, he had known what was there before he saw it. He could feel its life in the currents of the air, sense its heartbeat sending out ripples, like a stone tossed into a body of still water. A live person made a different mark on the world than one of these demons.

 

“Our kind are drawn to them, like iron to a lodestone,” Diego said. “We cannot live without taking in the human blood we have lost. We are the wolves to their sheep.”

 

“And now you hunt. Like wolves,” said Ricardo.

 

“Yes. It’s good sport.”

 

“It’s a thousand childhood nightmares come to life.”

 

“More than that, even. Come on!”

 

He spurred his horse. Kicking dirt behind them, the other four followed.

 

It was just as Diego said: a hunt. The leader sent two of the caballeros to ascend the hill from a different direction. They flushed the villagers from their hiding places, where they lived in caves and lean-tos. Like animals, Ricardo could not help but think. Easier to hunt them, then, when one did not think of them as human. It was like facing the native tribes with Coronado all over again. The imbalance in strength between the two parties was laughable.

On horseback, Rafael and Octavio galloped across the hill, chasing a dozen people, many of them old, before them. Diego and Esteban had dismounted and tied their horses some distance away, waiting on foot for the prey to come to them.

 

Ricardo watched, and time slowed.

 

It was as if he played the scene out in his mind while someone told him the story. Diego moved too fast to see when he stepped in front of the path of a young man, grabbed his arm with one hand and took hold of his hair with the other. The boy didn’t have time to scream. Diego held the body like a lover might, hand splayed across his chest, holding him in place, while pulling back his head, exposing his neck. He bit, then sank with the boy to the ground while he drank. The boy didn’t even thrash. He was like a stunned rabbit.

 

Each of the others chose prey and struck, plucking their chosen victims from the scattered, fleeing peasants. The creature lurking where Ricardo’s heart used to be sang and longed to reach out and grab a rabbit for itself. As he watched, the scene changed, and it was not the caballeros who moved quickly, but the villagers who moved slowly. Ricardo had felt like this once in a swordfight. His own skills had advanced to a point where he had some proficiency, his mind was focused, and he knew with what seemed like supernatural prescience what his opponent was going to do. He parried every attack with ease, as if he watched from outside himself.

 

This was the same.

 

It was not himself but the unholy monster within who stepped aside as a woman ran past him, then slipped into place behind her and took hold of her shoulders, moving like the shadow of a bird in flight across the land.

 

Jerked off her feet by his hold on her, she screamed and fell against him, thrashing, panicked, like an animal in a snare. He held her, embraced her against his body to still her, and touched her face. The coiled hunger within him gave him power. As he ran his finger down her cheek and closed his hand against her face, she quieted, stilled, went limp in his grasp. Her heartbeat slowed. He could take her, drink her easily, without struggle. This was better, wasn’t it? Would he have this power if this wasn’t what he was meant to do? She was young, almost a girl, her skin firm and unlined, lips full, her eyes bright. He could have her in all ways, strip her, lie with her, and he could make her want it, make her open to him in a way their Catholic religion would never allow, even in marriage. In the ghostly moonlight, she was beautiful, and she belonged to him. He lay her on the ground. She clutched his hand, and confusion showed in her eyes.

 

He couldn’t do it. He sat with her as though she were his ill sister, holding her hand, brushing damp hair from her young face. The creature inside him thrashed and begged to devour her. Ricardo felt the needle-sharp teeth inside his mouth. And he turned his gaze inward, shutting it all away.

 

I am not this creature. I am a child of God. Still, a child of God, like her. And the night is dangerous.

 

Quickly, he made her sit up. He lay his hand on her forehead and whispered, “Wake up. You must run.” She stared at him blankly, groggily. He slapped her cheek. She didn’t even flinch. “Wake up, please. You must wake up!”

 

Her gaze focused. At last she heard him. Perhaps she didn’t understand Spanish. But then, which of a dozen native dialects would she understand?

 

Fine, he thought. He didn’t need language to tell her to run. He bared his teeth—the sharp fangs ripe for feeding, wet with the saliva of hunger—and hissed at her. “Run!”

 

She gasped, scrambled to her feet, and ran across the hillside and into shadow.

 

Just in time. The world shifted, the action around him sped up and slowed as it needed to, and all appeared normal again. A still night lit by a waxing moon, quiet unto death.

 

The caballeros surrounded them. Ricardo could sense the blood on their breaths, and his belly rumbled with hunger. He bowed his head, content with the hunger, with the choice he had made.

They could probably smell on him the scent of resignation.

 

“Brother Ricardo,” Diego said. “Aren’t you hungry? Were the pickings not easy enough for you?”

“I’m not your brother,” Ricardo said.

 

Diego laughed, but nervously. “Don’t starve yourself to spite us,” he said.

 

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Ricardo said. “I don’t starve myself for you.”

 

The four demons looked down on him, where he sat in the dust, content. They would kill him, and that was all right. The demon they had given him screeched and complained. Ricardo sat rigid, keeping it trapped, refusing to give it voice.

 

“You’re not strong enough to survive this,” Diego said. “You don’t have the will to refuse the call of our kind.”

 

At this, Ricardo looked at him with a hard gaze. Unbelievably, Diego took a step back.

 

“I was one of the hundred who returned to Mexico City with Coronado. Don’t tell me about my will.”

 

To his left, a branch snapped as Octavio broke a twisting limb off a nearby shrub. “Diego, I will finish him. Turning him was a mistake.”

 

“Yes,” Diego said. “But we didn’t know that.”

 

“We’ll leave him. Leave him here and let the sunlight take him,” said Rafael.

 

Diego watched him with the air of a man trying to solve a riddle. “The Master wants to keep him. The Governor will listen to him, and he will keep us safe. He must live. Captain Ricardo de Avila, you must accept what you are, let the creature have its will.”

 

Ricardo smiled. “I am a loyal subject of Spain and a child of God who has been saddled with a particularly troublesome burden.”

 

Diego looked at Octavio. Ricardo was ready for them.

 

Together, the thing coiled inside him and his honor as a man of Spain rose up to defend, if not his life, then his existence. Octavio made an inhuman leap that crossed the distance between them, faster than eye could see. The perception that made time and the world around Ricardo seem strange and move thickly, like melting wax, served him now. For all Octavio’s speed, Ricardo saw him and wasn’t there when his enemy struck.

 

He could learn to revel in this newfound power.

 

Ricardo longed for a sword in his hand, no matter that steel would do no good against these opponents. He would have to beat them with wood through the heart. Octavio held the torn branch, one end jagged like a dagger. The other three ranged around him, ready to cut off his escape, and a wave of dizziness blurred his vision for a moment. Despair and hunger. If he’d taken blood, he would have more power—maybe enough to fight them all. As it was, he could not fight all four of them. Not if they meant to kill him.

He ran. They reached for him, but with flight his only concern, he drew on that devilish power. Make me like shadow, he thought.

The world became a blur, and he was smoke traveling across it. Nothing but air, moving faster than wind. He felt their hands brush his doublet as he passed. But they did not catch hold of him.

#

He found a cave. Villagers might have hidden here once. Ricardo found the burned remains of a campfire, some scraps of food, and an old blanket that had been abandoned. The back of the cave was narrow and ran deep within the hillside. It would always be dark, and he could stay there, safe from sunlight.

 

But would they come after him?

 

They could not tolerate rivals. Animal, demon, or men fallen beyond the point of redemption, they had claimed this territory as their own. He had rebuffed their brotherhood, so now he was an invader. They would come for him.

 

Ricardo put the blanket over a narrow crag in the rock, deep in the cave. The light of dawn approached. As he lay down in the darkness, he congratulated himself on surviving the night.

 

He fell asleep wondering how he would survive the next.

 

#

 

At dusk, he hurried over the hill side, gathering fallen sticks, stripping trees of the sturdiest branches he could find, and using chipped stones he had found in the cave to sharpen the ends into points. It was slow going, and he was weak. Lack of blood had sapped his strength. His skin was clammy, pale, more and more resembling a dead man’s. I am a walking corpse, he thought, and laughed. He had thought that once before, while crossing the northern despoblado desplobado with Coronado.

 

Ricardo had to believe he was not dead, that he would not die. He was fighting for a much nobler cause than the one that had driven him north ten years ago. He’d made that journey for riches and glory. Now, he was fighting to return to God. He was fighting for his soul. But without blood, he couldn’t fight at all.

 

“Señor?” a woman’s voice called, hesitating.

 

Ricardo turned, startled. It was a sign of his weakness that he had not heard her approach. Now that he saw her, the scent of her blood and the nearness of her pounding heart washed over him, filling him like a glass of strong wine. His mind swam in it, and the demon screeched for her blood. Ricardo gripped the branch in his hand, willing the monster to be silent.

 

The mestizo woman wore a poor dress and a ragged shawl over her head. Her hair wasn’t tossed and tangled in flight tonight, but he recognized her. She was the one he’d let go.

 

“You,” he breathed, and discovered that he loved her, wildly and passionately, with the instant devotion of a drunk man. He had saved her life, and so he loved her.

 

She kept her gaze lowered. “I hoped to find you. To thank you.” She spoke Spanish with a thick accent.

 

“You shouldn’t have come back,” he said. “My will isn’t strong tonight.”

 

She nodded at his roughly carved stake. “You fight the others? The wolves of the night?”

 

He chuckled, not liking the tone of despair in the sound. “I’ll try.”

 

“But you are one of them.”

 

“No. Like them, but not one of them.”

 

Quickly, sShe knelt on the ground and drew a clay mug from her pouch. She also produced a knife. She moved quickly, as if she feared she might change her mind, and before Ricardo could stop her, she drew the knife across her forearm. She hissed a breath.

 

He reached for her. “No!”

 

Massaging her forearm, encouraging the flow of blood, she held the wound over the mug. The blood ran in a thin stream for several long minutes. Then, just as quickly, she took a clean piece of linen and wrapped her arm tightly. The knife disappeared back in the pouch. She glanced at him. He could only stare back, dumbfounded.

 

She moved the cup of blood toward him. “A gift,” she said. “Stop them, then leave us alone. Please?”

 

“Yes. I will.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

She turned and ran.

 

#

 

The blood was still warm when it slipped down his throat. His mind expanded with the taste of it. He no longer felt drunk; on the contrary, he felt clear, powerful. He could count the stars wheeling above him. The heat of young life filled him, no matter if it was borrowed. And he could survive without killing. That gave him hope.

 

He scraped the inside of the cup with his finger and sucked the film of blood off his skin, unwilling to waste a drop. After tucking the mug in a safe place, he climbed to his hiding place over the cave and waited. He had finished his preparations in time.

 

They came like the Four Horsemen of Revelations, riders bringing death, armed with spears. They weren’t going to toy with him. They were here to correct a mistake. Let them come, he thought. Let them see his will to fight.

 

They pulled to a stop at the base of the hill, within sight of the cave’s mouth. The horses steamed with sweat. They must have galloped most of the way from the village.

 

Diego and the others dismounted. “Ricardo! We have come for you! Fray Juan wants you to return to him, where you belong!”

 

Ricardo could smell the lie on him. He could see it in the spears they carried, wooden shafts with sharpened ends. The other three dismounted and moved to flank the cave, so nothing could escape from it.

 

Octavio stepped, then paused, looking at the ground. Ricardo clenched fistfuls of grass in anticipation. Another step, just one more. But how much could Octavio sense of what lay before him?

 

“Diego? There’s something wrong—” Octavio said, and leaned forward. With the extra weight, the ground under him collapsed. A thin mat of grass had hidden the pit underneath.

 

Almost, Octavio escaped. He twisted, making an inhuman grab at earth behind him. He seemed to hover, suspended in his moment of desperation. But he was not light enough, not fast enough, to overcome his surprise at falling, and he landed, impaled on the half-dozen stakes driven into the bottom of the pit. He didn’t even scream.

 

“Damn!” Diego looked into the pit, an expression of fury marring his features.

 

Ricardo stood and hurled one of his makeshift spears at the remaining riders. He put all the strength and speed of his newfound power, of the gift of the woman’s blood, into it, and the spear sang through the air like an arrow. He never should have been able to throw a weapon so strong, so true.

 

This curse had to be good for something, or why would people like Juan and Diego revel in it? He would not revel. But he would use it. The bloodthirsty demon in him reveled in this hunt and lent him strength. They would come to an understanding. Ricardo would use the strength—but for his own purpose.

 

The spear landed in Rafael’s chest, knocking him flat to the ground. He clutched at the shaft, writhing, teeth bared and hissing in what might have been anger or agony. Then, he went limp. His skin tightened, wrinkling, drying out, until the sunken cavities of his skull were visible under his face. His clothes drooped over a desiccated body. He looked like a corpse years in the grave. That was how long ago he died, Ricardo thought. He had been living as a beast for years. But now, perhaps he was at peace.

 

Diego and Esteban were both flying up the hill toward him. Almost literally, with the speed of deer, barely touching earth. Ricardo took up another spear. This would be like fighting with a sword, a battle he understood a little better. They had their own spears ready.

 

He thrust at the first to reach him, Esteban, who parried easily and came at him, ferocious, teeth bared, fangs showing. Ricardo stumbled back, losing ground, but braced the spear as his defense. Esteban couldn’t get through to him. But then there was Diego, who came at Ricardo from behind. Ricardo sensed him there but could do nothing.

 

Diego braced his spear across Ricardo’s neck and dragged him back. Reflexively, Ricardo dropped his weapon and choked against the pressure on his throat, a memory of the old reaction he should have had. But now, he had no breath to cut off. The pressure meant nothing. Ricardo fell, letting his head snap back from under the bar, and his weight dropped him out of Diego’s grip. Another demonic movement. But he would not survive this fight as a human.

 

Esteban came at him with his spear, ready to pin him to the ground. Ricardo rolled, and did not stop when he was clear. I am mist, I am speed.He spun and wrenched the spear from Esteban’s grip. He was charging one way and couldn’t resist the force of Ricardo’s movement in another direction. Even then, Ricardo didn’t stop. He slipped behind Esteban, who had pivoted with equal speed and grace to face him. But he had no weapon, and Ricardo did. He speared the third of the demons through his dead heart. Another desiccated corpse collapsed at his feet.

 

Ricardo stared at Diego, who stood by, watching.

 

“I was right to want you as one of Fray Juan’s caballeros,” Diego said. “You are very strong. You have the heart to control the power.”

 

“Fray Juan is a monster.”

 

“But Ricardo. New Spain is filled with monsters. We both know that.”

 

Screaming, Ricardo charged him. Diego let him run against him, and they both toppled to the ground, wrestling.

 

How did one defeat a man who was already dead? Who moved by demonic forces of blood? Ricardo closed his hands around the man’s throat, but Diego only laughed silently. He did not breathe—choking did no good. He tried to beat the man, pound his head into the ground, but Diego’s strength was effortless, unyielding. He might as well wrestle a bear.

 

Diego must have grown tired of Ricardo’s flailing, because he finally hit him, and Ricardo flew, tumbling down the hill, away from his dropped weapons. Diego loomed over him now, with the advantage of high ground.

 

Ricardo made himself keep rolling. Time slowed, and he knew what would happen—at least what might happen. So he slid all the way to the bottom of the hill and waited. He wasn’t breathing hard—he wasn’t breathing at all. He hadn’t broken a sweat. He was as calm as still water. But Diego didn’t have to know that.

 

The smart thing for Diego to do would be to drive a spear through his chest. But Ricardo thought Diego would gloat. He’d pick Ricardo up, laugh in his face one more time, before tossing him aside and stabbing him. Ricardo waited for this to happen, ready for it.

 

But he’d also be ready to dodge if Diego surprised him and went for a quick kill.

 

“Ricardo! You’re more than a fool. You’re an idealist,” Diego said, making his way down the hill, sauntering like a man with an annoying chore at hand.

 

God, give me strength, Ricardo prayed, not knowing if God would listen to one such as him. Not caring. The prayer focused him.

 

He struggled to get up, as if he were weak, powerless, starving. Let Diego think he had all the power. He flailed like a beetle trapped on his back, while Diego leaned down, twisted his hands in the fabric of his doublet and hauled him to his feet.

 

Then Ricardo took hold of the man’s wrists and dragged him toward the hole that had swallowed Octavio.

 

Diego seemed not to realize what was happening at first. His eyes went wide, and he actually let go of Ricardo, which was more than Ricardo had hoped for. Using Diego’s own arms for leverage, he swung the man and let go. Diego was already at the edge of the pit, and like Octavio he made an effort to avoid the fall. But with the grace of a drifting leaf, he sank.

 

Ricardo stood on the edge and watched the body, stuck onto the stakes on top of Octavio, turn to a dried husk.

 

#

 

He gathered up their horses and rode back to the church, torn between wanting to move quickly and and worrying about breaking them down. They had already made this trip once, and they were mortal. He rode both as quickly and slowly as he dared, and when he reached the village, the sky had paled. He could feel the rising sun within his bones.

 

Rushing, he unsaddled the horses and set them loose in the pasture. He would need resources, when he started his new life, and they were worth something, even in the dark of night.

 

He had only moments left to find Juan. Striding through the chapel, he hid a spear along the length of his leg.

 

“Juan! Bastard! Come show yourself!”

 

The friar was waiting in the back room where Ricardo had first spoken with him, a respectable if bedraggled servant of God hunched over his desk, watching the world with a furtive gaze.

 

“I felt it when you killed them,” the friar said in a husky voice. “They were my children, part of me—I felt the light of their minds go out.”

 

Don’t let him speak. Ricardo’s own power recognized the force behind the words, the connection that bound them together. His power flowed from the other.

 

Ricardo started to lunge, but the friar held up a hand and said, “No!” The younger man stopped, spear upraised, face in a snarl, an allegorical picture of war.

 

Fray Juan smiled. “Understand, you are mine. You will serve me as my caballeros served me. You cannot stop it.” The Master had a toothy, wicked smile.

 

Ricardo closed his eyes. He’d fought for nothing, all these years and nothing to show for it but a curse. He was not even master of his fate.

 

Free will was part of God’s plan. What better way to damn the sinful than to let them choose sin over righteousness? But he had not chosen this. Had he? Had something in his past directed him to this moment? To this curse?

 

Then couldn’t he choose to walk away from this path?

 

He started to pray out loud, all the prayers he knew. Pater Noster, Ave Maria, even passages of Psalms, what he could remember.

 

The friar stared back at him. His lips trembled. “You should not be able to speak those words,” Juan said. “You are a demon. One of Satan’s pawns. He is our father. The holy words should burn your tongue.”

 

“Then you believe the tales of the Inquisition? I don’t think I do. Come, Juan, pray with me.” Louder now, he spoke again, and still Juan trembled at the words.

 

“They’re only words, Padre! Why can’t you speak them?” Ricardo shouted, then started the prayers again.

 

The hold on his body broke. He had been balanced, poised for the strike, and now he plunged forward, his spear leading, and drove it into the friar’s chest. Juan tumbled back in his chair, Ricardo standing over him, still leaning on the spear though it wouldn’t go further. Juan didn’t make a sound.

 

Juan’s skin turned gray. It didn’t simply dry into hard leather; it turned to dust, crumbling away, his cassock collapsing around him. A corpse decayed by decades or centuries.

Ricardo backed away from the dust. He dropped the spear. His knees gave out then, and he folded to the floor, where he curled up on his side and let the sleep of daylight overcome him.

#

Rumor said that the small estancia had once been a mission, but that the friar who ran it went mad and fled to the hills, never to be seen again. A young hidalgo now occupied the place, turning it into a quiet manor that bred and raised sheep for wool and mutton. The peasants who lived and worked there were quiet and seemed happy. The Governor said that the place was a model which all estancias ought to learn from.

 

The hidalgo himself was a strange, mysterious man, seldom seen in society. Of course all the lords in New Spain with daughters had an interest in getting to know him, for he was not only successful, but unmarried. But the man refused all such overtures.

 

It was said that Don Ricardo had ridden north with Coronado. Of course that rumor had to be false, because everyone knew Ricardo was a man in the prime of his life, and Coronado’s expedition to find Cíbola rode out fifty years ago.

 

But such wild rumors will grow up around a gentleman who only leaves his house at night.

Location

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P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519

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