I.25 The Quest

EsperanzafinalFor an hour or so, I saw their column slowly fading in the sunset. Then, as it disappeared on the horizon, I made my way back to the temple. I was furious against Salvacion, yet I had been unable to confront her in front of Mercedes. Her last words had sounded so grim and weary, so unlike her usual self, that I hesitated on the front porch before entering the building. I found her sitting on the stairs in the inner courtyard with the scraps of food which we had kept for the journey back and a bottle of liquor. She pointed to a plate where she had left my share.

“We can eat now and go when we’re done. Hernani did most of the job, you just have to close the Shrine. This time we travel by night.”

Picking a piece of dried meat with her fingers, she gave a deep sigh.

“It’s one fool’s errand after the other. Is Alejandro just messing with me? I really thought when I saw the priest that something was going on. Esperanza! I should have known. With a name like that…”

I ignored her rambling and placed myself in front of her. My hands tend to tremble when I grow angry, so I pushed them against my sides as I started:

“Your intervention earlier was cruel and unnecessary. These people did not need to hear that from a representative of the Temple, let alone from you.”

She swallowed her meat and picked up the bottle, glancing at its content with a scowl.

“Go on.”

It struck me once again. However detached she wanted to look, something in the rhythm of her speech, a little slur in her voice, betrayed a sadness which I had already felt in her, but never so distinctly. I fell silent, retreating to my plate while she swallowed what was left of the liquor directly from the bottle. Then after eating a little, the question which had bothered me earlier finally took shape in my mind.

“Who paid, in Trinidad del Este?

-What?”

This time her eyes went right for mine.

“You said to Mercedes that someone always has to pay. But in Trinidad, when you restored the Spirit, who paid for it?”

It was not the first time I had had that thought. But somehow I had never phrased it quite that way before.

“Is that not what we are seeking: miracles? Magic that nobody has to pay for?”

The laughter she gave then struck me like a gust of cold wind. But she calmed down just as suddenly.

“Of course you’re right. Nobody paid for Trinidad del Este. Nobody paid a thing.”

A sort of weary smile softened her features as she stood up and walked past me out of the courtyard.

“I’ll let you settle things here. I’m done with this place.”

I finished my meal and headed for the Shrine. The rituals to close a temple are not very difficult. As I detached the sacred gauze for burning, I noticed that the Spirit had changed its shape. It was now a small, round cactus. Then it disappeared, as the fire took and the smoke rose towards the opening in the temple roof. Esperanza had lived.

On the front porch, as I left the building, Salvacion had recovered her placid air.

“Now back to Alba. Hernani said that Alejandro had news for us.”

And on we went, out of the desolated, silent town and into the desert, having completed another standard inspection mission.

END OF EPISODE I

I.24 Reality check

I made my way among the crowd, feeling the eyes of the villagers on my black cloak, and reached Mercedes.

“Are you all right?”

She ignored my concerned look, keeping her face cupped in her valid hand and peering in the distance until my shadow obscured the brown seems of her dress. Her lips were swollen on one side, and a black bruise ran down under her right eye. I heard myself apologising in front of her vacant stare, and I knew right then that I was only twisting the knife. Still something pushed me on. There was nothing to be done against the desert. The worm and other beasts would have destroyed them anyway. Her daughter had stepped between me and her, and the glares that surrounded us were becoming unbearable. But before I could retreat, something flared up in her eyes. She placed her hand on her daughter’s shoulder.

“Carolina.”

The girl flinched when she heard the tone of her voice, and slipped out of sight in an instant. I found myself suddenly confronted with a woman whose resemblance to the Mercedes I had met was little more than physical. Her posture and her face had acquired a sort of feral intensity. She spoke between her clenched teeth in a low hissing voice.

“So what? What is left for us?”

I did not move. Somehow, despite the violence of her tone, I felt that the words she spoke were more intimate than anything she had told me before.

“You take our hope away. Every time we build something, you come to destroy it. What is left then?”

Her throat contracted, and her voice died down to a whisper.

“What is left but to die?”

I stammered. Somehow I fumbled for something to answer, though I knew perfectly how weak and meaningless it would be. Then another voice rose behind me, declaring in a matter-of-fact tone:

“Don’t blame us for your mistakes. That hope was fake, and you knew it.”

Mercedes winced. Salvacion stood there, glancing round at the bystanders, indifferent to their reaction.

“You wished away the problems you should have faced, and you fell for a cheap trick. That’s not tragic, just pathetic and dull.”

She stepped up to Mercedes, who seemed ready to jump at her throat, and looked directly into her wild eyes.

“This is the way it works down here. Only children look at magic and think that it’s free just because you don’t see the strings attached. Everything has its price. And eventually, someone has to pay.”

By that time, tears were rolling down Mercedes’s eyes. She remained frozen, her face disappearing under the shadow of Salvacion’s cloak in the blaze of the afternoon sun. Raising her eyes to the sky, Salvacion broke into a little bitter laugh.

“When will you all finally stop wanting miracles?”

A moment elapsed. Then she glanced at me and walked back to the temple, while the acolytes led the people out of the city, into the desert. I gave one last look towards Mercedes, but I could find nothing to say.

I.23 Clean-up

When the burial was over, the moon was already waning. In my exhaustion, I lost track of what I was doing. I might have talked with the mayor some more, but I cannot say if that conversation took place after or before heading for the cemetery. I also recall tracing back my steps to Mercedes’s house, as I had promised. But by that time, her daughter had heard news of the orders I had given to evacuate the village. I have a vivid image of her mute hostility as she stood in the doorway, blocking my path. By some clue, which either she gave me or I read in her behaviour, probably the latter, I understood with relief that Mercedes was recovering. The next thing that I am absolutely certain I did not dream was the ray of sunlight in the little room above the temple, and the sight of Salvacion’s empty bed. It was already quite late in the day. I scavenged the ground floor and Ernesto’s apartments for some food and drink. Someone had tidied up his wardrobe and placed it in a chest, leaving the provisions in the cellar untouched. The villagers were honest to the point of absurdity, especially given the circumstances. Still, I was thankful for the cold water. My thiroat was sore and my whole body still ached from the past night.

As I sat lazily in the shade of the front porch, spotting the shadows of the invisible villagers in the scorching sun, Salvacion’s figure appeared, coming from the central plaza. I immediately recognised the distinct, low and arched figure who followed her wrapped in a black temple cloak. Hernani had arrived. His men must already be rounding up the townspeople. I normally thanked the wisdom of our Blessed College for letting others clean up after our interventions, but this time, I could not help but feel like I would have preferred to take care of them myself. Hernani, whose years of experience had taught him to spot uneasiness in inspectors, greeted me with his slow, gravelly voice:

“A difficult case, uh?”

He chuckled at my reaction.

“Don’t beat yourself up. Justice can be a messy thing.”

I nodded with a thankful smile and turned my eyes to the plaza, where the grey cloaks of the acolytes floated among the brown travelling clothes and bags of the villagers. It was not long before I caught sight of Mercedes, sitting on a chest with her arm in a sling. As I stood up and hesitated on the edge of the shade, Hernani’s chuckle rose once more behind me.

“And don’t leave unfinished business here. You won’t see these people again.”

I.22 Final words

It took me a long time to come back to my senses. After carrying Mercedes inside her home and laying her on a makeshift bed, I sat for a while in a daze. Her daughter, who seemed to have regained her composure much more quickly than I had – I recalled Mercedes telling me how they had fled the war, and wondered dimly what other horrors she must have witnessed, miserable child –, handed me a cup filled with water. I could not drink it: this might be their last provisions for who knows how long. The thought made me start, and I finally got a hold of the situation. Telling her to take care of her mother and that I would return soon, I made my way back to the central plaza.

I was expecting to find the entire town in disarray, with people locked at home packing or trying to flee in the night. To my surprise, however, the villagers had assembled around the remains of the fountain in quiet order. When one of them recognised me in the light of the torches they had lit, he simply called for the mayor. The faces that surrounded me were tremendous to behold: all of the hope and anxiety that I had seen in their features hours earlier had vanished, leaving not even the spark of terror or hatred to temper their sorrow. When the mayor drew up to me with downcast eyes, I felt like a judge delivering a death sentence. I think he knew from the start what I was going to tell him. The whole town would be considered guilty of profiting from the priest’s crimes, and its villagers would be taken into custody by the temple. In the meantime, they were under our jurisdiction. Everyone was to remain at the temple’s disposal and be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. Given the state of the Spirit, I added that they should not try to flee for their own sake: there were probably other monsters in the desert, and Salvacion was the only one able to protect them. They listened in complete silence. I wonder if I would not have preferred some kind of protest. But the mayor’s only answer, long after my explanation had ended, was a subdued nod.

“We understand.”

Then his eyes rose to me, his muscular body still slightly bent, as if burdened by some invisible weight. I saw his pupils shrink in the torchlight.

“But señor please, we have just one favour to ask.”

The people who had assembled behind him shuffled to the side. On the ground, next to the gaping hole in the middle of the plaza, five shapes lay covered in dark sheets.

“Priest Ernesto is dead. We cannot give them a proper burial.”

So it was that, after condemning the town and all of its inhabitants, I led their silent procession to the cemetery and, in a dream-like atmosphere of complete improvisation mixed with awe-striking gravity, performed the mourning rites.

I.21 A Fountain of blood

For a moment I thought she had missed her target. The fountain shot up above our heads, neatly perpendicular to the erect body of the worm. But the rain-like spray had caught the beast’s attention. It changed course, heading straight for the water. Salvacion was still shouting:

“Drink up!”

The monstrous shadow stood in the darkness, the sides of its coils glistening with moonlight, letting the fountain disappear in the depths of its throat. Then Salvacion emitted a cry of utter triumph. Her palms, the dark flow of her hair and the ecstatic features of her face appeared in a pure white glow that spread upwards from her hands. The fountain shrank to a thin, blade-like column, which grew in an instant until it reached the worm’s open mouth, then slit through its throat, impaling its upper body before shooting up. A lance of ice, fifteen or twenty meters tall, had skewered the worm from the inside out. Its limp form hung for a moment above the ground. It had been caught mid-leap, and its tail whipped the sides of a nearby house in a last spasm before falling back down. From its pierced head, a flow of red liquid slid down along the white column. Finally the ice broke, and the whole monumental composition came crashing down. I tore my eyes from the spectacle to shield Mercedes, managing this time at least to adequately protect her body with mine, although the worm actually fell quite far from the both of us, so that there was no real danger and only drops of blood touched my shirt. Another cloud of dust rose over us, and it took me a while to get up once more. By then I was frankly quite tired of this falling down and rising again business. The energy which I had conjured up earlier had left me, and it was not until I heard the cries of Mercedes’s daughter that I finally rose from our numb embrace and remembered her bleeding. Luckily, the girl had a sort of scarf, which we managed to wrap around her wounded arm. My forehead was also bleeding into my left eye. I wondered if my hearing was not impaired, but I think my younger helper was simply too confused to talk, and I heard Salvacion’s voice clearly when she called out:

“It’s dead this time.”

I had not even lifted my head to look at the enormous corpse, which had collapsed over another neighbouring house. The whole street was not much more than a pile of rubble. Salvacion climbed down from a half-sliced wall. The scowl had returned on her face, and her right hand was pressed against her forehead, her fingers rubbing the temples.

“I’ll send word to Alba. You take care of the rest. I need to lie down.”

I understood that she was in no mood to talk, and kept my thanks for later. Besides, the task that remained to be done was by no means the easiest.

I.20 The woman of action

I did not see her at first. In a flash, the wall of the adjacent house simply came crumbling down on the worm’s figure. I had to protect my eyes and the girl with my arms. When I could lower them again and look around, my partner was standing over my body, her face hidden in the dark.

“What the hell are you doing here? Who asked you to play bait?”

I must have mumbled that I was fine, and she moved back swiftly to the centre of the garden.

“Its carapace protected the damn thing. It’s coming back.”

My thoughts started racing again, and I looked round searching for Mercedes. Her daughter was still silent, but I could hear her laboured breathing beside me. I had at least managed to keep her alive. Ignoring the pain in my joints, I laid her down in the corner of the garden and hobbled towards the debris. Salvacion’s arm extended to the side, pointing at the flower-beds.

“There’s a woman. I aimed away from her, but I’m not sure what state she’s in. See if she’s alive.”

What strength I had to run through the ruined plot of ground I do not know, but it seemed as if my next heartbeat was over Mercedes’s body, when I saw her chest rising. She was alive, though badly hurt. The blood dripped from her forearm onto the flowers, tainting their petals and stems before disappearing in the damp earth. I didn’t have my cloak on, and vainly looked round for some fabric to bandage her wound. But Salvacion was already shouting at my back.

“It’s here! Just stay down!”

It felt like a gust of wind. The fangs gleamed in the moonlight, streaking the dark alley behind the fallen wall, then bolted over the rubble in a cloud of dust. Salvacion did not budge. For a second, her hand undulated in the air, and a stone the size of a man detached itself from the ruins of the house she had just destroyed. It flew into the monster’s body, breaking its balance. The gaping mouth crashed to the ground a few steps in front of her, biting the sand before springing upwards again. As it hid the light of the moon once more, she shouted with audible glee:

“Playing tough? I’ve got something you’ll like!”

Joining her hands together, she knelt and touched the ground. I felt the earth below my feet crumble to dust, and the flowers around Mercedes’s body withered in a second. A gurgling sound surrounded us in the dark. Then the worm turned its head downward, aiming for Salvacion. She thrust her hands up to meet it. Flashing in the moonlight, a fountain of water spurted out of them, as powerful and high as the one which had risen above the city moments before.

I.19 A feeble protector

It must have taken me a good half-minute to rise, coughing and spitting out the sand from my mouth. There were cries and crashes above, as the monster thrashed against its last assailants. Then the dust settled, and it rose again to its full height. For a moment, its head seemed to scan the surroundings. The streams around the plaza were dry, and the sand was already submerging the low stone channels. A vivid image shot through my hazy mind. The garden. Its next target would be the fragrant, water-filled plants of Mercedes’s garden. I was certain that she had gone back to protect it. I could picture her standing with a kitchen knife below these deadly jaws. I knew she would die on the spot rather than leave. I had to get her out of there. Turning round the corner of the plaza, I tried to remember the path that led to the small door where she had led me earlier. Darkness had made these little back-streets indistinguishable, but I rushed in anyway. Seconds later, as I ran in what I hoped was the right direction, the rumble resumed: the beast was moving. Turning into a narrow dead-end, I gasped with relief as I recognised the layout. Then a crash resounded in a neighbouring alley. I was right. The threat was heading this way.

The door stood ajar. Moonlight shone from the roofs, and the tips of the purple flowers glistened under the white beams. Mercedes was kneeling on the threshold of her house, her hands clenched around the right arm of her daughter, who stood in the doorway and pushed her back screaming:

“Nooo!”

I noticed her other arm as I ran to them: she was holding an axe for cutting firewood close to her body. Her mother was not the one trying to protect the garden: she was. It took me a second or so to get a hold of the situation. Then the wall behind us collapsed. The fangs gleamed once again in the corner of my eye: the worm had found us.

What happened then I can only reconstruct with hindsight. My instinct overrode all reasoning. I saw the massive head lunge at the two women, dashed in, clumsily tried to push them aside and shield them from the hit. I think Mercedes was faster than me, and I found myself clutching only the girl, in the corner of the garden, my eyes frantically searching for a hint as to what had happened, then hypnotised again by the colossal shape of the monster above us. But as all of my life swirled before my eyes, swallowed like the town’s water by this gaping, inhuman mouth, one word rose to my lips. Salvacion.

I.18 The monster

I heard the screams and the shuffle of feet in the sand around me, but I could not take my eyes off the beast. As it bore down on us, moonlight rose over its serpentine shape, revealing the coiled skin, gaping mouth and twin scythe-like fangs of a gigantic sand-worm. Its head pounced downward, crashing on the plaza. The shapes of men lay round its enormous jaws, crawling back in terror, but it didn’t seem that it had attacked anyone. Then the sound of water came to my ears. Looking to the side, I saw the small stream in the canal flowing faster and faster. The worm had gone straight for the water, which it was absorbing at extreme speed. This was our chance. I looked round and caught a glimpse of Salvacion driving the terrorised villagers towards the temple. We had to channel the people out of the plaza, to let her use the full extent of her powers. There were women and children on the corner of a street to my right. I recognised Mercedes among them. If I could get her to help me, we might be able to reach the temple through the back alleys. But as I stepped forward, shouting her name, her eyes turned from the beast and she ran towards her house in the opposite direction.

I would have followed her, but a sudden roar coming from behind made me look back, causing me to trip and fall to the ground. Once again, my abilities in the thick of disaster are not a great object of pride. Confused and with sand in my eyes, I made out a chaotic struggle in the middle of the plaza. Some of the men had rushed back to their picks and axes, and thrown themselves at the worm in a desperate bid to save the water. Their weapons struck at its carapace with little effect, but it appeared to have noticed them. The drinking paused, and its gaping jaws reached for the sky once again before swiftly falling down on their frail shapes. Then in a flash, Ernesto’s long, thin body leaped across the plaza to reach their position, and a jet of sand rose among them and hit the monster’s underbelly. Its head reared as its entire body writhed in an ominous rumble, above which I heard the priest’s voice rise:

“Go, go away!”

He turned to help a man up, and my throat closed down in a spasm. In what felt like a succession of unconnected instants, I saw the worm’s tail soar from the hole, then cut across the plaza and slam against his thin upper body, which was sent crashing through the air. The rest was hidden in a rising cloud of dust.

I.17 Disaster

Esperanza_disasterFortunately, I had not been hurt in the earthquake, and I was able to run down the steps of the temple to help the wounded. There seemed to be few serious injuries, mainly a couple of cuts and bruises, most of which were due to the very weapons that I had been so afraid of a couple of minutes before. But before the villagers had regained their bearings, another cry of anguish rang from the central plaza.

“The water!”

A new form of panic seized them. The woman whose arm I was checking started up with a gasp and ran to her house. It was then that I noticed the shimmer of the small canals along the main streets. The water was running, flowing back to the centre of the fountain. It was falling down the rift that the tremor had created. The craze which overtook the villagers when they saw this was terrible to behold. They ran and screamed and stumbled over each other, grabbing any container they could to catch the receding flux. The dread of thirst and deprivation possessed their bodies, and their actions were completely disorganised. In the shadows, their shapes came and went like a parade of frenzied spirits. I made my way among them, dodging now a woman on all fours trying to reach the canal with a flask, now a man frantically digging a hole in the sand to redirect the stream. The main bulk of them were gathering around the hole, the most dangerous place to be. As I groped among them, trying to find the mayor, a shrill voice rose over the hubbub. Ernesto’s plaintive tone echoed around the plaza.

“Please, please everyone. Run away. Please save yourselves!”

I looked back. The moon had risen above the small earthen houses in town, and his features were distinguishable in stark black and white. His body reeled slightly with each step, probably from the beating that Salvacion had given him, but his voice held strong against the cries that still broke out here and there in the streets.

“We are all in danger here. Please evacuate the town.”

Salvacion’s flowing hair and cape appeared behind him. The vibrations of her low voice drowned the whispers that were spreading among the crowd:

“All of you step away from the rift. Go back…”

Suddenly, a new, overpowering rumble reverberated out of the hole. For a second I thought it was another earthquake, but the ground under my feet barely shook as the sound became louder and clearer. Instinctively I drew back, pushing aside another body behind me, my eyes fixed on the edges of the crevice. Then the moonlight disappeared. At the very same place where the water had sprung up, an immense, snake-like silhouette rose sky-high over our heads.

I.16 Collapse

I ran out of the Shrine immediately and saw Salvacion’s shadow disappearing towards the inner courtyard. I had no time to think about her plans. We needed to gather the villagers and get them out of harm’s way before the town came under attack. But as soon as I stepped out of the temple’s front porch, I understood the flaw in my reasoning. Under the light of torches, possibly every man, woman and child in Esperanza stood before me, wielding whatever makeshift weapons they could find. The mayor and the city council had had them surround the building. I tried to shout something, but my voice was drowned by their cries. They were evidently demanding the release of their priest. Finally, the mayor’s face emerged from the rabble. He came forward and a tense silence fell on the scene. The hint of fear that I had noticed in his features had turned to the desperate obstinacy of a cornered beast.

“We won’t let you take priest Ernesto away. We will let you go, but not with him.”

His voice was more frantic than threatening. He had no illusions as to the outcome of a battle against a magic-user from the temple. But I am not a magic-user, and the metallic sheen of pitchforks and shovels as well as the grim, unmoving stare of their wielders, simply paralysed me. I was barely able to blurt out some word of warning. Time was running short, and still my throat refused to obey my confused, incoherent orders. He repeated the same exact sentence, probably rehearsed with the rest of the council. I was about to retreat from the increasingly hostile confrontation, walking backwards slowly, fearful that a sudden move might make me the target of some projectile or other, when a sudden tremor made me fall flat to the ground. The earth shook brutally, leaving me breathless and disorientated. It lasted for about half a minute. When I finally managed to get back to my knees and looked round, the crowd was in tatters. Bodies crawled and groped round in the darkness left by the fallen or blown out torches. The cries of children and panicked voices rose among the turmoil. Then a monstrous crack echoed in the desert. The silvery trail of water above the town deviated, sputtered and finally collapsed. In a deafening rumble, the ground under the fountain in the middle of town parted as the entire plaza crumbled. The vision of that morning rose to my eyes again: the town was being swallowed up.