Il Roche, Spain.
Midday sun beat down upon the aurum trail and the pale young trailblazer shading beneath a patch of saguaro cacti. He flicked eyes the same shade as evergreen springs up the dusty road.
“I could do for an Aquafina oasis right now.”
He lifted his left hand from beneath his shimmering cloak, reaching up, fingers indulging in the long lost art of wringing one last drop from the once-wet bandanna around his neck. He brought the dry rag to his parched lips, licked the moisture, let cloth and arm fall again. Today. He needed good liquid today. Sweat enchantments not withstanding, his supplies were exhausted.
Up. He stood with an effort, resuming his journey of solitude, chasing shadows across a lost Spanish empire.
Before the hour expired a blessing came upon the wizard. He crossed a final dune, and entered a village forgotten by all but a few dusty tomes.
The first of several.
The first to test him.
”The Rock.” He dug out of his cloak pocket a notepad and peacock quill, fingers stiff with dust, the words blurred by old magics even as he scribed them down. “Damn. The bearings are sealed.” Just as the rumors had said.
He watched the noonday sun rush into an early evening across the minutes that he roamed the only road in sight. Decaying houses filled the arid landscape. Old red tile hung from the roofs, cracked. Old glass-less windows barred only by warping iron crosses turning to rust gaped obscenely from walls, rotten molars in rotten mouths.
He looked to the houses for life. No living man nor woman stirred, but the dead he found aplenty. Reaping had been done. Seasonal sacrifice, right there on the maize rugs. He passed the houses of the dead in silent regret.
He came across one home untarnished. A stubby candle burned at door and within the window, iron cross still strong, a family in prayers behind their simple wards. An old bucket rested behind them, before unlit hearth, surface dancing tauntingly in the candlelight. He stood and waited, checking the evening sun now faded behind encroaching twilight. He felt eyes upon his back. He turned.
A priest, older than he, dark in black, immaculate, smiling. Like well rehearsed lies, a smile required no more effort than to bare the teeth.
“Evening, stranger’s son. How unexpected.”
He wrang another droplet across his dry lips. “Water?”
“Oh, certainly. You do have the look of a thirsty fellow, my wayward child.” The priest joined him at the door.
“Fascinating, is it not, the lengths to which non-believers will go to hold their irrelevant faiths in the face of reason?”
“But of course. Our well is by the church, just ahead. Follow the natural curve and ease your pangs.”
He wrung another drop. He left. Twilight gave in to the dusk, a dusk unlike few others, full of interesting connotations. Like a tempestuous mistress, darkness fell over the houses of the rotted, and shrewdly spared only the family. He found the well in nearing pitch. The sun was no brighter than a forsaken dot, a guttering wick in the broadening shadows.
He stopped and he sighed. “Evening, Padre.”
The priest had followed. So, too, had his flock in response to their mistress’s coming. They clung to his abstract shadow in the pool of darkness, down cast, silent. So unlike the ghouls the wizard knew by trade.
“Evening, stranger’s son. Drink. Let us celebrate your arrival in these forgotten lands before mass is held this night, and then you are welcome to join us inside.”
He needed water, by Merlin. He could smell it. He could taste it, tantalizingly close. But he could not drink of this well. There was too much blood.
“If I only needed more iron in my diet. I’ll pass, Padre, but I will take a pew.”
“As you may, stranger’s son. We have the blood of Christ within as well as without, warm and hale. Come.”
He stood there as they passed, filing by close enough to smell how freshly death had renewed their final vows, given in the last vestiges of agony and life. Only he and the priest remained in the moonless dark. No candles lit the alcove ahead.
“Will you stay or come, my wayward child?” A seductive undercurrent filled the priest’s voice, electric, dynamic, promising.
The wizard sighed. From his right hand he produced a wickerman match, brought it to his cracked lips, and breathed glittering blue fire to life. Sapphire heat and azure light to repel the pitch.
Onyx eyes sank, grin eroded to grimace. “Fire is not welcome before our covenant, stranger’s son. Put out your flame.”
He finally smiled. The light filled his eyes. “I’m afraid to say I still fear the dark, Padre. But have no fear I will tarnish your haven.” He pinched the wick between thumb and forefinger, snuffing the glow. An aura warmed his cooling body, faint and unwavering. How he desired water. “This is the best I can promise.”
The priest stretched out an arm to bar the open doorway. “Wait!”
It was futile. The wizard would not be stalled. He stepped past, that arm shying back at the last moment, and the luminosity cast by his aura set the church to shivering with madness. Deeper, darker shadows fled at his approach. The pews creaked, and decayed skulls turned, the same onyx eyes as the priest’s own observing his approach. They trembled in their molding sockets.
“Where can I find a seat amidst your gracious flock, Padre?”
The priest entered. His steps mirrored the silence of the town, a frail silence preceding greater cacophony. He shut the wooden door behind him with the flick of his left wrist, sending it to a squalling halt in the frame that echoed across the interior in warbled warning. “We do not take well to fire, stranger’s son,” he intoned dryly. And then he changed. There came a sour creaking of bones stretching, elongating, and the pulpy mush of muscles rippling beneath tauter and tauter stretched skin. “We do not take well to warmth at all. But oh, how we crave it!” The priest had become something inhuman, drawling out its words with a rohypnol hum that enhanced on the sweet nothings only teased in the ear before, all the better to pillage the senses.
The wizard remained standing straight. He held the unburning match toward the vampire-priest. “Tell me, Padre. When did you succumb to base urges?”
Unexpected resistance to the tongue of desire.
Then, “You are stronger, stranger’s son, than any I have seen before. Your induction to our flock must not be denied.” The ghouls rose then, despite their innate trepidation. They marched with speed. They clawed with anguish at his aura. The wizard was swept toward a faint bedrock slab before the matching altar, his match lost in the chaos of limbs. The vampire strode past them. He heard it kneel before the altar in the darkness, clutching hands gouging at the edges, and there it prayed, but to no god above the earth, only that beneath.
“O’ Morrígan, benevolent queen of shadows! Our mother, who shaped our first kin! Our blood is dry and our veins thirsting, and in our hour of need we have been blessed by your gracious gift, that we may not starve in these trying times!”
”O′ mother-Morrígan,” the masses chanted hollowly.
“A wholesome gift, full of blood as few men are, whose first drops we give in turn to venerate your everlasting blessing!”
”O′ mother-Morrígan,” the masses chanted.
“May you be sated, as we are sated, our mother-Morrígan, amen!”
And so the masses chanted. The vampire leaned forward, lifted a single extended finger to the jugular upon each side of his throat, tracing a line back and forth. The wizard’s pulse remained slow and steady.
“What Christian name have you been given, stranger’s son? Our mother will delight to know of the man this sacrifice belongs to in full!”
The wizard whispered four words. They were a name, but not his name.
The vampire’s eyes shrank to pinpricks. Its angled nail turned futilely toward the fat artery teased to the surface. In the same instance his match renewed, and azure gleam burst to the rafters, casting midnight sun in the chapel of shadows. Eternity approached in the beat that followed. In the next moment, their weakened mother, Morrígan, screamed from every stone, every vanquished doppelganger, every mouth but one. Defiled stained glass shattered. The vampire recoiled in primordial terror, as did its undead flock, but the wizard rose, heedless of panes raining about his body. He clutched one shard tightly in hand, his blood dribbling down the holy edge. He stalked around the altar, knelt before the final remnants of darkness quivering in fear of the true death.
He stabbed down. The Morrígan’s gathered substance held solid about his make-shift blade. He rose. Her last banshee’s shriek cracked the foundation as he approached the wickerman match burning eternally bright, pure, ready. He drove his arm to the elbow into the flowing tongues of flames.
And then there was silence. A starker, hollowed out silence, the wailing of the wind through shattered windows. The moans of fading half-men.
“What have you done?” the vampire cried from its knees.
He withdrew his unmarked arm, turned to watch. Moonlight bled through the vaporizing darkness, beams pale before the fire. Ancient rock above and beneath cracked further, crumbled, smashed the altar to the caving floor. He turned without another word. Left the way he had come. The match would burn itself out only when the ruined church razed to the ground, foundation and all, and the vestiges holding Il Roche to this fixed point had also gone from the Road for ever.
He hiked up the trail as he had descended, desperate for water. He stopped at the only house where a family had endured. The candles had gone out at last. Deceased man, wife, and children clutched each other with familiar relief, hands clasped in a ring around the sullied bucket, smiling faces free for the first time in centuries.
He had to know. He entered, and at his first step their figures fell away as the hordes in the burning chapel, but here a wind swept their ashes to the heavens. He strode forward through the gray dust, knelt, breathed deep of the aroma from the water. It was clean. A gift for his deliverance of them from evil. He drank. At last slaked the worst of his thirst.
The wizard dipped his bandanna in. He filled his pouches to the brim. Then he left Il Roche under the moonlight, a ghost village, the first of several upon the winding, secret road to El Dorado.
Morrígan was finally dead.
A fallen angel still remained.