It came down on them in a shower of rattling, the rustle of metal and feathers. Its thunder was the pounding of feet, it screamed like a giant, dying eagle. This call ended in a deep-throated growl. Everywhere shone with golden light, which reflected from where I dared not look, from whatever came down the hall and stood rattling before the two men.
There was a whisper of Spanish and the swish of a sword missing its target. An instant of silence followed, filled by an explosion of sound. The screeching eagle and roaring growl burst out and took on a lethal life of their own. The shatter of breaking glass and dying human despair mixed in the overwhelming din. The vicious roar and ferocious light went at the men like a chainsaw hollowing pumpkins.
I went to my knees and shook into the corner, hiding from the monstrosity that churned only feet away. If this were a vision from the remnants of the poison, then it far surpassed any nightmare I had ever been part of. Surely my mind would short out before rendering these scenes on its own? Madness grinned as my only retreat.
The chorus of thunder-calls, satisfied with its wet work, roared and jangled back up the stairs. The shimmering light receded. Only the dripping quiet remained with me in the dark. I was determined to stay there, curled in the corner, forever. It felt like I did.
After a while the faintest of moonlight made the bare angles of my surroundings navigable. Nothing had moved outside for hours. The copper smell of blood soured the air, but the dripping had stopped as the stuff had thickened on the steps.
These were steps I would need to navigate if I hoped to escape this charnel tomb. I looked out and up, seeing the faint doorway hundreds of feet up the thickly coated stairs. Near the top, bodies lay dismembered in a cruel pile, bloodless and without face. Staring at the distant doorway, I placed a foot forward over the remains and began to climb.
There were things like loose bricks laying scattered on the steps, but I gave them no heed at the time. In hindsight, had I then made the connection, much of the bloodshed and terror which followed could have been avoided. Instead my careful footing became swifter as I neared the outside, the above-ground.
Up and out I fled, into the mission’s central chamber, where the soft moonlight cast cobalt shadows, and dust from my haste formed swirls in the beams. My panic clenched before I could rush out the door, into the full stare of the moon and anything else. I stopped short and crept to the edge, peering out from a point I hoped invisible.
Outside was bright with buildings set fire; every structure was ablaze. Even the mission, I noticed behind me, was burning. There were black splashes in the sand, and more sinister shapes sprayed on the rocks. One large boulder, about waist high, had darkness pooled on its flat top. There were echoes of violence everywhere, and I wanted to leave. This canyon was a dead land, a hollow not only of stone but of soul.
Where could I go?
I had been lost in the desert for days.
I had fallen into a delirium following a sting from an unknown desert bug. In the time since I was bitten, the effects failed to burn off with sleep, exercise or fear, and I was certain that the night must have ended several times. There was the night of the drum circle, and just tonight the full moon brought bloodstorm revenge to a place stained by greed and the worst of men’s tortures.
On some occasions I had been unconscious during daylight hours, a void brought from injury and poison and a plunging fall underground. Now I was dizzy but not dreaming. Lengths of stark lucidity and the need to speak things aloud would be broken by deep silences and vivid hallucinations. I glanced back at my path in the sand to find my footsteps shrinking away too fast and coiling snakelike around the dunes.
The night could last forever. I would watch as the horizon slowly ate up the stars, returning them row by row to the other, invisible side of the world. There were always more stars, however, they spread without end.
My admiration for nature intensified and focused, until I felt the very core pattern of things in my heartbeat. I shone with this newfound connection, this powerful oneness. My eyes ached with the information I had forced through them, as if the pupils could not come to terms with the photon’s bounce. I saw the unbroken pattern of wind-washed sand fanning from horizon out and knew in a flash of the plan.
Then time returned with a pop and all that mattered was getting far away from this ruined hollow, going out and away from the remnants of slaughter and far from the native vengeance. I wanted to hide from whatever creature had killed those people, maybe even get back to my car and get out of here for good. I could report it to the local Sheriff, make a guess on the map, but I could never find this place again.
Wasn’t there something about the car though? Was it out of gas? Flat tires? I distinctly recalled an issue with driving out. My memory had areas of greyness and fog, and most of my arrival I couldn’t recall; the day I awoke in the blistering heat, baking in my car seat, was more like a dream or a movie half slept through.
Some of it was clear, but unreal, distorted. I knew that within a half-mile of the car was a dirt road, leading to one made of gravel, then on to a paved highway. I could get there on foot, hitchhike to the nearest town, and get a tow for my car. I could retrace my footprints in the sand. I went back to the stairway to look for a torch, and remembered those drenched in blood at the bottom of the slick stairs.
Putting a foot into the dark passage, I heard a whisper clear from halfway down the stairs. It was a pleading, final sound. It rang of the grave.
I chose to find a torch out on the surface, and returned to the door leading out.
The yard remained still save for the flame-induced shadows which haunted patches of the ground. I searched for signs of a bear or other animal, hoping that the violence required in the acts evidenced around me did not find their origin in a human source.
Overhead, the moon had lessened in size, but remained almost where it had been for hours. It struggled slower than I knew the moon to, but I ignored it in favor of finding a torch. I broke a flaming plank from what looked like an old water-trough.
The ghost-town wood burned fast and bright, and with my torch, I set out away from the mission at canyon’s end.
I hiked down the wash that led away from the mission, putting the blood and violence to my back. I struggled to remain focused on the path ahead, fought to keep out the memories of their screams. I watched the torch’s perimeter for the telltale glare of an animal’s shining eyes and increased my gait. I saw nothing but sage and cactus in the folds of the canyon walls until perhaps an hour later, when the channel forked on two dried creek beds. Both passages were half as wide of where I stood, and ran deeper into the rock. The twisting slots tickled at my memory. I chose one and headed into the oppressive maze.
The moon was setting, but if not for its waning light then travel at night through the region of narrows would have been impossible. Thin crumbling ledges and precariously balanced boulders were commonplace; pitfalls, drop-offs and sheer cracks appeared in unexpected places.
Certainly dawn lay just over the horizon, held back by the force of the stubborn night. In the last hours of darkness I squeezed deeper into the labyrinth.
At 50’ up there was a small ledge where I could perch out of reach of the growing waterfall. I knelt in the rain, shivering against the foreign sensation of cold. I had been burning in the sun for so long that I was caught between soothed and shock.
Blistered skin on my shoulders drank in the moisture, pain and relief came at once.
Enough dust had settled in my hair that mud ran down my face and stung my eyes. I pushed my head close to the falls and washed off in the torrent. The sense of shock wore off, replaced by a cooling relief. I would not die of thirst in this lost, western world.
A guttural sound spilled from my open mouth as I gulped in air and muddy water. My first drink in days went down with a garbled choke that I later recognized as laughter. I marveled at the alien sound and the feeling of elation that accompanied it. Surely I would have died without this gift from the sky. A moment of clarity rushed in, and for a flash my mind was free of madness.
In my mind I saw the car, somewhere out in the desert, its glass blazing like a jewel stuck in the sand. It was far away, to the west and north. I was not lost, after all. The car was out there, all I had to do was return to it and then reach the road.
Still splashing and drinking, I wondered how I could ever have cursed the rain. Why had the coming storm seemed so ominous? It was, after all, my ally in this waste.
Crouching on a shallow ledge, I drank first from cupped hands and then straight from the waterfall. I was delirious in the rush, elated in the present and unable to fathom further. I slung my arms through the cascade, watching the splash as my fingertips threw bright drops into the air. My strength was returning.
The solemn thunder was met by a rumble much closer, and the roar grew until it was a crashing truck, a derailing train. I looked up to see boulders, dirt and scrub boiling around the corner, up canyon. A flash flood was pushing this churning alluvium in front of its monstrous volume.
I leapt up and my arms began to claw for a handhold. Even before I could look away from the face of the oncoming flood I was climbing. My arms and legs pistoned without command. Up I went as the locomotive wall hammered an invisible wave of air towards me. Only my hands, jammed into the wet sandstone cracks, could get me above the splintering tracks of the flood's descending train wreck. As the crest stammered past, I held fast to the thought I was safe. Then a sharp trunk of juniper pushed out of the top of the boil, and it seemed the horn of a giant Taurus, a metamorphic Minotaur in the passages of peril. Then the pain came sharp and hard.
The tip of the sharpened branch rammed straight through my foot and snapped, piercing me like an arrow from top to sole. I screamed at the pain of it, it had ripped aside the ball of my foot as it pushed through, then yanked like a shark before snapping me off the cliff with that single tug. I went into the churn of boulders and sharps pinned to the trunk of an uprooted juniper as surely as if I’d been nailed to the wood, through my foot. My mind was bright with the screaming of raw nerves. I held to the tree like a lifeboat at sea, and despite my foot’s pitched angle, as the rain hammered down on the roaring rush I tried to remain afloat.