FEET FIRST and unconscious, he sliced the water and sunk slowly into the depths of the mere that formed at the base of the range of hills in the northern region of Puebla.
The mere was deep; formed ages ago by the eruption of the now dormant volcano above it. Its bottom hollowed out from pitted volcanic rock added a dank darkness that enveloped him.
Touching the bottom, he burped a bubble of air, the last in his lungs, and then awoke. Panic filled his mind as he struggled for a way up. And then a tiny fish with large teeth bit his cheek and his panic evaporated, as the demon’s voice emerged from the fish’s toothy mouth. ‘No air, no sound,’ he thought but he understood the voice in his head anyway.
“Do not swim to the surface. Death awaits you there,” said the fish. “Follow me if you want to live.”
The fish swam off toward the west and traversed the fall’s foam and bubbles to a hole in the wall of the mere and he followed, gasping for air but refusing to panic. The hole was the opening of a tunnel that led upward into a cave above the water line. He was saved.
He pulled himself out of the water and struggled onto a rugged shelf of volcanic stone. A opening thirty feet above his head allowed enough light to partially illuminate the cave’s surface.
Out of the water and now safe, he began to shiver from the cold. His whole body vibrated and his teeth clacked together. Shuddering and wracked with chill he stripped off his clothes and circled the floor, waving his arms and lifting his legs high to provide some warmth to his body.
As he moved he began to curse the demon, the Black Robes that shot him, Birgit, who abandoned him, and God, in particular.
“What the Hell am I doing here?” he shouted and then stopped and looked up at the opening in the stone. “Idiot,” he sputtered to himself, realizing they might hear him having his temper tantrum. “Am I the biggest fool, who ever lived?” he said, sitting down on a stone. Then, he felt the pain in his shoulder. In the shock of the fall and then cold water he had been numb to the pain but now he felt it and he shuddered anew. Touching the wound he examined the fresh blood on his fingers. “Jesus,” he almost cried, “I will bleed to death in this hole and no one will ever find me.”
“Your father found himself in a similar predicament,” said a large white moth, emitting a white soft light, as it fluttered down from the hole above his head.
Stern sat on the rock and wrapped his arms around his chest and said, “I know little or nothing about my father.”
The moth fluttered and the demon spoke through him. “The citizens of Camaron sentenced him to death by starvation and exposure. They then threw him into an abandoned well and left him to die.”
Stern imagined he was hallucinating but he was curious about his father so he asked: “Did he die there?”
The moth landed on his knee and slowly waved its wings. Others descended into the room and a larger one came to rest on his hand and said, “He was saved by the god, Coyote. Do you know him?”
“The trickster god of the indios, right?” he sputtered.
The moth on his hand did not answer but another one lighting on his foot said, “That’s right; Coyote saved him with his own rope. He pulled him out of the well but that is only the beginning of the story. ”
Stern felt light-headed now and lay down on the stone. “I will be dead soon,” he thought.
Another moth landed on his head and said, “Your father was wounded just as you are now and then he died. But the lunar bruja brought him back.”
He lifted his head enough to see the whole floor of the cave was covered with the white moths. He licked his lips and then crawled to the edge of the cavern’s floor and drank water from the mere.
“He died?” he said to the moths and they answered: “The lunar bruja brought him back and sent him to Okeanus.”
He did not have the strength to crawl back to the rock; instead, he passed out where he lay; his long blue-black hair floating gently in the water with the sharp-teethed fish nibbling at the hairs, biting off the ends.
He dreamed of Coyote, who asked him if he knew the story of the Elk monster. “No,” he said, sitting cross-legged next to a feeble fire fueled by Oryx dung. “Oh, you will love this one,” Coyote said, rubbing his hands together, before he began the tale. “If you pay close attention you may find a way out of this cave,” he said with a wink. “I had just died and been re-born for perhaps the thousandth time when I awoke on the yellow stalk grass of the Dakota prairie, hungry and horny. ‘Where is Mole woman?’ I asked with a stretch and yawn.
As Coyote told the tale in the dream, he acted out the actions. Stern smiled, pleased with the trickster’s performance.
“I hallooed out through cupped hands, like this,” he said and then hallooed. “Mole woman come feed me and then hump me.” The Coyote laughed at this; he had tickled himself with his vulgar expression. But vulgarity was one of his major powers.
“I heard a rumbling and the prairie shook, as Mole Woman tunneled toward me. She was coming from the south, from the Commancheria, in a great hurry because she longed to see her mate, the god Coyote.
“Finally, she arrived and popped her head from her tunnel beneath the prairie. ‘Coyote, I am here,’ she whispered and I laughed in happiness to see Mole woman.
“She was quite small and I had to struggle to enter her tight entrance to the underground but I was hungry and a great lust was on me so I forced myself inside.”
“Mole woman was assiduous and her tunnel was smooth and clean. She fed me tortillas and beans and then we mated; our love-making was long and furious. Afterwards, we slept wrapped in each other’s arms in a snug burrow she had carved from the tunnel.
“Badger woke us days later with a tale of Elk monster rampaging hills north of us and I thought it fortuitous that he had come because I was ready for a good fight. I rubbed my hands together and told Mole woman to find Elk monster. She smiled and began digging.
“We tracked down Elk monster and found him fighting Grizzly Bear on the side of a mountain stream. Grizzly Bear had been fishing and Elk monster wanted to take away his fish.
“When we were beneath them I popped out of the tunnel and hallooed for the two to stop fighting. Shocked by my sudden appearance they did.
“Elk monster asked: ‘Coyote how did you get here?’
“I answered: ‘I walked across the prairie. Didn’t you see me? Have you grown so feeble and blind you didn’t see old Coyote walk up to you?’
“Elk monster was confused and Grizzly Bear used the diversion to escape into the woods.
“Mole woman appeared in the distance as I instructed her and I said, ‘Look yonder, people are gathering to attack us.
“Elk monster squinted and said, ‘let’s get them.’
“He swung his shield onto his back and picked up his bow and spear and we set off toward Badger woman.
“A little ways down the hill, Elk monster fell into a hold dug by Mole woman and he couldn’t climb out. I said, “Hand me your weapons and I will help you out.’
“Stupidly, he passed up his spear, his shield, and his bow. And, of course, I took his spear and stabbed him through his left eye and into his brain. We stripped him of all his possessions and Mole woman covered up the hole.”
Stern awoke from the dream, shocked by the sudden violence , and rolled over onto his stomach and crawled away from the edge of the water. He raised himself on his hands and knees and vomited, spewing the vile liquid across the floor, which caused thousands of moths to flutter upward.
His body was feverish and he shook from chills. He sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees, which he brought close to his chest. ‘Where had that dream come from?” he asked himself. “Was there any help contained in the story?’
The light from the opening far above his head dimmed and he realized that the day had almost passed.
His clothes were still damp but almost dry. He pulled them on, hoping they would provide some warmth. His wound no longer bled.
A moth said, “Remember Coyote.” Then all of the moths rose and flew through the opening in the cavern’s ceiling into the darkening night, leaving the cave pitch-black. He could no longer see his hand.
He sat in the darkness, shivering with fever and thinking about everything that happened to him since the attack in his room. Hours passed as he remembered every detail, wondering how he could have avoided this mayhem. Many times he simply shrugged his shoulders and accepted that he might be insane.
He fell asleep and then he awoke to a movement from the water. Above him, first light of dawn illuminated the mouth of the hole; just enough to allow him to see forms and shapes in the cave.
Water erupted and spray doused him, as a pregnant blue-back dragon rose from the water and climbed the rocks of the cave’s ledge.
Although weak, Stern jumped back and edged toward the far side of the cave. It became obvious to him through some unknown sense that although the dragon was aware of him, she did not intend attacking him. He knew this by the way the yellowish light emanating from her eyes softened. He relaxed and leaned against the wall of the cave and waited to see what she would do.
The pregnancy weighed the beast down and she had trouble moving on the rough stones, her stomach large and distended. Stern guessed she was about to birth her offspring and he did not want to be around when that happened.
The dragon waddled to the center of the cave and lay down, wrapped her body into a circle with her long barbed tail touching her nose and fell asleep. Stern, although hurt and weak, edged around the cave toward the water. He decided he should try to swim to the surface of the mere; a daunting feat for a man in his condition but better, he thought, than being roasted by dragon fire.
Almost to the water’s edge, he paused when he became aware the dragon was watching him. He took one more step and the dragon sprayed a line of liquid fire across the floor, blocking his way to the water. He moved back to his place against the wall and the dragon closed her eyes and fell back into sleep.
Something was definitely up, he thought. The dragon did not seem menacing but she also was not going to allow him to leave her lair.
A moth fluttered down from the hole above and landed on the floor near him. “Think,” the moth said. “What aligns you with the dragon?”
Supposedly, he thought, his father was on a mission for the Black Robes to discover the source of the dragons. But that was apocryphal or so he always believed. The woman, Birgit, had fed him an elixir called dragon skin but that, too, was certainly metaphorical. Or was it? Could the dragon believe he was one of her kind? When she sniffed him, did she smell dragon? Finally, it didn’t really matter what reason the dragon had for not eating him. He could not stay here much longer. Wounded and cold, he had to find help.
The moth lifted up and said, as it fluttered toward the hole in the roof, “Remember Coyote’s story.”
He scratched the stubble on his chin and thought about Coyote’s tale. Should he burrow his way out? Impossible, he laughed. Or should I find the entrance to yet another tunnel? And then he thought about his session in the library reading the Grimoire of Shadow and his entrance into the other realm.
He looked about him and found a small rough stone, which he used to open the wound on his shoulder. With the blood, he drew the magic diagram and closed his eyes as he remembered the letters and their place in the magical formula. When it was complete, he said the word, “Exigo,” and a timeless space, ein Bezirk, engulfed him.
He was in a cavern still but not the one under the falls. No dragon slept on the floor nor was the cave dark and dank; instead, torches illuminated the space and it was warm. A tall, thin humanoid stood a few feet opposite him and he noted its strong aquiline features, its thin pale lips, its nose, shaped like a falcon’s beak, its eyes, almond-shaped and hazel in color and its pointed ears, very much like his own. The creature wore only a leather kilt with five or six golden bracelets on each arm and one on each ankle. Its bare skin was bone white.
Barefooted, it approached Stern; and, when it was only a foot or so away, it said, “I am Kokabiel and you are in a Bezirk of my making.”
“You are the voice in my head” said Stern, somewhat startled at seeing embodied the voice that had been helping him since he was twelve.
The demon bowed.
Stern walked about the room. There were neither walls nor windows. As far as he could tell it was as sealed container.
The demon waited patiently as he examined his surroundings and then said, when it seemed that Stern had exhausted his investigation, “I need your help, Asa.”
The boy turned to him and said, “What can I do for you?” he ran his hand nervously through his thick hair. “I am a helpless mess.”
The demon laughed and said with a smile, which revealed his pointed teeth and black tongue, “You are connected to the Grimoire of Shadow. In fact, on a magical level it is yours. Only you may handle it now.”
The boy was confused and said, “I don’t have it.” He paused before continuing. ‘I never had it. I read part of it but I left it in the library.”
Kokabiel nodded and said, “You didn’t read it in the library. You read it in a Bezirk, a magical space I created from a spell from the Grimoire of Thorns. I opened a space in a monastery library in a castle on an island in the world known as Okeanus and you opened it and read it there.”
Stern shook his head and confessed: “I didn’t understand a word you just said.”
The demon laughed dryly. “Magic is a combination of words and blood. Many times wizards, magicians, warlocks write spells down in books, known as grimoires, to protect the spells from disappearing. Demons never write things down but often we use magic that mortals concoct.” He waved his hand in front of him, palm down, and a chair appeared and the demon sat; he crossed his legs and said, “I am a great collector of magical books. However, from time to time one slips from my grasp. For instance, I once let a very valuable book escape me. I gave it to a mortal to achieve access to your world and now it is lost to me.”
“So what help do you want from me?” asked the boy, wishing that he, too, had a chair.
The demon read his thoughts and conjured up a chair for him.
“I want you to retrieve the Grimoire of Shadow and bring it to me in the Argantine,” he said.
“Why can’t you just go and pick it up?” asked the boy innocently.
The demon frowned and the room’s heat increased by a few degrees. The boy did not notice because everything about the encounter was so strange.
“I cannot enter a world without an invitation of an inhabitant of that world,” the demon said softly. “I am not here. I am projecting an image of myself into your space.”
The boy reached for the demon to test his statement and his hand passed through the image sitting on the chair in the center of the Bezirk.
“You see,” said the demon, “I am an image in your Bezirk.”
The boy thought for a few moments, playing the demon’s word in his mind. He had a sense the demon was telling him more than he was saying. His words were like a poem that needs him to perform an explication de texte to reveal its meaning. When he thought he found the points of obfuscation, he asked: “When you say it’s my space, what do you mean?”
The demon smiled, as if to support Stern’s request for clarification. “You created the space from your reading of the text of the Grimoire of Shadow and the application of your blood and your words; consequently, the power of the space is yours, not mine. In fact, I have no power here at all.”
“So how are you here?” said the boy, growing somewhat excited by the thought that he might be able to wield some sort of power.
“I have been privy to your mind since I gained access to this world through a promise I made to your father; a promise to keep you safe. Wherever you are, I can project an image or an ear to hear.”
“You have mentioned the promise before,” said the boy, wondering what circumstances caused his father to bargain with the demon. He was about to ask the question, when something told him not to ask. He did not know if the warning came from the demon himself or from some other force. All he knew was he felt strongly that if he tried to interrogate the demon, he would be truly sorry. So, instead, he said, “How do I use the power of the Bezirk to escape the dragon’s lair?”
“Remember the dream of Coyote and Mole Woman,” said the demon. “Use the space to create a tunnel between one known space and another.”
The boy thought for a moment and then asked: “Are you saying that I can create a passageway between where I am now and a place I have been?”
The demon nodded in the affirmative.
“How can I do that?”
The demon said, “Imagine a place where you have been and then force your will against the wall of this space and watch the space expand toward that remembered place.”
Asa had an excellent sense of direction: he always seemed to know the direction of true north so he pictured his current location and then imagined the barn where he met Akna. Once he had both places firmly in his mind he willed a passageway toward the barn and, a few minutes, stepped back in amazement, watching the wall of the Bezirk elongate and stretch itself forward into the semblance of a tunnel that inched inexorably toward the southwest; the direction he remembered the barn and the cantina.
As he watched the passageway that was neither in time nor space, he asked: “How do I exit the Bezirk?”
The demon smiled and said, “You must mark the beginning and the end to establish the tunnel’s existence and then you will call for a gate to open on the command of your choice.” The demon paused. “All these things and more are contained in the Grimoire of Shadow.”
Stern realized that the demon was giving him a taste of power, hoping that it would cause him to seek out the book of magic. Very obvious, but very apt, he thought.
“Principium written in blood at the beginning and exitus inscribed at the end will complete the passage. Choose whatever word you want to gain access or egress through a portal and write it on the wall in your blood.”
As they talked, the tunnel continued forward and he said, “How will I know when the passage is complete?”
“It will stop and a space identical to this will form,” answered the demon.
Asa opened the wound on his shoulder and wrote the word for beginning in lingua on the floor. As he worked at the letters, he decided to ask about the dragon.
“Why didn’t the dragon attack me?” he said.
“Ah,” responded the demon. “It is the dragon skin elixir in your body. She thought you were a dragon.”
“You know about the dragon skin?” he asked, finishing the word on the floor.
“Of course, it is in you so I must know it,” he said sharply.
His tone startled the boy so he asked: “What’s the matter? Why have you changed your tone?”
The demon modulated his voice, probably because he did not want the boy to know anything bothered him. “The one who fed you the dragon skin is a mortal enemy. She is a member of the Category.”
“I have heard that word before but I have no idea what it means.”
But before the demon responded to his statement about the Category, the passageway stopped with a shudder, and the demon said, “You have reached your goal. Be careful and come to me in the Argantine as quickly as you can.” His image then disappeared and Stern suspected he left because he had said too much and wanted to escape the boy’s incessant questions.
Stern started down the long stretch of tunnel. He advanced slowly through the passageway; the shoulder wound had opened again and he felt weak.
Hours passed and he had to stop several times to rest. Once he fell into a feverish sleep and dreamed of Coyote and Mole woman, making love on a vast prairie. It was a graphic dream and he awoke covered in sweat and very thirsty. The thought he might die in the Bezirk crossed his mind. What would happen to his body if he died in no space and no time?
A day passed within the tunnel. No time passed outside, when he had reached the end. He drew the word “Mara” on the wall and then he said,”Exitus.” A portal opened that shimmered and vibrated. On the other side he could see the wooden floor of the barn’s loft, the place he had hid with Akna. He stepped through and shivered from some sort of mild electrical charge as time and space reasserted their power over him.