The tall spare man walked across the wild, breathtaking landscape as though pursued, although the pursuit came mostly from within.
His name, given to him by water and the holy chrism in the rites of his father’s people, the name by which he would be called by the last rising, was Pierre de Toussaint D’Avenir. His other name, the one his long-dead mother had given him in the secret of the tent late at night, in the rites of the tribe from which she’d been stolen as a child, was Tatanka, which meant Bull. His mother had told him that meant he wouldn’t retreat from anything.
Born between worlds, sometimes he wondered if he’d ever done anything but retreat. Or advance. When you walked alone, it was difficult to know the direction you were going.
Since shortly after his father had dropped him off at school in St. Louis, at the age of six, he had cleaved to the Word of God, seeing the rites of the Catholic Church as an anchor in a madly shifting world. He had no other way to deal with the conflicting ideas and visions, a world in which the old tribal gods had come to life and manifested their chaotic ways, interfering with human existence and making people their playthings. Instead, he clung desperately to a God who had sent his only son to die for the world. That was his unshakeable truth.
And yet, in a world where the Pope—if there was still a Pope—and the rest of the Church had been broken off from the Americas in the Sundering, he was once more trapped between the worlds, a man who believed in rites and ceremonies disdained by most Protestant Christians in America.
That was why he’d become a priest of the holy mother church, Father Avenir, bringing the Word far into arcane America, beyond the Mississippi River and over the Continental Divide. He’d taken to the wild lands, carrying his faith where he need not question the wisdom of serving a Universal Church that was no longer universal.
He walked the rugged wilderness in buckskin pants and tunic, his wild waist-long black hair, increasingly streaked with white, blowing in the wind, his beard long and only intermittently trimmed by his own knife. He kept his tattered cassock with all his other possessions on his back, bringing it out only when he had to perform Catholic rites for those who requested them, a few Natives, but mostly mixed-breed men like himself, the product of Native and European.
As a priest of the mother church, Father Avenir knew he looked odd, and he also knew that he was inadequate to his task. But everyone was inadequate in these wild times, and many other priests had lost their way, turned their backs on the Church and embraced some other sect of Christianity, or worse, degenerated into idolatry and sorcery now that magic had returned.
Father Avenir could have retreated into the chaos of power and desire to control the future, or he could have joined the more powerful Protestant sects from the North. But it was not in him. Tatanka stood firm, steady, facing down threats with lowered head, ready to charge.
He ranged all over the unexplored arcane territories populated by scattered Native tribes, all of whom needed to hear the word of God. Now, more than ever, they must hear that in the world of spirits and supernatural creatures, there was a rock to cling to. For God so loved the world He sent it His only son.
Fifty years after the Sundering, when Mr. Halley’s comet had exploded over the Earth and forever separated America from the old world, Father Avenir’s beliefs had become even more potent and necessary. But all the unleashed magic had also made manifest the powerful Native gods as well.
He should have been preaching to scattered tribes, sitting around their campfires and sharing food with them, but now those encounters had become more than telling them of his faith, of the man who was God and who required nothing more than their belief in Him. Now his work had become fighting demons and visions, sometimes literally.
Father Avenir had wandered for the past fifteen years, embarking from St. Louis as a missionary, up the Missouri River, heading across the Great Plains, and up into the mountains. He trended ever northward where his father had once hunted, where his mother had carried him on her back. The landscape had been frightening twenty years after the Sundering, and it was terrifying now.
The younger generation of shamans didn’t rely only on the legends of their forefathers, but they had also personally visited the spirit worlds. They had spoken directly with Coyote and flown with Raven. They had seen river serpents and been attacked by Canotti with their magic arrows. He had heard of the land of the dead where the tribes believed their spirits went, but what place did he have there, halfbreed that he was? Father Avenir had to go to the God that claimed all peoples, or nowhere.
He spoke English, French, and a half-dozen or so Native tongues, and often the words got mixed up in his mind because he spent so much time wandering alone and talking to himself. Avenir believed that one needed miracles to convince people who were beguiled by shamans, but he refused to perform sorcery. He would not risk his connection to Him Who’d Redeemed the World, not even to achieve his holy purpose.
And now at last, he knew what that purpose was. He had heard stories from the tribes about a powerful wizard, an evil force that drained energy from the land, destroyed numerous tribes, brought back the dead, summoned monsters—all to strengthen the wild arcane territories and fight against the white men in the East. Father Avenir felt that he had at last come to his most important battle.
He trudged along on foot, crossing a ridge and working his way through sparse pine trees and larches, until he looked down at the wide and smoking valley below, where heat shimmered, where steam and spray wafted into the air, bringing with it a sulfurous taint. He could hear the hiss and grumble in the forest silence.
The Shoshone people had told him of this place and sent him here, a land where the rivers ran hot and cold within feet of where the stone was yellow, or mud bubbled up from the ground and geysers roared with hot steam like a dragon’s breath.
Father Avenir fumbled with his buckskin jacket and touched the hand-carved wooden cross that hung on a leather thong around his neck. It gave him strength and he would need it to face the demons ahead. Avenir had once intended to purge the demons from the land, to show the power of God and convince the tribes of the power of Jesus. Now, he just hoped he would survive this ordeal. He reached for the rosary strapped to his belt so he could count the beads as he walked.
“Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.
Hora mortis nostrae, Father Avenir muttered to himself, and sighed. He hoped indeed that Mary and the Angels would be there to receive him at the hour of his death, but sometimes he worried. Maybe the things he’d done—small acts from his small magic to avert death or to convince a tottering believer, had damned him already. Or maybe Heaven itself had changed with the Sundering.
He could do nothing but continue. He’d been told the Mother of God was Grátia pléna, and he would have to trust in her Grace to intercede with her Son on his behalf.
He found his own trail toward the cursed valley, his feet carrying him along before he could let any doubts assail him. All his life Avenir had conquered his questions and survived persecution. From the Natives who considered him a stranger, from the whites who considered him a Native, from the pagans who considered him mad, from the Protestants who considered him evil. He remained strong, though.
Just because America had been severed from the rest of the world did not mean he was in any way cut off from Jesus, Mother Mary, or the Holy Spirit. Surely God was stronger than any magic he could imagine.
The air was chilly, the sky gray with clouds. The tall, feathery larches swayed back and forth whispering in a sound that was not a threat, but like a frightened child whispering a prayer.
Far ahead on the other side of the valley, a geyser gushed with a loud hiss, shooting a plume of steam and boiling water high into the air. The sound shattered the silence, and Avenir flinched, but he forced himself to continue, to face his test. He heard other gasping fumaroles, exhalations of poisonous gas belching from the ground. A slurry of mud and ash bubbled up like some witch’s cauldron.
He closed his eyes prayed more loudly and kept walking.
He had known of the valley of yellow stones, or at least his mother had told him of it. The ominous place had existed since before the Sundering, with its thermal turmoil and its natural wonders, but after the return of magic, it had become something else.
Near the edge of the valley, he paused to make his preparations. A shallow, half-hearted stream trickled down the hillside. He knelt on the soft bank, where a thin scum of chemical residue had collected. The wildlife in the forest around him had fallen into a hush.
Father Avenir removed his pack and opened it, withdrawing his empty bowl used for cooking and also for washing himself, even shaving when he felt so inclined. For now, it would serve as a basin to hold the water. He dipped the bowl in the stream and went through the motions of blessing it.
For a battle such as this against arcane demons and the minions of Satan himself, it would have been far better to use holy water blessed by the Pope himself, but no drop of that precious fluid remained any longer in all of the Americas. But every priest, who had been ordained by another priest in a line stretching back to the apostles, had been given the power to cast out demons.
Setting the holy water aside, he prepared himself. Wrapped in a clean handkerchief, he carried wafers purchased from a house in St. Louis, whose proprietor claimed to make the consecration bread in a way acceptable to the Church. Father Avenir doubted it. Over the years, whenever he went back to replenish his supplies, he found the wafers were yellower and contained more seeds, but they would have to do . . . as would the wine he poured from a small bottle to a willow bark cup.
Fifteen years ago, bright with the potential of his mission, he had set out with French wine and a silver cup, but neither had escaped the rapacity of the first Native tribe to whom he’d preached. Now Avenir used some kind of berry wine he obtained from the tribes in exchange for furs, and he had made the willow bark cup himself.
It didn’t matter. By the words of the consecration, they would become the body and blood of that most powerful act of sacrifice that had redeemed the world.
Continuing, he spread a clean piece of suede on top of a large lichen-covered rock, balanced the offerings on it, donned his cassock and started the holy service.
He didn’t need to open the Bible. He remembered the readings for the day, and as he boomed the holy words in Latin from memory at the wild land, it seemed that the hush deepened, as though the land itself listened. And why not? Hadn’t St. Francis preached to the fish? Not that Avenir was a saint, by any means. He performed the whole service and consumed the flesh and the blood of the Son of God, willing himself to become one with Him, possessed of His strength.
He returned his implements to the pack and folded up the clean suede piece. He pulled out the wooden cross and let it hang proudly on his chest. He ran his fingers through his beard and his tangled hair, as if to make himself presentable, but he was not going to a debutante’s ball. Moses himself wandering through the wilderness had looked no worse. When Jesus was tempted by the devil, he had not fretted over his appearance. What mattered were Father Avenir’s heart and soul.
With the newly blessed water in the bowl, he filled his battered but serviceable old aspergillum. He took his battered old copy of the Holy Bible and pressed it against the black tunic at his chest, then he raised himself to his feet from the bank of the sluggish stream. Prepared and with a strong heart, he looked ahead into the smoke and fumes as another angry geyser blasted not far away.
“I come to pray.” His voice was soft, but the challenge was clear. “Fire demons, you will bow before the word of God.”
He had no doubt the supernatural forces lurking in this raw wound on the landscape would hear him. If they bowed before his faith, he might let them live. Avenir could be generous. Even angels themselves could fall from heaven, and creatures such as these, which manifested the superstitious beliefs of the unconverted, were all part of the universe that God created. If they could be brought to heel and made to give their service to the Holy Word, perhaps they could be useful. Father Avenir had seen countless inexplicable things in these arcane territories. It was not his purpose to question the wonders of the Sundered world, and he didn’t dare question his faith.
Leaving his pack and his fur coat behind where he could retrieve them if he survived this confrontation, or where scavengers could find them if he didn’t, Father Avenir strode ahead, one man alone carrying the strength of God. He walked out into the blistering valley of fire and smoke. He could smell the bitter brimstone in the air and the fumes stung his eyes, but his tears were those of joy and determination. In defiance, he inhaled deeply of the sulphurous fumes, knowing he was about to enter Hell itself.
The tribe had called themselves the Snake People, or in their own language, the Shoshone. They had once been a large tribe with many villages and much trade throughout the mountains, but in recent years, with the growing evil force that had corrupted the magic in the land, many Shoshone had been possessed, their minds stolen away and placed in thrall of the dark controlling force. Many of their villages had been burned to the ground, destroyed by incomprehensibly evil attacks, fiery demons summoned by the black spirit himself.
Now, the Shoshone were scattered and desperate, packing up their possessions and moving from place to place as if hunted. Their strong warriors were forced to form raiding parties to seize food and supplies from settlements even weaker than their own.
Just a few weeks earlier in his wanderings in the wilderness, searching for other children of God, Father Avenir suddenly found himself confronted by two sturdy warriors with long black hair and fierce-looking spears. On horseback, they rode in out of the trees like bandits, confronting the priest. Father Avenir had found himself in many such perilous situations before, but he had his faith as a shield and a calm demeanor, as well as the fact that he had no possessions anyone would want to take, except for some dried meat and old acorns. Father Avenir had smiled a welcome at the dour-faced warriors and said a Latin prayer for them, offering greetings in English, French, and several local Native tongues.
The lead warrior straightened, cocked his chin. “You are a priest? A shaman of the White God?” He sniffed. “And how strong is your God?”
Father Avenir showed all the confidence he could summon. “My God is strong. He created the world and the whole universe.”
The warrior let out a gruff laugh. “All gods say that, but at least our god, Coyote, admits that he sometimes plays tricks on us.”
Father Avenir formed a stern expression as he clutched the cross at his chest. “My God does not play tricks.” Though, really, who but a God with an odd sense of humor would create a child half-white and half-Native, then give him a religion whose leader had been removed from this reality?
The Shoshone warrior gestured with his spear. “I am Cameahwait. Ride behind my companion. We want you to speak with our shaman. The Snake People need strength now. Perhaps you can succeed where our shaman failed.”
The two warriors rode as he walked, and they led him to a small and sparse new village. The people had cut down saplings and built new huts, covering them with tattered old skins. To Father Avenir it looked as if they had salvaged their possessions and moved often from place to place. They built up camp fires in the village and Cameahwait loudly introduced their guest, calling for the women to cook and share their food, which consisted of a few rabbits, squirrels, and trout from the streams.
Father Avenir accepted their hospitality, although the people looked at him with both fear and suspicion. When he made the sign of the cross, the Shoshone flinched as if he were summoning some great magic. But Avenir smiled at them and gestured his blessing. He sat on a log near the cookfire as they brought out food, still not certain why he was here, but as always he welcomed the chance to spread the Word. He had an acceptable familiarity with their language because his mother had been captive among the Shoshone as a young woman, and he knew enough similar words in other tribal tongues that he could patch together ways to explain even the more esoteric concepts.
But the women who served him were not his audience, and the few rambunctious children running among the trees avoided him. Cameahwait and several other warriors from a scattered raiding party also kept their distance.
Father Avenir ate alone until another man emerged from an isolated structure, a wiry man with a weighty presence about him, clumpy, scrabbly hair, and a feral demeanor. He prowled forward, hunched over as if he couldn’t decide whether he was a man or an animal. He wore a loincloth, stained moccasins up to his ankles, and the rich, silvery pelt of a coyote wrapped around his shoulders with the head still intact, lolling to the side. The shaman came forward, his eyes locked on Father Avenir’s, and took a seat immediately across the fire, staring at the priest.
Something about the shaman’s presence changed the movement in the air, and the acrid smoke from the campfire drifted about and burned Avenir’s nose and eyes. He blinked away and gestured, made the sign of the cross, and the smoke drifted off in a different direction.
The shaman grinned as if that had been a test of wills. “My name is Dosabite. You are a priest of the white men. You bring their bible from across the great water, long before the Sundering.”
“I am a priest,” Avenir admitted. “I follow the word of God, the traditions of the apostles, and the dictates of the Holy Father from Rome.” He held up his Bible, knowing that none of the Native tribes had any written language. “God’s word is preserved here forever in these pages. It is great magic.”
“So you say,” said Dosabite. “But if your God is so strong, why hasn’t he defeated the evil spirit that drains these lands, steals our warriors, and raises revenants from the dead as his minions?”
“Perhaps the fight is just beginning,” Avenir said.
“We shall see how strong your God is.” The shaman picked up the coyote head and placed it firmly on his own, tugging it down as if it were a helmet. The sharp teeth stood out across Dosabite’s face. The flaps of fur hung over his ears with pointed canine tufts of their own. The dead eyes of the coyote were like dark holes, but the priest stared at them, undaunted. The spirits of the world had no power over the eternal.
Father Avenir had been trained by other priests in St. Louis when he was just a young man. He had learned how to read and how to preach, and he had become passionately convinced in the truth of the Word. He had been born long after the comet came and after the magic shifted. He knew that many spells and folk magic worked, and that some people exhibited great powers, most prominent of whom was probably the great wizard, Benjamin Franklin.
Father Avenir had some small ability with magic himself, though he preferred not to learn spells, because learning spells was admitting there was a magic greater than God’s power, and he would not do that. Instead, he told them about Jesus, or David and Goliath, or how Jeremiah stopped the sun in the sky, or how Moses parted the Red Sea. These were stories greater than any Native myths, and they were true.
As he faced the shaman over the campfire, Father Avenir made his case, told his impassioned tales to Dosabite, who listened to them without sign of skepticism. When he was finished, the shaman reciprocated by telling of the trickster god Coyote, a powerful spirit whose works could be seen every day in the natural world, manifested in incomprehensible coincidences, unexpected problems, but also miracles.
“Only God creates miracles,” Avenir said. “The rest is just magic, which is lesser. My mother told me all those tales when I was little.”
“Only fools insist on one explanation,” retorted the shaman.
As they both ate and talked, Dosabite spoke of the tribulations of his people, how the Shoshone had been driven from place to place by the evil spirit abroad in the land, by fire demons who burned villages, of giant river serpents infesting the waters. Then he told Father Avenir of a place in the mountains to the north where the anger and evil bubbled forth from beneath the ground, where it cracked open the land of the yellow stone, where true evil could be confronted. “But go there only if your God is strong enough,” Dosabite warned.
Something about the shaman’s words intrigued Father Avenir. “I would see this for myself. My mother spoke of it, but she told me nothing of spirits dwelling there. My God is strong enough to purge them.”
“I do not doubt your stories or your God,” said Dosabite. “In these days with magic saturating the land, and the beliefs and fears of all tribes feeding it, one would be ill-advised to doubt any god.”
With a flare, sparks swirled up from the campfire, and Father Avenir reeled back as he crossed himself. The smoke drifted in front of his eyes again, and the sparks died away to a low glow of embers. He looked across at the shaman, shocked to see that the coyote skin covering Dosabite’s head had changed. The jaws were longer, settled into place. The eyes were fire with a golden glow.
He was Coyote, and the head had become part of him. The shaman’s tongue lolled out between long, sharp teeth and he made a chuffing, feral sound before he leaped up from the log and bounded away from the campfire, leaving Avenir alone and clutching his Bible.
Now, around the steamy, smoking basin, Father Avenir saw towering evergreens, rolling hills, mountain peaks. During his long trek from the village of the Snake People, following the directions Dosabite had given him, the priest had headed into the lush wilderness, far from where even the remaining bands would go.
Avenir feared the looming evil presence that supposedly was engulfing all of the uncharted lands beyond the Mississippi and the Missouri. He fought for strength within himself, knowing in his heart and soul that he himself might be the warrior to defeat that presence, and he was an inadequate warrior for such a great battle.
He’d fasted and prayed, and he sang the old hymns he’d learned in the church in St. Louis. Now, his voice echoed strong off the landscape and rang a strange susurrus from the local magic.
“Pange, lingua, gloriósi
Quem in mundi prétium
Fructus ventris generósi
Rex effúdit géntium.”
Let the spirits and magics hear of the king born of a virgin, who’d shed his blood for men. Let them tremble.
As he moved through the hellish landscape of curling steam and foul-smelling smoke, he could feel the power simmering within the earth, an angry strength that was fierce, independent. He slowly silenced his voice and continued forward, his right hand wrapped around the cross. The Bible was tucked snugly between his arm and his side, giving him comfort and strength. The brimstone stench swirled around his face, but he breathed deeply, showing no fear.
When the comet had exploded and sundered America from the rest of the world, that event could have swept the remnants of Eden along with it, but perhaps this land also held the gates of Hell. Hadn’t Jesus himself said they would not stand against the Church? Even if all that remained of the Church in this desolate place was Father Avenir, he had been ordained by men who were ordained by the apostles who had broken bread with Jesus. And Avenir had sanctified himself for this battle.
The hollow breathy roar of a fumarole broke open to his left, gushing fumes and hot gases, like the laughter of a monster. The priest could feel the pull of his enemy ahead, a strength that made the ground throb. Despite the surrounding tall pines in the hills, the chemical exhalations in the basin had bleached the ground, covered it in white powder, killed off many of the trees so that they stood bent and brown from the poison within the soil. Another geyser erupted, spouting hot steam and a jet of water high overhead.
Father Avenir would not be intimidated. He trudged onward, muttering the words under his breath,
“Verbum caro, panem verum
Verbo carnem éfficit:
Fitque sanguis Christi merum,
Et si sensus déficit,
Ad firmándum cor sincérum
Sola fides súfficit.”
He realized that mumbling was not good enough, so he sang the words, loud and defiant,
“TANTUM ERGO SACRAMÉNTUM
Et antíquum documéntum
Novo cedat rítui:
Præstet fides suppleméntum
Laus et jubilátio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
Sit et benedíctio:
Procedénti ab utróque
Compar sit laudátio.”
Then he followed it with the twenty-third Psalm, his favorite: “Dominus reget me et nihil mihi deerit, In loco pascuae ibi me conlocavit super aquam refectionis educavit me, Animam meam convertit deduxit me super semitas iustitiae propter nomen suum, Nam et si ambulavero in medio umbrae mortis non timebo mala quoniam tu mecum es virga tua et baculus tuus ipsa me consolata sunt, Parasti in conspectu meo mensam adversus eos qui tribulant me inpinguasti in oleo caput meum et calix meus inebrians quam praeclarus est, Et misericordia tua subsequitur me omnibus diebus vitae meae et ut inhabitem in domo Domini in longitudinem dierum.”
He didn’t know enough Latin to catch the nuances of the words, but he knew them by heart. The priests had taught him Latin, but perhaps they hadn’t been very well taught themselves, since the great teachers and great books of learning had been lost in the Sundering. His own teachers admitted that sometimes they didn’t understand a particular word. But he knew the Psalm spoke of God walking with him, as he’d walked with David, and setting a table for him in the presence of his enemies.
How many times had Father Avenir been safe where he shouldn’t be? How had he survived in hostile territory these many years? How, but for the grace of God?
The geyser field seemed cowed, or was that just his imagination?
He took heart and trudged forward, shouting, “I bring the way, the truth, and the light. I feel your evil presence here. I smell the lake of fire and eternal damnation, and I am not afraid.”
He felt the well-smoothed wooden sides of the cross press into his calloused palm. “Face me!” he yelled. “Or are you afraid?” His lips were cracked, and his dry throat burned from the caustic fumes. Water welled up within his stinging eyes, but it only purified his vision.
Mud pots bubbled like lava on either side of him, but he did not waver in his forward journey. He had remained steadfast in his faith all his life.
Back in St. Louis, he had argued with the numerous Protestants, defended himself for being a papist, for still obeying the Holy Father in Rome even though no one knew who the Pope might be now. He had been mocked and ridiculed, shunned, robbed, beaten, but he had survived. Each such incident was a trial that God inflicted upon his missionary, and if Avenir had to die while serving his mission, his Lord, then that would only assure his passage into heaven. Martyrdom might, in fact, be the only way a man like him could get to paradise.
A geyser erupted close to him, startling him. He saw powdery white crystals piled around the crater that looked like a maw in the ground. Scalding water rocketed up and rained down to drench him in a hot downpour. He felt the water steam in his tangled hair, soak his tattered black tunic, but he pressed on, blinking away the distraction. A new hole cracked open in the barren ground in front of him, sending gouts of foul-smelling steam. It was like a thunderstorm of smoke, sulphur, and blisteringly hot vapors.
Father Avenir stopped, seeing shadowy shapes, twisted inhuman forms, damned wretches cast into hell itself. They lurched up, barely taking shape, looming closer as if to attack him. The priest cried out, but uttered his prayers again in Latin, knowing there was power in the old words. He crossed himself, and the shadows backed away, hiding within the folds of noxious steam that wafted upward.
But the hideous figures were not avoiding the priest, not cowed by his prayers. Rather, they backed away as if in deference to make way for something far worse.
The silhouette in the steam and smoke approached, a towering muscular figure that towered several feet above Father Avenir’s head. Even so, its back was hunched, as if the thing felt beaten.
The priest didn’t flinch, but faced the approaching figure that pushed aside the obscuring veils as if impatient to be seen. A coal black, cloven hoof stepped forward, improbably balanced on the rough ground. Its brick red skin was covered with knobs and scabs. The creature had a wide, bare chest, like a blacksmith who worked on a forge of souls. A long, barbed tail lashed from the base of its spine, a terrible weapon. The demon lurched forward to show a monstrous head with black horns, evil slitted eyes, a face that should have been beautiful, but was instead a sculpture of diamond-hard fury.
“Lucifer,” Father Avenir gasped. “Fallen angel.”
The devil laughed out loud, a sound like a crack of thunder. The ground rumbled and boiled, and more geysers erupted, belching steam and smoke like a regal fanfare for the king of the damned. “If that is what you wish to call me. I have appeared in this form to comfort you.”
Avenir was aghast. “To comfort me?” He held his Bible up. “I take no comfort in seeing you, Satan.”
The thing laughed again. “You take comfort in the affirmation of your beliefs. You see this valley as Hell, and so you expect the devil himself. I am here exactly as you wished.”
“I wish you to be gone!” Avenir said. “In the name of the Lord God Almighty, I banish you from this arcane world. These lands are not yours.”
The looming Satan twitched, but that seemed to be the extent of Father Avenir’s effectiveness. The demon boomed out, “But I am these lands. I am the spirit of the mountains, the forests, the rivers. There is also much anger at what has been done to this land, and it manifests here, boiling to the surface. You can see it all around you, priest! With the coming of the comet, the magic was reinforced and released. It made all this possible.”
Lucifer stretched out his hands, showing fingertips adorned with long, black claws. “The magic here belongs to the land and the people. As does your magic, too. I feel the strength within you—Tatanka, the bull man, he who will not be moved.” The devil leaned closer, and the priest could smell his breath as foul as a long-abandoned abattoir. “You are part of me as well,” Satan said.
“No!” the priest yelled back.
“Can you not feel it? The simmering power in this land makes all things possible. The gods of the Native tribes have regained their strength, become real and tangible. None of their shamans can deny what he sees with his own eyes, and neither can you.” His long, barbed tail thrashed with impatience.
Father Avenir choked. The brimstone smell was suffocating. “You have no power over me. You are subject to God’s power, as am I.”
The devil back-handed him across the face, striking hard with scaled knuckles that felt like stones. The priest tumbled to his knees, felt blood oozing from a gash in his cheek, but he maintained his grip on the Bible. “Yes, evil is real. I have never doubted it. But that does not mean you can’t be defeated.”
He pulled himself to his feet again, remaining defiant. He wondered what the Shoshone shaman would have seen if he’d come out to this geyser. Surely Dosabite would not view the devil like this. What would other tribes have seen?
“I will drive you from this place,” Avenir vowed.
Lucifer huffed. “I am this place.”
The priest pulled out his aspergillum and without warning he hurled the holy water at Satan’s chest, as he muttered a prayer in the back of his throat to enhance the blessing. With a bright flash, the steam erupted white and pure, driving away the mists and curtains of steam from the fumaroles, geysers, and exhalations from the mud pots.
The devil roared, looked down at his chest in shock, as a great smoking hole ate its way through his chest, devoured his heart, dissolved his stubbly, brick-red body. Satan himself broke apart, shattering into thousands of small dwindling pieces, like a sheet of ice that broke apart and melted under the hot sun.
Striking down the devil seemed to settle the ground around Father Avenir. The earth ceased its rumbling, the geysers faded, the hot water droplets pattered all around him, and the mists cleared. A breeze whipped away the strongest rotten-egg stench, and he saw a widening slice of blue sky overhead.
Laughing, Father Avenir clutched the Bible against the cross over his heart. And yet, he waited. The Great Deceiver was, after all, exactly as his name implied. He waited to feel an exhilaration in the earth itself, a lifting of the weight of evil, a cleansing of this great scarred valley.
Instead, the powerful force that throbbed inside of him remained just as strong—and it came from ahead. It tugged on his soul like a magnet, pulling him along. “I banished you!” he said in a hoarse voice, but he still felt the power, the insistent anger.
A voice resonated in his head, no longer the thunderous male voice of Satan himself, but a female voice that was at once benevolent and deadly, like all the protective mothers in the world speaking in unison. “You banished the part of me that was within yourself, but I am still here.”
The force tugged at him, and Avenir staggered forward between the now-quiescent geysers, walking along the valley floor. “I want to see you, and you need to see me. You have killed your Satan, and I applaud you. But I am not the same.”
The voice was tantalizing, and though he fought it, she seemed to put him in a trance. The aspergillum was empty, and he had no more blessed water . . . but he had his Bible and he had his cross. Father Avenir stopped resisting.
The smell of brimstone was thinner now and he did not feel as threatened, though the female voice that throbbed from the ground and came from somewhere ahead seemed more powerful than even the hulking Lucifer. This, he realized, was his real opponent. The spirit of this valley of fire demons, the vengeful fury of the arcane lands made manifest.
Up ahead, he saw the flat, circular bowl of a pond, like a shimmering irregular mirror. Exhalations of steam drifted up from the surface of the water, and as he approached, he saw that the waters were absolutely still, not stirred by any wind. This pool was a conduit, the source of the feminine voice, the entity that lived within this large and strange valley.
The waters were scalding hot—he could sense that even as he came closer. The ground was bleak and barren. The small lake itself was dead, yet full of colors as if someone had drowned a rainbow there. Chromatic rings of blue and copper, bright green with tendrils of yellow spread out beneath the surface.
“Come closer,” the voice said. “Look into me, so that I may see you.”
“I will show you the holy cross.” He stood on the shore feeling the heat. He held out his wooden cross and looked down to see his reflection in the perfectly still surface . . . yet the vision went deeper, changing him to a younger man, then an older man. His appearance shifted in the reflection, transforming from himself to Dosabite, then Cameahwait, then numerous other Natives he had seen, then his beloved priests back in St. Louis who had taught him Latin and the Word. He saw his mother, smiling at him and crying when she’d last seen him at the school in St. Louis . . . his father, with bleak blue eyes and firm expression when telling Avenir he was leaving him at the school so he could learn not to be a savage, and a beautiful Native woman he’d loved before he realized his calling was to the Church and celibacy. It was a blur of shapes, memories, figures.
“Why do you tempt me?” he cried.
“I remind you, that is all. I need you to understand that I am not evil, merely different . . . just as you are different from the ways and the beliefs here in the wilderness.”
“I bring my beliefs with me,” Avenir said in defiance. “I was baptized. I am a priest. I bring the word of God.”
“You were baptized in the civilized world, foolish man. Not here.”
A stir of ripples circled the chromatic pool. Steam drifted higher, but Avenir leaned over to peer closer, feeling the pull of the shimmering water, the iridescent colors.
“If you wish to serve in these wild lands, if you are truly a missionary, then you must be baptized here as well.” The heat of the water rippled up, nearly blistering the skin on his face.
“You would kill me,” he said. “You would trick me!”
“I have no need of tricks,” said the pulsing voice of the wild. “I know what I am, and I sense the goodness in you, the passion for truth and eternity.”
The voice echoed in his head and Avenir felt a warm honey drifting through him.
“I find it exhilarating,” the voice said.
“I have my mission. You will not sway me from it.”
“I am trying to help you. You cannot bring your civilized ways out here, and so you must adapt your ways to the spirit of the land. There is evil here, even I know it.” The voice thrummed as if in an undertone of fear. “Before this battle is over, there will be many strange alliances. Are you willing to take the risk, Tatanka? Father Avenir? Will you be strong enough and baptize yourself here as well?”
The priest shivered, despite the pounding heat all around him. “I cannot,” he said. “I will not forsake what I believe.”
“I did not ask that of you,” said the presence. “I asked you only to trust . . . as you ask the Natives to trust you, to believe your words. Now believe mine.” Her voice echoed louder. He cringed, but he couldn’t press the sound away. “I did not say that I’m a rival of your God, nor that I am the sole creator. I am a powerful part of creation, though, and you cannot deny me."
The colors in the chromatic pool were tantalizing. The water itself seemed perfect, pristine, inviting.
Father Avenir was sore and weary, his hair caked from the smoke, grit, and dust of countless days alone on the trail. “I will need the strength,” he whispered. “I come from the civilized world, but I am part of this one. I don’t ever intend to go back, any more than America can return to the rest of the world.”
Earlier, when he faced the manifestation of Satan, Father Avenir had felt fear, but this was not so simple or clear. This was dread and uncertainty, as well as longing. He was alien here in these arcane territories, and he knew there were things here that he could never explain.
But questions were only doubts until they were answered.
He was like those early apostles going out into the wild tribes. Unless the Bible was wrong—and that was impossible—then in those days, too, spirits and magic had walked the land. Had the Catholic missionaries not told defeated local gods that they were now something else and integrated them into their tales and beliefs? The spirits themselves converted, and a legend of Jupiter became a tale of Saint John, or a story of Diana became the most holy story of Saint Catherine.
Avenir was not a fool. He understood how that had happened, the Catholic belief encircling and purifying the pagan one. But could he accomplish that unless he accepted it and became part of it himself? His mother was Native. He was part of this land already. Surely he could touch the spirits and make them his own.
Before he could change his mind, the priest pulled off the tattered black tunic and set it on the ground beside the edge of the hot pool. He set down the Bible and aspergillum, removed his boots, his buckskin breeches, and stood there naked, alone in the wilderness, just as he had been in his first baptism. The only thing he kept was the wooden cross on the thong around his neck.
The female voice remained silent, but he could feel her presence there. And he looked down at the hot pool, knowing that the water was scalding, almost to the boiling point. It was deadly—yes, it would kill him, just like a martyr being boiled in oil back during the days of the Inquisition.
He would die, and his body would float here, unseen by the Shoshone or any white trappers. His flesh would be boiled off his bones, which would then sink to the bottom. Father Avenir would be forgotten.
But, he chose not to believe that. His own faith was strong, just as when he had destroyed the vision of Satan. Had not Daniel walked out of the furnace alive?
The female voice, the presence of the land of the yellow stone, throbbed up to enfold him, protect him. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. If his faith was too weak, he did not deserve to live anyway.
Father Avenir fell forward into the hot pool. The shock flashed around him. The water embraced his skin and his hair. He gasped, but fought back his terror. The wooden cross floated around him as he drifted in the hot pool, like a lifeline.
The water burned and tingled, enfolded him, scrubbed his skin, soaked his hair—but he lived. He drifted there, wrapped in the blanket of his own faith, and of the strength that this land’s magic added to his beliefs. Yes, he was strong enough to do this, and now he would be baptized in the ways of the wild as well as the ways of the white man. His terror lasted only a moment, and then he was cleansed. He was accepted.
After a long moment, the female voice in his mind spoke, “It is as I thought. I know you now, Tatanka, bull of heaven, rock of all Saints, father of the future. You may go, and you will be remembered.”
Father Avenir staggered out of the scalding water and stood with steam drifting from his reddened skin. He looked utterly clean as the water evaporated, his skin pink as a newborn’s, his hair fine and soft. He looked back at the rainbow colors beneath the pool.
He felt he had answers to the strongest mysteries in his heart, while other questions remained—just as powerful, but not quite so urgent. “Thank you,” he muttered, realizing that whatever that spirit was, she also understood the love of God, as he did.
With painstaking care, Father Avenir dressed himself again. Even his stiff and dirty clothes could not take away the new feeling of purity inside him.
With his pack and his furs, the priest trudged away from the valley of the steaming geysers. He needed several days just to think about what he had experienced, to accept it, and to assess the new understanding—the new powers?—that he had acquired. The epiphany made him different. He was not just a priest from the white man’s world, but he was also fundamentally a part of these arcane territories. He was now, as he’d been at birth, both Native and European, both wild and civilized. But for the first time, he accepted both. He was Pierre de Toussaint D’Avenir and he was Tatanka. He wanted to tell the shaman Dosabite everything that had happened. Perhaps Dosabite could only perceive part of it, but even that would help.
Father Avenir made his way through the mountains, camping each night, finding food for his supper or going hungry when he found none. One day in the long shadows of late afternoon, two riders came upon him in the forest. He recognized the long-haired warriors instantly as Cameahwait and his companion. The warrior chief looked strained and saddened, not at all the cocky raider who had first met him some weeks before.
“You are the Catholic priest,” Cameahwait said. “We have searched for you.”
“Yes, you know me. I am Father Avenir.” He paused, and then added, “I am Tatanka Pierre de Toussaint D’Avenir.”
The warrior nodded. “Sacagawea sent me to find you. Her husband has been struck down by the great wizard. His spirit is gone, and she has requested a priest for the last rites.”
Father Avenir brushed off the front of his furs. “I will accompany you. That is my duty as a priest. But, who is Sacagawea?”
“She is my sister,” said Cameahwait, “taken from us as a child by raiders. She is back now, though. She travels on an expedition with a group of white men, led by Captain Lewis and Captain Clark.”
“An expedition?” Avenir asked.
The second warrior was impatient. “There is no time for questions. Come with us. Make haste.”
Father Avenir agreed and mounted up behind the second warrior. “Take me to them, and I will do my duty as a priest.” He understood more, but he also had many questions. Maybe his own revelations could be shared not just with the Native tribes, but with others back in the east. “I look forward to speaking with these Captains Lewis, and Clark.”
Copyright © 2018 Kevin J. Anderson and Sarah A. Hoyt
Kevin J. Anderson has published more than 140 books, 56 of which have been national or international bestsellers. He has written numerous novels in the Star Wars, X-Files, and Dune universes, as well as unique steampunk fantasy novels Clockwork Angels and Clockwork Lives, written with legendary rock drummer Neil Peart, based on the concept album by the band Rush. His original works include the Saga of Seven Suns series, the Terra Incognita fantasy trilogy, the Saga of Shadows trilogy, and his humorous horror series featuring Dan Shamble, Zombie PI. He has edited numerous anthologies, written comics and games, and the lyrics to two rock CDs. Anderson and his wife Rebecca Moesta are the publishers of WordFire Press.
Sarah A. Hoyt is the author of a dozen novels in various genres, such as the award-winning Darkship science fiction adventure series, including Darkship Thieves, Darkship Renegades, A Few Good Men, and Through Fire, as well as the Shifter saga, including previous entries Draw One in the Dark, Gentleman Takes a Chance, and Noah's Boy. She is also the author of the acclaimed Shakespearean fantasy series, starting with the Mythopoeic award finalist Ill Met by Moonlight. An avid history buff and longtime reader of sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery, Hoyt has published over three dozen short stories in esteemed magazines such as Asimov's, Analog, Amazing, and Weird Tales, as well as many anthologies. She lives in Colorado with her husband, two sons, and a pride of cats.