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The endless, sagging coastline had a break in it after all.

It was Antonio Alaminos who had spotted it, of course. The navigator had danced along the edges of the Gulf Stream with a skill that had caused some of the more ignorant common sailors to mutter darkly of pacts with Satan. And he had brought them safely through the narrow inlet between the barrier islands, into the bay where the three caravels now lay at anchor.

They had made landfall and set up a cross on the beach on the third of April, anno Domini 1513, at the height of the Easter season—Pascua Florida, "the Feast of Flowers," as Spaniards called it. Wherefore their captain-general, Juan Ponce de León, adelantado of Spain, had named this land "Florida" as he had waved his sword at it and claimed it for His Catholic Majesty Ferdinand, King of Aragon, Leon and Asturias and Regent of Castile.

Not, he reflected as he leaned on the quarterdeck taffrail of the flagship Santiago amid the humidity and the insects, that King Ferdinand will ever be likely to find any use for such a pile of soggy shit.

If pressed, he would have had to grant the place a certain beauty, with its riot of unfamiliar flowering trees. But only if pressed, for he came of a time and place and class of men who did not habitually think in such terms. It was gold he was after. Gold and . . . something else.

He sensed a motion at his left elbow. It was Diego Bermúdez, captain of the Santiago, a youngish man burning to equal or surpass the fame of his brother Juan, discoverer of the island of Bermuda. Alaminos, the pilot, joined them at the rail and stared across the still waters of the twilit bay at the darkling jungle beyond. After a moment, Alaminos gave a chuckle so low as to be barely audible above the noise of a million cicadas ashore.

"Have you ever noticed something about the things the Indians tell us?" Alaminos asked with the familiarity that had come to obtain between him and the hidalgos during the voyage. "Back in Puerto Rico, they told us there was a marvelous spring on the largest of the Bahamas that restored youth and vigor to old men. Of course, we learned better."

"Yes," said Bermúdez with a nod of sad accord. "We should have known better anyway. Springs on coral islands indeed!" He spat feelingly over the rail.

Five years before, in 1508, Ponce de León had conquered the island the Indians called Borinquen and renamed it Puerto Rico. He had been confirmed as its governor two years afterwards. But later he had been deposed by scheming rivals, as the island had stopped yielding the revenues to which the crown had become accustomed. But how could it be otherwise, at the rate the Indian laborers kept dying off from the pox that only left most white men with pockmarked faces? Odd. It couldn't even be God's judgment on them for their heathen practices, for they ungratefully went right on dying after being Christianized. Even more ungrateful was their propensity for rebelling and murdering their benefactors—which, of course, resulted in their dying even faster. And African slaves couldn't be brought in fast enough to replace them. There had been only one solution: find a new land, with more Indians—hopefully, healthier ones. So Ponce de León had equipped this expedition at his own expense.

"And then," Alaminos continued, "when we asked the Indians in the Bahamas about it, they told us about this wondrous island to the northwest." He chuckled again, without humor. "Whenever they find out what it is we're looking for, they always tell us that, yes, they've heard about it, they know of it . . . somewhere else. Somewhere over the next horizon."

Ponce de León frowned and ran his fingers through his frosted beard. "So you think they've just been telling us whatever will get rid of us? That there really is no fountain of youth?" Hearing no reply, he pressed on. "But didn't the ancients speak of such a fountain in the Terrestrial Paradise? Didn't the Englishman John Mandeville see it—and drink from it?"

"So he said," Alaminos admitted. "Of course, he said a lot of things."

Ponce de León ignored the last part. He leaned over the rail and stared through the subtropical twilight at the shore, indefinite in its marshiness. "Tomorrow morning we'll go ashore one more time and see what there is to find—maybe capture some Indians and have my son put them to the question. We can't give up the search."

He left unspoken the reason why they—or, to be strictly accurate, he—couldn't give up the search. At fifty-three, he was very nearly the oldest man he knew. And of course he ought to be thanking God for being alive and active at such an exceptional age. And yet he had felt the chill of oncoming winter in many ways. In painful joints, in shortness of breath, in the way the world was more and more blurred in his eyes . . . and in the increasingly frequent times he was unable to take pleasure from a woman—or, even worse, uninterested in doing so. (The concept of giving pleasure to a woman was simply too alien.)

No. It was unthinkable that he should never be young again.

"Tomorrow morning," he repeated, with even greater emphasis.


Juan González Ponce de León ran a hand through his sweat-soaked black hair as he turned from the terrified, bound Indian and reported to his father.

"I don't know. It's not the same language as the Tainos speak on Puerto Rico. But I can puzzle out some of it, the way you could in Italy if you only spoke Spanish. And he seems to be saying that there's something just south of here—something magical."

"A fountain?" demanded Ponce de León, with the gruffness he habitually used to disguise his pride in his son. Juan González had been with him in Puerto Rico, and as more than just an interpreter. He had been able to disguise himself as an Indian with only minimal staining of his skin—his Andalusian mother had obviously had some Moorish blood in her, if you went back far enough, although of course everyone politely pretended not to notice that. Spending time among them, he had gathered valuable information, at the cost of numerous wounds. Yes, having such a son was yet another reason he should be satisfied with his life. So why wasn't he?

"No, there's no word for that—or if there is, it's too different from anything in Taino for me to ask him. All I'm certain of is that his people are terrified of it, and avoid it. And . . . he seemed to be trying to tell me about corpses. But corpses that were not of men."

Juan Bono de Quejo muttered something in his native Basque. He was the captain of the Santa María de Consolación, the second of the expedition's ships, and was taking his turn to come ashore while Bermúdez remained aboard Santiago. "Demons?" he wondered aloud.

They all crossed themselves reflexively. Juan Garrido looked apprehensive, the whites of his eyes growing large in his dark face. The black Portuguese adventurer had been with Ponce de León in Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe, and had also served in Cuba. Everyone knew him to be a fearless and deadly fighter—against human enemies. "That would explain why the Indians stay away from it," he said. "Maybe we should too."

"And yet," said Ponce de León thoughtfully, "they are simple heathens. So they worship demons anyway. Isn't it more likely that this is of divine origin? That would frighten them more than the powers of darkness, in their ignorance of the true faith."

There was a great furrowing of brows as they all assumed unaccustomed expressions of deep thought. These men were not generally given to the theological analysis that was the province of priests. But Ponce de León was a famously clever man. And his reasoning seemed to hold up. While they were still cogitating, he turned back to his son.

"Are you sure this couldn't be connected with the fountain of youth? Ask him if it has anything to do with water."

"I already did. At first he just looked blank. But then he seemed to be trying to tell me something about a pool that was not really water."

And, thought Ponce de León with a tingle of excitement, the fountain naturally wouldn't look like ordinary water, would it? He came to a decision.

"We'll investigate this. Tell the Indian we'll protect him from whatever is there. And make sure he understands what has happened to him up until now is nothing compared to what will happen to him if he doesn't guide us faithfully."


At first, they didn't even see the thing.

It wasn't that there was anything wrong with their eyes. It was simply that their brains refused to accept what their eyes reported.

The wreck lay amid the forest, in an area that was obviously second growth. It was impossible to avoid the impression that it had itself devastated the original vegetation, as though it had somehow fallen from the sky in a crash that had left it lying immobilized at a slight angle. But that, clearly, had occurred years ago, for the vines and the creepers and the moss and all the rest had begun to reclaim their own. Now it lay shrouded in greenery. But not so shrouded as to conceal its wrongness.

First of all, it was made of what seemed to be metal.

These men knew what could be cast in metal. Sword blades. Helmets. Armor. Ploughshares. Arquebus barrels. Even a cannon barrel, for the old bombards constructed of hoops and staves of wrought iron were already obsolete in the eyes of soldiers like these, au courant with the latest military developments. But this entire . . . vessel?—what was it, anyway?—was a single seamless casting, apparently in the shape of a disc as wide as a brigantine was long. It was a manifest impossibility.

And even granting that it could exist, it had clearly been sitting here long enough for the jungle to have begun to return. And yet there was not a single speck of rust on it. Its exterior surface was all the same uniform, gleaming, silvery smoothness, albeit bent and crumpled in spots and blackened on its underside, as though an intense fire had carbonized the metal there.

And how had it gotten here?

Ponce de León was the first to recover. He drew his sword and advanced on the apparition.

From the Indian came a shriek of terror. He strained forward against the rope that held him, shouting an appeal that transcended language—a desperate appeal to not approach the mysterious thing any closer. His screams brought one of his guards out of shock, and an arquebus butt descended on his head, silencing him. Ponce de León resumed his advance.

Without warning, a kind of rasping hum was heard, and a crack appeared in the impossible metallic surface—a hairline crack, surrounding a rectangular segment that proceeded, unaided, to lower itself on invisible hinges until it touched the ground, forming a ramp leading up to a doorway.

A low moaning arose from those behind Ponce de León. He turned, and saw his men on their knees, all frantically crossing themselves and fingering their beads.

"Remember," he shouted, "the black arts of sorcery cannot prevail against good Christian men!" He saw no purpose to be served by opening the question of just how good a Christian he, or any of them, was. Instead, he took in his left hand the crucifix he wore around his neck and held it up reassuringly. "But I cannot ask anyone to accompany me. I will go in alone."

"No, father!" wailed Juan González. "Don't risk your immortal soul!"

"That's right, master," Bono de Quejo put in, his voice charged with an urgency that thickened his Basque accent. "What will become of us if you are lost?"

"Our Lady and the saints will protect me," Ponce de León declared firmly. But, just in case, he drew his expensive state-of-the-art wheel lock pistol and cocked it. Then, sword in right hand, pistol in left, he walked toward the ramp that had appeared so miraculously, and ascended it.


This was a realm where nothing was—or could have been—made out of natural materials, in any Christian way. Even stranger was the light he was seeing it all by. He hadn't really expected torches. But there were none of the candle lanterns or oil lamps that gave light below decks on a ship. Instead, there were long panels of something that was translucent and yet was not glass, glowing with a weird steadiness that lacked the flickering of a flame. And glowing without heat.

Very little of what he was seeing registered on him, cut off as he was from any familiar reference points on which his mind might have gotten a grip. He began to wonder if that was the true torment of Hell, for he knew with cold certainty that he would go mad if he tarried here too long.

He sternly reminded himself that the Adversary had no power to create anything, only the power to deceive. To believe otherwise was to fall into the Manichaean heresy. And all of this was certainly material—he periodically pounded a fist on something to confirm that. He could not believe that he could be taken in by a sending of this scale, for this long.

But every time he allowed himself to feel reassured, he happened onto one of the small but large-headed bodies, largely decomposed but with the skeletons still discernible.

Juan Ponce de León had fought in more wars than most men. He was nothing if not familiar with dead bodies, at all stages of decay. He knew very well what human skeletons looked like. And these skeletons were not those of men. His stomach heaved at the sight of their wrongness. He hurried on.

Then the awkwardly canted passageway opened out into a space that contained a framework holding one of the inhuman forms in a better state of preservation than the others. Like all of them, it was small; Ponce de León was accounted a short man, but his helmeted head barely had clearance in these spaces. He stared at the face, spindle-shaped like the rest but with desiccated parchmentlike skin still stretched over it. The huge eye-holes he had observed before were even more apparent, and the tiny mouth and the lack of a nose-bridge turned out not to have been illusions. Neither had the hands, with only three fingers and a thumb that was too long and wasn't at quite the right angle to the fingers.

He looked away, shuddering, and noticed what filled the center of the chamber. And he understood what the Indian had meant about water . . . but not quite.

The depression in the floor—he preferred not to dwell on the resemblance of its shape to that of a coffin—held something beside which all he had seen so far seemed normal and familiar. It was as though the air within it—no, not the air, something even more fundamental than that, something going to the basic rightness of creation itself—rippled in the way of disturbed water. He wrenched his eyes away, lest his soul drown in that unnatural pool.

His gaze fell on something he had not noticed before, amid all the strangeness. It was like one of the head-shaped effigies that hatters used to display their wares—almost comically ordinary, except for two things. One was that it was made of something that was neither metal nor wood nor anything to which he could put a name. And the other was what it held: a metallic headband or circlet, decorated with . . . but no, he was certain they weren't really decorations, although he could not guess what they were. It looked like it would fit on a man's head . . . or, he reflected, the head on one of the dead beings who haunted this place. It sat there, in front of the relatively well-preserved being, as though it was a coronet belonging to him. Perhaps even a crown.

All at once, he laughed uncontrollably. When he'd gotten his breath back, something compelled him to address the unearthly being as though it had been alive.

"Well, demon, or whatever you are, I've entered your realm, and you couldn't frighten me off. So you've learned something about the men of Spain! And while I may not have gained anything else—in fact, I'm sure I haven't, for this has been a fool's errand like all the rest of this expedition—I claim your crown, by right of conquest!"

He set down his weapons, removed his morion, and took the circlet in his hands. It was lighter than it looked. He placed it on his graying head.

All at once, his soul was no longer his own.

It wasn't that he no longer had a soul. That might almost have been better than this total inability to resist the great roaring voice inside his skull, all the while knowing he couldn't resist it. For a moment, his eyes met the enormous empty eye-sockets of the dead being . . . and he knew.

He knew what he must do. And he knew that the first of the things he must do was also his reward. And if his soul had still been his own, he would not have accepted that reward. He would have rejected it as the very breath of Satan. This, too, he knew. And that was the measure of his damnation.

He walked to the strange pool-that-was-not-a-pool and lay down in its weirdly swirling depths. And then he learned that there were even worse things than having no will. This penetrated not just his mind, but . . . what was the name of that pagan Greek philosopher who had postulated infinitesimal particles of which everything was ultimately composed? Oh, yes, Democritus . . . 

Then his consciousness mercifully fled—the first mercy that had been vouchsafed him. And the last.


They waited, tormented by insects and tension, snarling at each other at the least provocation, or no provocation at all. As night approached and their patience began to stretch to the snapping point, Juan González Ponce de León prepared to call for volunteers to accompany him through that eerie portal in search of his father.

But at that moment, the figure of the captain-general appeared. With shouts of joy, they crowded around the ramp . . . and stopped.

If asked, they wouldn't have been able to explain what it was that halted them in their tracks. It was undeniably Ponce de León, looking no different . . . at least in any way they could have put a name to. But there was something different. Perhaps it was something in the way he moved, like a younger man. Or perhaps it was the expression on his face, as though it was someone else looking out through his eyes. Someone they weren't sure they knew, or wanted to know.

"Father . . . ?" Juan González spoke hesitantly into the silence.

Ponce de León laughed—and it wasn't really his laugh. "Have no fear, son, for we are not in the presence of the powers of darkness. Tomorrow, I'll show you all! And . . . I will found a church here, in thanks to God for His blessing!" He blinked, and all at once was almost as he had been—not quite, but close enough to allow them a feeling of relief. "But now we must return to the ships before nightfall." He led the way with a spring in his step that none of them had seen in quite a while.

But Juan Garrido lingered behind, held by the curiosity that his friends had always said would be the death of him. After the last of them had vanished into the woods, he looked around furtively, darted up the ramp, and entered the portal.

His comrades heard his soul-shaking scream of ultimate horror and despair behind them, and the noise as he ran with reckless speed through the underbrush. By the time they caught up with him, it was too late. He lay face down in a pool of blood, still clutching the dagger with which he had cut his own throat.


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