When next the bell rang, it was all he could do to keep his feet. He steeled himself for another meal. Fray Joachim led them into the dining hall and took his seat at the head of the long table. A platter of raw corn and a jug of water awaited them. The bell ringer brought the monks a plate of ears of corn. Fray Joachim took them one by one and ate them, cobs and all. Hull took a mouthful of corn and chewed it throughout the meal, drinking his water and silently battling Obregon for the rest of the jug. McKeever sat staring straight ahead as he fisted the corn into his mouth like a pig on market day.
Obregon tapped on his hand, then let the jug go. Hull noticed that he’d been tapping the table beside his plate all along, and caught what it meant.
It was a bastard version of Morse code that cons used to pass messages through prison walls. Hull picked it up during an otherwise unedifying stretch in an Arizona territorial jail.
Madness, the bandit typed repeatedly, until Hull met his gaze, then looked away. Together, he tapped. Escape.
Eyeing the monks at their table, Hull nodded, then inclined his head towards McKeever.
Obregon scowled. He looked to have shed ten pounds since the day before.
McKeever grumbled under his breath as he ate and seemed unaware of his dinner companions. Obregon kicked him under the table and pointed outside, then a flurry of hand gestures.
McKeever nodded and started to say something, but only corn spilled out of his mouth. Obregon kicked him again just before they were led back to their cells.
Hull could not lie still until he knew he was alone, and then he fell into a shallow, fitful sleep. Waking with stomach cramps from hunger and thirst, he reached for the corn in his pocket, but couldn’t find any. The thick woolen fabric of the empty pocket was riddled with tiny holes.
He heard the echo of laughter.
“What the hell is this place?” he demanded.
The bodiless voice, barely audible, seemed to echo his words. “Hell… is this place…”
Still faint, but somehow much closer, it said, “Listen.” The world tickled his ear. Hull might have fallen asleep and dreamed what he heard, but his bones and belly would not let him rest, and no dream this side of opium could contain such folderol.
“Zu-Che-Qon is the living darkness. His word is the worm.
“Listen, if you would live.
“They feed you the worms, and the worms gnaw all but bones and skin. Worms eat each other until a man is but one worm that walks. Lips are sealed and the last worm starves, eaten by darkness. Only when there is perfect darkness within you, are you saved by Zu-Xe-Qon.
Zu-Xe-Qon fell from the sky and those who found it served its appetite. Aztecs wiped them out, for their customs were unholy even in the eyes of men who ate beating human hearts. But they all unknowingly took Him to their capitol, thanking him but a rod of precious black crystal.
“So it lay unheard and unworshipped among the hoard of Tenochtitlan until the Spaniards came and crushed the Mexica empire, yet one monk hearkened to the undying echo of the black crystal, and was seduced by its promise of eternal life. He had only to take its darkness into himself… and spread its message.
“His word was anathema, his followers tortured and burned as heretics. He fled north and settled in the most hostile place he could find, where men would come only in their extremity, and beg for water, food, and the absolution of darkness.
“We were wrong…”
Hull could almost see the hooded monk huddled in the corner of the cell in the dusky murk. Hull asked the monk his name, but the door opened and Fray Joachim stood with one hand on the butt of his whip, and the bell began to toll almost before the echo could whisper, Demetrio…
The quadrangle was now a thicket of dead cornstalks tall as a horse. The stench of a battlefield wafted off it on the wings of carrion birds that gorged themselves on the spoiled blood corn, stepping over their poisoned mates to get at it.
The experience was exactly the same, a routine ironed into eternity and somehow safe and sane. Hull followed the other three around the quadrangle to the dining hall. He barely noticed that McKeever was silent for once or that he did not eat, though he grabbed fistfuls of corn and pressed them against the rawhide stitches sealing his mouth. The monks sat twitching in their straight chairs, their eyes alone showing that something inside them was still alive, and as hungry and helpless as they were.
He scarcely took notice of the woodcutter at the end of the table, staring longingly at the water. When Obregon was caught chewing a strip of leather from his boot instead of his ration of corn, Fray Vigil reached clean through him to lay the braided whip across the bandit’s neck.
They ate in silence until the tolling call to worship.
They entered the chapel through the draperies to find their seats and sit as the chanting started, as the chill stole into the room and the darkness began to walk all over them.
It began to make sense.
Why cling to this feeble vehicle of meat, when the darkness offered eternal life? What did he get out of knowing he would die in the blink of an eternal eye when he could live forever without fear? Forsake the world outside, forever eating itself, and seek eternity. Accept the darkness into you, and fear nothing…
He found himself chanting, repeating the words with a fervor that drained his last reserves, but he didn’t care. His fatigue, his hunger, and thirst had overcome his flagging memory of who he was before he came here. He could give himself to the darkness and never die, or he could hold on to the illusion that he was nothing but flesh and perish, only to find himself working forever in this place anyway. He could yet choose his fate…
A hand fell on his shoulder. He twitched, reaching to grab it when he felt the subtle, quick tapping.
Obregon was an accomplished sneak thief, but an even more legendary traitor, playing family and gang comrades like cards. In the bandit’s position, would Hull not lay out any way he could and leave the poor bastards to their fate?
No. Leaving anyone here was a fate worse than death. He had to believe the Mexicans felt similarly. Even if he had no love for Hull, he wouldn’t desert his old compadre… would he?
McKeever rocked and squirmed in the pew, oblivious to the repeated strokes of the whip. They would use any excuse to spill blood now before they went to work. Blood fed the corn that nourished the worm, which fattened on the man until it starved in darkness. McKeever had made a pig of himself, while Hull and Obregon had only mimed eating the corn. Hull was so weak with hunger that he could barely make himself stand, could barely raise his voice above a croak amid the miasma of the chanting monks.
“Had enough,” he growled. “Reckon we ought to know what you got us praying to…” Hull leaned on the pew before him and overturned it, throwing Eight-Finger Nate out into the nave. Turning round in the darkness and ducking reflexively in anticipation of the whips, he kicked his pew back and made as much noise as he could to cover whatever Obregon might be doing.
“Be silent! Be seated!” Fray Joachim roared. The command seemed to drop a fifty-pound weight on his head, but he forced himself to blunder through the pews. A whip striped his back. Another coiled around his left leg and threw him to the flagstone floor. A harsh carpet of woven agave fibers lined the nave, and he grabbed hold of it as the monks clamored after him in the dark. Their hearing might be acute, but they seemed to see no better in the dark than anyone else.
Grabbing the whip around his leg to jerk its wielder off balance, Hull struck the flint he used to start campfires off the stone floor. In the flash of sparks, the room leaped into crystal clarity that burned into his eyeballs after it had returned to darkness.
The effect was electric. The light threw the room itself into a convulsion.
The dismal chapel was stripped of any Christian iconography, the towering crucifix stripped of its savior, only a pair of disembodied hands still nailed to the cross, but Hull took note of how the darkness retreated into the rafters and the crypts and particularly took shelter behind the crucifix, where its wiry, spiky membrane burned into lurid embers at the touch of light.
In the instant, before the monks threw leather on him, Hull realized that the thing they worshipped did not live in the dark. It was itself the dark, alive and whip-smart, and hungry for new avatars.
He let the light die out at the moment Fray Vigil whipped him across the back, having seen what he needed to see. Wherever Lope Obregon was, he had somehow managed to slip out of the chapel. A ladder behind the altar led up to a chimney that could only be the bell tower.
Fray Vigil and Fray Joachim stood almost directly over him. The friar called for Trinculo to ring the bell.
Hull struck the flint again so a spray of sparks alit on the arid carpet. The whips bit into him with relentless fury, flaying the skin from his back in strips and chunks. In a moment, the bell would ring and order would prevail and he would return to work and die like the woodcutter, devour the corn and be devoured, and one day his husk wield the whip himself. As choices went, it wasn’t so bad, but he crawled and crawled and when the bell hadn’t run, he reached for the nearest curtain and ripped it down.
By the weak light streaming through the humble rose window, he saw why the bell wasn’t ringing. The rope hanging from the bell tower was looped around the bellringer’s neck, whom Fray Vigil seized and upon whose corpse he pulled to ring the bell, but all in vain.
Hull scrambled for the doors and threw himself against them, falling into the gray predawn murk and miasma of the quadrangle. The light pouring into the chapel raised a shriek like dry ice on steel. The monks rushed outside and slammed the doors. Fray Vigil lashed out with his whip, wrapping it around Hull’s neck and jerking him back towards the chapel. Fray Joachim foamed at the mouth, empty eyes overflowing with inhuman rage. “We offered you salvation, and you betrayed us! No punishment shall be spared the monster who embraces flesh and fire…”
Hull’s vision went dim. He could barely fight back, barely see the lumbering shape that loomed behind Fray Joachim, until it fell upon him like a buffalo from a cliff.
“Is this your god, little man?” cried Lope Obregon as he smashed in Fray Vigil’s head with a long black rod that glittered with a sickening luster as it shed blood.
Hull figured it had to be the clapper from the bell which produced their master’s unbearable ringing voice, even as the darkness was the star-born god’s body.
The monk’s head split open down to the chin like overripe fruit, leathery skin parting to spill out a tangle of worms, or a single worm, coiled and folded and stuffed into the husk of the man it devoured long ago. The repulsive bundle spilled out of his broken face and writhed on the sand between his feet, even as he tried to throttle Hull with the whip.
Obregon kept beating him, ignoring Fray Joachim. The other monks howled through their stitches in the chapel as something unthinkable happened inside them. Hull struggled to loosen the whip around his neck, gagging on the first fiery breath to get down his windpipe.
The doors of the chapel flew open and a shrieking apparition sprang out into the quadrangle to fall upon Fray Vigil, bearing him to the ground. Eight-Finger Nate had ripped out his stitches and succumbed to his hunger. Pinning Fray Vigil with one knee across his chest, the bandit snatched up the tangle of worm and stuffed it into his lipless mouth, gobbling it down like a pie-eating contest.
Hull could only crawl away from the carnage, thinking of how to get away, and where they might find their guns.
Obregon beat Fray Joachim’s head out of any remote resemblance to a human face and then smashed the crystal rod against the wall of the chapel, scattering the shards among the blood corn.
“We should go,” Obregon said, then chuckled as the scope of his understatement caught up with him.
McKeever crawled away from the unsatisfying repast wriggling out of Fray Vigil and fell upon the still-active remains of Fray Joachim. When the pitch-black sanctity of the chapel had been desecrated, the living darkness fled into the only vessel left to it, the body of its friar.
In his ravenous fury, McKeever ripped Joachim’s body open and opened his mouth to eat the darkness even as it spewed like smoke from the crevices and cavities in the padre’s ravaged body. Nothing but skin and bone, literally, and the darkness, which yet seemed to fill McKeever’s body and satisfy his burning appetite at last.
Hull only watched in morbid fascination, until McKeever seemed to get his fill of the darkness, and noticed Hull scoping him. Whatever was behind those eyes now regarded him with a patience that had gnawed itself for eons, greed that could not restrain itself from eating the whole wide world.
The thunderclap nearly struck Hull dead before the bullet in McKeever’s head let in the daylight that evicted whatever had taken up residence in it. It took the rest of the bullets to make it lie down, all the spaces a shadow could hide perforated and exposed to the rosy dawn.
“He was a good man, for a gringo,” Obregon said. He dropped Hull’s gun belt in the dust in front of him. The guns had been emptied of cartridges.
“So what now?”
“I will ride away on my horse,” Obregon answered, and you will chase me, try to get a bit of money for my hide. Won’t you?”
“I won’t come after you unless I see or hear of you again.” He didn’t need to say if he would come after him, any more than he needed to remind him they were perhaps a hundred miles from the nearest settlement, and there was nothing else to do.