Jens Rushing brings us a Space Western/Fantasy, in three parts. In Part 2 Dixie O’Dell winds her way along the Ghost Trail to track down Gomez. — ed, N.E. Lilly

Five minutes later Dixie realized that she had left Honeyfoot at the foot of the pyramid, but by then she had other things to worry about.

At first her surroundings seemed vaguely familiar, and she was puzzled to find herself in what looked like a photograph of Utah. Sand stretched in all directions, with huge sandstone formations jutting from the desert floor: knifelike hogback ridges, impossible ribbon-thin arches, a cluster of soaring spindly columns that boggled the eye. But the similarities to a photograph went further; everything was monochrome. The ridges, the weird whorling sky, her own skin, everything was drenched in the same pale green, with black undertones. As she stood dumbstruck, a bolt of black lightning split the sky. The thunder was oddly muted, but it shocked her into action.

Dixie’s next thought was to find Gomez. Presumably he was in here somewhere, and wherever he was, she would collar him and take him back to Texas, hog-tied if necessary. She started running. Her footsteps made no sound. The whole landscape had the silence of a tomb.

A cold wind howled, without stirring her hair, and Dixie had the gut-sinking sensation that she was no longer alone. She whirled on her heel, hoping to catch whoever followed her, and glimpsed motion between the columns to her rear. “Come on out!” she shouted, cocking the revolver. “Unless you’re yellow.” Not a sound from the maze of columns.

Something flew from between the stones, something like a large, translucent bat mated with a tentacled sea creature, flitting on soundless wings and writhing pseudopods. It was a bizarre and alien creature, but she surmised that its long, sharp fangs were for relatively mundane, but no less awful, purposes. She held the Colt in both hands and fired.

The .45 bullet tore a fist-sized hole in the creature’s wing, and it dropped like a ten-gallon hat full of mud, then began limping awkwardly across the ground. As Dixie watched, the ghostly flesh around the wound closed like water flowing back into a fresh hoofprint on a riverbank. The bat flapped the wing experimentally, and took to the air with renewed vigor. Dixie ran.

Other creatures joined the first, necromorphous hybrids of oversized fish, octopods, bats, centipedes, rodents — Dixie didn’t linger to get a good look. She ran for her life. She ducked into a small arch to catch her breath, and almost hit the ceiling when she heard voices.

The shadows at the back of the arch were shimmering, and an image came into focus. It depicted a cluttered room definitely on Earth, and the accents she heard sounded British. “... dash it, Dawes, I said an Erlenmeyer flask — this is a Florence flask!” “Welcome to fetch it yourself, mate,” someone said pleasantly. She noted, too, that the jewel which Gomez had called a corazón was glowing, the red strange against the green. These arches must be doors to other locations, she guessed, and this ghost-world the trail that linked place to place. Gomez had taken one of these doors and gone — elsewhere. Dixie swore that she would find him.

But he probably hadn’t gone to England. She sprinted from the arch; the spectral menagerie gave a collective howl at sighting her and resumed its chase. Soon she would have no choice about which door she took. The next arch showed her a hellscape of erupting volcanoes, where colossal serpents waged mortal battle in the billowing ash; the next revealed a pleasant beach lapped by crimson, jellyfish-filled waves, over which iron hawks shrieked and dove; a cratered, gray, rocky landscape with a blue globe rising in the night sky and men moving in a great domed city in the depths of a large crater; and, finally, another desert landscape where men beat obsidian-edged clubs on wooden shields and threw themselves into bloody melee. In the background she spied several large, squat pyramids like the one back in Coahuila; this must be it. She had no time to consider her decision. The ghostly monsters were almost on her. She threw herself through the arch.

Dixie turned around just in time to see the green and black oval shrink to a pinpoint and disappear. She was stuck here. She regarded the battlefield on which she had landed. Two forces of roughly equal size contended with each other. One was dressed in jaguar skins; the other wore headdresses of what looked like feathers, but on further inspection appeared to be elongate scales of some kind. The warriors were armed with obsidian clubs or obsidian-tipped lances. Both sides instantly ceased their conflict, and, after a moment’s stunned silence, ran to seize her. They shouted in their language, which Dixie realized as that which Gomez spoke. Fortunately, they had no ranged weapons, and Dixie had a few moments to think. Once Bat told her how, long ago, the Comanche had been shocked into docility by the mere sound of firearms. She drew her pistol and fired into the air. The warriors stopped their charge and began talking amongst themselves.

That gave them a start, she noted, satisfied. I reckon they’ve never seen a gun before. “My magical weapon can strike you dead instantly!” she shouted in Spanish, on the off-chance they understood her. “Make no move or I will destroy you!”

A jaguar warrior stepped forward with his hand open. “Spaniard,” he said, in passable Spanish, “give us your revolver without expending any more of the ammunition, and you will have the honor of death by sacrifice. Moreover, we know you have at most five rounds left. You see there are many of us, and one of you.”

“You’re wrong!” she said, trying to conceal her fear. “This is a magical revolver, with over five hundred bullets!”

The men who had so recently and savagely fought each other shared a good laugh. Some merely chuckled, others laughed with their hands on their bellies, like Gomez did.

The first warrior said, grinning, “Spaniard, what you don’t know of magic could fill all the canyons on the Ghost Trail. Don’t be an idiot. Death by sacrifice is a tremendous honor.”

For reply Dixie fired at his feet. The warriors instantly scattered, taking cover behind boulders or the stands of red-leafed cacti. Dixie put her back to a rock wall. She’d never killed before, of course, and hadn’t been able to shoot even Gomez earlier. But that would have been in cold blood. Now she was defending herself, and, by Jim, she’d plug the first son-of-a-gun to bring a club near her...

Pain blazed in her scalp. Someone lifted her off the ground by her hair, and strong hands gripped her under the arms, hauling her up onto a sandstone ledge. She rubbed her scalp and glared at the dark, loinclothed man standing around her. “Sir, I am a lady...”

“No time for that,” the man said, and she was surprised to hear good English. “My name is Rafael Montego. Can you run, or shall I carry you?”

“Help me up, and I reckon I can hot-foot it with the best of you,” she said, and they fled by secret paths into the mountains.

Hang on,” said Rafael, and shoved Dixie behind a jut in the cliff face along which they fled. She gasped, not liking the treatment much, but trusting him, for now. Rafael was intensely quiet, his muscles tense, his hands gripping a stone. He listened, silencing her with a raised finger. Dixie listened, too, and heard a faint whispering rustle on the other side, no more than the wind in the trees. Rafael sprang around the corner, the stone raised. Dixie heard the shattering of stone and bone, cacophonous in the stillness of midday, and Rafael reappeared and tugged at her with bloody hands. “We must go.”

She fought him off. “Did you kill him?”

He regarded her coldly. “Perhaps you want the honor of sacrifice?” he said. He spat the final word. “Let’s go.”

She consented. He led her along the cliff to a stairway cut into the stone. It didn’t look like a stairway until he pointed it out, and even then she had her doubts about it. Rafael flew up it, and beckoned for her to follow. She carefully picked her way up.

They ascended into the foothills, and as they climbed, she studied her surroundings. The terrain was like the Mexico she had left, with a few signal differences. For starters, the huge twin suns burning redly. One was partially obscured by either a large moon or a planet that seemed to be crumbling into the sun. Rafael saw her squinting at the spectacle. “That happened since my arrival seven years ago,” he said.

Dixie could see the city below her. It was mostly sandstone buildings, ranging from yellow to red to purple. Some of the sandstone buildings were impossibly tall or impractical; one of them was actually much larger at the top than the bottom, like an inverted, truncated cone. Another was like a fat ribbon drawn into the air by an invisible hand and twisted. Then there were a few large limestone pyramids, one with a dark smear blanketing the steps, visible even from this distance. Huts filled in the gaps between the permanent stone buildings, and formed a shantytown outside the high walls. Dixie hadn’t seen many big cities in her lifetime, but this was definitely larger than either Austin or San Antonio — perhaps half a million people.

The vegetation was different, too. The leaves tended to red and purple rather than green or the gray of sage or other desert plants. The cacti were much like prickly pear, but with no fruit, and longer, though fewer spines. Small barrel cacti were common, with bright green flowers, quite pretty. They sprouted from the cliffs and on the underside of the broad, leathery leaves of an oak-like tree.

Insect life was plentiful, though she failed to get a good look at any of it. Rafael’s pace did not accommodate her curiosity. Occasionally she heard birds, but didn’t see any.

They seemed to have lost their pursuers entirely, but Rafael denied her rest. She considered herself an able athlete, but she had difficulty keeping up with the short, well-muscled man. They walked until the suns set, one after the other, making for an hours-long dusk. She paused at an overlook. The purple glow saturated the russet desert floor and the stands of dark red oaks and cacti. It was an inhospitable effect, hostile and antithetical to human life.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

“Beauty is lost to me,” Rafael muttered.

“Philistine,” she teased.

His expression darkened. It was plain that she had struck a nerve. She apologized. “We’re almost there,” he said. “We don’t want to be out after dark.”

They descended the far side of the rocky hill, into a valley filled with high shrubs resembling sage. Before entering the foliage, Rafael cupped his hands at his mouth and hooted twice. An answering hoot came from the brush. “It’s safe now,” he said. The brush parted, held back by another loinclothed man. He wielded a spear and scrutinized Dixie with his black eyes. He said something to Rafael in the language Dixie assumed to be Nahuatl; Rafael answered, and the guard permitted them entry.

Dixie was surprised to see that the valley was not actually filled with brush at all. The leafy plants had been torn up elsewhere and brought to this narrow valley, then lashed onto a framework to serve as shelter and camouflage both. Beneath was a large clearing, with dark openings of caves set into the walls, some at ground level, some accessed by ladders. The area was busy with human activity. Dixie estimated the population of the camp at several hundred. Men worked at various crafts: pounding weapons and tools from flint and obsidian, stretching hides to dry or be scraped, making rope from a hemplike fiber. Children kicked around an inflated bladder. They scooped it up and ran into the caves at Dixie’s approach. Women roasted unidentifiable animals on struggling little fires of cactus leaves. “They don’t burn very well, but they give off no smoke,” Rafael said. “We had to abandon our last camp because of smoke.”

An older man with one of the elongate red scales in his hair confronted them and spoke angrily to Rafael. He spoke like he was used to having his orders obeyed. Rafael answered tersely; Dixie had the uncomfortable idea that they were talking about her. But Rafael apparently defied him, and finally the chief relented with an angry gesture.

“The chief, Cualli, he thinks I should’ve left you to die,” Rafael said. “He thinks I’ve endangered everyone by bringing you here.”

“Did you? I don’t want to be any trouble to anyone...”

“Trouble!” Rafael said bitterly. “Not hardly. But then I told him that you bring a firearm, and that changed his mind. Besides, the slavers won’t come all the way out here just to raid us. There are better pickings closer to Tenochtitlan.”

“Tenochtitlan? That’s the name of the city? That’s Mexico City’s old name.”

Rafael laughed. “No, that was — how to translate? Nueva Tenochtitlan, the new city of the Aztecs, now destroyed, but even at its peak never half as great as its namesake. These are the same people who conquered half of Mexico, now vanished from that world, but flourishing across half a dozen others, and always, always seeking to grow and devour. My ancestors.”

“I wondered — you look a little different, and you speak Spanish and English. I reckon you aren’t a native here.”

“No, I lived in Monterrey. As the only son of a well-to-do mestizo corn merchant, I received an education and stood to inherit my father’s business. I was taken as a maltin, a war captive, when I was out riding and went too far from the city, where the vanished people hold sway.”

“So, these Aztecs make raids into the real world — into Earth?”

“Si, señorita, and carry off whomever they can grab quietly. But such slaves are rare and prized for their light skin, their languages, their special skills. Most slaves are simply grabbed from the poor non-Aztec tribes, like these Oalli.” He indicated the people of the camp. “It takes great magic to open a door to Earth, even a small door permitting only a single warrior or a handful of warriors, so Earth-slaves like myself are very valuable. I was intended to instruct their tlatoani, their ruler, in Earth-languages. But I killed my handler and escaped.”

“What sort of magic?” Dixie asked, dreading the answer.

Rafael shrugged. “Blood-magic, the only kind they know.” Dixie thought of Gomez’s murder of the three men at the pyramid. So that was how he opened the door to the Ghost Trail; by cutting out their hearts! Rafael continued. “When they want to consecrate a new building, they sacrifice a number of slaves depending on the size. A house might require one or two deaths. A pyramid demands many dozens of deaths. Or, when drought threatens the crops, they sacrifice as many slaves as needed to make it rain again.”

Dixie’s mind raced. “When they need to move a whole passel of warriors through the Ghost Trail, say, when they’re conquering a new planet, what sort of sacrifice does that require?”

“The history of Mexico was part of my education, señorita, and I can tell you that on one occasion, the tlatoani Ahuitzotl ordered the deaths of twenty thousand captives. That is a conservative guess. Some historians say it was eighty thousand, but that seems impossible. Yet — I would put nothing past them.”

Dixie could hardly contain her incredulity. “And you said they’re spread across half a dozen worlds?”

“Si.”

“But they’ve given up on Earth.”

“As you can see from my own example, they raid from time to time. They still have spies, agents working the will of the tlatoani in secret. Powerful, evil men, not to be crossed.”

“Gomez.”

“I’ve heard of him. Xiuhcoatl is his Nahuatl name. It means ‘weapon of destruction.’”

“He killed my husband.”

Rafael’s tough, bitter facade softened momentarily. “Señorita, you have my deep sympathy.” He put his hand on her shoulder. Dixie touched it, grateful for the contact after hours of nothing but danger.

A shrill voice broke the moment, and someone shoved Dixie from the side. She spun on her heel to face her attacker, a tall woman with a Roman nose, a strong jaw, and eyes as dark as the obsidian knife she carried. Rafael stepped between them, and a good thing, too; Dixie was enraged at the assault and ready to hit back, knife or no.

“Let me at her,” Dixie said. “No one pushes me from behind and gets away with it.”

The woman said something. “She wants to know who you are,” Rafael said.

“Who am I? I’m Dixie O’Dell, tough as a Hill Country coyote, ready to spit nails and kick her ass to hell and back. Who the hell is she?”

Rafael looked embarrassed. “Patli, my first wife,” he said.

“Oh.”

“She wants to cut your face.”

“She’s welcome to try!”

“She’ll do it,” Rafael warned. “She’s already cut my other two wives. I can’t stop her. It’s her right.”

Patli jumped at Dixie. Dixie jerked back, and the knife slashed the air an inch from her stomach.

Dixie raised her fists. “I licked every boy in Bexar County. I reckon I can lick you.” Patli circled, the knife gleaming in the half-light. She ran at Dixie, thrusting with the knife.

But Dixie was ready for her. She stepped back, letting Patli run out of momentum and throwing her off-balance, then grabbed Patli’s hair with one hand, pulling her downward, and hammered her elbow into the back of Patli’s head. The woman collapsed and Dixie planted her boot on Patli’s back. She looked to Rafael. “Should I cut her face a little?”

“No, señorita, this will do.” Dixie released Patli, who limped off, burning with humiliation.

“Smart money says I need to watch my back.”

“No, she’ll leave you alone. She’s not spiteful. She was just defending her position as first among my wives, which she has lost fairly.”

“Does that mean...?” She reddened.

“Yes. Though the title can be purely honorary.”

“Let’s keep it that way, then,” Dixie said hastily.

“Come with me. I’ll show you a place you can rest, and get you some food.”

Rafael showed her to a shallow, low-ceilinged cave furnished with a rough blanket on a bed of leaves. She settled in and soon he returned with a wooden bowl filled with corn gruel, seasoned with chilies and a pulpy purple fruit something like a tomato, along with a bowl of something crunchy fried in corn batter. After eating a few, she realized that they were grasshoppers, or something like them. But hunger outweighed her disgust, and they tasted fine.

Dixie asked questions between mouthfuls. She needed a good deal of information, because she still intended to capture Gomez and bring him back to Earth. How she would locate and arrest him, and how she would open the door to the Ghost Trail, she had no clue, especially as there were thousands of Aztec warriors between herself and her goal. About four in every five city-dwelling males were fighters, Rafael informed her, in top condition. They fought constantly among themselves to hone their skills, or with neighboring cities to take war captives for sacrifice. These “Flower Wars,” as Rafael called them, had no political or territorial stakes; they were just for practice. Dixie protested at the thought of killing for no reason beyond maintaining skill at killing.

“Hardly,” Rafael said. “For one thing, the Flower Wars allow the soldiers to, how do you say? Blow off steam. Eighty percent of city dwellers are warriors. The tlatoani doesn’t want them getting restless. Second, they need a source of captives for sacrifice. Even other Aztecs will do, whether they’re from other cities and captured in Flower Wars, or criminals of Tenochtitlan, or volunteers.”

“Volunteers?” she said, disbelieving.

“Yes. It’s considered an honor to be chosen for sacrifice. Some warriors allow themselves to be captured just for that.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No.”

“I’ve heard of the honor of sacrifice twice now,” Dixie said. “Why’re folks so hung up on it? I saw it, back on Earth. It’s terrible!”

“You don’t understand, señorita. See, the whole of existence is tonacayotl, the spiritual flesh of God. His bones are the mountains and stones; his tissue the soil; his blood the rivers and oceans; his breath the air. His sacrifice generates and sustains us, the macehualli, meaning those-returned-through-penance, the penance of God. A bit like the sacrifice of Christ, no? Except this God, or gods, demands a more literal recompense for his sacrifice. He must be paid back in kind. This is why we have war, to create food and drink for the gods, without which they would starve and die, and us to follow, for man cannot live without God. All participate. The poorest peasants, the hut dwellers, offer maguey thorns dripping with their own blood. The warriors cut themselves on the earlobes, face, chest, calves, lips, and tongue. This is a private and most ecstatic rite. Even the king participates. In times of distress, the tlatoani makes a cut on his, forgive my vulgarity, on his member and passes a rope through it, just as Quetzalcoatl did when he made the first man. If he fails, the dynasty fails.”

Dixie was speechless.

“Before you question the seeming senselessness of this, remember that these people have conquered six planets, and have maintained their empire, with the small setback of losing Mexico to the Spanish, for over four thousand years. There is no question that this cruelty breeds an unyielding race. They do not shudder at violence, against others or against themselves, and this gives them strength beyond reckoning.”

She thought about his words for a moment. “What about these Oalli? What are they like?”

“A good people in the way that simplicity creates virtue, noble in their way, but ultimately savages of no breeding and no education.”

Dixie snorted.

“What’s funny?”

“Oh, nothing, just that — ”

“Perhaps such a thing is amusing to you, coming from a Mexican? I know that’s how you whites regard us.”

“No, not at all...”

“Cholos, greasers, spics, dagos — how many words do you have for my people, gringa?”

His words angered her. “Now, listen here! I’m tired of you telling me how I think!”

“I apologize,” he said after a moment. “I’m used to living among the Oalli, a fine people, but not my own, and living in fear of yet another race distantly related to my own... I’m a mestizo, with an Indian grandfather, so I’m sure I have no small quantity of Aztec blood in me. Yet I loathe them!”

“Why would these mighty people be so interested in my little six-shooter?” Dixie asked, wanting to change the subject. “When I first got here, they demanded I give it to them.”

Rafael chuckled. “Despite their blood-magic and their skill with stonecraft, they have never learned the secrets of iron. They’re just as unable to craft a sword now as when the Spaniards whipped them three hundred years ago. This world of Aztlan has few iron deposits, it seems.”

Dixie processed all this information. She didn’t care for Aztlan or its bloodthirsty inhabitants. The sooner she got out, the better. “Do you know how they open the doors to the Ghost Trail?”

“Two ways: sacrifice, or an enchanted gem that they call a piedra del corazón, a heart-stone.”

“Like this?” Dixie showed him the gem she had taken from Martinez.

Rafael’s eyebrows shot up. “Si! Where did you get that?”

“From a slick little four-flusher I met in Laredo. He called himself an exile... I think he might have been a spy, now, and maybe he had this rock so he could return after his sentence or term was over. You know how to use it?”

“No... too bad. Madre de Dios, to see Monterrey again! And my wife — my real wife,” he said ruefully. He sighed, was silent for a moment, and continued. “If you have a corazón and know the words, there are ways to open doors to the Ghost Trail anywhere you please. Though I understand it’s easier at certain places, like the pyramids, where the sorcerer-priests keep a proverbial foot in the door. The other way, of course, is sacrifice.”

“How does this corazón do the work of blood-magic, then?”

“Simple. It’s a crystallized human heart.”

Dixie dropped it. Rafael laughed. “Relax, señorita, its original owner is long past offense. Keep hold of it. If you learn the words, it could be precious beyond belief to you.” He stood. “I’ve talked long enough, and you need rest. Sleep well. You’re as safe as you can be here.”

With those words in her ears, Dixie fell into a restless sleep that was interrupted almost as soon as it began by a hand clapped over her mouth and another shaking her shoulder. “Wake up, señorita,” Rafael whispered. “We must flee.” It was pitch-dark in the little cave, but Dixie could make out the form of Patli behind Rafael, and glints of moonlight told her that they carried obsidian weapons. From outside came sounds of a great but hushed bustle: people running to and fro, things being packed, the clatter of stone or wooden possessions being thrown together. “A scout reports a slaver party bound for this valley.” Rafael paused, listening. Something splintered; there was a loud crash. “I fear they might be here already!”

Dixie jumped to her feet and strapped on her gun, her nerves jangling, her heart pumping.

“Follow me,” Rafael said, and left. Patli arched a scornful eyebrow at Dixie, then followed Rafael, with Dixie behind her.

The camp erupted into chaos. The crash had been caused by a burly Aztec warrior dropping through the camouflage shroud; the chief stood over the warrior’s corpse, his knife dripping; but now that their refuge was discovered, the camp was undone. A horrid shrieking split the air, the battle-cries of the jaguar warriors, and two, then four more smashed through the ceiling. They carried wooden shields and were armed with simple wooden clubs. No blades, Dixie noted. They must want slaves rather than corpses. Five Oalli men attacked them with spears, but the well-trained Aztecs batted the weapons aside and clubbed the men unconscious.

Dozens of warriors plunged through or ran down the steep slopes. Dixie knew it was no use fighting; they were too many and too strong, and they had the advantage of surprise. The confused Oalli were bludgeoned and beaten as quickly as they emerged from their caves.

“This way!” Rafael cried, pulling Dixie and Patli to a cave on the opposite side. The shrub-ceiling above them parted and a feathered warrior dropped on Rafael, bearing him to the ground. In an instant, Patli was upon him; her knife flashed, and Rafael pushed the bloody corpse away. Patli helped him up. They dove into the cave, the death-sounds of the Oalli tribe ringing in their ears.

Dixie tripped on the uneven floor and knocked her head against the low ceiling. Patli and Rafael had no difficulty. They knew the tunnel well, and if not for Rafael’s (Patli’s?) grip on her wrist, she would have been lost. At one point they turned sideways and squeezed through a narrow passage. For once Dixie was grateful for her small stature. Ahead, stars populated the darkness. They were almost out.

They crawled from the opening of the tunnel, found themselves exposed on a bare section of hillside, and scrambled for the sparse covering of the brush. The strident call of a bird echoed from the hillside, and Rafael swore.

“What is that?” Dixie asked, as they crept along under the spreading branches of the oaks.

“The red quetzals, the birds of paradise. You’ve seen their feathers on the warriors.” They froze as a shadow passed overhead, blotting out eighteen feet of stars. “They must have seen us when we came out of the cave.”

Another shadow joined the first, and their piercing calls echoed through the hills as they circled southward. Dixie brushed against a barrel cactus in the dark and fiery bursts of pain exploded across her leg. She tried to smother her yelp, but some of it escaped, and the swooping shadows turned back to their location.

“The cacti are a bit different here,” Rafael explained. “Don’t worry, you’ll be okay in a few hours. But try not to make any more noise.”

Dixie’s leg was going numb, and she hobbled along, intent only on escaping the Aztecs and their airborne allies. She’d seen what they did with their prisoners, and had no intention of suffering the same fate. They came to an arroyo. Dixie saw the difficulty. The trees ended some yards short of it on both sides. They had to cross, or the Aztecs at their backs would find them, but if they did, the quetzals would surely spot them.

Rafael was arguing with his wife. She gestured at the arroyo, at the huge circling birds, and back at the village. All hushed at the sound of rustling brush to their rear. Someone had followed them, and would be here soon.

Patli threw her arms around Rafael. “Hasta luego, mi amo,” she whispered, and kissed him. Then, before Rafael could react or Dixie had time to comprehend what was happening, Patli broke through the brier and yucca, tumbled down the bank of the arroyo, and ran screaming southward. The quetzals beat their wings a few times, casually, and kept pace with her. The two monstrous birds dove simultaneously on the woman and grasped at her with their talons. She fought, slashing at them with her knife, which was knocked from her hand with a blow of a great wing; the other pummeled her with its wings and stretched her out senseless on the ground. They took her in their claws, one clutching her arm, the other a leg, and with a little effort they lifted from the ground and disappeared to the east.

Rafael and Dixie sprinted across the arroyo and vanished in the cover on the far side.

She was conscious that they were heading back toward Tenochtitlan, but, between the birds and the roving warriors at their backs, there was nothing they could do about it. Most likely the raid had been planned that way. Just as well, she reasoned; Gomez is in Tenochtitlan. She didn’t know how she’d get her hands on the bastard, but she’d manage it. After a while, Rafael stopped.

“I think we’ve eluded them for now. Let’s rest and plan our next course of action.”

Dixie sat on a rock. Her leg hurt like hell. “What about Patli?”

“What about her?” Rafael said. “I lost one wife, now I have lost another. What of it?”

“Don’t you love her?”

“No, and she knew that. Such is the condition of love — the lover and the beloved, who lets himself be loved. She was a fine woman, and now she is gone. I don’t grieve for her.”

“And your wife? Your real wife in Mexico? Is she a lover or beloved?”

Rafael’s eyes were black voids in the darkness. “Beloved,” he said at last. “But that’s not important right now. We need to decide our next move.”

“What’s there to do?” Dixie said. “I’ve got my Colt and a pocketful of ammo, but I can’t plug ’em all.”

“I wonder, señorita, whether you have the nerve to ‘plug’ anyone at all. Why didn’t you shoot during our escape? You could have turned the tide of battle.”

“Not by a country mile!” Dixie said. “They would’ve been on me like chickens on a june bug.”

Rafael shrugged. “It could mean the difference between life and death later. When the moment comes, I hope you can do what must be done.”

“Don’t worry about me, hombre. Anyway — what’re we gonna do?”

“My instincts tell me to head for the hills. But, our best chance is that you learn how to use that corazón, and get us out of here. Perhaps we could capture a sorcerer-priest and force the secret words from him.”

“What about the Oalli?”

“What about them?”

“They’re gonna be massacred by the hundreds.”

“Unfortunate, but I feel no loyalty to them.”

“No loyalty? They fed you and protected you for years!”

“No, señorita, you are ignorant. I earned the right of refuge among them by distinction in battle. I first joined them as a slave, and I was treated as cruelly by them as by the Aztecs.”

Something else occurred to Dixie, a terrible idea that she hated to think about. “Oh, God,” she said, as the eñormity of it shook her. “Oh, Jesus save us.”

“What is it?”

“Why would they round up so many slaves? They’re gonna have a mass sacrifice.”

“Of course.”

“Why do they do that?”

“To open a door large enough to accommodate an army.”

“And where would they be going?”

Rafael shrugged, annoyed and impatient. “Some other desert world — who cares?”

“No,” Dixie said. “Why now? What just happened?”

“Well — you came here.”

“And who was I chasin’?”

“That Gomez — a spy. A scout. Madre de Dios!” Dixie glimpsed the whites of his eyes as the truth hit him. “They intend to march on Mexico!”

“My map-learnin’s a bit shaky, but I think Monterrey’s the closest city to the pyramid that took me here. Maybe they don’t have guns, but eighty thousand jaguar warriors against the Monterrey militia...”

“Which carries flintlock rifles,” Rafael finished.

“And then more captives, more sacrifices, and more warriors in Mexico — six worlds’ worth.”

Rafael crossed himself. “We go to Tenochtitlan,” he said. “We stop them, somehow, I know not, but God is on our side, and we cannot fail — ”

A hollow thud cut off his words, and he dropped to the ground. An Aztec stood behind him, a wooden club in his hand. Dixie thought about screaming, decided against it, and turned to run on her numb leg.

... and collided with a tall Aztec decked out with quetzal scales. She reached for her gun, but he trapped her wrist in a meaty hand. Dixie’s fist rammed into his rock-hard abdomen, and she had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes widen and hearing his breath whoosh out. He released her. A club rushed at her face; there was a starry explosion, quite beautiful, and then blackness.

Jens Rushing Jens Rushing is a native Texan living in South Korea with his wife and dog. He was hatched from an egg. Visit his website for his journal, some stories, and nightmare bursts of galimatias.

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