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Available November 10, 2021
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The small silver bell chimed as the inn door creaked shut behind the young man. Campesinos and cart drivers glanced up from the rough-hewn tables in the dim and dusty public room beside the Camino de Royale, sparing him scarcely a nod before returning to their worries and wine. The young man, Filipo del Utherio, went to the stool closest to the darkest corner and pulled his last rial from a flaccid leather coin purse, spinning it upon the polished manzanita bar. The innkeeper, a stout man in his forties wearing a spotless white apron, approached as he usually did at the sound of money.
“Anything?” Filipo asked.
“Not what you want,” the innkeeper muttered. “How old are you now, joven? Sixteen?”
“Seventeen,” Filipo grumbled.
“Old enough to be making your own way in the world. Not to be chasing ghosts.”
Filipo reached to retrieve his coin, but the innkeeper’s meaty paw slammed down on it.
“But perhaps the Madre smiles upon you after all, joven,” the innkeeper went on, leaning his elbows on the bar. His breath was rich with garlic. “For I have heard a thing. From the groundskeeper for the orphanage Nuestra Señora de la Pacifica…have you heard of it?”
“I am surprised, given the rumors. Anyway, this groundskeeper comes here sometimes to drink, which I am sure the holy sisters of the orphanage would prefer he does not do.”
Filipo reined in his impatience. “What has this to do with my concerns?”
“Well, this groundskeeper had seen a thing. Not long ago, a messenger arrived, a boy on a mule, nothing to make a great matter of except that he was carrying a narrow, wooden box. It was about the length of a man’s arm. I am sure you know the sort of box I mean. This messenger boy demands to see the Mater at once for he has an important delivery to make. Being a helpful but curious man, the groundskeeper shows the boy to the servants’ entrance where, once the boy shows the box to the holy sister who comes to the door, the boy is whisked inside with no further question.”
Filipo, opened his hands. “I expect there is a reason for this uninspiring tale, señor?”
“Well,” the innkeeper said with a half-shrug, “I only thought it might interest you because the groundskeeper noticed a name carved into a corner of the box…Salamago. Ah, the widening of your eyes shows that catches your fancy, I see.”
Filipo tried to mute his attention with a shrug. “It may be nothing.”
“It may be all you have left, joven.” The innkeeper stood, taking Filipo’s last rial with him. “Or you could go to the harbor, sign onto a ship, see more of the world, as do many fellows even younger than you. Might bring you better fortune than to stay.”
“What am I supposed to do with your information?” asked Filipo, his patience nearing an end. “Sneak into the chapel treasure room like a thief?”
“I expect you will do what you must. That or keep chasing a mystery that perhaps does not wish to be solved.”
Filipo stood, kicking the stool forward under the bar with a grumble. “Muchas gracias.”
“Buena suerte,” replied the innkeeper.
Filipo went out the front door and blinked in the dusty sunlight. In the far distance, he heard what might have been cannon fire. Or perhaps it was just the waves of the nearby sea, pounding against the shore like a blacksmith’s hammer.
Thunder rolled across a cloudless sky. Coraza Salamago glanced up at the chaparral-dotted ridgeline as hot, dry wind blew strands of her long, black hair across her face. The scruffy mustang she sat on stamped one hoof, its ears twitching back with unease. A strange burnt-orange light flickered atop the nearby coastal hills.
“Tzinn wind,” Coraza murmured with a shiver of both fear and excitement.
“Stop trying to scare us,” said Rosalita riding beside her in the corral. “We are not so foolish.” The two other girls taking the horse lesson that afternoon nodded in agreement. “Tzinn are desert demons. They never come so near the sea.”
“No talking, señoritas, please!” said the hawk-nosed, middle-aged riding instructor, Maestra Olympia, clapping her hands for their attention. “Do not distract each other! Bring your horses heads up. Sit up straight, chin forward, arms in a graceful arc. Remember, be like the Great Ladies of Old España, ride as though you are the most elegant creation of the Madre.”
“Now that is foolishness,” muttered Coraza.
They were, after all, not in Old España, but Alta Califia, a struggling, rustic colony on the far western edge of the New World, America del Norte. And it was not the age of Great Lords and Ladies, but the year of the Madre 1843. Coraza and the other girls were just orphans at the Our Lady of The Pacific Girls School and Orphanage. And as far as the sacerdotas, the holy teachers at the orphanage, were concerned, sixteen-year-old Coraza was anything but an elegant creation of the Madre.
“Then why do the holy sisters warn us about the tzinn, if the demons never come here?” Coraza persisted as she tried to keep her mustang walking in a circle.
There was no point in mentioning the unnatural light in the hills. Coraza knew only she could see it. She wished she could be certain of what her eyes and the strange thrumming in her blood were telling her. But all afternoon she had been dazzled by the sun and blue sky, the cries of the sea gulls and the smell of the sage, juniper, and mesquite. She couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just her imagination.
I have been kept inside so long, she thought sadly. Nearly a year.
Coraza had been raised at the orphanage, the only home she knew. Aware of having a famous father and an unknown mother, she dreamed that someday a relative would come to claim her and take her into her true family. But no one had come, and the holy sisters avoided speaking to her about any future she should hope for. Someone had named her Coraza, meaning “shield.” Was that meant as a protection for her, or was she meant to protect others?
Sometimes, she imagined she might someday become a Protectadora, one of the wise cabals of brujas, or witches, formed during the Great Revolt of 1798, who watched over Alta Califia, guarding the citizens from tzinn and other enemies. It was said they could feel danger through the land itself. Coraza wished she could become something that good and useful and…appreciated. She was sure it was a foolish dream—she had no idea how Protectadoras were chosen—but it gave her a hope to cling to.
“They warn us about many things we don’t have at the orphanage,” said Rosalita. “Like money. And men. Really, Coraza, they should never have let you out of the cellar. You haven’t changed a bit. Still talking nonsense. Besides, the Protectadoras have wards everywhere, even the orphanage.”
“The witches of the Presidio are getting old and feeble,” said Coraza, repeating something she had overheard. The Presidio was the largest, strongest fort in Alta Califia, the main defense of the city of Los Mensajeros and the surrounding land. If the keepers of the fort were to become weakened, who knew what it could mean for the colony as a whole?
Coraza’s cellar room had a small window high in the wall, and it was amazing what visitors in the orphanage courtyard would say, thinking no one listened. Rumors claimed the Protectadoras had grown so old, they needed all their magic power just to keep themselves alive. “Perhaps they can no longer protect us.”
“I said stop it!” insisted Rosalita.
“No, it’s true,” said Lupe, riding behind them. “My uncle has said so in his letters. He fears the brujas of the Protectadora can’t do their magic anymore.” She leaned forward over her horse’s neck and whispered, “He says this could mean trouble, as there is probably war coming. The Nuevo Aztecas have been seen heading north toward our border.”
“Yes! I have felt this very thing,” said Coraza, remembering her recent dreams of a great snake, covered in black feathers, coiling and uncoiling. She sensed it meant something bad was approaching, though she was not certain what.
“Shut up! That’s treasonous talk!” cried Rosalita. “I should tell Mater Urania what you two are saying.”
“Señoritas, please! Pay attention. How can you ever hope to guide a husband if you cannot control a simple animal?” asked Maestra Olympia.
Coraza could see faint purple light rippling over the hands of the horse instructor. Clearly, the Maestra herself was cheating, using sorcery to control her own fine black stallion.
However, Coraza kept her ability to see the glow of magic use secret, having been slapped often by the holy sisters for saying or knowing the wrong things. Since her confinement, Coraza had learned a small bit of caution.
But if they so mistrust me, why was I allowed outside today, for a horse lesson of all things?
Another gust of wind blew through the corral, kicking up dust and dry leaves. It sang through the branches of the nearby manzanita bushes with a low moan, similar to that made by a grieving woman.
“La Llorona,” whispered Coraza, her skin prickling and stomach turning cold. La Llorona was among the most feared of the tzinn.
“Stop it!” cried Rosalita, slapping Coraza’s arm with the ends of her leather reins.
Coraza ignored Rosalita and looked down the hillside. The safety of the brick orphanage was many yards from the corral, the ruins of the Mariano mission many yards farther to the south. The adobe chapel stood a quarter mile to the north, on a low ridge, with the blue of the Pacific Ocean beyond the orphanage. Tzinn despised water, but the beach was at least a mile away.
Too far, too far, thought Coraza. She gently nudged the mustang’s flanks with her heels, but the horse stood as if transfixed, staring at the hills.
The wind blew harder, throwing sage-scented dust through the corral. Coraza blinked and rubbed her face as dust got in her eyes. Rosalita and Lupe sneezed. The Maestra’s horse raised its fine black head and stared as the mustang did, ears flicked forward in acute attention.
The blast increased in force, and the moaning became louder. The bare, red-barked branches of the manzanita bushes outside the corral waved toward them like a myriad skeletal hands.
“Ai mi, no!” cried Rosalita, pointing toward the hills.
Coraza looked back at the mountain ridge. A cloud of brown dust was billowing over the crest. It flowed down the slopes toward them, fast as water, behaving as no natural cloud would.
“Dust storm!” cried the Maestra. “Everyone dismount and lead your horse back to the stable barn, quickly! Follow my voice!”
But dust storms never came to that part of Alta Califia, and Coraza could see the glowing burnt-orange light of Sere sorcery at the heart of the approaching cloud.
Within seconds, the dust cloud hit the corral. Coraza was knocked halfway out of the saddle by the force of the wind. She flung her arm across her face as the dust stung her cheeks and eyes. The girls’ shrieking and the horses’ screaming blended with the roaring, shuddering moans of the wind.
“To me, to me!” Maestra Olympia cried. “Hurry!”
Coraza slid off the saddle and felt for the reins on the mustang’s bridle. When she found them, she tugged. “Come on!”
But the horse wouldn’t budge. It stood whickering, eyes rolling, legs trembling.
“Please, move!” Coraza yelled at it, getting a mouthful of dust for her trouble. Suddenly, the mustang tossed its head, yanking the reins out of her hands, the leather burning her palms. Coraza reached toward the horse to grab the bridle, but the horse dashed away. A blast of wind pushed her back, and she stumbled. She spun around but could no longer see the mustang
or even the corral fence.
“Maestra Olympia?” Coraza shouted, but her voice was faint in the roaring of the wind. Coraza could no longer hear the horse instructor’s calls or the cries of the other girls.
Downhill, she told herself. The orphanage is downhill. Trying to sense the slight slope to the hillside corral, Coraza staggered forward, fighting to get through the swirling dust. At last, her shoulder struck a wooden post.
The fence! If she followed it around, she might find the gate, and the stable door was directly downhill from the gate.
Coraza tried to walk north along the fence, but the wind blew against her like a wall of stinging darts. She could make no headway against it. With a groan of frustration, Coraza turned and squeezed between the horizontal beams, yanking her long skirt through, hearing it tear on the rough wood.
As soon as she stood again, the wind eased. Her face no longer stung from the onslaught of dust, and she could breathe without getting a mouthful. Coraza coughed and wiped her face.
“Merciful Madre,” Coraza sighed. As she blinked dirt out of her eyes, Coraza’s heart froze again. She was standing in an area clear of wind, but the dust cloud roared around her, as though she stood in a circular chamber whose walls were made of blowing dirt and leaves. The air within the circle was unaccountably silent.
In the middle of the clear space stood a female figure draped in black, her face invisible behind a black veil. The air around her was suffused in a dark orange glow. The figure turned to Coraza and raised its arms. “Oh, beautiful child,” the creature intoned in a low, honeyed voice so sorrowful that Coraza felt compelled to listen. “Beautiful child, come to me. I am so alone. I have lost so many little ones. Will you not ease my pain?”
For a confusing moment, Coraza wondered if a madwoman had wandered onto the orphanage grounds and she should, in pity, warn her away. Then a breeze momentarily lifted the visitor’s black veil, revealing a face of dried skin stretched taut over a skull, a lipless mouth showing brown, jagged teeth.
It is La Llorona herself! Coraza stared, unable to tear her gaze away from the shadowy tzinn, unmoving, the only sounds her ragged gasps and the pounding of her heart. Am I about to die?
“Oh, come to me, child!”
Despite the fearsome aspect of the creature, Coraza sensed a true loneliness in that sightless face, those imploring skeletal arms. She felt simpatico, a connection somehow with the terrifying spirit. Loneliness was something Coraza understood, every waking day of her life. Could I truly ease her pain and ease my own as well?
The tzinn tilted her head and stepped toward her, imploring. “Oh, beautiful child, do not turn away. Are you not as alone as I? Do you not seek a mother’s love? Will you not take mine?”
Coraza’s heart squeezed in her chest, and a dusty tear ran down her cheek. Does La Llorona know? Coraza wondered. Can she see into my soul? Might she have secret knowledge about me? Strangely, Coraza found herself longing to embrace the demon, to bury herself within the bosom of her shadowy black garment. To lose herself to oblivion. Perhaps she might, in some way, give the sad creature comfort. Perhaps Coraza might receive a comfort she herself had never known in return. She took a step forward, her throat choked with fear and pity. “I…I…
Suddenly, from beneath La Llorona’s flowing black skirts, two skeletal children with gaping eye-sockets emerged and stared at Coraza. One of them, ever so slightly, shook its head in warning. If she gave in, it seemed to say, she would become as they were, a mere dried husk, only hungering for a liveliness they can never have.
“Coraza! Are you there?” cried another voice to her right, from beyond the dust wall.
The familiar shout shook her out of her strange reverie. It was Sister Phoebe, a young novice, one of the few holy sisters who had showed kindness and helpfulness to her.
Coraza stepped back, bumping up against the corral fence. With a badly shaking hand, she drew the sign of the Sacred Trisect Circle in the air. “Sister Phoebe, I’m here! It’s La Llorona! Please help me!”
Steadily, the tzinn approached her.
“No!” Coraza cried, finally finding her voice. “In the name of the Holy Madre, stop!”
“Oh, beautiful child, why do you resist? Are we not meant to be together?”
Coraza’s fear turned to anger at her own helplessness. How could she think of protecting others when she could not even protect herself? Her face grew hot with shame and anger, and her arms trembled with her rage. “You cannot have me! Do you hear me? Begone! Go away!” she screamed.
“Oh, beautiful child—”
“Don’t listen to the tzinn!” A glimmering object arced through the wall of swirling dust to Coraza’s right. It burst upon La Llorona’s head, scattering glass and a bright spray of water.
Holy water, thought Coraza. Thank the Madre.
The tzinn stopped, lowered its arms, and stared down at itself in astonishment.
Sister Phoebe, in her sky blue habit and white wimple, dashed out of the swirling dust and grabbed Coraza’s arm. “Come! Run! Don’t look back!”
Coraza ran beside her into the wall of howling dust. She closed her eyes tight against the scouring wind.
“Madre, save us. Madre, save us,” Sister Phoebe prayed as they ran. Behind them, an unholy scream rose into the air.
Coraza ran into a wall of wood. “Ai, what—”
“Servant’s entry door to the orphanage,” gasped Sister Phoebe. “Help me open it. Hurry.”
Coraza grasped the iron latch, her hands atop Sister Phoebe’s, and yanked with all her might. The door creaked open, and she stumbled through into a dim storage room. Sister Phoebe shut the door and shoved the wood bolt home. A blow of tremendous force slammed into the opposite side, knocking Sister Phoebe and Coraza back. The boards bent and splintered, and the iron bands groaned, but they held. Burnt-orange light glowed and flickered around the edges of the door like fire.
“In the name of the Blessed Madre, hold!” cried Sister Phoebe. A blaze of blue sorcerous energy poured from her outstretched arm to the door. The light flowed over the portal, sealing out the Sere sorcery. An eerie howl came from just outside the door, and then it faded, drifting away on the wind.
Gasping heavily, Sister Phoebe sank toward the storeroom floor.
“Thank you! Thank you for saving me. Are you all right?” Coraza crouched beside Sister Phoebe and put her arms around the novice’s shoulders.
Sister Phoebe slowly sat up, nodding. But there was still fear in her pretty dark eyes.
“Thank you so much for coming for me!” Coraza said. “I didn’t know what to do!”
Sister Phoebe smiled sadly and brushed dust out of Coraza’s hair. “It’s not your fault, chica. Few can withstand the call of a Great Tzinn. They are like serpents, trapping their prey in their gaze. Thank the Madre for sparing us this day. We were very lucky.” She pulled Coraza close and hugged her.
Trembling, Coraza asked, “Why did the wards fail? How could a tzinn get so close?”
“I don’t know,” said Sister Phoebe, her face turned away. “I don’t know.”
The inner door, opposite the one they had entered, slammed open and Coraza shrieked.
The figure standing in the doorway in a charcoal-grey habit was nearly as frightening as the tzinn. Mater Urania, head of the orphanage, her eyes narrowed in her dour, wrinkled face, glared back and forth between them. Finally, her disapproving gaze came to rest on Sister Phoebe. “You disobeyed.” Her voice rumbled like a waking volcano.
“Forgive me, Holy Mother!” said Sister Phoebe. “But Coraza was still outside.”
“No one was to leave the orphanage. You disobeyed my express command.”
“Don’t punish her, Mater!” said Coraza. “Sister Phoebe