Moon Blood and Salt Flowers

This M/F historical paranormal romance was originally posted on Literotica. It's set in the Andes during the Colonial period.

1576, Viceroyalty of Peru

The llamas stood in a half circle, their hums ruckling across the morning silence. Amaya had been walking the hills in search of the herd sire and his harem since the first thin light of dawn. Morning now painted the high plain with long pink fingers while serrated mountains marched in the distance, snowy crowns aglow.

When she drew near, she saw why the llamas hummed. A party of Spanish soldiers had camped for the night in a hollow where late winter rivulets pooled. Between dark boulders that glittered with threads of ice, the soldiers had sought relief from cold winds. Their puna grass fire had died and the men, most still wrapped in blankets, sprawled and twitched upon the stony ground in the last throes of dying. Trickles of blood ran from staring eyes, swords and harquebuses unused near their hands. Weapons would not have helped them.

Their enemy, luminous ghostly stalks sprouted from the hard earth, had come upon them while they slept and now overarched the prostrate men. Mottled pods, swollen like melons, wove above two of the unfortunates and were in the midst of feeding, tendrils drawing the souls from their mouths and eyes in soft, gauzy tatters. The souls looked like alpaca fleece being pulled apart for spinning. Tiny spangles of light, bright as stars, flashed on that fabric as the bloated flowers drew it into black throats surrounded by translucent white petals.

Moved by instinct that overrode the headman's warnings about how the Viceroy's soldiers brought only trouble to their village, Amaya ran to the soldier nearest her and kicked him.

"Wake up!" she shouted. If he woke up, he might escape, because salt flowers moved very slowly and never far from where they sprouted.

The soldier did not wake, nor did the one next to him. They lay inert, blood running from their eyes and speckling their open lips. She had arrived too late. The salt flowers had been among them for too long.

Saddened, she moved to the edge of the camp to wait out the last minutes of sunrise. Sunlight drove malevolent spirits back underground. Already the stalks were thin and pale, fading. Salt flowers only bloomed at night and only during jiwa, the three days of the dead moon, when all living things stopped growing. On such nights spirits of the underworld wandered and held sway. The soldiers should have known better than to be out in the open, where they risked running into something ugly. Maybe they did not know because they were Spanish and were not afraid of losing their souls.

A priest of the conquerors came infrequently to Kullaka, where he insisted on performing marriages even for couples already married, and marking the children with holy water to make them invisible to evil things. He gave crosses and new names to all the villagers, but they used them only when he came to visit.

More chatter from the llamas intruded on her thoughts. Amaya knew them too well to think it meant nothing. The herd had wandered only a short distance and she found them standing beside another shining pool from which, later perhaps when the sun was strong and had melted the ice, they might drink. The white-coated male, ears pricked and nostrils snuffling, stretched his neck above a figure on the ground.

Another soldier, only this one was clearly alive. He flailed his arms at the curious llama and clumsily propelled himself along the ground with one leg, the other dragging.

Amaya chided and drove off the herd, then squatted beside the man. Her bulky winter skirt puddled around her feet and an edge of her warm mantle brushed his cheek. Eyes the color of spring grass stared up at her from a frightened, scantily bearded face.

"You are spirit?" he asked. His voice distorted the words in the way of the Spanish, but he spoke her language. "The demons . . . not attack you?"

"I can see them," she said. "They are gone now. The sun makes them go away."

The young soldier flinched when she reached for him, but he could not escape her touch. With hands accustomed to tending llamas, she assessed his infirmity. He had a strong body with broad shoulders and long, well-muscled legs. The left leg bore a stained, dirty wrapping indicating a wound. He had been hurt before the salt flowers had beset the camp. Perhaps he was even the reason the soldiers had stopped for the night. Gold buttons and colored ribbons adorned his fitted doublet.

"I will go to my village, get men to help you," she said. He was too big for her or her llamas to carry. Only rarely could a llama bear an adult, even of her small people, on its back.

"No, please." Desperation tinged his plea, but also a hint of command.

"You cannot walk, and I cannot carry you."

"The demons kill horses?"

Horses. She had not seen any, but neither had she thought to look. The village had no horses, but the Spanish almost always did. If she found a horse, it could carry a man easily.

Before the sun had cleared the mountain, she located four of the Spanish beasts on the next hill, their halter leads trailing as they grazed on a patch of thin yellow grass. After taking hold of all four, she returned to fetch the soldier.

* * * *

The village headman was angry at Amaya for bringing a Spaniard among them. He called her young and foolish. The Viceroy's soldiers only ever came to their village to collect the mita, the labor tribute the Spanish demanded of the native towns. Earlier that year, soldiers had commandeered twenty able-bodied villagers to work the mines at the Spaniards' wealthy city built at the foot of a mountain of silver. Kullaka's herds and fields would suffer if the village lost more men. Worse, the elders feared the Spaniards would blame them for the deaths of the soldiers.

They discussed these matters as they sat in a circle near the hut where the village's hidden mummies resided.

"They will think we killed the men in their sleep, and stole from them," the headman said.

The villagers had gone to the Spanish camp. To prevent wandering spirits, they had buried the dead soldiers beneath a layer of thin soil and soothed the ghosts with libations, after which they had—very practically—salvaged the blankets and weapons and rounded up the remaining horses.

Another man disagreed. "The soldier survived. He knows the truth. If we tend him, he will tell the corregidor we saved him."

After several hours spent talking and imbibing large quantities of fermented corn juice, they agreed to send word of the soldier to the Spanish priest, Padre Ignacio, in San Lazaro.

Amaya went to tell the soldier this. During the long walk it had taken them to reach the village, he had told her his name was Fernando and that he was from Lima, the Spaniard's capital near the sea. Though he spoke like a child, she thought he might be intelligent.

She found him wrapped in a warm llama wool blanket and seated by the fire in the headman's house. The cup in his hands held tea made from coca leaves, given both to dull his pain and because the headman's wife believed it would render him less dangerous. A fever burned under his skin and his rumpled clothing had begun to sour from sweat, but he would not change into clean garments of the kind the village had to offer. The anxiety in his expression lifted when Amaya approached and sat on the floor facing him.

"What they say?"

"That they will send someone to the priest at San Lazaro, and tell him you are here."

Fernando looked pleased by that.

She peered at his injured leg. The headman's wife was skilled in healing and had tended his wound with black potato powder and a new dressing. No blood stains marred the cotton covering the moon-pale skin exposed by cut-off breeches.

"Is it better?" she asked.

"Less pain," he said. But his gaze stayed on her face, moving over her face, her lips.

"You were fighting?"

"These hills, many rebels. One got me with knife."

Remembering the headman's fears, that her village might be linked to the rebels and its inhabitants enslaved as punishment for attacks on soldiers, she fell into silence.

"This house, is safe?" he asked. "Safe from night demons?"

"Yes." Salt flowers shriveled from contact with gold, the metal of the sun. Beneath the mud floor of this house—and two others in the village—was another floor of thin gold bricks. But she could not tell him that. The Spanish had stripped Inca palaces, leaving them unprotected.

"What of you?" Fernando asked. "How you see demons?"

Amaya debated whether to answer. Though her origin was not secret, it branded her as different.

"A Spaniard forced himself on my mother when she was menstruating. I am born of moon blood." When he looked puzzled at her words, she realized he did not fully grasp her magical conception. "A woman should not couple then. Blood opens the doors to spirits and shadows."

"Ah," he said, and cocked his head with a small smile. "A spirit girl."

waxcha, she would have told him if she'd thought he might understand. A mixture of semen and blood, not a true child. But that was not why she saw salt flowers.

"What you see kill my soldiers? I no sleep with pain, I hear scream, see nothing. The chieftain, the kuraka," he properly used the word, "told me flowers." Disbelief shadowed his eyes and tugged at the corners of his mouth.

"Spirit flowers, salt flowers. They come when the moon is dead. Evil spirits escape the salt lakes to steal the souls of the living."

"Chojja?" He named the lake nearest to the village.

She nodded. "The one with water the color of your eyes."

He smiled. Her cheeks burned at her own impudence. She did not usually get silly because of men. Rising, and giving a quick knee bend like she would make to the priest, she left before he could ask more questions. Her heart protested against telling him her other curse, that salt flowers had sprouted in the unprotected hovel where she nursed as a baby at her sleeping mother's breast. Her mother had died, as adults always did, but she had survived, a child without a soul.

Her name, Amaya, meant "corpse."

* * * *

Salt flowers sprouted on moonless nights, when they rose from the earth and swayed above the surface. Just as water flowed above ground to form lakes, springs and rivers, so it also flowed beneath. Subterranean, heated by angry gods, supernatural effluvia nourished malevolent forces.

The high hills and grasslands on which Amaya's people lived were surrounded. Mountains and volcanoes harbored deities men feared to displease, lest they send plagues of lightning or cease to water the pastures. North, west and south of her village stood vast lakes too salty to drink, home only to flamingoes and frogs.

The year she reached puberty, Amaya had gone with the headman to Qa'pi Panti, a lake with waters the color of blood, and to Chojja, with waters so blue-green it glowed like liquid turquoise. He had thought if she would drink from both, the evil spirits might return her soul.

She had gotten very sick, but on the next moonless night following her recovery she still saw the salt flowers.

Only people without a soul could see them.

* * * *

Seven days passed before the priest came. Fernando's fever decreased and soon he could walk as far as the lowland pasture at the base of the village, and often he joined Amaya there. She laughed when he would use wrong words, and teased him for not wearing a warm poncho or fine lluchu, which at least would have covered his ears. Instead, he proudly shivered in his fancy Spanish jacket until his ears glowed red from cold.

One day he saw a young man using a bronze disk to reflect sunlight onto a girl in the fields, and smiled when she told him it was a way of showing interest.

The next day a bright light danced across her mantle and cheeks and Amaya swatted at it until she looked across the corral to see Fernando with a bronze disk in his hand. Beside him on the dirt wall, laughing, sat the boy who had showed him how to use it. The boy ran off before she could reach them but Fernando stayed where he was.

Amaya liked the way he watched her, the way his lips were always ready to smile and his eyes warmed with welcome, so unlike the guarded expressions of the village's men. Even his body moved in ways that drew her gaze to admire his strong shoulders, long legs and slim waist. She wondered to herself if Fernando's penis would be as handsome as the rest of him.

"Now they think you like me," she told him this time.

"I do like you. You are pretty. Interesting. Smart. Do you like me?"

"I think you are annoying."

He squinted toward the huts of the village, where men gathered outside, sometimes looking their way. "Why the men not stop me from talking to you?"

He had noticed they kept the other girls away from him. Amaya looked at the ground and swallowed the lump of embarrassment in her throat. "They know I am not like the other girls and they think you are not smart enough to see that I have no value."

"Value for me. You saved my life."

"I did not say I was not useful."

For a time he was silent. Spaniards did not always understand what her people said, even when they understood the words.

"They find you useful. You protect them," he said.

"I see things they cannot."

"So do I."

He looked at her without smiling, but the piercing directness of his gaze, the knowing tension of his lips, made her flush with understanding. She liked him in the same way.

"I think you are beautiful, natural. Except you see demon flowers," he said.

"The moon blood's gift. I am not a true child, so I survived losing my soul to a salt flower. Now in the dark I can see evil spirits—and souls."

"You see souls outside bodies?"

"If they are dead. Dead souls visit their families during the jiwa and I can talk to them then, but most of the souls are living, so they stay behind their owners' eyes." The tilt of his head compelled Amaya to continue, so she did. "Souls shine behind the eyes and I can see them. I can tell who has a bright soul or one that is taken over by an evil spirit."

His doubt looked back at her. The Spanish priest had told her human souls were invisible except to the Christian god, who took them to live with him when they died. He had also told her not to believe in salt flowers, though of course she still did. Fernando believed in them, too, although the pure, strong soul shining behind his eyes prevented him from seeing them.

He will go away, she reminded herself. He will go back to Lima and his Spanish women. He will tell them about the half-breed girl who helped him until he could find his way back to civilized men. 

"Your eyes shine, too," he said. He struggled to find the right words. "Shine like your hair shines in the sun. They shine like gold and water, like honey."

The llamas bleated, reminding her that her chores for the day were not yet finished. Departing from Fernando with a smile, she went more lightly to her work.

But that night after the village had provided a feast of quinoa and boiled ch'arki and the men sat around the fire, playing music while the women danced, Fernando joined them. As kenas and panpipes trilled in song, he kept beat on the drum with reasonable competence and followed Amaya with his eyes as she danced with the women, skirts swinging and legs moving to his rhythm.

* * * *

As the headman had feared, Padre Ignacio did not come alone. The short, balding priest rode into town at the head of dozens of soldiers. At his side rode a man with a red-gold beard who wore the shining armor of a conquistador and announced himself as Diego Garces, Corregidor of La Plata. When the villagers had all gathered and knelt on the hard ground, the corregidor demanded return of the horses and weapons taken from the soldiers and to know where the bodies were buried. Silently, the village yielded all he asked.

The Spaniards dug up the dead soldiers, saying they had not been given a Christian burial. The dry cold of the high plains had preserved the corpses very well and the bodies were examined for evidence of having been killed by men. When none was found, the corregidor wanted answers.

Amaya trembled, growing more afraid as Fernando spoke and the corregidor's questions grew quieter, and slower, his gaze increasingly fixed upon her. The priest, too, looked agitated, and his stubby fingers stroked the large gold cross he wore upon his breast. The corregidor did not speak her people's language at all; Fernando only somewhat. The priest, however, spoke it perfectly and when her turn came, it was that man who addressed her.

"Tell us, Clara," he said, using the name he had given her, "is it true what Don Fernando says, that you saw the demons that killed these men?"

"Only because I have no soul, Father," she whispered. He knew this already from his many visits to the village.

The priest frowned. "All God's children have souls. This village is superstitious and believes nonsense and so, therefore, do you. I have been telling all of you for years that you very clearly have a soul, yet you persist in believing you do not."

The corregidor interrupted in his deep voice. The priest answered, then asked the headman and other villagers about Amaya. She blushed as they described the circumstances of her conception and birth, how her soul had been stolen, how her mother had died and the headman had raised her. How she protected the village during jiwa by staying awake and rousing sleepers from danger, because salt flowers could enter the world through any form of earth, including floors and the stone walls of houses. They did not mention the floors of gold.

The priest related their words to the corregidor, whose gaze on Amaya sharpened. The words he spoke next were clipped and sure. Soldiers ran to do his bidding. Fernando shot her a worried look.

The priest sighed and nodded. He bowed his bare head above the cross he clasped, then looked up with sad eyes. "That you see demons is worrisome and your soul certainly is in peril. The corregidor has ordered that you be brought to Potosi, where he may get better answers from you. The priests there can determine how best to tend your soul."

"I have done nothing wrong!"

Father Ignacio's dark eyes delved deep into hers. "Have you followed the example of Our Lord's Mother and preserved yourself for God?"

"Yes, Father." Blood rose to her cheeks. Most girls her age had already coupled with one or more of their admirers; most had husbands and babies. She was untouched at nineteen years only because no man of her village wanted to risk his penis in her female parts.

"Submit to examination, child, and no fault will be found with you."

She wanted to say goodbye to her llamas, and the headman and his wife, who had raised her as their own, but she was given no time. Soldiers took her by the arms and hustled her to where the corregidor and Padre Ignacio had already mounted their steeds.

The horses stamped like demons spawned by thunderstorms. Their nostrils flared as the soldiers mounted unafraid, perhaps knowing that astride such beasts they resembled gods. Fernando sat atop a tall brown horse, his green eyes bright with happiness at being among Spaniards again. Though she prayed they would not put her on one of the creatures, a soldier grabbed her around the waist and swung her up to the corregidor. The bearded man's strong arm clamped under her ribs and he set her on the saddle in front of him. 

She twisted in the Spaniard's grasp to speak to the villagers. "Do not weep!" she shouted. Salt flowers were drawn to human tears, which carried the essence of souls.

Her thighs rested upon the corregidor's powerful ones and his manhood thickened to press against her buttocks as he urged his beast forward. The host of soldiers followed, leaving Kullaka behind.

Hours later, as they approached the town of San Lazaro and stars filled the sky, the corregidor bent over her, his beard crisp and tickling as he spoke into her ear. Both his breath and his words were warm.

"He wants to know if you see demons here," Padre Ignacio, who was riding beside them, translated.

Too frightened to speak, Amaya shook her head. The moon had been reborn since the soldiers had died and now was full. No salt flowers clung to San Lazaro's mud buildings or the dark stone walls of its church. More words, melodic and masculine, caressed her ear.

"He says you are to stay awake tonight," the priest said. His lips pressed in the frown they had worn since leaving Kullaka. "Watch for demons. He says you can sleep tomorrow on the road to Potosi."

She knew then the corregidor believed in salt flowers, even if he did not understand them.

* * * *

More days of riding followed, making her body stiff and her neck raw from being nuzzled by the bearded man who held her. If Amaya did not sleep on the road, she got none at night. Should her eyes drift closed, the men of the watch prodded her.

Each night Fernando brought food to her and talked with her, his face shining as he described the marvelous city of Potosi, which he had never seen, and the mountain that enriched all of Spain. Each day they passed trains of llamas carrying bags of coins destined for the coast.

As the fifth day ended, they entered Potosi. Hundreds of fires dotted the violet-shadowed slopes of the city's fabled mountain of silver but the city itself was still rosy with twilight. Their horses' hooves clattered on streets paved with neatly laid stones like those of Inca walls.

The corregidor kept his arm about Amaya, clasping her to his steel-armored chest as he and his men rode onto a boulevard of silver bricks leading to an immense building of white stone. Once inside that palace he gave her over to a trio of dark-haired native women in wide skirts. The women took her arms and propelled her through confusing corridors into a chamber with cold floors and a huge stone tub. There they removed Amaya's clothing. They tossed her best wool skirt, her mantle and her tunic of coarse cotton onto the floor before kicking them aside. Silent workers poured pails of hot water into the tub, into which she was dumped when she did not want to step in.

All three women scrubbed her limbs and torso with soap and a brush and lathered her hair several times, each time dunking her head under the water until Amaya emerged gasping.

"Why am I here? What do you want?" she asked, again and again. If the women understood her, they did not answer. They kept scrubbing under her breasts and arms and between her legs as though they wanted to remove her skin.

When they thought her clean enough, they dried her skin and hair with soft cloths, pulled a loose ankle-length shift of wool over her head and urged her along more cold corridors into yet another room.

The corregidor sat in a chair with a tall, gilded back. He had removed his breastplate, helmet, and other armor, and his dark doublet and breeches blended with the shadows. A pleated cotton ruff framed his narrow, pale face and his beard looked even redder in the light of a fire burning in a cove opposite the window. A woman with black eyes and the face of an Inca princess stood by his side.

"My name is Beatriz," the woman said, her words cast with noble vowels. She indicated the corregidor. "He says you are much prettier now that you are clean. He can tell a Spaniard enjoyed your mother."

Amaya kept her eyes downcast. The headman had told her that mother had been pretty.

"He asks if you have been with a man."

"No." She flicked a look at Beatriz, who did not appear offended by her lack of experience.

"He asks if being with a man would take away your ability to see demons."

Her fate waited on her answer but she could not truly give one. Ama sua, ama quella, ama lulla, she remembered the lesson from childhood. Don't lie, don't steal, don't be lazy. Those were the only three laws her people truly practiced. She chose not to lie.

"I don't know," she murmured.

The corregidor's lips pursed in a frown at hearing her words. He gestured with his right hand.

"He wants to see you. Remove your dress." This time Beatriz's voice was hard, clipped with accusation.

Slowly, certain this was wrong but remembering Padre Ignacio's instruction to submit to examination, Amaya lifted the white shift, revealing her legs, then her hips and at last her shoulders and breasts. Her nipples hardened upon exposure to the air, despite the scant heat from the fire, and Amaya quickly folded the garment and held it across her chest to conceal them.

The corregidor said something in his low growl of a voice and Beatriz walked forward to take the dress from her arms. Night had fully fallen over the city and the light in the room was so dim she looked into the woman's eyes and saw the soul behind them: amber, shadowed and torn.

With a gesture, the corregidor summoned Amaya near. She stepped forward. From her earliest childhood she had been taught that a man or woman of Spanish blood was to be obeyed. Always. There were no exceptions.

She approached across a jewel-colored rug. The corregidor reached up and touched her lips and she allowed his thumb to trace their full shape open and push at her teeth. The travels of his thumb were gentle, indulgent, as though her lips needed exploration. Apparently pleased by her compliance, he dropped his hand to skim the line of her shoulder, assessing the knit of her muscles and the texture of her brown skin. Amaya gasped when his hand followed her arm and detoured abruptly, his cold palm cupping and kneading one of her breasts. He found her nipple and began squeezing the dusky pink areola between his thumb pad and thick fingers, as though he wanted to milk her.

Lust glowed in the corregidor's eyes, so bright it masked his soul.

While his right hand fondled her breast, his left found her thigh and slid upward along the inside until he reached the folds of her sex. Amaya quivered, catching her breath. This man's hand aroused her by mimicking the ways she rubbed and touched herself alone in the night when she'd think of brooding village youths who taunted her by displaying their hard, swollen members . . . and, more recently, nights haunted by dreams of Fernando and the green-eyed Spaniard's strong body pressed hard against hers.

Deeply shamed to find herself growing wet for this man, she closed her eyes.

Stop, she wanted to beg the corregidor, but knew she must not. He fingered her as he might a piece of fine wool, testing how well she accepted his touch, teasing her excited slit until it grew slick enough to please him.

She clenched her teeth when he pushed his thick digit into her channel.

He laughed and said something. Beatriz must have hesitated to translate because his next words cracked across the room like a whip.

"The rutting dog says you are so hot and juicy he knows that when it's time for you to be useful to a man you will enjoy it. He does not know that his hairy penis and lumpy balls are so disgusting no woman ever enjoys him."

Cheeks burning and thighs damp, humiliated by the corregidor's finger wiggling in her passage, Amaya looked over at the woman, seeing something new in the noble face with its high cheekbones and strong nose. The disdain she had detected was for the Spaniard, not her.

The corregidor's right hand abandoned her breast and sought his lap instead, where he fumbled with the fastenings of his breeches. The red stalk of his penis pushed free of the opened garment and jutted into view. Just as Beatriz had said, it was nearly hidden by coarse, tangled hair.

"Diego!" The name and a flurry of sharp Spanish words flew from Beatriz's lips. Among them Amaya heard words she recognized. She heard the words for 'priest,' and 'king,' and 'God.'

She flinched from the corregidor's sharp answer and the abrupt removal of his finger from between her legs. With a ferocity that made her yelp, he grasped her left arm by the wrist and yanked her forward, placing her hand upon his rigid shaft. It filled her fingers like the handle of a pestle. His sour breath carried more words to her ears.

"He wants you to grip his penis and tell him if you can feel it." As Beatriz translated, her lips teased the words. "Say something complimentary."

"I feel it. It is very small and furry, like a mouse," Amaya whispered, relishing something she and this woman of her people shared.

Whatever Beatriz said to the corregidor made him grunt with pleasure, for his smile grew large and satisfaction creased his eyes. He released Amaya's hand and she pulled it back. She edged away as he growled something, maybe a command. She stood still, thankful, as Beatriz restored her shift and helped her shrug into the dress. Without another word, she was led from the room and only breathed in relief when the door closed behind her.

"He wants to enjoy you," Beatriz said as they walked corridors soft with night and the light from the candle in her hand, "but you are a virgin and he fears to disrupt your magic."

"It isn't magic," Amaya said, "I see salt flowers because I have no soul to blind me."

"I know." Beatriz opened the door to a tiny room with a bed. "Ultimately these Spaniards do not care whether we have souls or not. All they value is our utility and our gold—or in this case, silver. You see demons? You may be better prepared for their world than those of us who do have souls."

"Is the soldier Fernando in this house?" she dared to ask.

"Fernando? Did he tell you his family names?"

"No." She flushed at not having gotten that information.

"There are many Fernandos. You are a fool if you think any of them want more than to enjoy you." Her lips thinned with resentment. "I am a daughter of the Sapa Inca and this man, this Diego, married me in exchange for a big estate from my father, the man he robbed and later helped to murder. But he does not call me his wife. That woman lives in Lima. To the Spanish, I am his concubine, his whore."

As Amaya would be if she were not careful.

* * * *

The next morning Amaya faced three men: the corregidor, an overseer of one of the mines, and a priest. Wearing an ill-fitting Spanish dress Beatriz had given her, she stood before them while the overseer asked questions. Amaya answered carefully, fearful of disappointing the corregidor and being turned over to the priests of the Inquisition. Even in Kullaka she had heard tales of men and women being taken away and tortured for not sufficiently demonstrating their piety. When asked what she did when she saw demon flowers, she lied.

"I pray to the Virgin," she said. The priest, at least, looked pleased by that answer.

"But they said you protect the village. How? If prayers to the Virgin helped, they would not need you." The overseer, short and dark-skinned with a thin nose and hair only on his chin, served as questioner and translator.

"I awaken the sleepers," she said. "Salt flowers do not move far from where they sprout. People can escape them."

"Not if they can't see them." After shooting a glance at the corregidor, who merely watched with his red-bearded chin in one bejeweled hand, the overseer continued. "We believe we have demons in the mine. Mines are dangerous, but usually I know why my workers die. New workers, healthy, go into the mine and never come out. We find them; they are dead with blood in their eyes and mouths. They die in the tunnels, they die in the sleeping places. Those who have seen these men die say whatever kills them is invisible, but cold to touch."

They looked to her but she could not confirm this. She had no memory of a salt flower's touch.

"Workers are valuable, skilled workers more so," the overseer said. "We cannot afford to lose so many. If the pace of these deaths continues, we will not be able to bring in new workers as fast as we are losing them."

"I don't understand what you want me to do."

"Go down into the mine tonight and tell us if your demon flowers are our problem."

* * * *

The priest gave Amaya a rosary of black beads with a silver cross to wear around her neck and it was agreed that the state of her soul required she reside at the convent of San Francisco. Amaya went gladly, aware of the corregidor's thwarted eyes. Once inside the convent walls, the chief of the women listened to the priest and directed Amaya to a tiny room where she was to wait.

Rolling the beads of the rosary in her fingers, Amaya shivered.

She dreaded doing what the men wanted. She had heard men tell of entering the mountain and never seeing the sun again until the day they emerged, months later, wearing blindfolds to protect their eyes. Inside the mountain they dwelt in squalor, drinking foul water, breathing bad air with only a single candle to see by. The tunnels, they said, were hot and noisy, disturbed by the sounds of silver being cut piece by painful piece from the mountain's entrails. And all too often the mountain thundered and men died in darkness, crushed by stone or suffocated by foul air.

She did not want to go into the mine.

A servant appeared at the door, interrupting her thoughts, and signaled for her to follow. Amaya looped the rosary over her head again, in case she was being taken to the priest. Though a man waited for her, it was not the one she feared.

"Fernando!" she cried in pure joy, delighted when he also smiled to see her. "I was told this was a house only for women."

"You are a guest, not a novitiate. You can have visitors."

He looked so handsome she blushed. He had changed his filthy clothes and now wore fawn breeches, polished boots cuffed at his calves, and a doublet of green velvet quilted and dotted with gold. Under the watchful gaze of the servant, he took her right hand and kissed it.

"Have you come to take me home? Fernando, I do not want to be here. Tonight the corregidor is going to send me to the mine."

The way he averted his eyes told her he had known this. "The mountain is important, Amaya. The king requires its silver. The Viceroy commands the mita be taken because of this mountain. Everything, because of Cerro Rico de Potosi. It feeds . . . no, it fuels, all empire. Nothing can be allowed to stop the flow of silver. Too many indios—your people—die."

Because of the Spanish. Because their hunger for treasure never ceased.

"If they die, it is not from something I can see! Salt flowers do not sprout under the moon or this far from the salt lakes."

"Then it must be something else."

"I go to the mine tonight. If I do not see any salt flowers, will the corregidor and the priest let me go home?" She saw the question in his eyes, asking if she would be truthful. "Tell me!"

Fernando nodded. "Yes. I take you back to Kullaka myself."

"And if I do see salt flowers in the mine, what then? Will they make me stay?"

After a long moment, he nodded again. He looked desolate. She understood why.

If she did see the demon flowers, her importance to the corregidor and his successful operation of the mine would be too great. The Spanish would want to keep her in the tunnels to warn the overseers, help save the workers who mined the silver.

Not wanting Fernando to go, she asked another question. "Why are you here, not with the soldiers?"

"Because I am not soldier. My uncle sent me to ask questions, learn truth."

"About the mine," she guessed.

"This mine and others. There are many mines and this mountain is very rich."

There was nothing else she could say about the mines, so she asked, "What are your family names?"

"What?" He looked surprised by her question, as though he thought she knew already. Or it could be he found her interest in him curious.

"There are many Fernandos among the Spanish. Which one are you?"

He laughed aloud. "Fernando Vasquez de Mendoza."

"Mendoza," she repeated.

"I am the Viceroy's nephew. My family comes from Castile. What are your names?"

"Amaya Clara Tunquni Jarankaya Perez."

He lifted his eyebrows. "Many names for so small a girl!"

"The Spanish name is from the man who violated my mother. The priest wrote it in a book and makes me wear it."

"Clara Perez."

"No. Amaya Tunquni. Call me the other name and I will start calling you Qala."


"People should keep their own names, not be given ones that try to change them into what they are not."

"But Clara is a beautiful name. It means you are bright, like a star, like the sun—"

Except she was dark. A moon child, made of blood and dark magic. The headman's wife had named her the day she had spoken her first word, assigning her to the appropriate spirits. "What does Fernando mean?" she asked instead, because Spaniards could not be argued with. He would just talk to her as the priest did about giving up her people's ways.

"It means I was named after my father's bastard cousin, who is powerful at court."

He took her by the hand again and led her to a window at the far end of the room. Together they looked out over the city.

Above a sprawl of whitewashed walls and dark tile roofs, the mountain's perfectly symmetrical peak bisected the sky. Though the Spanish mined silver from within, the mountain itself was red like blood. Paths snaked up the steep slopes, crowded with moving flecks like trails of ants. The mitayos, she realized with cold understanding, the men taken for the mita, toiling like beasts, pulling riches from the mountain's heart.

Fernando bent toward her until his forehead touched hers and his warm breath, fragrant with cinnamon and chocolate, brushed her skin. Were it not for the old woman standing near the door and glowering in their direction, Amaya would have lifted her face and pressed her lips to his just to drink of his taste, fill her nostrils with his rich scent. Instead she raised her hand and held it palm outward and he did the same, only their fingertips touching. A desire for forbidden things tingled along the nerves of her hand, flowing inward.

"Tell me more about these flowers," he said.

* * * *

Like all evil things, salt flowers came from the world below. No one knew what caused them to appear, save that they never sprouted during the day or in conjunction with moonlight. Spells and charms had no effect on them, neither did weapons of iron, but the touch of gold caused them to disintegrate.

Salt flowers appeared only within a day's walk of the salt lakes and the river flowing into Lake Poopo. If they appeared elsewhere, she did not know of it, but she had heard the headman say salt flowers were why the Incas covered the floors and walls of their palaces with gold and wore gold adornments.

Descriptions and images of salt flowers by those who had seen them were always the same: thick ghostly stalks without leaves and mottled inflorescent pods like elongated heads. Each pod had a single six-petal orifice from which tendrils emerged and into which the flower hooked the ensnared souls of its victims. Inca engravings showed salt flowers arching over fallen enemies. In truth, though, the flowers preferred infants, jilted lovers, grieving widows, prisoners and any other source of tears. Perhaps they were drawn to vessels of sorrow and despair; certainly they delivered those things.

The legends of Amaya's people said salt flowers had destroyed the civilization of Tiawanaku, the city of ruins standing empty beside Lake Titicaca. 

* * * *

Fernando promised the priest he would return her to the convent, then led her from it and swung her up behind him on his brown horse. She hugged his ribs as he cantered his mount through city streets crowded with merchants and craftsmen and miners milling around vendors whose stoves perfumed the air with delicious, exotics smells. They crossed a stone bridge and rode up a road that led to the top of the mountain where Spanish priests had built a church. But it was not the church he wanted to show her.

Halfway up the mountain he halted and pointed to a chain of mountain lakes that sparkled in the sun. When he spoke, his exhaled breath mingled with hers in the thin, cold air. "We capture water from the mountains. We use this water to move machines, make silver."

Haltingly, he explained how machines crushed the ore from the mine into dust, to which the Spanish added quicksilver from Upper Peru, salt from Uyuni, and water to form a paste which hundreds of mitayos trod on patios until it was all mixed. The water that powered the machines flowed into a broad stone channel that ran through the center of the city, on which flat boats carried the silver bars to a big house where it would be stamped and counted. Some water was diverted into an aqueduct to be carried to cisterns for drinking water in the city.

Pride glowed in Fernando's wind-reddened face, bright joy claiming his eyes when he glanced over his shoulder to see her reaction. Amaya smiled, happy that he was happy. The Spanish, she decided, were a clever people, to have captured the power of the mountain waters.

During the ride back down the mountain, he taught her Spanish words that lifted her tongue and played like music to her ears; she told him stories of condor boys, Inca princesses, and the Puma King who had reigned long before the conquistadors. The time passed too quickly and when it ended, they were back in the city and he returned her to the big stone building and the waiting priest at the door.

Before Fernando could remount his horse and leave her again, she looped her arms around his neck and turned her face up to his and was pleased when his lips descended to capture hers. Her mouth opened hungrily and she devoured him. He tasted of sunlight and grass and the spices of distant Spain. When the priest coughed a warning, he stepped away, but not without his bright gaze seizing hers so hotly her flesh threatened to melt.

"Clara," he said for the priest to hear, "you cannot do that again." But his eyes and the lift of his lips told her that if she did he would not stop her.

* * * *

When night fell, the mountain blotted out the stars—then replaced them with its own. The mountain was spangled with light. Thousands of lights. Torches and lanterns lit the paths for trains of mitayos and llamas bearing ore. Lower, toward the base, pinpoints of flame flickered from base camps.

Dressed in a simple shift and escorted by the overseer and a priest, Amaya climbed the mountain. They passed gangs of mitayos, backs bent nearly double beneath heavy sacks, trekking downhill to where machines waited to grind the ore. One of several mine entrances loomed before them when they turned back to see the shadowy shapes of a horse and rider.

Fernando pulled his mount to a halt and leaped down to join them, thrusting the reins into the hands of a nearby slave. He wore long breeches and high boots fit for the mine and the hilts of two weapons glinted at his hip. In his arms he carried a cloth bundle.

"I go also," he said.

"Don Fernando—"

He responded to the priest in Spanish, his words crisp with the command Amaya sometimes sensed in him. The priest and the overseer exchanged glances. Though they clearly wished to oppose him, they surprised her by giving in.

While the overseer prepared another lantern, Fernando walked to her side. Even among Spaniards he was tall.

"I wish to walk with you." To her inquiring look, he shrugged and looked sheepish. "I need something to do. My men who died, I saw, and . . . now at night I cannot sleep. In dreams I wake to men's screams, men dying. I cannot sleep in the dark. If this mine has such demons, I will face them with you."

"There will be nothing to face, nothing to fight. Look up, see the moon? Salt flowers do not sprout beneath the moon, even one so thin. I will see nothing, because there will be nothing." She hunched against the chill wind.

"Are you cold? Look, I brought you this." He unfolded the length of cloth in his hands and draped the shawl across her shoulders. "When I came to Peru, I was told your people do not feel the cold because they are closer to animals than men, but this is not true. In Kullaka I see that your people have learning, and heart—and they dress to be warm."

Amaya ran the vicuña shawl's weave through her fingers and examined its beautiful pattern of mountains, llamas, and images of the sun. She knew such wonderful cloth came only from weavers in Qusqu.

"This is Inca weaving, meant for a princess," she protested.

"You save me from demons. If not for you, I die alone on cold mountain. To me, you are a princess," he explained. He produced two long glints of gold. Tupus, pins women used to fasten such a garment. Her pins, made of bone, had been taken from her along with her native clothing. These were much finer, Inca work, with golden heads adorned by pearls and small figures of birds.

Grateful, she drove the sharp points through the weave of the shawl, fastening it securely at her right shoulder. Fernando gazed upon her softly.

"Beautiful," he said.

"We go." A lantern in his lifted hand, the overseer gestured to the mine entrance.

Stone blocks fitted without mortar but lacking the finesse of Inca wall work framed the opening into the mountain. Light from a thin sliver of waning moon filtered down upon the heights and traced shadows. Already the place stank of metal and filth. As Amaya entered the horizontal shaft into the underground, her sandals slipped on patches of ice and slush and Fernando gripped her arm to steady her. Icicles hung from the wooden beams.

The overseer pressed a wax candle, its base wrapped with leather, into her hand. "Hold this."

The tunnel branched, then branched again. What began as a fine vibration shaking motes of dust around her candle soon filled her ears with tapping. With every step, the tapping became louder until it dulled her ears and she could not hear the overseer speak. Bent over, bodies crowded by cold walls, they edged along the shaft.Mitayos toiled in narrow side shafts, breaking silver out of deep veins with hammers or by swinging broad heavy blades against the mountain's walls, prying loose chunks of ore. Dust filled the air and coated Amaya's black dress and the cassock of the priest until they were as gray as the miners.

Walls slashed by the glow from the overseer's swinging lantern curved ahead. Rounding the corner, Amaya saw the man ahead of her illuminated by a ring of faint light—and a single stalk of ghostly inflorescence. From the rough floor of the shaft, the salt flower uncoiled with pale menace, its single pod weaving slowly as the overseer moved past and also through its insubstantial form.

Perhaps the priest detected some chill as he walked through the apparition, because he pulled his garment more snugly about his shoulders.

When Amaya stopped and opened her mouth to speak, the overseer snarled and turned, reaching around the priest to grab her by the arm.

"Don't be lazy!" he snapped, dragging her forward. Her candle fell to the floor and guttered out of reach.

Her arm brushed the flower's shimmering stalk and she felt its icy malevolence even through the Inca shawl. She twisted frantically, looking behind her for Fernando. He rushed to rejoin her and began speaking sharply to the overseer. The salt flower's pod, black orifice open and slender tendrils emerging from between spread petals, turned slowly toward them, seeking the souls behind the men's eyes. They exchanged quick Spanish words with each other, never seeing the danger.

"Go forward!" Amaya pulled at the overseer, still gripping her wrist.

Indistinct cries echoed ahead, terror beneath the words. Two men ran up, miners in filthy rags, babbling of blood and death and pointing to the passage from which they'd come. The overseer ran, pulling Amaya with him.

"Now we will find out!" the overseer said.

"They're here!" she cried, "The flowers! I see them!" She stumbled after the overseer along the passageway. Somewhere behind her were Fernando and the priest.

The shaft opened to a larger space, a cavern. In front of her, but feet away, the floor of the mountain yawned and gave way, descending into darkness. A narrow bridge of planks had been laid across the chasm. Amaya edged away, refusing to step onto the wet, glistening wood.

"Where are the flowers? Where do you see them?" the overseer demanded.


To her eyes, the cavern rippled with ghost light. Salt flowers blossomed like stars over their heads and trailed down the walls in luminous chains of fetid light, their pods swollen and beckoning. Even the chasm depths were pocked with spirit life. Here inside the mountain the salt flowers bloomed freely, watered by wounded rock and human tears.

Beside one wall of the chamber, two men gasped in the throes of death. Bloated pods on phantom stalks waved over their heads, tendrils snaking into gaping orifices, feasting on tatters of gauzy soul being extracted through blood-filled eyes. Already the sagging mouths had ceased to scream. Several other men huddled and wailed on the floor nearby, where their bosses forced them to remain after beating them for trying to escape.

"Do you see anything?" The overseer shook Amaya, hard, forcing her to look at him.

"Yes! Let these men go, let them run! The flowers are killing them! If they move they cannot be caught and killed."

"Where do you see them?" Fernando pushed the overseer aside. "How many?"

"Everywhere! They are all through the mine." She grabbed him by his arms and pulled him back toward the shaft. "We walked past one, but now they are overhead and . . . and two are attacking the men whose eyes bleed! I was wrong about the moon. There is no day, no night, no sun or moon inside a mountain! You must run, before more spirit flowers can sprout to block your escape. They are slow, but you cannot stand still. They will attack you, too!"

Though he already knew he would see nothing, his eyes flitted about the chamber. Then he nodded sharply and barked something to the overseer. The bosses shouted at the mitayos on the floor to flee and they did, running ahead of them down the passage. Fernando grabbed the overseer by his collar when he tried to follow and snatched the lantern from his hand.

"You are dog piss!" he spat. The man had been about to leave them in the dark.

"We must go!"

"Not without Amaya and the priest."

Amaya ran to the priest, who had gone to pray over the dying men, and tugged at his robe. "Their souls are eaten, Father. You cannot send them to your god, not now. Come with us to save your own."

As salt flowers, drawn by the presence of fresh souls, bubbled, then blossomed from the walls, Fernando drew one of the knives at his hip and handed it to her.

"I trust you. Help me fight demons."

Amaya took the knife. It was small, with a ceremonial blade broader than it was long, but she held true Inca work, heavy and made of gold. He had listened to all she had told him. With a tight smile, Fernando took the other golden knife into his hand and indicated that they were now ready to go.

With the priest holding the lantern and Fernando propelling the overseer in front of them, they began their trek back the way they had come. A dozen salt flowers now bloomed along the shaft, but they could hurry past most, though each time their skin turned white and cold as ice. As they ran, they stumbled over fallen men who, in their panic to escape, had trampled each other and allowed the salt flowers to catch them. While the overseer moved emptied corpses from their path, Amaya and Fernando stabbed and slashed at the flowers.

Any flower their gold knives touched turned black and dispersed . . . but for every two they vanquished, another blossomed.

It took nearly an hour to reach the moonlit mouth of the shaft, the last part of the way brightly lit by torches and lanterns and hot from the press of soldiers newly arrived to restore order.

Released from Fernando's grip, the overseer turned to the soldiers and barked orders. The soldiers began pushing workers back into the mine. As they did so, the priest raised his voice in what sounded like protest.

"No!" Amaya added her voice, but Fernando restrained her. She turned to him. "They cannot go back! Don't let the soldiers do this."

"I have no say. Inside, I had weapon. Here, I have nothing but name. He has authority."


"No argue. Come, quickly." Leaving the priest to argue with the overseer, he hustled her away from the soldiers and the mitayos being forced back into the mountain. Finding the man he had charged with holding his horse, he mounted and pulled her up behind him.

Riding as fast as they dared in the dark, they left the mountain and descended into the city.

* * * *

"The owners want you to go back into the mines, but too dangerous. We know now what demons we face. Putting a gold sword in your hand will not rid these mines of infestations. Too many mines and you just one girl."

Fernando had been practicing her language. Though she strove to learn his also, he had improved more quickly. As they often did, they stood with their palms pressed together, allowing her to marvel at how shapely his hands were, and how strong. His fingers were straight and perfect, with skin not as calloused as hers. She felt him as vividly as she felt the sun. Just his touch was enough to heat her blood.

"I make myself useful here," she said. Four days had passed since they had confirmed what lurked in the depths of the mountain. After much argument and to protect her from being preyed upon by powerful mine owners, she was staying in the corregidor's palace again. "I walk the halls at night, protecting sleepers just like at Kullaka, except only for one house."

"This house bigger than your village."

She did not try to put a meaning on his words. As often as not, Fernando stated only fact. At other times, she detected what could be attempts at humor. He was getting better at that, or maybe she was getting better at interpreting him.

"Tonight's party is important," he continued. "People will be unguarded, many will be drunk."

She pulled her hand back from his. "Only stupid people get drunk during jiwa."

"I promise. I will get only a little drunk."

"Good. Then you will end up only a little dead."

"Will that make you sad?" He did not quite conceal the tug of a smile.

"Yes. You have become less annoying. Perhaps I like you a little after all."

Tonight the moon would be dead and she would not be at the party to protect him. Only Spanish would attend. From Fernando she knew they would dress extravagantly and wear masks to conceal their identities from each other. They would do better to wear them to hide from wandering spirits. This night was the eve of All Saints Day, and also the time when departed souls returned to the places where once they had lived. It was unlikely, however, that many of those souls would be Spanish or seek out the party.

When he moved to kiss her, she let him. They kissed often now, and more and more he pressed his body hard against hers, his erection pushing on her belly with an eagerness she welcomed. In Kullaka she would have pulled him down with her onto a blanket in a hollow and found some way to undress him so that she might explore his body. Spanish clothing, with its buckles and hooks, still confused even her nimble fingers.

"I will not stay with the others," he murmured, moving his lips over hers while she pursued them. She shivered when he eluded her and nibbled beside her ear. "When the others dance, I will leave. I will come to you."

"Maybe I will hide. This house is as big as a village."

"And I will find you. I will go into every woman's room to search for you. I will make them all scream—"

She laughed, earning a growl and tug deeper into his arms, where he held her close and pressed his cheek to her hair.

"You will scare the visiting souls and make them vengeful," she warned.

"Meet me here, in this place, and I will do nothing that will scare them."

Darkness had settled over the palace, which was built in the mountain's shadow. Through the violet-tinged dusk Amaya saw the faint eye-glow of Fernando's lambent soul. Like all true men, he was fire and heat. And she was dark, hidden, awaiting discovery. She brushed her lips again over his.

"Come to me," she whispered, "because if you don't, I will need to find you."

* * * *

Hundreds of Potosi's elite descended on the corregidor's house to celebrate the coming holy day. Wearing dresses of cloth that shone like water and jewels that sparked like stars, they strolled among the tall torches that lit the colonnade connecting the house to the ballroom, and wandered among the statues of saints and dead Spanish rulers that served as the residence's garden.

Upstairs, Amaya danced alone across floors lit by candle-glow. Fernando had taught her some of the Spanish dances, showing her how to move with him across glimmering floors in night-shadowed halls. He had taught her for naught. She understood, with the pragmatism of a people twice conquered, first by the Incas and then by the Spanish, that she was part of the fabric of conquest: a brown-skinned, honey-eyed girl of mixed blood and no consequence. Even the Inca princesses had been taken by Spanish men as concubines, accumulated like plunder.

Dutifully, she made her rounds of the corregidor's household. Though she wore a yellow Spanish dress everyone agreed made her look pretty, and had pinned Fernando's gift by golden tupus at her right shoulder, she felt less like a princess than she had standing in front of the mine. She felt like a servant, useful and silent.

Music and laughter drifted from the ballroom and gardens to the second floor, where the apartments of the corregidor's concubines lay cloaked in night. Extending her candle, Amaya looked into each room. In the second nursery, she found Beatriz's oldest child, a five year-old boy, peering out the window.

"Amaya, look!" he cried. Her candle's glow played across straight black hair and young features that proclaimed his descent from Inca emperors.

She looked to where he pointed, toward the city. Walls and roofs obscured the streets, which were filled with people, but a gap near the church provided a view of the canal. A faint luminescence traced ribbons on the water, unnatural and shocking. But something else had drawn the child's eye.

Fire was flowing down the mountain. Pinpoints of torches—hundreds of them, maybe thousands—moved on the mountain roads in trickles of fire that, when they converged, would become a river.


Even before her arrival, they had been dying in the mines. Every morning Amaya heard the tally from the lips of native women who had followed their husbands to the city, women who slaved in the corregidor's household by cooking meals, weaving clothes, mending sandals. They whispered the names of the dead. But now . . . now the mitayos knew the mountain not just deadly, but cursed, filled with demon flowers that ate men's souls.

Though the miners clamored for protection, only a few mine owners had agreed to let them sleep out in the open or allowed them to build shelters: ramshackle, dirty and cold, perched on the mountain's shoulder like animal pens. There, at least, the mitayos had felt safe. Had been safe . . . 

Until a night without moonlight.

Under the jiwa sky, salt flowers sprouted above ground freely, drawn by misery and tears. Even now flowers lined the canal, so many she could see their faint luminescence. For all she could tell they sprouted throughout the city, too. How many poor souls had they taken already?

And now the mitayos were fleeing the mountain, headed toward the city.

* * * *

The Spanish heeded her warning. It would have been hard not to, with her holding the corregidor's crying son and describing what had moved her to run headlong into a gathering of Spanish grandees and their wives. Though she tried to tell them about the salt flowers, they seized upon word of mitayos descending from the mountain.

Throwing off their masks and shouting for the servants to fetch their horses, the men ran to get their weapons while scores of masked women in silken plumage fled across the stone garden into the palace. Fernando, in the one look he exchanged with Amaya as he mounted his brown horse, appeared grim and brave. She screamed to him about the salt flowers, but he gave no sign that he heard. As she clutched the wailing child to her body to still its crying, Fernando rode out with the corregidor toward the bridge.

A woman's voice jolted her. Amaya turned to see Beatriz shaking like a possessed thing, thanking God and the Holy Innocents that her baby was safe.

"Stop crying!" Amaya handed the boy to its mother, who kissed his tears. "Beatriz, you must keep the others calm—don't let the children or the women cry. Remember what old women say: salt flowers are drawn to tears. Keep everyone walking, running, dancing. Until the sun rises, do not stay in one place. If someone screams, get to them quickly and pull them away. If you have gold, carry it with you."


"I cannot stay with you. I cannot protect him here!"

Amaya left the white palace, running into the darkness. As she raced downhill after the corregidor's men, the people of the city surged to block her path. Alerted to the approaching mitayos, the town people fled toward the palace where they knew soldiers were barracked and might protect them. She passed one or two incorporeal souls, flimsy beings that paid her no mind. They were looking for their families.

Bumped from every side and crushed against house walls in the narrow streets, Amaya pushed her way past well-fed men in woolen capes and nightshirts, stinking prospectors, and perfumed prostitutes. The press of people only diminished when she reached the high walls of the convent of San Francisco, beside which wandered three pale, visiting souls.

The souls moved gracefully through the night, sometimes more visible, sometimes not.

To either side of the convent gate salt flowers already sprouted, tendrils drifting from nodding pods. A tendril hooked one of the souls when it wandered too near and pulled the screaming thing swiftly into its bloated maw as the other souls wailed and fled.

Run faster, she told herself, abandoning all hope of saving any but herself and the one soul she could not bear to see lost.

She knew she was near the canal when she caught wind of sewage mingled with the stink of sulfur from the mills upstream. A minute later she came to the bridge of stone arches. On the other side of the canal, a mob of miners bearing torches blocked the road and wanted to cross the bridge. The fitful light illuminated the figures of the corregidor and the men who had ridden with him, barring themitayos from entering the wealthy quarters of the city.

Sharp reports from harquebus fire split the night, followed by the screams of the dying. Moments later the mitayos rushed the soldiers, overwhelming those in the front with their numbers. Amaya staggered to a halt, staring in horror, as the mitayos broke through the first rank and advanced onto the bridge with the soldiers.

Salt flowers surrounded them.

Ghostly stems curved like hooks bloomed upon the banks of the canal and snaked between the buildings on either side. The leaden water reflected their shapes several fold. Some salt flowers, rooted in the stones of the bridge itself, rose higher than the mounted men's heads.

"Stop!" she called, but of course no one did. The mitayos did not even see her, and the soldiers did not care.

More shots rang out and she could not see how many fell. With a roar of voices, the miners laid hold of men and horses. Swords flashed, faintly traced with starlight. She saw Fernando dragged from his horse, the corregidor vanish beneath a sea of heads and hands.

With a cry of dismay, Amaya waded into the mob of mitayos. The man nearest her, with swollen eyes and skin blackened by mine dust, carried a torch. Wresting it from his hands, she plunged on. Near the center of the bridge she found Fernando, fallen but still fighting, being kicked and stomped by angry men. Waving her blazing brand, she drove them back until she stood astride the young Spaniard. One cheek badly bloodied, he stared up at her, eyes wide with surprise.

"Why are you here?" she shrieked at the mitayos.

Hearing a woman's voice and words in their own tongue, many turned and ceased fighting. They had heard about the soulless girl, the one who had seen demons in the mine. The few Spaniards still on their feet ceased fighting also.

"The evil is here!" Amaya cried, waving the brand to every side. "Here is where the salt flowers grow! This water comes from the mines! Death sprouts in the stones to every side! Look at the men who are fallen—"

A dozen men, miners and Spaniards alike, lay on the bridge. Their screams strangled with blood, their bodies jerked and fought against assailants no other among them could see. Bulging eyes leaked blood and blood poured from their nostrils as they choked into silence, their struggles ceasing. The corregidor, resplendent in a doublet of silver and pearls, twitched spasmodically on the bridge, open-mouthed, blood trickling into his beard. Only she saw a flower head's long tendrils snagging and pulling the soul from his staring eyes and gaping mouth in long, spangled tatters.

"I see them," she told the mitayos. She swung her torch, forcing the men nearest her to jump back, out of the path of ethereal death. Salt flowers crowded near. The yellow dress twisted about her body and the shawl of red and gold flared about her arms like flame itself. "Run from this place! Run far! Run to your homes, your villages. Anywhere but here."

Believing her, knowing the lore of the high lakes and having seen such deaths in the mine, they turned and fled into the night.

But the leaderless soldiers stared in confusion.

"Bruja!" One Spaniard shouted, his voice followed by another.

She knew the word. They thought her a witch. Spaniards, like their priests, knew nothing of salt flowers or spirit children, but much of witches and devils.

Amaya grabbed Fernando's arm and pulled him to his feet, away from the mottled pod bending toward him.

"Get away from the witch, Don Fernando," an old soldier wearing full breastplate and helmet ordered. He swung his harquebus at her and she ducked, but the heavy butt struck the side of her head.

Pain cracked through her skull, delivering blackness. She knew she fell by the way her body hit the stones of the bridge. Her eyes opened again to see the sky, so bright with stars, and the somnolent glow of a salt flower pod bending near. Somewhere, the bells of the convent of San Francisco began to toll.

Though Fernando was shouting, she could not look for him. The salt flower's pod was too beautiful, too luminous, with violet lacing its surfaces and feathering the edges of its moonbeam petals. Those petals opened as the pod dipped toward her face, showing her a throat that was deep, bottomless, blotting out the stars. The blackness, so perfect, exuded a sweetness that entered her nostrils and prompted her lips to part.

She invited it in, tasted coldness on her lips.


Her name exploded in her ears and a blaze of light separated the blackness. The flower vanished.

Hands grappled under her shoulder blades and knees, lifted her up. The stars came back into view. So did Fernando's face, his eyes silvered by starlight. Her shawl fell away from one shoulder and she realized it was unpinned.

"My tupus!" she cried, twisting to look back. The pain in her head made her feel ill.

"I have them. I used them. I think. I could not see anything, but I used them." He carried her from the bridge, its stonework now occupied only by fallen men and the silent garden of silvery flowers that tugged at their souls. The soldier who had struck her flopped upon the stones like a fish.

Across the city, more churches joined in ringing their bells, doleful knells calling the people to prayers and arms. Loud cracks of cannon fire punctuated the night, telling them more mitayos were trying to enter the city, using another road, another bridge. Carrying Amaya in his arms, Fernando ran the other way.

* * * *

Fernando found a horse belonging to one of the corregidor's men, and quickly proclaimed it as being God's salvation. He mounted, then helped Amaya swing up behind the heavy leather saddle. She wrapped her arms around him, clutching handfuls of velvet.

They thought at first to re-enter the city but madness had seized the streets and every road was clogged with refugees fleeing calamity. Some pronounced the city infested with invisible demons, while others screamed of pickaxe wielding mitayos running in the streets, murdering priests at church doors, raping virgins, and robbing the treasure houses. When a gang of desperate men tried to seize the horse, Fernando spurred it to a gallop and burst through the crowd the way his predecessors had ridden through Inca armies.

They stopped on a crest of the road outside the city and looked back.

Potosi looked diseased. All along the canal fires burned, glowing red above warehouses filled with grains, ivory, rich clothes from Cuzco and silks from Cathay. Lights flickered in and around the haciendas of the wealthy. Fernando uttered a soft prayer to his God. He might have prayed harder, and to other gods, had he seen what Amaya saw: canals that flowed from the black mountain's mirror lakes like pale rivers to fill the city's aqueducts with unnatural light, feeding ghostly whorls of inflorescence that sprouted from tile rooftops and waited in the belfries of churches.

Translucent death encircled the corregidor's palace like a pale sea.

* * * *

The road followed the river and deadly flowers spawned along its banks in incandescent strands, though only a few appeared on the road. Night was still thick when Amaya begged Fernando to rein in the horse so she could dismount and approach a lone soul sitting beside the road. Squatting before it, she warned about a salt flower they had seen, and that the river too was dangerous, so the soul thanked her by telling her of an old Inca road that would be safer to use. There would be a dwelling, it said, and good water.

When she relayed to Fernando what the soul had said, he weighed the advice. Although he bore a sword, she was armed only with tupus and two travelers stood little chance against thieves or desperate men. They were also in need of water and food. "Can we trust what it says?"

"It has no reason to mislead us."

Souls visiting the lower world during jiwa seldom bore grudges against strangers. They were looking for their families. Unfortunately, entire kin groups had perished either through war or disease and many souls found little to engage them.

The sun rose and they soon found the road, hidden as the soul had said it would be behind the taller of two nearby hills. Only after they saw the tumble of stone buildings ahead did they realize the soul had sent them to a ruined estate. Inca nobility had founded many fine estates throughout their empire but had surrendered most of these to the Spanish. To judge by the broken door and shards of bone or pottery in the overgrown courtyard, this one's stone house had been plundered years before.

Fernando helped Amaya down from the horse before dismounting himself. He scanned the deep slopes of the surrounding hills with a practiced eye.

"Good land," he said. Most of the terrain of the high plain was arid and harsh; this sheltered fold between hills already showed scatters of green rare for early spring.

"The Incas worked it. See?" she said, pointing to remnants of quinoa stalks among the previous summer's dead puna grass. She would gather what grains remained.

A pool carved out of the rocky hillside collected water, more than enough. They found unbroken clay pots for what they needed for themselves, then let the horse drink its fill. Minutes later, Fernando tied the beast to an old llama post and joined her in the house, where she had spread a few blankets upon a clay floor.

She thought it best not to tell him they shared the house with three visiting souls. Barely visible in the shadows at the rear of a storeroom, the souls had spoken little other than to tell her where the blankets could be found.

Pale sunlight filtered across the entrance, softly illuminating the interior. Upon entering the house, Fernando looked around before sighing and lowering his body stiffly to the blankets. She sank down beside him. The mitayos had landed many hard blows and his injuries now caused him pain.

Fernando caught her completely by surprise when he grabbed her face in both hands and his mouth sealed hers, his tongue pushing insistently until she opened for him. All the terror of having escaped death, of fleeing the city and the river, collided with relief that they had made it this far, that it was daylight and they were safe. His need for her felt raw, serrated like a knife. Amaya yielded until his kisses softened, then rubbed her face against his, kissing his swollen cheek, welcoming the prickle of his beard.

My Spaniard, she thought as he pushed her down. She had anticipated they would have need of the blankets. His body moved over hers, crushing her beneath him, his mouth traveling down her neck as his fingers pulled the tupus from her shawl so he could lay it open to spread bright as sunlight beneath her. Her breasts strained against the stiff bodice of the Spanish dress. Encouraging him, Amaya placed her hands on his arms, enjoying the corded tension of thick muscles beneath his paned silk sleeves and the doublet stitched with pearls.

"Fernando," she breathed, savoring the sound of his name.

He groaned and sucked at the pulse in her throat, tasting her voice. Hook by hook, he undid her dress until the bodice fell open. Her breasts, no longer shy, rose to his hand and begged to be touched. With an eagerness that made her blush, her nipples grew hard, brazen, and Fernando pulled away from her to watch as they tightened and lengthened beneath his stroking fingers.

"Dios," he entreated, "You are beautiful, soft—"

Also begging. Yielding. She wanted him too, had wanted him from the second day she had known him. She had announced her choice when she kissed him on the convent doorstep.

With only a little encouragement, he became all hands and hunger. Her garments parted like grass, flimsy obstacles to his assault. It was in his blood to take any treasure in his path and she offered her body to his plunder. With a thoroughness that left her gasping, he exposed her secrets, glutted his mouth on the gold of her skin and teased love words from her kissed, swollen lips. Feeling Fernando's tongue slip one of her nipples into the hot recess of his mouth, Amaya arched her back to give him more. Having lifted her skirt, he moved one knee between her legs, his erection hard and wet against her thigh as she hooked her leg around his hips, pulling him to her.

When had he loosened his garments?

With a moan, Amaya clutched at his head, amazed at the thick wonder of his hair while holding his mouth to her breast. His suckling awakened the music of her blood. She had always thought she might enjoy a man, could she ever find one brave enough.

His eager hand beneath her skirt drifted up to her waist, found her hip and moved with languorous possession again to her thigh. When he found the folds of her sex, she gasped. Then she moaned as he rubbed the moisture there, his fingers parting her silky flesh and delivering slippery strokes over the throbbing center of her pleasure.

Impatient but practiced, clearly a man who knew his way with a woman, he pleasured her until her juices flowed freely. Positioning himself between her spread knees, he grasped the shaft of his manhood and rubbed its tip over and into the well of her excitement until he too was slick. He entered her without warning, a brusque thrust and sharp pain that made her bite back a yelp.

He took her greedily. Amaya clasped him, arms about his neck and legs gripping his hips, holding him to her while his head bowed over her breasts and his muscular buttocks pounded into her with raw need. She wanted the life she felt within him the way the salt flowers wanted souls: hungry, urgent, desperate to pull him into her and consume him utterly. The force of her craving frightened her. The village men had feared her. What if her darkness proved too great?

Fill me! her seeking kisses begged of his salty skin, though filling her was what he was doing already. His shaft felt strong, so hard within her she marveled that it belonged to a man of flesh and blood. It felt rather like iron or steel, that shining Spanish metal. That he was using it to plow her deeply felt right in a way she only now understood. The pain was less now, but she understood it was her sacrifice, her gift of blood.

She was the fertile earth, the virgin violated so she could give conceive new life. Mother Earth, more powerful even than the life-giving Sun.

Despite the cold high air, sweat blossomed on his forehead and throat and dripped onto her face. When his body shuddered and jerked and she felt him softening within her after having delivered his seed, she kissed his damp brow, then his cheek and lips, pulling him into a kiss he ardently returned.

"Forgive me," he gasped, struggling to find words for what he wanted to say. "A demon possessed me. I should not have—"

"I wanted you."

"You are so small, so tight . . . I know I hurt you." He looked more in pain than she was.

She kissed him softly. "I'm happy."

"You were virgin—"

"Not because I wanted to be one!"

"I was so afraid," he whispered then, planting new kisses along her nose and in the soft hair near her ear. "I was so afraid when I thought I would lose you. I hit the soldier who struck you, and then I left him to die."

"And I left the corregidor's house to find you. No one else mattered."

"I have changed you. The priest warned me, said if I ruined your innocence, God would cease to protect us, protect you, and you might cease to see the demon flowers."

"I can still see them," she vowed. Three visiting souls, flickering like pale candles, hovered near, observing them. If she could still see souls . . . She kissed Fernando's dark hair and pulled his face to her breasts, happy to feel his body relax atop hers. "We're safe now. We're safe here with kind souls to help us."

"My spirit girl," he murmured.

The gentle movement of his muscles against the soft skin of her breasts told her the smile she so loved had returned to his face. She sighed happily. The light outside the door grew stronger and the thin air carried the honking calls of flamingoes flying overhead on their spring migration.

Their nesting grounds encircled a lake with water as green as her lover's eyes.

* * * *

"He has pale skin and too much hair on his face," said the oldest of the visiting souls. Her name was Mama Micay and she had founded a kin line that had married into Inca royalty.

"Yes, but his penis is quite fine," said her son, Kusi. His spirit sat on the floor, having accorded the sole chair, a place of honor, to Mama Micay.

Amaya stirred the pot of boiling quinoa and glanced across the room to where Kusi's daughter Runatay, by far more curious, hovered over Fernando, watching him sleep. The three souls had been helpful, directing her to stores of grain, salt, dried potatoes and even some spices, then to the estate's few unbroken pots. Kusi had also ignited a fire for her to cook with.

"You approve of him, then?" she inquired, respecting the wisdom of her elders.

"Well, we hardly know him," Mama Micay demurred, "but his spirit looks bright enough."

"And he has a thick, strong penis." Kusi regretted not having one in the spirit life.

"This is a good man. His spirit overflows with kindness," said Runatay, making her way back to join the others. She had married an Inca prince, whose estate this had been.

Spaniards had found Runatay's husband's mummy and carried it, and his finery and treasure, away. However, the looters had not found the three less exalted mummies in a secret funerary chamber behind the storehouse. Amaya had made the mummies very happy by unearthing them and brushing dust and bits of debris from their wrappings. She'd then unwrapped the mummies and brought them out to join her in the main chamber. It was disrespectful to leave mummies shut away during jiwa when their spirits came to visit.

Runatay regarded Amaya kindly. "Your young man comes from strong kin ties? Good people? Good villages?"

"Yes." Amaya tasted the quinoa and found it ready. She set it aside to cool. "His uncle is the Viceroy in Lima."

"I do not know the town," complained Mama Micay. "Is a Viceroy a chief?"

"You died before the Spanish came," Amaya informed her. None of the spirits knew of the Spanish. They simply returned to the world every year wondering where their family had gone.

"Who are you talking to?"

She looked over to see that Fernando had awakened and was propped up on one elbow, looking her way. Hours ago, guided by the souls, she had found a store of coca leaves and had made a paste for him to suck on for pain. He had not surprised her by subsequently falling asleep.

"The souls," she answered. He might as well know. How else could she explain the fire, or having found so much food? Or that there were now mummies arrayed behind her. "This house is being visited by three of them. They have never seen a Spaniard before."

"I thought I heard the wind and then you answered."

"Their voices are very thin because they have not had family to speak with for so long."

"He speaks oddly, but passably like a human," said Mama Micay.

Fernando could not hear their words, Amaya knew, so she simply bent over the quinoa again until he joined her, squatting at her side. The mummies captured his attention and he studied them. Firelight bronzed their dark, hard skin and highlighted their high cheekbones and strong noses; their huddled bodies glinted with the sheen of colorful, feathered cloaks and abundant gold ornaments. Their eyes were closed so they looked peaceful, as if sleeping.

"Are these the bodies of the souls? They are beautiful," he said, his voice low with reverence. She doubted he had ever seen an Inca mummy.

"Discerning," said Kusi.

"Polite," approved Runatay.

"You have pleased them," Amaya told him. Flashing him a smile, she ladled a thick mash of quinoa, maize and mild yellow pepper into a shallow bowl. "We have been discussing whether you are good enough for me."

"Do we need their approval?" He took the bowl from her hand and watched her scoop another for herself.

"No, but it's wise to listen to those who have existed so much longer than we have."

They ate quickly because they were hungry, scooping fingers full of the mash and laughing when some would fall, or their lips smacked though the food was only passable. Afterward, however, Fernando looked anxiously toward the door to the house. Darkness cloaked the hills, obscuring everything beyond the sturdy lintel.

"We should not have stopped for so long. Now it is night again, night with no moon. The spirit flowers will find us—"

All three souls laughed. The sound was like a rising wind and caused the man to look around at the mummies.

"He doesn't know," Runatay chided her elders. "He thinks the flowers can sprout here."

"He thinks we're peasants," sniffed Mama Micay.

"Tell him to stay away from the walls," suggested Kusi. "And that I would like to watch another demonstration of his virility."

"Don't make him self-conscious," Amaya warned.

"What are they saying?" Fernando looked both worried and annoyed.

"That we're safe here. They told me earlier." Using the haft of a broken ax, she dug at a soft spot in the dirt covering the floor, the same place she had dug earlier while he slept. A few fingerbreadths down, reflecting back the fitful light, was the unmistakable gleam of gold. "A gold floor, covered by one of clay. Mama Micay says gold is cold to sit on, but clay floors when packed properly and smoothed are very fine."

"A floor of gold?" The acquisitiveness of his race made even that simple question into something else. Seeing the censure in her eyes, he shook his head. "I won't disturb a brick, not one. But I still do not think I can sleep tonight."

"Then stay awake with me."

"I will for tonight and tomorrow. But when there is moon again, I will ride back to Potosi, leave you here, safe, with water, food—spirits to talk to."

Leave her? Her heart hammered in the hollow where her soul should be. "I cannot be parted from you. Not now! We have joined hearts! I will follow—"

"Amaya!" Fiercely he clasped her to him and, though she fought not to yield, he quieted her with kisses. "You must stay here. This place is safe, no one knows. I am not leaving you, I am asking you to keep my heart safe! You make me whole, one soul! I cannot lose you, never, because my heart would be broken." He gazed deep into her eyes. "The corregidor is dead. If I take you back with me, I cannot protect you. The men who own the mines will find you and they will take you from me. They will want the girl who can see demons and they will put you back in the mines."

"Fernando, I—"

"I have a duty to my uncle. I must see what has become of the city and the mines, but then I will arrange soldiers, and ride to Lima."

"Lima? Without me?" Behind her, Mama Micay muttered again about having never heard of the place.

He was silent for a while, his profile etched by firelight. When he spoke again, he used words crisp with resolve. "No. Not without you. When I go to Lima, I want you to come with me."

"You won't need me there." What would he need with a girl who saw demon flowers, if he was far from where they sprouted? More than that, she dreaded facing the Viceroy and the Inquisition's priests.

"Not need, want. I have wanted you since I first saw you in Kullaka. I want you to stay with me, always, not go back to your village. The more time I spend with you, the surer I am that I have found the other half of my being. On the bridge, I knew. I need you to teach me, help me recognize my ignorance; help me stop things that are wrong. I love you, Amaya."

Her heart tumbled. All along he had shared the same feelings as she. "I have no soul, yours or mine. The flower did not kill me because I have no soul to take."

"Or because God spared you. Amaya, I know you have a soul because mine touches yours with every kiss."

When his mouth descended to meet hers, hot and open, so that she tasted his strength and life, her heart leaped from her loins to her lips and yearned to join with his. Maybe what his soul felt and believed to be another soul was only her heartbeat, the heat of her blood. Or maybe, about this, he and his Spanish god knew something her people did not.

Runatay urged her to follow him. "Give him your promise; make him the one who is always yours."

"Remember that a man is happy when his penis is happy," said Kusi.

"Have children," was Mama Micay's advice. "They will be tall and know where Lima is."

Somewhere beyond this house with its gold floor and three vocal mummies was a stone city under siege, filled with spirit flowers and Spanish dreams of silver. Above the city rose a mountain riddled with shafts that bloomed death. Into the city flowed a river of ghostly evil. When Fernando returned to Potosi, he would find the streets and churches populated by corpses—and people helpless with terror. And the only monsters would be those who had risen from their own ranks.

She could not protect any of them from salt flowers. She could only protect him.

Cupping her hands to his face, she gazed into the bright certainty of a true soul. "I'll wait for you," she whispered. She kissed the joy from his lips, drank of their sweetness. "But I will not let you leave until the moon shows her face again. I love you too much."

She covered them both with a blanket. Beneath it, she explored Fernando's body as she had not the first time. His flesh flowed beneath her eager hands like a landscape, hard ridges and hot hollows, perhaps not as sweet-smelling as before but possessing a muskiness she found seductive and rich. He had less hair on his body than she had feared; most of him was smooth, his skin silken and salty to her kisses.

Every part of him, it seemed to her, was hard, including his penis, which she could barely remember ever being soft. For her, it was the most beautiful part of him, stiff and ready, of good length and excellent thickness just as the spirits had reported. She took him in hand, claiming him for herself.

She explored his hardness, marveling at the way it filled her hand with supple, intoxicating heat. Yes, she wanted this inside her again.

His hands too were busy, learning her curves, taking privileges with her round breasts and the flare of her hips, the swell of her buttocks that so well-filled his palms. Together they slid into position, she above him. His groans and utterances urged her on, sometimes in Spanish, telling her his body was truly hers to use. She gripped his penis and placed it at the slick entrance into her body.

"I will ride you," Amaya said, "the way you ride your horse."

He groaned aloud as she sheathed him.

She heard Kusi complaining to Mama Micay about the blanket.

"Enough," the older spirit told her son. "You and all men will spend the whole of future time without a penis. Now stop lamenting about yours and let this young woman enjoy his."

* * * *

Seven days after jiwa Amaya walked back to the Spanish road.

Fernando had left several days earlier, riding the horse back to Potosi. Mama Micay, Kusi and Runatay had gone even before he did, their time in the living world limited by the sun and the moon. The spirits said they would return and asked if she would do them the kindness of tending to their mummies. Before leaving, Amaya had rewrapped the mummies with great care and placed them back into their hiding place.

Finding a good vantage from which to watch the road, Amaya hid the water and food she had taken from the house and began her vigil. For two days she observed the passage of llama trains and mitayos, travelers and soldiers and priests. On the third day she saw a column of Spanish soldiers approach, led by a man riding a red horse.

Recognizing Fernando, Amaya ran down the hill, her shawl with all the colors of the sun flaring around her shoulders as she cried his name. He dismounted and ran toward her also. When he reached her, he swept her up in his arms and the world spun with his smile at its center.

"You waited for me," he said and received her answer on his lips.

"Two more days and I would have gone to the city to look for you."

His face grew grim. "Many died in the city, many hundreds. The dying has stopped and now the miners are saying it was plague, and requesting a new mita be taken from the villages to replace the workers."

Her heart sank as she knew for certain what the next jiwa would bring. "Beatriz and the children?"

"They have gone to La Plata. Corregidor Garces has a brother there who will look after them."

She was glad. Potosi was no longer a good place to raise children.

"Will you come with me, Amaya? To Lima?"

"I never belonged in Kullaka," she said. "I do not belong in the mines. I belong with you and never want us to be apart again!"

"Never. You have my solemn vow."

Once again she watched his tall body mount a horse and let him swing her up behind him. A few of the soldiers exchanged leers and snickers but she felt nothing more than pity for them. They did not know Fernando and they did not know her.

As she settled her shawl about her shoulders, she adjusted the third tupu that pinned the fabric at her shoulder. This tupu was much longer, with a hard shank of gilded, razor-sharp bronze. Mama Micay had told her to take it off her mummy as a wedding gift.

Lima was far away, but if salt flowers could find their way into mountains there was no telling where else they might appear.

Now was not the time to be complacent about the habits of evil things.

* * * *

Author's note: Although I made up the salt flowers, I have been down in the mines of Potosi and they are scary! The silver is gone but the mountain remains. Though known as Alto Peru during colonial times, the location where this story takes place is now Bolivia.

Illustration is Blood Moon, by LindaLees.

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