I'd always been more sensitive to the presence of others than the average man, which meant large cities were never easy for me to travel through. Rome, with its crowds and traffic, had to be one of the most difficult. By the time my taxi pulled up in front of the hotel, the throbbing in my head had increased to the point I was nearly blind with pain, and when I stepped out of the cab I had to lean against it until the dizziness subsided.
“Si sente bene, Padre?”
It wasn’t the driver who’d spoken, but a policeman mounted on a handsome bay mare. Concern radiated from him, which didn’t help my poor head, but after so many years in the priesthood, I’d learned to adopt a serene expression no matter the circumstances. “Sto bene, grazie.” That was the extent of pure Italian I could speak, though since my native languages were Spanish and Catalan I understood most of it.
The horse nudged my shoulder with her nose and let out a soft snort, as if she knew I was lying. I stroked her soft muzzle, calmed by her gentle presence. The throbbing in my head eased just enough to be bearable.
“Buon giorno,” the policeman said and directed his horse through the crowd. By then the driver had fetched my bag, which he handed off to a waiting porter. After a few deep breaths, I was able to steady myself and take stock of my new surroundings. The hotel’s façade seemed to glorify the city’s history, with stone lions flanking the columns and a gigantic fountain showing a mural of Bacchus in the midst of a wine-fueled orgy. I thought it a work of art, but Generalissimo Franco would have deemed the scene morally reprehensible and had it destroyed.
But this wasn’t Spain, and for a little while, at least, I didn’t have to worry about internment or being killed if I did or said the wrong thing. My greatest worry now was being able to cope with the crowds while not revealing my affliction.
I followed the porter into a lobby buzzing with guests, mustachioed men and women in lurid dresses and tall bouffant hairstyles. It took all of my effort to keep from being overwhelmed by the intensity of their thoughts and emotions, which transformed my headache into a sensation akin to ice picks driving through my skull.
Breathing deeply, I closed my eyes, wishing I’d been able to find an excuse to keep from attending a conference on alternative healing, but my superior had insisted. “You spend so much time alone, Rafael. Besides, with your dedication to your patients, there’s no one better to represent us.”
The irony was that I was interested in all aspects of healing, though much of it was because I was desperate to ease the pain of others and thus spare myself. So when the Salesian Pontifical University had offered to sponsor a Spanish candidate, I’d been sent. And while it was a relief to be free of Spain’s dictatorship, however briefly, I couldn’t risk letting my guard down.
The porter led me to the registration desk. A few minutes later I had a key and a room which, the attendant assured me, had an excellent view of Olympic stadium built three years before in 1960. She gestured down the hall. “The conference is to your left and through the double doors. You can’t miss it.”
The porter held up my bag. “I’ll put this in your room and see that everything’s perfect.”
“Thank you.” I handed him a tip and caught a flash of pleasure as he grinned and departed.
The foyer was crowded with doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, and practitioners of every sort of healing including energetic, herbal and spiritual. I checked in at the welcome desk, picked up my name tag which dangled from a lanyard, then wandered around to get my bearings, exchanging nods with a few Vatican priests. Cigarette smoke drifted through the air, increasing my malaise.
I was about to head toward the elevators when my skin tingled uncomfortably with something akin to electricity. I jerked. The sensation turned sour and traveled through my body, lodging there and filling me with sickening unease. I lost what little control I had. Emotions tumbled into my mind, nauseating with their intensity. I struggled against my rising terror. There was evil in this place. Someone—something—was filled with an insatiable hunger all too similar to that which I’d gleaned from many of the soldiers and politicians in Spain.
Frightened, I looked around. No one else seemed to have noticed anything amiss. Priests, doctors, laymen—there were so many people present that I couldn’t tell from where the vileness emanated. My first impulsive thought was that someone had followed me from Barcelona, intent on exposing me. Then I caught hold of myself. There was no reason for them to tail me. I’d been careful to keep my secret.
Even so, I wasn’t going to take any chances. I pushed through the crowd, desperate to be out of the crowd and away from the foul presence. A few of the attendees grumbled at my rudeness, but I pressed on, looking for the exit.
A few more steps and the world spun in sickening circles. I groped blindly in the air, seeking a wall or chair for support when a strong hand caught my arm. “This way, Father,” someone said in English.
The background noise in my head went quiet as suddenly as if someone had shut off an irritating radio broadcast. Within moments I was out of the suffocating foyer and in a little garden replete with sunlight and fresh air. My rescuer sat me down on a stone bench and I leaned forward, head down until the ground stopped swaying.
“Are you all right, Father?”
I gazed at my rescuer, surprised at being unable to sense him. He was in his early twenties, about ten years younger than I, and with his jeans and black leather jacket he seemed out of place amidst the well-dressed professionals. I was not entirely adept at English, but I did my best. “I am. Thank you, Mr…?”
“Just call me Lukas. Can I get you something? A glass of water?”
The young man’s accent, American English tinged with German, intrigued me. “You are kind, but I wish only my room.”
“I’ll be happy to—” A fit of coughing cut him off. “Sorry. All that smoke gets to me. I’ll take you upstairs. What’s the number?”
“I will find it.” I wasn’t keen on letting a stranger follow me, however well-intentioned he might be.
“I don’t think I should leave you on your own.”
I searched his blue eyes for a reason but found none. Much as I despised my ability, I didn’t trust anyone I couldn’t sense. For all I knew, he could have caused the horrible sensations I’d been feeling and this was a ruse to lure me into harm.
“Please don’t think—I didn’t mean…” Lukas was instantly contrite, and a hint of worry and anxiety leaked through at last, making me feel guilty for presuming the worst. Whoever he was, he had no intention of hurting me and was sincerely interested in my well-being. “Forgive me, Father. I’ve offended you. Let me apologize by taking you to dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. Will you come?”
Lukas wanted something from me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. After working so many years with the underprivileged, ill and abused, I was well aware of how my cassock sometimes acted as a magnet to those in need. “What time?”
“As you wish. The hotel restaurant. Seven o’clock.”
Lukas beamed, and for an instant I was taken by the roguish smile. “Thank you, Father. I’ll take care of the arrangements. Let me walk you to the elevator, at least.”
Given his concern, I allowed him that much. As the doors closed between us, I found myself looking forward to the night’s engagement.
Once I reached my room, the nausea and headache returned with such force that I didn’t dare return to the foyer. I decided it must be the remnants of whatever I’d sensed, because the rooms nearby were empty and I was on a high enough floor that the crowds outside were little more than static.
A hot shower and a change of clothes did little to improve my symptoms. Neither did an hour of meditation. By six-thirty, I was considering excuses to avoid an evening in a busy restaurant, but at six fifty-five I took the elevator down, propelled only by my sense of duty. To his surprise, the maître d’ escorted me to an isolated, candlelit table for two on the patio where we could enjoy the stars and fresh air. My host, already seated, rose when I arrived. “Thank you for coming, Father.”
“Please. You may call me Rafael, or Padre Rafael, if that is more comfortable.”
We sat and, as had happened before in Lukas’s presence, my awareness of those around me dulled. Grateful to be clear-headed at last, I studied the menu as Lukas requested a bottle of wine. The waiter bowed and departed, returning shortly to pour a little merlot for me to sample. “Delicious,” I said, and the waiter filled two glasses.
Once I’d decided on a dish with shrimp and pasta and the waiter had taken our order, I studied Lukas’s newly-shaven chin and the blue eyes which regarded me with equal curiosity. “You are…German?” I asked.
“Austrian. From Vienna. I was adopted by an American after the war and left the country when I was sixteen.” Lukas turned his attention to pouring more wine, a sign that he found the topic uncomfortable. I waited patiently for him to either change the subject or say more. After setting the bottle down, he glanced at me then gave me a sad smile. “My adopted father found me in a hospital after the war. He convinced the doctors to let him take me north to Wimsbach, where the Lipizzans had been taken for safekeeping. If it weren’t for the horses, I wouldn’t be sane.”
“Really? How so?”
Lukas smiled. “I was…overly sensitive, you might say. They taught me control.”
Anxiety prickled my neck. There was something in Lukas’s carefully worded statement that gave me the feeling he knew my secret, but I wasn’t going to push too far, both for Lukas’s comfort as well as my own. “We have much in common. My parents were killed in in the Spanish civil war. The Salesian brotherhood raised my brother and I.”
“Which is why you became a priest?” Lukas asked. I nodded. “What exactly do you do?”
“I work in a hospital in Barcelona, both as a chaplain and as a medic. When I am not there, I offer solace to the homeless and those who are afraid or too ashamed to approach a church.”
Lukas swirled his glass, the coy tilt of his mouth hinting at something I daren’t consider. “You are a remarkable man, Rafael.”
The waiter brought our food, tantalizing piles of pasta and fresh garlic bread. After a brief prayer, I devoured my dinner with pleasure.
As we ate, Lukas rambled on about the conference and Rome, quick to answer my numerous questions as long as they weren’t personal. At length I caught a brief, overpowering concern directed straight at me and decided it was time to be blunt. “Will you tell me the reason you wished to speak with me?”
Lukas poured the last of the wine. “I will, but not here. It’s better if—”
The scent of a freshly lit cigar drifted over to our table. Lukas coughed, politely covering his mouth with his napkin. The coughing worsened into a long, drawn-out spasm.
Out of instinct, I grasped his arm, meaning to comfort. Instead, an electric shock raced through my body. I had the strangest feeling I could see Lukas inside and out, and he was being swallowed up by a darkness which threatened to—
I snatched my hand back, reeling from the sensation unnervingly similar to what I’d felt that morning. I stood, pushing the chair back with a screech against the stone floor. Several patrons had turned to stare, and their interest jabbed like nails into my brain.
Terror drove me to flee from whatever I’d sensed inside Lukas, but a priest abandoning someone in need would be unforgivable. I rounded the table and crouched to be eye level. “Who—what are you?”
Lukas struggled for a few more breaths. He’d gone pale beneath the lanterns on the patio “Take me to my room. Please.”
I didn’t want to touch him, but he couldn’t stand without assistance. Tentatively I offered an arm, relieved when I felt nothing more than pressure as I helped him rise and walk. In the elevator, silence increased the tension. Lukas had gone quiet, impossible to read as he inhaled careful, shallow breaths.
Lukas collapsed into a chair as soon as he entered his suite. His color hadn’t returned. Blue tinged her lips as he gazed at me from under half-closed lids. I wanted to leave, to gain as much distance from this strange man as possible, but I could not bring myself to do so. “Is there someone you would like me to call?”
“I’ll be fine,” Lukas said hoarsely. He waved a hand at me. “I know what you felt in the foyer. I felt it, too.”
His words confirmed my suspicion about his extrasensory abilities. Once, I’d been desperate to find someone else like me, but now, I didn’t find his admission comforting. Not when it confirmed what I’d been dreading. “They are after me.”
I hadn’t meant to speak aloud, by after the day’s stress my nerves got the better of me. Lukas looked at me, incredulous. “After you? Why?”
He was young and American, with no real idea of what Generalissimo Franco would do to those he deemed a threat. I’d been stupid, going out to dinner with Lukas. He was probably bait for a trap. Whether or not he knew it didn’t matter. I headed toward the door. “Forgive me. I must return to my room. Are you sure I cannot call—”
Eyes narrowed, he said, “You don’t have to be afraid of me.”
I wanted to believe him, yet I was not one who easily trusted a man I couldn’t sense. “What do you want from me?”
“Your friendship. That’s all.”
I sat in the chair across from him, still uneasy. “I should not be here. It is not safe for either of us.”
He gave me a wry smile. “Whoever you think was following you, isn’t. There’s an incubus loose in the hotel.”
It took me a moment to translate what he said. Incubus. El íncubo. After serving in the priesthood during a civil war and a dictatorship, I had a healthy belief in evil and its accompanying spirits. Mythical creatures were another thing entirely. “A…what?”
“An incubus. It’s a creature that feeds off the sexual energies of others. It’s mostly energy itself and tends to transform into its victim’s greatest desire. Most people can’t sense them, but a Sensitive can.”
I’d never heard the word sensitive used in the way Lukas had, but I knew exactly what he meant. I’d known I was more perceptive of emotions and feelings than others seemed to be but had never given that awareness a name. The Generalissimo had a penchant for hunting those that were different, and I was terrified of discovery. Knowing Lukas had the same ability wasn’t the relief I’d hoped.
He gave me an odd look then his expression changed to one of pity. “You don’t know what you are, but you’re afraid of it, aren’t you? No wonder…”
I sat, frozen, not knowing whether to be offended by Lukas’s presumption or shocked by the way he spoke so casually about something I endeavored to keep hidden. “What I am or am not is none of your business. Please excuse me.”
I rose and tried again to leave, but he said, “You know things about people. You can sense their emotions and sometimes experience their memories. That’s the reason you were ill this afternoon. You were overloaded by all that energy so I blocked it for you. You don’t know how deal with such a large crowd or an incubus, do you?”
I turned back to face him. Even though he was ill, there was something in his manner and appearance I found alluring. “Are you an incubus?”
Lukas laughed, a mistake, because it erupted into another fit of coughing. “No,” he said after he recovered. “I hunt them. My friends and I do. Part of the reason we came to this conference is because we tracked it here.”
This went beyond the bounds of what I could believe, although I had spent a great deal of time with the mentally ill and Lukas did not strike me as such. “You are unwell. I shall leave you to rest.”
“Look. I’m sorry about what happened in the restaurant. You caught me off guard. I reacted badly.” He held out a trembling hand. “I’ll show you something.”
I’d had all the strangeness I could take for one night and had no wish to open myself up for more. Besides, he was growing worse by the minute. His labored breathing echoed uncomfortably. “Shall I call a doctor? Surely there is someone here who—”
He shook his head. “No doctors. They can’t help.”
“One of your friends, then?”
“No. Olivia fusses too much.” But after another round of coughing, I asked again and he relented. “She’s in room 314.”
I called. Within five minutes came a knock at the door. I opened it for a pretty, forty-ish Hispanic woman who hurried into the room and straight to Lukas. They bantered in English too low and fast for me to catch. I slipped out, wishing I could forget everything I’d just heard.
I dreamed of Lukas and his horses, great white mares and stallions that moved in and out of sight like waves on the sea and filling me with a similar peace. There were long, vivid scenes in which Lukas took my hand, but his touch was more than skin deep. I felt him, emotional, physical, and everything else. Smell, touch, and taste roused a passion I’d never believed I’d feel. I didn’t want to let him go.
When I woke, the sheets were damp and sticky. Cheeks burning, I hurried into the shower. I’d resigned myself to the idea of never having a lover, but obviously I was not immune to certain…feelings.
Whatever Lukas had done to me, I was determined not to let it happen again. I did my best to avoid him. While attending a panel on the link between emotional and physical illness, I made certain to sit on the opposite side of the room from Lukas, who appeared little better than the night before. Olivia fretted over him whenever he coughed and I couldn’t help wondering if he’d slept well or had endured an experience similar to mine.
At noon I fled the hotel and took my lunch on the patio at a nearby café, choosing a somewhat isolated table. I’d ordered simple fare and was reading through the conference program when Olivia pulled out a chair and sat beside me.
“Good afternoon, Padre,” she said, her Spanish tinged with a Mexican accent. “I hope you don’t mind if I join you,”
Her mind was as impenetrable as Lukas’s. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised. Inclining my head, I said, “Not at all. Is there something I can do for you, señorita?”
She ordered a glass of lemonade from the waiter then said, “I wanted to thank you for calling me last night. I apologize if Lukas got out of hand. He’s young and tends to be rather passionate.”
I’d noticed. “I fear I’m the one who offended. Please offer him my regrets. Is he feeling better this morning?”
“Somewhat.” The waiter delivered the lemonade. She took a sip. “There isn’t much a traditional doctor can do. His sickness is of the soul as much as the body.”
This was a concept I was all too familiar with. While some struggled to survive after being shot or tortured, others simply gave up and willed themselves to die so they could join their loved ones. Others survived trauma only to have it manifest later as some form of illness, which, I presumed, was what happened with Lukas. “Because of what happened to him in the war?”
She nodded. “I do what I can since I’m a Sensitive too, but I’m not gifted enough to do much.” She rested her hand on mine. Her touch tingled though it lacked the danger Lukas’s had.
Discomfited, I eased my hand back. A chill passed through me and I glanced around the café, feeling suddenly vulnerable.
A moment later she went blank, as if she wasn’t there anymore. “They’re not here, Padre. If someone were following you, Lukas and I would know. You’re safe with us. I promise you that.”
Against my better judgment, I was beginning to believe her, and more than a small part of me longed to share my worst secret with someone able to understand. “Thank you, señorita.”
“Forgive me for being so forward. I wasn’t thinking. Lukas said this was all new to you. Haven’t you ever learned to shield yourself?”
It was no use to dissemble. Like Lukas, she knew too much. “I…no. I didn’t know such a thing was possible.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Oh, Padre. You must have a strong heart to go through life with it so open. We can teach you, you know. Come with us after the conference. We’ll get you asylum.”
Tempting as the offer was, I couldn’t take it. “Thank you, señorita, but I have my duties.” Not to mention the certainty that the Generalissimo would hunt me down if I failed to return home.
“Of course you do,” she said, although the words were strained. “But if there’s any way we can aid you while you’re here...”
Fearful that I might do something else to hasten Lukas’s illness, I didn’t dare ask for their help, although I longed for it. “I do have one question.” I hesitated, feeling foolish for even thinking it. “The incubus. Lukas was telling the truth?”
“Yes, he was. Most people only see and feel them as a lover. Sensitives like us can sense their true nature which makes them easier to track, but encounters can be rather unpleasant.”
I nodded, still not quite believing such creatures could exist.
She took my program and flipped it open. “This is my lecture on energetic healing. Two o’clock this afternoon. It’ll be in Spanish. I think it would be of benefit to you.”
“I’ll be there.” I’d planned on attending anyway.
“Good.” She left a few coins on the table before she disappeared as abruptly as she’d come.
Halfway back to the hotel, I felt the incubus again.
The tingling began on the back of my neck and creeped along my spine, spreading out until my whole body clenched with pain. The incubus was hungry. Starving. Now that Lukas and Olivia had both assured me I wasn’t being followed, I could sense the inhumanness of the creature projecting it, although the greed and single-mindedness were emotions I knew all too well. A brief scan of the people nearby showed me nothing, no one out of the ordinary.
Yet it was there. Somewhere. The tingling increased to the point that my skin burned and my head felt ready to burst from pressure. I hurried away, desperate to rid myself of the awful sensation.
Lukas hunted the things, but he’d neglected to mention how he disposed of them. A stake to the heart? A silver bullet? Strangulation? Whichever it was, I was a priest and didn’t care to have blood on my hands, evil creature or not.
I meant to track down either Olivia or Lukas and tell them, but by the time I reached the hotel pain had made me so lightheaded that I had to stop several times to balance against a table or chair. The concierge offered to fetch a doctor. I refused. Painkillers wouldn’t help this kind of headache. Besides, I was at a conference filled with physicians and healers of all sorts. One call and I could be surrounded by herbs, acupuncture needles and a half dozen people wanting to lay hands on me.
Somehow I reached my room and spent a miserable afternoon in my room meditating and doing breathing exercises in an attempt to control the discomfort. When the aching eased I ordered a light repast and ate alone, wondering how Olivia’s panel had gone and if Lukas had been there.
Someone knocked. I answered, expecting room service to clear away the dishes, but it was Lukas, wearing a tight white T-shirt and jeans. He made a point of studying me. “You don’t look good.”
His bluntness caught me off-guard. My words emerged more sharply than I’d intended. “That thing was back. It gave me a headache.”
“The incubus? Damn it. Where?”
I gestured vaguely in the direction of the coffee shop. “Out on the street. Hours ago. I meant to tell you, but…”
“It’s all right. It’s probably gone by now anyway. Anything I can do to help?”
“No. Thank you for your concern.” I tried to shut the door but Lukas put his foot in the way.
Before I had a chance to respond, Lukas clasped my wrist. Energy flickered, and for a moment I was caught in a loop of ardor that heated my entire body. It took a great deal of effort to pry Lukas’s hand away. “Go to your friend. She will be missing you.”
“You and I are more alike than you care to admit. I know. Why are you hiding yourself?”
“That is none of your concern.”
Lukas pursed his lips, not quite pouting. “Will it make a difference if I say I’m worried about you? I’ve known other Sensitives who went crazy when they refused to accept it or never learned how to handle it.”
He meant himself. Unwillingly, I caught a glimpse of Lukas as a child, lost in the turmoil of his own mind. Several white shapes surrounded him, cooling his torment. I shook my head to clear away the vision, reminded uncomfortably of last night’s dream. “I appreciate your concern, but you need not worry.”
“Let me help, damn it.”
“There is no need.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him his insistence was making my head worse.
His face crumpled, and he looked like a puppy someone had left in the rain, bedraggled and uncomprehending of why he’d been punished. “But if you only knew…” That was all he could get out before being seized by another terrible round of coughing.
“All right,” I said, as much to calm him as to ease my own conscience. “You can help as long as you do not harm yourself in the process.”
His face lit up. “Good. Come on. I want to show you something.”
“I do not think we ought to—”
But it was too late. He was already in the elevator and holding the door open for me. I joined him, not liking this at all but unsure how to stop him without riling him more. Once in the lobby, he crossed it and headed outside, seemingly oblivious to the cold and wet. Helplessly I followed, cassock clutched tightly at the neck to protect against the rain. We walked for perhaps five blocks before turning toward the police stable. An officer sat sheltered under a dripping eave.
“Good evening Signore Lukas,” the officer said in heavily accented English. “The horses will be happy to see you.” He turned his attention to me. “Brought a friend tonight, I see. Welcome, Padre.”
I nodded at him and trailed Lukas inside, happy to be out of the wet. The stable was warm and filled with the pleasant scent of horse. There were over two dozen stalls lined up on either side. Several animals arched their heads over the gates to watch us. A sleek bay mare, the same I’d seen when I’d first arrived at the hotel, greeted Lukas with affection, and he slipped inside the stall and scratched her neck.
“Lukas? Will your friend worry if we do not return?”
He sighed. “She’s a friend of my father, not mine. Not really. She’s so…overprotective . I admit I have issues, but I’m not going to break.” A round of coughing belied that statement, thought I agreed he wasn’t a child, not in mind and definitely not in body. Rain had soaked his shirt through, leaving nothing to the imagination. His wet jeans clung to his legs.
I looked away, suddenly ashamed by the thoughts going through my mind.
“This is what I wanted to show you.” Lukas rubbed the mare’s nose. She licked and chewed, a sign of pleasure. “The horses can feel energy too.” He patted the mare’s shiny neck. “Come in. See for yourself.”
Wary of the mare’s back legs and the fragrant manure by the door, I slipped inside. Already he was calmer and more grounded than I’d seen him and his breathing was easier. Gingerly, I set a hand next to his, aware of only warm muscle and silky coat. Then, just below the surface, I picked up tingle of energy, strong and pure in contrast to Lukas’s tainted stream.
“Let go,” Lukas said. “Let it take you deeper.”
I was sorely tempted to see where that purity led, but instead of doing what he asked, I snatched my hand away. I didn’t dare follow the energy. It was too tempting, and too risky. If I opened that Pandora’s Box, there was no telling what demons I might loose and be unable to put back.
“The horses taught me how to control my Sensitivity. Without them, I would have gone crazy. I don’t want that to happen to you.” He coughed again. “They can help, if you’ll let them.”
A sympathetic pain sliced at my chest, and I inhaled sharply. This was too like the dream, intense and unforgiving. I had to get a grip on my control before I lost it completely. “We should go back to the hotel. I shall call for soup and hot tea.”
Lukas twisted around so he faced me. He curled an around the horse’s neck. “Only if you admit what you are.”
Words strangled in my throat. At this point, I didn’t know who, or what I was. Lukas had turned everything upside down and torn at the fabric of everything I believed in. I caught Lukas’s gaze and lost myself in those bold, blue eyes.
“Say it,” Lukas urged. The mare tossed her head as if in agreement. Her tail stung my arm.
I wanted to, desperately, but the energetic contact with the horse had kindled a spark I dared not fan lest it grow into a blaze I couldn’t control. “I can’t.”
Lukas tensed, his anger palpable. “You can. You have to.” He grabbed my hand and tried to place it once more upon the horse. I resisted. “Please, Rafael. Please.”
Energy flared between us. Once again I saw darkness within him, this time focused around his chest, clenching like a claw to cut off his air. It grew, spreading like an oil slick, seeping into every pore, a visible, palpable expression of his suffering.
I jerked away, crashing back into my own body with a jolt of pain. I shivered, reluctant to accept what I’d seen. Lukas was very ill, possibly dying.
Lukas leaned into the mare’s shoulder and coughed, long and hard, until he could scarcely breathe. When he looked up, a soft, sad smile spread across his face. “Now you understand.”
“No. I don’t.” I backed away from him, terrified by both the severity of his illness and the doors he’d opened but I could not close. I didn’t want to be special or different. Either of those could get me killed.
But I raced out of the stall and into the steady, chilling rain. I hadn’t gone more than a block before I paused to lean against a lamp post, overcome by a rush of emotions I didn’t know how to name. I longed for my quiet life among my brothers, free from temptation. It was cruel of Lukas to taunt me, to offer me the freedom of being myself when such a thing was impossible at home. I’d touched the energy. I wanted more, much in the same way a man who’d been touched by spirits longed for further contact.
I might have wept at the unfairness. It was hard to tell with the raindrops trailing down my cheeks.
I trembled, not wanting to see Lukas, but I straightened my shoulders and turned around. He was little more than a silhouette hiding in the shadows of a nearby building. “Lukas?”
But the moment I said the name, I knew I was wrong. The creature stepped out of the shadows. In every physical detail, it looked exactly like Lukas—but he didn’t feel the same. The Lukas I knew was tainted, but this one emanated a dark, seductive energy that kept me from doing the smart thing and fleeing. I recalled what Lukas had said about incubi transforming into the lover their victim desired the most and was overcome by a shudder of revulsion. “Get away from me.”
Hypnotized, I could only watch as it came toward me. “I know what you want, Rafael,” it said in perfect Spanish.
I wondered how but couldn’t ask. Then the creature’s hands were upon me, stroking in all the right places. I moaned as much from pleasure as from discomfort, for beneath it all was the sickening sense of evil I’d picked up in the foyer. This was a creature of pure evil, and yet…
It was Lukas’s voice, but to my mind, it didn’t make sense. Lukas was here, in front of me, making promises he couldn’t possibly keep.
The long, brutal fit of coughing grounded me. The Lukas in my arms was warm, healthy and breathing normally. The Lukas standing a few feet away swayed on his feet and clutched his chest as the spasms continued.
I tried to get to him, but the incubus gripped my arm and filled me with the same painful, sickening sensation I’d felt in the hotel foyer. The world tilted. I struggled and shoved at it until I finally broke free. I stumbled, no steadier than if I was on a ship in a stormy sea.
I looked back. The incubus had taken hold of him. Lukas thrashed, but his shriek of pain faded into a hoarse wheezing. His eyes rolled back in his head and he twitched in a seizure. Weak as he was, he wouldn’t last long.
“Let him go!”
Not-Lukas gazed at me with eyes that seemed to glow red in the night. A demon’s eyes.
I grabbed the thing and wrenched it free from Lukas, who crumpled onto the pavement. That dark, awful energy changed its focus back to me.
It was frightening, unreal, but I’d endured worse. Like Lukas, I’d lived through the horrors of war. I bore scars left by bullets. I’d seen bodies lying in the streets and witnessed murders for no reason beyond a difference of philosophy. This creature was no different from the dictators and soldiers I’d known; a predator seeking satiation with no care for its victims. Years of repressed fear and anger burst forth, and I directed it all at the incubus. I’d never participated in an exorcism, but I’d seen one and recalled the extreme calm shown by the priest. I felt much the same, light-headed yet utterly sure of what I must do. “Leave this place.”
Our gazes met and locked. Not-Lukas’s blue eyes burned with an unearthly ferocity. “I’m not done with you, priest.”
“We’re finished here. Go, and do not return.”
It bent its head and pressed its lips against my cheek. Then it was gone, vanished as if it had never been.
The chill and rain, which I’d forgotten about, suddenly intensified. I shook, both from the chill and the lingering effects of what I had just done. If it hadn’t been for Lukas…
I swiveled around in a panic, finally sighting him. I dashed over and knelt on the wet pavement. He was limp as I gathered him gently into my arms. “Lukas. Speak to me.”
His rasping voice was difficult to hear. “You’re a remarkable man, Rafael.” He coughed and I rubbed his chest, wishing I had a better way to aid him. He sagged against me, his ragged breathing a pointed contrast to the gentle, pattering rain.
“Lukas?” I shook him and slapped his face. Neither action roused him. He wasn’t dead, but that thing in his chest was as palpable as the incubus had been. Olivia had said it was more spiritual than physical, which was in my line of work, only I hadn’t dealt with anything quite this severe. I didn’t know what to do.
But I knew who did.
Heart thudding with hope, I draped Lukas over my shoulder and headed back toward the police stable. The guard jumped to his feet. “Padre? What happened?”
I didn’t think he’d believe the whole of it, so I gave him the abridged version. “Lukas fell ill on the way back to the hotel. This was the closest shelter I knew.”
“Of course, of course, Padre. I will call for a doctor.”
“No. Call the hotel. Ask for Signora Olivia Santiago. She’s his physician. Tell her to come at once.”
The officer disappeared, presumably to find a phone. I hoped I had enough time to do what I needed.
I carried Lukas inside the barn. The mare whickered. “Will you help me?” I asked her. I don’t know how much, if anything, she understood, but she licked and chewed and I took that as a sign of her consent.
I propped Lukas in one corner of the stall and buried the thought that this was a stupid idea. The horse could panic and trample or kick us or worse.
But she didn’t. Instead, she bent her head to sniff Lukas then looked pointedly at me. I braced myself for the usual anxiety that came when I had to touch someone, but it didn’t come. Feeling the same, deep calm as I had when dealing with the incubus, I put a hand against her neck and opened myself to her.
And suddenly I knew what Lukas had been trying to show me. Energy—a force I’d always been aware of but never sure how to manage—surged through me. I became one with the mare, blood and breath and bone. I could see inside her but didn’t have the knowledge to understand what I was looking at. At first it was shocking how alien the horse felt until I found organs I could recognize, heart, lungs, guts, all of which seemed to be surrounded by a pale golden light.
Then, still keeping a hand on the horse, I touched Lukas’s chest. His flesh was hot and damp, his breathing erratic. The darkness was there, just beneath the surface. It was strange how confident I’d been with other patients, how certain I’d be able to provide some measure of comfort or healing. With Lukas I had the frightening surety I knew nothing at all. I whispered one last prayer for strength and hoped like hell I was doing the right thing. I’d witnessed people die of heartbreak often enough to know how emotions affected the body, and it was obvious that the years of trauma and suffering with no real outlet had taken their toll. No wonder he’d latched onto me so desperately. He’d seen in me a kindred spirit, one as wounded as he.
“I’m here,” I told him. “I understand.”
I’d been a fool to be so afraid. Energy meant life and beauty and wholeness, something Spain had nearly forgotten about in the past few decades. The horses knew it instinctually, so it was no surprise why Lukas had clung to them as a child and still did now. They were steady and calm and strong in the midst of chaos.
And chaos was what I sensed now within Lukas. I knew the trauma which lay tucked inside his body. Loss. Terror. Gunfire. The scent of burnt buildings and charred flesh, the horror of bloody, mutilated bodies. Sensitive as he was, he’d felt it all. His adopted father had taken him to the horses, and while they’d saved his life and his sanity, they could not fully understand what he was and had lived through.
I did. I’d been there. And as I saw and absorbed Lukas’s memories and shared my own, the darkness inside his chest gave way. The sensation startled me at first, the slight easing of tension which was almost ticklish. It was like a tug-of-war, a give and take of memory and sentiment that lessened the pain rather than adding to it. Yet try as I might, I couldn’t pry the darkness completely loose.
I dropped back into myself just enough to be aware of the outside world. The barn was eerily silent, without a snort or shifting of hooves. “Help me,” I whispered. “It’s not enough.”
Then, one after another, I felt them. The mare was the strongest, since she was the closest, but there were other mares and geldings in the mix. Each added their own particular strength and gave it without question.
I became nothing more than a channel, directing energy into Lukas to tear away at the suffocating darkness with support and love.
Little by little, the sick, sluggish energy cleared and transformed into the golden light I’d seen in the mare. I kept at it, determined to cleanse every last bit from Lukas’s body.
The horses dropped out of the mix one by one as unobtrusively as they’d joined.
Exhaustion hit hard. I let go of the mare and slumped down beside Lukas. I’d done all I could. I hoped it was enough.
I opened my eyes to find I had an audience. Olivia crouched beside me, one hand on my arm. The stall door was open and several policemen, including the guard from outside, stared at us. Only the mare seemed unperturbed as she flicked her tail and nibbled at a fresh pile of hay.
I looked at Lukas, whose head lay pillowed against my shoulder. Someone had draped a horse blanket over us for warmth. “Is he all right?”
“Thanks to you.” She ruffled Lukas’s hair which, if he were awake, would probably annoy him.
Already, I could tell his breathing was easier from the steady rise and fall of his chest. It was difficult to tell in the dim light, but I thought his color had improved as well.
The man who’d been guarding the barn handed me a mug of steaming coffee. I took it, grateful for the warmth, and noticed the slight tremor in his hand. “It was a miracle, Padre. I saw him when he came in. I didn’t think…”
I sipped my coffee and his my surprise. Let them think I’d performed a miracle, if that’s what they needed to believe. It was, in a way, yet it was also the most natural thing I could have done.
I’d almost finished the mug when Lukas twitched and snuggled against me as if he were a cat. “Thank you,” he said.
He gazed up at me. For a long time, neither of us spoke. We didn’t need to. The energetic link was still there, sharing everything we needed. At length, he said, “Come home with us. My father will give you asylum.”
The offer was tempting, and not just because it meant I could stay with Lukas. “I can’t.” Duty trumped desire.
Beneath the blanket, he grasped my hand. “Are you still afraid?”
I set the mug aside and ran my fingers through his damp blond hair. “Of what I am? No. Of the Generalissimo? Only a fool would not be.” Though I saw now how learning about my gift and using it could save me rather than the opposite.
He looked frightened for a moment, but I was calm and soon he was too. “The conference isn’t over for three more days. You still have a lot to learn.”
His smile was all the answer I needed.
This story originally appeared in For Want of a Horse: Twenty-Three Tales of Magical Mares, Supernatural Stallions and Paranormal Ponies.