The next morning was the warmest so far that year.
Ramon awoke to the sensation of sunlight beating pleasantly against his eyelids. He rolled over away from the glare, and swung his legs over the side of the bed before opening his eyes and standing. For a brief moment he looked around the small room, confused, before remembering that he had spent the night in a small room for rent in the village. It was the first time he had slept somewhere other than his room in the castle in his memory.
Taking the small wooden chair placed for his convenience next to the bed, he pushed it close to the window, climbed atop it, and with some difficultly managed to pry the old window open, breathing deeply at the rush of fresh air. He couldn't remember ever having felt so alive, and so important.
Finding his clothes where he had left them – carefully folded atop the chest at the foot of the bed – he put them on, fixed the collar of his shirt in front of the full length mirror, and tied back his long hair before heading quietly down the stairs to the dining room. Saddler was sitting there already, in his usual robes, and he was with someone Salazar had never seen before.
Opposite him was a tall, slim man with shoulder length brown hair. He had a carefree air about him and dressed, at least to the eyes of Ramon Salazar, rather like an American, though he spoke with a distinct Spanish accent.
Ramon had reached the foot of the stairs before he was noticed by either of them. Osmund made eye contact with him and that pleasant, inviting smile tugged at his lips.
"Ah, here he is now," he said, then looked to the other man, who turned to look at Salazar and gave him a casual wave and a smile. "Salazar," Osmund continued "this is Luis Sera. He'll be assisting us today. He's a biochemist and has studied abroad, but he resides here now, not far from the village."
"Born and raised," Luis said with a smile, and nodded his head respectfully to Ramon.
Saddler's smile remained. "And this, of course, is Ramon Salazar. He's been gracious enough to allow us access to the caves beneath his castle so that we may further our research. Bitores will be coming with us as soon as he's ready, and he'll assemble some of the villagers should we need assistance."
Ramon had no idea why they would need so many people, let alone a biochemist, to aid them, but he felt he would look foolish asking questions, and merely pulled himself into a seat. Everything would be revealed all in good time, he was sure, and he was also sure that this Luis Sera would think less of him should he appear ignorant of the situation.
Luis, however, didn't seem overly concerned with keeping up an air of importance, and cooked all of them a hearty meal of bacon, eggs, and toast, waving off their protests. "It's nothing. I've had to learn to cook for myself all these years, I really don't mind." Osmund accepted his meal with quiet thanks, and Salazar, who had never cooked anything in his life and was sure he would burn the house down if he tried, also accepted it graciously.
When they were finished, they headed out into the main square, where Bitores was waiting with a group of villagers, who all looked well fed, happy, and eager to be doing something out of the ordinary.
Ramon, deciding to exercise some of his authority, began to walk in the direction of the castle, and everyone who had been leaning on walking sticks or sitting in the warm, dry grass rose to follow him. Luis, however, stepped in front of him with a slight apologetic bow. "If you'll excuse me, my lord, may I recommend another way? There is a much shorter route to where we are going."
Salazar flushed with embarrassment, and Saddler couldn't help but smirk with amusement beneath his hood. The young castellan nodded silently, tight lipped, and they turned and followed Luis in the opposite direction. Instead of following the path, they headed into the woods, though no one was particularly intimidated by them in broad daylight on a day like today. They chatted amiably, forming small groups, and Luis, seeming distinctly out of place, led them silently.
Osmund fell into step with Ramon and spoke quietly. "I wouldn't worry too much about not knowing the way," he said in a kind voice. "Luis has explored these lands since his childhood, and knows all the secrets it has to offer. I'm sure, in time, that you will too. No one thinks any less of you."
Ramon could feel his cheeks burning again, but he looked up at Osmund and smiled thankfully.
The journey was pleasant, and seemed over almost as soon as it had begun. They reached a pile of moss covered boulders, and here Luis stopped, bringing them all to a halt. Climbing through the boulders with the skill of an expert tracker, he suddenly vanished behind one. After a few moments, he stuck his head from behind it and waved for the all to follow. "Well, come on! I promise you all, it's safe!" he said with a chuckle, and vanished once again.
They all followed, echoing his laughter, and when no one was looking, Bitores lifted Salazar over a few of the larger boulders and set him down where Luis had vanished. It could only be seen from this angle, but there was actually a tunnel here, large enough for the average man to travel down with ease. Only Mendez had to bend his back slightly to fit, and they all followed Luis' lead.
"I was wondering why you had me bring these along on such a sunny day," one of the villagers said, opening the bag he had been carrying on his back and producing three torches. They were quickly lit to light their way, Luis taking one to lead them.
They travelled for what seemed to be about 20 minutes, until the space around them expanded into a large underground cave. Water could be heard dripping somewhere in the darkness. The villagers found seats on the smooth stones that were strewn about the cave floor, or leaned on the wall, resting. Luis approached Salazar and and Saddler and spoke quietly.
"We're under the castle now. There are here, and still alive. We just need to dig for them. The water keeps them alive, and the, er, bats."
Salazar looked up, and sure enough he saw the furry form of bats sleeping on the ceiling. A few flitted around here and there, disturbed by the noise and torchlight, but most only peered curiously or continued to rest high above their heads.
"Bat guano, I mean. You'd be surprised. Entire cave ecosystems can survive off of only, well, bat shit," Luis said with a smirk. He suddenly turned and clapped his hands together. "All right, my friends, lets get digging! It won't be heavy work, they should be hidden just under the light soil and beneath some of the smaller rocks. You can collect the eggs in your bags, no need to be too careful, they're not delicate, I promise you."
As the villagers started to dig under Luis' order, Salazar couldn't help but look curiously up at Saddler. "Eggs?"
"Exactly. I will explain everything now that everyone is preoccupied." He requested a torch from one of the villagers, and the two headed back down the path, out of sight and sound of the group.
"I apologize for not explaining sooner, but I feared that it would sound so extraordinary that you would not believe me, to be honest. Down here lies the key to the power of the Los Illimunados. The villagers think, for now, that they are helping Luis Sera with research into the biology of the creatures here, but in reality they are doing so much more, both for themselves and for the church. We cannot expect them to understand yet, but of course they will be told the truth in due time"
Salazar watched him speak in the flickering torchlight, eager to hear more. "Here lies a cure for human sins," Osmund continued. "In helping us you are erasing the sins of your family, and helping the villagers, and perhaps later even more people, be free from the evils of humanity. There is an organism here, the Las Plagas, as they have been dubbed, who can enter the human body and make it more powerful, clear the mind and make it more pure, and best of all, open us to a new realm of conciousness never before even imagined."
"They enter... your body?" Salazar asked in a hushed tone, eyes wide.
Osmund chuckled. "Yes, but they are hardly harmful. Think of it as a shaman using an herb to open his mind, or a poisoned man using a leech to cure him, only one hundred times more powerful and beneficial. The Las Plagas make you more than human... better than human. They give you the power to heal, and to unify...as you have seen."
"And these... Las Plagas... forgive my ignorance and the rudeness of this question, but they are safe?"
Saddler looked down at him, and Salazar felt goosebumps form on his skin as he noticed that not just the torchlight was glowing. Both of the priests eyes were shining with a red, piercing light. The castellan shrank back against the wall and slid into a sitting position, for the first time intimidated by the sight of Osmund Saddler. The priest knelt to help him up.
"Don't be afraid, Ramon," he said, extending a hand. "I have total control. I carry them, yes, and so does Luis. We are so much more than what we used to be, so much better...But we needed your permission to dig further, to harvest more...Beyond this small cave lies an entire network beneath your castle..."
Salazar shivered against the cave wall, but tentatively took Saddler's hand and stood. He ran a hand through his hair, unconsciously mimicking the nervous gesture of his butler.
"You could have this power, too, Salazar. You would never have to worry about being weak again. You would have amazing intelligence, amazing strength and vision..."
"I..." Salazar faltered, hands trembling. "This is something I must think about."
Had he not been looking down at the cave floor, he would have seen Osmund's eyes flicker with impatience.
"So be it," he said in what passed as a calm voice. "What will you do now?"
"I'm going to go outside, get some fresh air." He paced a bit. "I will return later and give you an answer. I will not hinder you in your digging, only give me time."
Saddler nodded quietly, and Salazar walked into the darkness, heading for the circle of light at the end of the tunnel.