There it lay, right at his feet: the Valley of Mercy. Two hundred leagues wide from the foot of the Milky Mountains to the Peaks of Gellia. Now that the long climb was over, he could finally make out the jagged ranges lining the black horizon. All was still, but for the wind ferreting through the cliffs and the faint murmur of a stream. He wished he could, all those years ago, have looked from a height like this down onto that wasteland when the two hosts had faced off, each ready to grind the other into bloody dust. Then he might have heard the beating of the drums, knowing in advance how it would end. And then he might have made it back in time to her, the woman now standing behind him. But the past was the past and he could do nothing now to change it.
* * *
“How did you find me?” she asked.
Spring was early. The plain was covered in a sparse new coat of green. The air was as transparent as the finest Odalian glass. It was still dry, but soon the rains would come and all this sunbaked earth would teem with life. One couldn’t imagine a better place for flocks to graze. Unfortunately Lokk, a hive of bandits, lay on the other side of the valley; and that’s why there were no flocks or hunters, nor a single hut for six hundred leagues from Vandila forest to Hel. In Hel the Qimra held sway. Even the bandits were afraid of the Qimra. And there were even scarier things than the Qimra in Hel.
* * *
“How did you find me?” she demanded.
* * *
He was a tall man and, judging from his stature, a sturdy warrior. Look at his face and you would think he was approaching old age. Stare into his dewy eyes and you would take him for a young man enchanted by the beauty of spring in Terminus.
He turned around, but the first thing he looked at was not the thin, nettlesome, middle-aged woman with the white hair. Instead he threw a glance at the snowy caps of the Milky Mountains piercing the blue sky and blinked his eyes blissfully as if he could feel their long wished-for cold wash over him.
“Well, you almost killed me,” he replied. He raised his staff. A crossbow bolt was sticking from it.
“Did you become mortal?” she asked.
“You know what I’m talking about,” he said.
“If I wanted to, I could have killed you. Answer me, Blance!”
“Hopper,” he corrected her and tossed the bag from his shoulder. He put the damaged staff to rest against a rock, spread open his cloak and sat down on a broken piece of white pillar. Only then did he slip off his knitted Gebonian cap and use it to wipe the sweat from his clean-shaven face.
“You can call me Hopper. Everybody does. Or at least they have for the last fifty years. So, you didn’t kill me because you didn’t want to? At least that’s something… Your name still Amma?”
“What do you care? I am who I am.”
She lowered herself carefully onto a similar piece of masonry ten paces from her unexpected visitor. She put her cocked crossbow next to her and rattled the scabbard of her old sword. She sat motionless against the background of the ancient ruins and the simple hut that stood in their midst.
Close by was a paddock with a small flock of sheep, a short-legged Qimrian mare and her filly, and two enormous savanna dogs. Dogs like those could rip you to shreds in a couple of seconds and were far more reliable than a crossbow or one of those narrow swords that had once flashed so beautifully in Amma’s strong hands. The dogs were trained and lying on their paws, but did not take their eyes off the visitor.
“Look, I’m ready to use any name. Just say so. I mean, I can see you haven’t changed at all. How many years since we saw each other? It’s a scary thought…”
“I haven’t seen you in seven hundred and two years. And I hoped I’d never have to.”
“I searched for you,” Hopper mumbled, staring down at his boots.
“Well, I didn’t search for you,” Amma snapped. “For a time I even thought you were among those who…”
“I survived, Amma,” Hopper said. “Not through any doing of my own, though. The enemy pierced my arm with an arrow and carved up the rest of this bag of bones, but I survived. I and no one else. I am the thirteenth.”
“So…” She narrowed her eyes, staring intently at Hopper’s face.
“Yes,” he nodded. “Nothing to be proud of. The other twelve averted the disaster without my help. And they did it by becoming mortal… They cast a spell on themselves and turned into…”—Hopper gave a laugh that sounded more like a cough— “into a dozen small menhirs. Funny little menhirs, like idols. Then they crumbled into dust, along with their weapons and their armor.”
* * *
Again the beating of the drum in his ears and the horror rolling down from the north behind a palisade of spears — monsters, known and unknown. How long was it since he last saw them in his dreams? Two years? Or three? At one stage, it had been almost every night…
* * *
“And that’s how it really happened?” She narrowed her eyes again.
“Probably.” He shrugged. “I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a keen observer. While it was all happening, I lay sprawled like a corpse among the other corpses. But what they’d done was enough to put an end to the last harvest. The pestilence was over. The monsters returned to their lairs and the Northerners withdrew because they’d lost every second man.”
“And then I woke up. The others had won the battle without me. It would have been strange not to have woken up. I looked for you for many years. But you hid yourself well, whatever your reasons may have been. I mean, I found many of the others. How many of our kind are left, Amma? You should know.”
“Thirteen,” she answered.
“Well I never…” Hopper was surprised. “So the others are all still around? Our kind really clings to life, wouldn’t you say? But it turns out we’re mortal. Almost like humans.”
“Nothing’s changed in seven hundred years,” Amma said. “Just like nothing changed in the three hundred years before that. There were twenty-five and now thirteen are left. Five servants and eight runaways… eight Curros… I’m not surprised you survived. You were always the craftiest…”
* * *
The craftiest… The only thing his craftiness had been good for was to land him in the very thick of battle. And yet all he was supposed to do was raise the knife and do what had to be done. But then he got three arrows in a row—one in the stomach, one under his left collarbone and one in his right arm, pinning it to his chest. What went through his mind at the time? Her, yes… Of course, only her…
* * *
“It isn’t craftiness.” Hopper rolled up his sleeve and showed her the scar on his forearm. “It’s fate. I have more of those on the rest of my body.”
“Are you trying to make excuses?” She made a wry mouth. “You always made excuses. How did you find me, Blance?”
“I wasn’t looking for you,” he confessed. “Although I won’t deny I’m happy to see you. I was looking for this.”
“This?” She aimed the crossbow at him, cocked her head to see what he was pointing at and raised her eyebrows in surprise. “My hut?”
“Your cozy little nest?” Hopper snorted. “I imagine it’s a lot cozier on the inside. You were always good at arranging things… And you’ve been living here for what, six years?”
“Five.” She pursed her mouth. “It took me a year to build. And, yes, everything’s cozy inside. But not for you.”
“Pity,” Hopper sighed. “There was a time we got on well together. Until that quarrel before the battle. I still don’t understand what upset you. I mean, how could I not have gone to battle? But that’s water under the bridge. I’m not here because of you or your hut. I’m here because of the ruins.”
“Because of the ruins?” Amma asked in surprise. “Nobody’s lived here since the time of the Arrival. Maybe even longer than that. The pathways have all collapsed. Higher up, further to the north of the slope, there used to be a monastery. On the Day of Divine Judgment it slid down, taking a piece of the slope with it. It’s only a heap of rubble now. So, the road to the top is gone as well. Has been for over a thousand years… And I concealed the road here so well that… that only you could find it. Did you leave your horse at the bottom?”
“Yes.” Hopper nodded. “I won’t overstay my welcome. The horse would have made it up the path but I didn’t want to risk its life. The Valley of Mercy isn’t very merciful and I am still going to need that horse. I didn’t expect to see you here. But I sensed life at the top.”
“These are just stones,” Amma said and looked at Hopper with suspicion. “And it’s well over a thousand years since they’ve last been a temple. They weren’t destroyed on the Day of Divine Judgment. Time destroyed them. Time and oblivion.”
“That’s just the thing,” Hopper said. “A temple of the Thrice-Returned One stood here once. That was three thousand years ago, so I can’t imagine many remember it any longer. By the way, before the Arrival the years were reckoned from His last sojourn. So, this was one of his first temples. Of course, it’s unlikely that He ever came here. Although…”
She raised her eyebrows. “And what is it that you want to find in these ruins?”
“The same thing you found, I think,” he said and looked her in the eyes. “Scraps of parchment, stone tablets, stelae, frescoes, ceramic shards with writing on them. Anything that contains at least part of a word or an image.”
“What do you need this trash for?” she asked with irritation and rose.
Hopper remained seated and even bowed his head. “You see, Amma, you… I mean you and the others… probably think that we all plotted and schemed seven hundred years ago… That we went to battle to give the world the heroic deed it needed so badly?”
“Well, you of all people managed to get by without a heroic deed,” she said with a scoff.
He seemed not to have heard her. “We went there to fight. There were too many of the Filth on the other side.”
“Ensa, not Filth,” she said, barely audibly.
“Whatever.” Hopper grimaced. “Ensa, Filth, all those pretty little creatures just waiting to rip the overlords of this world to pieces. And us with them. Or to turn us into mute slaves again. You have to agree: even if those three hundred years of freedom weren’t the most peaceful, they changed us. We realized that this world, and the humans sharing it with us, were worth defending.”
“Worth being hunted down, you mean,” she hissed through her teeth. “Didn’t your side torment and murder men and women, young and old alike?”
Hopper’s face grew somber. “Not us.”
“So, what were you and your companions counting on?” She stood motionless.
“To survive,” he said. “Alright, so maybe we also tried to drive away the bestia, even fight Umbra if they happened to be in the front ranks. But nobody had any plans to die. The worst thing we thought could happen to us was that we’d lose these cherished bodies of ours.”
“And you’d have to look for new hosts and spend a decade trying to get your new bodies in order?” She narrowed her eyes. “Not too much of a price to pay. Maybe a bit awkward to begin with. But what the hell made you want to actually die? Ah, but I forget… You didn’t die, did you, Blance? You conveniently passed out. Somehow it all doesn’t all tie up properly. How did the other twelve manage to kill themselves?”
* * *
He’d often wondered how it would feel to kill yourself… To choke on your own blood. To writhe in agony. To lie in a heap of limbs and torsos. To look for the sun through the shadows. And then it would come back to him again: that unexpected stare of a brother-in-arms, just as his companion thrust the stone knife into his throat.
* * *
“There…” He pulled the bag closer, unfastened the cord, dove his hand into the opening and produced a small bundle.
Amma recoiled. “What is it?”
“A knife.” Hopper carefully unfolded the cloth and took out a stone weapon. The gleaming, polished blade was three fingers wide and sported a braided leather handle.
Amma went pale. “Who managed to fashion that?”
“What are you afraid of?” Hopper asked in surprise. “Yes, one of us discovered how to chip a shard from a menhir so that it wouldn’t lose its power. Not an easy job. Not like quarrying a piece of strix to make an amulet… although you have to mess around plenty with those as well. I managed to fit one of these stones into my staff — the one you damaged — but that was much later. You need to understand, Amma. Not only did we not want to die, we didn’t want to set ourselves free from our bodies and become heralds. We would have done that only as a last resort. And a knife like this could rip a herald out of his host’s flesh from the… from the other side. Or at least that’s what we thought. This is a big secret, but—”
“—And none of you wanted to become a Reaper?” Amma asked, not taking her eyes off the knife. “That’s what the humans call them. And some of us have never been afraid of becoming Reapers.”
“That’s enslavement!” Hopper hissed.
“Or absolute freedom,” Amma shot back. “For as long as the gods are asleep…”
“Asleep?” Hopper gave another of his raw laughs. “You do realize that was the first battle where not only men were set upon other men. Umbra were set upon Umbra in the Dale of Datura. Demons against other demons. Brothers could have killed other brothers. Or am I exaggerating and making excuses again?”
“Brothers and sisters,” Amma whispered. “But you do realise that in a thousand years not one of us was killed.”
“Except for the twelve,” Hopper said. “They died by their own hand, but dead all the same. Thirteen took out knives. Twelve sank them into their necks. An arrow impaled the thirteenth one’s arm, together with the knife he was holding, and pinned it to his chest. And when I lost consciousness I didn’t know how it was all going to end yet.”
“It didn’t end.” Amma’s voice was barely audible.
“Back then it did,” Hopper said gruffly as he wrapped the knife in its cloth again. “Do you want to make me angry? You waited seven hundred years for this? If only you knew the desolation I felt when I realized that I hadn’t died with the others… and the elation when I realized that their sacrifice hadn’t been in vain.”
“So it was a sacrifice after all?” Amma’s mouth was wry.
“No it was not!” Hopper jumped to his feet, took one step in the direction of Amma and instantly got a bolt in the stomach. He bent over, clenched the wooden shaft in his hands and tumbled sideways onto the rock with a hoarse cry of pain.
“At least I didn’t age. And while we’re at it, we can check how much you suffered in the Battle of the Dale of Datura. Lie on your back and don’t groan like that. Nothing important’s been hurt. Put your arms under your back and don’t twitch, otherwise I might push it in deeper.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to pull out the quarrel…”
* * *
And yet again the Dale of Datura shimmers into view. Corpses. Smoldering pyres in the distance. A black sky with a scattering of stars and the moon’s disc. And arrows in his stomach and chest that he’s going to have to pull out himself. The battle is over and there’s nobody at his side except for twelve stone figures that are beginning to crumble into ashes in the spring breeze…
* * *
“You’re awake? You didn’t lie. You really cling to life. You can sit up. I used a good remedy to cover the wound. Tomorrow it won’t so much as twinge.”
She was sitting in her old spot examining his stone knife. Her crossbow was in the same place, cocked again. Hopper shook his head and touched his stomach carefully. The knee-buckling pain wasn’t gone, but it had subsided and didn’t feel as if it would keep him down for long. Few among the Umbra were Amma’s equal in archery or sword fight. Most of them were capable of shooting a man while talking to him. Amma hadn’t, though. Time was merciless in different ways.
“And this is the woman I searched for seven hundred years,” Hopper hissed through his teeth and sat back on the rock.
She allowed herself a smile. “You should realize I’ve got far more bolts than you have safe spots on your body. Strange thing. You’re the only one who never changed bodies. Why?”
“I’m not the only one.” Hopper frowned and stroked his stomach. “How much do we know about those ones who are in the North? Almost nothing. Well, even here… You forgot about yourself…”
“I never forget myself,” Amma answered. “And in my case, it’s all rather simple. I can’t say I have any particular fondness for this shell, but I’ve invested too much effort in it. I’m used to being in this body. And over the years I’ve started taking on its features. I’ve grown into this host and I can’t imagine existence without it any longer.”
Hopper carefully straightened his back. “Well in my case I just don’t want to,” he sighed. “Laugh all you like, but that’s the one sin I haven’t said enough prayers for. It’s not as if our bodies were gifted to us. We stole them.”
“Well, well,” said Amma. “An umbra with a conscience… Is the old wolf shedding tears in the sheep pen?”
“It’s not like that, Amma.”
“I’m not interested in your inner struggles, Blance,” she said and almost bared her teeth. “So, you’re saying what happened at the Dale of Datura was not an intentional sacrifice. What was it then?”
Hopper shook his head. “I wouldn’t forgive anyone but you for that…”
“Come on, less idle talk.” Amma’s voice rose.
“When we stood before the Northern host,” Hopper went on, “we heard a voice that explained everything to us. Or rather, it revealed to us what we must have known all along. I’ve never experienced such happiness in my life as when I heard that voice. It sang in my chest. It burned there. It was my voice. I wept when I heard it…”
Amma made a face. “So you heard that honeysweet voice again? And you felt the temptation of love again? Don’t you feel as if the same thing happened before? Not here, but with us, and similar in so many ways…”
“Wouldn’t you want to have that experience again?”
“Knowing what the consequences would be?”
This time it seemed as if she wanted to hear his answer.
“Consequences? Not everyone possesses the gift of prophecy. But that voice didn’t deceive us. It just explained everything. Revealed the obvious… that sacrificing ourselves was the only way to stop the tragedy. The same way someone else, long before the Arrival, had halted a previous affliction threatening the world.”
“Really?” A smile played on Amma’s lips. “A previous affliction? And what about the next one? What are your plans for the new disaster? But of course, there are thirteen more of us, right? Wait, what am I talking about… I haven’t made any plans to say goodbye to life. And in the end, you’ll just find another way to justify yourself. So, who do we have left? The ones who didn’t follow you back then? Do you think seven hundred years is long enough for them to lose their love for life? Especially now that their fate has been settled? And can you promise them that they will hear the voice of the gods? They may be longing for it, but a thousand years have gone by. High time they abandoned that dream… And freedom is also worth something. Or isn’t it? Tell me it isn’t so.”
“You still don’t get it,” Hopper whispered. “The voice didn’t belong to our gods. I remember it too well. And it wasn’t trying to encroach on our freedom. It wasn’t forcing us to do anything. It just revealed itself. The voice belonged to somebody from this world, somebody who saved this land long ago. Maybe it saved us from the same kind of disaster that our gods saved us from. Granted, they didn’t do a very good job of it. But this story goes back more than a thousand years. It is much, much older. And if the gods could awake seven hundred years ago, they can awake again. We just need to find the clue that will help us get through to them. Some kind of key…”
“You’re raving,” Amma snorted.
Hopper shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“And is that why you’re poking about in ancient ruins?”
“And have you managed to find anything?”
“Not much,” he sighed. “The Temple of Divine Retribution has declared the old beliefs heretical. It’s been hunting down their vestiges for centuries.”
“But you won’t give up?” Amma asked.
“Only if I don’t run into you more often,” Hopper replied.
“Alright,” she said after a minute’s pause. “I did find something. No special powers, of course… But wait here while I go and fetch it. Come on, boys! Keep an eye on this…human.”
The dogs got up instantly, bared their teeth with throaty growls and took up the watch at Amma’s seat. The woman he had sought for seven hundred years returned a couple of minutes later.
“There.” Amma showed Hopper the bundle. “This scroll contains the complete life and prophecies of the Thrice-Returned One. Curious reading, I’ll tell you that. I found it in a bricked-up alcove in the cellar. But it’s just some ancient pieces of parchment stitched together and filled with illuminated Old-Berkanan letters. Nothing more. They have no power.”
“The power lies not in the pages but in the meaning,” Hopper whispered. “What do you want in exchange?”
“Your stone knife,” Amma said.
Hopper was surprised. “What do you need it for?”
Amma shrugged. “If you give it to me, I’ll tell you.”
“You’re already holding it.”
“I had to hear you say it,” she said and tossed the bundle towards him.
He removed the wrappings from the ancient book and immediately took to gently leafing through it, all the time muttering under his breath: “My god, this is an incredibly ancient scroll. And in one piece. It’s a complete document!”
“Are you going to be at this for a while?” Amma asked, her voice tense.
“Forgive me.” He got up, wrapped the book and put it back in the bag. “It has no powers, to be sure. Just a manuscript. But what a manuscript!”
“Do you still think you heard the voice of a local god seven hundred years ago?” She looked at Hopper searchingly.
He met her gaze. “I don’t know what you mean by a local god,” Hopper said. “But I’m convinced—”
“Convinced?” She shook her head. “For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been carrying some or other conviction. Very well. Is that all?”
“All?” He asked in confusion. He cupped his wound with his hand and glanced around. “You’re quite something, you know? I mean, look at the way you arranged everything here… I can hear a stream, so you must have cleaned the well too. And you took position high up so you could see everybody without being seen yourself. You don’t even have to fear for your life every time you stoke the oven. But it must be rather boring all on your own…”
“Who or what was I, Blance?” she asked.
“Hopper,” he corrected her again. “I’ll rather be Hopper if you don’t acknowledge my old self. And you are Amma, unless you say otherwise. You are an Umbra, like me. And you’re a Curro, like me. An outcast by choice. You found freedom in a foreign land. And you are fearful of everything. But does your ability to foretell the future sometimes forsake you? Look how much my visit surprised you.”
“Your visit is like a mosquito’s flight. It would be silly to predict something so petty. The only thing about my future I can predict is my own death.”
“And when will that be?” Hopper asked, his curiosity piqued.
“I don’t know.” Amma narrowed her eyelids. “The truth seldom reveals itself fully. But two things I know for sure. Firstly, you’re the one who will kill me… and secondly, you will do it with this very knife.”
He froze. He stared at the woman who had hidden from him for seven hundred years.
“Good god,” Hopper whispered. “I’m going to kill you, and with this knife? And you’ve been carrying this knowledge with you for seven hundred years? So, that’s why you— But why would I do such a thing?”
“That’s what the premonition says,” Amma answered. “As for the reason… That I don’t know. But you have your share of talents too, don’t you? I don’t just predict the future. Just like you, I can sense the exact number of Umbra walking the earth. But unlike you, I can’t sense each of them individually. That’s a rare gift.”
“I can’t always control it,” Hopper said. “Only when they reveal themselves, or when even their stealth can’t overcome the circumstances… Or when they become heralds. And even then…”
“Then you need to be on the lookout,” Amma whispered. “They’ll be back soon.”
“What do you mean?” Hopper asked perplexed.
“Yes.” She closed her eyes. “It isn’t you I’ve been hiding from in this place. That harvest wasn’t the last. A third harvest is drawing closer and it will be the bloodiest; perhaps, the last. Different from the others. Next to it, all previous harvests will seem but the slightest of afflictions…”
“When is it starting?” Hopper hissed.
“Soon,” Amma replied.
“In a week. On the day of spring equinox.”
“In the South it will be in Albus, a little town on the shore of the Mannaz. In the North…” She frowned. “It will be in a small town at the foot of the mountains. There’s a tunnel in the mountains near an ancient railroad track and the head of a large river.”
Hopper nodded. “That’s obviously Wodan. Well, Albus is closer. I probably won’t be in time for the beginning of the festival, but I should be there by the time people start handing out presents.”
“And you think you can stop the disaster with this?” Amma nodded at the book.
“I don’t know,” Hopper answered.
“Wait.” She held him back. She took a step towards him and touched his shoulders with the tips of her fingers. “I haven’t said the most important thing…”
“What thing?” Hopper turned around.
“Who’s he?” Hopper was puzzled again.
“Him,” she repeated forcefully. “The one who made us end up in this world. The one we fled from. Our foe. The devourer of our world. The murderer of our gods.”
“How do you know that?” Hopper went pale. “And what makes you say our gods are dead?”
“You’ve also suspected as much.” Amma smiled and spread her arms out. “And yet, I sense something in this ancient temple. This is truly a good place. Pure. It shelters and it hides. You lied to me when you said you’d sensed life here. I read it in your eyes when you made the climb to my hut.”
“This was before you shot at me?” Hopper asked.
“The first arrow was only aimed at your staff.” Amma gave a crooked smile. “You looked surprised to see me.”
“I was stunned when I saw you, Amma,” Hopper confessed. “I had to turn away so I could hold back my tears.”
“One should never be ashamed of tears,” she said slowly.
“So are you hiding here from him?” Hopper asked. “Or have you gone mad? Don’t you know that if he’s here, there can be no hiding from him.”
“Listen.” She swallowed away her tears. “There are thirteen of us left. There are no more Umbra in the Silentium. Only Ensa and bestia there, I think. Ordinary men and warriors that sleep and will go on sleeping. There are many of them, and there will be many more, even if the next harvest casts them out in their thousands. But no Umbra. Five of us continue to serve, although it increasingly appears to me as if only four serve, while the fifth one… the fifth one seems to have been concealed in shadow for hundreds of years. But he or she is alive. As for the four — whom do they serve?”
“Our gods,” Hopper answered. “Who else could they serve?”
“Perhaps,” Amma smiled. “But one thing I don’t understand. How can they serve without hearing the voice? Alright, so there are five of them. Eight Curros here in the South. Three as before are above the elevated ones. Three more live out their lives. That leaves two — you and me.”
“So?” Hopper frowned. “That’s right. Thirteen.”
“There is one more,” Amma whispered barely audible.
“A fourteenth one?” Hopper was taken aback. “A stranger?”
“No.” She gave a deep sigh. “There are thirteen of us. But someone else is hovering above one of the thirteen, as if on invisible wings. Something predatory, like a dragon-fly quivering inside a chrysalis. An enormous and deadly sword hidden in the tiny sheath of an ordinary knife. And I’m not even sure this thirteenth one understands what’s happening to him. But that isn’t the main thing. The tips of my fingers started to perspire from the horror. Just like they did back then. Not here in this world, but in the other one. The place where it all began and ended, which we no longer inhabit. Before the Great Departure.
Hopper looked at the palm of his hand, reached out and touched Amma’s locks. The white hair clung to his fingers and reached out to follow them, like fluffy silk down. Hopper gave Anna a bow, turned around and walked away.
“Why can’t you find peace?” she shouted after him.
“I want to be the master of my own fate,” his answer came back.
“And what do you intend to do?”
“I don’t know…”